The Vietnam War is tearing the country (and Michael Ginsburg) apart, Roger Sterling’s finely-crafted zingers are being bested by former Sterling-Cooper whipping boy turned Hollywood producer Danny, Don Draper is once again tripping balls and now literally tripping into pools, and Joan – when she takes a break from her full-time job as queen of my entire world – metaphorically joins Don in the deep end of the pool only to be rescued by her frenemy for life, Peggy.
Just another day of ‘Mad Men’ in the 1970’s.
“A Tale of Two Cities” opens with the partners hilariously debating what to name the new agency, and this hour goes on to feature a number of our central characters attempting to make a name for themselves, with shaky-to-bad results. In fact, the only two characters who emerge completely victorious from this hour are the ones who played humble: Cooper graciously volunteers to drop himself from the company name, only to end up as one of just two names in the title they do settle on (“Sterling-Cooper & Partners”, which abbreviates snazzily to “SC&P”). And good guy (and according to the Internet this week, potential Charles Manson stand-in???) Bob Benson fails upwards, losing Manischewitz but being assigned by forever-scheming Jim Cutler to work with Ken on the suddenly-progressing Chevy account.
Of those not faring so well, let’s start with Joan, who got her best showcase of the season to date. Joan’s downfall has not received nearly’s the focus that Don’s has, but in many ways the two parrallel each other. At Sterling-Cooper, Joan held immense power despite her modest position, and the flashes of real business brilliance she showed – helping Harry with his media sales, for example – underscored how criminally underused she was at the firm. Now with a child, a marriage behind her, and age taking its toll on her mentally, Joan’s title at the agency has increased but at the cost of the power and respect she once held. Sound familiar, Don Draper?
But here, Joan finally gets an opportunity to recapture the old magic. She’s set up with a man by her friend Kate, but what Joan thinks is a date turns out to be a business meeting with the Head of Marketing for Avon. It’s a subtle commentary on the state that Joan’s in that she assumed “set up” still meant “date” for her, while Kate assumed it to mean “business meeting”, but Joan recovers nicely to deliver a convincing pitch and get the client hooked. Unsure of what to do next, she turns to Peggy for help, who refers her to an overworked Teddy that passes it all off to Pete. Pete plans to take the account from there, but Joan’s insecurities bubble to the surface, resulting in her overplaying her hand and scheduling a meeting with the client behind Pete’s back. Joan and Peggy do a reasonable job at the meeting, but a furious Peggy chides Joan back at the office.
When word gets to Pete he’s of course incensed, and he and Teddy appear ready to really lay into Joan before an eavesdropping Peggy saves the day by faking a call from the client. But Joan seems to be coming to terms with the rash mistake she’s made, and as Peggy notes, they better end up getting Avon.
Meanwhile, Don, Roger, and Harry head out to Los Angeles for a series of meetings set up by the latter. On the plane over, a supremely smug Roger sums up the group’s confidence with his trademark brand of winking racism: “I’m Vasco da Gama and you’re some other Mexican. Our biggest challenge is to not get syphilis.” In other words, move over puny LA firms, the big boys from New York are here to grace you with their presence.
The reality would not quite match up with Roger’s delusions of grandeur. Their loose talk about politics is quickly put to a stop by the Carnation rep in their first meeting, and they’re shut down before they ever get started. We’re not treated to the other meetings, but it’s safe to assume they went similarly bad.
Luckily, Harry’s rented a sweet ride and scored invites to a swanky Hollywood party. Don Draper and West Coast parties don’t go so well together though, and when he tokes up in the hookah room you could practically hear the alarm bells ringing. Last time Don fainted by a pool, he landed face down on the deck. This time, after a drug-induced vision of Megan leads him away from yet another indescretion in his marriage, Don manages to hit the pool, and is narrowly rescued before drowning. Roger’s reward for rescuing Don is to get sonned by his former subordinate Danny, who thanks to Roger’s childish sniping blocks any potential business leads from happening at the party.
Needless to say, the boys’ spirits on the return trip were not quite as chipper as they were heading out to LA.
Finally, left unchecked at the office, Jim Cutler institutes a plan to divide and conquer the remnant of SCDP employees. With Teddy Chaough preoccupied with his role as the only person at the firm doing real work, Cutler’s attempt to restructure the creative department is blocked by Teddy, but he does manage to ship Bob Benson off to Detroit.
“A Tale of Two Cities” wasn’t an instantly memorable episode like the ones that preceded it, but it was still a terrific hour of television packed with fun moments, like Ginsburg’s war-induced meltdown (STOP SOUNDING LIKE PEGGY’S EX-BOYFRIEND, GINSBURG!) and Bob Benson’s subsequent inspirational speech (“C’mon buddy, you’re not death!”), or Roger’s endless stream of short jokes for Danny.
And the episode ends with its one indelible image. Frustrated by Joan cutting him out of the Avon account, Don failing to recognize what’s going on with Cutler and his plan to minimize the SCDP crew, and with his life right now in general, Pete Campbell barges into the creative room, takes what Stan’s smoking, and pops the blunt in his mouth. Janis Joplin music plays. The camera slowly rotates around Pete’s head. Fade to black.
Our characters are fighting battles, both real and existential, against what appear to be insurmountable odds. Maybe Pete’s got the right idea: just lean back and light one up.