The article below contains spoilers for “A Tale of Two Cities,” the June 2, 2013 episode of “Mad Men.”
The tetchy “A Tale of Two Cities” jetted Don (Jon Hamm), Roger (John Slattery) and Harry (Rich Sommer) off to Los Angeles to meet with clients while back in the office Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin) and Joan (Christina Hendricks) engaged in power skirmishes and finally agreed on a company name. But New York and California and the cultural gap in between was only one of the divides on display in the episode. We also had the generational gap represented by Jim’s brusque authority and Ginsberg’s (Ben Feldman) counterculture shame spiral, the gendered one of Joan’s sidestepping Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) to maintain her place with the potential Avon account and prove herself as more than a sex object, and the broader battle being waged over the Vietnam War as symbolized by the televised riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
So who won? Well, in the case of New York vs. L.A., team Draper-Sterling-Crane ended up soundly trounced by a West Coast culture with which they were unable to meld. California has always been a dream-like place of escape for Don. It’s where, in season two, he fell in with Joy (Laura Ramsey) and her beautiful, carefree set of nomads; where he could relax and be himself (whomever that is) with Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton); where he spontaneously proposed to Megan (Jessica Paré), whom he barely knew, after bringing her along on a trip to Disneyland with his kids. But lately those oceans and bright sunshine seem more like they symbolize death for Don — not just because of the brushes with heatstroke and the fact that Anna and the connections to the past she represented are gone, but because they bring to mind his proposed ad campaign for the Royal Hawaiian, with its unintended suggestions of suicide. Getting away from it all no longer feels so benign.
“I don’t know what happened. I usually feel better out there,” Don told Roger as they limped back on the plane home, after Don had a balmy brush with the great beyond. They both struck out on the trip, which to Roger only affirmed what he’d gone in choosing to believe — that “New York is the center of the universe,” and that it doesn’t matter who Danny Siegel (Danny Strong) knows now or who he punches in the crotch, antagonizing him is worth the loss of contacts and the humiliation. While Don wouldn’t be so quick to agree with his comfortable condescension — California calls to something in him — this time he couldn’t click with it, with the Carnation executives and their conflicting products, with the party in the Hills, the hashish, the convertible, the beautiful hostess who shot Roger down but was happy enough to find herself in Don’s dazed arms before turning him over to a vision of his happy, hippied-out wife telling him about her pregnancy.
Does Don Draper just always dream in conveniently pop psychology-friendly terms? Let’s blame his crazy childhood. That sequence of Megan leading him through the party to the bar where he met up with a uniformed, armless and apparently ghostly PFC Dinkins (Patrick Mapel), the man whose wedding he participated in in Hawaii, set up Don’s choices of life (“a second chance”) and death (Don looking down at himself, all “Sunset Blvd.”-ed out in the pool) all too cleanly before Roger hauled him out of the pool. (Don can hold his liquor, but cannabis, not so much.)
As fun as it is to see how Don’s tie instantly loosens and his sunglasses get strapped on as soon as he sets foot in California, this episode really just suggested once again that our mister of perpetual dissatisfaction can’t keep one foot out the door for much longer. It’s interesting that his fantasy Megan, luring him back with the promise of connection via a new child, also quit her job — the real Megan’s fears about Don’s old-fashioned issues with her working are apparently not misplaced, though she isn’t as certain about the choice between career and a baby as he apparently wants her to be. And elsewhere in the show’s addressing of shifting female roles, a topic that used to be so central in its earlier seasons, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) was caught up in Joan’s scheme to make herself the account point person for Avon after what she believed was a date arranged by her friend turned out to be a business meeting. Hendricks is so good at registering Joan’s thought process via these flickering microexpressions, since she so seldom actually says what’s on her mind, and the lunch was a particularly fine instance — her pleasure turning to mistrust turning to disappointment turning to excitement as she decided to seize the moment.
Back in the show’s first seasons, Joan was the secretarial queen bee and its unforgiving enforcer of gender norms and behavior, and she was not Peggy’s champion as the latter copywrote her way into the creative department. There was some satisfaction in seeing Peggy remind her of this fact as Joan tried to enlist her in her coup, but there’s no pleasure to be taken in Joan’s quiet desperation, her startling need to reinforce her place in the company, to show herself as a true voting partner and not just the woman who slept her way into a share of the company.
Part of this drive had to come from the date that wasn’t, from her fears about not knowing how to find a new relationship and from no longer trusting it. She showed up for lunch with a man who turned out to be more interested in her work than her looks, which was both a possible positive and terrifying — and if it’s an ad woman she’s expected to be, then she’d better start working on it. That showdown with the perpetually thrown aside Pete, Peggy’s misplaced trust in the oblivious Ted (Kevin Rahm) and her subsequent coming to Joan’s rescue after listening in though the speakers next door made for a wonderfully tense sequence, but also brought to mind the late Lane Pryce’s (Jared Harris) failed attempt to step outside his role and bring in Jaguar as an account. Hopefully Joan has better luck pulling this off, but the verdict’s still out.
Jim’s own maybe-coup seems to be an ongoing process — the surrender on the name of the company and the shortening to “Sterling Cooper & Partners” (“it’s the only thing that’s equally offensive to all”) was an abruptly conciliatory gesture apparently prompted by a desire to unite forces. (And an odd one — shouldn’t it at least be “Sterling Cutler & Partners”?) But Jim also sent the enigmatically unruffled and inexperienced Bob (James Wolk) in to sink the Manischewitz or at least take the hit on it, and is readying him to start working on Chevy. Either Jim has a long term plan he’s working on or he’s passive aggressive in a innovatively self-defeating fashion, but he’s using Bob for some sort of theoretical sabotage. Poor Bob — Joan’s dating around on him, his attempts to break up fights only directed all ire back at him, he had to scrape Ginsberg off the floor with a pep talk and he’s being given better gigs in the office to punish other people. Directed solidly by Slattery and written by Janet Leahy and Matthew Weiner, “A Tale of Two Cities” ended its portraits of division with a tentative union, but looking at Bob, you still have to wonder why someone would be all that driven to stick around with these antagonistic folks.