As if a reward for making it through the emotional gauntlet of the last few episodes, “Mad Men” gave us a lower-key, lower-stakes episode filled with jokes and the sunny skies of California. All is not well in Manhattan, though, or Chicago for that matter. The 1968 riots rage while the future of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Cutler Gleason and Chaough (SCDPCGCWTFBBQ)[ref]”It sounds like a stutter,” Don quips.[/ref] remains in flux due to forces both inside and out.

Sterling Cooper, Etc. struggle to find an identity and a name. The larger conversation centers around the soul of the advertising business itself. Creator Matthew Weiner often focuses on the business side of things later in the season (think of Jaguar in Season 5), and the agency is the hub of most of this week’s drama. Don, Roger, and Harry fly to Los Angeles to try to court Carnation and Sunkist while Ted flies to Detroit to lock Chevy into a design decision (the former largely fail while the latter succeeds). Back in New York, Ted’s partner Jim Cutler threatens to weed out the rot in the agency, mainly SCDP folks. The background to all the business politics are the real politics taking place in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention, where riots are breaking out and televised nationally.

The agency, settling on the name Sterling Cooper and Partners,[ref]We’ve come full circle now as the original name of the firm in Season 1 was simply Sterling Cooper.[/ref] struggles to balance the old-school world, represented by Jim, and the new world, represented by Ginsberg. After Jim shows indifference to the riots, Ginsberg goes apoplectic accusing him of being a fascist, a Nazi, and, basically, an uncaring old dude. Jim fires right back reminding Ginsberg that he takes checks from GM and Dow Chemical and doesn’t seem to have any qualms about that. Over and over again the culture-clash of the younger generation butting up against the old has come into play on Mad Men,” but now it feels like the agency will have to choose a side. Megan and Don watch the riots on television from opposite coasts (an example of the world shrinking) and listen as the protesters chant, “the whole world is watching.” America did choose that night and they chose Hubert Humphrey, eventually leading to the election of Richard Nixon that fall. No longer can politics and the outside world be swept under the rug as it once was. Everyone chooses a side.[ref]This echoes the strong themes of duality from last week.[/ref] “A Tale of Two Cities,” the Charles Dickens book the episode is named after, tells the story of the French Revolution and a country at war with itself. 1968 simmers violently as Sterling Cooper pumps out ads for kosher wine.

Joan and Peggy, meanwhile, have a war of their own. In the same way that Jim levels the charge of hypocrisy at Ginsberg, both Joan and Peggy see shades of false pretense in each other’s actions. While both are successful, they still live under a heavily patriarchal society and are made to view each other with suspicion. Joan stumbles into potential new business,[ref]My favorite line in an episode full of good ones: “I thought it was a date, but it was better.”[/ref] confides in Peggy, and watches Peggy miscalculate how Ted would handle the whole thing. Ted, despite his “groovy” vernacular, falls in line with the old way of business and assigns Pete to take over and reel in the client, despite the fact that Joan did all the work. So, in a Campbell-esque move, Joan “forgets” to invite Pete and holds the meeting with just her and Peggy. And here, Joan miscalculates[ref]Vacillating between bold charisma and helpless naiveté, Christina Hendricks’s performance this episode was sensational.[/ref] by thinking Peggy will appreciate her act of insubordination. Peggy accuses Joan of getting ahead by sleeping with someone (which, in some ways, she did), and Joan reminds Peggy that she certainly stepped on toes to get to where she is. Joan feels disrespected. Peggy feels threatened. It seems they can no longer simply work together as they once did, hiding their resentment of each other. This season has been about dragging what we normally keep hidden out into the open. Peggy eventually sides with Joan in a moment that made me cheer. “It was the best of the times, it was the worst of times,” Dickens famously wrote as the opening line “A Tale of Two Cities.” Peggy and Joan have never been more successful in their careers, and yet, they have never been more alone. Peggy just got dumped by Abe, whom she was living with, and Joan is more excited for new clients than new dates, yet another sign of a changing world.

Meanwhile, Don and Roger, with Harry in full Austin Powers regalia, descend upon Los Angeles, the second city this tale is about. I was struck immediately with how important it was in the context of the show that New York and L.A. be completely separate places. The world was much more disconnected in the late ’60s and “Mad Men” has always used that to its narrative advantage. California was a respite for Don, the home of the one person that really knew him, Anna.[ref]See Season 4.[/ref] I’ve always come to think of California as Don’s personal heaven, a place he dreams of when he closes his eyes after a long day, a therapeutic paradise that lives in his head. To see that place dragged into reality was troubling. He even tosses off the line, “I used to feel better out there,” almost under his breath, and it was so heartbreaking.

Don smokes hash at a mansion party in the Hills (Hollywood, not Beverly, as hipper-than-thou Harry points out)[ref]I might be wrong, but is this the same set used in that one “Party Down” episode? It is, right?[/ref] and, after falling into the pool,[ref]Super interesting that Megan, earlier in the episode, told Don to “go for a swim, since it always makes you feel better”[/ref] goes on an out-of-body vision quest. He sees Megan, who forgives him for making out with another chick right in front of her[ref]OK jury, did he make out with a girl for real or was that all vision?[/ref], and informs him that she is pregnant (a portent I think will come true next episode). She leads him by the hand and it’s sweet and it’s odd and it’s a moment that “Mad Men” loves because it is so good at executing. Then, Megan turns into the Private Dinkins from the first episode, but he’s lost an arm and he informs Don that he’s dead (something else from the “dream” that I think is true). And then, in perhaps the most important line of the season, the private tells him that “dying doesn’t make you whole. You should see what you look like.” I mean, holy shit. This season has seen Don struggle with his own mortality (remember how fascinated he was with Dr. Rosen’s job of handling life and death?). His own work had unintentional morbid undertones. He is obsessed with death and what it could do for him. But death doesn’t make you whole. Don, as he looks wistfully out the window, understands that now. He must look to other aspects of his life to repair his broken soul, to make him whole. Don tries on death for size and it doesn’t fit.

This was an odd episode, with a lot of plot progression complete with incredible zingers from Roger. As we gear up to season finale in three weeks, expect some major bombshells.[ref]No, I still don’t know who the fuck Bob Benson is, nor what he’s up to, if anything.[/ref]