As a show in which memory has immense weight, “Mad Men” has played with timelines before, cutting back and forth between the past and present, or letting the former bleed into the latter the way it did in season three opener “Out of Town.” But last night’s episode “Far Away Places” is the first episode of the series to chop itself up into pieces and return to the beginning to tell three different tales of attempts to get away — Peggy having an encounter at the movie theater after getting kicked off the Heinz account, Roger doing LSD at a dinner party with Jane, and Don bringing Megan with him to a Howard Johnson’s upstate where they have another major blowout.
It’s a gimmick that’s more often seen in sitcoms, in which threads intersect and incidents you see in one don’t become clear until you get the larger picture, but aside from Don’s frantic phone call to a groggy Peggy sleeping off her midday buzz, “Mad Men” has no interest in fitting its puzzle pieces neatly together. What binds the trio of storylines — other than their tries at escape and that they feature people coming down from the highs of pot, LSD and early infatuation — is that they each bring their characters to rough realizations.
Peggy may be talented, but she’s not Don, and clients aren’t going to treat her the same way no matter how much she channels him. Roger’s done with his ill-advised marriage to Don’s former secretary, a woman only two years older than his daughter. And Don has to face up to the fact that Megan is not there only to accommodate his whims, that their hectic flush of first love is fading and they have some real problems to deal with.
It’s Don’s story that ends up being the most haunting, as promised by that call to Peggy. In a season that’s dipped from light (the party-centered premiere) to dark (the death-obsessed “Mystery Date”), there always seems to be the potential for something terrible to happen, a disaster lurking on the horizon. And the scenes on the road, with Megan simmering with just-concealed anger, and the stop at the sunny and brightly colored hotel are all vaguely reminiscent of “The Vanishing,” right up to the point when Don drives off in a fit of spiteful anger and returns to find Megan gone, no one there having any idea of where she disappeared to.
Megan hasn’t been spirited away — Don’s relief turns quickly into annoyance when he discovers she’s locked him out of their home, thoughts of doom dispersed by the light of day. Instead, hurt and angry, she got on a bus and found her own way home to the Draper apartment, suffering no dire fate, but demonstrating to Don instead just how different she is from the last woman he wed.
Don may be more adaptable than Roger, but he’s still a man of his time, and the very modern girl he married keeps challenging his place and behavior in their relationship. Alone together, they can be giddily in love, but they have to rejoin the world eventually.
The physical battles they’ve engaged in after the birthday party and here, with Don kicking down the door and chasing Megan through the apartment, seem like concentrated skirmishes in a larger war that will either drive them apart or end with Megan dragging Don into a new era if he wants to keep her. “Every time we fight, it just diminishes this a little bit,” she says, a truly mournful line — because fights happen, things don’t stay new, and, to use Bert Cooper’s phrase, you can’t stay on love leave forever.
Don haunts the other two storylines in the episode, despite barely appearing in them — he shows up in the mirror after Roger, tripping on acid, imagines himself as divided in half like the magazine hair dye ad he was looking at before. (Is there any duality in Roger Sterling? For better or worse, he seems one of the most unified characters on the show — note his cheeriness at finding himself on the verge of divorce again. How long will it be before he takes back up with Joan?) And despite her sense of being abandoned by him, traces of Don are all over Peggy’s words and actions in the morning with Abe and in the meeting with Heinz — Abe’s complaint to her, that “you want to take me to work with you and stick me in a drawer for when you’re bored,” is essentially what Don’s been trying to do with Megan.
Her nostalgic campfire pitch for the bean execs is a Draper special, as is the way she tries to strong-arm them into liking it when they demur — but as often as they seem to like when Don does it, the clients don’t take well to being told what to think by a woman, and Peggy ends up bounced from the business. She takes refuge (Don-like again) in an impulsive sexual encounter with a stranger who gets her high at the movie theater, before summoning her boyfriend back by phone.
That feeling of deflation, of the fun ending and routine returning, is hammered in by Don’s memory of driving home after last season’s trip to California with his not-yet fiancé and kids, Sally complaining that “I don’t want vacation to end.” But what then to make of the strange story that Michael Ginsberg tells Peggy about having been born in a concentration camp, but actually being from Mars, the most far away place of all? It’s a symbol for the intense sense of cultural displacement he appears to feel at the office and in life in general, but also a melancholy bit of fantasy in which he says he was urged to “stay where you are,” but obviously wasn’t able to. “You always say I never take you anywhere,” indeed — getting away’s much more appealing when you’re sure you know the way home.