Last week, Sarah Seltzer, Amanda Marcotte and Pamela Merritt held a spirited salon in anticipation of Mad Men’s season premiere on Sunday. This week, join us for the debrief.
Hold on to your hats: the 60s are coming to Sterling Cooper! The Purple Heart medal Don Draper fingered thoughtfully early on in the first season,
his under a false name, will cause poor Sally and Bobby Draper shame
in a mere matter of years as their dad goes from the epitome of cool to a loser holding back the tide of progress.
The irony of the Mad Men premiere coinciding with the Woodstock
anniversary has not been lost on many–it
was even the subject of Frank Rich’s column this week. I’ve been deeply immersed in both
worlds for days, and as I watched footage of barely-clothed women frolicking
in the mud at that seminal concert I couldn’t not think of of
lingerie that Amanda wrote about last week.
Those freedom-loving hippie chicks throwing off their uncomfortable
clothes really did sound the advance call for organized feminism, even
if they thought they were merely having a groovy time. And they weren’t
the only ones rebelling.
One interview with a concert attendee from
the 1970 Woodstock film revealed the exact opposite of Don Draper’s
philosophy taking root among the younger generation. The young man told
the cameras that he wasn’t interested in "playing the game"
and climbing the corporate ladder that his dad, an immigrant, cared
so much about. "Everything I need is right here, man," he said
(or something to that effect). This "drop out" philosophy
was foreshadowed by Don Draper’s sojourn with the beautiful people he
met in California last season. They weren’t exactly hippies, but they
were rich drifter-philosophers, and their lack of ambition stunned him.
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By Woodstock, awareness of racism and a commitment to racial justice was no longer an anomaly. Many of the
white kids worshipping Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix had become like Paul Kinsey, the hipster who chides his colleagues about their lack
of engagement with civil rights and proudly shows off his interracial
relationship with Sheila, but who ends up out of his philosophizing,
pipe-smoking depth when he joins the freedom rides. As Pamela wrote, it’s part "liberal affectation." As it is today, seminal
moments of progress are followed by a nasty backlash.
Until now, the marches, sit-ins and legal battles of the Civil Rights
era have blithely passed the Sterling Cooper folks by. It’s
an intentional move, I believe on the part of the show’s creators, a
commentary on the bubble of indifference surrounding the characters. But
the bubble will be burst before long. As the fight for equality reaches
its fevered pitch, the gang won’t be able to ignore it by going into
Don’s room and pouring a glass of Stoli, as they did in last night’s
That glass of Stoli while the world burns epitomizes Mad Men,
a show obsessed with dissecting the ugliness at the top of the race-class-and-gender heap. As Roger Sterling snarkily prevents Pete Campbell from
drinking his precious Stoli, we see two contrasting types of white male
privilege. Pete and Roger are both recipients of gobs of the stuff,
thanks to their family names; but while Pete is entitled and nasty,
constantly convinced he’s gotten short shrift, Roger is an amoral pursuer
of humor, pleasure, and his own interests. The amusingly at-odds dynamic between the cynical elder and
ambitious younger ad-men reveals two equally troubling ways of handling
white male privilege. Roger doesn’t care about anything but the next
indulgence, and Pete only cares about himself. Roger may have an easier
time than Pete letting go of his power as the social climate changes–retiring
to a yacht somewhere and drinking until the onset of oblivion, while
Pete rails against the women, Jews, and African-Americans usurping his
But Roger’s easygoing sarcasm is a function of his privilege. "Oh,
it’s a sad meeting," he says when he drifts in late to a
layoff session. "It wasn’t easy. I’m sure we’ll regret it,"
he recites with flat disinterest.
Roger is a Sterling at Sterling Cooper.
He can be flip, he can be witty, he can mock everyone around him and
get away with it. The further the characters climb into positions
of power, the more luxury they have to be like Roger. Even Peggy got
a crack in at the expense of her secretary last night.
Although little high drama occurred in the season premiere, I’m hoping
that the direction of Salvatore Romano’s plot will foreshadow what’s
going to happen with the rest of the season–bringing the issues that
have been previously gestured at closer to the surface. Sal, the art
department star, has long been deeply in the closet in his own mind,
not so deeply in ours. We’ve watched him turn down gentle advances from
other men and remain silent when a younger employee casually announced
his homosexuality–we’ve seen the misery his wife Kitty experienced
when Sal neglected her at dinner to chat animatedly with a male colleague.
But finally, in a sultry hotel room in Baltimore, Sal gets seduced–almost–by
a very savvy bellboy. It’s hard to watch Sal’s shocked, pleased, horrified
face as he realizes that all his years of repression might be ending,
and the writers definitely get that this is a moment of epic significance
in his life. Alas, then, his tryst is cut short by a fire alarm. As
Don skips down the fire escape with his own half-clothed stewardess
"friend," he sees Sal in a compromised position and a series
of anguished stares ensue.
But Don, himself a man of secrets, never looks better than when he’s
keeping someone else’s. As appallling as Don’s return to manipulative,
womanizing form was halfway through the episode (really, Don? An ambivalent
stewardess?), when it comes to guarding others’ hidden lives he’s as
silent as the grave, showing that he has his own, rather bizarre moral
code. He hasn’t said a word to anyone about Peggy’s baby, and I imagine
he follows suit with Sal. But at the same time he undoubtedly relishes
having juicy knowledge about those around him–he knows it will keep them loyal.
I appreciate the subtle and slow way the show develops, adding to its
mysterious tone, but I do hope Sal’s plot-line is the standard for the
season. I want more frank but rich engagement with race, more gender, more sexuality–and more smouldering,
forbidden romance while we’re at it.
Amanda and Pamela, and readers, were you satisfied with the first episode or did it seem too slow
and enigmatic? Has Don lost any remainder of his appeal thanks to his
cheesy "It’s my birthday" line with the flight attendant?
What do we hope will happen to our heroines as they enter the turbulent
60s? Will Betty break solidly out of the feminine mystique? What will
Peggy have to sacrifice in order to make it into the boardroom? And
will Joan’s dream of a perfect life be shattered by her awful doctor
fiancée? Who will be the first in the office to follow Paul Kinsey’s
tepid lead and get involved with the radicalizing forces of the day?