Thursday, April 02, 2015

MAD MEN Ep. 12: "Nixon vs. Kennedy"

(S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

In which a man is whatever room he is in.

"The illusion, he realized, would not be perfect.  None ever was.  But still it seemed a nifty piece of work.  Logical and smooth.  Among the men of Charlie Company he was only known as Sorceror.  Very few had ever heard his real name; fewer still would recall it.  And over time, he trusted, memory itself would be erased."     Tim O'Brien/In the Lake of the Woods

For a long time, I dreaded the prospect of rewatching the entire run of The Sopranos.  Now you have to understand, during its heyday, I was mildly obsessed with David Chase’s paean to the poetic mundanity of post-peak Mob life (and American life).  I bought all the magazines, read every news item, scoured the internet for message board analysis of each episode.  That last bit of devotion is probably the most telling, as I had never before indulged in the labyrinthine analysis that the best of the web could bring.  Obsessively reading each week’s new batch of theories on plot arcs, symbolism, artistic references, etc. was enriching in ways that my previous television fandom hadn’t breached.  After all, the only two previous shows upon which I had so fixated were Twin Peaks and The X-Files, and most of the online discussion surrounding those was confined to the now-archaic world of newsgroups.  Although let me tell ya, when one of my lifelong best friends/fellow obsessives once printed off all of the newsgroup discussions/theories about the series finale of Twin Peaks and gave it to me for Christmas (collated in a three ring binder), it was like the free sample that a dealer uses to hook you for good.

I can lay some of the motivation for my rabid devouring of all things Sopranos at the feet of timing.  As I’ve probably mentioned before, I didn’t start watching the show until a few months before the fourth season debut (in the fall of 2002); by the time Season 5 rolled around, I had a home internet connection for the first time (feel free to laugh it up) and I had started down the long road that would become my teaching career.  So now that I was analyzing literature for a living, diving into the glut of online analysis surrounding Chaseworld seemed like a natural continuation of the rest of my life.

So yeah, the prospect of revisiting the show from the beginning was a bit daunting, in part, because I feared that shotgunning most of it without the long weekly, theory-filled weight might diminish the experience.  But I also feared going back to it because of my Dad.  You see, once I caught up with the first three seasons of The Sopranos, I started watching the rest of the show live with him.  And it turned into a real bonding experience for us.  We had always been close (those of you who knew him know that there’s a lot of my Dad in me), but having this set time each week for collectively experiencing a show we both dug was still something special.  He had watched the first three seasons live, but when I finally joined him it added a little something different to the proceedings.  I would dutifully fill him in on each week’s online chatter and point out references to other movies.  He would tell me stories about his younger days, how he saw himself in some of the formative exploits of the Soprano crew.  He always enjoyed the bursts of violence and defending of family honor that the show offered. 

And I’m not sure how much he ever consciously realized it, but my Dad had more in common with Tony Soprano than he thought; his mother was, in many ways, a spiritual dead ringer for Livia Soprano, a controlling, often icy woman who favored his younger sister, who several times told him that she almost didn’t want to have him.  Of course, like Mama Soprano, my grandma was always benevolent toward my siblings and me.  But as an adult, I now knew the other side of her personage.  And deep down, I knew that watching this show was, even if just on an unconscious level, a way for my Dad to exorcise some of those lingering ghosts in his head, and to communicate them with me in a manner that words couldn’t adequately express.  So when he died a year after the end of the show, I started to worry that revisiting it someday would dredge up feelings that I didn’t want to engage with.  That watching it without him might degrade my enjoyment.

But on a purely practical level, I also dreaded the trip back to New Jersey because of that greatest and most terrible facet of the return to any work of art: dramatic irony.  If you’ve never watched The Sopranos, know that much of its strength is derived from the sense of impending doom and chaos that hovers over even the smallest interactions.  So many of the memorable deaths on the show come not from an archetypical standoff, but from sudden bursts of pent up fury, from an innocuous argument gone wrong, or a slight that triggers the simmering rage from another completely different relationship.  Knowing exactly what happened, and who would die in advance?  Yeah, I greatly feared that knowledge would weaken the show for me.

And dramatic irony is also one of the reasons why I didn’t know how going back to Mad Men, the spiritual heir to The Sopranos, the first time I taught it would affect me. As I mentioned way back in the first essay of this series, watching the show in an academic setting actually forced me to analyze it for the first time, which ended up deepening my appreciation for it.  And somehow, over the three subsequent years of using Mad Men in a classroom setting, I never tired of unpacking the whole thing once again.  I always seemed to have new take on the show’s complex universe, and enough of the students brought their own fresh insights that repeating these stories that I knew so well became an oasis in the often arid academic desert.

It’s this sense of dramatic irony, one that has deepened in richness as each subsequent season of Mad Men has elapsed, which has made writing this series of essays so enjoyable.  Even to this day, I’m noticing old bits of business that are now affecting me in different ways.  And my recent rewatch of Season 2 has only added to this sense of richness.

Take Duck Phillips, everyone’s favorite slimy careerist (someday, I’ll have to write an essay about how much I love Mark Moses and the ever-growing string of unctuous cads on his acting resume.)  In the essay for “Indian Summer”, I noted how Don’s promotion to partner establishes the need for a new Head of Account Services and reinforces his desire to work without a contract (which essentially outlines the set up and resolution for Season 2.)  But during Duck’s first series appearance in “Nixon vs. Kennedy”, the sense of dramatic irony is amazing, as his interview with Don and Bert Cooper essentially outlines his entire character arc.

Now, I’m not saying that Matt Weiner already had the entire Duck storyline planned out this far in advance.  Weiner has often noted how AMC didn’t give him the renewal for Season 2 until after he had finished shooting all 13 episodes of Season 1 (more on that in the essay for “The Wheel”), so some of these late season plot machinations were partially intended to act as resolution in the event that Mad Men became a one and out deal.  But I have to think that he at least had an inkling of where he might want to go.  Or that he just picked up this interview scene and ran with it. 

The harbingers of Season 2 contained within Duck’s interview are fascinating.  Don introduces him to Bert as Herman, upon which Duck establishes his preferred nom de plume, which causes Don to note that his research told him not to use that name.  Duck’s wry reply (“I don’t know.  I like it when you call me Herman”) is a jokey bit of small talk, but it also subtly establishes the war of wills that will engulf these two men in the next season, as well as his disdain for creative types and their seeming indifference to hard numbers (Silicon Valley would love Duck.)  Don notes that Duck landed American Airlines for Y+R during his time in London; his attempt to do the same for Sterling Cooper will lead to Season 2’s AA/Mohawk Airlines debacle, the fallout from which amps up the tension between he and Don.  Pete and the boys fill the audience in on Duck’s drunken flameout in London, prefiguring his eventual downfall at Sterling Cooper. 

But perhaps the most prescient Duck-centric line comes from Ken Cosgrove: Published Author, when he notes “He’s a killer, but he’s damaged goods.”  If Season 1 of Mad Men is an introduction to Don’s compartmentalized, existential angst, Season 2 features him having to face down some of his more unpleasant attributes.  I once mentioned that Don’s affair with Bobbie Barrett was akin to an extended episode of him making love to himself, and it’s only when he finally realizes that (even though he wants to deny it) he and Bobbie are one in the same that he cuts things off.  But Duck Phillips is also a reflection of a side of Don that he fears: the cold pragmatist, stripped of any creativity or soul, and a man on the brink of a flameout.  A damaged killer.  As the series progresses, we’ll see more and more of Don’s old school creative temperament running up against the encroachment of purely data-driven advertising.  Duck is where it all begins.

Another bit of intense dramatic irony comes in one of the more heart-rending scenes of this season.  Hot on the heels of his final rebuke at the hands of Rachel Menken, a panicked and despondent Don returns to his office only to find Peggy on the couch.  When she breaks into tears over the firing of two janitors (who took the fall for her reporting the boys to building security for raiding her locker during the election party the night before), her anguished plea to Don is a thing of beauty:

“I don’t understand.  I try to do my job.  I follow the rules, and people hate me.  Innocent people get hurt, and—and other people—people who are not good—get to walk around doing whatever they want.  It’s not fair.”     

In the moment, this speech is wrenching.  Over the course of the first season, Elisabeth Moss is so good at charting the subtle transformation of Peggy, that when she cracks here and reveals that the sensitive woman of the pilot is still present inside her, it’s a real gutpunch.  Looking back at this scene after six and a half seasons of Peggy’s evolution into a much harder and pragmatic (but still sympathetic) person, it’s doubly sad (she has a similar speech with Pete in the Season 2 finale, in which her reveal of their abandoned child doubles as her confession of how much of herself she’s had to sacrifice to survive in the ad world.)

That final sentence in Peggy’s speech mirrors Don’s exact same words to Bert Cooper when the boss breaks down the cold calculus of a JFK election victory for Sterling Cooper.  And it’s that repetition of his own words by the woman who will become his protégé and one his few confidantes which inspires him to finally confront Pete about the Dick Whitman situation.

Oh yeah, I’m finally getting around to the king of all this episode’s plot threads: the long-brewing, epic standoff between Don and Pete.  (Boy, talk about buying the lede.)  One of the hallmarks of the pantheon of great modern television dramas (notably The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men) has been their subversion of the classic narrative arc through placing the major twists and resolutions in the penultimate episode of each season, leaving the finale as reflective epilogue.  Which means that “Nixon vs. Kennedy” contains a lot of big moments. 

And Pete’s attempt to blackmail Don with the knowledge of his true identity is the biggest.  Throughout the season, the show (and Don) has drawn a parallel between the Don/Pete rivalry and the Nixon/Kennedy race.  Here it’s all made explicit, especially in Don’s silver spoon rebuke of Pete before they enter Bert’s office (prompted by Peggy’s lament about fairness, and by Rachel calling him a coward.)  Pete is amazed that Don is willing to force this final confrontation, saying “You would rather blow yourself up than make me Head of Accounts?”  It’s another callback to Don’s supposed cowardice; the next scene will reveal his theft of the real Don Draper’s identity in Korea, which lends added resonance to his attempt to derail Pete’s scheme, to finally enact the magnanimous sacrifice that he was so unwilling to make in the war. (Note, as well, how the image above serves as a mirror image callback to one from the climax of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, Don and Pete once again blocked off in their own frames, physically separated by a beam, figuratively separated by their conflict.)

I’ve said it before, but Jon Hamm has never received enough credit for the subtlety he brings to the role of Don.  “Nixon vs. Kennedy” is a tour de force of his range, as he’s forced to play all aspects of the Don/Dick dichotomy.  During the flashback that reveals Dick’s first meeting with the real Don, Hamm’s voice is noticeably weaker and in a higher register; it’s only when he becomes Don Draper: Master of the Universe that he adopts the stentorian baritone that is cultural shorthand for masculine authority and power.  (It’s also interesting that Don Draper is the only soldier working at his outpost in Korea, prefiguring the solitary nature of the new Don’s life.)  That weaker voice returns later in the episode during Don’s panicked retreat into Rachel Menken’s arms.  And it’s here that we once again see what must be the real Dick Whitman, the frightened man stripped of his Don Draper armor, those old Fitzgeraldian hot whips of panic lashing away at him.

Here’s something that should come as no surprise to those of you who’ve been reading these essays from the start: the moment when Bert Cooper responds to Pete’s reveal of Don’s identity with “Mr. Campbell…who cares?” garnered the wildest in-class applause of the first season.  And yeah, in the moment, it’s satisfying snub of a character who’s hard to like.  But as I rewatcheed this episode, I was struck again by how the conflicting physicalities and senses of cool between Don and Pete drive so much of the stock audience response.  It’s so easy to applaud Don when he finally claims authority and takes a stand for something, while it’s also pretty easy to boo and hiss at Pete when he does the same.  But the power plays that each tries to pull during this season aren’t that dissimilar.  It’s just much easier to take the side of the sexy cutthroat than the geeky one.    

A final word about the end of Don’s affair with Rachel.  Her climactic moment of revelation is potent, as she claims that their time together was “a dalliance, a cheap affair” and that “you don’t want to run away with me, you just want to run.” (In the moment before, she nails him with “What are you, a 15-year old?”)  And there’s a lot of truth in her sentiments.  But looking back at this episode years later, there’s also a lot of sadness and missed opportunity.  Because we know that their affair wasn’t just a cheap fling, that Don actually finds a compassionate, spiritual connection with her, flawed as it may be.  But in the end, she’ll always be that utopian ideal: the good place that cannot be.

And in the end, the dramatic irony inherent in rewatching Mad Men for this essay series is a big reason why I was somewhat apprehensive of doing so.  So attached to my teaching career have my memories of Season 1 become, I worried that going through these episodes again would dredge up some suppressed pain.  For as mercurial as my time teaching could be, the Mad Men unit was a deeply rewarding part of my life.  And now that I’ve left that part, it sometimes seems to me that those Mad Men days have taken on the mantle of being the good place that cannot be.  But ultimately, they’re all part of the continuum of life.  To once again quote Sylvia Plath, they’re part of my landscape.  And revisting them has been almost as rewarding as experiencing them the first time around.

*I could write an entire essay about the raucous Election Night office party.  It’s Mad Men in capsule form: massive boozing, repellent sexism (Ken Cosgrove yanking up Alison’s dress to the approval of the office pool always got a stunned reaction in class), dry and absurdist humor, the cost of bacchanalian living (Harry Crane’s tryst with Hildy showing that the Sterling Cooper culture can infect anyone).  Paul Kinsey’s play (Death is My Client), his barely disguised rant against his fellow workers, makes me laugh every time (“I can’t control my genius!’).  But the aftermath of its performance also provided a nice character moment for he and Joan, as she reminds him how his big mouth ended their relationship, while he makes sweet and temporary amends by dancing a silent cha-cha with her.  It’s a bit that other shows might skip over as being inconsequential to such a plot-driven episode.  But it’s little snapshots of humanity like this that make Mad Men such compelling drama.

*After dismissing Pete from his office, Bert Cooper’s final line to Don (“Fire him if you want.  But keep an eye on him.  One never knows how loyalty is born.”) would prove to be prophetic, as their Season 1 rivalry would inadvertently create a deep bond between he and Pete.  It also serves as an ironic counterpoint, as the scene immediately cuts to a flashback of the explosion that allowed Dick to steal Don’s identity. 

*That climactic flashback, when young Adam spots Dick in the train as it pulls away?  Yeah…that gets me every time.  It’s final, tragic confirmation of how much that little boy never really grew up, and how his big brother’s ultimate rejection of him destroyed his soul.

*With the exception of a brief (but important) cameo at the beginning of Season 2, this episode marks the end of Maggie Siff’s run as Rachel Menken.  But she wouldn’t be able to abandon her knack for playing respectable women who fall for the bad boy, as she transitioned into the role of Tara, Jax Teller’s doctor girlfriend, on Sons of Anarchy.

*”You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.  Forget about that boy in the box.”  (Woman in the train, to Dick.  Also a callback to the last remnants of Dick’s life, the photos that Pete absconds with, which are housed in a box.)

*”It’s marvelous.  I become incantatory.”  (Paul, describing the effect drinking absinthe has on him.)        

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