|Joan (Christina Hendricks) awaits her fate Michael Yarish/AMC|
Through the duration of “A Tale of Two Cities”, characters concern themselves with business, and the pleasure or pain that goes along with it. It is an episode that features characters like Joan trying to jockey for more power within the company while characters like Roger continue to abuse their power through “business” trips. Unfortunately, this is one of the only compelling parts of “A Tale of Two Cities”, an episode that shows how Mad Men has begun to lean on the “look how crazy/different people were in the ’60s!” crutch and expecting it to be enough of a story. The episode begins with Don watching the Democratic National Convention on television, one of many scenes in “A Tale of Two Cities” (in addition to the entire sixth season) that involves a character watching TV with a blank expression on their face. Don’s blank expression matched exactly how I felt watching this particular episode of Mad Men. There’s only so much that can be gained from watching a show involving characters watching TV. Additionally, the episode features an uncharacteristically stereotypical view of what the ’60s were (hippies smoking pot! sexism! accusations of fascism!) that it almost feels like a modern-day high schooler’s take on what they thought the ’60s were, based solely on Jimi Hendrix records and a casual glance at a history book.
Joan attempts to try her hand at landing an account when what she assumes is a date turns into a possible business transaction. When she discovers that the man she’s meeting with is the new head of marketing for Avon Cosmetics, she takes the opportunity to endeavor into uncharted territory. She brings up the account to Ted, who immediately assigns Pete to close the deal. It’s a discouraging moment, especially since Pete is such a weasel compared to our regal Joan, but as the episode moves forward, it becomes clear that she’s really overstepping her bounds. She undermines Pete by conducting a secret breakfast with the Avon manager and Peggy, refusing to inform Pete of the meeting. When Pete antagonizes her at the office, he asserts that there is a certain way things are done and when that structure is breached, everything turns to chaos. There’s only so much a person can do after only watching another person do it, and for an account as high profile as Avon, it’s a very risky first sale. Obviously I can see where Joan is coming from in her desire to land an account like her partners, but I hate to admit that Pete is in the right on this one. Christina Hendricks hasn’t gotten any good material this year, so it was nice to see her get some to work with here. It will definitely be her Emmy episode, unless something else comes along in the last three episodes. It doesn’t compare to such classic Joan episodes as season 3’s “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency” or season 5’s “The Other Woman” but it’s always compelling to watch Hendricks work her charismatic magic. I also enjoyed her repartee with Elisabeth Moss; the two rarely share storylines together but when they do the writing seems to leap off the page.
On the other side of the coast, Don, Roger and Harry go on a business trip to California to pitch their ad campaigns to Sunkist and Carnation. Most of the trip, however, is spent at a bohemian party for Hollywood insiders and flower people. They encounter Danny Siegel, a vertically-challenged former employee at SCDP. Roger acts like a jerk to the guy, cracking jokes about his size and about his stoned girlfriend, Lotus. Though I will admit that it was good moment to see Danny punch Roger in the nuts near the end of the episode, his plot didn’t exactly provide anything other than comic relief. Meanwhile, Don participates in smoking hashish at a hookah session with a group of hippies. He begins to have YET ANOTHER series of hallucinations, after getting messed up just two episodes ago in “The Crash”. He hallucinates about Megan having a child in addition to the soldier he met in the season premiere. I’m not entirely sure what this supposed to tell us that we don’t already know, except that he can’t handle mind-altering drugs very well. He nearly drowns in the pool at the episode’s climax but it doesn’t work as a tense moment, considering we’ve seen him pass out innumerable times before in this season alone. I’ve never liked the episodes where Don goes to California, and this confirmed my feelings even more. It doesn’t help that the hippie characters are portrayed in such an obvious way that it just feels like empty nostalgia.
The only other interesting element from this episode was the continued mystery that is Bob Benson. James Wolk is a relatively significant actor in the television world, and he wouldn’t take a role as seemingly thankless as Bob Benson unless it had the promise of something truly juicy. Many critics and fans have speculated about what his character is all about, including some theories that speculate that he may be a serial killer. In “A Tale of Two Cities”, he is called in to help Ginsberg, who is on the brink of a nervous breakdown. He recites an inspiring speech that seems completely contrived and devoid of any real, human emotion, but somehow it knocks Ginsberg out of his funk. I’m very much intrigued by Bob Benson in a way that I’m not sure the show will actually deliver on. It remains the only real compelling story thread that keeps me wanting to finish this season. Otherwise, I don’t know if I would really interested in much of anything going forward. Don remains as lost as ever, Roger continues to lives fast and loose and Peggy never seems to stop coming into conflict with her co-workers. It’s all been done before on Mad Men and it’s been done better. There are a few highs from this season (I enjoyed both “The Flood” and “The Better Half”) but I’ve already forgotten a great majority of this season. I’m sorry to say that it’s probably Mad Men‘s worst season yet, if only because the show feels like it’s really stretching to tell interesting stories. I’m glad it’s ending next season and I hope it can recoup what made the show great in the final three episodes and hit the ground running in season 7.
MVP: Christina Hendricks
Supporting Actress in a Drama Series: Christina Hendricks