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Mad Men – “The Runaways” Review: Absolutely Bonkers

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“The Runaways” is without a doubt one of the weirder episodes of Mad Men, certainly the most offbeat in the season so far. Yep, this is an odd one, it is straight up bonkers at times. From Ginsberg’s outrageous and eventually disturbing descent into madness to the randomness of a pregnant Stephanie invading Don’s life, to Sally’s Chinatown injury, to the threesome, there are a lot of unexpected and bizarre moments in this hour. I don’t think there has ever been an episode with so many “What the hell is going on?” moments as much as this one has. Not even the drug-fueled “The Crash” of the previous season delivered so many perplexing “WTF?” events. That episode at least had a concrete reason behind all the characters’ odd behavior. Some of the stuff in “The Runaways” seems to come out of nowhere and takes us completely off guard. Presumably the writers want us to feel like the characters themselves and experience their own bewilderment, Peggy is deeply struck by Ginsberg’s instability, and Don certainly is not expecting Megan’s surprise. So we go through the shock and disbelief along with them. We see the events through their subjectivity, and if so, it is an effective tool. If it isn’t, regardless of their reason or logic, these extreme moments spur strong reactions from viewers. And that is certainly better than absolutely no response or just mere indifference. I appreciate the writers’ willingness to attack certain storylines with unabashed zeal even if they might be misguided; it is kind of awesome when they go off the rails (do something different). They have been able to do well for six seasons, by now I trust the writers of Mad Men know what they are doing and their reasons behind most of their choices. Additionally, for all the weirdness and perhaps because of it, this is an entertaining hour. There is a lot going on and some very exciting developments unfold as the episode progresses.

However, it has to be said that there is a sense of disjointedness present in this installment, with storylines in New York and California, an extended look into the marital workings of Betty and Henry and the multiple work plotlines, it is a bit distracting trying to figure out how all these disparate narratives work as a whole. This gives the hour an uneven and overall busy quality that isn’t exactly desirable. Not all the storylines are equally interesting or intriguing. Henry and Betty seem out of place, as does almost all the California material (with the exception of Don’s meeting with Harry). While I can justify most of the storylines in the episode it is difficult to find a reason why Henry and Betty’s marital issues should be a focus at all. The best thing to come out of it is the sweet scene with Bobby and Sally. It is so much fun to see them interact in such a way, getting their sibling bonding on and venting about their miserable lives (“I have a stomachache all the time”). It is a very satisfying moment for us as viewers, but this isn’t enough to support the overblown Betty arc. Which does have inklings of intrigue because it is always interesting to explore female experience of the times (the frustration she feels of her place in society), but not distinctive enough to validate its place on the show (we have seen her react to this before when she was married to Don). It does fit into what the season-long arc the writers have for Betty, which began with that conversation with Francine, but Betty’s role on the show is questionable whenever it is completely separate from Don.

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The California narrative is also a problem as it goes on, one just wants to go back to New York and see what is happening with Ginsberg and Peggy or really anything else. Even Don’s immediate presence in California doesn’t help the story, which is primarily about Megan and how she deals with/feels about Stephanie’s sudden appearance in their lives. It is hard to care about how she feels about this, when there are more interesting things going on in the episode and with Don. It is a relief when Don proposes he and Harry go get a drink somewhere else and leave the party to have an actual interesting and important conversation. It is another great scene that I’m not sure holds up the rest of the narrative, surely they could have put the two character together through different circumstances. Of course, without Don in California, Megan would not have had the opportunity to treat him to a nice threesome, definitely a WTF moment. Is she trying to win him back somehow? Attempting to reconnect? Testing him? Perhaps she is just trying to hold on to him, make him stay, Megan’s reaction to both Don and Amy skipping out the next day does suggest that she is frustrated and upset that se is being left behind.

Despite some compelling aspects of the two non-work storylines, they do bring down the episode a bit and just shows how much better the series is when it focuses on the office and the dynamic within the agency. Ginsberg’s narrative, which begins as a kind of farcical side note and develops to form an upsetting and unnerving conclusion, is the most affecting storyline in the hour. It is totally responsible for setting the tone of the episode. In the opening moments of the show Ginsberg is behaving oddly, lashing out at the computer and obsessing over a broken radio. These initial bursts of volatility are amusing; we delight in Ginsberg’s peculiar personality and paranoia not taking it seriously at all. Like his outbursts during last week’s episode (“They are trying to replace us!”) they serve as comedy fodder. This, along with the creative department’s gleeful mockery of Lou Avery’s comic, instills a light mood to the first part of the hour. But things with Ginsberg get weirder and weirder and the tone shifts considerably, Stan’s fun with Lou’s comic comes to a halt, Megan icily gets rid of Stephanie, and Betty and Henry fight, etc. It gives the episode its innate weirdness, but also by the end imbues a gravity to everything that’s happened. And while the arc might feel out of place for some viewers, let’s not forget this is the same show that had a secretary run over a man’s foot with a lawnmower (resulting in a very bloody dismemberment) all the way back in season three’s “Guy Walks Into an Adertising Agency”. This is a similar kind of morbid humor at play. I wonder if viewers will remember this episode as “the one where Ginzo goes nuts” like they do “the one where the dude loses hit foot”.

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“The Runaways” is not a perfect example of storytelling or narrative construction, weak plotlines bring the episode down somewhat and the shifts in tonality might be grating for some, but there is absolutely enough good and significant material that keeps it afloat. Not only is Ginsberg’s meltdown effective and compelling, but the impact in may have on his coworkers will be interesting to watch (already Peggy seems to be reacting to it staring down the evil computer as medics wheel Michael out of the office), and Don’s conversation with Harry compels him to make a major move that might reestablish his power in the agency.

What did you think?

 

Final Thoughts

  • Gotta give it up to Ben Feldman who plays Ginsberg for totally committing to the character and giving a superb performance and portrayal of a man’s deteriorating condition. Also, Elisabeth Moss was wonderful in all her reactions to Ginsberg’s behavior; from amused to fed-up, to peeved, to annoyed and finally horrified, it was great. The look on her face as she realizes the gravity of the situation is heartbreaking.
  • Uncomfortable elevator rides FTW! The writers know so well how to create these moments of forced pleasantries be so entertaining and delicious.
  • “What am I, Cassandra?” Is he? He might be insane but his paranoia about the computer does stem from a plausible threat/fear.
  • Loved Stan’s delightful glee at finding Lou’s comic in the Xerox machine. So great to see him with more to do, I love Rizzo.
  • Lou needs to get out of there. Still such an one-dimensionally antagonizing figure, he is the worst.
  • So much in this episode relies on our past knowledge of these characters and the show. Don’s fondness of Stephanie is no doubt a product of his deep affection for Anna Draper, and once Harry divulges the potential cigarette client we know it is a huge blow for Don since his letter in season four was such a defining moment for him and the agency.
  • Lou calls Don out on taking his hat and briefcase as he drops his work off, which is totally reminiscent of Peggy going into Don’s office clad in her coat with purse in tow in “The Suitcase”.
Rating
7.8
Pros
  • Fantastic Performances
  • Unexpected Developments
  • Weird Fun
Cons
  • Where is Ted?
  • Disjointed Narratives
  • Some Weak Storylines

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