A ‘family member’ unexpectedly calls Don, prompting a visit to California in ‘Mad Men’ season 7, episode 5: ‘The Runaways’.
Don Draper is once again living the bi-coastal life in ‘The Runaways’, as he finds himself jetting to Los Angeles to see his “niece” Stephanie (Caity Lotz), who finds herself in a bit of a predicament with a baby on the way and no visible means of support. There is a palpable sense of Don’s excitement when he’s on the phone with her, and in his subsequent call to Megan to hammer out the details of Stephanie’s pending arrival. It’s an excitement that’s spelled out when Don refers to Stephanie’s problem as something of a family matter.
But in true Mad Men fashion, it becomes apparent rather quickly that Don’s excitement also stems from a place of desperation. He’s increasingly become a man fighting to salvage what little he has left, and so the recognition of a family outside of Betty and his kids, and, certainly, Megan, affords Don the chance to engage in a course of action that might yield positive results. It is a last ditch effort to find refuge and attempt a recovery of sorts from the brokenness elsewhere in his life. That sentiment is carried forth throughout the somewhat disjointed episode, wherein the recognition of seemingly futile endeavors are met with acts across the board that border on the extreme, or, in the case of Michael Ginsberg, sail well over the idea of extreme, and help land him in the care of mental health professionals.
Ginsberg’s nervous breakdown is initially shocking, briefly funny, and ultimately just heartbreaking. And yet, it’s not entirely surprising. The character’s anxiety over the computer Jim Cutler brought into the office at first feels like a typical Ginsbergian reaction to any sort of change (considering they’re all unwelcome), and the escalation of that computer-born anxiety, from accusations of conspiracy (and romance) between Lou and Jim, to the sudden need to break up Peggy’s TV night with Julio, and then confess his feelings for her by removing his nipple and giving it to her in a box, is indication of all that’s wrong at the agency. The thing is: Ginsberg is at least partially right. There is a conspiracy between Lou and Jim (to bring tobacco back to SC&P), and Ginsberg’s fears of creative being replaced by a machine seem to stem from the methodical, calculating manner in which Jim has asserted his authority over everything.
An entire dissertation could be written about the meaning of the monolithic IBM humming away in what was formerly the agency’s creative lounge, and how that relates to the manner in which artistic endeavors have become increasingly governed by a need to feed the machine, resulting in a supposed “working” formula being prized over originality. But in terms of ‘The Runaways’, it seems to also be pointing out the menace (or cancer, considering he’s courting cigarettes once more) that Jim Cutler and, to a certain extent, Lou Avery represent.
But at the end of the day, even their desire to attract Philip Morris to the agency is something of an act of desperation, one that requires an extreme exploit in order to work. Again, that is recalled throughout the episode, especially in Los Angeles, as Megan can’t seem to perceive Stephanie as anything other than a threat to her already crumbling marriage. And so in reaction to Don’s niece, as well as her claim that she knows what Don is like when he’s alone, Megan orchestrates a threesome with Don and her friend Amy. It is seen once more with Sally’s handling of Betty and Henry desperately trying to control how his wife thinks. The idea is made most potent, however, when Don, acting on information from Harry, crashes the Philip Morris meeting and sells not only his copywriting talents, but the appeal of a cigarette maker forcing Don Draper to publicly apologize for his infamous ‘Why I’m Quitting Tobacco’ letter/ad he put in the New York Times.
Don is trying to save his meager place at the agency and simultaneously reclaim the authority he once had. It is a single-minded pursuit, which may actually give him the advantage over Lou, who is busying himself with the side project of a comic strip called Scout’s Honor. Echoes of Ken Cosgrove’s sci-fi writer Ben Hargrove are plentiful, considering Roger’s stance on writing outside of the company – an indication that the job is not enough, which, at least according to Roger, it should be. But those echoes reverberate even stronger when it’s revealed the Philip Morris meeting takes place at The Algonquin Hotel, which among the many other meanings that can be derived from its appearance, references Kenny’s most recent nom de plume, Dave Algonquin.
It is distraction and desperation abound in an episode of Mad Men that may have more impact down the line, as it seemingly advertises the value of single-minded focus above the near constant diversion of living a double life.