And we’re off to another season of “Man Men,” with a new episode called “Time Zones.”
“Mad Men” has always had a special relationship to the passage of time and over the years we have come to view “Mad Men”-related cultural change through three separate prisms. The first is the period from Don’s childhood to the beginning of the series in 1960. As presented by “Mad Men,” the America of the late 1930s was rural, poor, restricted and depressing. But by 1960, post-War America is the richest and most powerful nation in world history and for the white men who run it, it’s almost a paradise of cool clothes, female deference, wealth and possibility.
The second prism through which we view the series is through contemporary eyes, as people who have lived through the consequences of the 60s. With the power of hindsight we can see that as great as the early 60s seemed to be for a certain class of white male, it was not paradise for women, people of color, gays, Jews, or even white men who were not satisfied with their lot in life and wanted more than they already had. We can gape in amazement at how different our own world is from this era.
But the most important prism through which the series should be viewed is through the actual years covered in the “Mad Men” era. America changed a lot from 1940 to 1960 and then again from 1970 to 2014, but the pace of change in the 1960s was enormous. If you were to watch the Season One and Season Seven premieres back to back you could scarcely imagine you were watching the same show.
Sadly, the early optimism of the early 1960s has given way to a sense of despair in late-stage Mad Men. The sexual revolution has been good to Roger Sterling but he’s not getting much satisfaction from his counterculture orgies. Distressingly, Ken Cosgrove, the one sane and balanced character on the show, is still blind in one eye and losing his mind as the new head of accounts. Don Draper is still essentially banished from both his marriage and his job. Disneyland, which once represented Don and Megan’s hopeful love, is now used as a place to scatter someone’s cremated remains. And whatever progress woman have made during the 60’s seems to be stalled or even regressing. The character who’s truly happy is Pete Campbell, so you know this is “Bizarro Mad Men.” This is a dark era — many of the scenes were filmed at night or in the dark early morning, casting a pall over everyone’s mood. I mean, an orgy should be a fun right? But this doesn’t look like much fun:
The episode begins on Friday, January 17, 1969, three days before the presidential inauguration of Richard Nixon. The first scene is an amazing close up of Freddy Rumsen talking directly into the camera, pitching an remarkable commercial concept for Accutron watches — a commercial that like so many on “Mad Men” positions the product as a solution to someone’s status anxiety. The pitch goes on and on, with one brilliant idea after another spilling out of the normally unimaginative Freddie. Finally we see that he is pitching these ideas on a freelance basis to Peggy, who is dumbfounded that Freddy has proposed such high quality original work. For his part, Freddie is a bit put off that Peggy is so amazed. He was her mentor once, after all, before his literally pissed away his job through alcoholism and mediocrity. It is part of Matt Weiner’s genius that the answer to the conundrum of how Freddy came up with these ideas is staring us right in the face but still a surprise when it’s revealed in the last scene. Don himself fed the pitch to Freddy — because he’s on leave, he can’t offer them directly to Peggy or anyone else, so Freddy is his secret conduit.
There is a body of television criticism that argues that the real “Man Men” protagonist is not Don after all, but Peggy. I wouldn’t go that far. Don’s story is the prime focus of the show but Peggy’s is a close runner-up. Just as Don represents all those the old-school men who built the post-war world, Peggy represents the women who came into the workforce and raised their consciousness in the 60s. Together they are the yin and the yang of mid-century, middle class America. Over the years they have fought and grappled for control and credit but they’ve always had this in common: they were dedicated to excellence in their work. Their personal lives might be a mess but they are committed to their careers. As Peggy confessed to Don during that great “Suitcase” episode from Season 4, “nothing seems to matter as much out there as what happens in here.”
This is why Peggy is so miserable. Not only is her putative lover boy Ted Chaough in self-imposed exile in Los Angeles, she’s also turned into a slumlord because her brave urban homesteading project on the Upper West Side has become a nightmare with a tenant who keeps flushing sanitary pads down the toilet. Worse, her new boss Lou Avery is an empty suit. He’s a lot of things really: he’s also a dismissive, sexist asshole, but his worst sin is that he doesn’t care about the quality of the work. He was hired to be creative director in the wake of Don’s flame out at the end of Season Six, and for a guy who was out of work just two months ago, he’s very satisfied with himself .
Lou’s the kind of boss who wears a Mr. Rogers cardigan in the office and makes jokes like “Who do we have here? Gladys Knight and the Pips?” when his staff and black secretary convene for a meeting. His main concern is moving work along as expeditiously as possible without a care for the quality. He can’t be bothered to listen to the pitch that Peggy brings from Freddy Rumsen, says he doesn’t care what she thinks, and outright tells her he’s “immune to your charms.” What a jerk! Our Peggy! The horrible implication is that she got ahead of her “charms,” such as they are, rather than on her clear and obvious talent. No wonder she calls the rest of the creative team hacks when they go along with him. I can guarantee, though, that Lou will not be sitting in that chair by the end of 1969. A guy like that is almost always found out and dispatched to peddle his inadequacies for some other poor employer.
If Peggy is miserable, Don is hollowed out. He looks as great as ever, flying out to LA to meet his beautiful glamorous wife, who’s living now three time zones away. She made good on her threat to leave Don after he reneged on his plan to move to California, and their marriage is barely hanging together. She has an Astin Martin, (just like James Bond) and is wearing a dress that looks like it came from a Victoria Secrets catalog. No longer deferring to Don, she pointedly insists on driving, gets so drunk celebrating her call-back for a part on “Bracken’s World” (a real but mediocre TV series about a movie studio that I actually used to watch) that she can’t have sex with her husband, and gets exasperated when he buys her a big color TV. She’s living in a cabin in the Hollywood Hills, with a tremendous view of the city below. Her isolation seems dangerous; you can hear coyotes howling in the canyons, but she’s so excited about her LA adventure that she doesn’t care.
In seasons past, California was Don’s escape valve – the place where he could be himself as Dick Whitman – but his great friend Anna Draper is dead now and California provides no balm for his soul. He’s only there for two days before taking the red eye back to New York. Why he bothers to make such a speedy return is unclear since he has no job in New York.
The irony is that although as he’s hit this new low point, he’s got his act together like never before. He’s barely drinking and when presented with the opportunity to commence a new affair with Neve Campbell – the beautiful brunette he meets on his flight home – he passes. More important, he’s gained a measure of self-awareness. He confesses to Neve that he’s been a bad husband and coolly dissects his personality as astutely as any blogger. But the reward he gets for coming clean about his past and going straight is that he’s more isolated than ever, spending his days as Cyrano for Freddie Rumsen.
In the final scenes, we are presented with the images of Don and Peggy, desolate and devastated in their empty homes. Peggy actually collapses on the floor in tears when her fix-it-man brother-in-law, who has temporarily solved her tenant’s gripes, insists on returning home late at night because he doesn’t like to leave his wife alone. What a solid guy! Who’s worried about Peggy staying alone? Nobody. And Don’s just as shattered. We see him and Freddy Runsen going over a pitch in a dark and dank room, which is soon revealed as Don’s living room. This is the formerly glamorous pad that he and Megan moved into when they got married; now it’s dirty and the balcony door won’t even close properly. All his early hopes for a fresh start are as ruined as this apartment.
The year 1969 was a bad year. Not as bad as 1968 with its riots and assassinations, but still pretty bad for the country’s soul The Vietnam War was at its climax and families continued to be at each other’s throats over it. The violence and murder at the Altamont Concert quickly undid all the goodwill from Woodstock. And of course there was the shocking murder of the actress Sharon Tate and four other people on August 9, 1969 by Charles Manson’s cult, which made it seem like the country was becoming totally insane. The bad karma of tarnished dreams that Don and Peggy are experiencing is the very karma that 1969 embodied. That final image of Don shivering alone on his balcony while The Vanilla Fudge’s “You Keep Me Hanging On” wells up is as depressing as the spirit of the late 60s. “Set me free why don’t you babe?” Both Peggy and Don are desperate to be set free from the problems they’ve created for themselves.
Some other thoughts:
— Less depressing was the third major subplot of the night: Joan’s attempt to salvage the Butler Shoe account. Ken’s too consumed with other clients and concerned about his status to meet with Butler’s new head of marketing, a whippersnapper MBA who’s focused on the four Ps – a real thing apparently. Instead of calling off the meeting, Joan meets him in a restaurant and tries to woo him with her charms, to which this guy truly is immune. He tells her he’s going to cut costs by taking the advertising in-house, one of those genius moves that marketing managers come up with from time to time. Next thing we know, Joan is trekking up to the Columbia Business School to meet some professor, who’s willing to give her insight into the shoe business but he wants something in return. Joan naturally thinks he wants to get into her pants, but lo and behold, he wants her for her mind! He wants to know about how fees and commissions work at her firm! By Monday, she feels empowered enough to call him on the phone and go FULL METAL JOAN on him. Armed with a few facts, she reduces him to a blubbering mass in 30 seconds. I love the “Man Men” segments when they explain how advertising actually works, although I did notice, that, as usual, Joan thinks the agency’s strong point is its ability to place ads, not its creative. In her world, Don, Lou and Peggy really are interchangeable. It’s the great buys they get on NBC that set them apart.
— Don is shown watching the movie version of “Lost Horizon,” the story that introduced the concept of Shangri-La to the world. It’s the tale of a world weary man who stumbles upon a warm, peaceful paradise and has to decide whether to return to the cold cruel world. Hmm, I wonder who that could be referring to?
— Love the scene in the restaurant with Megan’s agent, who’s as gay as Paul Lynde, feels it necessary to reassure Don that his interest in Megan is strictly “green,” by which I assume it means he’s interested in the $$$ that a successful client will generate. Don doesn’t seem to worried about the competition.
— Speaking of Megan, here we go again with the Sharon Tate references. Last year the Internet almost melted down with theories about Megan’s vulnerability and similarity to the murdered Sharon Tate. She survived 1968 but is now living in a remote canyon house like Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski did, so maybe she’s in danger again.
— Also speaking of Megan, the agent says, “I’ll say one thing about this girl, she evokes strong feelings.” Presumably this is an inside joke about how divisive a figure she is among Mad Men fans.
— Funniest line: “Those are some nice properties,” while looking at the chest of Pete’s real estate agent.
— Overall I liked the episode although not much seemed to be going on. But with AMC breaking the season into two seven-episode halves, I worry about how much can be accomplished in the next six episodes before we break for another year.
— Would love to know what kind of mumbo jumbo Roger’s daughter is into. I love how she’s willing to forgive her father but not willing to accept any forgiveness in return. After all, why does SHE need to be forgiven? (Also love that one of her grievances is that he made her ask for money. Not that he refused to give it, but that he made her ask for it in the first place. What a spoiled brat.)
— Whenever I hear about an arty woman living a bohemian lifestyle in an LA canyon I always think of Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon,” which came out in 1970.
— Don says that Pete Campbell looks like a hippie, because he’s a little shaggy and informal. This was an often-used insult that corporate types used to put down their slightly looser colleagues — like at IBM you could be called a hippie for wearing a blue shirt instead of the more common buttoned down white shirt. Speaking of Pete, poor Vincent Karthheiser has shaved a widow’s peak into his head to show that his character is balding, something he’s not doing in real life. But he only gets one short scene.
— Talk about art imitating life! That douche bag Lou tells Peggy she’s “too emotional” about her work, a clear sexist jibe. How far we’ve come — not! Last week the political correctness police were up in arms because CIA director Michael Hayden said that Senator Dianne Feinstein had an “emotional reaction” to the CIA waterboarding program. So we’re still arguing about whether being emotional is a good thing or a bad thing.
— No Bob Benson? James Wolk wasn’t mentioned in the credits but that doesn’t mean he’ll never appear again, even though he’s stationed out in Detroit at GM..
Anyone else worried that his or her vessel is broken?