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Veep PhotoDoes “Veep,” the HBO comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a hapless Vice President of the U.S., have anything to tell us about contemporary politics?  I guess it depends on how cynical you are, since the show presents a political culture in which back-stabbing, ambition, and hard-fought compromises are put solely to the service of image, window-dressing and trivia.

Last year in the middle of Season One, New York  magazine political reporter Jonathan Chiat argued  that the show “gets” Washington because it depicts a system in which nothing can be accomplished.  “Rather than describing either the use or abuse of power,” he notes, “it is a Washington satire about powerlessness, which is both the source of its humor and the quality that makes it such a dead-on portrayal of Washington.”

This was not quite right in Season One and it definitely wasn’t true in Season Two, which ended on Sunday.  “Veep” doesn’t portray a Washington where nothing can get done; rather, it’s a traditional workplace comedy in which a particular politician — Louis Dreyfus’ character, Vice President Selina Meyer — is undone by the unique frustrations of the vice presidency itself.  The premise of the show seems to be that everyone else in Washington has more power and influence than poor Vice President Meyer, who can’t even win symbolic victories.

John Adams, the first vice president, famously noted that the vice presidency is “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” With no Constitutional powers other than to break tie votes in the Senate, the vice president is completely dependent on the president for any kind of real responsibility.

In recent years, presidents have delegated significant powers to the vice president. You’d have to go back to LBJ’s number two, Hubert Humphrey, to find a veep who was so out of the loop. Even Dan Quayle had more influence than the Salina Meyer of Season One, who was reduced to asking her assistant almost every episode if the president called. (I assume that by now someone has told the show’s writers that the president of the United States doesn’t really leave messages, because this trope didn’t appear in Season Two.)

In the Season Two Salina Meyers does have more responsibility although not much more power.  She becomes the public face of a few high-profile initiatives (the coordinator of a rescue of American students, the chief negotiator of the budget talks, etc.) but she’s not the one calling the shots. Indeed, she is out of the loop for the key decisions and doesn’t even know that a CIA agent had been in the group of abducted students.

Since this is a satire, we are not supposed to wonder why the vice president doesn’t go to Cabinet meetings and rarely talks to the President, how she can get away with swearing so colorfully, or why she has such a small, lightweight staff.  After all, this is a comedy, not a documentary, right?

It has been surprising to see how far from reality “Veep” really given that Louis-Dreyfus made a big point about how she had talked to several former vice presidents about the job.  I wonder how Al Gore and the others feel about those conversations now that they see the vice president depicted as a relative nonentity reduced to taking orders from a doofus West Wing liaison. It’s just not credible that a modern vice president would be so inconsequential, so invisible to the media or so far removed from policy debates.

I don’t want to imply that the show isn’t funny, because it’s hilarious. No one is better at exasperation and frustration than Louis-Dreyfus, and her staff’s creatively malicious internal vituperation and blame-gaming is unsurpassed in any workplace comedy.  In short, what we have here is an old-fashioned farce that happens to be set in the Old Executive Office Building.

The thing about “Veep” is that even though it’s far far from the reality of the real Vice President’s job, it’s actually dead-on about Washington culture once you get outside the Presidential and Vice Presidential offices. If you took this entire series and transported it to Capitol Hill, you would practically have a reality show.

Early in my career I worked in Washington, D.C. and none of the jobs I had in the executive branch (including the White House and a couple of cabinet departments) were remotely like “Veep.” At all! None of those shenanigans would have been tolerated for a second.  But I was also a press secretary for a U.S. congressman, and I have flashbacks to that job whenever I watch “Veep.”  Congressional offices actually do have small, marginally competent staffs who are intensely focused on process and trying desperately to get attention for the boss. This leads to the kind of claustrophobic, frenzied, out-of-control atmosphere portrayed on “Veep.”

My congressman was not an egomaniac or blamer like Salina Meyer, but he was impulsive and prone to crazy “Veep”-like stunts. Once, I was instructed to inform a group of potentially irritating constituents that he wasn’t in; when went back into the office to give him the “mission accomplished” news, I discovered him hiding on his hands and knees behind his desk, in case the group didn’t believe me and pushed their way in.  Let me tell you, it’s unnerving to see your boss playing hide and seek in a Congressional office.

But I will say this for the man. Unlike Selina Meyer, he had strongly held and frequently expressed policy ideas. He was in office to get something done; not to set up “clean jobs” taskforces.  And even though he was a junior member of the minority party, he managed to attach an amendment to the defense bill requiring colleges to ensure that any student getting aid had registered for the draft.  Whether you like that law or not, that’s the real Washington, not the Washington of “Veep.”

Note: this is an updated version of a column that appeared previously in MediaPost. 

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Season Six of “Mad Men” began on Waikiki Beach in Christmas 1967 and ended in a Pennsylvania slum on Thanksgiving 1968. But although the neighborhood is deteriorating, Don Draper is definitely in a better place.

At the beginning of the season, Don’s body might have been in an earth paradise, but his soul was as tormented as the rest of the condemned in Dante’s “Inferno.” He spends the rest of the season in the modern equivalent of Hell, consumed with self-loathing, duplicity, falseness and cheating.  He’s drinking again and causing pain to the people he loves. He tells his mistress he wants to stop, but he can’t.

Much of this season has been about how human behavior repeats itself and how people keep making the same mistakes again and again.  But it’s not only mistakes that keep repeating; sometimes it can be heroic actions.  In Season 4, Don hit rock bottom in the famous “Suitcase” episode, when he ended up drunk and vomiting in the men’s room floor; He pulled out of that tailspin and temporarily got his act together. He cut way back on his drinking and was faithful to his new wife.

Don spiraled out of control again this year and just about the last thing anyone expected in the season finale was that he would find redemption. And yet there he was – sacrificial, truthful, kind and generous.  And what was really unexpected was that this turnaround would be precipitated by a fight with Christian evangelist.

Don’s once again at a nadir, having ruined himself with his daughter. When he phones Sally to tell her she needs to talk to the police about the “Grandma Ida” burglar, she retorts, “I wouldn’t want to do anything immoral. You know what? Why don’t YOU tell them what I saw?” Ouch, given that what she saw was Don “comforting” Sylvia in a very unorthodox way.  This conversation results in a self-pitying visit to a bar, where he confronts an itinerant minister who’s trying to “save” him (“Jesus can offer … you freedom from pain in this life.”)   The crackpot ends up with a well-deserved sock in the face when he says of JFK, Martin Luther King Jr, and the Vietnam casualties that “there’s not one true believer in the group,” yet he actually does save Don, directly or indirectly.

The bar fight reminds Don of a related incident in his childhood when a similarly abused street preacher, having been thrown out of the whorehouse where he was being brought up, told him “the only unpardonable sin is to believe that God won’t forgive you.”  This memory, plus a night in the drunk tank, convinces him to turn his life around.  He will not only give up drinking, but he and Megan will move to California so he can take over the Sunkist account and embrace a life of sunshine and beaches.

But here’s the thing.  The California option, while a step forward, is not the real answer. Throughout the series, California has functioned as a metaphor for escape. In season one when he thought he might be exposed as Dick Whitman, Don tried to get his then-mistress Rachel Menken, to run off with him to California. In Season Two, he temporarily joins a band of European jetsetters after ditching Pete at an L.A. convention for defense contractors.  And of course California was where he went for emotional support from Anna, the widow of the real Don Draper.

The California option was conceived in sin anyway, after Don stole the idea from Stan.  It might put a Band-Aid on the wound, but it’s not a true solution to Don’s true problem, which is that he is living a lie.  His identity is a lie and his very job is to tell lies.

Don is finally pushed to the breaking point in a pitch to Hershey’s, when he makes up a story about how his father used to reward him with a Hershey bar after he mowed the lawn.  This elicits probably the worst possible response from the client: “Well, weren’t you a lucky little boy.”  You could call what happens next a mental breakdown, except that Don is completely in control of his faculties.  He does what he threatened to do to Peggy and Ted in last week’s St. Joseph’s Aspirin pitch: he tells the truth.

He doesn’t just tell the truth, he spills his guts, telling the client and the partners that he was an orphan who grew up in a whorehouse and that the girl to whom he felt closest used to reward him with a Hershey’s candy bar if he was able to steal more than a dollar from a john’s pockets.  In one of the most emotionally harrowing scenes of the entire series he tells them, “I’d eat it alone in my room with great ceremony, felling like a normal kid. It said ‘sweet’ on the back. It was the only sweet thing in my life.”

The whipped cream on top of the Hershey’s kiss was that the young Don knew that Milton Hershey had founded an orphanage where vulnerable boys like him could be protected and raised in a decent environment.  He had dreamed of going to the Hershey Industrial School for Orphan Boys.  This was a real place, by the way, and it lives today as the Milton Hersey School, which serves disadvantaged youth.

Here’s a photo of the school when it was still an orphanage.  Orphanages sometimes get a bad rap, but I’m sure this place was paradise compared to where the young Don was living.

Hershey's School Photo

Having finally told the truth about himself and even truthfully advised the clients that he hoped they wouldn’t advertise at all, Don goes one step further and gives up his spot in California to Ted, who had begged him to let take the California job in the hopes of salvaging his marriage. Ted inadvertently played the one card that would change Don’s mind. He raised the specter of his marriage breaking up if he stayed in New York and continued his affair with Peggy. Having seen how messed up his own kids are by their broken home, Don sacrifices his California dreams so someone else’s kids can grow up in an intact family.

Don quickly learns, as many have learned before him, that excessive truth telling and self-sacrifice cannot be tolerated.  Megan is furious that they are no longer moving to California because she already quit her job, and the other Sterling Cooper partners suspend him from the firm indefinitely, possibly permanently.

By the final scene Don is apparently jobless and wifeless on Thanksgiving morning.  But he’s free.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus advised “the truth will set you free,” and Don is as free as he’s ever been.  Sally had observed earlier in the season that she didn’t know anything about her father, and in this final scene, Don takes the kids to see the now-decrepit whorehouse.  “This is where I grew up,” he says in the final line of the season, as Sally looks at him from a different, more understanding, perspective and the Judy Collins’ version of “Both Sides Now” swells in the background.   It’s hard not to burst into tears.

Other observations:

  • At the beginning of the season Matt Weiner told interviewers that he had initially considered holding back some ideas for next season but decided to use up every last idea this year.  It’s hard to imagine what will happen next season and apparently not even Weiner knows.  Will Megan and Don remain married?  Will Don return to SC&P?  And if he doesn’t, will the show abandon all the SC&P characters to focus on his new endeavors? Will we ever see Pete and Ted again, once they get to California? I’m guessing that the feverish speculation will start today and won’t end until the season premiere in 2014.
  • Don is not the only one set free by the truth.  Pete too is freed in a different way when the Chevy clients learn that he can’t drive a stick shift.  They want an ad guy with “gasoline in his veins” and Pete who only learned to drive last season, was apparently taught on an automatic transmission.  Yet even Pete may learn that it’s better not to live a lie.  (The scene in which Bob Benson brings down Pete by forcing him to drive in front of the Chevvy executives is genius. I hope for his sake, if not the show’s, that Pete has also learned not to screw around with a colleague that is even more desperate than he is.)
  • Pete’s freedom is of a different nature than Don’s, though.  Don is free from his lies and deceptions, but Pete is gaining the freedom that comes with no social ties.  As Trudy says to him, “You’re free.  You’re free of [your mother].  You’re free of [your SC&P colleagues]. You’re free of everything.” That’s a peculiarly American vision of freedom, one that was overindulged in the 1970s.  And California was the place the symbolized that freedom. Pete can start over from scratch, be a new person and feel no obligations to the past or his family. Good luck with that!
  • There’s definitely a sense that society is beginning to go under. “The good is not beating the bad,” Betty tells Don, who has himself just said that “Jesus had a bad 1968.”   And Ted says that with “the world out there, I have to hold onto [my family] or I’ll get lost.”  For many people this was a scary time.
  • The Big Apple-centric perspective of Los Angeles (that it’s “Siberia” or “Detroit with palm trees”) will turn out to be spectacularly wrong, and Pete and Ted may become the unintentional beneficiaries of the biggest economic story of the seventies and eighties. The explosive growth of California’s population, the innovation of the state’s local companies, the gateway to Asia – all these conditions helped California become a powerhouse that eventually surpassed New York.  In 1968 New York was beginning a long decline and anyone who transferred to L.A. at this particular moment in time was pretty lucky.
  • The title of this episode – “In Care Of” – seems to refer to the way people care for their children.  Virtually every child in the cast made an appearance this week, including the Draper kids, Joan’s son, Pete’s daughter, and Ted’s sons (who are there in spirit.) We get an early example of what happens when you’re not a loving parent: Roger’s daughter, who his secretary says is “bleeding him dry,” instantly turns on him when he declines to invest further in her husband’s business venture. She pretends to love him only as long as he’s an ATM; no cash, no Thanksgiving dinner.   All this is meant to be a counterpoint to how Don was cared for as a child.
  • The title of this season’s episode 10 –  “A Tale of Two Cities” – could also have been the name for last night’s show.  Consider the second most famous line from the novel: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”  Don could easily have uttered it to Ted when he gave up his claim to the California job.
  • The title of last week’s episode, “The Quality of Mercy,” also could have been applied to last night, given how much mercy and forgiveness is demonstrated throughout the show. Indeed there were more sweet and gentle scenes last night than in a dozen other episodes put together.  Don showing mercy to Ted; Don being gentle and understanding with a distraught Betty (who he even calls by his old pet name “Birdie”) when Sally is caught buying beer at school; Joan allowing Roger to come to Thanksgiving and get to know little Kevin; Trudy’s gentleness with Pete when he comes to say deliver some of his Mother’s furniture.  All these scenes contributed to a warm glow unlike any episode this year.
  • “Bob, you like to get into trouble, don’t you?” This line by the Chevy executive is almost a word-for-word repeat of what Sally’s roommate told her last week.  They probably don’t have much else in common, though, except for an infatuation with Donny Osmond.
  • The one plotline I wasn’t onboard with was the idea of Manolo the gay nurse marrying Pete’s mother and then potentially killing her. This gigolo theme is like something out of Megan’s soap opera.  Yet it does lead to one very dark bit of humor, when the two Campbell brothers, who couldn’t stand the old bat anyway, convince themselves that there’s no point in spending a lot of money on private detectives to bring the alleged killer to justice. Bud: “It won’t bring her back.  She’s in the water. With Father.” Pete: “She loved the sea.”  I’m surprised the don’t pull out the old excuse “Mother would have wanted us to spend our money on ourselves instead of wasting it finding her killer.”
  • I don’t have much to say about Peggy, given that I warned her last week not to sleep with married men.  She doesn’t react well when Ted tells her “I can’t ruin all those lives,” although that’s exactly what she was aiming to do.  She has not made the best choices in her personal life, has she? Sleeping with Pete on the eve of his wedding. Duck Philips, which still makes my skin crawl.   And of course Abe turned out to be no prince. Maybe it’s time she listened to her mother and got a cat.
  • I’m not sure why, but the Judy Collins version of Both Sides Now provided an unexpectedly deep emotional impact to the last scene. Maybe it’s because it’s a fundamentally sad song that is given an optimistic interpretation.  Maybe it’s because it evokes a period of innocence for Boomers like me.  It certainly fits with the theme of duality that has pervaded the season. “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now” Judy Collins sings, adding “I really don’t know love at all.”  But to get a real sense of duality and the ruefulness of age, listen to this version by Joni Mitchell.  It’s the same song with the same lyrics, but it has an entirely different meaning when song by a 60-year-old women.
  • Funniest line: Roger’s secretary on why she won’t invite her “forlorn” boss to her place for Thanksgiving dinner: “Ralph stopped drinking and you know little Ralphie’s spastic. I think both are too much for him.”  So true.

On to 1969!!

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ABC’s announcement that it will launch an updated 1980s version of the classic TV show “The Goldbergs reminds me that in the history of television, some of the most popular series have been about, well, history.  “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza,” “Happy Days,” “MASH,” “Little House on the Prairie” and “The Waltons” were all huge ratings-generators and all were about bygone days.

Today it’s a lot different.  Almost all of contemporary scripted television is set in the present.  There are, of course, a few huge exceptions on the cable networks and PBS.  “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey” and “Boardwalk Empire” are not only unusual in being great dramas on their own, but they have the added virtue of using history to illuminate the present.

With their slavish attention to historical detail and long-since-abandoned social mores, these shows makes us think seriously about how society has evolved over the past few generations.

As the writer L.P. Hartley famously wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” A good TV show set in the past will illustrate how they did things differently and help us reflect on how we live today.

Not all history-based shows are as ambitious as “Mad Men” and “Downton Abbey,” of course.  Simple nostalgia tends to be the driving force for most of them.  Throughout the history of television, there’s a recurring pattern of TV series being set about 20 years before the date of airing. There’s a theory that the music that’s popular when you reach sexual maturity remains the soundtrack of your life, and to some extent the same principle is true with all pop culture.  When TV viewers get into their 30s and 40s they seem to want TV shows set in the period when they were young adults.

Thus, the 1960s saw a raft of shows about World War II (“Combat,” “Twelve O’Clock High,” “Rat Patrol,” McHale’s Navy,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” etc.) Then in the 1970s we had shows about the 1950s (“Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley” and “MASH”).  In the 1980s, “The Wonder Years” and “China Beach” were explicitly about the 1960s.  And in the 1990s we had “That ‘70s Show.”

The appeal of most nostalgia shows is that they portray a world where life was simpler, the music better and the food a little bit tastier.  Of course, nostalgia alone is not enough to guarantee a show’s success. A couple of years ago the networks tried to capitalize on the popularity of “Mad Men” with other ‘60s-themed shows such as “Pan Am” and “The Playboy Club.”  It turned out that mini-skirts and sideburns alone are not enough to save a history show; you also need good writing and acting.  If “The Goldbergs” is to succeed, it will need more than funky Cosby-era sweaters to evoke the essence of the 1980s.

I think part of the reason nostalgia shows have lost their appeal is that the Baby Boomers, the most nostalgic generation in history, have essentially aged out of the 18-49 demographic, and the networks have decided to let them get their history fix from The History Channel and Ken Burns documentaries.

But perhaps even more important, as far as the 20-year rule is concerned, the immense cultural transformation that lasted from the 1960s to the 1980s is largely over.  In the ‘70s and ‘80s, you could look back two decades and muse, “Can you believe how we acted and dressed back then?”   But a series today set in the 1990s wouldn’t portray an alien land at all.  Except for the lack of cell phones and Internet access, the way we live hasn’t changed that much.

In a much talked-about 2012 Vanity Fair piece, Kurt Andersen argued that although America has gone through a lot of technological innovation in the past two decades, cultural innovation has ground to a halt.  He argues that, “The appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. The past is a foreign country, but the recent past—the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s—looks almost identical to the present.”

With an unchanging culture, there’s no need for nostalgia television. If the past is not a foreign country, no one will want to visit it.

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Spoiler alert: I am going to make at least two pretentious literary references about last night’s “Mad Men” and neither of them is about “Rosemary’s Baby.”  It’s not that I enjoy sounding like an English Major, but I think Matt Weiner is crying out for someone to make the connections.

After all, the very title of the episode is “The Quality of Mercy,” a phrase from “The Merchant of Venice” in which Portia urges Shylock to show mercy and not demand his “pound of flesh.” In an eloquent speech she says that mercy should not be restrained, that it is “mightiest in the mighty,” and that even more than thrones and scepters, kings deploy mercy to demonstrate power.

Pete Campbell is no king, but he has learned something about manipulating power, having been on the losing end of many a power struggle, and he decides to show mercy to Bob Benson despite being repulsed by the pass that Bob made at him last week.  After having discovered that Bob is not only gay, but a West Virginia resume-padder, Pete initially seems inclined to expose him; instead he welcomes him back onto the team (as long as he doesn’t make any more passes.)

When I saw Robert Morse’s name in the opening credits, I wasn’t sure what he’d be doing this week but it’s clear now that his main job was to remind us of that great scene at the end of Season One when Pete learned that Don Draper was actually the AWOL Korean vet Dick Whitman and rushed into Bert Cooper’s office to rat him out when Don wouldn’t succumb to blackmail.  Surprisingly, the well-heeled Bert Cooper could not have cared less about the low-born past of Don Draper, since business is business.  He even told Draper he could fire the weaselly Pete but advised him that showing mercy to a vulnerable subordinate can turn an opponent into a dependent.

As the beneficiary of Don’s mercy eight years ago, Pete decides to take the same route.  “You’re going to get the benefit of the fact that I’ve been here before,” Pete tells Bob.  Just as Don did in Season One, Pete holds all the cards except that this time it’s Bob who is totally indebted to Pete.

Today’s other literary reference is to “The Great Gatsby.”  I’ve previously noted that as a quintessential American hero, Don Draper is like Jay Gatsby and “The Quality of Mercy” makes it clear that Bob Benson is cut from the same cloth.  Bob, Don and Gatsby are all mysterious con men from humble origins who change their names and invent fictitious pasts.  Through guile, charm and manipulation they rise in society but are also in constant danger of being exposed.  It turns out that Bob Benson had been a “man servant” to a senior vice president at Brown Brothers Harriman (one of the whitest of the white shoe investment banks).  He had even traveled on the Queen Elizabeth, just as the young Gatsby had been a cabin boy on a rich man’s yacht.

Bob is clearly a younger version of Don Draper. Even the way they were hired is similar.  They both just showed up at the office and started working without formal job offers (Don of course got Roger so drunk during an introductory lunch that he was in no position to deny Don’s claim that he hired him. Bob was even more brazen, affecting to take Pete’s compliment about his tie as a sign that he should start coming into the office.) Bob and Don also share a natural inclination to flee upon discovery; Bob asks Pete for a day’s head start before being exposed and Don of course had been willing to run off in previous seasons when it looked like the government might come after him.

For all their similarities, Bob is a pale imitation of Don.  True, he shows steel in his voice when Pete calls him “sick,” warning, “You should watch what you say to people.”  But he still lacks Don’s killer instinct. His attempts to get back at Pete through his mother are amateurish compared to how Don annihilates Ted.

Jealousy and protectiveness play an important part in this episode.   Don doesn’t like it ONE BIT that Ted and Peggy seem to be infatuated with each other. Actually no one (especially Ted’s secretary) appreciates their giggling in meetings, inside jokes and bad Boston accents (btw, when will people learn that NO ONE sounds like the Kennedys in Massachusetts? I grew up there.  I know.) But only Don has the ability and will to eviscerate Ted in plain sight without anyone else noticing that it’s happening.

And you know what?  Don was right, which is what makes it so painful for Ted.  It’s possible Don was  jealous. It’s possible that he wants to protect Peggy from a bad mistake. Either way, Ted can’t really argue that the firm should have foregone the big Sunkist account so that he and Peggy could continue to have fun in the Ocean Spray playpen.  Nor can you deny that Ted’s crush on Peggy has “impaired” his judgment.  He put the firm at risk by signing off on expenses that the client wouldn’t pay and never even told Peggy that her dream idea is way over budget.

Two people in this episode tell their colleagues to “back me up” during the upcoming meetings.  Ken Cosgrove fulfills his part of the bargain by supporting Pete during the Chevy meeting, but Don seems to think the expression means to back someone up against a wall and stick a stiletto into their heart.  In a moment of high tension, when it looks like Don is going to expose Ted and Peggy’s budding romance at a client meeting, Don claims that the concept of using a scene from “Rosemary’s Baby” to sell children’s aspirin was the deceased Frank Gleason’s “last idea,” and that the firm was sentimentally attached to it.  The client buys the explanation and even authorizes another $10,000 to shoot the commercial.

By rights, Ted should have been grateful that Don saved him from embarrassment with that ingenious explanation.  The client is happy, senior management is happy, the ad will get made.  But he knows the object of his affections, Miss Olsen, is PISSED. By crediting Frank Gleason with the idea, she can’t win her coveted Clio; this lack of professional recognition has been a burr under her saddle for seasons and was the main reason she quit the old SCDP in the first place.  Ted further is humiliated when Don tells him that the whole agency is laughing at him for the way he’s been carrying on with Peggy.

If Peggy were thinking straight, she’d be grateful to Don for killing her romance with Ted.  He’s married, Peggy!  She might lose her job if an affair with the boss goes badly.   Even under the “best case” scenario, she might succeed in breaking up Ted’s marriage and marrying him herself, living then with guilt and bitter step-children.  But she can’t see any of this and calls Don a monster.

Jealousy and protection come into play in the Sally story too. She doesn’t want to stay at Don and Megan’s any more, which is understandable, given that she saw Don humping Sylvia the last time she was there.  Sleeping overnight at the posh Miss Porter’s School (this is where Jackie Kennedy went, Betty gushes) Sally tries to buy off a couple of mean girls by enticing long-absent Glen Bishop and his friend Rolo to visit with booze and pot.  She’s jealous when one of the girls (Mandy) lures Glen into her make-out lair and then frightened when Rolo puts the moves on her.  She yells for Glen’s help, which serves the double purpose of protecting her from Rolo and breaking up Mandy and Glen.  Unlike Peggy, Sally is grateful for the intervention.

Of course Sally is much more clearly a damsel in distress.  The scene in the girls’ dorm is downright scary.   Betty, clueless as ever, thinks that raising a daughter at home is too difficult and that it would be more effective to subcontract the job to a boarding school.  If she’d gone to one herself, which was her heart’s desire, she’d have known that a Lord of the Flies atmosphere only hardens the students and makes them grow up faster than they would under direct parental supervision.  Sally’s only 14 but in one night she’s been exposed to alcohol and drugs and nearly assaulted by a sophisticated and mature 18-year-old. She smiles when Mandy suggests she “likes trouble,” which is what she is likely to get into when she enrolls.

Regardless, as a reward for surviving the night, Betty lets Sally smoke in the car on the drive home!  She wants “details,” setting herself up to be one of those mothers who lives vicariously through her daughter, swapping  high school gossip over cocktails.   Poor Sally, being pushed to grow up faster than she wants, unprotected by the adults in her life, with only Glen Bishop to watch out for her.  What a good guy he has turned out to be.  When last we saw him Sally had ditched him at the Museum of Natural History, but he’s obviously displayed a “quality of mercy” toward her, having forgiven her failings.  He’s the most adult person in the entire episode.

Some other thoughts:

  • The episode opens and closes with scenes of Don curled up in the fetal position on his couch.  Then during a run through of the St. Joseph’s pitch, he’s induced to cry “wah wah wah” like a baby.   I’ll leave it to other recappers to interpret that, but it’s obviously an important sign.
  • In an episode full of surprises and unforeseen plot twists, perhaps nothing was as shocking as Ken Cosgrove getting shot in the face by the boorish Chevvy yahoos.  This prompted a chorus of “They’ve killed Kenny!” tweets, channeling the South Park catchphrase.  Personally, I would have found this scene utterly unbelievable if our own former Vice President hadn’t done the same thing.
  • Just as Sally was bullied at school, so too has Ken been bullied by the Chevvy guys.  They probably won’t have as much satisfaction bullying Pete, not because he’s stronger but because bullying only works if the victim cares.  Ken is a decent guy and they probably perceive that he really does hate cars, guns and steaks.  They know they can get under Ken’s skin by exposing him to their outlandish hijinks.  Pete, on the other hand, has no scruples and will gladly be their butt boy.  He’s completely soulless. Ken has been injured in a drunken car accident and shot in the face, all while he has a growing family and Pete’s advice is “The only way to get through this is to remind yourself it’s a wonderful account.” Remind me not to seek out advice on work/life balance from Pete Campbell.
  • I’m glad Matt Weiner announced last week that he wasn’t killing off any characters this year because I’d really be alarmed now about Megan’s physical safety. As noted for three weeks in a row now, attentive viewers have come up with dozens of clues that connected Megan to the actress Sharon Tate, who was murdered by the Manson family. Now in this episode, we see Don watching a scary Nixon For President ad that condemns lawlessness and violence, after which he immediately switches to Megan’s soap opera. Later, Don and Megan attend the movie version of “Rosemary’s Baby,” which was directed by Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate’s husband.  Finally, it’s worth noting that “Rosemary’s Baby” is set in The Dakota apartment building, where John Lennon was murdered.
  • Don and Megan have reached that sad stage of marriage where they say mean things to each other in a “just kidding” way. Thus when Megan tells the hung over Don that he looks terrible, he wittily replies, “So do you.” Last week Megan kiddingly told Don that marrying him was the worst mistake of her life and Don said that he hates actresses.    Can this marriage be saved?  It would seem not.
  • Funniest line: Don’s response when Harry calls to say he has big news:  “Did you finally have a hooker who would take traveler’s checks?” “Why did I tell you that?” Harry wonders. (By the way, notice  Megan’s continued antipathy to Harry, who, last season, accused her of sleeping her way to her job at SCDP, not knowing she was listening.
  • The concluding music is The Monkees The Porpoise Song  from their hallucinatory movie “Head.”
  • Right after the show aired, AMC sent out a press release from Sterling Cooper & Partners dated October 27, 1968 announcing the new name of the firm an unveiling their new logo.  Clever idea. The release quotes Don Draper as saying,  “A name can mean a new beginning, a chance to see yourself as you would dream to be, and to leave the baggage you have accumulated over the years behind. At least that’s been my observation.” And ours too.
  • Next week is the last episode of Season 6. I have no idea what will happen, but wouldn’t be surprised if it is set during or immediately after Richard Nixon’s presidential election.

“I don’t have your passport. I’m sure it’s expired with everything else you own.”

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All season long the Internet has been aflame with theories about the shocking surprise that would climax the end of the season. The hints and feints pointed to a violent conclusion that would most certainly result in someone dead via a drug-fueled rampage. Most of these theories centered around Megan’s vulnerability, although a great deal of suspicion was also cast on the mysterious Bob Benson.  And of course I had my own suspicions about the unstable Michael Ginsburg.

But in the end, the shattering scene from last night wasn’t one of physical violence or any wild bizarre plot-twist.  It was both shocking and mundane, and it was telegraphed from the beginning of the episode, if not from the beginning of the season: a daughter sees her father having sex with a women who’s not his wife.  Through a series of Matt Weiner head fakes, this very unsurprising occurrence came completely out of the blue, although the foreshadowing was all there: the doorman giving Sally the keys to the apartment; her friend Julie teasing her about her alleged crush on Mitchell; Sylvia revealing that Arnold and Mitchell had gone upstate for the day.  In retrospect, what happened was inevitable but hidden in plain sight.

There have been shocking and unexpected developments on Mad Men (the lawnmower episode comes to mind) but except for Joan prostituting herself last year, I can’t remember anything more heart-breaking than what happened on Sunday.  It wasn’t just that Sally witnessed Don having sex with Sylvia, it was the blatant lie he told her afterward (“I know you thought you saw something. I was comforting Mrs. Rosen. She was very upset.”)  At the beginning of the episode, Betty sarcastically suggested that Sally thought Don was a hero, and even if some of Sally’s attitude is that of a child playing one parent off versus another, there’s no question that she does have a special bond with Don.  All that’s gone now. He’s exposed himself as a cheat and a liar who can’t be honest even when caught red-handed.  Any childhood illusions she had have been shattered.  What a sad episode – so sad that Matt Weiner didn’t even bother to end with the show with a summing up song.  Just the silence of closed doors and then eventually some very generic funereal music.

With the title “Favors,” last night’s episode had two major themes: the favors we do for each other and our frequent confusions or misinterpretations of romantic love.

Much of life is a series of favors, or quid-pro-quos. To grease the skids in civil society we sometimes bend the rules a little for a friend.  There’s even the concept of the “favor bank,” where one deposits and cashes in favors; and if the accounts get too much out of balance you probably shut it down.  All season long, Bob Benson has been trying to build up his favor bank, sometimes by simply bringing an extra cup of coffee to the office for a colleague, or at other times more elaborately, as when he tried to pay for Pete’s prostitute.  Of course this favor bank paid off spectacularly when Joan saved his job after he took care of her at the hospital.

The episode includes a number of favors. Bob Benson has given Pete the name of a male nurse who can care for his mother. Don helps Mitchell avoid the draft. Ted helps Don find Mitchell a spot in the Air National Guard. Julie claims to be doing Sally a favor by leaving a love letter in Mitchell’s apartment.  Sylvia, of course, offers her sexual “favors.”  Meanwhile Peggy tries to get Stan to come over and take care of the rat in her apartment, promising to “make it worth (his) while.” Some of these favors have an explicit price tag. Ted helps Don only if he will agree to drop Sunkist and let them proceed with Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice. Bob Benson helps Pete with the hopes of getting closer to him.  And some of the favors backfire, as when Don tries to help out Arnold and ends up entangled with Sylvia again, or when Pete holds it against Bob Benson that his mother is in love with Manolo, the male nurse.

In addition to the many cases of favor-giving, we see multiple instances of misinterpreting relationships.  Pete’s mother might have the excuse of senility for misunderstanding her relationship with Manolo, and Sally and Julie have the excuse of being silly 14-year-olds in thinking the 19-year-old Mitchell might be interested in them.  But Matt Weiner seems to be suggesting we are all blind to what’s really going on in our lives.

Sylvia, for example, seems to think that Don helped Mitchell get a deferment because he cared so much for her, when it seems obvious (to me at least), that Don’s real motivation was in helping her husband, for whom he has a significant man-crush (as a heart surgeon who actually saves lives, Arnold is the only man that Don has every looked up to.)  Sylvia doesn’t know that Don’s initial reaction to Mitchell’s plight was indifference and that it was only when Arnold opened up to him about his love of and fear for his son that he sprang into action.

Ted is also at sea about his relationship with Don. He thinks Don is “at war” with him and is actively seeking to undermine him in the office. His wife observes that “I know you like facing Don Draper in the morning more than the clients.” What Ted doesn’t know is that Don could not care less about him. What Sally says about her and Mitchell (“He doesn’t know I’m alive”) more or less applies to Ted and Don.  Don cannot believe that Ted will help him with Mitchell’s deferment for something as unimportant as credit for bringing in a client. (Ted’s petulant line, “I don’t want his juice, I want my juice” is not only hilarious but it reveals his juvenile understanding of their relationship.)

There are other obvious examples of people who don’t understand what’s happening in their relationships. Megan, of course, is at sea about her and Don and thinks he’s a hero for rescuing Mitchell. Arnold recognizes that something is wrong between him and Sylvia but doesn’t suspect that it’s Don.   And Peggy seems not to know what’s going on with any of her work relationships: Pete, Ted and Stan have all sniffed around her door at one time or another and suddenly she’s the Belle of the SD&P Ball. With two episodes left, it’s still not clear where the rest of the season is headed. Maybe we’ll start to see some clarity in these relationships; maybe the agency will explode; maybe Megan will finally figure out that her life is a sham.  Whatever it is, you can bet that Matt Weiner has dispensed dozens of clues and that it will all seem inevitable two Mondays from now.

On a slightly different topic, the Sixties that I remember (as someone who was born the same year as Sally Draper) have finally started to reveal themselves over the past 3-4 episodes. The drugs and violence of “The Crash” and the political turmoil of “A Tale of Two Cities” have now given way to the stark fear that teens and parents felt about the draft during the Vietnam War.  There has been a lot of complaining (some it by me) about the lack of representation of racial issues on the show, but what’s been unconscionably absent from the show has been the impact of the Baby Boom. Except for Glen and Sally (and, for a very brief appearance, Frank Gleason’s daughter) there have never been any Boomer characters.  Yet if there was one thing fundamentally different about the sixties from any other decade it was the tidal wave of teenagers that nearly drowned society.  Their consumer, cultural and behavioral habits changed society for good, yet where have they been on Mad Men?

Finally we meet Mitchell Rosen, college dropout and war-protester, who smirks and sneers when Corporate Man Don Draper offers to shake his hand.  Entitled and spoiled, he has made a “statement” by sending back his draft card and then is shocked to find out that his statement has real-word consequences, which might end up with him being drafted.  And his dad is right; he is “soft” and lacking the street smarts , guile or courage he’d need to survive the war.

The conversation between Arnold and Don, as well as the dinner with the GM guys, showed how nuanced and difficult these decisions were.  One of the GM guys thinks it’s disgusting that some sons are evading the draft through special privileges, while the other is worried about his own grandson (who’s at Antioch, for God’s sake. He probably has hair down to his waist.) And even Arnold is conflicted, arguing on the one hand that everyone should sacrifice and do their part, yet also willing to do anything to keep his son safe.

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Until 1972, when Nixon ended the draft, every family with a teenage boy went through the Mitchell conversation at some point.  Do you enlist for four years and hope for a safer assignment or wait to get drafted (for two years) and hope for the best.  If you stay in college you can get a college deferment. If you get married or are the sole source of support for your widowed mother, you can escape that way too.  Maybe you have a medical problem, real or imagined. You could always say you were homosexual but most 18-year-olds would rather die in a rice paddy than claim that.

Then there was the National Guard.  It wasn’t really as hard to get into the National Guard as it seemed last night. My uncle knew someone who got my cousin into the Guard. Famously George W. Bush, like Mitchell, served in the Air National Guard.  Equally famously, Bill Clinton pulled strings to get into the National Guard and then dropped out when he got a low draft number. Hundreds of baseball players were in the Guard and only had to miss a couple weeks a year of the season.

If you went into the National Guard you trained for six months and then served five and a half years more on stand-by.  Several times a year you needed to go off on two-week refresher courses.  Then as now, you could be called up at any moment to serve in a national emergency (a hurricane or student riot) but the important thing is that you would not be sent to Vietnam. That is how Mitchell Rosen escapes the war.  And it’s hard not to feel a little bit of contempt for him. He has tried on revolutionary ideals, making a big deal about sending back his draft card. But at the prospect of getting sent to war, he immediately agrees to cut his hair and renounce his views.  In the end, he’s the one who offers to shake Don’s hand, the very hand he sneered at two days earlier.  No wonder the Baby Boom continues to have a bad reputation.

Other observations:

  • I was probably one of the last hold-outs in the “Don Draper isn’t so bad” camp, but even I’ve had it.  Lying to Sally was the final straw; contrary to what I hoped, he doesn’t seem to have the will or strength to turn himself around morally. Don is staggered by what’s happened; probably afraid that Sally will turn him in and probably aware that he’s severely damaged his relationship with her.  The scene where they are talking on opposing sides of her bedroom door is very tender and it’s possible even then that he could have redeemed himself by being honest, but as we’ve seen all along, he’s much rather live in the world of denial, pretence and illusion. (John Hamm’s acting in these final ten minutes was tremendous. How is it possible in any universe that he’s never won an Emmy?)
  • The apparent resolution of the Bob Benson secret was the second big surprise of the episode, although not a surprise to readers of this blog (your welcome!) who were informed last week of this probably outcome.  To recap the evidence: Joan and Bob were seen together in her apartment, and then the next week Joan is going on a blind date, signaling there’s no physical relationship. But if Bob’s sexuality is not surprising, what IS jaw-dropping is the object of his desire: Pete! Like everyone else on this show, he has terrible taste in men. His speech declaring his intensions is eloquent (“Is it really impossible to imagine? Couldn’t it be that if someone took care of you – very good care of you – if this person would do anything for you? If his well-being was his only thought. Is it possible that you might begin to feel something for him? When there’s true love it doesn’t matter where it is?) But as eloquent as this is, can he really have these feelings for Pete?  In any event, James Wolk’s acting in this scene is wonderful.
  • So Pete, the office liberal, turns out to be a standard-issue homophobe.  Ha.  He thinks that Manolo is “a degenerate” for being gay and tells Bob in so many words that his proposal is “disgusting.” This on top of saying that his father-in-law was with the “biggest blackest prostitute you’ve ever seen.” Like a lot of Limousine Liberals at the time, he’s not exactly overflowing with compassion in his personal life, preferring to lecture others on their shortcomings.
  • The “Manaolo is gay” revelation actually was a surprise because of the classic curve ball from Matt Weiner.  The Latin Gigalo is a classic stereotype of  popular culture and it seemed entirely believable that this attentive male nurse would be after Ma Campbell’s fortune (which actually does not exist, as we learned several years ago.)  Not so.
  • Where was that airport where Peggy and Pete were supposedly celebrating their client win?  Ocean Spray is located in Wareham Mass, right at the base of Cape Cod. The nearest airport is in New Bedford.   I guess it makes sense that they would drive to White Plains, fly to New Bedford and then drive to Wareham, especially if Ted has his own plane but it would only save a couple of hours at best. I only mention this because I have been to the New Bedford airport and it is nowhere near as nice as depicted in this episode. I’m also pretty sure you can’t get whiskey sours there.
  • In any event, this scene between Peggy and Pete in the airport lounge was remarkably sweet.  Pete let down his douchie exterior for once and turned out to be not a terrible person.  From the very first episode of the series, they’ve had a connection; she spent the night with him just before he married Trudy, the union of which produced Peggy’s long since given-up-for-adoption baby.  Pete is right; Peggy does know him better than anyone else. Certainly better than his wife, who has never seen him in action at work. And Ted’s wife is right too.  From the good time everyone is having after a successful client presentation, you can see why the work is so much more interesting than home life.
  • Most unbelievable line: Sylvia to Don: “You were good to me.  Better than I was to you.” I guess so, if you like being trapped in a hotel room for 24 hours with nothing to read or eat.
  • This show could be a case study on the law of unintended consequences. Two examples.  1) Don helps Mitchell avoid Vietnam, which ends up with him in the sack again with Sylvia and the traumatic event of Sally’s life. 2) Peggy tells Pete about his Mrs. Campbell’s musings on Manolo and Pete ends up firing the one ray of hope in his mother’s life.Maybe Don’s right after all. Perhaps it really is better not to interfere.
  • For some reason I thought it was funny when Henry told Betty that “I thought she should join the Student Congress. The Model U.N. is a joke.” It takes a certain kind of person to make these fine distinctions between The Student Congress and the Model U.N.
  • I liked that the photo of Moshe Dayan is hanging in Stan’s bedroom.  Dayan was Israel’s hero during the Seven Days War. A more conventional choice would have been a poster of Che, especially since Stan is not even Jewish.  Interesting aspect of Stan.

Did she go to China for that tea?

I think we can all agree that Twitter is a remarkable platform that’s having a significant impact on television. I’m not sure we can actually agree what that impact is, though.

Twitter touts itself as a “virtual water cooler,” a 21st century venue where people can gather to discuss whatever’s on their minds.  In a world where viewers increasingly watch television alone, Twitter really is creating online fan communities. During prime time, it’s not uncommon for more than half of the top-trending Twitter topics to be related to television shows.  Clearly if a show gets a lot of mentions on Twitter, this means something — but what exactly?

One thing that Twitter should NOT be used for is straightforward TV measurement.  I know that many networks and advertisers want to get away from sample-based measurement and move to census metrics that measure everyone. And with 140 million active accounts, Twitter would appear to be a pretty big census.

Unfortunately, 140 million accounts is still just a sample, albeit a huge one, that does not represent the entire TV audience.  To state the obvious, Twitter users are younger, more tech-savvy and more affluent than the population as a whole, so their viewing patterns can’t be extrapolated to the full viewing population.

Plus there’s the practice by certain TV shows of posting hashtags on the screen, thereby actively encouraging their viewers to tweet.  Under standard TV measurement rules, if any show were to shout out directly to Nielsen panelists, Nielsen would immediately slap an asterisk on its ratings, thereby rendering them suspect. But no one seems to worry about the distorting effect of a show directly begging for more tweets.

There’s also the question of how much of a census Twitter really is. A lot of people have accounts but not everyone tweets. The New York Times recently quoted an executive from Twitter Amplify who said that “when people turn on TV they turn on Twitter.” This illustrates yet again the self-referential nature of most technology discussions. Just because you and your best friends do something doesn’t mean that the rest of the world does, too.

For example, after Super Bowl XLVII, Twitter announced that a record 24.1 million tweets were sent that night.  Now, 24 million is a big number — but it pales in comparison to the 108 million people who actually watched the game.  And if you assume that the average Twitter user sent five tweets that night, that would mean that fewer than 5 million people were tweeting – less than 5% of the entire audience. That’s hardly a census.

On the other hand, Twitter could have a direct application to analyzing how engaged people are with a show, which could be important  — since people who are intensely interested in a TV show are theoretically engaged with the commercials.

Part of the problem with Twitter, though, is that if viewers are TOO engaged with the show, they might miss the ads altogether. I know that when I’m live-tweeting a favorite program, my focus is on the iPad during the commercial breaks, not the ads.  I remember concentrating so hard on reading live #madmen tweets that I had to learn from Twitter that Christina Hendricks was on a Johnnie Walker ad during “Mad Men,” even though the actual ad was running on the show RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME.  So my engagement with the commercials is surprisingly low during my favorite shows, precisely because of Twitter.

Twitter can clearly play an important role in promoting TV shows and commercials.  By building digital fan communities, Twitter builds fan loyalty.  A lot of positive tweets about a show will grow audiences.

Twitter seems to have embraced this model. According to at least one recent report, Twitter is working closely with media companies to use the platform as a promotional vehicle. Unlike other online companies who have tried to siphon advertising away from TV to the Internet, Twitter is bringing a collaborative approach to help TV find new audiences. For example, Twitter includes video clips from shows or sports events into user streams.

Twitter has similar deals with advertisers, allowing them to send ads to people who are watching specific programming, a strategy that has been embraced by agencies like MediaVest USA.  The trick will be to develop ad-based tweets that people actually want to read. A Twitter version of a banner ad won’t be very exciting and could cause a backlash on the service itself.

As ubiquitous as Twitter seems now, it’s hard to remember that just five years ago, it was only recording 100 million tweets per quarter  — about as many as are now recorded during the Super Bowl. This is such a new phenomenon that we can’t even know for sure how permanent a presence it will be. One way to make sure the platform doesn’t just turn out to be a fad, though, is for it to imbed itself more closely with television — because, all the naysayers aside, TV is not going away.

 

A Tale of Two Cities,” the title of Sunday’s “Mad Men” is a novel about the French Revolution and there is plenty of revolution in this episode, both in the streets and in the boardroom. Set against the backdrop of the 1968 Democratic Convention, when the Chicago police rioted against hippie demonstrators, the episode foreshadows a revolution and counterrevolution at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Gleason Cutler and Chaough (and thank God I never have to write that again.)

Like the drug-fueled “The Crash” two weeks ago, “A Tale of Two Cities” portrays the unhappy reality of the late Sixties, when society began to break apart. The Vietnam War, which has been a background presence on the show for several years now, finally revealed itself as the massively divisive event it was in everyone’s lives.  Contrary to how “Mad Men” has underplayed it over the years, the war was an inescapable topic – more so than the feminist issues that have dominated the show’s consciousness.  The bitter argument between Jim Cutler and Michael Ginsberg, in which “Ginzo” called Cutler a Nazi and a Fascist, was an everyday thing in the Sixties because families and workplaces were split culturally and politically.  As long as there was a draft, and teens and their parents worried about being shipped to Southeast Asia, society was at war with itself and many believed that an actual, not metaphorical, revolution was imminent.

In the office, the rebellion comes from the unlikeliest source: the ever-loyal Joan Harris, no one’s idea of a Madame Lafarge.  Out on what she believes is a blind date she finds herself with Andy Hayes, the marketing director at Avon, who’s more interested in advertising than in Joan’s other attractions.  She was thwarted professionally many seasons ago when she launched the then-nascent TV ad-buying operation only to see it handed over to a man. This time around, she’s not about to lose her chance to get her own account and the resulting professional recognition. (The same thing happened to poor Lane Pryce when he introduced the firm to Jaguar; the creative and account teams froze him out.)

joan in office

So she breaks the rules and goes around the established power structure, cutting Pete out of the introductory meeting and contravening direct orders.  “It’s a revolt!” he screams, evidently worried that he’s about to be strapped to a tendril and transported to the Guillotine.  Joan’s actions expose an interesting dynamic in the office between those who respect authority and those who don’t.  Peggy’s boyfriend is right: she really is a scared person. Like Pete and Bon Benson, she believes in following the rules.  Meanwhile, on the other side, Stan and Ginsberg are obvious rebels. Even Harry Crane is a bit of rule-breaker, defying Don when ordered to get rid of the Ford Mustang.

The episode really is a tale of two contrasting cities. Office politics occupies the New York action, while the cultural revolution dominates the Los Angeles scenes.  Throughout the history of Mad Men, Los Angeles has been Don’s escape value, but now even the West Coast is a dangerous divisive place.  The Carnation businessmen are extreme right-wingers who believe that even Richard Nixon isn’t conservative enough (they think he’s an opportunist and that “Dutch Reagan is the patriot.”) Meanwhile the entertainment industry has – superficially – gone full-bore counterculture.  Roger, Don and Harry attend a wild party in the Hills of Los Angeles, where the joints are as plentiful as candy and everyone’s invited to smoke the hookah.

In his tan sports jacket and tie, Don is the most conservatively dressed person there, but what these fools don’t know is that Don Draper has been breaking the rules and experimenting with the counterculture back when they were still wearing Peter Pan collars.  In the very first episode of the series, Don was introduced to us as a guy with a beatnik girlfriend (“Midge”) in Greenwich Village. So when offered the chance to smoke some Hashish, he’s into it.  Unfortunately he overdoes it and goes on a bad trip, during which he hallucinates figures from his past and finds himself face down in the pool.  He could have ended up like the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, who downed in a pool under the influence of alcohol and drugs, but instead he is rescued by Roger, probably the least likely hero in the history of the show.

In 1968, revolution seemed to be in the air, with college kids occupying buildings and demonstrating against the war in all the major cities.  But in the end, the real world intervened.  Nixon was elected President and the great “silent majority” rose up against the hippies.  In the end there were several revolutions, some of which succeed and some of which failed miserably.  The political and economic revolution that was the major goal of the protests was a total bust. The political and economic elites emerged more powerful than ever, coopting baby boomers by eliminating the draft and lowering the voting age to 18.  But feminist and cultural revolutions succeeded wildly.  Easy divorce, more drug use, casual sex, etc.  All these aspects of the cultural revolution were adopted by the mainstream in the 1970s, to the point that rednecks quickly became the ones with the long hair, drug habits and disinclination to marry.

You can see a little bit of this counter revolution during “A Tale of Two Cities.” While the Chicago police are cracking heads in the street, Cutler and Chaough are plotting a top-down coup.  Cutler wants to fire the insubordinate creative department outright, but instead settles for a power grab. By claiming all the major clients he and Chaough hope to control the firm. So Ginsberg was right after all when he said that Cutler wanted to keep his “jackboot” on his neck.  They hide this scheme behind a concession that costs them nothing: a name change.

Pete recognizes that “Sterling Cooper & Partners” is a “consolation prize” to make Sterling and Cooper happy while Chaough and Cutler buy more time to consolidate power.  Don is indifferent, though, to the power dynamics, perhaps understanding that power is temporary and doesn’t come from corporate structure.  He’s been the ultimate rebel, having broken more rules than Joan could ever dream of.  When Peter warns him that “this is not the same business anymore,” he replies, “If you don’t like it, maybe it’s time to get out of the business.” All season long we’ve thought that Don was stuck in the past, but it seems like he’s really been clued into the Sixties all along and is now willing to roll with the punches.   But Pete, who’s always been more rigid, seems beaten. He ends up on the couch in the writers’ room, smoking dope and slowly coming to grips with the realization that more than the advertising business has changed in the last eight years.

Some other thoughts:

  • This is one of the best-written episodes ever and it’s filled with great lines, double-meanings, and intricate plotting. Perhaps no episode has served as such a case study in how an ad agency operates.  We see them juggling four current and potential clients (Carnation, Chevy, Avon, Manishewitz) with a lot of sophisticated ad talk about make goods, ad buys, brand extensions, etc.  Even Pete’s diatribe about how the account management system works was fascinating.
  • As much as I love Joan, I have to say she didn’t really handle the Avon situation right.  She was clearly out of her element at the meeting, interrupting Peggy and unable to draw out the client at all.  She doesn’t seem to appreciate Peggy’s brilliant observation that Avon’s current advertising is “unintentionally old-fashioned,” which makes the client smile because she has articulated exactly what he is thinking.  And as obnoxious as Pete is, he probably would have done a better job of reeling in the account     Plus, I can’t understand why she would want to be an account representative in the first place.  As Ken Cosgrove and his cane have proven, we’ve have seen how brutal a job trying to placate clients can be.
  • Also, if Don ever heard Joan talking about the agency he would probably have had an aneurysm. She tells Avon that what differentiates their firm isn’t fancy creative and media research but the wizardry or Harry Crane’s media buys. In other words, everything that Don does is unimportant, but Harry is the genius behind the firm! Oh, and she says “We listen to the client.” Hah! She evidently hasn’t seen Don kick clients out of the board room when they didn’t appreciate his genius. (And she doesn’t even like Harry.  She just loves media placement.)
  • I didn’t really buy that Joan was so scared of the consequences of stiffing Pete. Did she think Ted Chaough was going to fire her? She is a partner after all and if they fired her they’d have to buy her out. So I don’t get why she was sitting there silently letting them berate her.
  • The contrast between the Carnation and Avon meetings was another example of this episode’s brilliant and subtle writing.  One session is all macho posturing and the other is softer and feminine.  The Carnation executives carry on like they are big swinging dicks, but Andy Hayes at Avon is clearly a nice guy who is self-effacing about his business and still smarting from his divorce. All clients, like all men, are not alike.
  • So many great lines: “There’s an extra nipple when you come back” (possibly the best line in Mad Men history); “The meetings were a series of busts – and not the kind I like;” “We’re conquistadors. I’m Vasco de Gama and you’re some other Mexican.”
  • I’m worried about Ginsberg. That scene with him rocking back and forth in the office certainly presages a full schizophrenic breakdown.  Whenever someone mentions transmissions being beamed directly into his head, you know this isn’t a good thing.  The only question is whether he will end up killing someone in the office or getting carted away in a straightjacket.
  • Either way, Megan Draper better stay out of the office while Ginsberg’s there.  Last week the Internet almost melted down with theories that Megan was going to be murdered because she was shown wearing a tee shirt similar to one once worn by Sharon Tate before she was murdered by the Manson family.  (For the full explication of the theory, see this).  My personal view is that these clues remind me of the “Paul is dead” rumors: they all make sense but point to a conspiracy that isn’t there.  Having said that, there were several unnerving additional clues this week, especially during Don’s hashish hallucination.  Don first hallucinates the ghost of the soldier he met in Hawaii during the first episode of the season; then he hallucinates that Megan is at the party with him, dressed as a hippie and pregnant. Sharon Tate of course was killed while pregnant in California and it could be argued that Don is only hallucinating dead people (like Megan to be.).  Again, I don’t think Megan is doomed but there has been a growing sense of impending violence and personal insecurity throughout the year.  And 1968 was a really violent year.
  • Don seems to be working on his relationship with Megan and in his hallucination he hears the works he wants to hear from her: “I quit my job. I couldn’t bear to be apart and I wanted to have enough love for my other surprise [e.g., the pregnancy].”
  • Speaking of 1968, this episode is set late in August while the Democratic convention is going on.  At this time the Democratic party was bitterly divided between its “peace” and “party faithful” wings.  Bobby Kennedy, who had won the majority of the primaries was dead, and the party apparatus coalesced around LBJ’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The “peace” wing unsuccessfully tried to pass a platform calling for an unconditional halt to the bombing of Hanoi; instead to the fury of the party’s left wing, the convention ratified both LBJ’s candidate and his policies. While this was going on inside, a large group of “Yippies” (Abbie Hoffman’s Youth International Party) had taken over Chicago’s Lincoln Park, and as the police tried to clear them out, a riot ensued, during which the police clubbed and dragged demonstrators who were chanting “The whole world is watching.”   Like Don, Joan and Megan, I was watching that night and it remains one of the most shocking things I ever saw on TV; obviously I’ve seen much worse since then but the idea that the police could indiscriminately beat people on TV was an entirely new concept then.
  • Ginsberg is probably crazy, but he might be right about Bob Benson being gay.  Contrary to what we supposed last week, he and Joan clearly do not have a romantic relationship. If they did, Joan wouldn’t be going out on blind dates with marketing executives.  There has been an intense amount of speculation about Bob Benson and whether he’s evil or good. He’s clearly oleaginous in the way he sucks up to everyone in power, and aligning himself with Jim Cutler puts him in the “bad” camp.  But anyone who listens to motivational records in the office probably isn’t outright evil. He’s more likely to be needy.
  • Danny Sigel is making a movie out of “Alice in Wonderland.” Of course, because that whole California party is like going through the looking glass.
  • Ironic: At the California party Don starts to seduce Cindy the hostess, who looks a lot like Betty. Then in Don’s hallucination, Hippy Megan materializes and Cindy says, “Is that your old lady?” That’s hippie talk for what we now call your “significant other” and it is likely to be the only time anyone will call Megan an “old lady” in relation to Don.
  • My shrink says the job of your life is to know yourself and sooner or later you’ll learn to love who you are.  And apparently I am a curious child with a full head of hair and a thriving business.”
  • The people at the California party affect a counterculture attitude but aside from the real hippies like “Lotus,” they are as selfish and careerist as their New York counterparts.  Danny is clearly manipulating Lotus for sex and Don runs into a very groovy musician who would love to work with him on commercials: “I dig jingles and I hear the bread’s out of sight.”  And that’s because human nature never changes.

“Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” “Only when there is no law.”