Mad Men episode 113: “The Wheel”

In the first season finale, Pete continues to trend downward, as he’s hen-pecked at home for not getting Trudy pregnant yet and feeling powerless at the office. After gaining the Clearisil account from his father-in-law, Don promotes Peggy to junior copywriter. Pete can’t help but think that it’s another insult from Don, as Peggy joined Sterling Cooper to be a secretary, not a writer. Regardless of the circumstances, Peggy’s happy with her promotion, but promptly gets a severe stomachache, which she finds out is actually a baby she’s getting ready to deliver. Meanwhile, Don deals with emotional fallout of his actions all season long.

The first season of Mad Men wraps up with the excellent “The Wheel.” As I said in the closing to my recap of episode 12, we left Don in a paradoxical situation. He won his office showdown with season-long office nemesis Pete. He’s got wealth, status, prestige, a beautiful wife, two beautiful children, all the epitome of the American Dream. But he’s still extremely unhappy.

Running parallel with Don’s story all season long has been that of his wife, Betty. She too, seems to be living the American Dream, but she hasn’t even pretended to be happy, as she and Don grow further apart. In the first scene featuring the Drapers this episode, they are in bed making plans for the Thanksgiving weekend. They are going to see Betty’s family in Pennsylvania, and Don says he can’t go because it’s a busy time of the year at Sterling Cooper and he’s a partner now. Betty accuses him of not even wanting to go, and Don responds with “Was I not clear on that?”

All this year, we’ve seen Betty feel Don slipping away from her. We saw her lay next to him in bed, wondering aloud who is “in there.” She told him that she thinks about him all day long, looking forward to putting to the kids to sleep and going to bed with him, looking for a similar passion from him. We’ve also seen her suffer with some unnamed and invisible anxiety that led to her losing control of her hands and going to see a shrink. In this episode, Betty is forced to confront why things aren’t great with her and Don; the big marriage problem that she has buried and refused to consider or discuss until her best friend, Francine, shows up at her house in tears.

Francine’s upset because she stumbled into confirmation that her husband, Carlton, has been cheating on her. She forgot to pay the phone bill that she never looks at. Going to the phone company’s office to get service restored, she looks at the bill and sees several calls from their suburban home in Ossining to Manhattan. She calls the number, a woman answers, and Francine pretends to be a secretary and tells the woman Carlton would like to meet her tonight in the “usual place.” Francine’s devastated and runs to Betty because she figures Betty should know how to handle it.

Francine’s assertion is a shocker that wakes Betty up. The thought of Don being unfaithful is something she hasn’t wanted to confront, but what Francine says makes her think that it must be obvious to everyone else that Don cheats on her. Betty takes a look at her own phone bill and also sees calls to Manhattan, and calls the number. Instead of another woman answering, she gets a shock when her psychiatrist, Dr. Wayne answers. She realizes what we’ve known for a while: Don has been calling to check in on her sessions.

Knowing that Dr. Wayne will relay it back to Don, Betty lays on her shrink’s couch and talks about the signs of Don’s infidelity––late nights in the city, the smell of perfume on his clothes.

Meanwhile, Harry Crane is spending the night in the office because he admitted his infidelity to his wife, Jennifer. She has kicked him out but we can tell from their phone calls (where Harry pretends to be bunking with Ken Cosgrove) that their separation will probably be temporary, once Jennifer’s hurt subsides. Late at night, Harry runs into Don at the office, who is throwing himself into work rather than going home. There’s some irony in Betty confronting Don’s infidelity via her psychiatrist now, because Don is not cheating at this point. Rachel has permanently ended their affair, and Don grew tired of Midge. While she may think Don’s not coming home this night because of an affair, it’s actually because he’s looking for an angle on Kodak’s new slide projector, which they have given the prototype name “The Wheel.”

Don finds his angle for the Kodak presentation, leading to perhaps the show’s most iconic pitch. As Don uses the new slide projector to display happy images of his wedding and home life with Betty and the kids, he gives his most potent pitch yet:

Technology is a glittering lure. But there is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product.

My first job, I was in-house at a fur company, with this old-pro copywriter, a Greek named Teddy. Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is “new.” Creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion. But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product. Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent.

Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound”. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine.

It goes backwards, forwards, takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.

The pitch signifies universally because it touches on the basic human needs to belong, to have a home, to have people in our lives who love us, and to be surrounded by them. That “the glittering lure of technology” can bring us closer to that promise of happiness is a golden opportunity in the world of advertising, one that Don exploits masterfully, leaving the Kodak executives in the room stunned. It also sends Harry Crane running out of the presentation in tears.

The pitch even seems to get to Don. While saying the above words, and looking at the slides of his picture-perfect family, Don seems to get that what’s missing in his life is at home. The pitch may have been bullshit (was there ever really a Teddy at the fur company?) but he sold Kodak on it, and even sold himself. On his train ride home, Don imagines coming home to Betty and the kids, just as they are ready to leave, offering to pack up the car and spend the long weekend with family.

Of course, the reality is much different. He gets home too late, to an empty house. This final scene of Mad Men’s first season masterfully portrays the loneliness Don is feeling upon coming home to an empty house. If you listen close, you can even hear a little draft of wind running through the house as the only response to Don’s calls of “Hello? Hello?” Realizing he didn’t make it back home in time, Don takes a seat at the bottom of the steps. We see Don as we did in the opening shot of the series––the iconic view of the back of his head, the man who has turned his back on everyone, including us, the viewing audience.

As Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” starts up, the camera dollies away for a fade to black and the closing credits. Mad Men proves here, and will continue to prove over its other six seasons, that it can relate complex emotions within the limitations of moving pictures. The emotion here is one that we’ve all felt: being sad and upset, but realizing it’s all our own fault, which makes it even worse.

This is still one of my favorite scenes in Mad Men, and surely one of the most effective season-ending scenes; it makes us realize what a long journey we’ve been through from March to November 1960, since that first time we met Don by getting a look at the back of his head. One thing I keep in mind when viewing this season-ender is that this very well could have been the series finale of Mad Men. The show was usually very good about not using anachronistic music, but the Dylan song would not be released for nearly three years at the time this scene is set (“Don’t Think Twice” first appeared on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in August 1963). When questioned on that, Matt Weiner said he didn’t know yet if Mad Men would come back for a second season. So, beyond how appropriate the song is to the scene, it’s a little peek into what would come down the road in the 1960s if the show never returned.

If Mad Men had ended here, it would have been one of the greatest one-season wonders in TV history. This first season captured American life in 1960, in what I’m told is a very realistic fashion (I myself wasn’t born until the 1970s). It covered a range of emotions and issues. And, if this had been the end, this would have been one of the best show-ending scenes ever. Thankfully though, Mad Men would continue for another six seasons over the next eight years, and would get even better.

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