Mad Men Reveals Its Real Madman

Dissecting "The Runaways," the fifth episode of the seventh season


Ashley Fetters and Chris Heller discuss the latest episode of Mad Men.

Fetters: Chris, I think I can speak for both of us: That was a lot to handle.

I guess we did have fair warning. This episode, “The Runaways,” was prefaced by the “Viewer Discretion Advised” banner—and sure enough, Mad Men delivered the most bluntly sexual episode I can remember since Don’s day-long domination-submission game with Sylvia last season.

Tension is palpable when Megan dances with her acting classmate; Megan’s friend Amy makes repeated advances toward Don, until finally and to the collective delight of Twitter, Don and Megan have a threesome with her. Elsewhere, Lou Avery and Jim Cutler get spotted in what Ginsberg perceives to be a quasi-erotic weekend meeting. Ginsberg comes onto Peggy in her apartment—well, as much as “If there were a way to do this without having sex, I’d do it” counts as coming onto someone—and later expresses his feelings for Peggy by presenting her with his bloody, severed nipple in a box, like something from a less terrifying, more botched-rom-commy Seven.

That last part was decidedly unsexy, to say the least. What struck me about all the swirling erotic energy in this episode, though, is that almost none of it served to advance the plotlines whatsoever. After all, it’s Ginsberg’s psychological instability that finally gets him escorted out of SC&P, not his infatuation with Peggy. The oddly intimate conversation between Lou Avery and Jim Cutler, it seems later on, is probably just a clandestine meeting about Philip Morris. And did you catch Megan’s frustrated reaction once she’s alone again in the kitchen after her night with Amy and Don? Amy departs awkwardly; Don says he has to go take a shower and then get back to New York to act on what Harry Crane told him. Suddenly Megan’s alone once again, any connection she had fleetingly rekindled with her husband now snuffed out. Sex and sensuality, it seems, are distractions from—or obfuscations of—more powerful forces at work.

Heller: Ginsberg's breakdown was the big moment in this week’s episode—it even upstaged Don and Megan’s threesome, which is no small feat—and it felt downright sterile. Sterile, manic, and oh-so-very creepy. That seemed to be by design: He’s a homophobic lunatic in this episode, ranting and twitching and slicing himself like a mad man. No, not that kind of mad man.

The question is... why? What's the purpose of his madness? (Aside from joining Game of Thrones as the only show to televise a nipplectomy, that is.) I haven’t figured it out yet, but I'm certain it won’t bode well for Peggy. Ginsberg lost his mind—and yes, some of his body—to an imaginary, incredible threat. The pressure that compelled his mania, though, is very real. He predicted it, in a Cassandra-like fit: “That machine came for us, and one by one…” One by one, he thinks it will take them down. He’s the first. Will anyone else fall?

That’s where the saner minds of Sterling Cooper come in. Peggy’s last appearance in the episode all but set the battle lines for the agency’s future. She's eyeing the IBM computer, warily, while a reflection of the machine's blinking lights superimposes her. You can almost see the idea turning over in her head: “This thing is the enemy, and it could ruin this place.” I’d put Peggy up against anybody in the agency. I’m not so sure she can beat technology.

Let’s talk about something that isn’t nipple-related now. (Please.) Ashley, what did you think about the fights between Betty and Henry Francis? Do you see trouble in buttoned-up WASP paradise?

Fetters: Indeed, I do.

For most of this episode, Betty continued with the decidedly old-fashioned housewife act we discussed a few weeks back. She expressed some predictably unfashionable views on the Vietnam War, to Henry’s embarrassment, for example—and I couldn’t help but snicker when she 100-percent took the bait of Sally’s snide comment about how Betty would be more upset about Sally ruining her perfect nose than injuring herself. “It was a perfect nose!” Betty sputters. “And I gave it to you!”

But at the end of the episode, Betty surprised me. Henry’s comments that she “shouldn’t be talking about” things like Vietnam—and that she should “leave the thinking to me” and instead stick to conversation topics like how much she hates getting bread crumbs in the butter—it seems, get to her. “I’m tired of everybody telling me to shut up,” she says.

It isn’t the first time we’ve seen her get fed up with feeling like an accessory instead of a human partner, of course; that’s part of what ended her marriage to Don. But for the first time in a while, she seems to be on the progressive side of history on something: She wants more for herself than the traditional housewife role is offering.

Also, I found Henry to be shockingly awful in this episode. Historically, I’ve liked Henry as a character—but Chris, am I remembering too rosily when I say I don’t think he’s ever seemed this nasty before? Or this fiercely traditional?

Heller: I’ll be honest: I don’t know if I’ve ever cared enough about Henry to decide if he was a jerk or not. While I feel for Bobby, whose "stomach hurts all the time" because of the family’s issues, the Francis domestic drama just seems dull compared to everything else we saw in this episode.

What did catch my attention inside the Francis residence, though, was the way "The Runaways" used Betty’s party to address misconceptions about the counter-culture movement. The episode presents the many shades of youth in revolt, but the partygoers only see it in black and white. Henry's neighbors literally compared a few broken streetlamps in Westchester to the Vietnam War. Then, Betty suggested that protests are responsible for the unraveling of society. These are ridiculous ideas, parroted from people cloistered by wealth.

They're not the only establishment goons, either. Earlier in the episode, Lou berates Stan and the creative team for mocking his comic: "You’re a bunch of flag-burning snots. You’ve got a thing to learn about patriotism and loyalty. The very fabric of Scout’s Honor is a joke to you." The show wants us to mock these moments. They're not meant to be taken seriously.

So, what is the serious idea of the episode? I saw it in the scenes between Stephanie and Megan, a pair of women who exist on opposite ends of the counter-culture spectrum. One lives on the hard edges of the movement. The other enjoys the soft curves of it. The tension between them simmers as they chat. Megan asks if Stephanie wants to eat outside, only to learn that Stephanie does that "all the time." When Stephanie tells Megan that the father of her child is a musician, Megan responds with a knowing, gossipy sort of exclamation: "They're the worst!" Seconds later she learns that this particular musician convinced Stephanie to panhandle in Los Angeles, is now in jail, and wants to avoid the responsibilities of parenthood. These missteps don’t just highlight Megan’s privileged place in society, but also Stephanie’s precarious one.

I think that's why the most powerful part of the episode, to me, was the final shot of Stephanie stepping out of a phone booth in Oakland. She was framed in the lower-right corner of the picture, dwarfed by the city around her. Unlike in the episode’s other scenes, when her pregnant belly filled the screen, she looked frighteningly small. A siren blared in the distance, and in that moment, the rest of “The Runaways” felt trivial. Forget Don and Megan. Forget Ginsberg’s nipple. Forget Betty and Henry. Who is going to help his poor woman?

Fetters: Absolutely. Every once in a while, Mad Men takes its audience on a poignant field trip away from its usual comfortable, upper-middle-class universe to remind us that the ‘60s were happening everywhere, and to everyone. There weren't just the two or three distinct, textbook “1960s in America” narratives happening. As Matthew Weiner put it in his interview with Hanna Rosin earlier this year, at this point in the 1960s, “the events ... could not be denied from personal experience. Before that, plenty of people are just living their lives and just ignoring a lot of things throughout the sixties.”

“The Runaways,” I think, speaks directly to that with the reappearance of Stephanie: It gives us a glimpse of what gets ignored on a week-to-week basis in the world of Mad Men.