Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 6.4
"Out in the Open"
Guest Writer: Robert A. Rushing

Monday, April 22, 2013

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism

[The third in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 6 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MEN, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"Out in the Open"

Written by: Robert A. Rushing (Italian/Comparative Literature)



Joe Namath card from 1968
A great deal happens—perhaps too much—in the fourth episode of Mad Men’s sixth season, “To Have and to Hold” (the title is that of Megan’s soap opera, and a reference to marriage vows in general). The Vietnam War continues to emerge into the explicit content of the show (“they should stop dropping napalm on children”), rather than remaining in the marginal radio and TV news that viewers can’t help but notice, but which the characters in the show ignore. Harry Crane’s plan to distract the people from napalm by giving them bread and circuses (“Joe Namath in a straw hat!”) seems woefully behind the times (and doomed to fail besides). For several years, viewers have waited to see if we would ever “follow Carla home” —that is, explore the lives of the show’s African American characters, rather than having them also remain as marginal background that Don and others pay no attention to—and indeed, last night’s episode follows Dawn, if not home, then to an African American diner and into a glimpse of her personal life. And late 1960s counter-culture, perhaps most prominently the sexual revolution (bisexual swinging! casual hookups! a near-threesome in the back seat of a taxi!), begins to take a commanding role in the lives of the characters on the show—and even in the style of the show itself. 

“To Have and to Hold” opens with a three-shot: Don, Pete and Timmy from Heinz ketchup, discussing the possibility of an “exploratory mission” to see if SCDP can capture the lucrative and prestigious condiment account, in addition to (or in place of) the Heinz baked beans account they already have. They agree to give it a shot, and Timmy stands up to leave, noting that he has a rendezvous with a lady in a few minutes. In a rapid, much-practiced and rather repulsive gesture, Timmy licks his wedding ring and then slides it off into his pocket, pointedly noting that he doesn’t “need much of an excuse to come to Manhattan.” Don smiles his forced business smile in response, and a minute later, Pete offers his own rather sad apartment to Don, should the need arise to “spend the night in the city.” Don, as is so often the case when dealing with Pete, marvels at Pete’s tactlessness and foolishness. “I live here,” Don he reminds him.



This sequence, as is the case with most of the episode, traces out the consequences of prior episodes: SCDP’s inevitable betrayal of Raymond (of Heinz baked beans), Peggy’s inevitable betrayal of Stan (who let her know about the ketchup possibility in one of their many telephonic exchanges of confidences), Pete’s inevitable betrayal of Don by failing to keep the ketchup account a secret… Most particularly, however, this opening reminds us of marital betrayal (“to have and to hold…”). Don chastises Pete for the same reason Trudy did in last week’s episode (“The Collaborators”)—for failing to understand the need to keep the wife in one location (to hold), and the mistress in a separate and distant location (to have). Of course, there is plenty of dramatic irony for the viewer here—Don’s betrayal of his own wife is happening even closer to home than Pete’s.

This trio of cheating husbands does have one member who knows how it’s done, however, the repulsively suave and confident (“I have that power”) Timmy. Here we have to return to that gross and curiously excessive gesture of the removal of the wedding ring using the tongue for lubrication, a gesture that takes perhaps two seconds of screen time and that elicits no comment or visible reaction from either Pete or Don. It is part and parcel of a quiet but enormous sea change visible throughout this episode: sex has changed. If before sex was desirable, important, secretive and dangerous, it emerges in this episode in its proto-1970s form: something open, banal, public and vulgar. Nowhere is this more visible, of course, than when two of Megan’s colleagues (Mel and Arlene) attempt to “swing” with Don and Megan (it is clear that this is not partner swapping, and that there is at least as much interest in same-sex coupling as in hetero). The whole scene begins when Megan attempts to allay Don’s worries about her upcoming love scene on the show. “When we, you know, do things on the show, it’s all very tasteful,” she claims, not very convincingly. “Well, it’s not real life,” replies Arlene. This exchange suggests that there’s a question about style in the episode; what is at stake is not so much the thing itself, but how it is depicted—and that is what is changing.

This episode, in other words, is chronicling the change from the minimalist and rather highbrow restraint of the 1960s style to the stylistic excesses of the “let it all hang out” 1970s. On some level, it’s tracing out the death of Mad Men, since it was precisely the mid-century modern style that attracted most viewers to the show in the first place. Culture, it seems, is heading downhill. “To Have and to Hold” is actually filled with stylistic demotions: Joan and her friend Kate, for example, pretend to be secretaries, even teenagers, for their night out on the town. The whole experience is awkward and perhaps fun while it’s happening, and rather humiliating in retrospect Arguably, this is a perfect description of the 1970s as a decade. (This sequence seems to be part of the series’ never-ending quest to provide us with spectacles of Joan’s quiet, stoic suffering, although it is nothing compared to Harry Crane’s cruelty later in the episode.)

James Garner in Marlowe (1969)
The symbolic demotion is perhaps most visible, however, when Arlene and Megan are discussing Megan’s upcoming love scene and what this means for her career. Arlene points at a photo of Don and Megan on vacation in Hawai’i, and says “The hard part is how James Garner over there will deal with it.” People have always loved comparing Don to icons of masculinity and style, even within Mad Men. Jimmy Barrett compared him to Gregory Peck in “The Benefactor” (2:3), for instance. James Garner worked in both television (Maverick made him a household name in the late 1950s) and film (The Great Escape in 1963), but this comparison is typical of Mad Men’s doubled historical consciousness—while 1960s audiences might have thought of Garner as a movie star (although nowhere near Gregory Peck’s status), contemporary viewers will no doubt immediately think of him in one of the defining shows of the 1970s, The Rockford Files. How far Don has fallen?


This movement, from a highbrow and mannered art text (reminiscent of 1960s cinema) to a popular, even vulgar, style (reminiscent of 1970s television) is present at every level of “To Have and to Hold.” Let’s take a look for a moment at that opening sequence again. It begins with a classic Mad Men shot—immaculately careful framing, with the screen divided into three vertical sections (a composition we’ll see again, when Don and Sylvia ride the elevator together). The colors are striking and, as always, carefully chosen—the green and the blue glass panels match the green and blue suits that Don and Timmy are wearing in the same sequence (see my post on color matching in “Potemkinville” [4.2]) in Season 4.


But one can’t help but notice what has changed—the sleek minimalism of two seasons ago has disappeared, replaced by rococo kitsch: the multiple textures of the glass, matched by the multiple and clashing patterns in Timmy’s suit and ascot (plaid and paisley, together again!).

Dawn’s pink, ruffled blouse exactly matches the color and textural qualities of the ceramic roses on her desk—but the sense of visual restraint and minimalism that defined the “Mad Men style” is gone. Indeed, throughout “To Have and to Hold,” the lighting and colors are unusually bright. Mad Men, like most contemporary “quality” television, has generally preferred a cooler color palette and low light, since these looks were considered “cinematic,” while bright lights and garish colors were seen as cheaper looking and televisual.

Nowhere, however, is this shift in codes more apparent than in this episode’s treatment of sound. Mad Men has always made use of standard cinematic codes of sound, such as the “sound bridge.” A sound bridge is when we hear the sound from the next scene while still watching the first scene. For example, as Joan and Kate finish their conversation in Joan’s apartment, we hear a loud elevator bell; then the camera cuts to reveal Don in an elevator. The effect is sophisticated and typical of film, because it assumes that spectators are paying a lot of attention and understand that they are watching something complex, and so won’t be confused. Music on screen is usually divided into two kinds: diegetic (music that the characters on the show can hear, like what’s on the radio) and non-diegetic (music that we can hear and that they can’t, like soundtrack music). Music in Mad Men has been sophisticated and restrained—that is, cinematic. Most music is diegetic, apart from the music played over the closing credits, and soundtrack music is used sparingly (this is typical not just of film, but specifically of art film). In “To Have and to Hold,” however, something quite strange and surreal happens at several points—not just soundtrack music, but specifically “television” music (rather cheesy music at that) begins to play.


The first time we hear it is just after Harry Crane takes a grinning bite of his danish, just before we cut (sound bridge!) to Stan on a “secret mission” (the secret Heinz ketchup account, now only known as “Project K”), carrying a mysterious duffel bag. The music (jazzy, swinging) is typical for a spy show of the period: chromatic piano, vibraphone, strings, all suggesting tension and mystery. It is played for clearly comic effect, coming to a perfectly synchronized end as Stan closes the door marked “PRIVATE” behind him. The baffled Michael Ginsberg turns and addresses the whole room (and by extension, us): “I saw this thing on a spy show…” This address suggests for just a brief moment that Michael has heard the music, too, that it is actually diegetic music—as if the characters in Mad Men were living in a TV show, complete with TV music!

The second time the music appears is just after Harry Crane proposes his “Joe Namath in a straw hat” idea, right before we cut to Joan striding purposefully through the office in pursuit of the truant Scarlett (dressed in a color matching—but now blindingly bright—scarlet dress). It is still jazzy, with horns and vibraphone, more upbeat and suited to light comedy. And thus forms a strangely discordant note, since Joan is about to fire Scarlett, after all. Both times, I found that I was expecting a laugh track to appear as well, so strongly had my “television code” been activated.


This overall movement from a mid-century minimalism (loosely identified with art and with cinema) to a late 1960s, early 1970s televisual aesthetic (bright, vulgar, counter-cultural, excessive) perhaps reaches its audio-visual peak when Joan and her friend Kate find themselves at the Electric Circus, which only a year or two earlier had been run by Andy Warhol. The Velvet Underground had been the house band, featuring multimedia events called the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” (I was sorely tempted to use this as the title for the post), along with avant-garde music of all varieties (indeed, the New Yorker's classical music critic Alex Ross was one of the first to blog on the episode).


We see something like this as Joan sits next to her friend making out with their waiter, patiently sipping her drink. Lights and shadows float on screens as “Bonnie and Clyde” by Serge Gainsbourg (and featuring Brigitte Bardot!) plays in the background (in case you missed the title, the young man who ends up making out with Joan provides it, as a play on their own names, “Johnny and Joan… Bonnie and Clyde”). As Joan—amused, but clearly not really interested—begins to kiss Johnny back, the camera pans up and to the right, half embarrassed to keep watching, and half more interested in the fascinating patterns of colored lights.


This preference for excess over restraint even appears in the show’s advertising plot. Don continues to try out his minimalist, existential advertising pitches, hidden behind locked doors in tinfoil-lined rooms marked “PRIVATE.” Last time, in the Season 6 premiere, he tried to suggest that Hawaii was a “stepping off point,” but his clients (correctly) read this as a suicidal void. In “To Have and to Hold,” Don’s pitch is another void, a tiny slogan suspended above a french fry terrain.

“It feels like half an ad,” complains Timmy, noting the absence of the word “ketchup.” Don counters that the emptiness of the ad is precisely what is wanted; it’s the inside of the consumer’s mind. “And if you can get into that space, your ad can run all day.” As always, Don shows that he has some real insight about psychology, about desire, about fantasy—but these insights are no longer part of the times. Timmy gets it, but the style is wrong. “I think I still want to see our bottle.”

Peggy’s pitch, by contrast, is not simply about giving them exactly what they want (the word ketchup, the image of the bottle), but about excess: the font (Futura) is huge, and in all caps. Even the bottle is bigger (family size), but it’s not big enough: “Imagine this, forty feet tall. In Times Square.”
When Megan talks about their invitation to have group sex with Mel and Arlene, she’s not so much shocked by the idea as she is by the style of presentation: “They were so out in the open,” marvels Megan. “It was a good strategy,” replies Don.



10 comments

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10 comments:

Lauren said...

A wonderful aesthetic analysis, Rob, and I'll have more to say later after others have weighed in; but wanted to share this image I found while looking for a suitable photo of Times Square in 1968. I knew that Stan's getup reminded me of Midnight Cowboy but did not realize how close it was until I
stumbled across this:
http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_n5KMEaGMNoA/TE8zekP-fDI/AAAAAAAAAVA/2wowBxXP7AM/s1600/1968+TIMES+SQUARE+NYC+vintage+photo+MIDNIGHT+COWBOY+1960s+film+still+C.JPG

Jez B said...

I would definitely not notice these things. I liked this episode and this blog though. Thanks.

Helena said...

As things change around Don while he remains, outwardly, unchanged he is more and more like Dorian Gray but with the corruption held tightly within him, in his head and in his heart. Something is going to give.

Lauren said...

Yes, I think that is right Helena. And as you doubtless know Don has been directly compared to Dorian (at the beginning of S4).

I have other thoughts on this episode but for the moment only time for a few remarks on style. Rob, you know I love this analysis and don't consider myself a visual aesthete; but one difference I have from you and Lilya is that I'm several years older. So for me Mad Men has moved into a period that I can actually remember (as opposed to one I can mostly remember from family photographs and reruns of shows like The Avengers and The Man [and Girl] From UNCLE (which I always loved).

So as young girl in the late 60s and the double digits and teens by the mid-to-late 70s, there were indeed some stylistic things I'd rather forget. But it wasn't all that bad. For one thing there was my mom who always looked beautiful to me (and still does). When I was really young, there was Marlo Thomas in That Girl who (along with Laurie Partridge I must confess) was a total girl crush for me. IIRC That Girl grew like Mad Men from mid-60s understated through early 70s "kinda now" but without ever becoming vulgar or even excessive (in my memory). Another female TV character I remember thinking of as so beautiful when I was little was Julia--a character who somewhat resembles Dawn in MM.
Later on there were also the tastefully furnished early 70s interiors of all the rich people Columbo pursued. In 1970, though I was too young to see the actual movie just yet this fetching couple was all the rage. By the time I was picking out my own clothes there was Mrs. Kotter whose clothes were kinda awesome, I thought, Rhoda, and later a thing for the 20s when The Great Gatsby became a movie (which was the first time I read it). I would be lying if I said I didn't like Farrah's hair on Charlie's Angels--though that was for sure excessive. Though in retrospect what I like least is how the female body type idealized in the mid-70s is stick thin without looking terribly fit (as opposed say to Grace Kelly's slimness from the early 60s or Joan's amplitude). On the male front there were of course rock stars aplenty--which as I've remarked before, MM has kept stylistically at bay for as long as it could. None of this is in the least to disagree with you about your two points: 1) that MM made us fall in love with the early 60s aesthetic and 2) that that aesthetic is now changing. But what I do suggest is that although clearly more excessive in comparison to mid-century modern restraint, the late 60s (seen also in period movies like Diary of a Mad Housewife) and the early/mid 70s (which I remember clearly not only from TV but from the fashion I was dying to wear as I became style conscious) have an aesthetic that MM may well incite some desire for (even though it's hard to imagine that Don will be the vehicle). What encapsulates this the most for me after a quick poke around the web is this image from what I remember thinking of as a "cool" show (which began in '68 and may turn out to be a Sally D. favorite for all I know). Of course to a young girl looking at this shot c. 1970, the least cool thing in the shot is the 40-something guy dressed like you know who (though without DD's je ne sais quoi to be sure). That--and doubtless the fact that punk came in the 80s and reset my aesthetic preferences for what I thought would be the rest of my life--may well be why the first time I looked twice at men's suits I was in my 40s and watching Mad Men!

Sean said...

Finally saw the ep last night. There's a lot more there, and here, than I can process immediately. But Rob's consideration of style, both intratextual and extratextual, is wonderful, and full of enticing avenues. The stuff about sound, and crossing diegetic boundaries, is especially nice.

I also appreciated Lauren's citation of one of the beloved sitcoms of my childhood (seen in reruns), That Girl. Its iterative/imaginative use of the cold open was one of the first televisual narrative devices to make me think about the medium's relationship to storytelling.

One major objection to Rob's post. [Indignant, gesticulating:] In what universe does moving from Gregory Peck to James Garner constitute a fall? Not mine! The Rockford Files, like the aforementioned That Girl, exhibited the kind of playfulness of structure and persona that we all look for in TV today. Or that I look for in TV today, at any rate. Not to mention Mad Men's genealogical tree. On what show did Weiner-mentor David Chase start to make his name? We hear its theme song when Livia visits Green Grove, in the pilot of that other show obsessed with the legacy of the 60s.

Rob Rushing said...

Thanks for the very interesting comments, everyone. Lauren, I completely agree, and I have my own nostalgia for 1970s culture and aesthetics, which I do treat somewhat dismissively here (it's really just for rhetorical purposes). I think Mad Men is sort of inviting us to do so, no? With Stan's paunch, and Michael Ginsberg's really ridiculous hair, Paul Kinsey's absurd turn as a Hare Krishna, they're not really selling the counter culture as chic, and as we've already discussed, the show (or at least Don) positively avoids rock and roll. I expect this may change this season, but perhaps not—after all, Weiner is saying good bye to his fantasy decade and to the era that made his show (and him) famous.

Sean, as far as James Garner, I have to confess to an intense attachment to The Rockford Files as a young boy. I really thought it was the best thing ever, and in particular thought that his gold Pontiac Firebird was the most awesome TV car ever. But I'm pretty sure that Jim Rockford's demigod status in my eyes still doesn't match the cultural prestige of Peck and others that Don gets compared to (not to mention the TV vs. film thing, which Mad Men has always so ably played around with). I guess that's part of my idea here—that the show is self-consciously turning from a "cinematic" "quality TV" experience in this episode into a television show, completely with cheesy music and cheap aesthetics—I doubt the experience will repeat, though!

Lauren said...

I cannot weigh in here since I don't have any strong James Garner associations--I never watched Rockford (or McLoud or Magnum)though I loved Angie Dickinson in Police Woman. So I can't say whether Garner is the sign either of stylistic/ cultural demotion or of some television sublime in the making. (Of course it makes sense as you're both suggesting for MM to be making some kind of statement about the old movie/TV hi/lo divide since, after the Sopranos it is probably the show most responsible for making nonsense of that hierarchy.)

Rob, I think you are right that we are not being invited to fall in love with anything specifically countercultural as yet (with the possible exception of some great Megan accessories). We are either getting great culture from Don's resistant perspective (The Beatles) or we're getting snippets of what we can identify as counterculture in a form so refracted we can't really place it.

Certainly at the end of last season in a way I felt really worked we got a strong alignment between Don and James Bond: perhaps the last iconic cinematic double for Don before the televisual revamp which Rob finds expressed in this episode at least.

Does Abe look like Meathead (Rob Reiner) in All in the Family or is that an accident? Is Megan a Marlo Thomas type? Dawn a Julia type? If so does it mean anything that Stan seems to offer some weird cinematic cross between Joe Buck and Jeremiah Johnson? Or is that just the costume designer coming in with some "authentic" influences irrespective of these being cinematic contexts?

For me anyway it's hard to know what counts this early in the arc of the season--I've never really predicted anything which is why I'm so amused by that weird character Bob who keeps turning up in certain scenes like some kind "pay attention to me" MacGuffin to be.

But I guess that very uncertainty is so far working for me at level of holding my interest. That is, I'm as curious and in some ways more curious about what the show wants to say about the counterculture (aesthetically and otherwise) as I am about whether Don will get of out Hell, what will happen to Peggy, if Dawn's extra-SCDP story will develop, how Trudy will get Pete "under [her] thumb" etc. etc. I guess I feel as though whatever I may think about the show's original brilliance, its genre remains historical even if its leading man remains invested in Hollywood's (and America's) Golden Age.

I think Matt W was on NPR offering his take on the connection quite recently and as is my habit I did not listen! They made a point of saying there would be no (plot) spoilers but for me his opinion on what I should be thinking about the relation between Don and the late 1960s is exactly what I don't want to spoil. :)

Lauren said...

Reading this back I am tempted to add that when I speak of counterculture in what's above I am speaking primarily of aesthetics and popular media -- not politics or philosophy or even art.

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Rob Rushing said...

I think Pollob Hasan's comment has really said all that can be said about how the show moves sex out into the open. I am slightly confused about what exactly constitutes "erotic furniture,"but I'm sure Mel and Arlene will fill us in, in time.

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