Every so often Mad Men introduces a bizarre plot point that feels less like a profound storytelling tool and more like an attempt at shock value from the usually subtle drama (see: the lawnmower accident, the time they all got high off the mysterious energy supplement shots). Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, “The Runaways,” returned to this familiar habit to fill this season’s WTF quota — and then some.
Last week’s arrival of the massive, noisy computer to SC&P had several employees on edge, but while Ginsberg’s paranoia was mostly of source of laughs in an episode fraught with fretting about office politics, it took a far more disturbing turn this week. Gay jokes are in the air after the creative team finds copies of Lou Avery’s innuendo-laden comic sketches — Lou, who gets more human with each passing episode, thinks he could make it big in the cartoon business — but Ginsberg goes into near gay panic after witnessing a secret conversation between Lou and Jim Cutler in the din of the computer room.
First, he shows up at Peggy’s apartment, insisting he can’t work in the office because the incessant humming of the machine is turning Lou, Jim and everyone else at SC&P into homosexuals. Then, he admits he’s actually been getting a little turned on by Stan’s manly shoulders and declares, “Peggy, we gotta reproduce!” (Best-Line-of-the-Episode Contender #1). And then, he shows up at Peggy’s office, declares his feelings for her (“It’s not real,” Peggy declines both gracefully and brutally) and offers her a token of his affection: a nipple! His nipple, which he cut out himself in act that would have even the most passionate luddite scratching his or her head.
Is technology man’s ultimate undoing? Will the morally bankrupt culture of advertising push more souls over the edge? Is there a clearer way to broadcast the superficiality of your feelings than by literally giving someone your nipple instead of figuratively giving them your heart? Is he simply crazy? Your guess about the nipple’s deeper meaning (now those are three words I never expected to see in succession, let alone in a Mad Men recap) is as good as mine, but I will say it was sad to see Peggy tearfully look on as she loses one of the few friends she had — and that I also feel sorry for the cast and crew of Ben Feldman’s new sitcom, A to Z, who will probably spend the next few weeks figuring out how keep nipple talk from hijacking their promotional campaign.
But enough about nipples — Sunday was Mother’s Day, after all, and you can’t have a true Mad Men Mother’s Day celebration without Betty Draper. The bubbling housewife angst she displayed during Bobby’s field trip reached its boiling point this week: While accompanying Henry on a get-to-know-your-neighbors open house tour, Betty’s stab at Vietnam War small talk resulted in a stern reprimand from her husband, who reminds her that a politician’s wife should just keep her mouth shut and look pretty, lest she embarrass everyone.
When Sally shows up with a few black eyes after some reckless golf-club swinging at school, Betty’s lectures about taking care of your face are quickly met with some especially caustic Sally sass: Of course she’ll try and be more careful, because where would mommy dearest be without her perfect nose? Betty and her daughter have had their differences for quite some time, but this episode saw their sparring get a little personal, and after her fight with Francis — which heartbreakingly seems to be taking a toll on an anxious Bobby — it was enough to push Betty over the edge. “I’m tired of everyone telling me to shut up,” she later yells at Henry in the kitchen. “I’m not stupid. I speak Italian.” (Best-Line-of-the-Episode Contender #2.)
Family is the source of most of Don’s troubles in this episode, too. Stephanie, the niece of Don’s late BFF Anna Draper, calls him up out of the blue with some unfortunate news. She’s broke, pregnant and living in Los Angeles, so Don sends her to stay with Megan (whom he’s still with despite their almost-split) while he is held up at the office (plot twist: Lou doesn’t like it when people make fun of his cartoons!). A hospitable Megan sympathizes with Stephanie as she explains how the baby’s drug-dealing musician father landed in jail, but when Stephanie insists there’s no reason to hide the truth from Don because she already knows “all his secrets,” an insecure Megan writes Stephanie a check and suggests she leave before causing Don any trouble.
Don arrives in Los Angeles too late to see Stephanie, but he’s just in time to attend Megan’s house party for her acting class, which unfortunately does not include a reprise of “Zou Bisou Bisou.” Don looks like a fish out of water until Harry Crane shows up with a lady friend who is definitely not his wife and some information that is definitely not good news: Jim and Lou have been meeting about Philip Morris’ Commander Cigarettes account, which would be a victory for the agency but would also require Don’s departure — you can’t have the guy who wrote a New York Times op-ed about the dangers of tobacco work with a tobacco company. Nothing is quite as pathetic as having Harry Crane promise to ensure Don’s importance just one week after he was the butt of jokes about his own irrelevance, but instead of going on a bender to deal with his powerless-ness, Don showed Mad Man fans a glimpse of his old self.
Or perhaps it was the threesome that inspired him. After his drink with Harry, a bummed-out Don returns home, where Megan and her pal Amy are in the mood to cheer him up (“You know what would make you feel better? Drugs!” Amy says in Best-Line-of-the-Episode Contender #3). They’re also in the mood for a few other things, too, as demonstrated by what was surely one of the most sexually explicit Mad Men scenes ever, despite how long the clothes stayed on. (Can you imagine the lawyers sitting around debating exactly where Megan is allowed to put her hand?) It’s not quite enough to close the distance between them, though — Megan doesn’t seem thrilled the next morning when Stephanie calls and Don sounds more interested in talking to her than his own wife.
So Don rushes back to work and crashes the Commander pitch meeting, where he exclusively pitches himself, not the company. Yes, he’ll walk away from the agency if that’s what it’ll take for SC&P to land the account, but why would they choose to go without him when he’s willing to grovel and put his years of unparalleled tobacco experience to good use? The risky move seemed in some ways like a continuation of the Don we saw last week, who took Freddy’s advice about fighting for your job to heart. But it’s a reversion to his old ways, too — he’s making the same kind of impulsive, insubordinate decisions that got him suspended in the first place, only it seems to be working this time. “You think this is going to save you, don’t you?” Jim Cutler asks at the end of the meeting.
Funny he should ask. If there’s one question Mad Men has been exploring all season, it’s this: Can Don Draper even be saved?