Tuned In

Mad Men Watch: The New Frontier

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SPOILER ALERT: Crack open some creme de menthe and watch Mad Men before you read this post.

Watching this season of Mad Men season reminds me what it was like watching The Sopranos’ first season–being amazed at how in the zone it was, how it managed to string together one fantastic episode after another. I’ve finished probably every episode since episode 3 thinking that it was the best one yet, probably simply because it was the last one I’d watched.

The second-to-last episode of the season resolved (if not ended) three stories: the Nixon-Kennedy election, Dick Whitman’s Don Draperization and the question of whether Don’s secret would be discovered. Kennedy’s win will change a lot and it will change nothing–Cooper tells Don that anyone who’d buy an election will be a friend of business, and among the rank-and-file, it’s just another excuse for a night of couch-humping and drinking creme de menthe from the water cooler.

(By the way, political buffs help me out here, but didn’t the writers take some liberties by showing Nixon with the early lead election night? Wasn’t it Kennedy who led in the early returns, and Nixon who narrowed but never quite closed the gap?)

Great resolution by Cooper to the big Cuban Missile Crisis of a showdown between Don and Pete. I’m not sure whether Don thought that Pete would blink, or whether he knew that he wouldn’t yet would be shot down–I’m guessing the former, because this was the first time we’ve seen Don less than completely confident in the office.

But it made perfect sense that Pete wouldn’t back down–he lacks the imagination to do anything else but go over the cliff with his plan–and that he was too high-born and class-blinded to anticipate, or even understand Cooper’s answer: “Who cares?” To Pete, having your pedigree discredited is the end of the world. To Cooper–who sees it not only in nutty Randian terms but also in the context of American history–it’s how new worlds are created.

As for Don’s Korean deus ex machina: Peter Ames Carlin wonders why some family member or friend wouldn’t discover that there’s another “Don Draper” out there eventually. This doesn’t bother me so much; what I do wonder is, Why did Dick Whitman bother? It’d be easy enough for him to go off to the service, get a new start in life and tell his family to go the to hell. It happens. Maybe he was too ashamed of his background and thought it would hold him back later in life–if he was already planning some career in Manhattan Ivy-grad circles–but was the benefit worth the risk? Maybe I’m underestimating how class-bound America still was in the ’50s; you tell me.

(Or–has Draper overestimated how class-bound America is, and is realizing that maybe he never needed to become Don Draper? Give me 10 pages by Monday morning.)

One more quibble: scenes like the one in Korea sometimes make me wish HBO, with its deep pockets, had picked up Mad Men. The show is gorgeous and seamlessly art directed when it sticks to its permanent sets (the office, the Draper home). But when it has to throw up temporary sets, the budget limits show. The inside of the tent, the Korean exteriors, the train interior: they all looked and were lit like TV sets, enough to take me out of the scene.

It didn’t matter much in the end, though. When Dick turned on his heartbroken brother on the platform and walked off to become Don Draper, in the company of a grateful civilian gal, it ripped my heart out all the same.

The heart of this show was at the office, though. Pete’s slimy, apologetic blackmailing (“I feel strange having to talk to you in this way”). Don’s post-election trip to Cooper’s inner sanctum (“I’ve just spent a night literally in a smoke-filled room with every Republican luminary in New York except MacArthur and Jesus”). The cringeworthy brilliance of Paul’s play (and the way he fought, then reveled in, the impromptu reading). The jocular election-night sexual harrassment (“I used to think I’d find a husband here”), culminating in When Harry Met Hildy.

Oh–and the weird spectacle of watching a roomful of New Yorkers cheering a Republican, convinced that whatever happens tonight, nothing will change. Which of course is the surest sign that everything is about to.