(S P O I L E R S)
In which I wish I was going somewhere.
June 15th and 16th, 1960: on these consecutive days, two now-classic films that would profoundly shape the culture’s view of femininity made their New York premieres. The film which made its bow on the 16th was, at the time, viewed as a quick, cheap, somewhat dirty picture from a director renowned for his expertly controlled, richly designed thrillers (including his hit political/romantic thriller from the year before.) But critics of this new film forgot the darkness that often lay beneath the gloss. In fact, two films before, the director had crafted a gorgeous Technicolor romance that doubled as a melancholic examination of male desire and obsession, featuring a classic leading man plunging into his own tortured psyche to fashion his lover into the image of a dead woman. On the surface, the director’s new film was much more of a slick shock machine. But the story it told, of one woman rebelling against a male chauvinist order, who then meets a man emasculated by a controlling woman, only to fall victim to him on the brink of her redemption, offered a perverse, complex study of female sexuality. Critics might’ve railed against Psycho because of the then-graphic violence, but maybe the real reason the film got under their skins was because of what it had to say about being a woman in 1960.
Early on in “Long Weekend”, Roger mentions Psycho to Joan as he tries to woo her into a Labor Day weekend with him while Mona and Margaret are away. But the film that he attempts to compare it to, the one that Joan has on her mind, the one that debuted one day before Psycho is Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. Throughout Mad Men’s run, Matt Weiner has listed many cultural touchstones as influences on the look and tone of the show. The current MOMA series of its filmic influences includes, among others, Hitchcock’s two pre-Psycho films (Vertigo and North by Northwest.) But it also prominently features The Apartment, which Weiner has spoken about at length over the past seven plus years.
If you haven’t seen The Apartment….well, go watch it. It’s on Netflix. And yeah, it’s pretty awesome. Wilder’s films are always expertly crafted mixtures of humor and sadness, filmic love letters dipped in acid (although with Sunset Boulevard, and especially with the brutal Ace in the Hole, the acid was front and center.) In The Apartment, Jack Lemmon’s low level insurance agency office drone gets caught up in the comic zaniness when he agrees to lend his apartment to his lecherous boss (Fred MacMurray, returning to Wilder’s dark playground after his memorable turn in Double Indemnity) so that he can carry out his love affairs in private. The plot thickens when it turns out that the sassy, female elevator operator (Shirley MacLaine) whom Lemmon secretly pines for is his boss’s new mistress. (Man, no one knew how to bring out the sliminess in Fred MacMurray like Wilder….and I say this knowing that a decent chunk of you reading this probably have no clue who Fred MacMurray is….c’mon people, that’s what the internet is for!)
The whole thing is a great satire of the corporate culture that was beginning to subsume American life (the famous image above, of a seemingly endless progression of office desks, tells the whole story), while also serving as a tender romance and a stinging proto-feminist commentary. MacLaine believes MacMurray’s patter about how she’s different, how she’ll be the one he leaves his wife for. But her ultimate realization that she’s just another disposable lust object is crushing; it’s a bitter rebuke of the patriarchal machine of the day, and how it chewed up and spit out women.
Mad Men has often used cultural references of the era as subtle commentaries on plot and character arcs, but “Long Weekend” explicitly uses The Apartment as the backbone for several of its major threads, as women strive for acceptance in the rarified male order, only to be kicked back down the social ladder or treated as fantasy objects. Following her tryst with Pete in “The Hobo Code”, Peggy is still torn over the mixed signals that he keeps sending her. When she firmly confronts him over this during a heated exchange, it’s a deeply vulnerable moment for her. She also gets off one of the best lines of the first season when she responds to Pete’s stern admonition that he’s married with “Yes I know. And I heard all about how confusing that can be. Maybe you need me to lay on your couch to clear that up for you again.” (Pete’s response of “That’s some imagination you’ve got” continues that philosophical thread from “Marriage of Figaro”, while also again foreshadowing Don’s advice to Peggy in Season 2’s “The New Girl”) Pete’s class/legacy-centric conflict may eat away at him, but he’s still not fully aware of how much power he has over Peggy, how destructive he can be on so many levels (although that will change greatly as time passes.)
But Joan is the obvious Shirley MacLaine stand-in here, her long-standing affair with Roger the basis for much of her frustration (ironic, considering how “Babylon” established her seeming dominance of their power relationship.) When her roommate Carol reveals that her insensitive boss fired her for his own oversight, Joan seizes the chance for a moment of feminist unity by ignoring Roger’s advances and taking her out for a night of bachelor hunting. But even Joan’s attempt to take control of sexual politics is doomed. The schlubs that she and Carol bring home may prove that the girls are calling the shots, but these are still the same losers who leer over women like Joan every day (I’ve always found their selection of men here a bit confusing, as Joan has proven that she can do much better…unless this is her version of going slumming.) And when Carol confesses that she’s long been in love with Joan (“Just think of me as boy” she says, a sad attempt at co-opting the male order), that she followed her from college in the hopes that she’d notice her someday, Joan’s awkward attempt to diffuse the situation brings her more in line with her perception of Roger than she’d like; Carol is left to be kicked back down her own ladder of aspiration, relegated to sleeping with one of their unctuous suitors. Joan ultimately fares no better; her final shot in the episode is one final callback to The Apartment, as she’s visually relegated to being Bert Cooper’s elevator operator.
When Carol reluctantly agrees to those advances, she blankly says that she’ll do “whatever you want.” It’s a line echoed later in the episode by twin sister Eleanor, when she tries to seduce Don by telling him “Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.” In this world, women are fully aware of their objectification, and cling to it in the hopes of greater dreams. Eleanor and Mirabelle are literally love partners selected from the casting pool, Don and Roger’s reaction to a day of rejection (by Dr. Scholl’s and Joan, respectively.) Less assertive women in tow, Roger sets out to reestablish his manhood, first by trying to get the twins to make out, then by turning Mirabelle’s admission of her equestrian background against her by literally riding her back into the office (that was a moment always guaranteed to unnerve the students when we watched this episode in class.) Even the line of seduction that he drops on Mirabelle (“You have such beautiful skin. My God, I just wanna eat it. I want to suck your blood, like Dracula.”) frames her exclusively as an object of complete submission.
The presence of the twin sisters also mirrors two more sets of dopplegangers in “Long Weekend”. Sterling Cooper’s courting of the Nixon campaign has been a subplot running through the first season, but now that the election is at hand, this plot thread comes more to the front. It’s been subtle so far, but the comparisons between Don and Pete, and Nixon and Kennedy have been there all along. In this episode, Don finally explicitly vocalizes them. In response to the stark difference between the two candidates’ television campaigns (Kennedy’s ads a brilliant montage of visuals, Nixon’s entry a single shot of his dour lecturing), Don lauds Nixon’s Midwest hardscrabble background, saying “I see Kennedy, I see a silver spoon. I see Nixon…I see myself.” Of course, Dick Whitman would sympathize with the farmboy with deep seated mother issues, who also happens to be a paranoid control freak. And he obviously sees Pete as the silver spoon-sucking JFK. The irony, of course, is that Don is as much JFK as anyone, his square-jawed good looks and hyper-confidence as much of his appeal as anything, his secret life mirroring the severe medical problems, love affairs, and mob ties that Kennedy also hid. And Pete may have the pedigreed background, but he’s as much of a schemer and weasel as Nixon would prove to be.
The other set of twins is, of course, Don and Roger. I discussed this at length in the essay for “Red in the Face”, but Janie Bryant makes things crystal clear in this episode, with the two men dressed in almost identical grey suits to match the nearly matching dressed on Eleanor and Mirabelle. And it’s because of this most explicit confirmation of Don and Roger’s connection that Roger’s heart attack hits Don so hard. Like Betty with Helen Bishop, Don sees Roger’s fall as a stark reminder of his own mortality, and a potential preview of what lies ahead for him. With death literally staring him in the face, his only recourse is to run to Rachel Menken for relief.
And it’s here that we get one of our first extended glimpses of Dick Whitman in full, stripped of his Don Draper suit, emotionally naked. It’s clear by now that Rachel realizes what a sensitive souls rests within Don, but she’s still taken aback by his utter panic. When Don chokes back tears as he begs Rachel “This is it. This is all there is and I feel like it’s slipping through my fingers like a handful of sand. This is it. This is all there is.” everything comes full circle. After all, this is the same guy who peddled studied nihilism to Rachel in the climax of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” when he said:
“You're born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget... I'm living like there's no tomorrow, 'cause there isn't one.”
The apocalypse has finally arrived. Yet when it proves to be personal, not social, Don is devastated. His admission to Rachel of his wildly dysfunctional family background is a major moment for the character. But as we’ll see in the last three episodes of the season, confession doesn’t always equal absolution.
A few odds and ends to finish:
*This episode has some of the best one liners of the season. A few of them include:
-Peggy’s aforementioned slam of Pete.
-“Do you like Ukranian food?” (Paul, bringing back the line he tried on Peggy, trying to seduce one of the casting call models. Is Paul Kinsey the only human on earth who uses this line?)
-“Oh my. Everything he says means something else too.” (Mirabelle, about Roger)
-And some great additions to the Roger Sterling Comedy Hall of Fame, including:
~”If Freddie Rumsen’s mind works like I think it does-slow and obvious…”
~”When God closes a door, he opens a dress.”
~”I’d like to get to the bottom…why yes, I would like to see those” (Faking conversation with Joan)
*At the beginning of the episode, we once again see Betty’s cattier side, as she derides her father’s girlfriend Gloria as a vulture, who’s late husband was a failure. It’s becoming clear by the point that the Hofstadt bloodline has much in common with the Dyckman legacy, and that the privilege Betty grew up in is a greater part of her character than was initially apparent.
*Matt Weiner’s time in the Sopranos writer’s room shines through a bit in the aftermath of Roger’s heart attack. It’s an emotionally powerful moment of self-realization for Roger, but much like Tony Soprano’s episodes of insights, it proves to be fleeting. By midway through Season 2, Roger is dumping Mona for 20 year-old secretary Jane.