Mad Men: So You Say You Want a Revolution

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.”


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