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Mad Men Season 6 Ep. 10 Recap: 'A Tale of Two Cities'

Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC

As always, spoilers lie ahead…Last week’s “The Better Half” delved headlong into the themes of the two halves of individuals (i.e the way we see ourselves vs. the way others see us) and how time can shift the nature of key relationships, particularly when one party is trying to reach for a safety net that no longer exists. There are traces of the former in “A Tale of Two Cities,” with Joan’s story line in particular, but the main thrust of the episode was how the social upheaval going on in American culture is seeping into the culture of the ad business, is changing into a more ferocious beast.

Of course, this has always been one of Mad Men‘s ongoing themes, with its characters often experiencing the radical changes on both a personal and professional level. But now it feels even more pronounced. “A Tale of Two Cities” pits Los Angeles against New York, and while there are aesthetic differences–the sunny, laidback party atmosphere vs. cocktail hour in a dark restaurant, hippies and businessmen mingling freely (sup Danny!) instead glaring warily at one another–the truth is things have been getting mighty loose around the offices of SCDPGCG (or now known as SC&P; more on that later) for quite some time now. Joints are sparked up without a second thought; beards, mustaches and looser clothes have replaced suits and ties; and once-private personal politics are being dragged kicking and screaming into public life.

The chaos captured on video and broadcast on the radio is easier to spot, but with all the confrontations, ideological differences, strategic power plays and general psychological warfare, the agency may be gearing up for a long, bloody war of its own.

For her part, Joan is trying to stake out some new territory. After accidentally-then-kinda-on-purpose business coup via a lunch date set by her friend Kate, she practically skips to Peggy’s office and tells her the good news. Peggy tells her to set up another meeting before the Avon exec leaves town. Joan says she knows she has to but is afraid that with Don out of town she’ll “get kicked off the diving board.” Heh, nice foreshadowing, and it’s interesting to see that although she lit into him about never saying the word “we,” Joan stills looks to Don as someone who’ll have her best interests–or more than likely his, which will benefit her–at heart. Peggy suggests taking the news to Ted, and though Joan expresses doubts about whether or not she can trust him not to leave her behind, Peggy replies “he’s isn’t like that.” Oh Peggy, did staring at those two closed doors last week teach you nothing?

Anyway, the two of them tell Ted the news, and he immediately summons Pete, whom he christens the head of new business (to which Pete responds “I don’t want that!”) to handle the account with Peggy signed on as creative. Joan says she should be there, but Pete says that would be a mistake, and that he and Peggy will lay the groundwork and Joan will “show him around” when the Avon exec around when he visits the office. You can almost hear Joan thinking “just like a secretary,” if she wasn’t already thinking it when Pete told her to set lunch for he and Peggy. Joan prods a little more, with Peggy joining in, causing Pete to school them in slightly snotty tone on how things are done.

Some of his irritation probably stems from the latest indignation of being denied of chance to meet with Chevy in Detroit, but he’s clearly misreading how important this is to Joan. And though I love Joan, I have to say part of that is her fault; her knack for decorum and poised, calm exterior usually serve her well in most situations. However, this was not a moment to play it cool, but one where she needed to make her desires bluntly known. In other words, instead of just saying “I should be here,” her words should have been “I want to be there. I want to be in accounts. I want to do the work.” She probably could have thrown in a line about wanting Pete to be her mentor, but you get the point.

Joan’s not one to give up easily though, and takes matters into her own hands by “forgetting” to invite Pete to the Avon lunch. Though she’s a quick study and fares a thousand times better than Lane did in his dinner with  the Jaguar exec last season, it’s obvious Joan’s out of her element here. She interrupts Peggy’s flow when she starts to spin a childhood anecdote (though Peggy was chattier than she usually is in client meetings) about Avon, doesn’t know when it’s her turn to jump in and sell Peggy to the client, and unwittingly undermines her ideas.

Later, back at the office, the two get into a spat about the meeting, with Joan wondering why Peggy’s not grateful for being handed “the business of your life” and Peggy shooting back she just threw said business away. The argument starts out being about Avon, but quickly spirals into airing out long, simmering resentments the two have towards one another; Joan feeling Peggy has never respected her or her job, while Peggy calls out Joan for never supporting her ambition to climb out of the steno pool.

For her part, Peggy says she knows Joan would be a good account exec, but she has start at the bottom and work her way up like she did. “You were so brave, letting Don carry you to the deep end of the pool,” Joan snaps, and while it’s true her promotion came out of Don’s desire to spite Pete, anyone can see Peggy’s worked her ass off to get where she is. “I never slept with him” Peggy says, and the two exchange ambiguous stares, ones that don’t out right say whether or not Peggy knows about Joan’s Jaguar prostitution. But it’s enough for Joan to believe Peggy is shaming her and looking down at her, just like the men at the agency.

Peggy apologizes but tells Joan she thinks she’s made a mistake. “I have to do it myself Peggy…because all that matters now is who has a relationship with that client? Who’s the client going to call?” Joan says, and it’s hard to argue with her both in her assessment of the free-for-all, every-man-for-himself-environment SCDP has become–or even more so in the wake of the becoming SCDPCGC–and the idea she’s all alone in this. Ted doesn’t know her, Don thinks of her as little more than a damsel in distress, and although Pete collaborated with her on the merger, he obviously doesn’t see her as an account woman in the making. And Roger’s never even pretended to give a crap about her career or anything beyond roaming her hillsides, last week’s ham-fisted attempt at being father for Kevin notwithstanding.

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And let’s face it, Joan’s not a 20-year-old secretary who has the luxury of attracting a genius mentor and a decade to spare to wait for opportunities to prove herself.  She has to blaze her own path. Or as her new BFF Bob Benson said to a freaked out Ginsberg, “You can’t put yourself in the right place in the right time. You gotta be in the right place all the time.”

Even so, Peggy says she’s sick to her stomach about what Joan will do once the partners find out. And Joan herself looks pretty ill when Pete summons her to the conference room. She holds her own at first, defending Peggy (who also defends “the girls,” a.k.a. the secretaries, a nice nod to her and Joan’s origins). Pete being Pete, he can’t help but go for a low bow, insinuating Joan is sleeping with the Avon exec. “Oh I bet you’re making him very happy,” he seethes. “Because it’s better than being screwed by you,” Joan shoots back. But when Pete and Ted give her what basically amounts a tongue lashing over her stunt, it looks as if Joan may get the ax. At the last minute though, Peggy sends Meredith in with a fake note from the Avon exec requesting he call her, and she lives to fight another day.  But as Peggy notes, Joan better hope Avon does actually call. She also better get Peggy (and Meredith) a new dress, take them out for a girls’ day, or whatever gift says “thanks for saving my ass.”

Out in L.A. Don, Roger (who is serving Thurston Howell III realness) and Harry meet with execs from Carnation. Things start off on the wrong foot when one of the execs walks in on the his partner and the boys talking about the ’68 election and goes on a rant against long-haired freaks and Nixon. Things don’t really get much better from there, as the Carnation exec go tag team on both SCDPCGC and NYC ad agencies in general, ranting about what they see as their smug, condescending attitude, just as Roger predicted they would. Afterwards, they head to a paradise party where the grass is green and the girls look like Megan.

Don gets high again, smoking hashish and making out with a woman (whom he may have/may almost have revealed his Dick Whitman past to, if him saying “that’s not my name” when she calls him Don is any clue)  before seeing his wife gone all hippie chick. Though the experience is shorter than the one he experienced in “The Crash,” it’s just as disorienting, as Don sees not only Megan–who presses his hand to her stomach and talks about a new beginning–but the soldier he met in Hawaii. A soldier who by the way, is now dead and missing an arm.

“Dying doesn’t make you whole,” he tells Don. “You should see what you look like.” Next thing Don knows he’s looking at a man floating face down in a pool. Can you guess who? Don of course, as we cut to him coughing up a mouthful of pool water after Roger jumped in to save him. Birth or an actual new life symbolizing/providing a chance for personal rebirth, death not absolving you of the damage you inflicted on yourself or others, it’s all in there, as well as the knowledge Don should stick to sipping an old-fashioned.

For the time being though, Don better concentrate on living if he doesn’t want the power to shift away from him at the agency. Ted’s meeting with Chevy was a success, and after a mouthful of Ginsberg’s ideology, Jim is hellbent on pushing him and the rest of SCDP’s “people (with the exception of Bob Benson)” to the background. Ted warns him he’s splitting the company in half, and not equally, and when Jim suggests giving Don and Roger something to distract them, it comes in the form of shorting the company’s name to SC&P.

Pete, bruised from all the other slights he’s endured through the episode, sees this as the last straw in a inside revolt, one that disregards protocol and fairness in favor of  a “whatever gets the job done” mentality. “This is not the same business,” Pete says, pleading with Don to open his eyes. Though Don responds by basically telling him if he can’t stand the heat, then get out of the kitchen. Pete, as we know all too well, is adept at being ruthless and cutthroat to get what he wants, so he probably won’t have much of a problem adjusting to the new corporate culture. And the last, slow-motion shot of him, blowing out weed smoke like he’s Snoop, strongly implies Ted and Jim may have unknowingly unleashed the most ravenous dog in the kennel, now that, in Pete’s mind, all bets are off.

—Other Thoughts

–Watching Bob and Ginsberg interact was entertaining, given that they’re such polar opposites personality wise; It would’ve been interesting to see how Bob’s unrelenting niceness translated in a business setting, but obviously Joan and Don’s stories to center stage. Also, nice shout out by the writers to the “is he or isn’t he?” gay rumors with Ginsberg’s “Tell me the truth, are you a homo?” line.

—Dawn got a line and an appearance. Yay, I guess. But hey, it’s more than Ken got this go around.

—Roger and Danny’s pissing contest was another highlight; No one can play the dozens like Roger Sterling. Though I knew a punch to the crotch was coming as soon as Roger said “to his knees.” And boom, there it was.

–Speaking of Mad Men characters fleeing to California after imploding in New York, where was Paul? Kooky creative types, an endless supply of ganga….if this isn’t his scene, then what is? Unless Comic Con has already been founded.

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