‘Mad Men’ Week 6: I Me Mine MenAMC
Everybody had a hard year
Everybody had a good time
Everybody had a wet dream
Everybody saw the sunshine
Oh yeah (oh yeah), oh yeah, oh yeah
Everybody had a good year
Everybody let their hair down
Everybody pulled their socks up
Everybody put their foot down
—The Beatles, “I’ve Got a Feeling” (recorded in 1969 during the Rooftop Concert, and released in 1970 on Let It Be a month after the band broke up)
Parental issues were at the forefront of this week’s episode, as Pete, Don, Sally, and Betty confronted their disparate fates. Pete’s brother blamed their dad for making them terminally unhappy with the best of everything. Sally and Betty’s love-hate relationship got even more complicated. Last seen cruising through Midwestern North by Northwest cornfields, Don’s car broke down in Allegoryville on the way to El Dorado, paving the way for a particularly Twin Peaks–like episode of Mad Men. It felt like Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” demythologizing American patriotism and small towns. The inheritance that Pete Campbell is always pitching to Trudy was built on keeping certain factions out. White Europeans used slave labor on terrain soaked with the blood of indigenous peoples. There are bodies buried underground in graves the dead were forced to dig for themselves.
Don got trapped in Dogpatch, which may or may not have been hell. At first it seemed like his gambit might be to continue working: to find that essential heartland Everyman customer described in the light-beer pitch and sell him a light beer with good old-fashioned legwork, salesmanship, and sweat, the American way. I thought Don might then come back to New York, take out his big dick, and put it on the conference room table, screaming, “First off, fuck McCann and the clique you claim!” at Ferg and Jim Hobart and all the other morons who wouldn’t know a good idea if it accidentally set them on fire.
Happy Mother’s Day from Mad Men! Betty has lung cancer from smoking, which is sure to be a divisive development among Mad Men fans who feel that she has suffered too much for no good reason. But even though her fate was miserable, it felt like she got a proper send-off, with some meaty material for January Jones’s character. The interchange of glances between Betty and Sally when Henry says he’s brought home a “surprise” was a particular highlight, as Betty’s gleeful smile at the prospect of being given a spontaneous present falls like a soufflé when she realizes the “surprise” is Sally, to whom Henry has obviously already delivered the bad news. Why doesn’t Don, an infinitely worse person than Betty, get cancer? Is the point to drive home that life, and especially sickness, is brutally unfair? Betty is the show’s Job, put through one trial after another, and for what? Her worst fault is being what 1950s psychiatrists called “a refrigerator mother,” lacking the stereotypically feminine trait of emotional warmth. Don and Betty’s shared remoteness helped keep their relationship going for a long time. And I do want to think that Sally, despite everything, will end up a happier person than either of her miserable parents, but who knows? Maybe Don would rethink potentially abandoning his children forever if he learned that their mother was also about to die on them? Yeesh.
Poor Birdie, and poor Sally, too. If Sally’s childhood didn’t already end the moment she walked in on Don schtupping the neighbor lady, it’s certainly over now. Welcome to adulthood, Sally, you’re gonna hate it here, too! I was dreaming of an ending in which Betty is allowed to age into the Nordic version of Livia Soprano — prone to depression, incapable of tact, yelling “HE WOULD DIE!” at people. Betty is right: No amount of money or positive thinking can stop the aggressive cancer that’s taking over her body. She accepts her fate with a strange peacefulness, having seen her own mother’s death dragged out for years. Betty’s life has been lucky in many ways, but it has also been brutish and short. She probably started smoking to stay skinny in her modeling years, and besides, it was a different time — everyone smoked. That she should get punished for no reason while evil others go free is just one of those cosmic indignities, an unfunny joke. Good luck getting to sleep ever again, Sally! Have fun on your adventure in Spain! Find a hot Spanish guy to lose your V-card to. See art. Eat paella. Stop crying. Oh god, I am so sorry.
Boys and girls all over America are taught from birth to associate sensitivity with weakness and femininity, and lack of emotion or empathy with being male, and messages conveyed in advertisements are particularly responsible. If Mad Men has had any real agenda, it is to expose the rotten core of this over and over again. Taken to its extreme, alpha masculinity is akin to sociopathy. Without empathy, men treat human beings like objects who can be bought and discarded or stripped for parts. War is one of America’s biggest industries. Just ask Ken Cosgrove and Dow Chemical. Don isn’t so out of place among the other former soldiers, including the racist out-of-touch murderous fuckheads in the smoky veterans’ hall.
Pete, pushed off the proverbial boat by Duck Phillips, decides to leave McCann for Learjet. Go away, Duck, and don’t come back unless you bring Chauncey the dog. Pete is comfortable and financially secure, but his upbringing has taught him he’s always entitled to even more. Pete might get the show’s only happy ending, buoyed yet again by the old boys’ network that has always insulated rich kids like him and Roger from the shit that people like fellow protagonists Peggy, Joan, and Don had to go through to get where they are. It’s a sign of Trudy’s own financial and psychological status that getting a job is not something she has any interest in herself, even though she seems stifled by her cloistered country-club lifestyle. Pete, though far from a hippie, finally seems to understand that some things are impossible to buy — like the trust of a loved one you’ve repeatedly betrayed. He’s suddenly remembering how easy it was to have a lovely and supportive wife by his side. And Trudy, fed up with being the token divorcée at every gathering, is ready to give in, too. Pete and Trudy are, I’m afraid, Mad Men’s Ross and Rachel. I guess they just belong together.
McCann is everywhere, even in the middle of the country, its corporate imprint spackled across the United States. There is no exit for Don even here. The Coke machine the owners inveigled Don to try fixing was another red herring that Don might return to McCann with the triumphant idea for the soft-drink company’s real-life historic 1971 “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” campaign. Instead, he gets trapped in a beer hall with a bunch of old farts and a guy named Jerry Fandango.1 As always, Don has the luxury of blending in. He can code-switch between hobo code and bro code. He can even talk to women and children who aren’t his own, sussing out what people want to hear. He can talk about virtually anything besides himself. The weird birthday-cake burlesque stripper at the event felt like a callback to “Maidenform,” the Season 2 episode in which Peggy joins the otherwise all-male staff at a strip club to prove she can hang with the guys.
It’s unclear at first how Don’s sojourn into small-town life will go. It starts out positively, with the motel-owning couple treating him like the loving parents he never had. He surveys the local talent at the swimming pool as he’s done on vacations past — one more reference to John Cheever’s allegorical story “The Swimmer” (and the 1968 film starring Burt Lancaster). Ned, the protagonist of “The Swimmer,” is a wealthy man with an endless propensity for womanizing; the story’s tone veers between kitchen-sink American suburban realism and surrealism. Don, too, is always swimming toward the horizon, arching and striving for an unreachable perfect stroke. He goes through life as if pursued by sharks, and now we know why.
The motel set had the effect of the stylized expressionism of film noir; I thought of the stark creepiness of Detour. It looked like every motel set that’s ever been on a TV show, but also a believable facsimile of all the seedy motels dotting the roads that crisscross this land. Andy, who helps Don get alcohol and then frames him for theft, was reminiscent of another motel employee: Norman Bates. Bates was based on Ed Gein, the Wisconsin killer and body snatcher. Gein was a psychopath with extreme Oedipal issues lurking behind the facade of a regular American country boy. Don certainly also has mother issues, and so does Mad Men, and in this way it is also very close to its forebear The Sopranos. Tony Soprano’s hatred of his mother was rooted in the similarity of their personalities; she suffered from severe depression and, in giving him life, bestowed him with her Achilles’ heel. He could not bear to observe her depression because it mirrored his own and suggested natal fatalism — that your parents’ flaws are destined to be your own, no matter how far you run.
“‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation,” Tony Soprano said in the final season of The Sopranos, triggered by Paulie’s tendency to linger lovingly on memories of the past, in an episode titled “Remember When.” The good old days are always better in your mind than they really were. “There’s no geographical solution to an emotional problem” is another Tonyism, coined in the episode “Chasing It,” whose writing is credited to Matthew Weiner. But who knows where this road leads now? The craziest shit sometimes goes down in penultimate episodes, with the finales dedicated to the aftermath. I don’t know if we’ll see Betty again, so let us remember her not as she wished — resplendent in her Grace Kelly ice-blue chiffon, with her bouffant and lipstick lacquered into place forever — but as she was: going up the stairs to class, resilient and stubborn as always.
Don got out of Deadwood just in time, giving his car to the kid. Will Don dig his own grave and then crawl into it? Is he going to start a new firm somewhere, or has he given up completely on the ad world, having realized it’s an empty shell game? He has been in the business of getting people hooked on associating pleasure with consumption forever — whether smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, or buying things. But the thrill dissipates rather quickly. First it’s fun, and then it’s just compulsive. In the case of cigarettes, what gives you a short-term buzz also contains toxic chemicals. “It feels good and then it doesn’t,” as Pete says about extramarital affairs. Where are Peggy and Joan? Hopefully smoking hash and doing oyster shooters somewhere while consciousness-raising?
This week’s Mad Men was the best 1950s Original Golden Age of TV–themed drama since last week’s “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer,” a wildly ambitious remake of Twelve Angry Men that was also a legitimate tribute to the teleplays of the late ’50s, which pushed the boundaries for American art on television. Midcentury teleplays brought auteur theory into scripted television, for better and worse. Twelve Angry Men was remade as a movie by Sidney Lumet, but it was written specifically for television by a writer named Reginald Rose. It was the beginning of TV as high culture but also the simplest of theatrically stageable concepts: people in rooms, talking. Mad Men mostly consists of people in rooms, talking, and it shows us how much can be done within those constraints. It’s a beautiful, visually stunning show, fundamentally driven by dialogue but equally concerned with letting expressions slowly play across the faces of actors. It’s a true ensemble show, and in that way it resembles real life to me: People’s lives don’t exist separately; they pleach together.
This final season of Mad Men has killed off Don’s darlings, starting with Rachel and now Betty. But maybe Don will survive. Life is long, and no matter how settled you get, you can still be unseated by some unpredicted wave. Don’s rise was forged in chaos, so it’s no surprise chaos accompanies his exit. “Okie From Muskogee” opened the episode, in what turned out to be Don’s paranoid nightmare about being followed by the cops. He’s got good reason to be paranoid. He needed to change his identity because he’d killed somebody. Never get used to the name on the wall even if it’s your own, as Roger said last week. Never get used to anything and you’ll save yourself a lot of heartache, but you might also never really feel.
Merle Haggard really is the descendant of Okies; his parents moved from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression in a Grapes of Wrath scenario after their barn burned down. Haggard was born in Bakersfield in a boxcar that his parents had converted into a house. His dad suffered a brain hemorrhage and died, forcing Haggard’s mother to support the family alone. Haggard was a budding con man and went to juvenile detention centers repeatedly for various offenses, including theft. As an adult, he went to San Quentin State Prison, which scared him straight into focusing on music. His stripped-down style was part of “the Bakersfield sound,” which served as a cool contrast to the schlocky overproduction dominating “the Nashville sound” at the time. Later, Haggard became a pioneer and then a dominant force in the genre called “outlaw country,” which took hold in the late ’60s. Haggard has made it through angioplasties and lung cancer. The Hag is 78 years old and on tour right now in a fine American city near you. Not everyone is made for settling down in one place, even if they have the artifacts of a traditionally successful life. Some people just need to keep ramblin’.
This piece has been updated throughout to reflect that Dick Whitman having killed the real Don Draper was not new information; it originally appeared in a Season 1 flashback.