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

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, May 12, 2014 9:45 EDT

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?

Will Monica Lewinsky matter?

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, May 8, 2014 12:33 EDT

Digby has a post castigating people who think that the return of Monica Lewinsky isn’t going to matter, and I find her reasoning quite persuasive. The Lewinsky scandal was seen at the time through the lens of the unprecedented partisan attacks of the previous five years and the total abdication of all sanity by the press. And frankly, the country just wasn’t as evolved on these issues at the time. Now this is a major…


Is Shape magazine misleading readers about what dramatic weight loss looks like?

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, May 7, 2014 16:08 EDT

Losing a bunch of weight does not necessarily make your stomach flat.  Brooke Birmingham’s website Brooke: Not On A Diet is crashing, and it’s no wonder. She must be getting slammed by traffic after this amazing expose she published on her website regarding her refusal to work with Shape magazine…


Atheists need to put the Christian right on the spot, ask them if they really think we’re less American

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, May 6, 2014 11:27 EDT

One of the reasons it’s important for atheists to organize and make themselves more visible is that it’s probably one of the best weapons against bullshit like the Supreme Court coughed up yesterday, allowing explicitly Christian prayer to open legislative sessions. Ian Millhiser explains why it’s so dangerous: Town of…


The Orange Couch does Mad Men: S7E4, “The Monolith”

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, May 5, 2014 10:28 EDT

It’s easy to make knowing jokes about how much of a tribute to Stanley Kubrick this episode was, but I’ve never been one to think that the ease of catching a reference somehow diminishes its emotional impact. On the contrary, it was nice to reminded that Kubrick was really on…


South Dakota Republican Thinks About Gay Men Having Anal Sex A Whole Lot

By Amanda Marcotte
Friday, May 2, 2014 14:59 EDT

Most homophobes have been really getting smarter lately about cleaning up their language, trying to make it seem like they have more going on than just a knee-jerk disgust at difference that leads them to be hateful and cruel. But thankfully not all! South Dakota state representative Steve Hickey is proud…


The “Apolitical” Science Segments On Fox News Are All Too Political

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, May 1, 2014 12:41 EDT

Have you guys been following this little tiff between the editor of Scientific American and Fox News? Few stories really encapsulate the growing politicization of science and how the right is, as with racism and sexism, involved in a project of denying that they’re anti-science while also promoting an anti-science…


Sorry, Clippers, I Don’t Pity Donald Sterling’s Wife

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, April 30, 2014 11:45 EDT

While I’m definitely glad to see Donald Sterling pay for his viciously racist views, I have to agree with many commentators that it’s yet another example of the troubling trend of how what people say tends to get elevated over what they do when it comes to racist or sexist…


“But Why Are Colleges Involved In Penalizing Sexual Assault” Answered By President’s Task Force

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, April 29, 2014 11:03 EDT

The White House rolled out their promised task force on sexual violence on campus late yesterday and, having read over the materials, I have to congratulate the administration on a job well done. The main portal for information is a website called Not Alone, and it has resources for everyone…


The Orange Couch Does Mad Men: S7E3, “Field Trip”

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, April 28, 2014 13:52 EDT

New Orange Couch! Marc and I often cover multiple themes and ideas in an episode, but this episode so strongly focused on the theme of “mattering” that we did one of our “single theme” episodes. Nice to see the use of allusions creeping back onto the show. One of Mad…