“Far Away Places” shows how skilled Mad Men is at setting up and then shattering and scattering expectations. Might the very point of many Mad Men moments lie in such moves?
This episode pulls disorienting moves at every level of its organisation, from the micro level of interpersonal responses, of gestures, to the macro level of narrative non-linearity pushed to the point of pulling things apart. It opens with a compelling promise of pressured concentration on Peggy. She is in her bedroom dressing for work and fretting over a lucky charm (a tin of mints given her by Don) as she spars over work commitments with her boyfriend, Abe. The scene introduces anxious anticipation of the day ahead. Omens matter here because the stakes are high and the edge of chance is sharp: months of work committed to the coming moments of the Heinz business meeting threaten to outweigh the time and emotion committed to this romantic relationship. Gender identities teeter on the edge as Abe negatively compares Peggy to his harried and alienating father.
Surely the Heinz meeting, the business, will be the episode’s centre of gravity. The meeting—and it comes soon, right after the bedroom—is a great scene. It also plays on expectation and anticipation, by repeating with violent variation the template of many of Don’s pitches in which we applaud his bravura performances by which a client’s wants are gradually, imperceptibly, wedded to Don’s will. (Of these the most important to our reception of Peggy’s performance in the Heinz meeting is the first of Don’s pitches we witnessed, to Lucky Strike, in the pilot, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”; also important are the memories we and Peggy share of Don’s inspiringly rousing dismissal of uncourageous clients in the first episode of season four, and of the disappointment felt at the weakening of Don’s convictions in the face of Heinz’s rejection of Peggy’s cutting edge idea in the first episode of season five.) Peggy has been left feeling stranded by Don’s insistence he absent himself and Megan from the meeting to visit an upstate Howard Johnson’s, an unusual evacuation of the series’ apparent epicentre (Don) from the episode’s (Peggy and Heinz). Without Don—that man—the Heinz client, Raymond Geiger, is left with only Peggy—this woman—and so without a voice he is willing to let direct his choice as a man in charge of things. Geiger weaves and wavers before Peggy’s hallmark Draper pitch that touches him right where he wants it to but from a hand—or more like a tone of voice—he didn’t expect, or doesn’t trust, to touch him this way. Frustrated by this ambivalence that recognises Peggy lacks through no fault of her own an authority Don carries by no particular virtue of his, Peggy pulls Don’s moves and we’re invited to anticipate with her their resounding success, one that would see an equalisation of Peggy with Don in his absence.
Peggy rejects her rejection by this man Geiger, casting it back in his face, exposing the illogic of his position and demanding it be reassessed: he doesn’t know what he wants, but she does. It’s a magnificent moment. It swells us with righteous pride as we think we see in Geiger’s hesitation before this unexpected force of a woman the glimpse of a reversal that would mark Peggy’s victory, and, entitling ourselves to be on her side, ours. “Who does this girl think she is?” Geiger asks the dutiful account man Ken, whose opinion of the scene shifts with the change of its wind, his weakness of stance in many ways mirroring our own as it is guided by the shifting sands of the meeting’s dynamics. The question seems to join us with the two men in a moment of performatively conspiratorial admiration, scolding impertinence as they and we congratulate timely and well-balanced bravado. And then it’s all scattered to pieces by Geiger’s caustic attack on this woman’s foolishly held and, surely in his opinion, these days troublingly common, notion she holds some right to speak up and out of place to a man such as him.
With Geiger’s departure guided by Ken’s consoling hand (lacking the ethical firmness that has so set him apart in previous episodes) Peggy and we are left slumped and surrounded by the remnants of her team left by Don’s departure. Geiger’s beloved but pitiful talking beans are all she can fall back on as she watches Geiger and Pete glad-handing it through the glass, before Pete pops in and lets her know the news: “You’re off the business.” The motivating purpose of the preceding months’, and today’s, painful anxieties is stripped away in less than a breath. Surely the emotional and personal fallout will be the focus of the episode’s remains: a long, dark night of Peggy’s soul.
And it is, briefly: we see her pull another Draper move and skip work for the movies, where she accepts a strange man’s drugs but rejects his hand as it slides up her thigh, only to push it back to his crotch where hers stays to give him a hand job, some kind of satisfaction she didn’t get in her meeting seeming to play out in the smile which comes across her face. After washing up at the office, and discovering a troubling insight into the personal history of Ginsberg, in the blink of an eye it’s half-past eight and Peggy’s woken on her office couch by Dawn, in the first sign this is going to be an unusual episode nothing like we anticipated. Don is on the phone and has seemingly been struck by some disaster that exceeds Peggy’s. He’s unkempt, sweating, near panic, and seems oblivious to Peggy’s news of the Heinz meeting’s failure.
The remainder of the episode looks at other sides of that day and night we thought were to be kept from us by this early concentration on Peggy. Don and Megan fall out over Don’s disrespect for Megan’s (admittedly disguised) professional ambition, a part of the episode that takes the odd dream-like quality of Peggy’s post-meeting haze and moves it by degrees from a moving-image holiday poster into a nightmare scenario of a missing woman that brings to mind horrifying catastrophes of chance such as The Vanishing (1988) and Feux rouges (2004). The site of Don’s discovery of Megan’s appropriateness as a replacement of Betty becomes a site of their most heightened realisation of their apparent mismatch for each other. It seems eminently suitable that the site of both is, as Megan adroitly points out, one of transition: not a destination, but a place for passing through, like every place and person in Don’s life seems to become. Don’s panic comes from a desire to protect Megan from violent harm; Don’s return home sees him visit ambiguously welcomed violence upon Megan, a visitation that, as in the season opener, seems perhaps the only mechanism moving forward their lives together.
Roger attends a dinner party with Jane’s archly intellectual friends and, just when we think we’re going to be subjected to another endless night of painful social niceties dulled only by the downing of liquor, the acid comes out. Roger earlier found a vodka bottle empty in Don’s office; another bottle is now filled not only with the drink he desires but with the most glorious, sublime music. The acid is bringing the philistine Roger in contact with an aesthetic experience of the world we previously thought unavailable to him. It similarly brings him in touch with his and America’s past, the 1918 World Series. It does likewise for Jane, who speaks in her grandfather’s Yiddish, an old and displaced language of the Old World. It brings both of them together to a mutual self-knowledge that will perhaps permanently drive them apart in a marital breakdown handled in a way I’ve never thought to imagine I would see in a film or television work: in the light afterglow of a night’s acid trip, through a calm and welcome truth-telling that acknowledges, and by doing so salves, the pain of their being together and of their movement apart.
The episode ends in a moment that to me creates a pattern bringing Don and Peggy together even as they seem to continue moving away from one another. Like Peggy the previous morning, Don stands alone in the conference room the wake of an unexpected reprimand that has shattered his illusions as to the power of his talents, and of the sovereignty he thought that talent granted him. Don looks through the conference room’s glass at Peggy and her downtrodden team marching by. Is some distance from the business and these people who are its motivation the source of his disappointment of them? Or does distance defend against the possibility of disappointment’s pain?