“Long Weekend” is essentially a rewrite of Billy Wilder’s 1960 workplace romance and Best Picture winner The Apartment. The film’s story anchors the episode’s story, and marks “Long Weekend” as the first Mad Men episode with an unmistakably meta vibe. Series creator Matthew Weiner has cited Wilder’s film as a primary influence on his show, along with Vertigo, La Notte, The Best of Everything, The Americanization of Emily, and other ’50s and ’60s touchstones. The show borrows plenty from Wilder’s classic, including its scathing portrait of male executive horndoggery and its wide-angle shots of secretaries toiling in rows of desks. At the same time, the movie is present as an artifact within the show, causing friction between Joan and Roger. The film makes Joan think about her amiable exploitation at Roger’s hands. “That poor girl,” she says of Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik, “handed around like a tray of canapés.” Roger says it’s unrealistic and writes it off as an example of how “Hollywood isn’t happy unless things are extreme.”
There’s a second metalayer to that last remark. Even in its freshman season, Mad Men was criticized in some quarters as a caricaturish wallow in a Generation X–aged writer-producer’s fantasy about the go-go lives of his parents’ generation: a series that amped up the era’s smoking, drinking, infidelities, and male chauvinism to absurd levels while reveling in the antics it supposedly critiqued. Funny thing, though: A lot of people who worked on Madison Avenue in the ’60s have insisted that Mad Men doesn’t exaggerate that much. And if you revisit The Apartment and then think about how timidly most ’50s and ’60s films portrayed office politics and sexual affairs, Wilder’s film still seems daring in context—and parts of it are still as hard to watch as the more squirm-inducing moments of Mad Men. The Apartment remains a rare example of a mainstream hit woven around ugly, then-current facts of American life. Joan’s reply to Roger’s pan? “It didn’t seem that extreme to me.”
The Apartment’s main characters are C. C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a nebbish worker bee who lets four married managers borrow his pad for trysts; a top executive named Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who offers Bud a promotion in exchange for the exclusive use of his place; and Sheldrake’s one-time lover Fran (MacLaine), an elevator operator who entered into a torrid affair with Sheldrake with the understanding that he’d leave his wife and marry her. The movie’s climax—and the point when it decisively pivots from comedy to drama—comes when Fran learns that Sheldrake had promised other workplace conquests that he’d divorce his wife and marry them too. This leads to a suicide attempt. Bud, Fran’s unrequited suitor, rescues her by walking the floor with her until the sun comes up.
This is, of course, more or less the situation that has ensnared Joan and Roger. Roger is sweeter and funnier than Sheldrake, and Joan has too much poise and workplace clout (and experience) to crumble like Fran, but it’s still clear that Roger will never leave his wife, Mona, for Joan. Joan understands this but hasn’t made peace with it. She worries that Roger sees their trysts as afternoon vacations from his home life while pouring on the charm to make Joan think they’re something more. The Apartment might be the main reason Joan declines Roger’s invitation to join her for a nonfurtive romantic weekend while his wife and daughter are out of town. Roger is killing their love on the installment plan, through inaction. She sees Sheldrake in him, and it gnaws at her.
Pete’s scenes with Peggy echo The Apartment as well. Pete has a Baxterian smallness, and there are times when Vincent Kartheiser’s performance becomes a sweaty knot of Lemmonesque anxiety. But he inflicts himself on Peggy like a Sheldrake-in-training. He toys with shreds of affection left over from their couplings and turns on her when she pushes him away—something Peggy has every right to do, and that she does without ever making a scene.
“I’m just trying to get along here,” she whispers to Pete, “and every time you walk by, I wonder, are you going to be nice to me, or cruel?” Pete tells her he’s married now. “I know how confusing that can be, maybe you need me to lie on your couch and clear that up for you again,” says Peggy, standing up to an executive who’s trying to exploit her—a nervy move that Fran can’t make in The Apartment.
The episode is also playing with images from politics, specifically the presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. JFK, Sinatra, Nixon, the Democrats, the Republicans, Madison Avenue, and Hollywood converge in “Long Weekend.” There had always been some crossover, but it wasn’t until Kennedy became friends with Frank Sinatra that the big blend started; a few years later, Hollywood movie stars would fund-raise, march, and be photographed with candidates and civil rights figures; by the 1970s, major political figures like Henry Kissinger would be spotted on the floors of discos, and in the nineties, Vanity Fair and Maureen Dowd’s New York Times op-ed column would throw movie stars and politicians together in the same photo spreads or columns of text, sending the message that it was all about celebrity, a big popularity contest. You can see the big blend starting here, in the Sterling Cooper gang’s meeting to figure out how to snag Nixon as a client. “There are a lot of people on the fence,” says Pete, obliquely foreshadowing a theory about JFK’s assassination. The execs and writers watch a campaign ad created by rival agency Doyle Dane Bernbach with cartoonish graphics and an upbeat “Kennedy, Kennedy” jingle. “It’s light, it’s fun,” Don says, at once impressed and troubled. “It doesn’t cloud the mind with, I dunno . . . issues.” “The president is a product,” Pete says. “Don’t forget that.” Then they watch a Nixon campaign ad that looks caveman-primitive compared to JFK’s: just a shot of Nixon droning into a camera. “Turn it off,” Don snaps.
Don’s identification with Nixon seems tactical and contrived at first, an adman’s version of an actor forcing himself to identify with a character he’s trying to understand, but soon we see it’s no pose. He carries himself like a missing Kennedy brother, intellectual and dashing, but it’s a shiny wrapper on his Nixon-dark soul. Don says “Nixon is from nothing,” but still managed to become vice president of the United States within six years of leaving the Navy. Then Don says that when he looks at Kennedy, he sees a silver spoon, but “when I look at Nixon, I see myself.” The phrasing evokes New York Times writer Tom Wicker’s famous JFK-Nixon formulation, which appears in a different guise in Oliver Stone’s film Nixon, in the scene where Nixon contemplates a bust of JFK and concludes, “When they look at you, they see what they could be, but when they look at me, they see what they are.”
At this point, Roger knows almost nothing about Don’s personal history, but he’s a sharp enough judge of character (and accents) to know Don doesn’t come from money. His acuity shines through in a line that ties Don’s social striving to Nixon’s without mentioning Nixon: Commiserating with Don over the loss of the Dr. Scholl’s account to Leo Burnett, Roger sneers at the latter because they’re based in Chicago, and Chicago is “small-time.” Looking at Don, he adds: “Sorry, maybe you’re from there.”
Excerpted with permission from Mad Men Carousel by Matt Zoller Seitz.