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'Mad Men' recap: So much for California dreamin'

June 03, 2013|Meredith Blake
  • Joan Harris struggles to prove her worth in "A Tale of Two Cities."
Joan Harris struggles to prove her worth in "A Tale of Two Cities." (Michael Yarish / AMC )

There are episodes of “Mad Men,” like last week’s “The Better Half,” where it’s hard to believe how much is packed into a single hour of television.  Then there are episodes like “A Tale of Two Cities,” where you reach the end and think, “That’s it?”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing: One of the practical realities of series television is that not every episode can be a doozie. Even on a lean, mean cable show like “Mad Men,” there are the functional placeholder episodes whose purpose is to keep things moving along without rocking the boat too much. We all deserved a little breather after the one-two punch of “The Crash” and “The Better Half.” Between the unexpected visit from Grandma Ida, Don and Betty’s sexy night at sleep-away camp, Peggy’s accidental disembowelment of Abe and Bob Benson’s shorts, the last few episodes have not been wanting for stimulation. 

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So, yes, maybe we needed a breather. Even still, “A Tale of Two Cities” feels a tad disappointing. Using the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago as a backdrop, the episode revisits two of “Mad Men’s” favorite themes -- office politics, and the notion of California as a place for self-invention. Again, there’s nothing  necessarily wrong with going back to these subjects once again, but what’s frustrating about “A Tale of Two Cities” is the sense that it’s cobbled together from leftovers from two of this season’s more polarizing episodes. Take the historical-moment-illuminating-personal-crisis of “The Flood,” add the slightly-too-on-the-nose-drug-induced-visions of “The Crash,” throw in Harry Crane in a double-breasted saffron-yellow blazer, and you’ve got “A Tale of Two Cities.”

The end result is an episode that feels not just uneventful but redundant — but, hey, at least there weren’t any Dick Whitman flashbacks.

But let’s start at the beginning. As the episode opens, Don is plunked down in front of the set, tumbler of rye in hand, watching the intentionally dull proceedings at the Democratic National Convention. (Interesting how Don, who used to be such an avid moviegoer, now seems to prefers the small screen, that opiate of the masses. And HBO isn’t even around yet!) Megan is shocked by the party’s reluctance to discuss the war in Vietnam, and almost as shocked by her husband’s cynical non-reaction to the news.

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The generational and emotional divide between these two has never been greater  (even Megan’s outfit, a striped sweater and a pair of jeans, makes her look like a teenager), which is why Don’s suggestion that she accompany him on his business trip to California reads as desperation. “We’ll go back to Disneyland,” he says. “From what I remember, something amazing happened there.” The reality of the Drapers’ marriage does not quite live up to the Disney fantasy, and husband and wife have settled into a state of barely disguised contempt. “I hate actresses,” Don says, and it’s not entirely clear that he’s joking.

The gulf is even wider once Don lands in Los Angeles. As violence erupts the following day at the convention, she calls him up in his hotel room. Once again, he’s numb, cracking glib jokes about Conrad Hilton. She’s upset, warning him after a long, awkward pause not to leave the hotel in case a riot breaks out. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says.  “Really? You can if you want to,” she replies. At this point, these two have grown so far apart that an official breakup hardly seems necessary.  

For Don, California has always had a utopian, sun-dappled, dream-like quality to it. Even those times when he wasn’t falling for his secretary over a spilled milkshake, it was the only place where he was free from the crushing burden of his assumed identity. His latest trip out West offers no such escape, only the reminder of the life he’s made for himself. Don, with his suits and his cynicism, can no longer be comfortable in California; he’d rather take a taxi than ride in a convertible.  It can’t help that he’s accompanied by Roger, who on the flight to L.A. warns Don not to lapse into the drawl he uses when he’s had too many drinks. Without knowing it, Roger’s issued a clear warning: Dick Whitman ain’t welcome here. 

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