Wednesday, March 18, 2015

MAD MEN Ep. 4: "New Amsterdam"

(S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

In which kids!  I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today!

I freely admit it: when I first watched Season 1 of Mad Men, I hated Pete Campbell.  Sure, I had been trained by seven seasons of The Sopranos that even the most vile characters can have redeemable qualities (see the genius turnaround of Ralph Cifaretto in Season 4’s “Whoever Did This”) and vice versa.  Through five brilliant seasons of The Wire (yeah, Season 5 haters, I said it), David Simon schooled me in matters of moral and ethical relativism (and magical alcoholism.  Ladies in the audience, if you ever plunge through The Wire, please note that there’s no way in hell that a master’s level drunk like Jimmy McNulty can still look that attractive.)  Fer cryin’ out loud, I have an English Lit. BA from THE Ohio State University.  I’ve spent most of my adult life working in shades of grey (wait….that didn’t come out right….) 

But even with all of that background, I still despised weaselly Pete throughout the first 13 episodes.  Looking back, a lot of my hatred might have stemmed from artificially lowered expectations.  As I mentioned in my intro essay to this series, I started watching Mad Men on DVD several month before Season 4’s debut.  So conditioned was I to pledge allegiance to HBO’s superiority in all things television, that I had successfully resisted the notion that AMC could possibly create anything better than a standard crappy network show (bonus point to those of you who can spot all the flaws in this logic that are now readily apparent.)  After all, they had commercials!  HBO (and, to a lesser extent, Showtime) has masterfully manipulated the lack of commercials interrupting the flow of their shows’ episodes to create meandering shaggy dog narratives, establish plot points that never pay off (the Sopranos Russian!), and throw in slow burn episodes whose tension would be torched by ads every ten minutes.  (To be fair, Matt Weiner’s agents also thought that AMC was a terrible option for the show.  But history has a funny way of changing like that.)

It took me teaching Mad Men for the first time to finally be slapped upside the head by the complex aesthetics that lay beneath the show’s slick exterior.  And this is why “New Amsterdam” is now one of my favorite episodes of Season 1.  Because it’s here that Weiner gives Pete Campbell his first extended chance to be a flawed, sympathetic human being.

(During my days of teaching the show, I would go to great lengths to defend Pete.  Trying to encourage students to find his soul, while also remembering that studly Don was sometimes no less a weasel, was a great pedagogical object lesson.  I still admire Vincent Kartheiser’s total commitment to the role.  Most of his previous career had consisted of sly, sexy drifters and hustlers.  And Angel’s son.  In real life, he’s a good looking guy, and his bohemian leanings are the complete opposite of his Mad Men character.  But he’s never shied away from hammering home Pete’s slimier aspects, while still lending a depth and gravitas to him that really starts paying off in later seasons.  And not only has he gained weight to play older Pete, but he’s also shaved his hairline back for months on end to accentuate his decline in virility.  ‘Cause, you know, not all of us can be Jon Hamm.)

The title of the episode is the first indication that we’re going to be swimming through the great lagoon of the past, specifically the paternalistic legacies that threaten to engulf most of the main characters.  For the first time, we’re introduced to Pete’s parents, and it’s here that we finally get a glimpse of the genesis of his smarmy demeanor.  Dorothy Campbell is a doting and slightly oblivious scion of privilege, while her husband Andrew can only view Pete as a disappointment, his advertising career “no job for a white man.” (Incidentally, Andrew’s yellow sports coat/shorts/boat shoes with no socks ensemble in this scene is one of favorites of this season, another example of how costume designer Janie Bryant is one of the unsung stars of the show.)  Note in the image above how Pete is positioned in a completely subservient manner in the frame; there are many instances in this episode in which characters are framed as either surrounded by empty space or in clear deference to a more powerful figure.

To a modern audience, living in an era in which the advertising industry’s philosophy has colonized most of our psyches, this condescending view of the profession can seem like a shock.  But it also reinforces something about Pete that can be easy to forget: the crushing burden of expectations that comes with a well-moneyed East Coast, Ivy League, prep school background.  Watching the show today, or even when in debuted in 2007, we can sometimes forget how codified and prevalent this mentality once was, the power it held over generations of American aristocrats.  But even now, it still exists; just hang out at Harvard or Yale sometime (or better yet, read this New York Times article from last fall, a damning indictment of the rampant class and gender inequity at Harvard’s Business School.) 

And Pete is a product of this environment, a young man trying to make his own mark in the world, simultaneously trying to flee from and live up to his parents’ legacies.  It’s the core of his character, and it dilutes some of the nastiness he often displays to his co-workers and friends (especially in this episode, where Don is constantly needling him in front of others.)  His winning Bethlehem Steel pitch is, indeed, a good angle to satisfy the unconvinced Walter Veith (even though we can tell that Sal’s striking concept art would be a knockout), but all Don (and later, Roger) can see is a broadside to his fragile ego.  The good of the company must still ultimately be channeled through Don’s glory. 

When Don retaliates by telling Pete to clean out his desk, we get one of the most striking images of the series: Pete Campbell sitting on his office couch, in tears, crushed.  As long as you’re willing to extend some minor bit of empathy to him, it’s a truly sad moment, Pete as nothing more than the little boy, dressed up in a suit, desperate to impress his dad.  As we’ll see throughout the season, Pete hides a deep need to gain the favor of men who hold patriarchal positions in his life; in this episode alone, he seeks validation (even in a backhanded way), from his wife Trudy’s father, Don, and Roger.  And for a show as precise with its editing and camerawork as Mad Men is, it can certainly be no mistake when the taxi-bound scene that follows Pete and Trudy’s dinner with her parents (in which a petulant Pete whines about Trudy always getting what she wants) cuts directly to Betty on the couch with Glen Bishop, their blocking in the same positions as that of the Campbells.

(This was also, of course, the debut of Matt Weiner’s son Marten as the laconic, preternaturally mature Glen.  His request for a lock of Betty’s hair always got a huge laugh from the students in my class.  They couldn’t quite get over Glen’s creepiness.  Weiner actually based the scene on a childhood crush he had on a much older babysitter.  When you look at it from that perspective, it’s a nice, albeit painful, reminder of how awkward childhood crushes can be.  My attempts to elaborate on this usually fell on deaf ears.  To many of the teens, Glen was just a mildly psychopathic and pervy child.  But he would gain the room to develop as the show progressed.)

The final scene of “New Amsterdam” is a stark reminder that even though there’s genuine talent and drive inside Pete, his family name will continue to haunt him and control his fortunes.  Unbeknownst to him, Bert Cooper saves his job because axing Pete would alienate all of the upper class connections that his mother’s maiden name (Dyckman, a play on a real life New York legacy clan) brings with it.  When Pete and Trudy finally get to show off their new Park Ave. apartment (financed by her father, after Andrew Campbell gruffly dismisses the idea of financing his ad man son’s first home), the neighbors only want to hear fantastical stories about the Dyckman heritage.  Pete defers to Trudy, and as he watches her tell the stories from afar, and then turns to face the Manhattan skyline, we understand the inner turmoil that defines him.  Once again, he’s Don’s mirror image: a guy who seemingly has it all, but can’t have the spiritual fulfillment he so craves.

And Pete isn’t the only character in this episode who’s deflated by paternalistic figures.  In a great, multi-layered sequence, Don and Roger meet with Bert to confirm Pete’s firing.  When they enter his office, the camera cuts to a close-up of an old picture that’s revealed to be a much younger Bert with a pre-teen Roger perched on his knee.  “You were cute back then” jokes Bert, who then undercuts Roger by saving Pete’s job.  It’s made clear in future episodes that Roger’s father started Sterling Cooper with Bert, and that generational tension always slightly informs the Bert/Roger dynamic.  Roger (who in many ways is still a child himself…as Lane Pryce will memorably affirm several seasons from now) then quickly deflects Bert’s paternalism by condescending to Don (“Don’s a big boy.  Aren’t you Don?”)  When Roger tells Pete lies to Pete by telling him that Don pushed to save his employment, it’s both canny move designed to build loyalty and reenactment of two parents playing good cop/bad cop.

But the chain of paternalism doesn’t stop there.  As Don and Roger enjoy a post-work drink in Don’s office, each tries to reassert his primacy.  Roger rails against Don’s generation, how they don’t know how to drink, how they’re too self-obsessed (as pictured here, the scene opens with a rear shot of Roger in a reverse negative of Don’s famous pose from the show’s logo.)  Don shoots back with “Maybe I’m not as comfortable being powerless as you are”, which clearly sets Roger back.  This scene defines much of the Don/Roger dynamic, two alpha males who are always engaged in a mildly covert war of wills.  The extended silences between them in this scene tell more than the dialogue itself.  Their one-upsmanship will come to the forefront again when we get to Episode 7: “Red in the Face.”  But that’s an emasculation fest for another day.

In the end, both men agree that “maybe every generation thinks the next one is the end of it all.”  It’s a line that serves as the long coming payoff to one from the first Bethlehem Steel meeting, in which Pete offers Walter Veith tickets to Bye Bye Birdie, the then-new musical that prominently features a song which opines “Kids!  I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today!”  Don acidly repackages this line by saying “Kids today, they have no one to look up to…’cause they’re looking up to us.”  The sins of the father, indeed.

We close, once again, with some odds and ends:

*Somehow, it took me a long time to realize that the first three books I taught in my Sophomore curriculum (Catcher in the Rye, Bell Jar, Great Gatsby) all featured central characters who either lived in or spent substantial time in New York City, and who were in the midst of becoming disillusioned with their privileged background.  And with the state of privilege as a whole.  Add in Mad Men’s deconstruction of the idealized high class New York life and you get what was (honestly) an unconscious broader narrative amongst the first few months of class.  It only hit me later that at some subconscious level, a good deal of the students I taught who came from privilege might have failed to connect with some of these works because of their inherent critiques of the moneyed lifestyle.  My conscious hope was that the Sophomores would be forced to empathize with characters who might not share their backgrounds, problems, etc. but looking back I can see that some of those students couldn’t understand how anyone with that much affluence could think that it was a bad thing.

*This episode also marks the series debut of the great Alison Brie as Trudy Campbell (and yes, the picture of Trudy in the pilot is of a completely different woman.)  She’s never been a regular player on the show, although there are stretches where she appears more often.  But she’s very good at playing Pete’s long suffering better half.  And very funny.  And I sorta have a thing for her, so I couldn’t not mention her before we wrap up here.

*For those of you keeping score at home, I assigned F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic short story “Babylon Revisited” to supplement this episode and the weekly Gatsby reading.  Pete shares many of the same existential conflicts with “Babylon”’s Charlie (a thinly veiled version of the post-crash, deeply alcoholic Fitzgerald, a man desperate to regain his daughter, but who’s haunted by his own personal legacy.)

*”New Amsterdam” is also a really funny entry in the series.  Don’s dry putdowns of Pete when he meets Trudy for the first time are right out of a Preston Sturges comedy.  Pete’s defense of his advertising acumen (“I have good ideas!  In fact, I used to carry around a notebook and pencil just to keep track!  Direct marketing!  I thought of that! Turned out it already existed, but I arrived at it independently!”) is great self-parody.  And when Don and Roger take off their shoes before entering Bert’s office, the rear shot of them shows Roger sinking to his real height, some two to three inches below Don.  Jon Hamm’s brief double take is priceless.

*I shortchanged Betty a bit in this episode, but there’ll be more of her to come.  Her relationship with Helen Bishop continues to grow, even though she clearly views her as a possible preview of her life without Don.  And there are some nice parallels drawn throughout between Betty and Pete.  But this episode is clearly the Pete Campbell show, so back to Betty in the future.


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