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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Mad Men episode 112: “Nixon vs. Kennedy”

Sterling Cooper throws an election night party that gets out of hand. Ken Cosgrove finds a pithy stage play written by Paul Kinsey, which is acted out and reveals the author’s many insecurities. Harry Crane cheats on his wife with Pete’s secretary, Hildy. The next day, in the fallout of the stunning Nixon defeat, Don fights his biggest battle yet when Pete threatens to out the secrets of Dick Whitman.

“Nixon vs. Kennedy,” the penultimate episode of Mad Men’s first season, can be seen to have a double meaning in its title. First and most obvious is the 1960 presidential election, the campaigns of which have played a small part in the background of this season. The episode spends much of its run-time on an election night party at the Sterling Cooper offices.

The second, and more hidden, meaning references something Don said earlier in the season. When describing the two candidates, Don expressed his distaste for Kennedy as a “silver spoon” spoiled rich boy. Nixon grew up poor during the Great Depression, but pulled himself up by the bootstraps to go through law school, serve his country in World War II, and work his way through politics all the way up to the vice presidency. Don said when he looked at Nixon, he saw himself. With Pete being somewhat of “silver spoon” lineage himself,  the episode is a battle of an ersatz Nixon (Don) vs. an ersatz Kennedy (Pete).

Pete wants the head of accounts job, and feels Don hasn’t been taking him seriously as a candidate. Only now, Pete has blackmail material–in the ending of the previous episode, he was mistakenly given the package that Adam Whitman sent Don. The package is full of pictures of young Adam and a younger version of Don…but the pictures are labeled “Dick” instead of “Don.”

Pete has a friend, Russ, who works in the Department of Defense. Pete uses this contact to find out that Dick Whitman died in the Korean War, and the real Don Draper should be 43 years old. It doesn’t take Pete long to figure out that Dick Whitman actually survived Korea and stole the identity of Lt. Don Draper. (We also see flashbacks to how it all played about in Korea; while building a mobile hospital, Lt. Draper and Pvt. Whitman were bombed. Dick peed his pants, dropped his lighter and blew up his commanding officer. Then he traded dog tags with the dead man.)

When Pete sees Don bring Herman “Duck” Phillips in to the office, Pete’s ready to attack. Duck is an advertising industry vet. Ken Cosgrove mentions that Duck is known to have a drinking problem, was working in London most recently, and things apparently went spectacularly bad for Duck over in the U.K. Pete recognizes right away that Don’s going bargain shopping, getting someone with experience who will take the job for relatively little compensation, to get back in the game.

Pete confronts Don and, after about five seconds of playing nice, makes it clear he knows Don’s secret and will have no problem using it as blackmail in exchange for getting the head of accounts job. Don tries it to play it cool, at first denying the validity of Pete’s claims. When Pete refuses to relent, saying he will go to Bert Cooper with this news if he’s not given the head of accounts job, Don’s still not sweating, but he loses his cool a bit. He tells Pete to stop and think about his supposed intel: if it’s powerful enough to get something out of somebody they normally wouldn’t give, what else can it make them do? Pete is unfazed. When he walks out of Don’s office, we finally see that Don is indeed in panic mode. He’s ready to run.

Don goes to Menken’s department store and rushes into Rachel’s office. He proposes they run off to Mexico or Los Angeles. At first she thinks it’s just a weekend trip, but she quickly realizes Don means forever. Everything starts to click into place for Rachel: Don doesn’t want to run away with her, he just wants to run away, leaving his kids fatherless, and all for some reason he can’t even verbalize to her. She throws Don out of her office, ending their romance by calling it a “tawdry affair.”

Dejected, Don heads back to the office to face his fate. Opening the door to his office, he finds a crying Peggy. It’s the night after the election party that she mostly skipped out on, and she walked in to find vomit in the trash can by her desk. Her locker was raided too, and she lost some cash. When all the hungover guys in the office offer no help, she looked for a safe place to cry. Don tries to be understanding, but obviously he’s having a bad day and snaps at Peggy. When he calms down a bit, he offers her a drink, and Peggy talks about how unfair it is that honest, hardworking people have to suffer while selfish people can get away with whatever they want (she’s also upset because an African American janitor lost his job over the theft, when she’s positive he was innocent).

Don decides to take action over the Pete situation, and heads to Cooper’s office. It’s easy to read his inspiration from Peggy’s speech one way: Pete is the bad guy, doing whatever he wants to get whatever he wants (blackmailing Don to get the promotion). But maybe Don got some other sort of inspiration from Peggy’s speech? Don is the one who stole a dead guy’s identity so that he could desert the U.S. Army, let his family think he was dead, and take over someone else’s life which he has used to get to the top. Perhaps he thought about it, realized he was one of the dishonest guys Peggy says always win, and felt confident about his luck.

Sure enough, Pete follows Don into Cooper’s office (hilariously, they have to slow their rush into the office to take off their shoes, per the rules of germaphobe/neat freak Cooper). Don tells Cooper he’s hiring Duck for the head of accounts job. Cooper approves. There’s an awkward silence. Pete spits out everything he’s found about Dick/Don. Cooper gets up from his desk, gives Don a look, but then delivers one of the greatest lines of the show’s early run: “Mr. Campbell, who cares? Who cares? This country was built and run by men with worse stories than whatever you’ve imagined here.”

Pete counters that he’s not imagining anything. Cooper still says to forget it; whatever the past is, Don Draper is in this room now, and there’s more profit in forgetting this and moving on.

With that, Don has put Pete in his place. In the pilot episode, Pete made it clear he wanted to join the executive suite with Don. Pete was the only one in the office to verbally disagree with Don’s promotion to partner. Pete took Don on in this showdown. Don has won, and is sitting pretty as we head into the final episode.

Except that Don has nothing to be happy about. He blew his chance with Rachel for good this time. Midge is gone to the beatniks and proto-hippies he left her with. All that’s left for him is at home, and the gulf between him and Betty has never been bigger. We’ve learned a little bit about who Don Draper is this season, but the season finale will tackle the question of “can he be happy?”

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Mad Men episode 111: “Indian Summer”

Chickens come home to roost, as Mad Men deals with the fallout of several recent events: Roger’s heart attack, Peggy’s success writing copy for Belle Jolie, and Don pushing away both his half-brother and his wife out of his personal life.

“Indian Summer” finds Mad Men following up on plot threads from throughout the season and pushing them farther along towards the finish line of the first season, with only two episodes left after this one.

The episode starts with revisiting Don’s estranged half-brother, Adam Whitman. We see he’s still living in the same pay-by-the-week dump where Don left him in “5G.” Adam didn’t take Don’s advice to take the five grand of money and start a new life far away from New York City. Without his mom, Abigail, Uncle Mack, or his brother, Dick, in his life, he sees no reason to keep on living. He prepares a package of photos to be delivered to “Donild Draper” at the Sterling Cooper agency on Madison Avenue, pays for its postage with the desk clerk, heads back up to his apartment and hangs himself. Don won’t find out about the box of photos or the suicide for a little while, but suffice to say that both will leave a lasting impact in the life of Don Draper.

After his heart attack the previous month (we’re told the Indian Summer of the title is in October 1960), Roger is still not doing well. Lucky Strike, by far the firm’s largest client, is worried. Roger comes in the office for a meeting with Lucky Strike’s Lee Garner Sr. and Jr. It’s all for show, as Roger doesn’t look any better than he did when Don sat by his hospital bed. Bert and Don ask Joan to use her makeup to make Roger look a little less like a dead man walking, but it’s all for naught, as Roger has another heart attack a few minutes (and a couple of puffs on a Lucky) into the meeting. Mona is furious at Bert, saying she didn’t know a price could be put on human life, but she didn’t check on that with Bert.

Lee Garner Sr. also has some words for Bert: Sterling Cooper needs to firm up its management in case Roger can’t return, and he’d recommend starting these efforts by showing Don Draper how he is appreciated by Sterling Cooper. Bert makes Don a partner in the firm, with a 12.5% ownership stake, and tells Don to start the search a new head of accounts.

Betty is happy with the news of Don’s good fortune at work, but can’t resist getting under his skin to get his attention. She tells him that an air conditioning salesman visited their house earlier, and she let him in to learn why their house is losing cool air. In 1960, it was a major breach of proper etiquette for a woman who is home alone to let a strange man in to her house. Don flies off the handle–just the reaction Betty had hoped for. She later tells friend and neighbor Francine about the incident and can’t hold back a smile when she talks about Don’s protectiveness.

But the whole reason for getting under Don’s skin is that Betty is still feeling a major gap between her and Don. She is not feeling loved or wanted by Don. Later on when doing the laundry, she enjoys the vibrations of the washing machine a bit too much and has a fantasy about the AC salesman. For someone like Betty, who was brought up to believe that her whole worth in life was based around her looks, it is devastating to her that Don is showing so little interest in her sexually.

Peggy also receives sexual vibrations from an unexpected source, by way of her second writing assignment. It’s for a supposed weight loss device, the Relax-a-Cisor. The idea is that it vibrates a woman’s stomach area to simulate the exercise of calisthenics, but it’s actually just a vibrator that brings women to orgasm. After receiving the assignment, Peggy is shy about talking about its “benefits” with Don. She also is suspicious about getting an assignment for a woman’s weight-loss product. Although she doesn’t want to confront it, it’s obvious to everyone else in the office that Peggy has put on quite a bit of weight.

Pete seems to be the only one of the office gang not happy for Don’s promotion to partner. While Harry and Ken see it as a good thing–old guys move out, leaving room for younger guys to get promotions–Pete doesn’t think Don is deserving of the partnership, or the responsibility of picking the new head of accounts. After Don leaves early and tells Peggy to do the same because they both had a good day, Pete sits in Don’s chair for a bit, feet up on the desk. Adam’s package of Whitman family photos gets delivered to Don’s office…and into’s Pete’s hands.


Pete: “Wouldn’t it be great if there were some blackmail material in this package?”

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Mad Men episode 110: “Long Weekend”

Everyone has plans for the Labor Day weekend, but none of them work out like they’re supposed to. Richard Nixon is also supposed to be the sure winner of the presidential election but the Kennedy campaign is making it closer than it should be.

In the tenth episode of its first season, “Long Weekend,” Mad Men catches up on some existing plot threads and themes, while setting up others for a bigger payoff in the final three episodes. I’ve talked before about how Mad Men structures its seasons, and we’ll see as the series goes along that the tenth episode often functions as both a unifier of plot threads and a table-setter for the home stretch into the finale.

There is one new introduction in “Long Weekend.” We meet Betty’s father, Eugene Hofstadt, for the first time. We learned earlier in the season that Betty’s mother recently passed. Betty is very upset that a new woman has already moved in to her dad’s life. Betty calls Gloria a “vulture,” as if Gene is a prize for elderly ladies to fight over. Don, who has no love for Gene (and vice-versa) sees it a bit differently. Don points out to Betty that her father can’t even make himself a cup of tea, much less cook for himself or clean up after himself. Don tells Betty to let him have his fun with Gloria, and to be thankful that Gene is not a burden to Betty or William and Judy (Betty’s brother and sister-in-law).

Picking up on pre-existing threads, Rachel Menken visits the Sterling Cooper office with her father, Abraham. Sterling Cooper is doing more than an ad campaign for Menken’s Department Store; it’s more of a major corporate image overhaul meant to attract a more modern and affluent customer base. Abraham is a little hesitant, but Rachel is on Team Sterling Cooper, expressing her belief in the new plans. Rachel has also eased up on her stance towards Don. She allows him to be in the meeting and be the mouthpiece of the new plan, and then escort her out of the office.

The Sterling Cooper team also catches up on the Nixon-Kennedy presidential race. Viewing commercials from both campaigns, it’s becoming obvious to Don that Kennedy may very well have a chance to beat the heavily-favored Nixon.

The long weekend of the title is Labor Day weekend. Betty is taking the kids up to her father’s house in Pennsylvania for the weekend. Don makes it clear he doesn’t want to go, and uses work as an excuse to skip out on part of the long weekend with Gene and Gloria, plus William and Judy and their kids.

Roger is left alone for the weekend, as Margaret and Mona have plans without him. His first thought is that he can do anything he wants with Joan. They can be seen together in the city, with everyone who might care being out of town for the weekend. Joan rebuffs Roger, saying she has plans with roommate Carol, a sad sack we’ve met once before this season. Joan says she’s not going to drop her plans with Carol, and that she needs more notice for Roger’s plans. She’s recently seen Billy Wilder’s great movie The Apartment, and she’s starting to feel a bit like Shirley MacLaine’s character in that movie, waiting for men to make plans for her.

Joan’s plans with Carol get off to a weird start. While the two roommates, friends since the first day of college, are getting ready to go out for the evening, Carol professes her romantic love for Joan. Joan is shocked, but tries to play it off like Carol is confused because she had a bad day after being fired by her boss that she was covering for. Joan tells Carol she’ll shake these feelings off. Much like Sal Romano, Carol is forced to live a closeted existence when her best friend won’t even acknowledge her homosexuality.

Roger hits up Don after being shot down by Joan. Roger sells Don on the long weekend plan of “we have to fall in love a dozen times between now and Monday.” Sterling Cooper has been casting a commercial for double-sided aluminum and Roger correctly predicts Freddy Rumsen’s angle for the ad: twin girls. Heading down to casting, Roger picks twins Eleanor and Mirabelle to not only be in the commercial, but to be dates for him and Don this evening.

Don’s not really into Eleanor, but Roger’s having a great time with Mirabelle. So much so that he has a heart attack during his second round of sex with the young woman. Don tells the twins to call an ambulance and vacate the office.

At the hospital, Don tries to cheer Roger up, but it’s clear that the older man is near death. Mona and Margaret show up, and Roger’s guilt makes him profess the love for his wife and daughter that he rarely shows.

Don is able to use Roger’s heart attack as an excuse to stay in the city, and Betty lets him off the hook. Don also uses the situation as an excuse to go see Rachel Menken. She lets him in her apartment, and he immediately starts to make advances. Rachel tells Don to stop, noting that he’s using Roger’s condition as an excuse for bad behavior.

Still, Rachel cannot hold back her feelings for Don, and the two make love on her couch, after Don makes her ask for it. In the post-sex afterglow, Don closes out the episode by making the biggest reveal about his past yet. He tells Rachel he is the son of a prostitute who died giving birth to him. He was brought to his father’s house, and raised by his father and step-mother until his father died via a kick in the face from a horse when Don was 10. His step-mother then “took up with another man” and Don was “raised by those sorry people.”

Way back in the pilot episode, Rachel told Don that she knew what it felt like to be different, to be disconnected from mainstream society, and that she thought Don knew what if feels like too. In this scene, we see that their connection is real, as Don is more honest to Rachel in this one night than he has ever been to Betty.

And with that, the pieces are in place for the first season’s main plot lines to play out: Roger’s health will keep him off work for a while, stirring up the office politics; Don and Rachel have finally begun their affair in earnest; Kennedy is closing in on “sure thing” Nixon; and Don retreats into his world of secrets, putting a large gap between himself and Betty and her family.

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Mad Men episode 109: “Shoot”

Don is courted by a much larger rival advertising agency. Betty considers working outside the home and temporarily goes back to modeling. Meanwhile, Peggy is gaining more confidence as a writer. Pete and Harry stumble upon a plan to help out the Nixon campaign, by buying up airtime for Secor Laxatives, preventing the Kennedy campaign from advertising in several key states.

“Shoot” is somewhat of a standalone episode by Mad Men standards. A lot of Mad Men episodes, particularly this late in the season, would be starting to bring existing plot threads together. Instead, it’s an episode that could have aired really any time during the show’s early run, with a self-contained story that has a beginning, middle and end.

Other than its iconic final closing shot of Betty, with rifle in hand and cigarette dangling out of her mouth, “Shoot”‘s most important contribution to the Mad Men story is the introduction of the McCann Erickson advertising agency and its leader, Jim Hobart. McCann will pop up here and there throughout the series, often as a contrast to Sterling Cooper. Although we’re told that the Sterling Cooper crew is “the finest ad men in New York” in the pilot episode, making us viewers think the agency must be a big deal, “Shoot” gives us perspective on the actual truth. Sterling Cooper is a “mom and pop shop,” as Hobart calls it. McCann is one of the largest ad agencies in the world, something Hobart mentions over and over as he tries to woo Don to join the firm.

The episode begins at an opera, during intermission. Here, we see Don meet up with Hobart in the lobby. Betty and Hobart’s wife, Adele, join them right before the show starts up again. It’s clear that Hobart admires Don’s work and he thinks Don is wasting his time at a small organization like Sterling Cooper. McCann can easily pay Don a larger salary, but Hobart also points out the fringe benefits that come with working at such a large agency with clout: an international presence, mixing in with the upper crust of society, thrilling international adventure.

Hobart is ready to pull out all the stops in recruiting Don. Betty was a model when she met Don, and Hobart flatters her vanity, saying she should try out for a Coca-Cola modeling spot, saying they need a “Grace Kelly type.” Don would rather have Betty at home, playing the dutiful housewife, rather than going back to work. And he can see that Hobart’s interest in Betty is more about his interest in getting Don to leave Sterling Cooper for McCann.

Betty has a successful photo shoot or two for the Coca-Cola spot. She likes the idea of going back to work a few days a week. Don softens on the idea–at least verbally to Betty. After using Hobart’s tactics to get a healthy raise, with no contract, from Roger, Don finally refuses the McCann offer. This has the side effect of Hobart dropping Betty as a model, putting her back in the role of housewife. Don knows about Hobart’s machinations, but he lets Betty preserve her dignity by saying she quit, deciding that she wants to take care of her family full-time rather than go back to modeling.

Although this is mostly a self-contained episode, the Betty storyline allows the show to examine the start of second-wave feminism. Women were becoming bored and tired of being housewives, being subservient to their husbands. Betty tries to break away from the patriarchy, but in the end, she’s manipulated by both Don and Hobart, and ends up right back where she was. It’s what she says she wants but we, the audience, can tell that she wants more out of life. She wants to be her own person, rather than being someone’s wife or mother.

This pent-up rage leads us to the aforementioned iconic closing shot. Earlier in the episode, Sally’s dog Polly chased and injured one of the pigeons that are kept as pets by the Drapers’ neighbor. The neighbor, Ross, makes a threat against the dog that upsets Sally. If Betty is going to be stuck at home as a mom, she’s going to stand her ground for her kids, and take out some of her frustration at the same time, by shooting some of Ross’ pigeons. This also gives double meaning to the episode title: Betty went on a photo shoot, and ends the hour taking a shot of a very different kind.


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The Sopranos finale, 10 years later

Yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of the first airing of the final episode of The Sopranos, “Made in America.” The episode’s final scene, with its infamous cut-to-black during a scene in a diner that had built up much tension, has become an iconic part of American pop culture and still inspires debate to this day.

I thought I’d take a break from writing about Mad Men to honor The Sopranos on this anniversary. I consider it a fact that there would have been no Mad Men without The Sopranos. You can argue this in a philosophical way: The Sopranos was the first show of “The Second Golden Age of Television” and paved the way for the prestige cable dramas that followed, Mad Men included. But you can also make the case from a more pragmatic standpoint. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner had some television writing jobs before he joined The Sopranos for its final 34 episodes as a writer and executive producer, but it was Mad Men that got him that job––Sopranos creator David Chase read Weiner’s pilot script for Mad Men and immediately hired Weiner. Although HBO (in)famously passed on the opportunity to make Mad Men, I find it unlikely Weiner would have gotten it made anywhere if it weren’t for the boost his career received by working on The Sopranos. One can also make comparisons between the two shows for days, the most obvious of which is how the two shows structured their 13-episode seasons, and how those seasons were like books that make up a giant Great American Novel.

Now, on to “Made in America” and that final scene itself…

I don’t think Tony was killed after the events we see on screen. Although the theory espoused by the Master of Sopranos blog is very convincing, and features a great analysis of not only that final scene but the 86 hours of clues that led up to it, it’s not what I take from the scene.

The most important parts of the scene, to me, are the song “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey, and A.J.’s line about remembering the times that were good. Tony at first thinks his son is being sarcastic, but A.J. reminds him that he said it once. Tony doesn’t seem to remember that (“it’s true, I guess”), but he actually did say it in the first season’s finale. The quote was also brought up by Meadow Soprano in the Season 3 finale, who thought that mom Carmela had said it. Carmela corrects her and says that her dad was the one who actually said it.

It’s a reminder that Tony desperately needs at this moment. He’s ostensibly “won” the war that had broken out between his North Jersey crime family and the Lupertazzi family from New York. Both Tony and Lupertazzi acting boss Phil Leotardo had went into hiding at the end of the previous episode. Thanks to a tip from FBI agent Dwight Harris, Tony is able to track down Phil to a gas station where he’s been making payphone calls. Phil gets popped, putting an end to the war.

Yet, Tony is extremely paranoid. Every ring of the bell at the diner, as each new customer enters, sets off his radar. He surveys the rest of the diner, especially a customer at the counter in a Members Only jacket, with suspicion. This is Tony’s life as we’ve known him since the first episode––anxious, never able to relax. He would do well to listen to his own advice about focusing on the times that are good, and to the song: don’t stop believing.

The abrupt cut to 10 seconds of black that closes out the series must mean that Tony died, right? It had to mean something, right?

I think it does mean something important to the story, something ingrained in the show as much as Tony’s much-referenced quote about remembering the good times. Only it comes from the show’s original antagonist, and the original source of Tony’s anxiety: his mother Livia. Her often-espoused philosophy about life is “it’s all a big nothing.”

As The Sopranos slid into its final run, it was clear that Tony not only hadn’t heeded his own advice, he hadn’t listened to anyone else either. He spent seven years in therapy and learned very little, unwilling to examine his self. Although Tony has won yet again, and his family is safe and intact, he can’t stop and enjoy it.

This is the way Tony’s life will continue. Despite his victories, it’s all a big nothing.

Once I get around to the Mad Men finale, 84 episodes or so from now, we’ll see that Chase’s protege, Matthew Weiner, finished his show on an equally cynical final tone.

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Mad Men episode 108: “The Hobo Code”

Peggy and Pete reunite, early in the morning at the Sterling Cooper offices. Sal receives a come-on from a fellow closeted homosexual, but balks at taking it farther than dinner and drinks. Don receives a large bonus check from Bert, which gives him the idea to whisk Midge away to Paris on a moment’s notice. Instead, Don smokes pot with Midge’s beatnik friends and has a flashback to a formative moment in his youth.

“The Hobo Code” may not be a universally loved episode of Mad Men, but it’s an important one, both for the same reason: the first extended flashbacks to young Dick Whitman. The peeks into young Don’s life as Dick have probably received the most criticism of this mostly critic-proof show, but I think most complaints don’t hold up. The biggest complaint is that the show spends too much time on the flashbacks, but a YouTube compilation posted a couple of years ago puts rest to that theory. Collecting every Dick Whitman flashback over the show’s 92 hours, the video totals up to 39 minutes. And in such little time, there’s much to be learned about Don’s psychological makeup, which why I think this episode in particular is so important.

In the flashbacks, we’re transported back to the Whitman farm during the Great Depression: young Dick, his father Archibald, and his step-mother Abigail. A nameless hobo shows up one day and asks if there is any work in exchange for food and a night’s rest. While Archie is initially hesitant, Abigail welcomes him in, although she clearly doesn’t like the hobo much herself. When the hobo says Dick reminds him of a younger version of himself, Abigail says she’s not surprised. Her contempt for Dick is barely veiled.

Later that evening, when the hobo is sleeping in the barn and Dick brings him instructions to say his prayers before saying goodnight, Dick initially takes pity on the hobo for not having a home. The hobo responds with a wandering man’s philosophy: every day is a new adventure, unbound from the mainstream world’s pressures of maintaining a family, a mortgage and other material possessions. The hobo makes Dick an “honorary” by showing him the hobo code, a series of drawings that show visiting hobos what to expect as they stop at a home–good food, a mean dog, a dishonest man, etc.

After Archie denies the hobo his promised quarter for a day’s work, Dick looks for any existing hobo codes near their mailbox, and finds one for a dishonest man. Dick looks at his father differently, probably for the first time.

Also noteworthy is that the hobo referred to Abigail as Dick’s mom. Dick corrects him, asking “Haven’t you heard? I’m a whore-child.” Don’s parentage is becoming a little more clear now.

It’s impossible to over-emphasize the importance of this encounter on young Dick’s mind. The grown-up Don will show time and again that he will run when things get tough, and will tend to glamorize life on the run.

The rest of the episode features small interludes catching us up on dangling plot threads. Peggy arrives early to work on her copy for Belle Jolie; Joan made it clear that Peggy’s writing should not interfere with her secretarial duties. Pete also arrives early that day, which leads to the second sexual encounter between Peggy and Pete.

Elliot, a representative of Belle Jolie, stops by the office and invites Sal to come by and see the architecture of the hotel he’s staying at. Elliot is sure that Sal will understand this as another kind of code, a closeted gay invitation for drinks, dinner and a night in Elliot’s hotel room. Sal is not ready to face his true feelings, and freaks out at Elliot’s very mild come-ons. Back at the office, Sal over-compensates by reciprocating the flirting of the newest Sterling Cooper switchboard operator, Lois Sadler.

Bert gives Don an unexpected $2,500 bonus check (about $20,000 in today’s money). Bert recognizes something in Don he sees in himself: a strong, business-minded man who will succeed due to his inherent self-interest. Bert gives Don the check, tells him to say thank you, and to spend a couple of bucks of that check on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I can buy Bert as a Randian, but Don’s not so much objectivist as hedonist.

Don goes straight to Midge’s apartment, telling her to pack her bags for an impromptu Paris trip. Midge demurs, saying she’s got plans. Her theater buddy, Roy, is there, along with several of his friends–beatniks and early hippies. The big “plans” are to stay in, smoke pot and listen to Miles Davis.

These are the best scenes of the episode, as Don is exposed to the alternating euphoria and menace of a marijuana high. After going to the bathroom and initiating the flashbacks described above, he comes out and takes a picture of Midge and Roy together. He senses they are in love. Roy says love is “bourgeois” which leads to more insults of Don and his career, and Don sparring back. When Roy accuses Don of being part of the establishment that is holding people down, Don responds with one of his best quotes: “I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent.”

This shuts up Roy and his friends, and Don gives an ultimatum to Midge–go to Paris now or he’s walking out. Midge says she can’t, so Don endorses the check, stuffs it into Midge’s bra, and starts to walk out. Roy tells Don “you can’t leave,” due to police being in the apartment building to check out a neighbor of Midge’s who abuses his wife. Don comes back to Roy with another great line: “No, you can’t.” Roy and his friends had taunted Don for his “square” appearance, but in the end, he was able to indulge in the same vices at the same party, but his appearance allows him to walk out and say hello to the police as he leaves.

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