A review of last night's "Mad Men" coming up just as soon as I'm Vasco da Gama and you're some other Mexican...

"You have no idea what's going on out here. This is not the same business anymore." -Pete

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of Joan stealing Avon out from under Pete,
it was the age of Roger getting sucker punched by Danny Siegel,
it was the epoch of the Chevy Vega,
it was the epoch of Manischewitz and Carnation Instant Breakfast,
it was the season of Sterling, Cooper & Partners,
it was the season of Jim Cutler splitting the agency into many pieces,
it was the spring of Don and Megan being flirty again,
it was the winter of Don smoking hashish and falling into a pool,

the agency had everything before it, the agency had nothing before it, Don was going direct to Heaven, unless his reading of "The Divine Comedy" suggested he was going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of the noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

"A Tale of Two Cities" takes its title from the Dickens novel, and though you can apply it literally — the action is split between Don and Roger's misadventures in LA and the various office shenanigans back in New York — and also apply its famous opening passage to the very different perspectives on the state of the agency (and the country), it also seems appropriate because it's a book about a revolution, in an episode full of them.

The hour opens with live TV coverage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, an event that became infamous for the clashes between the anti-war protestors and the Chicago PD, which Joan, Don and Megan all watch in horror later in the episode. This would be a revolution that failed: the Democratic establishment wasn't moved by the protestors, the election would go to Nixon, and the war would continue into his second term in office.

There are a number of smaller revolts going on throughout the episode, and it's unclear who will wind up taking a metaphorical nightstick to the head and who will emerge victorious. But it's a period of major tumult on both a national and local scale, with many major characters completely out of their element: Don and Roger among the SoCal hippies, Joan trying to become an accounts man with Avon, Jim Cutler trying to deal with SCDP personnel and accounts, Bob Benson falling into a position of responsibility (and then continuing to fall upward when Cutler needs someone to keep quiet about what really happened with Manischewitz), and Pete in an agency that seems to be in a constant state of chaos and transformation, until the only rationale response he can think of is to bogart Stan's joint and get high in the creative lounge.

Though I often enjoy Don Draper travel episodes(*), the more compelling action this week was back on the show's home turf. Neither Don nor Roger are the most engaged of partners (Don actually walked into a partners meeting with no idea that it was taking place), but they still present a balance to the CGC guys, as well as people for the original SCDP people to respect and/or fear. If Don and Roger are in the office, Peggy brings Joan to see Don, and perhaps Joan's subterfuge isn't necessary at all. If they're back home, Cutler doesn't get yelled at by Ginsberg or stuck babysitting an account that Roger didn't even bother to tell him was circling the drain — and, therefore, doesn't wind up in a mood to start plotting against the SCDP half of the merged agency.

(*) Recall that in one of those, season 2's "The Jet Set," he also passed out at a California home with a pool. That time, he hit his head on the concrete patio, and his hosts suggested that next time, he lean towards the pool. Don Draper may not learn a lot in his life, but at least he succeeded at that, even if accidentally. (And he traded a bump on the head for a cold.) 

That power vacuum gave us fascinating glimpses into characters and relationships we know well, including a dynamite Peggy/Joan scene where the two women argued more forcefully than ever about their shared history and opposing career philosophies. (And as a Peggy/Joan friend-shipper, I was relieved that even after Peggy played the "I never slept with him" card to Joan — which could have triggered another ice age between them — she was still willing to come to Joan's rescue in the meeting with Pete and Ted.) Joan is right when she says she's always been an accounts person to a degree in both agencies, and we've seen plenty of past evidence that she could do the job of any man or woman in that place better than them if given a little time. But she still has a learning curve, and there was a whole lot of awkward as she attempted to run a client meeting with an incredulous Peggy, not even recognizing at first when not to interrupt the agency's copy chief. Like Pete and so many other people at the agency, Joan is on uncertain ground — she's invaluable to the running of the agency, but the specific act that made her a partner ceased to be relevant when Jaguar fired Don — and it's easy to understand why she might be eager to expand her territory, and to not let herself be brushed aside by Ted and Pete the way she was during her brief tenure in the Sterling Cooper television department. (And note that Joan is nothing but complimentary of Harry's work when she talks to Avon Andy; she may hold grudges, but she also knows how to talk to people and sell things.)

Don and Roger's absence also gives us our best look yet at Jim Cutler, who continues to have many Roger Sterling qualities (a dry wit, a military background) but is also coming into shape as his own man. I don't know that Roger would have felt as compelled to foment rebellion inside the agency (he usually has to be pushed into it by Don or others), where Jim seemed eager to take advantage of having the place to himself. And though I'm sure Ted views the new agency name as a healing gesture, Jim no doubt thinks of it as a consolation prize: Roger and the irrelevant Bert get their names on the door, while Jim and Ted (who now has an in with the key man at Chevy) try to be the real power players.

Out in California, meanwhile, Don and Roger are both smack in the middle of several cultural revolutions at once. (As Harry warns them, "there's a different protocol" on this side of the country.) Not only are the hippies more ascendant — and Don and Roger more obvious fossils than they seem back home — but there's also the rise of California as a cultural and business power. As Matt Weiner told me after season 2, "part of the point of the '60s is the focus is going to change from New York, and by 1972, New York is going to be a disaster. At this point, it's on its way down and California is on its way up." On the plane to LA, Roger talks about the California people like they're country bumpkins, then isn't prepared for how forceful and unyielding the Carnation executives are. On the plane home — after a night where he got punched by little Danny Siegel, whom Roger has always viewed as beneath him in every meaning of the word — he tries to make himself feel better by insisting that all he learned is that New York is still the center of the universe. Moments earlier, he tells Don to stop talking about the past, but Roger is living in it, in denial about how much the present is changing around him.

In that Carnation meeting, Roger is able to briefly retake the upper hand with his "we're sorry your last girlfriend hurt you" joke, but that meeting (like the others on the trip that we don't see) is ultimately a bust. Similarly, Bob Benson is able to get Ginsberg out of his self-loathing funk and to the meeting with Manischewitz, but it ultimately doesn't matter because their executives have already decided to rebel against the relationship with the agency. After Peggy rescues Joan from Ted's wrath with the fake phone call from Andy, she warns her, "You better hope he really calls." If he doesn't, then this will be just one more failed revolution, and Joan will be subject to even more barbs from Harry, Pete and others about how she slept her way into her position.

It is, unsurprisingly, a mess. Pete has always been one of the more forward-thinking characters on the show (the last time Nixon ran for president, Pete was the first one at Sterling Cooper to realize he wasn't going to win), but now things are moving so quickly and so randomly — note his dismay when Ted abruptly declares that Pete is now head of new business — that he feels like he's losing all control of this thing he believed in deeply, just as Stan and Ginsberg are horrified to realize the Democrats have rejected the peace plan, just as Megan can't believe what horrors her adopted country is capable of.

Faced with all this unwanted chaos, violence and rebellion, can you blame Pete Campbell for wanting to sit on a sofa in the creative lounge and toke up?  It's not a far, far better thing he does than he's ever done, but maybe the pot will give him a far, far better rest to go to than he's ever known.

Some other thoughts:

* Speaking of the "far better rest" of Dickens, Don continues to have death on his mind, as his hashish fantasy features both a dead (and one-armed) apparition of PFC Dinkins (still with the lighter), as well as Don himself floating in the pool. Though the fantasy was one of the episode's less-engaging sequences overall — again, there is a very thin line between evoking the '60s and evoking every pop culture cliche about the '60s, and much of that party felt just on the wrong side of that — I really did like the abrupt cut from Don watching himself in the pool to a soaking wet Roger bringing Don back to consciousness.

* The Air Force didn't actually come into existence as the entity it is today until 1947, though of course there was the United States Army Air Forces during World War II, and also the Army Air Corp. Even if we're treating Cutler and Roger as contemporaries (Harry Hamlin is a decade older than John Slattery, but well-preserved), does it make chronological sense for him to have served after WWII? And if he was part of one of the precursor organizations, would he refer to having served in "the Air Force"?

* Roger has been present to varying degrees in the previous episodes directed by John Slattery, but this felt by far the most prominent Roger has been while his alter ego has been behind the camera. A strong job, as usual, from Slattery, who always shows a particularly deft touch with the comic moments (and somehow frequently winds up with episodes where Peggy is spying on other people in the office).

* Matt Weiner, perhaps anticipating fan reactions to Bob Benson, has Jim Cutler calling him out for always being downstairs with the creatives, and Ginsberg (who is sometimes extremely perceptive, and sometimes oblivious) ask if he's gay.

* The record Bob is listening to to pump himself up for the meeting: an audiobook version of "How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling," by self-help author Frank Bettger.

* Let me once again point out that Danny Strong, who reprises his role as Danny Siegel, is the only actor to appear on "Mad Men" who has won an Emmy since the show has been on the air — albeit for his writing of HBO's "Game Change," and not for his acting here or elsewhere.

* Through Roger, Henry and others over the years, we've gotten a sense of the shifting mood of the Republican Party over this decade, and the head of Carnation offers another when he says, "Dutch Reagan is a patriot. Nixon is an opportunist."

* In addition to Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart" playing over the closing credits, a notable piece of music was Jeannie C. Riley's "Harper Valley PTA" — about a more modest revolution, where a suburban mom publicly calls out all the local hypocrites who claim she's setting a bad example for her daughter — heard early in the party sequence.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com