Mad Men: Not Getting Syphilis Is The Biggest Challenge

By  · Published on June 3rd, 2013

Our boys at SCDP and CGC are allegedly operating as one entity, they even came up with an “equally offensive” new name of Sterling Cooper & Partners, though it’s hard to believe that either of the halves will ever function as a whole, as proved by this week’s episode, aptly titled “A Tale of Two Cities,” written by Janet Leahy and Matthew Weiner and directed by John Slattery. Separate forces divide and try to concur as they make meetings to reel in new accounts. But every man is for himself, naturally, and their motivations aren’t necessarily for the good of the firm as a whole. Maintaining the momentum of last week’s brilliant episode, this one perhaps equals it in overall quality and explores office politics versus more personal relationships. And parallelled with the office unrest are the riots at the Democratic National Convention.

Don and Roger head to Los Angeles with Harry with the hopes to seal the deal with Carnation. While Don is uncharacteristically prepping on the plane, Roger tells him to stop, saying, “Our biggest challenge? Not getting syphilis.” So we know Roger’s main motivation for the trip. Don, however, is making an effort to be good where Megan is concerned, though that doesn’t stop him from making out with some actress at a hash party later.

Ah, yes, the hash, which has a dual effect on the episode. On the negative end, it spurs Don to have both a corny and obvious hallucination as he thinks he sees a pregnant hippie version of Megan. Now, clearly, this is here to show us that perhaps Don is thinking about changing his ways, that he is pulled away from making out with another by a maternal image of his own wife. The better hash-induced hallucination is a rather ominous one about Don’s own mortality. He sees a one-armed veteran who reveals himself to be a ghost. When Don questions why his amputated arm isn’t restored in death, he says, “Dying doesn’t make you whole,” and shows Don an image of Don floating facedown in a pool, à la Sunset Blvd. Turns out, Don is facedown in the pool and all of these hallucinations occurred as he was semi-conscious.

The ghost soldier isn’t an ideal messenger, but the words “Dying doesn’t make you whole” really stuck with me after the episode’s end. It’s as if to say that if, for whatever reason, Don does kick the bucket by the end of the show’s run, his identities won’t be reconciled. He will still be that handsome shell of a man that harbors such dark inner workings, such pain, and sexual frustration. And the idea of Don looking over his own near-dead body was certainly chilling – it was a harbinger of things to come if he doesn’t make some important changes. But, again, Don’s bad behaviors seem to be unavoidable, as does a less-than-happy ending for him. He can make all the strides he wants with Megan, but he will likely be doomed to repeat the same patterns, over and over again.

Slattery seems to have a field day directing himself in this episode, as Roger spews out quip on top of quip when he sees his ex-wife Jane’s diminutive cousin Danny (who was briefly employed at SCDP) at the party. Short person jokes galore! Little legs!

While all these Los Angeles shenanigans are happening (to seemingly little avail) and Ted in Detroit dazzling Chevy, Cutler is in NYC and feeling especially competitive with the SCDP faction, to the point that he sends the creepily meddling, potential serial killer, Bob Benson in with self-doubting Ginsberg to the Manischewitz meeting in his place. Why? He claims to believe in Bob, but really, it would appear that he wants the account to self-destruct because Roger brought it in. And yes, self-destruct the account does. While bringing in the account would better the firm, Cutler is more concerned with “beating” Roger and the rest of SCDP. After all, he is the Bizarro Roger, gray hair, lechery, and all. It’s great to see Harry Hamlin breaking out of reality show hell (he had one with his wife, Lisa Rinna) with this role. Cutler is slippery and can’t be trusted – definitely not a team player – and it is interesting how he is using Bob to his advantage. While Hamlin’s Cutler is somewhat loopy, he is also cold and calculating. A figurehead, so to speak, but one that is pulling the strings of his minions and causing damage from the bottom up.

However, far and away, best storyline on this episode belonged to Joan as she snaked an Avon account past Pete and, thankfully, didn’t exactly suffer any consequences. Joan is somewhat of a tragic figure on the show, as if we can recall, she was instrumental in helping out with the nascent TV department and was never moved up the ladder in accounts. She was always relegated to an outsider position. She is a partner, but basically just streamlines the office and disciplines the secretarial pool. Now she is responsible for bringing in Avon, a potentially lucrative account, and is told to stay on the sidelines as Peggy and Pete take over. While, yeah, she steps over Pete and doesn’t invite him to the meeting, it’s about time Joan looks out for herself. She can likely do any job at the agency with her hands tied behind her back. And the meeting does go well – she even prompts Peggy to make the right pitches at the meeting.

Pete is, of course, incensed (he even brings up that whole awful Jaguar fiasco). Though no one really cares that Pete wasn’t at the meeting in the long run, except for Pete, who is becoming increasingly superfluous at the agency. And he knows it. What a brilliant final shot, Slattery, as Pete sadly takes a toke to cloud over his sorrows. Pete knows he is a lame duck at the agency and needs to plot his next move.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this Joan storyline is the complicated relationship between her and Peggy. From day one, Peggy has always looked up to Joan to a certain extent, with her command of her femininity as well as of the office as a whole. Though, conversely, Joan reveals in this episode that she is resentful of Peggy in that Peggy is “allowed” to move up in the office, in terms of having more creative and dynamic responsibilities. Peggy is also upset that Joan cut Pete out of the equation, mainly because it’s outside of how she usually does business.

Most refreshing here is the unconditional sisterhood that exists between our two ladies. Joan is getting chewed out by Ted and Pete and Peggy has Pete’s secretary give her a fake message, saying that the Avon guy is on the phone for her. He’s not, but Peggy’s maneuver makes Joan look good in Ted’s eyes. Joan is grateful, but Peggy just warns that he had better actually call. I am proud of Joan standing her ground and transcending her role as glorified Girl Friday. And I especially love that Peggy backs her up, even in the slight opposition of her mentor, Ted. After all, girl code is a powerful thing – never forget that.

The Upside: Joan’s storyline was pretty amazing, as were all of Roger’s quips.

The Downside: The hash party Megan mirage was pretty weak.

On the Side: Bob Benson’s unsettling cheery/creepy nature has fallen under much scrutiny. Check out Vulture’s list of Bob Benson theories here.