Mad Men: Reach Out In The Darkness

MadMen607_12-54_Don-and-Sylvia1Well, that didn’t last long.  All the hope and optimism that characterized last week’s excellent episode of “Mad Men” can crashing down in Sunday’s “A Man with a Plan.”

Given the history of the Sixties, it was inevitable that that brief period of good feelings would end, and I spent the entire episode in a state of dread, wondering when the horror of 1968 would again be unleashed.  It came at the very end, with the murder of Bobby Kennedy.  Pete’s addled mother has one moment of clarity when she utters the final line of dialogue in the show: “I don’t understand what’s going on. They are shooting everybody.”  In the last scene, Don and Megan are wordlessly watching televised footage of the assassination, which even today has the power to shock.  And then in one of the saddest juxtapositions of music ever achieved on the show, we hear the lyrics to the relentlessly upbeat song “Reach Out in Darkness” (“I think it’s so groovy now, that people are finally getting together.”

In a decade of sad and depressing events, perhaps nothing was as demoralizing as the murder of RFK. Coming just two months after the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr., and five years after his own brother’s death, this low point seemed to suggest the country had gone into a dark and dangerous spiral.  Ted Chaough told Don that sometimes a pilot flying in the clouds will think he’s right side up when he’s upside down (a very chilling observation, btw, since that’s exactly what happened to John F. Kennedy, Jr., when he crashed his own plane on the way to Hyannis.)  Clouds, darkness – that’s where America was in 1968, not sure how to get out of the Vietnam War, how to stop riots in the streets, or how to stop fighting a culture war.

That’s what makes the end song so sad – all that naïve optimism blowing up in violence.  The release of this song in June 1968, the very week RFK died, was the last time until the 1980s that America would feel good about itself or feel that we were in any way “getting together.”

“Mad Men” is not a show about the Sixties; it’s a show that happens to be set in the Sixties, and Matt Weiner has made it plain he will not be genuflecting at all the Sixties Stations of the Cross.  To that end, although he devoted whole episodes to the MLK and JFK assassinations, he only gave two minutes to Bobby Kennedy, once again subverting our expectations.  We know this third assassination is coming and he lets the tension build the entire episode, lulling us into complacency and giving us hope that maybe we won’t have to go through that after all for another week.

Instead of a full assassination show, though, we get a show about how reality intrudes on our hopes, dreams and fantasies. Much of the episode revolves around the downsides of the merger between Cutler, Gleason & Chaough and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (a new firm that is still unnamed, by the way.) As is frequently the case in a merger, the honeymoon period has lasted exactly one day and now the principals are jockeying for offices and staff.  The real estate is too small, boxes are piled everywhere and people with overlapping responsibilities need to be fired.

Then there is a good example of why the concept of “due diligence” was created.  In the rush to merge, nobody looked too closely at the negatives on the other side, and they are now learning that a CGC partner is dying, that SCDP lost Vicks and that there might be a conflict between two of their clients.

The merger tension brings out the worst in some of the characters.  Pete is needlessly paranoid about his status because he walked into a partners’ meeting late and there was no chair for him.  (Mon Dieu! That’s what happens when you show up for a meeting even later than Don Draper!)

Meanwhile, Don is playing passive/aggressive power games with Ted Chaough, who dares to criticize him for being late to a margarine meeting.  Under the guise of brainstorming with him mano-a-mano, Don gets Ted so drunk that he passes out in the writers’ room, humiliating Peggy, who’s embarrassed that her new mentor and fantasy figure, the too-nice Mr. Chaough, can’t hold his liquor. When Peggy rebukes Don for taking advantage of Ted, he says, “He’s a grown man.” “So are you,” she retorts. “Move forward.”  (Coming on the heels of Joan’s “There’s no I in team” speech last week, this is the second episode in a row in which a woman that Don admires platonically have called him on the carpet.)

But Don gets his comeuppance the next day, when Ted flies the two of them through a harrowing rain storm to the Mohawk headquarters. Now Ted is in control and Don is terrified to be in the bouncing plane. “Once we’re above the clouds, it’s as sunny as summer,” Ted says reassuringly (a phrase that harkens to the misplaced optimism the characters felt last week).  Don’s a bit chastened by the experience, and tacitly acknowledges that Ted’s physical courage is impressive (and perhaps even more useful than the ability to drink, smoke and seduce women while looking so darn handsome.)

Failing to dominate Ted Chaough is one thing, but what’s even more surprising is that he loses a power play in the bedroom too, and in rather pathetic fashion.  In last year’s season opener, we saw that Don had a bit of a domination fetish (he made Megan get down on all fours to clean the carpet that was soiled at Don’s 40th birthday party). In “A Man With a Plan,” this fetish is fully realized when Sylvia says the magic words “I need you and no one else will do.”  In the blink of an eye, they’re in the Sherry Netherland hotel, where Don orders her to submit to his every wish, instructing her not to leave, not to think, to undress in front of him, etc.

Sylvia, who is heard screaming at her husband in the first scene of the show because he wants to move to Minnesota, is initially receptive to this fantasy game, but the attraction soon wears off and she decides to take a cab back to planet reality.  When Don returns from his trip to Mohawk he tries to resume the dominant role but she matter-of-factly tells him it’s over. Three times she mentions “home,” as in, “It means it’s time to really go home.” Not only does she end the game, she also informs him that the affair itself is over. A good Catholic girl who wears a cross even to her assignations, she says, “It’s easy to give up something when you are ashamed.”  In the end it’s Don who’s the object of humiliation.

I have heard that there’s a book called “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which purportedly deals with domination games of this sort and Twitter last night was quick to compare these scenes to the novel. But I think a stronger case can be made that this is a variation on “The Last Tango in Paris,” the 1973 movie in which Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider play strangers who act out domination games at an anonymous Paris apartment.   In “A Man with a Plan,” the first thing that Sylvia says to Don in the hotel is “All of France is on fire,” which refers to the Paris student riots of 1968 but also has a sexual double meaning and could possibly allude to “Last Tango,” one of the most sexually explicit mainstream movies ever made.  Like Don, Brando plays the dominant role in “Last Tango” and he too is ultimately rejected when he tells Schneider his name, undoing the fantasy. His desperation at losing her is even more extreme than Don’s, though, and he’s so persistent that she ends up shooting him. Don and Sylvia have a less violent conclusion, but it’s still shattering to Don, who can’t even focus on what his own much more beautiful wife is saying.

Don is rarely rejected by the women in his life, but when he is, as when Betty divorced him, he engages in self-destructive behavior.  We’ve seen that America self-destructing before our eyes.  Will Don also go into another downward spiral now?   Or will he reach out of the darkness?  The thing about Mad Men is that you can never guess.

Some other thoughts:

  • Until the last ten minutes, I thought this was the worst episode of the season. Then office machinations were hard to follow (too many names bandied about in meetings), the domination subplot was disturbing, the story about Pete’s Alzheimer’s-suffering mother was pedestrian and the Joan/Bob Benson subplot seemed grafted on.  When I watched it a second time I liked it a lot more, though, since I was able to catch the nuances of the office politics and was able to watch the Don Sylvia interlude through the prism of knowing that for her the game was just a game.  If you didn’t like this after watching it once, you should give it another chance.
  • Jon Hamm really acted the crap out of his role this. What a full range of emotions, from the fear in the airplane, to the despair at losing Sylvia, to the manipulative charm he showed Ted. It’s inexplicable that he’s never won an Emmy.
  • Funniest line?  Pete Campbell: “My mother can go to hell and Ted Chaough can fly her there.”
  • This episode takes place on June 3-5 1968. Monday, June 3 is the day the CDC folks move into the SCDP offices. It is also the day before the California Democratic Presidential primary, which is why the drunken Ted Chaough asks the creative team whether McCarthy or Kennedy will get the nomination. Don makes the astute observation that Hubert Humphrey, LBJ’s vice president, has wrapped up many of the convention delegates even though he didn’t run in the primaries. Despite revisionist history, it is not at all clear that Kennedy would have won the nomination, despite winning a string of primaries because Humphrey had the support of the party regulars (the unions, the southern states, etc.)  In any event, on Tuesday June 4, the day Don and Ted flew to Mohawk, Kennedy won the California primary and was shot just after midnight while passing through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, where his victory party was being held.  Thus, most Americans woke up to the news of the shooting the next morning on June 5.
  • I look forward to more confabs between Roger Sterling and Jim Cutler (played by the former 80’s hunk Harry Hamlin).  These are two polished sharks who completely understand each other.  The meeting where they bloodlessly decide which staffers to fire is a good illustration of how little they care about their minions.  Bob Benson?  The other guy?  Who cares as long as there’s a dead body.
  • I love how Roger goes out of his way to fire Burt Peterson, who used to work at SCDP and is now the head of accounts at CDC. The usual protocol would be for a partner at CDC, where he currently works, to drop the axe but you just know Roger volunteered to do it. And when Burt yells “You’re a prick, you know,” all Roger can say is “Damn it, you stole my goodbye.”
  • It’s typical of Peggy that she imagines Don engineered the merger to get her back under his thumb.   “Yes Peggy,” he says, “we risked our entire company just so I could have you back in this office complaining again.” Just like old times!
  • Speaking of Bob Benson, I hope we’re leading up to an explanation about what he’s doing on this show.  With his bland good looks, ingratiating manner and lack of any real responsibilities, he resembles a pod person from “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” But why is he working at SCDP?  No one seems to have hired him, yet he’s always available to pay for someone else’s prostitute or transport an office manager to the emergency room.
  • Who is the “man with a plan” named in the episode’s title?  It appears to be the aforementioned Bob Benson about whom Joan’s mother says, Obviously Joan, every good deed is not part of a plan.” Or is it?  Taking Joan to the hospital saved Bob’s job.  I had originally thought that the man with the plan was Bobby Kennedy, but don’t think so now, since the assassination only figured into the last two minutes of the show.  Or maybe Don is the man with the plan – the plan to live his entire life in a fantasy world.
  • Ted Chaough is evolving into an interesting character. He’s living up to his nice guy reputation, letting a distraught Pete Campbell have his seat at the conference table. But he’s also a bit of a nerd, dropping “groovy” and “man” into the conversation way too unironically for such a clean cut dude.  It’s not clear how good he is at creative, either.  His brainstorming session on Fleischman’s margarine was useless at best.  And he has a system that categorizes clients according to their similarities to the “Gilligan’s Island” cast.  Of course, Don, who’s been too busy reading “Dante’s Inferno” to know the difference between Ginger and Mary Anne, has a more intuitive (and, up until now at least, successful) approach.)
  • Since the MLK assassination episode, in which a handful of black characters actually appeared on screen, we haven’t seen any African Americans at all.  There were at least three references to Dawn in “A Man with a Plan,” but she was always conveniently not at her desk when the camera was there.  I wonder if this is a deliberate “screw you” by Matt Weiner to people who complained about the lack of black representation on the show.  It’s almost like it’s “I’m Matt Weiner and I’m going to go out of my way not to show an African American face, just because I can.  I won’t be bullied like Lena Dunham was and I won’t bow to your political correctness.”

“If I wait patiently by the banks of the river, the body of my enemy will float by.” Amen.

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