Dear Television is Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. This season, they'll be posting weekly letters about AMC's "Mad Men." While this is not a full recap, there are still plenty of spoilers. Read the last installment here.
Dear Television, In “A Tale of Two Cities,” Roger Sterling, Don Draper, and Harry Crane head to Los Angeles for a few days of meetings, marijuana, and metaphors. This is not the first time Mad Men has Gone West; previous episodes like “The Jet Set” (from Season 2) and “The Good News” (from season 4) have used the unfamiliarity of the SoCal location to show us new aspects of Don, and to deepen his character. He’s often seemed more emotionally open in L.A., more at ease. (The fact that Anna Draper, the widow of the man whose name Don’s stolen, lived in Los Angeles was an important factor.)
In “A Tale of Two Cities,” however, Don’s special rapport with the city seems to be mostly forgotten; this is L.A. as seen through Roger Sterling’s jaded, hedonistic eyes. (It’s no accident, I bet, that John Slattery was assigned to direct this episode.) “We’re conquistadors—I’m Vasco de Gama, and you’re some other Mexican,” Roger tells Don on their cross-country flight, and while it doesn’t exactly work out that way, California is clearly regarded as alien territory.
Whether intentionally or not—I think it’s probably a bit of both—Mad Men feels as disoriented and out of its depth in L.A. as Roger and Don are supposed to be. (Harry, for once, is the insider.) Worse, “Los Angeles” is little more than a signifier here; the party in the Hollywood Hills1 that the men attend is cobbled together from Hollywood parties in Annie Hall, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and a half-dozen Joan Didion essays. This is particularly frustrating, because it wouldn’t be a bad thing if Mad Men managed to get out of New York a little more often. The only time we see or hear of other cities or regions are when they’re (a) potential markets or (b) gripped by violence: the riots in Washington, DC a few weeks ago in the Martin Luther King episode, the police brutality at the DNC Convention in Chicago this week. (There’s a case to be made that the two cities alluded to in the episode’s title are not L.A. and New York but L.A. and Chicago: they’re the two cities that all these confused, displaced New Yorkers tell tales about. The reference to Dickens’s novel of revolution is, of course, relevant as well.)
L.A. plays its usual role: sexy, dangerous, vapid, not New York.
In light of Mad Men’s Saul Steinbergish myopia, this episode’s excursion felt like a missed opportunity. There was plenty going on in late '60s Los Angeles that would have been interesting to explore. We do get a brief nod, in the scene with the Carnation people and their enthusiasm for “Dutch Reagan,” to the fact that California in 1968, far from being a hippie stronghold through and through, was politically polarized in ways that would soon become de rigueur for the rest of the country. There are various intimations that the laid-back, casual style of professional networking favored by young Californians—“They don’t dig business cards,” Harry warns—is the wave of the future: an early premonition of Silicon Valley, perhaps? I also liked Don getting schmoozed by a rock musician looking to get into the jingle business: “I hear the bread’s out of sight.”
Mostly, though, L.A. plays its usual role: sexy, dangerous, vapid, not-New-York. The Hollywood Babylon clichés were thick enough on the ground this episode that I began to worry that the much-vaunted Megan Draper/Sharon Tate theory might actually pan out. (I, for one, really hope it doesn’t: as Margaret Lyons recently proved, there are enough shows about murder already without Mad Men getting into the act, and Weiner has enough plates in the air currently without having the Manson family come in and shatter them all.) Here, California also represents—as it often did in the '60s—The Future, albeit one that has yet to arrive and that can still be denied. “Know what I learned? New York is the center of the universe,” Roger states confidently on the flight home. “We could send a landing craft out there, but they don’t understand what we do.” “Or they understand it thoroughly,” Don responds, but he doesn’t sound too sure.
A worthy theme, in theory, but all the free-floating El Lay ominousness seemed designed to distract us from the fact that very little actually happened this week—and even less happened that hadn’t, in some form, happened before. Just two weeks after his amphetamine bender in “The Crash,” we get to see Don wig out on drugs again: This time he smokes hashish from a hookah and hallucinates Megan as a pregnant hippie chick. The ghost of Private Dinkins, the young soldier Don met in Hawaii in this season’s premiere, pops up as well to lay a spooky monologue on him: “My wife thinks I’m M.I.A. But I’m actually dead … Dying doesn’t make you whole. You should see what you look like.” (Let the “Don is dead” rumors fly!) Somehow Don ends the evening floating face down in the swimming pool (was that a Sunset Boulevard reference? Probably. But why?) Roger, meanwhile, makes a fool of himself with a few starlets, and gets punched in the testicles by Jane’s diminutive bohemian cousin.
“It was a series of busts. And not the kind I like,” Roger says of the trip to California: a lame chauvinist pun, but I pretty much have to agree. The early seasons of Mad Men were about America’s transition from tranquilized quietism to progressive optimism, and the show pretty much nailed it. The question of how they’re going to handle the country’s subsequent turn from progressive optimism to reactionary pessimism—what Didion called “the morning after the sixties”—hangs in the air in “A Tale of Two Cities,” and not just in the L.A scenes. Back in New York, Cutler and Ginsberg spar over the Vietnam War and whether it ought to disrupt business (echoing a similar exchange Don and Roger have with the Carnation executive about the DNC). “Hippies don’t wear makeup at all,” the Avon marketing director complains to Joan and Peggy. “I’m not sure if we should try to be groovier or nostalgic.”
So far Mad Men has been much better at nostalgia than grooviness (which from our perspective, of course, is simply a different kind of nostalgia). But it’s clear that the dramatic arc of the show is moving toward a kind of climacteric, and I hope it figures out a way to capture the apocalyptic, Didionesque tone it seems to be after, or, like Roger at the party, it risks embarrassing itself.
Are we done here?