When Don has gone to California in past seasons, his trips have taken on redemptive qualities. He’s out of his element, but never entirely. He has gone to parties where the protocol is not totally unlike the one in this episode, where women flirt with him and the sun and refreshments wipe him out. In season 2, Don dallied with a woman named Joy and went for a swim in the ocean, and this pattern of sin and absolution has repeated subsequently, almost to a fault. It was telegraphed earlier in the season, when Don pitched an ocean-dip-as-heaven ad, that this is his concept of happiness: a man stripped of all responsibility, shaking the morbid trials of life and death to find bliss. It’s a bit worrisome how non-confrontational that is, but that is the m.o. of the show. These characters aren’t the ones in Chicago, fighting Daley’s cops.
But this episode saw Don’s set-up of indulgence and confession fall apart a bit. He packs his swim trunks — Megan even suggests that he go for a swim because it always makes him feel better — but he ends up falling in a pool in his summer suit and tie. He wasn’t himself, or at least not the version Roger describes as slick, glib, impressive. This has been true for several seasons by this point, but something about California throws it in a harsher light. At a party in the Hills, Don smokes hash and can’t handle his drugs; on the way to their hotel, he moans about getting bugs in his teeth when driving in a convertible. Don doesn’t know how to have fun in Los Angeles anymore. When he trips on whatever that hash was laced with, he imagines his wife, dressed like a hippie but talking about being pregnant. He imagines a soldier talking about lost limbs. Maybe Don doesn’t want to have fun anymore. Maybe this version of fun has him playing the weighed-down part of the loser.
The old tricks aren’t working because, it seems, the usual roles aren’t being played. There is a sense throughout “A Tale of Two Cities” that people should expect the violence that comes down on their heads if they provoke it (“They’re throwing rocks,” Don says with some authority about the protesters at the Democratic Convention), but the provocateurs don’t see what they’re doing as inflicting long-term damage. They don’t see the future of political party lines like the Carnation businessmen do when they’re discussing their Sun belt politics. The system that the “long-haired freaks” are fighting against works in specific ways, and its dismantling can only mean chaos unless something is built in its absence. Teams must be assembled, new roles must be filled.
So what did this mean for the characters? Mad Men set up some teams — some familiar, some new — and showed us how they would fare. Business was won and lost, which gave everyone a chance to step up, step down, inspire each other, pass the ball. Here were the teams: Don, Roger, and Harry were courting Carnation and Sunkist in Los Angeles; Ginsburg and Benson (in lieu of Cutler, after Ginsburg erupts at his should-be boss for supporting the war) were trying to hold onto Manischewitz; and Peggy and Joan were romancing the head of marketing of Avon, notably sans Pete. That last team is the least tenuous, but it inspired the most hope. After Joan brings the business of Avon in (thanks, Kate from a few episodes ago!), she gets “pushed off the diving board” the minute the client is discovered, with Ted telling Pete to take over. But Joan decides to push her way in anyway (I guess she was inspired by the protests, although this cause-and-effect framing is a little gross). She doesn’t invite Pete to the meeting, instead taking on his role as account man. Peggy is forced to work with her as her creative half.
I hadn’t really noticed until now that so many meetings on this show are run simply by saying someone’s name to prompt them to talk some magic. It’s noticeable here because we don’t see just Roger saying “Don” to ask for help with the Carnation people. When Joan says Peggy’s name expectantly at the Avon meeting, it doesn’t immediately register that this is what Joan is doing: handing over the ball, hoping someone picks it up. And it almost doesn’t work. Peggy is at first resistant to the idea that Joan could elbow her way in (their ensuing conversation about whose way of succeeding is more valid was so spiteful, it hurt my feelings), but she realizes her error as soon as Joan is alone in a room with Ted and Pete and potentially about to be fired. She sees that she is on a team and has to help in whatever way she can, and she does, gloriously, faking a phone call from the client to signify Joan’s success.
Joan and Peggy win temporarily; Ted acquiesces and lets Joan have the account, but, as Peggy says, Avon hasn’t called yet. Don, Roger, and Harry win sort of, getting the business they came for, but there’s the aforementioned dip in the pool for Don, and Roger gets punched in the balls at the party by a former employee turned movie mogul who’s sick of being bullied. (Danny Strong, welcome back.) And what about Benson and Ginsburg? Ginsburg is plagued by guilt about being in business when men are dying overseas (and he might be saddled with some sort of mental illness, what with his rants about receiving “transmissions” to do harm). And Benson, recruited by a mercurial Cutler to rein in the account, uses his young capitalist self-help training (prompting at least one viewing companion of mine to say he’s a robot) to help Ginsburg get on his feet. But they lose the account anyway, because the Manischewitz people have been unhappy for months. It wouldn’t have mattered, maybe, if the meeting had gone well or not. Ginsburg and Benson were going to fail, just as Roger would have failed.
But it feels like a bigger blow when the untested people drop the ball, which brings up a huge issue for this season. How well will these new teams work, how adequate will these new definitions be? Will these people make it through these growing pains? Cutler warns that they should decide on their new name before the world does, and it’s an apt metaphor for everything else. Decide for yourself what role you should play, or else someone is going to throw rocks at you and make you do something you don’t want the world to see. This, I suspect, is what we are supposed to take away from the final tableau of Pete stealing Stan’s joint and inhaling deeply. The way we were is not how we are. Deal with it, I guess.
Other parts of the episode worth mentioning: Cutler screaming like the speed freak he is and asking why Benson’s always down on the main floor; Pete getting promoted to head of new business (Classic line reading: “What?! I don’t want that!”); and every dress the costuming people put Joan in. Did I already say that Roger got punched in the balls by Danny Strong? Sometimes this show is just a wacky sex comedy with bright colors and suits, and I’m okay with that.