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burt-goodbye

In the spring of 1967, younger then than Sally Draper is now, I walked to the General Cinema movie theater in the Brockton, Mass., Westgate Mall to see “How to Succeed in Business Without Even Trying,” and I loved it.  A send up of corporate life, the movie had a big impact on how I (and others) perceived office culture.  Together with the much darker “The Apartment,” “Succeed” is one of the “Urtexts” of the Mad Men mythos.

And of course it starred Robert Morse.  He played a window washer who manipulated himself through guile, street smarts and confidence into the role of Chairman of the Board of a huge company.  In the scene posted below the other senior managers plot against his ascendancy (one even says: “Let’s not forget he’s now in advertising and that does something to men’s brains”) and he responds with the confidence-building “I believe in you.”

When I saw my first episode of Mad Men, I’d never heard of any of the actors in the credits until Robert Morse’ name appeared.  For whatever reason, I hadn’t seen him in anything since“Succeed,” and was shocked at how old and fat he’d gotten during those 40 years.  But that twinkle was still there and Bert Cooper soon became one of my favorite characters.  He was one of those Mad Men wonders: hardly ever on the screen but distinctive and unique whenever he did appear.

Bert would be about 80 in 1969, meaning he was born in the 1880s.  He would have seen the coming of electricity, aviation, the automobile and the telephone.  Along with Roger Sterling’s father, he would have been an early pioneer in the advertising industry.

In many ways, especially with his casual racism, he was a throwback to an earlier era, but what made him truly interesting is that he was focused on the future until the end.  He hangs a Mark Rothko in his office; he has a Jackson Pollack on his living room wall; he’s delighted by the prospect of the moon landing.

It’s not surprising when an 80-something man dies, but it is surprising when he returns from the dead to give Don Draper some well-needed advice.  Echoing the little nerd Neil, the one Sally kisses, Bert does an amazing song and dance to “The moon belongs to everyone, The best things in life they’re free.”  When a show as realistic as Mad Men shows Don having a hallucination about a ghost it’s a shock, but somehow it works because it exposes an emotional truth. And what a fabulous send-off for Robert Morse, whose career was bookended by two amazing roles.

And what’s really unexpected about the song is that it’s a total contradiction of the Mad Men guiding ethos.  Sterling Cooper and Partners exist precisely to convince “consumers” that the best things in life are very very very NOT free.  When the scene is over, Don has to lean against a desk to compose himself.  Is he contemplating the message?  We’ll need to wait ten months to find out.

The other thing about this particular song is that it was a Depression era standard – a song used to comfort a population that didn’t have any money anyway.  Here’s an early version by Jack Hylton.

It’s a little reminder that Bert would have been at the peak of his career during the Depression, somehow coaxing the agency through tough times and showing real leadership to his team – the kind of leadership that he claims Roger lacks.

In their heart-to-heart final conversation, Bert goes all Yoda and says that Roger has talent, skill  and experience but not leadership.  He says he voted to keep Don in the company even though he’s a “pain in the ass” because as a leader he has to be loyal to his team.  To which Roger responds with the lyrics to yet another Depression-era song: “So it’s ‘Let’s have another cup of Coffee; Let’s have another piece of pie?’”  Two songs from the Depression in a show that heavily features space travel?  Definitely not a coincidence.

So exeunt Bert Cooper.  Your epitaph for your old girlfriend, the hellcat Ida Blankenship, could have applied to you:  “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She’s an astronaut.”

Bert’s death, coming in the middle of a power struggle at the firm, provides the impetus for yet another episode of corporate intrigue.  The episode is titled “Waterloo,” based on Bert’s observation that no one has ever successfully come back from a leave of absence at the firm.  Even Napoleon couldn’t come back after being exiled to Elba.

But Don is not the real Napoleon in this episode. He’s been playing the good boy for several months now.  No, the guy who’s plotting the coup is Jim Cutler.  Once there’s no longer a chance to get Commander cigarettes as a client, he declares Don in breach of contract for his little stunt in showing up to the preliminary meeting uninvited.  Technically Cutler is correct but what he doesn’t understand about this particular partnership (or about the world in general) is that the rules are the rules until the people who make the rules decide to change them.  He sends Don a letter in the company’s name without checking with his partners. And after forcing a showdown, Don wins the vote.  Only Joan votes against him, declaring that he’s already cost him too much money (as Bert pointed out – and which readers of this column know from my write-up after it happened, when Don blew up the IPO last year it cost Joan over a million dollars.)

As I remarked last week, I can’t tell if Cutler is an empty suit or a Machiavellian schemer, but I’m swinging back to empty suit.  In some respects, he’s as impetuous as Don, sending the “breach” letter without authorization, and pressing again to fire Don before Bert’s body is even cold (which invigorates Roger and turns him into the very leader that Bert said he was not).  Plus he’s not exactly Frank Underwood with the vote counting.  He assumes he has Ted’s vote, which I doubt, so if he wants to pull off a palace coup, he should plan it more carefully.

In any event, Cutler’s crass power grab precipitates Roger’s roll of the dice and he proposes a sale of the company to McCann Erickson, which once tried to buy Sterling Cooper  and is still interested in hiring Don.  When Roger brings the offer back to the partners, he dangles dollar bills in front of Joan’s eyes, which changes her mind FAST about the prospect of continuing to work with Don.  Pete’s even more ecstatic about getting $3 million (or course Trudy will get half of that – SORRY!!!)

The problem is Ted. McCann insists that Ted and Don come as a package deal because Chevy likes their work, but he’s burned out.  After begging Don to let him go to California in his place last year, he’s been miserable out there, threatening to go all Lane Pryce with a couple of Sunkist clients.  Ted’s had so little screen time this season that we can’t understand the source of his depression – presumably it’s his lingering love for Peggy, or maybe he just became undone that his self-image as an honest upstanding man was damaged by their dalliance.  For whatever reason he wants to quit and get out of advertising altogether.

But then comes the great Don Draper pitch, once again reeling in poor Ted Chaogh.  He tells Ted that even if he has the ability to become independently wealthy, he still needs to work.  You don’t need to work with us, he says, but you need to fill your day with a fulfilling occupation.  As someone who was banished from the office for six months, he knows the existential crisis of not having a work identity.  And then there’s this lure: he and Ted won’t have to worry about management any longer – they can just do the work they love without the office politics that has consumed them over the past year.

So the soulful creatives – the ones who care about excellence, art and human expression – win this round over the computer-driven bean-pushers.  The computer will work for them; they will not work for the computer.  And it’s inspiring because the show has demonstrated how fulfilling work can be when there’s a merger of your best self and your job.  We see Peggy rise to Drapper-like levels in her presentation to Burger Chef.  Her mixture of the topic of the day (the moon landing), her special insight as a woman pitching to an all-male team, and her evocation of the most primitive desires (to be a good parent through the delivery of food and love) elevates this pitch to “Carousel”-like standards.

What’s fabulous about the pitch is how Don insisted that Peggy do it and the pride he takes in her achievement.  Those frustrating scenes early in the season, with her being marginalized by Lou Avery, are over and she can really blossom.  There are many meaningful looks between them as the episode progresses and it’s clear that although Don’s losing his actual wife, he’s gaining an “office wife.”  Don is still a mentor but she’s almost a peer now.

This was the most stress-free episode of the year.  Even with Bert dying and Don’s marriage breaking up and Cutler’s attempted coup, this was still a remarkably happy episode.  And the reason is that the thematic thread running through the show – the moon landing – is the most thrilling and happiest moment of the entire 1960s.

It’s hard to remember now, but when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, it seemed immensely important – as important as Columbus discovering America.  Even in hindsight, it does seem like an amazing technological achievement.  In less than a decade, the country went from having no space program, to walking on the moon.  The shots of all the families huddling around the TV to gape in expectation, pride and relief are still very moving.  This was the Sixties at their best – the best minds solving a problem by using what seems now like laughably antique technology (my cell phone has a more powerful computer in it than the one that directed the Apollo space launches).  And the idea that an entire nation would watch as one extended family also seems laughably antique.

What the characters don’t know is how quickly the excitement, pride and glow of achievement would fade.  Within years the moon missions will become ho-hum and they will eventually be cancelled altogether because they providing so little immediate return on investment.  Very little fires the imagination of the country today like the space program did, and although I’m not sorry to see the Sixties in the rear window, I do miss that shared mission we felt as a people.

watching-apollo-11-moon-landing-kennedy-airport-july-20-1969

And a word for Neil Armstrong – an incredibly American hero (see obit here).  A boy scout and fighter pilot from Ohio, he was for a while the most famous man in the world.  Also forgotten today is how dangerous those missions were.  We didn’t really know if the landing module would come down on hard ground or sink into an ocean of dust. Nor did we know if the module would be able to take off from the moon and return back to the orbiting vessel that would return them to earth.  Armstrong never capitalized on his fame; like Don claims to be, he was also someone who just wanted to do the job.  When Roger Sterling asks what Armstrong will do for the rest of his life and then suggests that he will be able to “screw every girl in Florida,” he is very very VERY wrong.  Armstrong might have been emotionally remote (like a certain ad executive we know) but he never exploited his fame, and he lived a life of quiet dignity and restraint – the kind of character that the spoiled and entitled Roger Sterling can’t begin to understand.

armstrong

Some other thoughts:

— They episode contains many examples of people making misjudgments and poor predictions.  As noted, Roger was wrong about Neil Armstrong.  Bert was wrong about Don being able to come back from leave; he was very wrong about Don not being loyal to his team, as he gave his chance to pitch Burger Chef to Peggy. Don is wrong that he and Ted will be able to keep out of office politics. Julio’s mother is wrong in thinking Newark will provide better opportunities than the Upper West Side.  Peggy was wrong that the moon landing would change everything.  Cutler is really wrong when he outlines what the agency should look like: “computer services and media buys pinpointed with surgical accuracy.” Ha, that’s a good one, as all my friends in advertising and media measurement know.  Even today, most advertising is wasted because the agencies don’t really know if their actual customers are watching the TV shows they’ve advertised on.

– I don’t want to quibble, but I don’t understand the apportionment of shares in SC&P.  Why do “Benedict Joan” and Pete respectively still have 5% and 10% of the agency?  That was their stake before the merger.  Those stakes should have been diluted by half if it was a merger of equals.  And if Chaough and Cutler each have 20%, does that mean that Don, Roger and Bert had the remaining 45%, or 15% each?  Also, Don asks the pertinent question after Bert dies: is his sister still alive?  Bert’s vote doesn’t disappear, it just goes to his heir or heirs, so they rightfully should have waited for the sister to vote.

— Poor Harry Crane. We can only assume he’s been greedy and holding out for a better partnership deal since last episode, but he didn’t move fast enough and missed the buy-out.  (Something makes me think this happened once before, but I haven’t had time to research it thoroughly, so if anyone out there can remember Harry missing out on another windfall, let me know.)  To make matters worse, he could potentially be out on his ass, job-wise, because McCann probably has a huge media buying shop and might not need his talents or his IBM 3600 computer.

— Have we seen the last of Lou Avery and his Tiki Bar?  In his final scene he complained that he’d built ten years as a tobacco advertiser and “one meeting turned me into a joke.”  Sorry Pal, you were always a joke.

— I loved how Sally kissed the nerdy Neil, not his testosterone-exuding older brother.  She obviously had her eye on hunko, the student athelete, at first, getting dolled up and looking like a blonde Elizabeth Taylor just to go life-guarding. But then she plagiarized the guy’s observation about the space program being a waste of money, and disappointed Don, who told her not to be so cynical.  Suddenly Nerdy Neil, who might be awkward, but is honestly passionate about something and advocates real experiences, not manufactured TV ones, looked like the better catch, at least for a quick smooch.

— Interesting that all the families shown watching the moon landing were non-traditional: Roger, his ex-wife, his son-in-law and his grandchild; the work family of Peggy, Don, Harry and Pete; the blended Francis and college friend families; and Bert and his Black maid.

— Best line, Pete about Don: “That is a very sensitive piece of horseflesh! He shouldn’t be rattled!”

— Breakfast at the Francis household almost made me throw up.  Fried eggs on toast, coffee and cigarettes.  Three things I never could stand and the smell of them together always repulsed me.

— Very touching scene between Peggy and Julio, when Julio announces he’s moving to Newark.  He’s ten years old, almost as old as her own baby would be at this point – the one she had with Pete.  She promises to come visit him, but we all know she won’t – just like she can’t visit her own child.

— Darkly amusing how Peggy’s main concern about the fate of the astronauts is the impact of a potential disaster on her pitch.  If the astronauts perish or get stranded “we’re going to have to postpone this meeting a year.”

— Peggy’s complaint that she will have to pitch a commercial to a bunch of guys who just “touched the face of God,” is a clear reference to the poem “High Flight” by the American aviator  John Gillespie Magee, Jr, who fought to defend England during the Battle of Britain (history here). This poem was famously quoted by Ronald Reagan after the Challenger Space Shuttle blew up.  For a good cry check this out:

— I wouldn’t necessarily rule Megan out for the rest of the series.  They are splitting up, it seems, but the Charles Manson murders are in August 1969 and that might shake her up.  She’s right about one thing: Don doesn’t owe her anything.  She was a secretary at smallish ad agency when she seduced him with Disneyland and her milk-sopping skills.  He then bankrolled her acting “career.” Even now she sits in a great house with a fantastic view, throwing money around like it came out of a spaghetti box.  I like Megan, but I don’t feel sorry for her, like I feel sorry for Betty.

— So what comes next?  If this were a normal Mad Men season, the next episode would only jump ahead three weeks to August 1969, the month of Woodstock, the year’s other big touchstone.  But with seven episodes left and so many plotlines already wrapped up, it wouldn’t surprise me to have them jump ahead a year or longer.  The fate of SC&P is sealed, as is apparently Don’s marriage, his relationship with Peggy, and his job. Can we really spend the rest of 1969 watching SC&P get integrated into McCann?

Regardless, the first half of the season turned out better than I expected, with some powerful evocative episodes.  Curse you TV gods, for making us wait another ten months before we know the fate of these characters!

Bravo!

 

 

Burge Chef 2

There have been many Sunday evenings when I couldn’t fall asleep after Mad Men because I was disturbed or emotionally wrung out, but Sunday’s episode (”The Strategy”) might be the first time I couldn’t fall asleep because I was so – what? Happy?  What a joyful redemptive episode.  Finally there seems to be a way out of the Hell these characters have been living in and it’s nothing magic; it’s as simple as acceptance and self-awareness.  Only when the characters strip away their illusions and let down their defenses do they achieve a modicum of peace.  As Don says, the job of existence is “living and not knowing” – a tough job made more miserable if you try to fake it or go it alone.

There’s an important clue in the final scene when Peggy calls the Burger Chef “a clean well-lighted place.”  Aha, after all these years I can put my B.A. in American Studies to good use! Because “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” is one of Ernest Hemingway’s most existential short stories.  It’s the tale of a conversation between two waiters in a Parisian café, who are waiting for an elderly, deaf World War I veteran to finish his brandy so they can close up.   The older waiter understands that the patron, a damaged man, is fending off darkness and desperation by staying out all night in orderly, well-lit places.

It’s Peggy’s insight that even a cheesy fast food restaurant can be a safe place for families who are struggling under their weight of their own expectations.  And not just the perfect family either because the tableaux we see at the end is Mad Men’s vision of the Modern Family.  Pete, Peggy and Don – three survivors who see work as the only thing in their lives that redeems them – are casually and familiarly eating their dinner in a Burger Chef as the camera silently pulls back.  Adding poignancy to the scene is the missing person, the one who would make it a real family: Peggy and Pete’s baby, long ago given up for adoption.  That baby, who is is never spoken of but never forgotten either, would be about eight years old now.  He or she could have been part of those families she was interviewing for market research during the opening scene.  “I looked into the windows of so many station wagons,” she says with her voice cracking, “What did I do wrong?”  (She also laments: “What the Hell do I know about being a mother?”)

If I ate a Burger Chef burger for every time the word “family” was uttered in this episode I would be as fat as Bert Cooper.  This was an utterly fantastic episode but it wasn’t subtle.  When it wasn’t hammering home how terrible it was to be a woman in 1969, it was commenting on the disintegration of the traditional family.  And in fact, there are no happy families on Mad Men.  The only families that are scraping by are non-traditional ones cobbled together by mothers, caretakers and gay men.  There’s Joan, Kevin and her mother (and to some extent Bob Benson). Then there’s Trudy, Tami and Verna. And finally there’s the ultimate disaggregated Twentieth Century family: the work family consisting of colleagues who spend more time with each other than they do with their official family.  “Every table here is the family table,” Peggy says to Pete and Don at Burger Chef.  People with no blood connection who share dreams and experiences can also be a family.

“The Strategy” is a perfectly constructed episode, first displaying an increasingly dark world, and then in a series of powerfully satisfying scenes, offering a way out.   The world is a terrible place at the beginning of the episode.  Women are devalued and condescended to, valued only as ornaments and easily bought off with offers of shopping sprees.  It’s a world where gays are beaten up and where “The Jews close everything on Saturday.”  The world is dirty: Bonnie’s feet are filthy from walking on the streets in sandals; Megan wants to go to a dirty movie (“I am Curious Yellow”); Bonnie wants to go to a dirty play (“Oh Calcutta.”)  As noted, it’s a world of absent fathers.  And as always, it’s a dog-eat-dog business world, where powerful businessmen play with the lives of others.   We only need to see the half-blind Ken Cosgrove making happy talk with the people who shot out his eye to be reminded how careless people are about the things in their care.

But about two-thirds of the way through, there’s a little light generated by characters who display courage and an unwillingness to settle for mediocrity.  First Joan turns down Bob Benson’s offer of a marriage of convenience.  He knows that if he’s going to succeed at Buick, he needs a traditional family, with a wife.  In one of the most heartfelt rejections ever, Joan makes it clear that she won’t marry a gay man, even if the reward would be living in a mansion in Detroit.  Bob’s proposition is seductively attractive; it doesn’t even sound like the compromise it is: “At times like this, Joan, this is where you need someone. To comfort each other in an uncertain world.”   But Joan won’t settle for a sham marriage.  “I want love.  And I’d rather die hoping that happens, then making some arrangement – and you should too.”  This, too, is an existential response to despair.  Just as Sisyphus keeps pushing that rock up the hill even though it always rolls back, so too will Joan keep pushing for her dream, which is love.

But the main event of the episode is the reconciliation between Peggy and Don.  Theirs has always been the central relationship on the series.   She’s the one woman he can truly relate to and their estrangement these past few seasons has created an emotional hole in the middle of the series.  “The Strategy” hearkens back to that great episode in Season 4, “The Suitcase,” in which they worked together all night, screaming and fighting and then opening up to each other like they’d never opened up to anyone else.

What Peggy and Don have in common is a commitment to the work.  A burning desire to achieve excellence, even if nobody else appreciates it (this too is an existential response to absurdity.)  Even though Pete, Lou, Harry and the rest of those yokels thought her first Burger Chef presentation was great, Peggy is tortured knowing that it was mediocre.   She has been awful to Don all season, relishing having him under her thumb, but in the end, frustrated at not being able to solve the Burger Chef puzzle, she demands that he reveal his creative secrets.  And what’s remarkable about this scene (and others in the episode) is how deeply self-aware he is, jokingly tell her, “Whenever I’m unsure about an idea, first I abuse the people whose help I need. Then I take a nap.”  This is Don Draper on his super-best behavior.

So they go to work – testing idea after idea.  Trying to get at the truth of the client’s dilemma.  And they are honest.  Finally we get to the heart of why Peggy has been such a bitch all season: it was her 30th birthday a few weeks ago.  It’s a testament to how much Don has grown that he reacts sympathetically, and not dismissively as he did in “The Suitcase” episode, which occurred on her 26th birthday.  For his part, Don confesses that he’s worried that he’s never accomplished anything and doesn’t have anyone.  And when their emotions are raw and open, Peggy finally comes up with the strategy: “What if there was a place you could go where there was no TV and you could break bread and whoever you were sitting with was family.”

And then they dance.  To Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” no less.  It’s a sweet, gallant dance, with Peggy finally receiving the comfort and understanding that’s been missing all season long.  Don’s greatest gift to her in these scenes is that he let Peggy come to the idea herself, allowing her to finally become his peer, and then he folded her in his arms, kissed her fatherly on the top of her head and soothed her troubled spirits.  Don Draper has been Superman, James Bond, even Sinatra, but he’s never been more heroic than now.

Some other thoughts:

— The episode is set sometime between June 17, 1969, when “Oh Calcutta” opened, and June 28, 1969, the night of the Stonewall riot.    The Stonewall riot occurred at a gay bar in Greenwich Village when the patrons pushed back against police harassment and is generally considered to be the beginning of the gay rights movement.  It’s hard to believe this event would gone unmentioned by the cops or by Bob Benson and the gay GM executive if it had already happened.

— That final scene at the Burger Chef was shot at an empty restaurant in Rialto California.  It’s amazing what you can discover on the Internet (see this story).  What a gorgeous scene that was, shot in vivid Technicolor with no shadows or depressing hues.

— Here are the real Burger Chef commercials.  The company’s actual tagline was “We’ll always treat you right,” and it looks like their strategy was more along the lines of what Don originally proposed: to take the kids perspective:

— It seems clear that Megan and Don’s marriage is basically over.  It’s not going down in blaze of recrimination and vituperation but in a slow decline of sweet regret.  When Don wakes up and sees her on the balcony, his eyes are full of love; and Megan too, says she misses him.  But she’s here to pick up her belongings (including her fondue pot) and she’s not excited about seeing him in LA in July.  Later Don admits he “[has] no one,” which is not the thing a fully engaged husband says.  But the real clue is the scene of her and Bonnie flying back to LA, separate, but on the same plane and in the same frame of mind.  That scene ends with the stewardess decisively pulling the curtains together; I think that symbolizes the end of both Pete and Don’s relationships.

— It would have been hard to find a more perfect song for Don and Peggy to dance to than “My Way.” In 1969, Sinatra was in an analogous situation to Don.  He’d been the hippest cat of 1955 but he seemed retrograde and out of it as the Sixties wore on.  Nevertheless, he forged ahead and outlasted the Sixties, becoming even more popular and successful than he’d ever been.  As for “My Way,” it’s a pure existential anthem about a guy who made mistake, had regrets, but blazes his own trail and is true to himself.

— Funniest tweet of the night: ‏@lhlamb Peggy: “If only I were the exec ed of the NYTimes I wouldn’t have to put up with this shit.” #MadMen.  Yes, there were many comments about Jill Abramson, the glass ceiling and the mistreatment of women on Twitter Sunday night.

— The most unwanted compliment of the night: “She’s every bit as good as any woman in this business.”

— “I Curious Yellow,” was a famous Swedish “art” film that was heavy on explicit sex (see this description from Vulture).  Don says he was scandalized, but I doubt it.  Many other people were, though.

— And then there’s “Oh Calcutta,” a musical spoof with a naked co-ed cast cavorting on stage for the titillation of sophisticated upper-middle-class liberal audiences..  What a weird time the 60’s were.

Oh! Calcutta

— Harry Crane finally makes partner, over Joan’s vociferous objections.  She has never forgiven the dismissive things he’s said about her when she made partner by sexually satisfying Jaguar Herb.  More to the point, when TV first started to get popular in the early Sixties she created the firm’s first media-buying unit, and the powers-that-be casually took it away from her and gave it to Harry.

— Don does get a little bit of revenge, though.  At the partner meeting when Joan objects to Harry’s promotion, he says, “Well at least he’s loyal,” shooting daggers right at Joan, who has certainly NOT been loyal to him despite the times he stood up for her.

— Speaking of Harry, it’s possible that Jim Cutler’s plan to make him partner might redound to Don’s benefit.  They have treated Don miserably, but if it was put to a full vote, I’m pretty sure Don would be reinstated.  If he pushed it and forced a boardroom showdown, he could count on the following votes: his, Roger’s, Pete’s, Ted’s, and Harry’s.  The only sure votes in opposition would be Jim’s, Joan’s and possibly Bert’s.  And even if Ted stabbed Don in the back after Don gave him the chance to go to California and save his marriage, there would still be a 5-4 vote in Don’s favor.

I loved that the entire reconciliation scene between Don and Peggy took place in Lou’s office, which is Don’s old lair and where Peggy yearns to be.  I doubt that either of them yearn for Lou’s Tiki Bar, even if Lou’s wife is “a card.”

— And whatever happened with Don’s power play at the end of last episode, when he violated the rules and pitched himself at the Commander meeting?  An annoying thing about Mad Men is that it always skips ahead a month between seasons and we have to infer what happened between episode. I guess the assumption is that Don is safe as long as the Commander account is still up for grabs.  But still, it was surprising to see him at a partner’s meeting, since earlier in the season the partners were making decisions without consulting him at all.

— The Jim Cutler character continues to swing between evil genius and an empty suit.  In this episode he’s back to being a moron, thinking that an article in the NYT about Harry Crane and his IBM 360 is going to off-set the harm of losing the Chevy account.  I’ve worked in PR long enough to know that a single story is not going to solve a fundamental business problem.

— The Chevy XP project that the firm has been working on was eventually branded the Chevy Vega.  It turned out to be a bomb, so maybe SC&P are lucky to lose the account now, especially if they have a shot at Buick later.

800px-Vega_clay_model

— It’s a sign of the casual homophobia of the era that the worst thing you could imply about your business competitor is that he’s a pass at you, which is what Roger does to the McCann Erickson guy in the New York Athletic Club steam room.  The thing is, the guy really was propositioning Roger, hinting that they might like to buy SC&P (“I’d like to enrich the lives of people I respect.”)  I’m not sure if Roger picked up on that, but he did observe that McCann was worried about losing the Buick account, possibly setting the stage for corporate shenanigans in the next half-season.

— For the record, we know from “The Suitcase” episode that Peggy’s birthday is May 25 (the date of the second Clay/Liston fight).  In other words, last week when she was sitting on the couch with Julio watching TV, we got a glimpse of what her birthday was probably like.

— The poster on Stan’s wall is Moshe Dayan, the former defense minister of Israel and the hero of the 1967 Six Day War.  We saw that poster in a previous episode and every time we are reminded of Ken Cosgrove’s injury.

moshe dayan

— I’m sure it’s a coincidence but Bob Benson and Trudy Campbell, both of whom have been sorely missed, are back right after their TV series (“The Crazy Ones” and “Community”) were cancelled.  Nice to have you back guys.

— Speaking of Bob Benson he looks entirely different now that he has the security of the Chevy account.  Last year he had bland good looks but when he returns from Detroit he looks remarkably handsome.  Not sure if it’s the haircut or just a new personality, but one can only dream about what a great couple he and Joan would make.

— This is the tiniest detail, but on second viewing I noticed that Megan was making spaghetti for dinner – again!  I’m telling you, this is a very inside joke by the writers — that she doesn’t know how to cook anything else.

— Enjoy this respite of happiness while you can.  Next week’s episode is the mid-season finale and it’s bound to have some fireworks.  Ominously  titled “Waterloo,” it will also take place in July 1969 – the month of the first moon landing.  At the time, that was considered the most momentous event of the year and you have to think it will have to play a role in the episode.

— Finally, where is Creepy Glenn?  Has he been arrested for smoking pot?  Is he occupying the Dean’s office?  He will definitely make his reappearance once more on Mad Men. Matt Weiner has been providing exits for his characters one by one and he’s certainly not going to overlook his real-life son.

 

Orange is the new black

Am I the only one who can’t keep “Orphan Black” and “Orange is the New Black” straight?  What I know about both shows is that they’re critically acclaimed — and available only on platforms that I need to pay extra for.  Oh, and also that I don’t have the time to watch either of them right now.           

I’m already pretty busy, TV-wise. I’m watching “Mad Men,” “Silicon Valley” and “Veep,” while still slowly making my way through season one of “The Americans” and season four of “Friday Night Lights.”  I’m trying, but failing, to stay current on “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” while keeping up with “The Mindy Project” and “Modern Family.”  And that’s before I try to watch my beloved Red Sox on MLB.TV.

As recently as 10 years ago it was possible for a cultured television consumer to follow all the prestige shows.   There were plenty of good shows but not so many that you couldn’t keep track.  And you didn’t need to spend an arm and a leg to watch everything either.  If you had basic cable package and HBO, you were set.

Now there’s a new must-see show every week and you’ve got to have Showtime, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus and God knows what else just to watch them all.  And sometimes even that’s not enough.  At the end of last year the critics collectively decided that the best TV show currently broadcasting is a political drama about Danish politics.  Unfortunately for the ordinary viewer, it’s not available in the U.S.; I suppose we’re supposed to fly to Denmark to watch it.

I guess I shouldn’t complain, since it’s better to have too much quality TV than not enough, but sometimes it can be overwhelming.   And it’s not just the time required to watch all the great shows, it’s the emotional exertion.  Because some of these shows are intense!  I’ve heard there are people who watch “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men” back-to-back on Sunday.  Wow. They must have blood in their veins,because one hour with either of those shows would wipe me out for the rest of the night.

Maybe I’m thinking about this wrong.  I’m still clinging to the idea that television can be a unifying feature of American life, providing a common experience that we all share.  There was a time when you’d go into work, talk about the TV shows you’d watched the night before, and everyone would be on the same page.  Today the only time we all gather around the communal TV is to watch the Super Bowl — and, to a much lesser extent, the Academy Awards.

A better model for thinking about television is the book world.  Back in the 1940s and 1950s sophisticated Americans were all aware of the full range of recent prestige books and if they didn’t actually read them, they could at least fake it.  Television helped to kill serious reading, but, as in the case of television, what really did in the shared literary experience was the fragmentation of publishing.

The number of books published in the U.S. continues to soar and no one even pretends to keep current on all the serious literary fiction or important nonfiction titles.  Every once in a while a book like “The Goldfinch” will come along that everyone seems to be reading, just like everyone seemed to be watching “Breaking Bad” last year.  But that’s rare.  If you’re like me, when someone tells you about a great book they’ve just read, the title will slip out of your head before you get around to buying it.

Another complicating factor for keeping up with important new television shows is that, like the book industry, TV is developing a huge “backlist.”  One of these days I’ll watch “The Wire,” just like one of these days I’ll read “Catch 22.”  In other words, new TV shows are not just competing against other new TV shows, but against shows that came out years ago.

In the overall scheme of things, having too many TV shows to watch is the classic “first-world problem.”  But I do sometimes feel that the stress of trying to keep up is killing me softly.   I guess it’s time to let it go.  I need to convince myself that if I never get around to watching “Agent Orange,” I will survive.

madmenrecap the runaways

Sunday’s Mad Men (“The Runaways”) begins with a viewer warming about sexually explicit material, and if you had told me we’d be seeing a three-way and a nipple, I’d have assumed they’d be connected somehow.  But not on late-Sixties Mad Men, which is slowly descending into madness.

Now this is the Sixties that I remember. The previous four episodes this season have taken place in 1969 at specific dates on the calendar, but those shows, being preoccupied with the office dynamics at SC&P and Don Draper’s personal woes, didn’t really examine what it was actually like to be alive in 1969. “The Runaways” has no obvious date (although it presumably occurred in May 1969), yet it really did feel like the late Sixties.

There was a certain craziness to that period, just as there’s a madness to the climax of any revolution (think of how the French Revolution turned out) and we see this played out in an episode with pregnant hippies, families fighting over Vietnam, drugs everywhere, sexual license, lion mane beards and literal insanity.

What was so bizarre about the sixties was how half of upper middle class white America went a bit beserk while the other half pushed back in reaction. We see these two sides of America playing out right in SC&P, with the creatives stoned half the time and hating their corporate overlords. They are delighted to discover that Lou Avery, their paper-pushing talentless boss, has a secret ambition to be a rich and famous cartoonist. Why, his dream is to emulate W. Watts Biggers, a former colleague at Danzer Fitzgerald who created the cartoon Underdog.” He wants to launch his own cartoon series called “Scout’s Honor.” This is hardly a profound ambition, because “Underdog” was a cartoon series of such surpassing mediocrity that even I, as a young TV addict, refused to watched it. How mediocre is it? Check this out.

When Lou discovers that his staff is laughing at his corny Army-based strip, he blows up, “You’re a bunch of flag-burning snots. You’ve got a thing to learn about patriotism and loyalty.” This is the kind of non sequitur that would routinely intrude on any argument in 1969.

Vietnam was an important theme last season, but has barely been mentioned at all this year. Ironically when a Vietnam-themed fight does break out, it’s because a wife is trying to keep up with her husband’s evolving views. Betty opines that she supports an all-out victory but Henry has “moderated” his position and now favors a slow withdrawal, which is Nixon’s strategy. We finally do learn that Henry won his state senate race last November, but we don’t learn what he really thinks about Vietnam (since he seems to be only saying what he thinks is politically expedient — that he supports the President) or why it’s even important for a state senator to have a position on Vietnam in the first place.

At the heart of the dispute between the two Americas is a debate over authority. If you’re of a certain age you probably remember the self-satisfied “Question Authority”  bumper stickers and tee shirts that were so popular in the early 1970s. Betty and Don are not usually on the same page but they each have something insightful to say about questioning authority. Before putting her foot in her mouth about Vietnam Betty observes that when the kids started protesting the war itself, they eventually began to question all authority, which led to vandalism and other examples of acting out. This is a pretty smart comment but Don has an even subtler observation. He tells Lou that, “This is an office of people who have a problem with authority” and that he shouldn’t make himself such an easy target. Don knows that to get the most out of creative people you have to let them blow off some steam, advice that Lou won’t or can’t take because he doesn’t actually have the skill or earned respect to pull off.

Of course, when it comes to questioning authority, Don Draper himself is the master. He doesn’t fit in the world of comfortable Republicans like Lou, Jim Cutler, Henry Francis or Bert Cooper, and he also doesn’t fit in with Megan’s counterculture friends either. But when it comes to breaking the rules, the hippies have nothing on Don. Which leads to the amazing climax of the show, when he crashes a meeting where Cutler and Avery are trying to woo Commander cigarettes, which would result in him being tossed out of the agency once and for all. Four years ago, when the firm lost Lucky Strike and was on the ropes, Don penned an ad in the NYT avowing that the agency would, on general principle, never again accept any cigarette advertising. Now, if Cutler and Avery land Commander they will have the power to eliminate Don for good, using the new mega-client as an excuse.

But in violation of all the rules he agreed to when he rejoined the firm two months ago, Don comes into the meeting with the cigarette bigwigs and offers to resign. But then he turns the tables by suggesting that they’d be better off convincing him to stay and work on the account, given his knowledge of the business, his insight into the anti-smoking opposition and the bragging rights they’ll gain from making anti-smoking crusader Don Draper become their boy toy. It’s a masterful stroke, one worthy of the Draper we’ve seen in action over the years. Because if Commander agrees to go with SC&P now (a big if), Don will be back calling the shots and Lou will be out. As Lou says to Don as they stand outside the Algonquin hotel, “You’re incredible,” and as Don responds, “Thank you.”

Don seems to be the only character on the show who is not being undone by the Sixties; after all, the personal dislocation he suffered as a child was so much worse than this. The other characters are not doing so well. The moral deterioration of Megan Draper is actually a little sad, and she behaves atrociously this episode. The once prim receptionist who flowered into the confident Zou Bisou Bisou singer of Season Four is now a mess. Peggy once marveled that she was the girl who could do everything, but her acting career is not going well and her confidence is shot. She’s smoking dope, hanging with hippies, and dancing lascivious tangos in front of her husband.

For whatever reason (maybe it’s actually love), she’s desperate to hang onto Don (but not desperate enough to move back to Manhattan), which leads to some questionable decisions. When Don asks her to take care of Stephanie, Anna Draper’s pregnant niece, she is so jealous that she pays her to leave before Don can arrive. (She was probably unnerved that Stephanie recognized her wedding ring as originally belonging to Anna and then lost it completely when Stephanie off-handedly says, “I know all his secrets.”) Sending away a needy pregnant girl who actually looks like a Madonna is unforgivable, but arranging a soft-core porn three-way with your husband and best friend is crazy. Don seems unfazed the next morning (again, having survived worse) and Megan’s friend has the good sense to slink away in shame, but Megan is in worse shape than ever, not quite realizing that sex is not what turns Don on. Power, a much more attractive mistress, is luring him away from her back to NYC, not another woman.

Of course it’s one thing to say that Megan’s acting crazy and it’s another thing for someone to actually BE crazy. Ginsberg’s Van Gogh moment has been a long time coming. From the very beginning he’s demonstrated schizophrenic tendencies. And no wonder — born in a concentration camp, living with his father and still a virgin. That’s a lethal combination. There are a couple of early hints in “The Runaways” that Ginsburg is about to blow, in addition to the obvious references to the hum of the IBM computer and the building pressure. First he says “That machine came for us, one by one” which seems like a reference to the famous poem about how first the Nazis came for the socialists, then they came for the unionists, then they came for the Jews, then they came for me. Ok, maybe that’s a stretch but it’s certainly not a coincidence that Harry Crane calls the Cutler/Avery power play to get rid of Don the “Final Solution.” I have to believe that that extremely freighted phrase refers to the one concentration camp victim in the office.

In any event, Ginsberg’s self-mutilation symbolizes the nervous breakdown that the whole country is going through. Don seems set to survive, but it looks like there will be plenty of collateral damage before we make it into 1970. Some other thoughts:

Ginsberg’s snooping of the Cutler and Avery meeting inside the silent computer room is another obvious homage to the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when HAL lip-reads the conversation between the two astronauts who plan to shut it down. Unfortunately Ginsberg cannot lip-read so he thinks the computer is turning all the men “homo.”

Peggy is right when she tells Ginsberg that the IBM is “only a computer” (i.e., only a tool), but the furious glare she gives the machine as Ginsberg is being wheeled out suggests she’s had it with what it stands for, the soullessness of the office and, by extension, her life. It would not surprise me if she gets over her aversion to Don and throws in with him. She’s had her little fun, condescending to him on the elevator by telling him she’s “happy to have (him) on the team,” the kind of patronizing BS that a senior manager says to encourage a junior subordinate. But in her heart she must know that Don’s return is the only way that her professional life will become important to her again.

There seems to be a general expectation on the Internet that someone must die on Mad Men before the season is over. There have been numerous clues about this, starting with Lane’s Mets pennant and the coyotes howling outside Megan’s house, but I can’t imagine Matt Weiner doing something so obvious. Besides, what could be more violent than glimpsing Ginsberg’s carved out nipple? I think Weiner is now in a position to say “Been there, done that.”

There are only two episodes left this half season, which will lead to an infuriating ten-month wait for the final seven. This also means that a significant cliffhanger is coming up. The cliffhanger at the end of the Breaking Bad first-half final season drove huge ratings for the final half season and AMC is undoubtedly hoping to strike lightning again. What that cliffhanger will be only a fool will guess.

Who are the runaways named in the episode’s title? Stephanie is an obvious example. She’s run away from her middle class life and she also runs away from the Drapers’ house. Bobby Draper wants to run away with Sally, but can’t. Don is a perpetual runaway and he runs away from Megan to get back to NYC and save his career. And to some extent, Ginsberg is a runaway. Going insane is the ultimate way to runaway from your unhappy life.

It seems that no Mothers Day airing  of Mad Men would be complete without Day Betty Francis demonstrating how NOT to be a mother. Your daughter injures herself and you YELL at her? No wonder Sally hates her. And no wonder Bobby has a stomach ache all the time.

I’m worried about Bobby Draper. He’s miserable and wants to run away but is “too little” to escape. That scene with him in bed with Sally was so sweet, though.

Henry’s transformation from a preternaturally patient father figure into an overbearing husband seems a bit abrupt. Just last week he was trying to reassure Betty that her kids loved her and all of a sudden he’s saying things like, “From now on keep your conversation to how much you hate getting toast crumbs in the butter and leave the thinking to me”? Of course he was provoked. One dirty look from Henry and she bails out on the rest of the night, making him go to the homes of the other neighbors by himself. I guess like Ginsberg’s madness, the surprise isn’t that he snapped but that it took so long.

When Megan wrote out Stephanie a check for $1000, I couldn’t help but think how Don gave the junkie Midge all his cash when she tried to sell her boyfriend’s painting. And also how he tried to buy off his half-brother Adam in season one. Megan and Don are not all that much different in their appreciation for what money can buy, starting with that Laurel Canyon house. She might like the bohemian lifestyle but she likes it with a checkbook. I’ll give her a little credit and assume she’s not hanging on because Don’s a sugar daddy, but truly, if she dumped him, she’d be living down in West Hollywood near that phone booth where Stephanie called from.

Twice Megan offered to make Stephanie spaghetti.  I think this is a sly inside joke about what a bad cook Megan is because when she and Don were newlyweds that seemed to be her signature dish.  And she always made it plain, without sauce.  I wonder if the reason Stephanie refused the steak was because she was having morning sickness, or whether the thought of eating Megan’s cooking wanted to make her throw up.  Speaking of food choices, Betty serves her guests Rumaki, which are bacon-wrapped appetizers.  Wikipedia already points out that Betty also served Rumaki at a dinner party in Season Two, after which she and Don quarreled.  Not a lucky dish for her.

Megan has even more reason to fear Stephanie than she knows. Stephanie is the only person in the world who can still call her husband “Dick.” And the way his face lit up when he called him looking for help, just because she identified herself as his niece, suggests a very deep primal need for a family connection that she cannot provide. (BTW, will we learn whether Megan can have kids? A couple of years ago she said it was impossible and this week she tells Stephanie that Don’s kids are enough for her.)

The decline of the Francis household harmony is sad for the kids, but it does give rise to the funniest line of the night. Betty: “I’m NOT stupid. I speak Italian.”

Second funniest line, Harry Crane to Don: “I’m going to make sure you’re still important. I don’t know how. It’s going to take some thought. It’s going to take some major brainpower. In fact, you might have to figure it out.”

Third funniest line, an exchange between Lou Avery and a very stoned Stan: “You know who had a ridiculous dream and people laughed at him?” “You?” The fact that Lou goes on to compare himself to Bob Dylan is the icing on the cake.

I love the detail about how Sally injured herself sword fighting with golf clubs. I’ll bet anything that this happened to one of the show’s writers when he or she was a kid.

We have now confirmed that Megan lives in Laurel Canyon, which is where Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash were living in 1969. Graham Nash was probably writing “Our House,” his paean to their domestic arrangements, just as Megan was plotting the three-way. I’ve already noted that Joni’s second album, Ladies of the Canyon, referred to arty women like Megan, who were her neighbors then. But what really struck me is that the flowery view from the window the morning after the three-way looked a bit like the cover from Joni’s first album.

Joni_Seagull

The song playing on the HiFi at Megan’s party? “You Made Me So Very Happy,” by the jazz rock group Blood Sweat and Tears. I still have that album in vinyl. Perhaps an ironic usage, given that neither Don nor Megan make each other very happy.

The concluding song? “The Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” by Waylon Jennings, another guy with authority issues. Yep, Don Draper will be the only Daddy that’ll walk the line by the time we’re through.

The last shot of the episode is a classic Draper power scene. He’s shot from below, wearing that dated fedora. He looks like he stepped out of a 1954 edition of Life Magazine. It’s a timeless look, just like power plays are timeless.

mad_men_algonquin

What’s with Peggy’s “Me and Julio down by the TV” deal? Is this what she’s been reduced to? Watching TV with the neighbor kid on a Saturday night?

I’ve made this complaint before but I’ll restate it.  The huge void in the whole Mad Men series has been the absence of Baby Boomers and their issues.  Much of the turmoil of the Sixties was caused by Boomers who didn’t want to get drafted, but aside from Sally, Glen and Mitchell (Sylvia’s draft-dodging son from last season) Boomers have been invisible.  Megan’s friends seem too old to be boomers and even Stephanie is probably too old (the oldest boomer in 1969 would have been 23 years old and marching in an anti-war protest.  I think we need to see the return of Glen soon. He’s possibly old enough to be drafted, which would cause a huge crisis in the show.

Burger_Chef_Exterior_1960s_725X529

Did you know that in the 1970s, the slogan for the real Burger Chef was “We’ll Always Treat You Right”?  Why, that might have been one of the 25 “tags” we see Don developing for Peggy  “Judas Iscariot ” Olsen at the end of “Monolith,” the most recent Mad Men episode.

“We’ll always treat you right,” is exactly the un-slogan for the way Sterling Price & Partners are treating Don.  In fact, it’s pretty clear they are trying to break his spirit and get him to violate the terms of his return engagement.  They don’t send him the memo to come in early for the announcement on the new computer.  They don’t even consult him, as a partner, on whether to get a computer in the first place (Roger’s declaration to Don that the decision had been made before his return is a lie, as we know from the previous episode).  They don’t give him any work so he’s been sitting in his office with the door closed reading Portnoy’s Complaint for three weeks.

Worse, when they do give him some work to do, it’s the most menial job possible – developing tag lines for a new business pitch to Burger Chef. Oh, and he’s reporting to Peggy Olsen.  Of course, when we (and Peggy and Joan) speak of the amorphous “they,” it’s not clear who “they” are.  It seems pretty apparent that Pete and Roger expect Don to run the account but Lou Avery, fearful for his job, pulls the old “divide and conquer” strategy and basically bribes Peggy with a $100 a week raise to take the account and crush him.

Peggy is so hungry for any kind of validation and still so pissed at Don for (she thinks) driving Ted Chaough to California that she falls for Lou’s bait.  Instead of doing the smart thing, which is to go to Don and join forces against Lou and his computer-loving allies, she decides to humiliate him, which she clearly enjoys, summoning him to her office with the hapless new guy Mathis and instructing them to come up with 25 “tags” each by Monday morning.  Don’s death stare at Peggy when she gives them this assignment is classic.

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Don doesn’t take this very well and goes into a sit-down strike. First he throws his typewriter at the window, but thankfully it bounces back and doesn’t land on some poor pedestrian on Avenue of the Americas.  Then on Monday morning he declines to go to Peggy’s meeting, telling Mathis he’s “too busy” playing solitaire. Ha ha.  Peggy’s too intimidated to confront Don, postponing the meeting until the end of the day. (It’s worth noting that under the Lou Avery system of creative development, the taglines come first, before the research is digested or a strategy is developed.  That’s how you come up with slogans like “Acutron is Accurate.”)

But what really pushes Don over the edge is not Peggy’s attitude but Bert Cooper’s.  When Don goes to Bert with an idea for a new client – the leasing company that’s installing the new computer – Bert slaps him on the wrist for violating the stipulation that he is not to meet alone with any new business prospects, even though this idea only developed from a casual conversation.

Bert goes on to taunt Don for coming back to SC&P after his leave of absence, asking if he expected to be welcomed with open arms.  Like many of the other partners, Bert, of course has a serious grievance with Don.  Last year he had tried to arrange an IPO of the old company that would have made them all rich (even Joan with her 5% share) but Don torpedoed that by killing the Jaguar deal.   When Don says he returned because he founded the company, Bert retorts, “With a dead man, whose office you now occupy.”

This is one of several references to death in this episode, as Matt Weiner continues to mess with the heads of fans who think the final episode of the series will feature Don jumping off the balcony.  In one of the final lines of the show Freddy Rumson asks “Are you just going to kill yourself and give them what they want?”  In a conversation outside Don’s office, Harry Crane describes a television program about “someone trying to kill himself himself the whole show.”  And of course there’s the poignancy of the Mets pennant that Don finds under the couch.  That pennant had been hanging on Lane’s wall when he committed suicide. Once a symbol of Lane’s unabashed love for all things American, it’s now a crumbled reminder of dashed hopes.

lanes suicide

Rejected by Bert, whom he must have once seen as a mentor, Don steals a bottle of vodka from Roger’s office and gets drunker than we’ve seen in a long time.  If any partner had walked in at that moment, Don would have been fired for violating the terms of his return, but thank God for that Mets pennant, because it inspires Don to call Freddy Rumsen and invite him to a Mets game.    It’s a lucky break for Don that Freddy is around because in a show where everyone is searching for some kind of turnaround and renewal, the recovering alcoholic Freddy is the one who has actually achieved it.  He gets Don out of the office and brings him home and then watches over him during the night.  When he wakes up hung over and feeling sorry for himself, Freddy gives him a “man up” pep talk, complete with instructions to put on his uniform, attach the bayonets and get into the parade.  “Do the work, Don,” he instructs.

This is a tough episode to watch, with Don falling to pieces yet again.   For all of his bravado, we’ve seen that he’s actually scared much of the time, using his looks, suit and talent as a mask.  But there are three hopeful signs in this episode that Don might eventually get his mojo back.

First is the Mets pennant itself.  In 1969 the “Amazin’” Mets achieved one of the great feel-good stories in sports history when they won the World Series after a decade of ineptitude and humiliation (see this photo essay from Life).   It’s hard to imagine that we’re not supposed to link Don’s fate to that wonderful 1969 team.

The second sign than Don may recover are the numerous references to the moon and space travel (Lloyd the computer guy notes that you use a computer to get to the moon and Margaret/Marigold wonders whether we will actually land on the moon).  Besides the Mets, the other feel-good story of 1969 was the moon landing in 1969 when Neil Armstrong took the first human steps on the moon as the whole world watched on TV.  Throughout the series Don has been compared to an astronaut and the 1969 moon landing was the apotheosis of the astronaut.

Finally, the last scene appears to suggest that Don has resolved to accept whatever humiliations his office enemies may inflict on him and take Freddy’s advice to “do the work.”  Looking again like a million bucks, he marches into his office and promises Peggy she’ll have her 25 tags by noon.  And then over the credit comes the song that Matt Weiner must have been waiting years to play: “On A Carousel,” by the Hollies (and yes, that’s Graham Nash on lead vocals).

This song harkens back to the greatest scene in Mad Men history, in Season One when Don’s presentation for the Kodak carousel was so powerful it caused Harry Crane to run from the room in tears.

The carousel has two meanings on this show.  It can represent mindlessness and futility, because what one does on a merry-go-round is go round and round and round without making any progress.  But in Mad Men legend, the carousel represents Don at the peak of his creative powers.  Last week Ken Cosgrove made a point of showing Don a photo of his son on a carousel in Central Park, saying it always reminded him on Don.  I’m going to interpret this final song as foreshadowing Don’s eventual recovery, if not his full recovery in office politics, then at least in personal recovery.

The moon landing, the Kodak carousel with its slide shows of happy middle class families, and even the clean cut Mets – all the symbols of Don’s resumed recovery – represent one side of the fight for the soul of America in this episode.  The other side is represented by Margaret’s muddy commune.

This episode is not titled “Monolith” for nothing.  The monolith in question is IBM and the IBM 360 computer that is being introduced into SC&P at the expense of the creative team (the “monolith” is also the name of the huge slab that appears periodically throughout that great 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the IBM 360 looks disturbingly like the monolith).  What we see in this episode is the yin and the yang of American culture in the 1960s (and in all of human history for that matter.)  One side is technology and empiricism – computers, moon landings, research, data, etc – the hard facts of life, and on the other side is creativity – the people who dream up the ads, intuition, self-reflection and the hippies at the commune.

Within SC&P, the technologists are winning.  They’ve ejected the creative team from their lounge (what Harry Crane dismissively calls their lunch room) where much of their group brainstorming takes place.  In its place is a new computer, which will not only to serve a functional purpose but announce to the world (since clients need to walk past it on their way to meetings) that the company is keeping up with the trends.   Worse, they installed a nonentity as creative director – a hack who only cares around shuffling paperwork.

The technological debate is also playing out in the hippie commune when Margaret/Marigold has found escape from her empty life (after all, she only had one job – to marry well – and she screwed that up.)  Out there in the wilds of Kingston, New York, they self-righteously eschew modern conveniences like electricity, cook their meals with firewood, tote the water from the creek, and find warmth at night by sleeping with each other.

In real history, the contrast between these two worlds played out most vividly in the summer of 1969, as technology landed a man on the moon almost simultaneously as the counterculture launched  “Woodstock,” a music festival in which hundreds of thousands of people managed to survive together on a farm for three days.

For all his astronaut good looks, Don reflexively recoils against the monolith.  When Lloyd the computer guy can’t get his lighter to work Don cracks, “The perils of technology. It’s 1969 and you can’t make fire.” And when Lloyd says that a computer can count more stars in a day than we can count in a lifetime, Don asks “what man laid on his back counting the stars and thought about a number?”

But Lloyd actually makes sense at first.  The computer is built for man by man.  People are afraid of computers, but it’s a tool.  It’s how you use it that counts.  He’s not the one who suggested displacing the creative team’s lounge for the computer space  – the partners did that for PR purposes.

But then Lloyd actually goes too far.  The computer, he says, can compile infinite amounts of information, which makes humans nervous because they are “finite. “  Isn’t it “Godlike,” he argues, “that we’ve mastered the infinite?”   One of the gravest sins is for man to consider himself Godlike and in that great movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” we saw the result of misusing our tools.   A space voyage goes awry when HAL, the computer that runs the space ship starts to develop an intelligence of its own.   I think in the end we are supposed to side with Don and put our faith in our creative abilities (as long as we don’t reject technology like the hippies).   Btw, here’s how the astronauts in “2001” react to the monolith when they discover it on the moon.

Other comments:

— The date of this episode is late April 1969, about three weeks after the previous episode.  We can also date the episode by Joe Frazier fight mentioned on the back of Don’s Daily News.  Joe Frazier defended his heavyweight title against Dave Zyglewicz on April 22, 1969.  If you want to see the entire fight, which lasted just one round, here it is:

— The reason the agency needs the computer is TO CRUNCH NIELSEN DATA.  In order to buy the right ads, including the right demographics, SC&P needs to enter ratings data from Nielsen’s ratings books (hence Harry’s need for a keypunch service). This is particularly true if they want to integrate national and local buys, which is what Harry falsely claimed they could do last episode.

— It’s funny how every partner thinks his or her own specialty is the key to the agency’s success.  When Pete gets a shot at the Burger Chef account, Roger says, “I’ve always said this business is about relationships,” because, let’s face it, he doesn’t do anything except schmooze people.  By contrast, Joan and Harry think that buying ad space is the most important job (hence the computer).  And of course Don and Peggy believe in the creative side of the business.

— Pete is still a heel but he does have a tiny little heart and seems genuinely touched when he learns that his father-in-law had a heart attack. And he seems somewhat hurt that he had to learn it from one of the old man’s former minions.

— This is probably the place to remind everyone that the actors playing Mona and Roger Sterling are married in real life, so their scenes together always do sparkle.  Unknown to me until last night when Twitter started to buzz about it is that Talia Balsam (“Mona”) was George Clooney’s first wife.  Huh?

— I’m not sure whose side we’re supposed to take in the Margaret Sterling saga.  Probably nobody’s.  She’s obviously always been a spoiled selfish brat and she undoubtedly had a tough childhood, what with a socialite alcoholic mother and a philandering father.  But I can’t be sympathetic to the idea that Roger “left” her by going to work every day, and I doubt that as a child he had his secretary buy her presents, given that he had a wife to do that.  Roger has a point too about the unfairness of leaving her child to live on a commune.  Her logic seems to be “my parents ruined my life so I’m going to ruin my son’s.”

— Don’s living in both the past and the future.  He has three advertising awards from the 1950s on his wall, but he seems genuinely interested in learning about IBM and the business of leasing IBM computers.  Please note that when he goes to see Bert about supporting Lloyd’s new leasing business with advertising, he says that the “apple is right there.”  IBM, as if we need a reminder, actually was a monolith until the 1990s when Apple came along.

— Ellery. What kind of name is that?  Sounds like the pen name for a writer of detective novels.  With a mother like Marigold, a father who ends up in the can fighting bikers and a name like that, he’s doomed.

Roger dismissively calls the commune “Shangri-La,” the second reference to that mythical Eden (the first when Don was watching the movie “Lost Horizon” in episode 1.) These attempts to get back to the Garden are doomed, I’m afraid.

— Harry Crane dismissively mentions a variety show that was purportedly written by a computer.  Thanks to the miracle of the Internet I can report that this is “Turn On,” a show that is most famous for having the shortest life in the history of TV.  Starring Tim Conway, “Turn On” was an ABC attempt to recreate NBC’s “Laugh-In” and apparently they did claim to use a computer in picking sketches.  Here’s a clip and I have to say, it does look terrible, but I don’t think you can blame the computer.

Oh believe me, there’s ALWAYS a hierarchy.