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'Mad Men' recap: Straight trippin'

Roger Mad Men LSD trip

A correction has been added to this post. See below for details.

“Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner is not, as a rule, the kind of guy who caters to the desires of his audience; if anything, he aggressively flouts their expectations. But in “Far Away Places,” he delivers a moment millions of “Mad Men” fans have been waiting for: The show’s first acid trip. Part of the distinct pleasure of “Mad Men” is watching the age of Camelot give way to the age of Aquarius, and the question of when, or indeed whether, anyone from the show would dabble in LSD has intrigued fans for a while now. Those of you who predicted that Roger Sterling would be the first to “turn on, tune in, drop out” now have official bragging rights.

Roger’s mind-expanding (and marriage-ending) experience arrives in the middle of the most unsettling episode yet this season – which is saying a lot, given just how sinister “Mad Men” has gotten this time around. The episode begins with Peggy, who, rattled after a fight with Abe, blows up when Heinz executive Raymond reacts critically to her latest pitch. We’ve seen this kind of creative tantrum before, but not from Peggy, and it’s tempting to think that maybe she’s becoming more of a “dude” than she’d like to admit. After the disastrous pitch, Peggy ditches work for a few hours to see “Born Free" – a different movie that also happens to be about Africa – where she has a furtive, marijuana-enhanced encounter with a stranger wearing some very groovy pants. When it comes to sex, Peggy has come a long way from the days of shagging Pete Campbell on his office couch, so it’s something of a shock to see her engaging in an anonymous encounter like this. Granted, she kept things pretty PG-13, but I wonder if more risky behavior might be ahead. I also wonder about the impetus behind it: Maybe Peggy needs to prove her desirability to herself?

[For the record: April 23, 9:41 a.m. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the movie Peggy saw was "The Naked Prey."]

Things get stranger when Peggy, still stoned, returns to the office. After a long nap on Don’s couch, she has a strange conversation with Ginsberg, who explains that Morris is not his biological father. He was born in a concentration camp and adopted from a Swedish orphanage, or at least that’s what he’s been told; Ginsberg himself prefers to tell people he’s a Martian and the Holocaust story is just a ruse. It’s hard to tell whether he’s being serious about any of it, and the way the scene is filmed – we see Ginsberg’s face only in reflection – only adds to the inscrutability.  There’s something superheroic about the story, isn’t there, like Ginsberg fancies himself a Jewish Clark Kent?

Just when it looks like “Far Away Places” is going to be all about Peggy, the episode abruptly switches – or, more precisely, it rewinds to tell the story of the day from Roger’s perspective. (Don’t worry, I had to rewind, too.) After Don shoots down (and then steals) his idea of running off to Howard Johnson’s, Roger has no choice but to spend the evening with Jane. 

But what an evening it turns out to be! Roger tries to beg off but apparently he’s already promised Jane he’d try LSD. (Husbands, take note: If you don’t listen to your wife, you, too, might end up tripping your brains out in a stranger’s apartment.) Like the hiring of Dawn and Don’s anti-tobacco manifesto, Roger’s unintentional experimentation is another example of “Mad Men”’s sideways approach to social change. But it also makes sense that Roger, the show’s most unapologetic and unrepentant hedonist, is the first to take a trip down the rabbit hole. He’s far from introspective, but he does like a good time.

Don Megan Mad Men fight Howard Johnson

There are few '60s pop culture cliches as insidious as the acid trip, but somehow Weiner, his co-writer Semi Challas and director Scott Hornbacher make Roger’s psychedelic journey seem fresh. I think what makes it work is that, visually, it’s executed in a  straightforward way, with no blurry shots or canted angles or fish eye lenses. Instead, Roger’s various  hallucinations –- a symphonic bottle of Stoli, some two-toned hair, a rapidly disappearing cigarette – are presented in a matter-of-fact manner. Even the musical cue, The Beach Boys’ “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” may be a little on-the-nose lyrically, but it strikes just the right tone – euphoric, sad and scary all at once. (I'm just thankful it wasn't Iron Butterfly or something.) 

The trip does more than provide a night’s diversion for Roger; it forces the realization that his marriage to Jane is over. In the sober light of day the next morning, Jane at first resists the breakup, but eventually accepts it, warning Roger that it’s going to cost him. This relationship has been doomed all along, so it’s nice, if rather surprising, that it ends so harmoniously. Roger, whose first divorce cost him – and the agency – dearly, nevertheless seems ecstatic about the decision. “It’s going to be a beautiful day,” he declares upon his return to the office the next morning. Could happy-go-lucky Roger be back for good? And is there more experimentation in his future? I certainly wouldn’t be surprised.

Don takes a more literal, though no less revelatory, trip of his own.  At first, I thought Don’s spontaneous desire to run off to glamorous Plattsburgh with Megan didn’t make much sense. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight (and a few hours of fitful sleep) that I understand he was trying to re-create some of the California Magic®. Alas, Howard Johnson’s orange sherbet and upstate New York are poor substitutes for the spilled chocolate milkshake and the California dream life.

There’s also the fact that Megan feels like a captive to her new husband’s whims. I can’t say that I blame her; she might have gotten a promotion because of nepotism, but Megan’s at least trying to prove herself worthy of the job, and Don clearly doesn’t respect her efforts. She’s frustrated by feeling like the passive object of her husband’s desires, but her passive-aggressive method of confronting him – and that unforgivable dig about his mother – suggests a worrying lack of emotional maturity. So when she disappears, almost anything seems possible. Did she run off with a gang of hippies? Was she kidnapped? Run over on the side of the road? Don returns to New York to find Megan physically safe but emotionally untethered. After a blowout fight that ends where seemingly all their brawls do—on the floor of their sunken living room – they make up, but one thing is clear: The fantasy is over. Will Don embrace the far more complicated reality, or run away from it has he has in the past?

One more thought before I go. It’s interesting, in a way, that this season has been so dark and sinister, even though we’re only in 1966. We’ve still got about nine months to go until the Summer of Love, and several full years before the horrors of Altamont, the Manson murders, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy  signaled the end of the idealism of the era. I think perhaps Weiner is trying to tell the story of the decade from a less rose-tinted perspective, to convey the sense of dread and fear that many, if not all, people – especially affluent white people – felt about the huge changes underway across the country. It’s a smart approach, but I also wonder if he isn't jumping the gun a little bit. If things are already this scary in 1966, I’m afraid I might need to develop a Seconal habit before we get to 1967.   

Stray thoughts:

-- Be honest: How many of you were confused by this episode's non-linear storyline? And when did you figure it out? 

--I love the scene of Megan and Don returning from their trip to California, but thank God for Sally’s mouse ears, otherwise I never would have figured out it was a flashback.

--I can’t believe Angela Chase’s mom has turned into a drug pusher!

--Megan is right: orange sherbet is gross.

-- This season seems to be progressing more slowly time-wise. Somehow it's still the summer, even though we're five full episodes in. 

--After last week’s episode, there was lots of Internet chatter about the possibility that Pete might die this season. I have to say, I always figured Roger would be the first to kick the bucket, but I’m intrigued by this theory. What do you think?

--For all Abe’s revolutionary bluster, he’s certainly got some old-fashioned ideas about gender (not that he was the only self-proclaimed radical with a chauvinist streak).

--More signs of evil: The proposed Heinz ad takes place around a dark campfire, like a horror movie.

--Could a Bert Cooper comeback be underway? Roger sees Bert’s face on his dollar bill, and then he puts the smack-down on Don for taking “love leave.” Bert usually remains above the fray, but I love it when he puts the smack-down.

--When Peggy returns from the movies, we see her washing her hands in the bathroom. I might be overthinking this, but it seems like a visual callback to “The Suitcase,” the 7th episode of last season and, like this one, a standout.

--Given Ginsberg’s revelations, doesn't it seem significant that Jane spoke in Yiddish during her trip?

--It’s hard to pick a favorite costume from this episode. Megan’s peach and white zig-zagged number is stunning, but Jane’s silver get-up looks like it might have been designed by someone on acid, and then there’s that gorgeous J. Lo-ish green dressing gown. We don’t see much of Jane on “Mad Men,” but costume designer Janie Bryant always does great things with her outfits. Remember that crazy hat she wore to the office on her first trip back as Roger’s wife?  

RELATED:

"Mad Men" recap: Welcome to Fight Club!

"Mad Men" recap: Fright night

How groovy will "Mad Men" get? '60s experts make predictions

— Meredith Blake

twitter.com/MeredithBlake

Top photo: Jane Sterling (Peyton List) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery)

Credit: Jordin Althaus/AMC

Bottom photo: Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Megan Draper (Jessica Paré) 

Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

 

 
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