Tuned In

Mad Men Watch: Promise Me the Moon

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, watch last night’s Mad Men, and be sure to keep track of whether they aired all the commercials.

“We’re not chauvinists. We just have expectations.”

And how. “Wee Small Hours” was an episode of Mad Men about characters demanding, demanding, demanding–about the exercise of power and the expectations of privilege. Those demands, and the repercussions on those who failed to meet them, did not just have stressful and heartbreaking effects on the characters. They were also shot through with historical overtones of where America was in 1963, and where it was going.

Start with this: in November–spoiler alert–President Kennedy, from Massachusetts, will be assassinated. LBJ, from Texas, will become President. After that, there will not be another President from the northeast–that is, from the recognizable world of Sterling Cooper and its Eastern Establishment–until… well, unless you count the Connecticut Yankee by way of Texas Bushes, we’re still waiting.

In America, in other words, the center of national gravity is going to shift. Maybe it has already shifted. The East may still have stature in the coming years–and will provide a worthy target for politicians to run against–but the country is increasingly going to be run by different kinds of men. Westerners, Southerners. Men in cowboy hats, men with drawls. JFK asked for the Moon (like Connie), but it will be a Texan and then a Californian (Nixon) who will be around when we get there.

As Betty reads in her New York Times, Henry Francis’s boss, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, is already losing to Barry Goldwater, who will beat him out for the Republican nomination in 1964. Rocky is not just going to lose: he and his kind–Northeastern liberal blueblood Republicans–will eventually become irrelevant if not extinct. Men like Lee Garner Jr. from Lucky Strike and Connie Hilton, without the schooling or interest in the East Coast niceties, will increasingly be the boss. They’ll have big appetites and ambitions and when they say to jump, they will expect the likes of Don and Sal to ask how high–or to do more.

All of this is a way of saying that this week Don and Sal et al. got a vision of the future, one in which their old centers of power and guarantors of security will be superseded.

That future will be rough, and it will be big, and it will be kinder to some than to others. There will be changes, and expansion, and war, and there is danger in all that, yes, but also opportunity. That must be one reason why Don–who got his taste of California in his self-reinvention, and told the Madison Square Garden guys that it was the future–sees the potential in Conrad Hilton’s business, and lets himself be pushed around by Connie. “I want Hiltons all over the world, like missions,” Connie says. “I want a Hilton on the moon.”

Missions, or maybe embassies. In the ’60s, Hilton Hotels were a sign of American expansion, an extension of American power, an emblem–sorry to go all Ho Chi Minh on you–of American imperialism. Don’s pitch gets this. A Hilton is a sign that Pax Americana has been achieved. It means that the advance troops have been through and put down the dangers and readied a secure bubble for you from whence to survey the world. That hamburger you can get in Tokyo? It might as well be a shield.

Don makes a great pitch, but it’s not enough. Don didn’t deliver the moon. Maybe it was impossible or ridiculous to do so, but he didn’t–he didn’t, therefore, show enough deference, and thus Connie is deeply disappointed. It’s actually been interesting to see the deference that Don has shown to Connie thus far, which is something new for him. Not just answering the midnight calls and burning the midnight oil and traveling on a moment’s notice–Don, trying to figure out Connie, to figure out how to please him, is showing a sycophantic side we haven’t seen before, flattering jokes that may not be funny and idea that aren’t particularly good.

It’s going to be intriguing to see whether he eventually pushes back more, or if the cowboy breaks him. And partial credit for the fascination goes to Chelcie Ross, who is making Connie the most intriguing, bristly corporate heavyweight–”villain” may not be the word but he’s a cagey, scary bastard–since Gerald McRaney’s George Hearst in Deadwood. On the one hand, he uses Don cavalierly, but he also acknowledges his own outsider connection to him: “You didn’t have what they had”–they, the East Coast elites–”and you understand.”

Don is less inclined to push back against the client when it comes to Sal–poor Sal, whom he throws under the bus for rebuffing Lee’s advances. The scene between the two of them is played absolutely perfectly, especially as Bryan Batt passes through every one of Sal’s standard forms of defense–first assuming Don will back him up, then offering to “lay low,” then hoping he can simply say he had a “misunderstanding”–before, devastatingly, being forced to tell Don explicitly what happened, and through it, who he is.

And Don cuts him, cold.

It’s possible, of course, that Don is absolutely right–that he has no way of defending Sal and that Lucky Strike could take all of Sterling Cooper under. Still, and whether or not you adjust for the mores of his time, the way he cut Sal loose was detestable, even by the standards of a liar and cheater.

“You people”–those two angry, cold words say it all. If the first episode of the season left doubt about how far Don’s tolerance of Sal’s homosexuality extended, we got our answer there. Don may like Sal, he may wish him luck, but push comes to shove, he’s another deviant. To Don, it’s incomprehensible that Sal could be sexually harassed by a client: if Sal screws men, why not take this one for the team? Lee’s an available man, so why wouldn’t Sal want to have sex with him? Sal’s answer, “He’s a bully,” might as well be in another language. “What if it was some girl?” “Then would depend what kind of girl it was and what I knew about her.”

It’s clear now what kind of girl Don thinks Sal is–that he is responsible for the fallout for not having given in to Lee, and probably brought it on himself int he first place. In the third season debut, Don moved past whatever personal feelings he had about Sal’s nature and offered him some advice: “Limit your exposure.” Now, exposed, Don cuts him loose, because Sal’s liabilities outweigh his assets. In a way Don is mirroring the way Bert Cooper treated his own secret: when Pete blackmailed Don, Cooper backed Don up, because he was valuable; this year, Cooper blackmailed Don with the same secret, because it was in his interest to do so.

But there are secrets and there are secrets. And one difference between Sal and Don is that Don has amassed enough power to be the one cutting and not the one getting cut. Sal, on the other hand, has tried to thrive by being a good employee and staying under the radar, a sensibility that extends even to his last work on the Lucky Strike commercial. Showing Lee the framed shot of the beefcake-y smoker looking into the distance, he resists the idea of having the actor turn and stare into the camera. It’s too direct. It’s not done. “It could make people very uncomfortable.”

This strategy can only serve Sal for so long, though. By the end of the episode, he’s heartbreakingly packing up his things, including the “Relax…” line drawing of his hunky neighbor that he showed us in season one. In his final scene (and I hope we see Sal again before long), he calls his wife from what I’m guessing is the Ramble in Central Park–a fabled cruising spot. Cut loose from his security, does Sal go farther into the closet, or does he stare directly into the camera?

It’s 1963, six years until Stonewall even happens. Sal’s own struggle parallels the civil-rights movement, which is especially foregrounded in this episode. Besides Don and Suzanne hearing the “I Have a Dream” speech in the car, the news is especially prominent in Betty’s storyline: the irony of her guests decrying segregation as Carla opens the door for more white people at the fundraiser, and Betty’s later telling Carla that the Birmingham church bombing makes her think that “maybe [civil rights] is not supposed to happen right now.” (She may actually have meant to sound sympathetic.)

All this plays out against the ending (or at least it seems like it) of Betty’s flirtation with Henry (the other superseded Easterner, as Gov. Rockefeller’s right-hand man). Why does she finally pull back at the end? She wants, as she said in the previous episode, first kisses–forever. She wants her affair with Henry, as long as it is prospective, and thus ideal. But when it becomes real–as the sotto voce warning from Henry’s associate makes it–it becomes cheapened. When it becomes a matter of reality and details and logistics–in the office? in a hotel?–it becomes “tawdry.” All of which confuses Henry: “I don’t know what you want.”

What does she want, Henry? She wants the moon. Is that so much to ask?

Now for the hail of bullets:

* Harry really reached new heights of spinelessness in the Lee incident. Though he was in a difficult situation, the fact that the only way he could think to handle it was through tail-between-his-legs deference–first to Lee, then to Roger–makes me wonder how long he can hang on, having made one good decision (to grab on to TV), then risen beyond his abilities.

* It’s interesting how Ross plays Connie with a sense of both arrogance and helplessness. In a sense, he’s already conquered the East (through the Waldorf), but having arrived, he feels lost, as if he’s already overextended his empire.

* Speaking of which, Connie mentions that he doesn’t like the sound of “hamburger” and “Hilton” together. Shades of “Hamburger Hill”? Or just a horrible premonition of this?

* Before Don sleeps with Suzanne, she makes the accurate guess that this is something new for him, in that he has slept around so close to home before. Is it nothing more than his attraction to her? Is in over his head, as Roger tells him, and getting careless? Does he want to get caught?

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