Mad Men 6×10 ‘A Tale of Two Cities’: “Dying doesn’t make you whole”

Mad Men 6x10 Peggy

Mad Men, in its later seasons, has emphasized how the social systems in place shift and contort underneath the feet of the powerful, until those in power can barely recognize the world around them. As the current season has gone on, this shift is more and more apparent, with increasing emphasis on the counterculture and the passage of time. Consider how many markers of time we’ve been exposed to in this season so far: The Tet Offensive, MLK’s assassination, RFK’s assassination, the Vietnam War, and the riots across the country. There’s so much emphasis on the passage of time and the shifting culture, and this particular episode, “A Tale of Two Cities”, takes that emphasis and shows how the shifting nature of social systems affects those in power.

The counterculture is emphasized to some extent in Don’s storyline in California, where he, Roger, and Harry travel to Los Angeles to speak to Carnation and subsequently end up at a Hollywood party. Don and Roger, especially, are completely out of place, as they try to assert superiority based on their own definition of success and fail because the counterculture emphasizes success as something completely different. Roger can’t steal Danny Siegel’s girlfriend from him because he’s not a part of the counterculture. His charm doesn’t work like it does back in New York City. It’s the reason he ends up punched in the groin at the end of the party instead of sleeping with Danny’s girl.

Mad Men 6x10 Joan

Source: AMC

However, the biggest emphasis when it comes to social shifts is how gender itself is shifting, how women are playing a much larger role in business, gaining power and taking power from men. Joan has gained a vast amount of power within the company because she slept her way up, whereas Peggy worked her way through being a copywriter. Peggy played a man’s game and won, but Joan’s decided to rewrite the rules and do something else. Sure, it exploits her. Sure, it’s awful what she had to do. But she played outside the rules and was better off for it. In this episode, Joan meets with Avon’s head of marketing and sees Avon as a potential client. But, instead of doing what the company usually does, which is handing the client off to Pete and Peggy to meet with and taking all of the credit in her own meeting later, she boxes Pete out and deals with it herself, using Peggy as backup. It’s completely outside how the company normally operates, but it ends up working anyway, as Joan is (for the most part) successful, and that’s all Ted Chaough really cares about. Pete watches Joan excel at doing a job that should have been his, which troubles him because he sees Joan (a woman) taking some of his power away. He’s losing relevancy because he simply can’t change with the times and find where he does have power. And it’s not like he can just take that power back. He can’t change anything. He just has to adapt to how the culture is moving, and it’s not something that he’s prepared to do.

Mad Men 6x10 Roger

Source: AMC

Don’s also suffering from that gender power shift, as Megan is an up-and-coming actress and not the broken housewife that Betty was. He wistfully desires Megan to be a housewife instead of an actress, something illustrated in Don’s hallucination while he’s on hash. He imagines Megan as pregnant, as unemployed, as somebody that simply wants to be with him. But that hallucination quickly dissolves before him, as he sees an injured soldier who tells him that dying won’t make him whole, as well as his own body facedown in the swimming pool. It’s certainly the most potent death imagery of the episode, but it goes to show that the “death” that is being discussed isn’t necessarily only physical. The way that Don is distancing himself from what society is coming to be damages things like his family. His vice grip on his old reality just loosens his grip on how things really are. It’s certainly true that dying won’t make Don whole; the death of his family life will just sink him lower and lower.

Mad Men 6x10 Don

Source: AMC

I really enjoyed John Slattery’s direction as well, considering how well he subtly illustrated the episode’s thematic notions through his cinematographic choices. Things like the recurring image of the “powerful” men smoking while watching an attractive woman saunter by perfectly illustrates the gender shifting of the time, how women are starting to gain more power and the men simply have to sit and watch it happen. I also loved watching the juxtaposition between the bright and sunny Los Angeles daytime and the nighttime hallucinations around the Hollywood party. It takes the optimistic depictions of California in previous seasons and uses them against the audience, making them comfortable before sinking deep into the more dismal hallucination that Don experience. Slattery’s episodes are always well-directed, and it’s great to watch him take the reins for a couple episodes this season.

This new season of Mad Men is drawing to a close, and while there’s no clear endgame in sight, we’re still seeing the same discussion on social shifting and people watching the world float by as they grow older. It’s getting increasingly dismal and foreboding to watch these people sink lower as they lose more and more power. Considering the apocalyptic depiction of the world surrounding these characters, it seems like everybody is moving towards some sort of personal explosion, just like Lane Pryce’s suicide at the end of Season 5. However, if we look back to Season 3’s “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.”, we know that life deals in anticlimax, where we sit on the edge of a precipice and rarely ever jump off. Sometimes, people can overcome their pre-conceived notions of the social structure. Sometimes, people can change.

So, if we ask whether or not these characters can overcome their inability to move forward, the answer isn’t entirely clear. But that precipice is indeed there, and there’s always the chance that somebody is going to just drop off.

Michael St. Charles

is just a Michigan State University grad who loves a good story. If he’s not off teaching the young ones how to solve quadratic functions or to write an expository essay, he’s watching old-school HBO shows, indie horror movies, or he’s playing Resident Evil 4.

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  • Anne

    Hi Michael! I am just creeping on this website because I love television and I wanted to comment on your review because it was really excellently written! I like your attention to detail on a show that is extremely subtle in conveying what needs to be conveyed. I haven’t been watching this entire season (I did watch last episode with Betty and Don) and I think that also illustrates the shift in power from Don–who is supposed to be a symbol of the generation–and Betty, who previously was nothing but a housewife to him (her own occupation as a model even being evidence that she was nothing more as an object). I’m not gonna lie, Mad Men lost me with its beating of a dead horse–Don’s morality–but I am actually surprised the end of the season is approaching and curious to know where it is going next. I think that unlike before–as you mentioned Lane Pryce’s suicide–the tumult that exists within the characters may be overshadowed by the incredible swell of the impending 70s. Anyway, thank you for your excellent review (and thank you for watching Scrubs! One of my favorites)

    • Michael St. Charles

      Hey! I just saw your comment and I wanted to say that I appreciate the
      feedback! It’s always nice to hear from a fellow television
      enthusiast. I definitely agree that Don’s sleeping around has felt a
      little repetitive, considering it’s been the focus of, well, the ENTIRE
      series. This season’s take on it has been somewhat refreshing since
      Sylvia was the one to become fed up with him, how Don’s being depicted
      as more of a villain than a hero, but for the first half of the season, I
      was definitely waiting for something new to happen. And you’re
      definitely right. The way that Betty was utilized in the last episode
      is absolutely indicative of how Don’s losing more and more power as the
      social systems shift to empower oppressed groups such as women or
      African-Americans. Definitely tune in for the last few episodes if you
      get the chance! Mad Men has been displaying the kind of bleak
      existentialism that latter seasons of The Sopranos contained, and it’s
      pretty chilling when it really digs in. Thanks again for the feedback!