Sunday, April 25, 2010

Camelot and Its Discontents: Mad Men’s Third Season Comes to DVD

Say what you will about the weekly AMC TV series, at the very least, it's a reminder that the period that history remembers today as “Camelot” was nowhere near as tranquil and idyllic as that word suggests.

by Edward B. Driscoll, Jr.
April 25, 2010

Watching the third season of AMC’s Mad Men series, recently released onto DVD, makes for the same push-pull love/hate response that the TV series itself has with the era it portrays. Say what you will about its first three seasons, at the very least, the show is a reminder that the early 1960s, now frequently known as “Camelot” thanks to a powerful assist from a then-recently widowed Jackie Kennedy, was nowhere near as tranquil and idyllic as that word suggests.

What we look back at mistily as “Camelot” was actually one of the most tumultuous stretches of American history since the end of World War II. It began in November of 1960 with a close election in which Richard Nixon (in contrast with Al Gore in 2000) conceded rather than having a protracted fight against John F. Kennedy. This would leave some thinking that Kennedy stole the election, “selected, not elected,” to coin a phrase.
October 1962 saw the Cuban Missile Crisis, with wide swatches of America wondering if they’d wake up to see the next day. (Shades of 9/11.) And it ended on November 22, 1963, with President Kennedy the most important, least understood victim of the Cold War.

Along the way, the American business community hummed along, with the first waves of mergers and conglomerations, the rise of the slide-rule technocrats, and the transatlantic men — British businessmen more comfortable in the States, away from the ridged class structure of their homeland.

That last item informs much of the subtext of the third season of Mad Men. (WARNING: SPOILERS GALORE AHEAD!) Picking up close to where it concluded in the last season, the fictitious all-American firm of Sterling-Cooper is now just a cog in the wheel of its new British owners, Putnam, Powell, and Lowe. The latter firm has sent efficiency expert Lane Pryce (played by Jared Harris) to keep an eye on the upstart yanks. Though he slowly begins to go native, finding it much more freeing than the rigid caste system of England, much to the consternation of wife Rebecca, played by veteran South African actress Embeth Davidtz. Unlike the core Mad Men characters driven by Manhattan’s boundless energy, her character hates the grime and the crime of New York City, which in 1963 was just beginning its long slide into the dissipation and decline during the Lindsay years.

Rebooting The Show: Draper’s 11 Swings Into Action

A key moment along the way that signaled trouble ahead for New York was the demolition of the magnificent original Penn Station by a cash-strapped Pennsylvania Railroad, to build the modern Madison Square Garden sports arena and a Miesian high-rise office tower above it. This subplot was explored in the third season’s second episode, causing some bloggers to write extensively on the topic. But by the end of the episode, the Sterling-Cooper ad campaign is scuttled by Pryce under orders from the home office across the pond, because the firm can’t afford the copywriters and artists it would take to man the account versus its relatively low initial revenue. Though with the promise of the World’s Fair and 30 years of advertising business once Madison Square Garden is up and running, it’s left to Don to ask, “Why the hell did you buy us in the first place?”

Pryce replies that he doesn’t know — though by the end of the season, we know: to be acquired by an even bigger agency in the show’s last episode.
But rather than being swallowed up into a faceless corporation, Don concocts an Ocean’s 11-style caper to steal Sterling-Cooper’s core book of business over a climactic weekend, while the home office in London is asleep at the wheel. (Anybody in advertising or financial services who’s changed firms but kept their client base intact during otherwise hostile circumstances can relate to this plot.)

Unlike the gloomfests of the previous two seasons’ climaxes, the third season of Mad Men ends the show on its highest note. While JFK is dead and the nation as a whole is still in shock, and with Don and Betty heading towards a potentially bitter divorce, Don is now a full partner in the newly christened Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The lean and mean new firm, working out of the Pierre Hotel, is positioned to go anywhere next season: they could still be in their hotel office; they could be in another high-rise in New York, or in sunny California, making it the perfect reboot, apparently right at the show’s fulcrum.

Making Sense of Mad Men’s Politics

Mad Men has always been viewed by both its fans and foes as a scathing attack on American conservatism, but the audio commentary by creator/producer/overall auteur Matthew Weiner on the DVD’s optional soundtrack helps to place that a bit more into perspective. In its pivotal third season episode “My Old Kentucky Home,” set in May of 1963, shortly after singing show tunes at a restricted country club in blackface(!), Roger Sterling regrets that because of Nelson Rockefeller’s divorce the GOP will likely be saddled in ’64 with proto-conservative Barry Goldwater. Add this to their glowing endorsement of Richard Nixon in the first season and you get a clue to the mindset of Sterling-Cooper’s brain trust. Nixon, of course, would govern domestically very much in the mold of LBJ, much to the delight, decades later when the blinders came off, of New York Timesmen Tom Wicker and Paul Krugman.

During the voiceover on that episode, Weiner condemns the death of the moderate Republican — which surely must be news to John McCain, Lindsey Graham, George Voinovich, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins. And in the penultimate episode of the season, built around (HUGE SPOILER ALERT!) Kennedy’s assassination, Weiner tells us that Pete Campbell, Don Draper’s wealthy bête noir, and a fellow as sexist as anyone in the Sterling-Cooper offices, is a Roosevelt Democrat. (There’s a brilliant scene in a previous episode designed to contrast Pete’s incredibly uncomfortable demeanor with the black Sterling-Cooper elevator operator he quizzes for marketing ideas with Don’s ease with a black waiter who he interviews for advertising inspiration in the very first scene of the Mad Men pilot.)

But then, Mad Men is as much about class as it is about politics. Don is a sort of Gatsby-esque figure, but unlike Gatsby with his Long Island mansion, Don owns a relatively modest split-level house in suburban Ossining. Until the middle of the second season when Roger Sterling talks him into a Cadillac, he happily drove mid-level Dodges and Buicks. In an early episode, he asks for a raise to about $40,000 annual salary. Big money for the early 1960s to be sure, but he’s not old money. Which is why, after all of his fooling around, Betty leaves him for a man who is such a Rockefeller Republican, he’s on Nelson’s staff, which adds an extra whammy to the news about Rockefeller’s divorce early in the show’s third season. (In another example of how history has changed America’s mores, this one off-screen, nearly two decades later, Americans didn’t worry too much about another Republican governor’s divorce — or his conservatism — when they swept Ronald Reagan into the White House.)

Here’s Connie!

While the Brits inhabiting the offices of Sterling-Cooper are new characters, the most charismatic new edition to the cast is a sort of postmodern recreation of Conrad Hilton. He’s likely more of a fictitious construct created to be a foil to Don Draper than anything resembling the real man. Actor Chelcie Ross does a terrific job of playing “Connie” as a flinty, self-made American who came from the same humble roots as Draper, but whereas Don has a decent sized book of advertising accounts, Hilton overseas a vast international empire of hotels and resorts.

Introduced, though not identified in the “My Old Kentucky Home” episode, Don mistakes him for the country club’s bartender — and in that and many other scenes throughout the season, he’s photographed to sort of resemble Lloyd the Bartender and the other ghosts who inhabit one of the world’s most famous fictitious hotels: the Overlook from Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining.

He also resembles some of the ghosts from Don’s past who pop up in Mad Men from time to time; like Don in his own way, he’s part of a link from America’s rural past to the big business of America’s post-war, pre-Internet years.

Tangents Within a Framework

Connie seems to pop up when you least expect him in the series. But then, watching the third season of Mad Men as it aired on AMC, it often seemed to have scenes that went off into strange tangents and dead ends (such as the Penn Station subplot). You knew about where the season had to end (it was set in 1963 after all, and two previous seasons wrapped up around the big events of their years), but getting there was sometimes problematic.

Though there are some nice moments that connect the episodes: The first episode of the season begins with Sterling-Cooper account executive Burt Peterson being fired by Pryce, beginning with those ominous words, “come inside, have a seat.” The final episode is titled just that, and ends with the core team essentially getting themselves fired by Pryce, so that they can make a fresh start of it. The episode also tacitly loops back to the earliest episodes of the series, where Betty and her friends ostracized a recently arrived divorcee.

But even when the underlying show itself becomes slack, each episode on the DVD has an optional track featuring Mad Men producer-auteur Matthew Weiner (often with the stars or writers of the show), which makes for fascinating listening, and even at times working unintentionally at cross-purposes with the usual “hey, look at how naive they were back then” tone of the show.

For example, when Pete quixotically tries to convince Admiral Television to aim their marketing at the then-nascent African-American marketplace, Weiner notes how myopic it was for businessmen to ignore this rapidly growing marketplace for political reasons, leaving millions of dollars of potential revenue on the table. This coming from a man who works in an industry which has been alternatively ignoring and insulting half the country in the form of the American right since the late 1960s.

Speaking of which, the late ‘60s is what a wide swatch of Mad Men’s audience are waiting to see, isn’t it? If Mad Men actually gets to that point, Draper will likely resemble the unnamed protagonist in this recent quote from James Lileks, a writer who’s equally interested in the early 1960s, but doesn’t take quite as punitive a view of the period as Weiner:

You’d find yourself in 1970 wearing a polyester suit with wide collars and a tie whose knot was the size of a baby’s head, looking at a wood-grained plastic dashboard in an ugly car, the radio playing Mungo Jerry, wondering how the hell this happened.

That’s pretty much how my dad, who even looked a bit in his younger days like Don Draper, felt at the time. Don’t look to Mad Men for the answers as to how this happened, but the visuals will certainly be amusing to watch.

And make no mistake: Mad Men is a show that works as much for its visuals as its plots. The show’s writers often take a jaundiced view of their characters, but the cinematography and production design are almost always a pleasure. (And those visuals look far sharper, with more layers of historic subtext revealed on the new DVD than over-the-air cable).

So where will the nascent firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and its staff go next when the show resumes this summer? As with the selling of any product, the anticipation is as important as the substance.

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