“A man is whatever room he’s in,” Bert Cooper tells Don and Pete in “Nixon vs. Kennedy.” “Who knows why people do what they do?” Don asks Betty in its follow-up, the season one finale, “The Wheel.” Those statements are different ways of asking the same questions. Who knows why we are who we are, what we are, why we’re this or that, or that and this, depending on the circumstance?
On first viewing, the episodes feel like halves of the same novella or movie: night and day, the party and the hangover, the good place and the place that cannot be. But the illusion of division, of opposition, is exactly that. The 12th and 13th episodes of Mad Men’s first season flow into each other, speak to each other, mirror each other. They are fully loaded, very different and yet complementary picture wheels. You could snap them into place atop a Kodak Carousel—the projector that Don rechristens at the end of “The Wheel”—and see how every moment in each installment is connected, how the moments complete and contradict one another. And they would still be part of a whole: all of a piece. The title “Nixon vs. Kennedy” suggests a struggle not just for possession of an office but for the soul of a nation. And it is that, to an extent. “Nixon vs. Kennedy” is about the struggle for the soul of Sterling Cooper, as well as the struggles, large and small, that continually play out within individual personalities: pettiness vs. grace, self-invention vs. entitlement, childishness vs. maturity, unglamorous intellectualism vs. intellectualized glamour, no makeup vs. makeup. Peggy vs. Joan. Pete vs. Don. Don Draper vs. Dick Whitman. But it is not any of those things exclusively either, and its follow-up, “The Wheel,” shows us why: because there is no “versus.” Not really. The “struggle” between Nixon and Kennedy, men and symbols, is not a struggle. It’s the illusion of a struggle, shock waves from an overpopulated unconscious.
Even when we push a button and make one slide disappear from the screen and another take its place, the earlier slide doesn’t cease to exist; it’s still there, biding its time, slowly orbiting, awaiting another pass before the bulb. We are all the things we think we are, and all the things other people tell us we are, always, at all times, no matter which slide we call up. These names, these symbols, these concepts, these events, these people are pictures in the same revolving wheel. The carriage holds eighty to a hundred and forty 35mm slides. You can view each one individually for as little or as long as you wish. Shuttle through them quickly and the flicker might suggest a movie of your life.
Behold the Carousel.
When it arrives at Sterling Cooper, it’s known as the Wheel. Don renames it the Carousel, but it’s still the Wheel. These are different names for the same device. It’s not a spaceship, it’s a time machine, Don tells Kodak’s reps. But it’s both: It takes you back, but it also takes you away.
Dick Whitman took himself away from Dick Whitman’s miserable life. He renamed himself Don Draper.
But he’s still Dick Whitman, a poor, abused, motherless farm boy who heard a hobo speak of New York City and thought someday he’d like to live there. He stole a dead man’s name and remade himself as a slab of brainy beef. He looks like a guy who has the world by the tail and always did. But he identifies with Nixon, the sweaty scrapper who did whatever he had to do to claw his way from Whittier, California, to the vice presidency of the United States of America.
Inside Betty Draper, mother and homemaker, is still Elizabeth “Betty” Hofstadt, the elegant model who captured a young fur salesman’s eye.
Peggy Olson is a copywriter and unattached Manhattan single gal, and also Peggy Olson the quiet mouse from some drab corner of Brooklyn, all at once, always, and as she moves forward, she will be Peggy the mother, too.
The incoming head of accounts, Duck Phillips (Mark Moses), is still and also Herman Phillips, recovering alcoholic and practicing alcoholic. He is a self-possessed leader of men who promises a hundred-dollar bonus to every man who brings in a good connection. Don handpicked Duck over Pete. Don introduces Duck to Bert, who’s watching election returns in his sock feet. This feels exactly right, because Duck is another Don, in his way, a man reinventing himself in the aftermath of personal disaster.
“I’m not myself,” says Harry Crane, a happily married account man, as he stumbles into his office with Pete’s secretary, Hildy, on election night 1960, and takes off his glasses. But he is still himself, always. “You look so different when you’re drunk,” Hildy says. He’s Kennedy, he’s Nixon, he’s a good husband, he’s a terrible husband, he’s still Harry.
Paul Kinsey is Paul Kinsey the frustrated copywriter but also Paul Kinsey the playwright, glorying in his physical and vocal resemblance to Orson Welles and enticing Joan Holloway, who hates him for his big mouth, into an impromptu cha-cha; he even provides the music. Paul’s play, Death Is My Client, will likely never be performed after November 8, 1960, but its debut staging gives “Kennedy vs. Nixon” something like a play within a play. Its main character is a Don Draper type, Kennedyesque in his charismatic handsomeness: “an animal in the boardroom and in the bedroom,” but also a man “who thinks.” His nemesis is Galt, as in Ayn Rand’s John Galt from Atlas Shrugged, a novel published three years before the events of “Nixon vs. Kennedy.” Galt is a heroic capitalist who persuades the world’s most productive minds to go on strike and withdraw into a secret valley that’s like Shangri-La by way of Adam Smith; but Kinsey’s Galt is “a thug, born on the wrong side of the tracks. You don’t wanna be Galt.”
Joan calls it right when she tells Paul his play is no good. She doesn’t pretend to be a drama critic, but something about it feels false to her. And the “sensuous” kiss planted on her lips by Salvatore Romano, the actor recruited to inhabit Tollefson, feels false, too: The crowd cheers his vigor, but when the couple pulls apart, Joan’s face says, Huh.
We are all Tollefson and Galt. We are all Don and Dick and Joan and Peggy and Pete and Nixon and Kennedy. One aspect emerges, another recedes, depending on the room. Nobody knows why we enter one room and not another. We might think we know, but we should distrust feelings of absolute certitude, because they might come from a part of us that can’t be trusted to call it right, or to tell us to make constructive, not destructive, decisions.
Election night. Sterling Cooper. The party. One of the truest parties ever captured, it boasts so many character-illuminating incidents that it feels like a film within a film, just as Paul’s play feels like a play within the play. The party sequence also illuminates Mad Men’s unromantic view of what it really means for individuals to live through, and within, a nation’s history. The future of America is being decided in a close election, but the guests at this marinated powwow have to remind themselves that it’s important, and why.
The party kicks off with a close-up of a TV set predicting a Nixon landslide: The odds against Kennedy are 20 to 1. A cheer goes up from the assembled throng: They’re all Nixon people because their bosses are Nixon people. If Nixon wins, they might win Nixon—maybe right away, maybe in 1964. The night is young and already they’re low on booze. Joan tells them they can rifle through the lockers as long as the result doesn’t resemble “the sack of Rome,” and as long as they know they’ll come up with rum, crème de menthe, and dog biscuits.
Forward, forward, forward: click, click, click.
It’s late at night. Sterling Cooper is dark. Don stands in his office doorway and is surprised to see Harry there, too. He’s been found out and kicked out: an unregistered guest of the Hotel Sterling Cooper, wandering the floor in his underwear, clutching a smoldering trash can.
And we shuttle back again, to the party:
Same floor. More darkness, near silence. The party’s at low ebb. At some point, the dancing stopped. The few remaining revelers snore on the rug. Joan slips off her heels and says yes to two of Paul’s requests: Sit with me. Dance with me. Even though he has “a big mouth.”
Which characters stayed home? Let’s look:
There’s Don. He’s at home with Betty and Bobby and Sally, watching the coverage. Sally asks Don to explain the electoral college. He declines. Some things, kids shouldn’t know.
Pete, at home with Trudy, staring at the box he stole from Don’s office at the end of “Indian Summer.” Trudy tells him that her dad had a box like that—not proof of identity theft, but a bunch of war mementos—and she regretted opening it.
The sun rises on Sterling Cooper. Who won? Nixon or Kennedy? Nobody knows, still.
Coaches revert to pumpkins. Harry wakes up with Hildy and remembers he’s a married man who never went home to his wife. His glasses are broken. Did Hildy do it? We can’t be sure, but she apologizes anyway, and then tells him this didn’t mean anything. Hungover partiers loiter in the kitchen: hair of the dog. Peggy trudges in with a trash can full of puke, sees all the locker doors hanging open, and discovers that her blouse is missing and her mad money is gone. “I stole your blouse,” Sal confesses. Peggy calls them animals and reports the sack of Rome to building security. Flash forward a few hours:
It’s the morning after election night. Two contests are undecided: Nixon vs. Kennedy for the White House, Pete vs. Duck for Executive in Charge of Accounts. Peggy’s at her desk outside Don’s office. Pete marches past her. There’s fury in his eyes. He’s gone Full Tricky Dick, and the trick is under his arm: Don’s box. “From now on,” he tells Peggy, “I would be very careful the way you speak to me.” He figures the election is over and Don just doesn’t know it. He’s already measuring Oval Office curtains and writing the first draft of his enemies list.
This is the moment when the Nixon-Kennedy wheel starts to spin for Don and Pete alike.
When you look at Pete standing outside Don’s door with that box, you’re seeing Nixon threatening to rip the Kennedy mask from another Nixon’s face.
Pete opens Don’s door and steps through.
Interior, Donald Draper’s office, seconds later. Pete shuts Don’s door and locks it. He tells Don the job is his because he wants it, end of discussion. He tells Don he called a friend at the Department of Defense and learned that Don Draper died in Korea around the same time that a man named Dick Whitman disappeared.
Don is rattled but unbowed. He asks Pete to ask himself a question: If he—Don—is capable of doing the things Pete says he did, what else might he be capable of?
Pete is iceberg-cool. He leaves the box with Don.
Don lifts the lid.
Click, click. Click, click.
We’re shuttling back and forth between different slides now: 1950. Dick Whitman. Korea. Dick is in his twenties. He seems thinner, more hesitant, less worldly. His voice is higher: almost reedy. What made him enlist? A movie? Does he know what he’s gotten himself into?
He’s assigned to dig fighting positions in advance of an engineering unit that’s scheduled to build a field hospital. He meets Donald Draper. Artillery is screaming in. Dust clouds. Dick lights a cigarette. He wakes up in the hospital. Dog tags. A train. His hometown station. His parents and Adam on the platform. Adam sees him, waves, points. But this train only moves in one direction: forward.
Don goes over to Rachel’s. We’ve never seen him so distraught. His voice sounds different: higher. More like a boy’s. He says they’ll go somewhere else, Los Angeles, and start over, “like Adam and Eve.”
“What are you, 15 years old?” Rachel asks. “What about your children?”
“I’ll provide for them.”
“And live in Los Angeles? You haven’t thought this through.”
Don accuses her of suddenly having “an attack of conscience” after weeks of sleeping with a man she knows is married. “No,” she says, “I’m watching you because I feel I don’t know you.”
A man is whatever room he’s in.
“You know more about me than anyone,” Don says.
Who knows why people do what they do?
“What kind of man are you?” Rachel asks. “Drop everything, go away, leave your life?”
“People do it every day,” Don says.
“You don’t want to run away with me,” she says, “you just want to run away.”
Opening credits, Mad Men: A black-and-white caricature of a man in a suit falls through a full-color cityscape comprised of advertising signifiers: logos, graphic elements. A suicidal image—maybe a fantasy, maybe a figurative visualization of the man’s state of mind.
He puts down his suitcase and jumps. Falling, falling, falling, vertically—then suddenly as seen from below.
He flies toward the camera: Blackness swallows the frame.
Screen direction is reversed. Zoom out to reveal the same man seated on a couch, as seen from the back: still, calm, in control. Cigarette burning.
He almost destroyed himself, until he didn’t. Everything fell apart. It’s all still there.
Some viewers thought this sequence was predicting the end of the series, or the end of a particular character’s life. But at the end of season one, these credits are more useful, and more interesting, as a wordless visualization of what Don keeps doing to himself, or what life keeps doing to Don. Three times this season, at least, Don throws everything away, then doesn’t. Everything falls apart, but it’s all still there.
Go back and look at two slides from earlier in season one, and you’ll see what I mean.
Don on the railroad tracks in “Marriage of Figaro.” He’s about to kill himself by driving in front of an oncoming train. Instead, he goes home and gives his daughter a dog.
He stopped the fall.
Don at Midge’s apartment in “The Hobo Code,” flashing Bert Cooper’s $2,500 bonus check.
He wants to blow it on a trip to Paris. He asks Midge to come along. She tells him she can’t. Don knows why: her boyfriend, Roy.
But what if she’d said yes? If she’d said yes, Don wouldn’t have been able to just sort of slip off to Paris, the way he slips off to Midge’s or Rachel’s or some other woman’s apartment and tells his secretary he’s at the printer’s. It’s at least a three-day commitment, and Don’s tone of voice as he asked made it seem like he had a longer stay in mind. Going to Paris would have meant going AWOL from the life he’d made.
He didn’t go. He gave the check to Midge and went home to his family, and told his son, Bobby, he’d never lie to him. That statement was itself a lie. But in Don’s heart, he was being honest.
For the second time, he stopped the fall.
And now we’re shuttling forward, forward, forward, to Don and Pete’s second confrontation in “Nixon vs. Kennedy.”
Click, click, click, click: There it is.
Don tells Pete that he’s calling his bluff, that he’s named Duck Phillips head of accounts. Pete won’t accept this. Nixon won’t accept this. Nixon wants to prove that Kennedy is another Nixon.
Don calls Pete’s bluff. And in calling his bluff, this Kennedy-who’s-a-Nixon-in-disguise tells Peter “Baby Nixon” Campbell why he hates him so much: He’s a Kennedy.
And it’s here that we realize, if we hadn’t already, that Mad Men is opposed to the binary, either/or way of looking at people. It’s reductive, useless, false. Don is Nixon and Kennedy, or Nixon, or Kennedy. Ditto Pete. Depending on what room they’re in.
When Pete says he deserves Duck’s job, Don jumps down his throat. “Why, because your parents are rich? Because you went to prep school and have a five-dollar haircut? You’ve been given everything. You’ve never worked for anything in your life.” He sounds like Roger in “Red in the Face” calling JFK a little boy who’s too scared to do anything but go on vacation. Or Don in “Long Weekend,” admitting he identifies with Nixon because Kennedy grew up privileged.
Why does Don seem so sure of himself? Is it just that old Don Draper superconfidence, the psychic shield of invulnerability that comes from knowing that since you came from nothing you could always go back there again, bide your time, and return?
And now we jump back to a scene from “New Amsterdam”: Bert Cooper telling Roger and Don why he’d rather not fire Pete.
“There are rules,” Roger tells Bert.
“There are other rules,” Bert replies.
Then Bert describes New York as a machine of levers and gears, and he lists all the doors that are open to Sterling Cooper by virtue of employing a Campbell, and he concludes, “There’s a Pete Campbell at every agency out there.”
And then the episode cuts to Don and Roger visiting Pete and telling him he can stay. Pete can’t believe his good fortune. He’d already packed up his stuff.
It’s in a box.
Now here’s Pete and Don in Bert’s office in “Nixon vs. Kennedy.” Pete tells Bert that Don Draper is really Dick Whitman, that he’s probably a deserter, maybe worse.
Bert sits a bit, thinking.
Then he stands up and gives Pete the same answer, in different words, that he gave to Roger and Don when they tried to get Pete fired in “New Amsterdam”: “Who cares?”
He says America was “built and run by men with worse stories than whatever you imagined here,” and that “there’s more profit in forgetting this. I’d put your energy into bringing in accounts.”
We’re at Pete and Trudy’s apartment in the opening scene of “The Wheel.” Trudy’s dad tells Pete that he’d very much like a grandchild. And then he immediately breaks his own rule, telling Pete he thinks of him as a son and will use his clout at Vicks to steer Clearasil zit cream to Sterling Cooper. “Did you know there’s a surge in adolescence right now?” he asks Pete. If he doesn’t, he should. He works at Sterling Cooper, where emotionally almost everyone’s a teenager.
But the scene doesn’t start with this conversation. It begins with Trudy and her mom contemplating wallpaper for Trudy and Pete’s new apartment. The camera pulls back to reveal Trudy’s dad in the living room. He’s telling Pete that the Browns beat the Redskins, 31–10, and that’s how he knew Nixon would win: “The result of the last home game predicted the last six elections.”
And now we go back to “Nixon vs. Kennedy.” Click.
Bert is getting a massage in his office. Don stands nearby. Bert says that barring widespread voter fraud, Nixon will win.
Like Roger, Bert identifies as a Republican. Not a Republican as Americans today know Republicans. Somewhere between Nixon (a reactionary who nevertheless signed the Environmental Protection Agency into law and helped create what passes for a federal safety net in this country) and Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay, New York Republicans who were about as liberal as Republicans could be in the 1960s. (Lindsay even became a Democrat in 1971.)
But in his heart, Bert belongs to the Green Party: green as in money. He declines to fire Don for the same reason he declined to fire Pete: because keeping the two men around is good for Sterling Cooper’s bottom line.
Don is in many ways an awful person. But he’s brilliant enough to be worth the bruises he inflicts on coworkers’ egos, the long lunches he takes, and the other prima donna signifiers.
Pete is in many ways an awful person. But he’s not bad at his job—sometimes he’s very good at it—and his family name is a key that unlocks vaults of money. He may seem like a Nixon when he’s out with clients, but in Bert’s ledger, he’s a Kennedy.
Bert the man prefers Nixon to Kennedy, and Don to Pete, and knows Don Draper is really Dick Whitman. But Bert the businessman knows there’s no Nixon and no Kennedy, and no Don and no Pete, and no Don Draper or Dick Whitman, only money.
Now we shuttle forward, to a scene from “The Wheel.”
Pete tells Don he brought in Clearasil, and how: “I’m not embarrassed to say my father-in-law’s a former salesman, now executive, there.” Don wonders if this violates the spirit of Duck’s $100 bonus offer, if they’ll have to “lawyer” it to get him paid. Pete says Bert already paid him and gave him “some book by Ayn Rand.” He says he needs to hear Don say he’s impressed. Don says he’s impressed, but he doesn’t say why, and that’s probably for the best.
The Carousel pitch is coming. To get there, we need to look at a few more slides.
We’re somewhere in the first quarter of “The Wheel.” It’s the cusp of a long Thanksgiving weekend. Betty and the kids are going to visit her widowed father and his new girlfriend. Don has already said he has to stay in the city because 80 percent of his business happens in the last month of the year. Betty wonders if there is some other reason, because Don never wants to spend time with his family, or her family. He’s always working. Or is that “working”?
Betty’s friend Francine says she made a horrible discovery while looking at her husband Carlton’s (Kristoffer Polaha) suspiciously fat ($18!) phone bill: call after call to MH, Manhattan. A woman.
After Francine leaves, Matthew Weiner, who directed this episode, cuts to a wide shot of Betty alone in her house, standing at the end of a long, empty hallway. She waits, thinks. Then she slowly walks toward us and then pivots screen right, and disappears into Don’s office. She’s in there for what seems like forever, and when she emerges, she’s holding a phone bill.
She hasn’t opened it yet. She’s holding on to it, because she thinks it might answer questions she’s dreaded asking.
Don looks through the box again, comes across Adam’s note, has second thoughts about how shabbily he treated Adam. He decides to call him, and learns what happened, and leans over his desk, head in hands, as the camera backs away slowly: The series’ go-to ending shot, one that diminishes Don’s big personality and makes it seem as though he’s shrinking, turning back into a boy.
Who knows why we do the things we do?
Now we jump forward, shuttling through the Carousel carriage, settling on . . .
. . . Don with Harry Crane, the nearly naked refugee from a home that his infidelity nearly destroyed.
Don is devastated by the news of Adam’s death, but he’s playing it cool here, picking Harry’s brain, looking for help with the Kodak pitch. Harry tells him about the arty black-and-white photos he took in college.
“I did a whole series that was just handprints on glass,” he says. They were modeled on the seventeen-thousand-year-old cave paintings at Lascaux, specifically the handprints. “Signature of the artist,” Don says. Harry says seeing the paintings made him feel as though someone were “reaching through the stone, right to us: I was here.”
Harry leaves. Don lies down. Cut to an overhead shot, from some distance up, picturing Don from head to toe in a nearly fetal position. The gloomy lighting and the position of the couch cushions at the top of the frame suggest a corpse packed into a casket.
“The Wheel” cuts directly from the scene where Harry talks about the handprints to a scene that peaks with characters holding hands.
Here’s Betty in a parking lot, spotting young Glen Bishop waiting in a car for his mother. Glen tells Betty that his parents have forbidden him to speak to her again. “Glen, I can’t talk to anyone,” she says, breaking down. “I’m so sad.” She hasn’t opened Don’s phone bill yet. She’s afraid to, and she doesn’t want to tell anyone she stole it, or why she’s holding on to it.
Glen reaches out with his mittened right hand. Betty returns the gesture. There’s a close-up of their hands intertwined.
A mitten and a glove.
A mother and another mother’s son.
“I wish I was older,” Glen tells her.
Betty’s in a session with Dr. Arnold Wayne. She gave Don a chance to fess up to his affairs. He couldn’t. Then she opened the phone bill and saw many phone calls to an unfamiliar number. It was Dr. Wayne. Betty didn’t uncover the awful secret she expected, but the one she did uncover was pretty bad: Don was talking to her therapist, violating her privacy.
In Wayne’s office, Betty says that when she and Don make love, “sometimes it’s what I want, but sometimes it’s what someone else wants.” When Betty’s in bed with Don, she’s in bed with his other women, and with other versions of Don. She is experiencing fleeting impressions of Don’s prismatic, fragmented personality. Her man is whatever bed he’s in.
It’s a one-sided conversation. Dr. Wayne is listening. Betty says that talking to him has helped her. But she’s still alone in this.
Don is standing in a conference room, selling his campaign for Kodak’s “Wheel.” He mines his own past, telling the reps about how his old boss, Teddy the fur salesman, described “nostalgia” as “ ‘the pain from an old wound’ . . . a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. . . . It lets us travel as a child travels, round and round and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”
On-screen are photos of Don with the family he told Betty he couldn’t join over Thanksgiving weekend. To look at the pictures, you would think this was a serenely untroubled clan, headed up by a happy couple.
There’s Don doting on Sally. There’s Betty and Don on their wedding day. Smiles and more smiles.
Don smiles at the images. He loves the images. Of course he does. He’s in control of the presentation.
He controls how everyone in the room perceives them.
And he’s using them to sell a product.
In this room, on this day, the loved ones on-screen aren’t people; they’re pictures, and it’s Don’s hand that controls the direction of the wheel and the duration of every slide.
What’s on-screen is not the reality of Don’s life, but an ideal.
The only reason it’s not a reality is because Don, or Dick, or Nixon, or Kennedy, can’t make it real.
Harry can’t take it. He bolts. There are tears in his eyes. He knows what he lost, or nearly lost, by cheating on his wife. He just wants to go home.
The presentation is done. The projector has been packed away. “The Wheel” is almost over.
All that’s left is reckoning.
Don names Peggy a copywriter. Pete is steamed. How dare Don give his father-in-law’s account to an ex-lover who doesn’t even like talking to him anymore? It’s an outrage! But there’s nothing he can do. It’s Don’s decision, and everyone else in the room thinks it’s a great idea.
As “The Wheel” hurtles forward toward its parting shot, it cuts between Pete and Trudy, who are under smilingly relentless pressure to conceive a grandchild, and Peggy going to the emergency room to find out why she feels sick, only to learn that she’s nine months pregnant. This alternating Pete/Peggy structure is poetically right. Peggy goes to the hospital because she had sex with Pete, and the baby she gives birth to proves that Pete’s boys can swim, that the Campbell bloodline will carry on, whether he knows it or not.
And then we cut to Don riding home on the train.
He opens his front door and calls out Betty’s name. Betty is surprised to hear his voice, but grateful. Don says he’s changed his mind, that he’s coming to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving. “Daddy’s coming with you!” Betty tells Sally, who peals her delight.
This is what you might call the Kennedy ending. Or the Hollywood ending. It’s not real. It’s Don’s fantasy.
The reality is an empty house. No wife. No kids. No lights. Just silence.
He sits on the steps and contemplates his barren kingdom. Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” starts to play, and once again, the camera backs away slowly.
This should have been the good place. Instead, it’s the place that cannot be.
When Don looked at those images during the Kodak meeting, he saw what he could be. Sitting on the stairs now, he sees what he is.
Nixon, Kennedy, Kennedy, Nixon, Don Draper, Dick Whitman. There is no struggle. There is no election. A man is whatever room he’s in.
“It shouldn’t have been this close,” Don told Bert earlier, when the ballots were still being counted and nobody knew how the story ended.
“But it is,” Bert says. “It always is.”
The contest will never be decided. There was never a contest.
Excerpted with permission from Mad Men Carousel by Matt Zoller Seitz.