For the past few seasons, it's been a kind of Mad Men tradition to throw one unsettlingly weird episode into the mix. Last year, it was "The Crash," when the office went on a time-jumping drug trip; the year before that, it was "Far Away Places," which featured Roger's memorably surreal experience with LSD. Those episodes were risky, but the risk paid off; by breaking form, they delivered some of the most powerful moments in Mad Men's latter seasons.
I'm not sure I feel the same way about "The Runaways," which packed drugs, sex, and a disturbing mental breakdown into a truly baffling hour of television. The fundamental imbalance of "The Runaways" even manifests itself in the cast: the vast majority of Mad Men staples — including Roger Sterling, Joan Holloway, and Pete Campbell — never appear. Instead, we revisit one long-lost familiar face: Stephanie Horton, the niece of Anna Draper, who shows up three years older (and seven months more pregnant) than when we last saw her.
Jon Hamm is brilliant at modulating his performance whenever a member of Anna Draper's circle is around. Despite the desperation of Stephanie's situation, Don exudes an openness and warmth that he never shows around his colleagues or his wife. The ability to step away from playing "Don Draper" and to be Dick Whitman again is a rare gift, and Don clearly revels in this brief opportunity to be himself as he sends her to Megan's house to wait for him.
Unfortunately, the list of people who don't get to spend time with the real Don includes his wife. Megan's frustration — with Don, and maybe with life in general — is palpably growing. On the surface, Megan couldn't be sweeter or more understanding about Don's demands; the way he comes and goes as he pleases, the inconvenient tasks he routinely asks her to do, and the emotional distance at which he's clearly content to hold her. But for all Megan's eager efforts to maintain the semblance of marital normalcy, she drops the façade and descends into irritation, sadness, or rage as soon as he hangs up the phone or turns away.
Is there any room for Don anymore? When Megan isn't dealing with the demands of her cold-as-ice husband, she's building a life of her own; her house party later in the episode, which Don attends, teems with characters we've never seen before — including a long-haired guy in a jean jacket whose dance with Megan is uncomfortably intimate.
Of course, that's exactly what Megan is going for. Throughout the dance, Megan's eyes keep flickering to Don to see if he's watching — but her bid for a response from him, in either jealousy or lust, doesn't pay off the way she expected. The last time we saw Megan perform a seductive dance at a party, Don was the subject, and he never took his eyes off her; here, she's dancing with another man, and Don can't wait to escape to the quiet of a local bar with Harry Crane.
When her old technique fails to snare Don's attention, Megan turns up the heat even higher by drawing her husband into a threesome with her friend Amy. The last time swingers propositioned Don and Megan for a sexual escapade, they turned it down flat, but things have clearly changed in the Draper marriage.
However, the spell is already over by morning. Don's on his way back to New York — but not before taking a phone call and telling Stephanie Horton that he'll take care of everything she needs, while ignoring the obvious, immediate needs of his own wife. There are just two episodes of Mad Men left this year, but I can't conceive of a way this story ends with Don and Megan's marriage intact.
And despite the eventfulness of Don's trip to Los Angeles, the threesome somehow isn't the most unexpected thing that happens in "The Runaways." It has always felt like Mad Men introduced Michael Ginsberg without knowing exactly what it was going to do with him. Since his introduction in season five's "Tea Leaves," we've seen Ginsberg butt heads with Don over creative control, tell a blind date he's a virgin, and reveal the tragic backstory of his birth in a concentration camp. He's enough of a wild card that his mental breakdown in "The Runaways" is a plausible development (albeit one that feels totally out of left field).
It starts with the new computer, which he believes might be turning him (and the rest of the men in the office) gay. Fearing its effects, he goes to Peggy's apartment, where he eventually attempts to kiss her. It's all pretty weird, but "The Runaways" uses our scattershot knowledge of Ginsberg against us: he's such an eccentric that who's to say if all this strange behavior isn't creativity instead of a genuine mental illness?
Of course, all questions of subjectivity come crashing down when he greets Peggy in the office the following morning. After confessing that he has feelings for her, he presents her with a wrapped gift: his own severed nipple, which he calls "the valve" that has been troubling him. It's not long before Ginsberg is strapped to a rolling bed and wheeled out of the office for the medical evaluation he suddenly, clearly needs. I doubt we'll see Ginsberg walking the walls of Sterling Cooper & Partners again; Don was almost pushed out of the business for his Hershey's confessional, and self-inflicted nipple-severing ranks several degrees higher on the list of inappropriate office behavior.
But despite Ginsberg's disturbed mental state, I suspect we're supposed to take something away from his final words as he's being wheeled away: "Get out while you can!" Mad Men has always been a series about escape, but season seven has seen our heroes sticking around longer than it seems like they should have. "Get out while you can!" is advice that both Don and Megan could probably use about their marriage — and professionally, it's an opportunity that Don turned down at a pivotal moment this season.
Instead, Don doubles down on Sterling Cooper & Partners by pulling a move that feels like vintage Don Draper. When he learns that Cutler and Lou Avery are plotting to oust him by landing a cigarette account — which, given his public attack on the cigarette industry, would require him to leave the firm to avoid a conflict of interest — he plays right into their hands. "The man who wrote that letter was trying to save his business, not destroy yours," he explains to the prospective clients, before offering his expertise as someone with knowledge of the enemy. It's a soul-selling turn for a man who's desperately trying to rebuild himself, but we'll see what he gained in the trade. "You think this is going to save you, don't you?" says Cutler, ominously, as the episode ends.
Read more Mad Men recaps:
- Mad Men recap: 'The Monolith'
- Mad Men recap: 'Field Trip'
- Mad Men recap: 'A Day's Work'
- Mad Men premiere recap: 'Time Zones'