“We’ll go back to Disneyland,” Don tells Megan near the start of “A Tale of Two Cities.” “From what I recall, something really amazing happened there.”
You can’t go back to Disneyland, though. The Mad Men characters are figuring that out along with everybody else in America circa 1968. Matthew Weiner’s series has always concerned itself with how national history does or doesn’t affect individual lives. It’s struggled somewhat, I think, with the back half of the sixties, as leaders were being killed left and right, the Civil Rights movement, the war, and domestic unrest heated up, and the ruling class (representatives of which comprise a lot of Mad Men’s core cast, even if the characters don’t think of themselves that way) looked at the chaos around them and thought that the end of the world was nigh. In fact it was their world that was threatened, not with extinction, but with reduction, or change.
“A Tale of Two Cities” made these points more deftly than most of the show’s season-six episodes, showing its characters going about their daily lives during a very eventful period (the newly merged agencies are dealing with an internal power struggle) while pausing occasionally to grapple with the national political history that kept barging into their personal and professional affairs and compelling their attention.
Megan and Don’s cross-continent phone conversation was one of many wonderful examples. At first they’re horrified and enraptured by televised footage of cops and protesters violently clashing at the 1968 Democratic convention. The contrast between Megan’s despair at the images and Don’s more blasé — even “cynical,” to quote Megan’s term for him earlier — attitude summarized the political friction within the American middle class, which pitted soft liberal attitudes against soft conservative ones, and prompted the sorts of arguments that would power Norman Lear’s sitcoms a few years later. “Can you imagine a policeman cracking your skull?” asks Megan. “It’d change your whole life.” “Honey, they were throwing rocks,” Don replies. “They’re prepared for trouble.” (The contrast between the Canadian Megan’s complete emotional investment in the footage and the American-born Don’s more detached perspective is fascinating, too; a guy whose life is based around an appropriated identity has no business lecturing an immigrant on her right to care deeply about another nation’s history.)
In this same episode, you’ve got Roger and Don, representatives of the World War II and Korea generation of soldiers, going to court Carnation in Los Angeles, a place where the counterculture went to become defanged — more of a lifestyle or attitude choice than any meaningful statement of opposition to the status quo. Watching the two New Yorkers navigate a Hollywood party that felt a bit like the one in Hal Ashby and Warren Beatty’s Shampoo — a lament for the stillbirth of the counterculture, set on the night of Richard Nixon’s defeat of Hubert Humphrey in November, 1968 — reminded me of one of my dad’s more quotable comments, that Los Angeles was the place where the sixties turned into the seventies. (“I wanna go to the Sunset Strip, watch a girl dance in a cage,” Roger tells Don — as if he couldn’t do that in New York.)
This sixties-into-seventies morph is made hilariously clear in the scenes of the nattily suited Don smoking hashish with sexy young women and nearly sleeping with one of them, until a drug-induced hallucination of Megan as a hippie chick (pregnant, no less) guides him away from infidelity and out toward the pool, where he nearly drowns. (More about that in a moment.) The transmogrification also comes through when Danny Siegel, former agency copywriter and the cousin of Roger’s ex-wife Jane Sterling, appears at the party, prompting a series of petty attacks by Roger about his height that climaxes with Danny punching the older man in the Sterlings. Danny’s really no more of a counterculture figure than Roger — he’s using period slang and flashing peace signs while shamelessly name-dropping his business connections around a mansion’s pool — but he carries himself as if he’s Abbie frickin’ Hoffman. None of which is to say that Mad Men ever had a terribly idealized attitude toward people who spout liberal slogans, however sincere. From season one onward, it has tended to find most of them rather hypocritical and self-serving, while finding conservatives just as ignoble, their passions rooted in their own private biographical manias. Current events intrude at the Carnation meeting as well. The two company bigwigs take Roger’s bait and denounce Humphrey, even as the bigger of the bigwigs, Jack, admonishes the visiting ad men, and implicitly his own people, for letting politics color a business meeting. (One of the Carnation execs is definitely more right-wing than the other, calling then California governor Ronald “Dutch” Reagan a true patriot and Nixon “an opportunist.”)
Back in New York, Cutler and Michael Ginsberg have a showdown sparked by, of all things, the failure of the Democrats to get an anti-Vietnam war “peace plank” into the party’s platform. (Say that five times fast without spitting.) The writing in this scene was so terrific that I’m tempted to reproduce the entire text here — and maybe I will add it in the bullet points, if you guys want it. Suffice to say that it’s the Don Draper “on a bed made of money” scene, expanded into a little aria of period political conflict: liberal vs. conservative, humanist vs. materialist. If Ginsberg weren’t so insufferable — though cute, like Richard Dreyfuss in high dudgeon — Cutler would come off as a pucker-faced WASP authority figure, the kind of guy who’d tell teenagers in an eighties movie to turn their music down. But both men make excellent points as they tear into each other (I love Stan excusing himself by saying, “This is my stop,” and Bob Benson doing his Tyler Durden thing and just sort of magically materializing wherever there’s a conflict and an opportunity.)
“My politics are private, but the presentation isn’t,” Cutler warns Ginsberg, who’s distracted from the upcoming Manischewitz presentation that he’ll ultimately botch, even with Bob serving as his babysitter. (Maybe Bob did something that increased the likelihood that he’d botch it? We didn’t actually see the scene, and Bob’s niceness to Ginsberg, like his niceness to everyone, is unnerving somehow.) “Now are you gonna hide your dawdling behind your outrage?” Cutler presses the attack. Ginsberg calls him a “fascist,” and Cutler asks if it’s because he gave Ginsberg a deadline. “No, you’re a fascist because you love business and you hate everything else. Freedom, blacks, Jews!” “I hate hypocrites,” Cutler says after Stan has fled the room, “like hippies who cash checks from Dow Chemical and General Motors.” Both these men are engaged in a petty office pissing match, a war of authority, but neither of them, however self-serving, is entirely wrong.
The Cutler-Ginsberg showdown is my favorite scene in an episode filled with terrific scenes; the script, which is credited to Janet Leahy and Matthew Weiner, has a borderline-screwball sense of rhythm, and John Slattery, stepping behind the camera once again, directs all the verbal showdowns as if he’s Martin Scorsese doing Howard Hawks, letting the combatants beat each other up, hilariously, then ending with a lovely lyrical images, such as that long pullback showing Cutler at the end of the long pastel-paneled hallway, or that final series of three slow-motion shots of the repeatedly humiliated Pete Campbell smoking Stan’s joint on the writers’ room couch. (The closing song — “Piece of my Heart,” by Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin on lead vocals, was perfect — an authentic expression of hippie soul that seemed to pass coming judgment on a stoned Madison Avenue money-grubber.)
On top of all that, we get one of the great Joan-Peggy subplots in Mad Men history. Joan goes out on a date with Avon’s newly installed marketing executive Andy Hayes that turns out to be something “much better,” a lead on a new account. I love how the script establishes right off the bat that Andy is recently divorced but still feels married, and therefore has not a smidgen of romantic or sexual interest in Joan. She wins his interest by being confident, smart, and resourceful; in some ways it’s a good mirror of her career-and-reputation-defining date with Herb the Jaguar dealer in “The Other Woman,” and the fact that the actor who plays Andy Hayes physically resembles Herb makes me think this is the entire point. This scene is Joan’s professional redemption. Not that she truly needs to be redeemed – but the men in her office, and even the women, apparently, see her as somebody who slept her way to the top, and totally disregard the years of hard work that led up to the partner-making date with Herb. Pete alludes to the supposed “stain” on Joan’s reputation, and even Peggy does. The reflexive urge of the few powerful women to undermine each other in a male-dominated workplace really comes out in this episode, even though Joan and Peggy basically like each other. Each woman views the other as the beneficiary of a sex-appeal-based shortcut rather than of merit and hard work, and Joan’s skeptical reaction to Peggy’s insistence that she never slept with Don suggests that this entire time, Joan assumed that she did.
They join together against a common enemy, Pete, and in a common cause, their mutual advancement. Joan purposefully fails to invite Pete to lunch with Peggy and Andy — a crafty maneuver that counters Pete’s attempt to steal the account from her and put her in what he believes is her place — and Peggy, after a period of outrage, ultimately stands up for her. She eavesdrops on Pete and Ted’s verbal beatdown of Joan, then contrives a fake “phone call” from Andy that lets her escape. Once Joan exits, Ted stops getting a contact high from Pete’s male ego-rage at being bested by a woman; he reminds him that possession is nine-tenths of the law, and that in the end, they’re all in this together, a sentiment echoed by several characters in the episode, including Don, who is as tired of Pete’s tantrums as everybody else. Pete makes a good point, though, about the new agency’s name effectively erasing their work from the industry’s consciousness; besides reminding us that even a punchable stopped clock like Pete is right at least twice a day, the moment feeds back into the notion that every encounter, whether it occurs in a boardroom, a bedroom, or on the streets, is ultimately about power, about the future, about legacy.
Odds and Ends
* I said I was going to go into Don’s falling in the pool, and I guess I should, but after obsessing over the great dialogue and well-judged interplay of personal and national politics and digging John Slattery’s direction big time (he gets better with each new outing), I’m just not really feeling it. I’m less interested in Don right now than I’ve ever been, notwithstanding the possibility that the writers are setting him up for some sort of horrendous tragedy. Hey, he died for real, then came back, which is sort of like what happened figuratively in Korea, and sort of like what happens to him every time he reinvents himself as an ad man, a husband, or a father; great. Nice work. Now show Roger getting jabbed in the nuts again, please.
* Megan to Don before the L.A. trip: “Just stay away from actresses.” Don: “I hate actresses.” This whole scene is full of hostile subtext. On some level, this couple just really doesn’t like each other anymore, no matter how often they profess love.
* The line that convinces Don to take a toke: “There’s an extra nipple for you.” Naturally.
* I love the scene where the partners argue about the firm’s name. It’s got a Don DeLillo sardonic sense of how business-speak makes guys who fancy themselves macho sound like complete ninnies. Don’s “SCDCC sounds like a stutter and looks like a typo” might have been my favorite line, though it’s hard to choose.
* A nice grace note on the plane with Roger and Don: Don warning Roger, “Under no circumstances are you to trot out that drawl you do when you’ve had too many.” That Dick Whitman drawl, one supposes.
* Cutler’s tight-sphinctered outrage over Michael’s insubordination was endlessly rich, and gave Harry Hamlin, already a terrific addition to the cast, a chance to shine. I love what he’s doing with his voice: there’s a hint of the boarding-school to the way he rolls his vowels, and his relaxed snappishness in verbal combat is just right (though he loses it when Bob comes sneaking in – I love how they’re making his wraith-like appearances into a running joke). “Sterling’s client and Draper’s boy” sounds like the title of a story Ken Cosgrove would have written before he turned to sci-fi.
* I love the conversation between Peggy, Joan, and Andy Hayes at their lunch, particularly Peggy’s leveraging her personal history as a means of bonding with the client. And Andy’s wrestling over the company’s old-fashioned marketing methods is another touch that feeds back into this episode’s obsession with how characters and institutions grapple with, and try to exploit, changing times. (“Hippies don’t wear makeup at all. I’m not sure if we should be groovy or nostalgic.”)
* A former correction on this recap stated that the album Bob Benson was listening to was a recording of a Broadway musical. It appears that he was listening to this. Thanks commenter tinmaniac.