Tuned In

Mad Men Watch: Rootless Cosmopolitans

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, try some exotic food—it’s a pepper stuffed with cheese!—and watch last night’s Mad Men.

I half wonder whether Mad Men didn’t create this episode simply to find an excuse to showcase the drool-worthy modernist architecture of Palm Springs. You’re in America in the early ’60s! Why blow the opportunity? Get Don Draper the hell to the West Coast!

On a purely HGTV level, then, “The Jet Set” had the intended effect on me. It was an interesting atmospheric departure, and consciously short-story-like in the way that so much of season 2 has been. As far as the main storyline for Don Draper, though, the blueprints, shall we say, were probably a little too visible. This was almost a kind of Kevin Finnerty episode for Don, and the problem with taking a protagonist like him and placing him in an utterly foreign setting is the tendency of the whole thing to go allegorical.

As in: Don, the ultimate nomad, finds himself in another city, with his luggage missing; he becomes a tabula rasa. As in: Don encounters a group of self-described “nomads” who invite him to join them—his ultimate fantasy of the lack of responsibility and commitment—and he responds by reverting to Dick Whitman and renewing an old (still unknown) connection. As in: his luggae ends up on his old doorstep. As in: He meets a woman named Joy.

This toolbox could have used one less hammer.

Still and all, it is interesting to compare this iteration of Don Draper with earlier situations in which he’s encountered other people who’ve followed different life paths, and thus implicitly or directly challenged his own. Last season, for instance, he stared down Midge’s beatnik friends and defended his own way of life. The 1962 Don Draper is more unmoored, uncertain, less resolute as to where he’s going next. And though he’s clearly socially out of place with the Viscount and his entourage (he commits the faux pas of mentioning money out loud; he played football in high school while his host was a fencer), he seems unsure what to want and how to react; and thus, almost until the end of the episode, he lets himself be carried around like a piece of human luggage. Lost luggage.

The other storylines:

* So will Duck be Don’s boss come next season? Also, like The Sopranos, this was one of those episodes in which 85% was focused on character stuff, and 15% on the business machinations that drive the whole thing forward. Duck can lull you into believing that he’s a sad sack, but there’s a cunning in him—along with, it seems, some heavily repressed anger—and Roger probably would have done well not to back him into a corner. It was chilling to see him vampirically drink strength out of that cocktail (is it a Gibson if it has a pearl onion in it?), but the striking thing about him is that he manages to be pitiable at the same time that he’s quasi-villainous.

* Sometimes Pete’s emotional stuntedness makes him seem vile, and sometimes it makes him sympathetic and even funny. In this episode, it was the latter. Pete has become less of a one-dimensional heel the more we’ve seen what a limited social tool kit his parents sent him into the world with. (Meeting the Viscount, for instance, he falls back on his oldest blueblood instinct—to introduce himself as “Peter Dyckman Campbell,” alluding to the part of his name where the money comes from, but in this alien social setting, it utterly fails to impress.) It’s almost like Pete’s missing some essential part, some emotional intelligence, as we saw later when the Sterling Coop staff was watching the news about James Meredith and the only response that comes to him is, “Strange, isn’t it?” And yet his single-mindedness can be a business asset to him, as he seems far less freaked out than Don by the business opportunities in courting a group of clients working on how to blow up the world.

* Peggy, meanwhile, breaks a barrier by getting her very own gay makeover, forty years before Queer Eye! Another storyline that risked being a little obvious, but it was worth seeing the reactions among the Sterling Coop staff when Kurt so casually came out of the closet—not just for the laughs, but for Sal getting to see how right he was that he would be a laughingstock if he ever uncloseted himself. (The most hurtful response, you have to figure, being that from Ken Cosgrove, whom he’d taken such a shine to.)

* Speaking of which, it’s historically fitting that the foreigner Kurt should come out in this episode—”He’s European. It’s different over there”—at the same time that Don is surrounded by his United Nations of decadent aesthetes. This was a period when mainstream America was getting exposed left and right to overseas traditions: there was Jackie Kennedy speaking French in the White House, Julia Child was about to bring French cuisine to TV, and the country was discovering “exotic” foods like the chile rellenos that puzzled Don on his dinner plate. But this internationalism weirded out some people just as it fascinated others. Immersed in this strange environment, has Dick Whitman lost his bearings, or remembered who he is?