Go-go boots, wife-swapping, psychedelic discothèques, casual marijuana, sideburns down to the jawline, Joe Namath in a straw hat, two Black characters talking to each other on TV. Now that’s the Sixties that I remember! “Mad Men” has plunged feet first into some of the most unattractive aspects of this most divisive of decades.
Season Six has so far offered an overt theme of the week. The first episode hit us over the head with death, the second focused on deception and this week’s theme was betrayal. The very first scene occurs in Pete’s love nest and the initial implication is that he’s about to betray his marriage vows again. Instead, he and Don are meeting in secret with Timmy, the super-sleazy Heinz Ketchup brand manager, plotting to betray their existing client, Heinz baked beans, who has forbidden SCD&P from working on another Heinz brand.
The setting is pregnant with meaning. Much of the inspiration for the early seasons of “Mad Men” came from the Billy Wilder movie “The Apartment,” (see trailer below) in which a young executive (Jack Lemon) lends his apartment to more senior married executives for daytime assignations. To make the connection explicit, Pete offers to let Don borrow it during the day (although Don, unlike the predatory Fred McMurray in the movie, stiffly rejects the offer, pointing out that he already has his own place in the city.)
Don’s not about to get into Pete’s debt and be subject again to blackmail, but that doesn’t mean he’s above his own betrayal. He is, after all, carrying on with his friend’s wife while simultaneously giving his own wife grief for playing a love scene in a soap opera.
Meanwhile Peggy has betrayed the trust of her friend Stan, who told her in a late-night schmooze-fest that the Heinz Ketchup account is up for grabs. Don and Stan are shocked when they leave their secret pitch meeting only to find Peggy and Ted Chaough ready to make their own pitch. Stan knows that Peggy has broken his trust by passing along confidential information for a shot at a huge account and rewards her with one of the funnier bird-flippings. (Please note that these pitches take place in a hotel room, the classic place for adulterous activities.)
Then there’s the case of Kate, Joan’s friend from the sticks, a Mary Kaye saleslady who is in town to betray her husband (by finding a one-night stand in a malt shop) and her employer (by meeting with Mary Kaye’s competitor Avon.)
And in the end, all the betrayals come to naught. Neither Don nor Peggy win the Ketchup account, which goes to the larger agency J. Walter Thompson. Worse, SCD&P lose the Heinz Beans account, which, while not a major client, does dent Don’s self-image as a loyal business partner. Nor does it appear that Kate achieved anything worthy by her night on the town. We don’t know exactly what happened but we do see her and Joan waking up in Joan’s bed, fully clothed and hung over (and Joan’s dress is badly torn, signifying a rather active night.)
You do get a sense from this episode that there’s something rotten about the Sixties themselves. The wife-swapping proposal that Megan’s boss and his wife make to Don and Megan is the kind of sordid offer that could be made in respectable company only in the late Sixties and early Seventies. And the casual encounters that Kate and Joan participate in with total strangers at The Electric Circus aren’t much better. (For more on The Electric Circus see: http://bit.ly/Zf5sjv). It’s probably unfair to blame the Sixties for all the bad behavior on this show; after all, Don was cheating in the very first episode of the series, way back in 1960, but there’s also a big difference from doing something immoral while acknowledging that it’s immoral, and doing something immoral while pretending it’s OK. And the Sixties were all about rejecting traditional morality. Don’s line “I can tolerate this but can’t endorse it,” applies not just to Megan’s love scenes, but to the entire decade.
Interestingly, it’s Dawn, the Black secretary and the ultimate outsider, who sees most clearly that there’s something wrong about SCD&P and the society it represents. “Everybody’s scared there,” she says. “Women crying in the ladies’ room. Men crying in the elevator. Sounds like New Year’s Eve when they empty the garbage, there’s so many bottles.” As a Black women, she still has the most at stake in a society where there are clear rules to follow, and she’s the only person on the show with traditional values (so traditional that she bemoans the “harlots” in her own church.)
Dawn figures into the only sign of hopefulness in this episode. The scene where Joan essentially forgives her for helping Scarlet cheat on her timecard was the most heartwarming encounter so far this season. Joan not only doesn’t fire her, she also gives her more responsibility. Joan has worked so hard at manipulating the system with her looks and sexuality that she’s never had sympathy for or shown solidarity with any of the other women in the office; indeed, she’s quick to fire anyone who steps out of line. But after realizing that becoming a partner hasn’t provided her with any more power or respect, she finally decides to give someone a break. Joan sees in Dawn another vulnerable women who endures even more humiliation than she does and discovers empathy.
Maybe she’s beginning to understand that she hasn’t always made the best choices. Having sex with a potential client in exchange for the partnership did not raise her credibility. Harry Crane’s complaint that his accomplishments aren’t recognized because they were achieved in the broad daylight is cruel but accurate. And in a showdown between the two of them, Harry is likely to win, because you can always find another office manager but Harry knows more about television than anyone in the firm.
Any discussion about betrayal on “Mad Men” must by necessity circle back to Don. He blows a gasket when he sees Megan playing a love scene in her soap opera. Maybe he fears she’s been acting in her own marriage. He is almost certainly made uncomfortable seeing her dressed as a maid knowing that his trysts with Sylvia have occurred in her maid’s room. Most likely, he has a visceral reaction to the scene because it reminds him of last week’s flashback in which a young Dick Whitman peeked through the keyhole to see his stepmother being mounted by Uncle Mac.
Regardless, Sylvia seems to have his number. When he asks what she prays for she says “I pray for you … to find peace.”
A few other observations:
- The title of this episode is “To Have and to Hold,” which not only refers to the traditional wedding vow but is also the name of Megan’s soap opera. It seems cynical to name a soap opera, in which cheating is the primary activity, after a sacred vow, but in the Sixties millions of people decided those vows weren’t so sacred. In any event, the words also apply to client relationships too, as Don was unable to have and to hold the Heinz beans account.
- The timing of the episode seems to be in early 1968. Burt Cooper makes a reference to LBJ and Nixon both seeming to think they are running against Kennedy, and if LBJ is still in the race it means it is before the March 12 New Hampshire primary.
- You heard it here first. I’m betting that SCD&P will merge with Cutler Gleason and Chaough. Ted Chaough moaned about how the little firms get overlooked by big clients like Heinz and it wouldn’t surprise me if they join forces, which would create more opportunities for interoffice conflict and bring Peggy back into Don’s orbit.
- I’ve complained previously about the show’s inattention to race issues, but the scenes with Dawn and her friend make me wonder if they should skip the whole subject. You get the feeling that “Mad Men” doesn’t have any Black writers and are tip-toeing respectfully around the whole issue. These scenes felt like something out of “Julia,” the first sitcom with a Black star (see below).
- What’s gotten into Harry Crane? Last year he was usually offered up as comic relief (as in the episode where he and Don went backstage at a Rolling Stones concert.) This year he’s feeling his oats. Dissing Joan, demanding to be a partner, barely sniffing at a bonus more than his salary and coming up with ideas like “Broadway Joe on Broadway.” He’s crazy, though, to want to be partner. As we’ve seen with Joan, a partnership doesn’t bring respect. Bert Cooper says to him disdainfully, “I was different from you in every way,” and getting to attend the partners meetings will not change those attitudes. Just take the money.
- Speaking of Harry Crane, he does have a point about Joan’s high-handed way with secretaries. As someone who once worked in an office, I would be PISSED if someone fired my assistant without consulting me. By now Joan should have learned her lesson, anyway; several years ago she peremptorily fired Jane for leading a group of guys into Bert’s office and when Roger took pity on her, he ended up marrying her!
- Speaking of Harry Crane again, the one historical bone I do have to pick with “Mad Men” is the way the show undervalues television. When Don and Peggy make their respective pitches to Heinz Ketchup, they use storyboards that represent magazine ads. Shouldn’t they be pitching TV ads? 1968 wasn’t the Dark Ages, even then TV was the major ad medium. By the way, I like Don and Peggy’s slogans better than the one that was actually used in 1968: “The Slowest Ketchup in the West.”
- There are several characters on the show – Don, Joan, and Henry Francis – who have not changed their appearance in six years. Even Pete Campbell, who’s as establishment as they come, has sideburns. Does the unwillingness of these characters to adapt sartorially indicate that they are doomed dinosaurs? Maybe, but maybe they are smart enough to realize they will look ridiculous in 15 years. Ronald Reagan never changed his appearance and although he looked a bit out-of-it in the Sixties and Seventies, he was back in style in the Eighties.
- I see that Bert finally has an office again, probably because the firm gained more space when it expanded to the second floor. I wouldn’t mind watching a show based solely on Bert and Roger sitting in that office in their stocking feet passing wisecracks back and forth.
“Don’t thank me. You don’t understand this is a punishment.”