The Orange Couch does Mad Men: S7E5, “The Runaways”

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, May 12, 2014 9:45 EDT
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This week’s episode was incredibly dense in its themes and allusions. Including this, which our intrepid publisher Roxanne Cooper dug up and sent me:

Starting at 1:37. Clearly, Stanley Kubrick is the muse of this season. Eagle eyes who catch more allusions to Kubrick always welcome!

In The Orange Couch, Marc and I discuss the way that this episode hit the theme of the “generation gap” harder than we’ve seen before, which I personally find to be a reminder of the restraint in storytelling, since any perusal of Reader’s Digest from the era shows that people Don’s age were obsessed by it.  We also talk about the theme of intrusion—Weiner is still riffing off the anxieties that surfaced after the Manson family murders—and, per the title, the theme of running away. So check it out. There was so much in that episode on these themes that Marc and I felt we could have made the episode twice as long, but we know that would definitely be pushing people’s attention spans.

What I want to talk about here is the portrayal of mental illness in this episode. Last season, I don’t know if I said the word exactly, but I definitely felt it was clear that Michael Ginsburg was supposed to have undiagnosed schizophrenia. His increasing paranoia and that one time he had a minor breakdown about being “death, destroyer of worlds” was pointing in that direction. Since then, I’ve felt it was just a matter of time before he had a psychotic break too big and outrageous for everyone to ignore.

You could argue that the episode sensationalized this disease. (And while I don’t feel comfortable diagnosing real people from afar, with a fictional character, you can put up enough signposts to suggest that this is exactly what we’re supposed to be concluding. Now, from what I understand, a lot of people who were previously understood as schizophrenic would now receive a diagnosis of things like bipolar disorder.) I would disagree. I think the outrageousness of Michael cutting his own nipple off underlines some of the obstacles facing people with serious mental illness and their access to treatment, then and frankly now.

I think of Syd Barrett as an obvious inspiration for the Michael storyline: He just kept acting weirder and weirder, and instead of getting help for him, the fellow members of Pink Floyd straight up abandoned him. Not that we should judge them too harshly for this. We’re been seeing similar behavior at Sterling Cooper, and, I think, the dilemma faced by people around the mentally ill person—especially someone with a psychotic mental illness—is rendered quite sympathetically. How can you tell the difference between highly eccentric and mentally ill? You don’t want to deprive someone of their freedom—and back then, the threat of institutionalization loomed even more in people’s imagination than now—on a hunch. It takes something as in-your-face as someone cutting off his own nipple to call 911.

While the show definitely sits in judgment, quite rightly in most cases, of the casual sexism, racism and homophobia of the era, I was glad that when it comes to mental illness, Weiner was careful not to hold the characters up to modern standards of understanding this disease. It’s easy as a 21st century viewer to say, “I’d call 911 the first time he showed up at my house raving about computer noises vibing in his head.” But we know a lot more about these kinds of symptoms and what they mean now than your average person did then. To make it worse, it would have been utterly normal back then for a non-ill person to talk about a computer throwing off “bad vibes” in a way that is closer to mystical than metaphorical. (Which is how we use the word “vibes” now. Think about that next time you listen to “Good Vibrations”.) There was a lot of experimentation, between interest in Eastern mysticism and the use of psychedelic drugs, in viewing the world as being run by a bunch of unseen, mystical forces. It’s hoo-ha, of course, but we’ve seen a lot of hippies and hippie-influenced characters who totally would have said something like, “This computer is throwing off bad vibrations. I think its negative chi is messing with my brain, man,” and they’re not sick. They’re just living in the 60s. (There was also a lot of questioning, rightfully so, of the use of mental health services to control and punish people for rebellion and non-conformity, but this post is already getting overlong.)

And so, as sensational as it all was, I felt that story was played well. When Michael is rolled away on a stretcher, reaching out for help from his coworkers (help they are in no position to give), if your heart didn’t break for him, I question whether you have one. Like everyone else, I felt Peter Dinklage working for that Emmy in Game of Thrones last night. But I want to note that Elisabeth Moss’s acting from the moment she realizes what has to be done until they take Michael away should be brought into Emmy consideration. Even as she’s making the call to the authorities, she’s shaking with fear and doubt, because it’s just all so horrible. Rarely do you see someone capture the mixed emotions of doing what has to be done, even as it feels like a betrayal of another person, like she did. In an episode that was all about celebrating the anti-authoritarian, youthful spirit of the era, Peggy is a stark reminder that sometimes, someone has to be the grown-up.

Thoughts? Opinions? Other Kubrick movies you want to see referenced?

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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