Last night's episode of Mad Men, the tenth of Season Six, was called "A Tale of Two Cities." The Dickens classic of that same title is of course about Paris before and during the French Revolution. Matthew Weiner's interpretation is most obviously meant to depict the agency pre- and post-merger, but there are other "cities" in a state of flux, too: Vietnam War protests and riots separate the old guard from the new both on the street and in the conference rooms; women and men struggle for positions of power; Los Angeles and New York and hippies and conservatives clash; and there is plenty of war imagery, complete with revolts, uprisings, and coups. Not only are times changing, they have changed, and they will change further still.
The episode begins with Don watching the 1968 Democratic National Convention on TV. Megan comes in. "We're supposed to be debating war," she says. "They can't have the whole convention without talking about the war." Don makes a joke about how war-talk doesn't play in "prime time," and Megan kisses him and tells him to stay away from actresses on his upcoming trip to L.A. "I hate actresses," he says, and she laughs. Don has long been depicted a something of a square — remember the episode that took him backstage to a Rolling Stones concert? — but his suit-wearing agency-man from the past is now more of a throwback than ever. He is Paris before the Revolution, so to speak. He doesn't understand why anyone would be upset about the old way.
At the agency, a meeting turns to talk of what their new name should be. Currently, "all seven letters are supposed to be used," making for the mouthful "SCDP CGC," which no one is using at all. It's an existential dilemma too great to be figured out in one meeting, though Cutler warns that "further delay will leave it up to the world" — just like with the DNC avoiding Vietnam discussion. Roger and Don head to L.A. for a meeting with Carnation, and Cutler and Ted remain behind. On the way to California, Roger tells Don, "We're conquistadors; our biggest challenge is to not get syphilis.”
At the agency, Stan and Ginsberg bemoan the rejection of the peace plank at the DNC. Cutler doesn't get it. "My politics are private," he says, which sets Ginsberg off about Cutler's "fascist boot on his neck." Ginsberg does have a conscience, possibly to a fault, and Cutler's calling him a hypocrite stings. Afterward Cutler tells Ted that while Don and Roger are gone they should remove the rest of their people. Ted instead instructs him to take Ginsberg to Manischewitz. Cutler, who doesn't want to be the firm's most expensive "babysitter," gets Benson to do it instead.
Joan's on what she thinks is a date but realizes may be a business meeting, and a very important one at that. Her setup is with the new head of Avon marketing. "I'm in charge of thinking of things before people know they need them," she tells him when he asks what her job is, and when the check comes, inspired, she gets it."“Please, this is what I get paid to do," she says. Gleeful about this new opportunity to achieve on talent and skill as opposed to for her looks, Joan asks for Peggy's advice, but Peggy tells her to take it to Ted: "You'll be the account man if that's what you want. He loves new business, he doesn't care where it comes from." Ted, though, quickly directs the business to Pete, and Joan is suddenly ripped of her prize.
In California, everything is very California, which means Roger and Don are fish out of water, being driven around in a car without a top by Harry, who's the man with the Hollywood connections. "Save your strength for tomorrow," he tells them, for a party in the Hills. When they complain it's hot, he tells them "it's a dry heat."
In his hotel room, Don watches scenes of riots in Chicago, where anti-war protesters are being attacked by cops. Joan, at home in New York, watches too as she folds laundry, and is horrified. Megan calls Don and asks, "Are you watching this?" but Don first sides with the cops and then makes a joke. Megan is not amused by how out of touch he is, and how distanced from what's really important. "You can't even vote," he tells her. "But I live here," she says, on the verge of tears.
A coup! Joan shows up to the restaurant where Peggy's waiting for Andy Hayes, the Avon head of marketing. "Pete couldn't make it," she says, and Peggy, to her credit, goes along with it. It's no surprise that Joan is excellent at account work, and the twosome effectively reel in the client. But when they get back to the agency, Peggy tells Joan she's thrown away the business by going over Pete and Ted. She's broken the rules, and Peggy feels she's worked within the rules. "I worked my way up," she says. "I never slept with [Don].” (Though she would, presumably, sleep with Ted.) Joan says fine — Peggy doesn't get it, either. Joan's revolt isn't about hurting anyone else, it's about taking what's rightfully hers, finally. It's about changing the rules.
Elsewhere at the agency, Benson is trying to get Ginsberg to pull himself together so they can meet with Manischewitz. "Be the man I admire!" encourages Benson. "Tell me the truth, are you a homo?" asks Ginsberg. "There's that sense of humor," says Benson.
In California there is extreme culture clash, evidenced most immediately when things turn to politics in the Carnation boardroom. "Last night was disgusting, seeing these long-haired fools ruin this country," says the client. It's not just about politics, though, say the clients, who've worked with New York firms previously and have found them to have a certain "attitude." "We're sorry your last girlfriend hurt you," says Roger, evoking a faint smile from the client. "We're in your office right now."
Later that night Harry, Don, and Roger head to the party in the hills. Again there is culture clash, with extreme generational divides. Roger runs into his ex-wife Jane's cousin Danny, a onetime copywriter at the SCDP who's now making movies and accompanied by a girl named Lotus. They play a game of one-upmanship, with Danny trying to impress with his new contacts and position, Roger mocking Danny's short stature and past failures, and each of them trying to win over the girl. No good can come of this, and it doesn't. The evening ends with Danny punching Roger in the groin.
Don eventually makes his way into a room where everyone's smoking hashish and he joins in, leading to a hallucinogenic part-real part-imagined state in which he makes out with the party's hostess, sees Megan (who intimates that she's pregnant), and runs into Pfc. Dinkins, the Army man whose wedding he officiated on the beach back in Hawaii earlier in the season. Dinkins is missing an arm and tells Don that though he's classified as MIA, "I'm actually dead" — but "dying doesn't make you whole, you should see what you look like." Then there's Don, ever a dying man, staring at himself floating in the pool ("swimming always relaxes you," Megan had said on the phone earlier that day). Fortunately Roger is on hand to give CPR after Don nearly drowns. The party-goers mill around in the background, in their own worlds.
There's good and bad news at the agency. Ted gets a sign-off from Chevy, but Manischewitz isn't happy. Cutler blames Don and Roger for going to California. On the way back from L.A., where Don has managed to catch a cold, Roger gives him some quick therapy: "The job of your life is to know yourself," he says. "I am a curious child with a full head of hair and a thriving business, and you're a terrible swimmer."
Pete has found out about Joan's transgression with Avon, and of course he's freaking out — there is no one so territorial and fearful of what's his being taken away as Pete. "You and Peggy ditched me," he says, and Joan claims there was confusion. "Were you coming here to celebrate what a fool I am?" he asks. "It's better than being screwed by you," says Joan. (And it was just last episode that Joan was saying Pete was the only one who'd never broken a promise to her.) Ted is brought in to find out what happened. He excuses Peggy from the conversation, but she goes into Joan's office and listens in. Pete invokes the old rules, the hierarchy of accounts, with shades of Marie Antoinette — "The entire thing falls apart if I send you to the store to get cake and you eat it on the way home," he says. But there is a second coup, with Peggy faking a call from Hayes for Joan. That convinces Ted that Avon is Joan's account now. "Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” he tells Pete, who is steaming. "You better hope he really calls," Peggy tells Joan.
Upon Don's return, Pete is ready to announce the sky is falling. "Things have become quite dire in your absence," he begins, but quickly the rest of the agency follows with great news: Ted's visit to Detroit was a success. Joan is close with Avon. Sure, Manishewitz is a problem, but they have been for years. There's even a new name, which is the only thing "equally offensive to all." They'll call the firm Sterling Cooper and Partners, or SCP. Don agrees, but Pete stays behind to tell Don his fears. "That name is a consolation prize," he says. "A gravestone to our resistance." "If you don't like it, maybe it's time to get out of the business," answers Don, who would never take a call to arms from Pete, or from anyone but himself. He asks Dawn to get Megan on the phone. At a loss, Pete storms in to the creatives' room, takes Stan's joint, sits down on a couch, and smokes it. This is what he gets paid to do.