It’s easy enough to say that “The Runaways” is the most substantial and refreshingly untamed episode of Mad Men’s seventh season so far, one powered by the strange ramifications of more than one eruption of repressed desires and hidden histories. Early on, Lou Avery’s (Allan Havey) dream of being a cartoonist is revealed and quietly ridiculed when Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson) and the copywriters find a copy of his heroic-monkey comic strip. The realization that he’s become a laughing stock for the copywriters is a worst-case scenario for Lou, and when he lays down a scolding mid-meeting, Havey smartly accentuates the hurt and ruefulness of an artist scorned. He cites Bob Dylan as another dreamer and kindred spirit, but does so in a way that suggests a hurried deflection as much as cultural awareness.
For Don (Jon Hamm), his new boss’s indignation means delaying an unexpected reunion in Laurel Canyon with Stephanie (Caity Lotz), his now-pregnant and destitute “niece,” as Lou punishes his copywriters with a late-night pitch session that conflicts with Don’s flight to the West Coast. Suddenly, Stephanie is in Megan’s (Jessica Paré) charge, and their interaction is plagued by uncertainty. Megan tries to play the accommodating wife, but she’s both clearly anxious over Stephanie’s vague relationship to Don and oddly protective of her, trying to distance another young woman from his influence. Their awkward afternoon together isn’t so much about Megan digging for Don’s secrets, but rather preemptively burying them out of sheer emotional exhaustion, and she indulges at least one male fantasy to try to get her husband looking ahead for once.
To be fair, it does seem to refocus him, though his confidence is fortified by the revelation that SC&P has entered into preliminary talks to represent Phillip Morris, who Don took precise care to trash in a full-page spread in perhaps the most famous American news source ever. His meeting with the Phillip Morris representatives is all business, with a familiarly electric and surprising Draper pitch, but more fascinating is where Don gains the news of SC&P’s newest potential client, namely from Harry Crane (Rich Sommer). Sommer evokes the timidity and unconvincing slyness in Crane, and when he opens up to Don, he sounds like he’s making sure he’s still in good standing with some masculine society, of which Don is the unquestioned leader. Their discussion over drinks at a local L.A. bar radiates with shared history, of a remarkably steady yet unmistakably distant friendship built primarily on keeping secrets.
Bettie’s (January Jones) marriage to Henry (Christopher Stanly) could be seen in similar terms, and they’re quick to get at each other’s throats when Bettie ousts her husband as a die-hard Vietnam supporter. They fight, and later on, she goes ballistic on Sally (Kiernan Shipka) over a broken nose, the result of golf-club fencing, but Bettie is also energized by her daughter’s defiance. Her inability to control her daughter is no different from her inability to keep herself in the role of Henry’s ever-agreeing wife. The fights have their own ramifications though, as witnessed by Bobby’s (Mason Vale Cotton) nighttime confession to Sally, in which young Bobby admits to having what sounds like the first stages of a stress ulcer. It’s to the writers’ credit that it’s already clear that Bobby, unlike his sister, will bottle up his emotions and let them eat away at him at their own pace, like his father.
The same, of course, cannot be said about Ginsberg (Ben Feldman), whose open instability hits a rumbling boil early on in the episode and ends with an eerie and violent bit of psychotic self-mutilation. Ginsberg blames the hum of the IBM processor for his madness and the “odd” behaviors of his colleagues. It’s a rupture of his fear of obsolescence, and the writers rightly go flamboyant rather than overtly menacing, which makes Ginsberg’s final, whaling warning to Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) all the more unnerving. The intimation of the computer, of a machine that’s constantly at work and audibly so, pushes Ginsberg way beyond the breaking point, but he retains some delirious notion of honor. Like Lou’s cartoon monkey, Ginsberg is both honorable and preposterous, but as he’s carted away, begging his co-workers to get out while they still can, his paranoia effectively sticks with us, a reminder that even within an outrageous fiction, a dark truth is often hiding in plain sight.