Is there any weekly drama as engaging or enchantingly varied in design as Mad Men? My money's on "no". The most recent episode of the period-piece 60s ad-man drama spanned three different plotlines, tackling character roles and breaking through to new levels of understanding among key participants which seem anything but token developments.
The entire experience of Sunday's episode felt like meandering through various altered states of consciousness, at times for more literal reasons than others; While Don entered into his own private hell after losing Megan and Peggy immersed herself in danger and reckless boldness, Roger Sterling took LSD with his wife… and the next day found himself on the way to a divorce.
Truly, character in the episode is trying to escape their own "personal hell," as explained by Mathew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men. Think of 'Far Away Places' as an episode split into three short films. For some (Roger), "getting away" involved diving into a world of psychedelia and facing genuine truths. For others (Peggy), it meant smoking a joint with a strange boy after a bad day at the office, which leads her to some lewd acts. For others (Don), it's a reassessment of importance at the prospect of losing everything.
Peggy, determined to be taken seriously as an ad woman and to make her mark of authority in a world reserved for the suits of Draper, has a moment of shocking forwardness in a confrontation with Heinz representatives. It was surprising to see Peg step into the land of Don – attacking Mr. Heinz in a directly personal way, putting him on the spot with a double-down on the idea the team had worked so vigorously on. But she ran headlong into the gender-split glass ceiling, and was summarily slapped down in hugely demeaning fashion for speaking in a way that would've earned Mr. Draper respectful salutes.
After Peg's failure with Heinz, the episode moved almost entirely out of the office – a structural anomaly, but a refreshing departure that complemented the time-shift approach to the three different storylines. She went to the movies by herself, and wound up giving a handjob to an attractive stranger in the theater after smoking a joint with him. This is before she returns home and calls her boyfriend to explain that the new kid at work was born in a concentration camp (welcome to a whole new spectrum of fascination with this guy), insisting that her man come up to her apartment immediately. "Hurry," she says before hanging up – but she's not scared. She doesn't need a protector. She wants to keep feeding the beast that awoke inside her during that boardroom meeting with Heinz.
After it is recommended by his wife's therapist, Roger reluctantly agrees to try LSD in order to gain a new closeness with his wife. "Alone in the truth" with her, an experience of complete honesty and empathy unveils some tectonically massive realities, in which he learns that Jane has told her therapist that their marriage is over, she's just waiting for him to say it. But before all that develops, Roger is initially skeptical of the drug's capabilities. After taking the dose, he announces his disappointment in "Dr. Leary's product" and stands to make himself a drink at the bar, while others crawl on the floor and explore their new dimensional realities. That's when things begin to really get interesting for our Silver Fox:
The morning following the experience, Roger wakes his wife with a sense of beautiful relief and gratitude, exhilarated that they were able to conclude their relationship on amicable and loving terms.
"It's just so beautiful how we were able to be there alone in the truth, just like you wanted," he says to Jane – only she had forgotten all of it and had believed life would go back to normal. Shellshocked, she recounts what had happened the night before, and finds her own strength in the truth before long.
In Draper world, Don takes an initially reluctant Megan on what is supposed to be a romantic adventure to Howard Johnson's – a big deal back in the 60s. Everything goes wrong, however, as she's not happy about being taken from work, making her efforts appear token and insignificant. Megan explains that she feels guilty and Don responds that it's a perk of being his wife. She doesn't share this perspective. She's determined to prove to him that she can actually fend for herself, a wild departure from the previous women in his life.
Her desire to get more involved with work clashes sharply with Don's image of her as his doting animated trophy, and things come symbolically to a head when Megan rejects the orange sherbet Don had so heavily built up on the road up, saying it tastes like perfume. The conflict that had been simmering the entire episode takes flight, and becomes outright explosive as Megan stands her ground on who she is versus who Don wants her to be. She loves her job, she hates his restraints, and refuses to be locked into whatever menagerie image he has of her.
Livid at her public outburst, Don tells her to get in the car. She refuses, so he drives off without her. At home, we collectively screamed at the TV for him to stop. To turn around. And we felt her pained frustration when he didn't.
A few miles down the road, however, Don comes to his senses. He knows he can't do this. He knows he's being an asshole. And so he turns and returns to HoJo – but she's nowhere to be found. Increasingly frantic, he tries to piece together what happened and her whereabouts, to no avail. Disheveled, sweaty, panicked and desperate in such an utterly non-Draper way, Don calls everyone he can think of to see if they've heard from his wife. He even calls Megan's mother, an act of true urgency that tells us just how invested in this woman he truly is.
Hours later, he finds her at the hotel. She's locked him out, wants nothing to do with him for leaving her to herself to take the bus all night and hail a cab at 5am among the lower crust of New York's Port Authority. Never one to take to groveling well, Don makes an ass of himself and winds up chasing her all through the suite. When he catches her, they both fall down, and she bursts into tears.
"Every time we fight, it diminishes this a little," she sobs as they lie on the floor. Our hearts break as we hear hers do the same.
We're going to see the end of Megan and Don. It seems inevitable. And sweet God, will it be painful to see. As the scene ends, we see a remarkably vulnerable Don on his knees, arms around his wife's waist, his head against her body, whispering "I thought I'd lost you…"
Finally, in what might have been the episode’s biggest surprise, senior partner Bert Cooper, who'd been stripped of power at the agency he founded, appeared an an ominous closing scene. He reasserted himself as a player in the company, admonishing Don for his lack of attentiveness to company business. Don was nonplussed at the proverbial splash of cold water, but he knew the senior partner was right.
A magnificent episode with enough foreshadowing and tectonic shifting to earn reference for whatever may come down the line, 'Far Away Places' shows that Mad Men's production team knows no bounds in their ability to keep fans on their toes.