Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 6.6
"Get Your Wargasm On"
Guest Writer: Nicholas D. Mirzoeff

Monday, May 6, 2013

[The fifth 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]

"Get Your Wargasm On"

Written by: Nicholas D. Mirzoeff (New York University)


Last week my friend and colleague Dana Polan accomplished the astonishing feat of blogging Mad Men in the advert breaks. Watching him do this made me aware of the tension between a show about advertising and the advertising shown during that show. Mad Men’s drama is always doubled: between the present and the past it represents, the story the characters are involved in and the one known to viewers, and its aspirations to drama in a highly commercial environment.

At the end of the last episode, “The Flood,” an odd coincidence highlighted how fragile that balance can be. Right after the incomprehensible-as-ever “scenes from next week,” AMC cut to a title for its follow-up show Rectify, which happened to be “presented by Jaguar.” The once-British Jaguar that was sold by Ford to India’s Tata Motors in 2008 to increase its chances of survival in the financial crisis. The same Jaguar that boosted SCDP after Joan did her trade of sex-for-partnership last season. Which was valued by Pete Campbell for her at the beginning of this episode (the sixth in Season 6, “For Immediate Release”) at about $1 million: the size of her partnership if SCDP goes public as planned.


The coincidence reminds us of what we always know but try to forget—that the show about advertising exists to sell. In the new TV economy, it has to sell itself as much as it sells advertising. But sell it must.


In short, in a show that relies on disavowal, the fetishism at the heart of commodity fetishism must be kept intact. That does not mean we are not aware of it. As Octave Mannoni beautifully defined fetishism, its subject says: “Je sais, mais quand meme/I know but nonetheless...” So we know that Don Draper is Dick Whitman but he remains “Don.” Increasingly, it seems that the mythic Don is the only fixed point in the changing 1960s world of Mad Men, where even Pete Campbell has sideburns.

In one fell swoop, showrunner and writer of this episode Matthew Weiner set out to merge the two sides of the series, bringing sex and sales into one unit over the course of a single episode. That unit is a military formation, forged to “fight the war with bodies on the ground,” as CGC partner Ted Chaough puts it. The sole object of desire is now the all-American Chevrolet, presumably a Corvette. It’s the capitalist equivalent of the Weather Underground’s “wargasm,” the merging of anti-war and anti-racist action with compulsory anti-monogamy.

Wired blogger Sean Collins noted two episodes ago that Mad Men was getting worried that people hate what it sells. He meant within SCDP but underpinning the thought is a sense that audiences don't like the show as much as they like what's outside it--the radical 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement and so on. In “For Immediate Release,” all that anxiety is set aside for a car, the ultimate advertiser’s dream and the vehicle of many a sexualized desire.

The episode ends with Peggy drafting a press release for the new merger of SCDP with CGC. The dateline is May 14, 1968. No mention (yet) of the French revolution that is still so evocative that a recent film was titled simply Apr├Ęs mai. Peggy’s world has merged, not fallen apart. It will bring Don, her old object of desire, into bed with Ted, her new fantasy object. In the course of the show, Ted has kissed her, prompting her to say later: "I don't like change, I want everything to stay the way it was.” Bobby Kennedy has been mentioned twice in the last two episodes. The Democratic Convention, the formation of the Weather Underground and Nixon’s election are all coming.

To change Mad Men’s world, taboos are broken left and right. Jaguar is dumped by Don, unable to stomach Herb’s latest inanity, leading to fury from Pete and Joan alike. Now going public has been spoiled by Don’s private action. Joan witheringly says “If I could deal with him, you could deal with him.” What seems like a cataclysm is merely the set-up.

As Chevy comes into focus for us as viewers, the as-yet-unaware Pete Campbell encounters Mr. Vogel, his father-in-law, in the brothel they all seem to go to, with someone he describes to Ken as the "biggest blackest prostitute you've ever seen.” So much for the brief flirtation with anti-racism last week. No African-American characters are even seen during “For Immediate Release,” as if to say that the series had its “race moment” and is moving on.

Almost in passing, Vogel withdraws Vicks business from SCDP, asserting a TV version of the Law of the Father: it’s okay for me to be in the cat-house but you have defiled my princess, aka Trudy. SCDP seems to be down and out. In a theatrical deus ex machina moment, Roger Sterling is able to use his unlikely liaison with an airline hostess to stage an “accidental” meeting with a Chevy executive. And the series pivots.

The real merger arrives with a homoerotic encounter between Don and Ted. They’re drinking late at night in a hotel bar in Detroit. They realize that they are not going to get the Chevy account because they are not big enough—and yes, all these slightly juvenile puns resonate throughout an episode in which Megan decides to blow Don to get his attention, and the whole show is about “release.” Don pitches to Ted, always the ultimate erotic moment for Mad Men. His slogan for Chevy: “the future is something you haven't even thought of yet.” It sweeps Ted off his feet, and the two stop drinking because they “have a long night ahead.”

The show about advertising is watched by relatively few people from a sales point of view. 3.4 million watched the season 6 premier, the second highest audience for Mad Men ever. Over a third of those saw it via a DVR or Tivo device, whose attraction at least in part is to be able to fast forward past the ads. Nonetheless, Mad Men ads are relatively expensive for AMC but don’t cover the $2.3 million per episode cost of the show, according to industry gossip:


Commercials on first-run episodes of Mad Men cost about $20,000-$25,000 per 30 seconds, according to one buyer. (AMC gets $10,000-$15,000 for Mad Men rerun ads.) That compares with the $5,000 spots in AMC’s primetime movies.

Hendricks ad for Johnnie Walker.

Since Mad Men’s 2007 debut AMC overall ad revenue has increased by 23%, reaching $157 million in the fourth quarter of 2012.
Watching Mad Men’s ads for the first time—because I usually fast-forward through them—I discovered that there were about sixteen minutes of ads shown yesterday in the New York City area. Appropriately, we began with the Lincoln MT car ads that have tied the new vehicle to Mad Men, just as the show tied SCDP to first Jaguar and now Chevy. It was shown again later.

The Christina Hendricks Johnnie Walker whisky ad also appears twice, with her come-on line: “It's classic. It's bold. It's JOHNNIE WALKER. And you ordered it.” 


The repetition is perhaps designed to catch the attention of the DVR crowd. But the femme fatale that repeats cannot help but remind us, as Freud had it in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, that repetition is the signature of the death drive. That’s a risky place for a show about selling to go. It’s evoked by Don in Detroit: “this business is rigged.” As if that was suddenly news to him. As if capitalism was really what Don says to heart surgeon Dr. Rosen: “Make your own opportunities.” Don certainly did with Rosen’s wife Sylvia. In the free market, most of us get screwed. In the actual advertising shown during Mad Men, there’s a similar uneven suturing between AMC’s standard programming and advertising, and the upscale fantasy the show represents. The ad that was most like the Mad Men aspirational audience was for a VW turbo hybrid, capable of overtaking trucks in the 500 meter passing lanes you find on mountain roads. In other words—yes, you can have a sporty car and claim to be green! These ads linked with AMC promotions for a new series of The Killing. Another less exalted TV world also came into view, one where Burger King is advertising 75 cent drinks, Staples offers 5% off everything and the aspiration is towards a trip to Atlantic City. These ads were paired with promotions for the second season of a grim-looking reality show called Small Town Security. The reality is that even in the prime New York market, AMC can’t fill its ad space with so-called upscale advertising because the recession continues and no one in the 99% has any money to spend. Nonetheless, together with other hit shows like The Walking Dead, Mad Men has lifted the whole AMC enterprise, according to a recent CNBC report:
Cablevision spun off its series of assets known as Rainbow Media Holdings in July 2011, renaming them AMC Networks after their successful flagship channel. Since starting to trade publicly as AMCX the stock has gained more than 75 percent.
The real deal comes from increasing other revenue. The price that AMC can charge cable operators has increased to 24 c. over the lifetime of the show, raising about $24 million new income. Netflix apparently pay $1 million an episode to have the show for its streaming service. There are iTunes, Amazon and international deals too. So it matters that Mad Men stays cool. If viewers cease to be interested, the revenue dries up. The reboot that went into effect in “For Immediate Release” should have the desired effect. But choices lie ahead. How long can you show sexism (think how Betty is framed by the show) or the pervasive racism of corporate America and not be complicit with it? It’s encouraging to see that these issues are now being foregrounded in the series. Will audiences stay with it as it does? Will advertisers? It’s certainly become more interesting to watch and see.

12 comments

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12 comments:

Anonymous said...

This meta-commentary is interesting but could you please return to an analysis of the show's content?

Every week the Mad Men team puts together astounding episodes full of thematic unity and resonance. The critiques your site offers are indispensible in unpacking those meticulous structures.

I've noticed the tide turning on Mad Men, but it's a television show. By nature it's repetitive and cyclical. The audience is either going to relax and enjoy the characters or grow tired of them. For those of us who like the show enough to seek out intelligent commentary week after week, reading about its place in the firmament of commerce is tedious and disheartening.

Rob Rushing said...

I thought this was a great piece—nice theory, some pretty clever zingers along the way ("in the free market, most of us get screwed"), and I was particularly pleased that the very thing Lilya and I were talking about afterward (the queer liaison between Don and Ted) got the time it deserved here.

Anonymous, I totally get where you're coming from—we also watch the show for the rich analysis of the plot, the characters, and the themes that are so carefully crafted in each episode (in this episode, a nice example is the many mergers that take place and that also fail—as Joan says, "who's we?"). But we aim for a pretty wide coverage that reflects a lot of different interests and viewpoints (for some people, the advertising during the show is the most important thing, believe it or not), and I like to touch base with the show as a show, as part of an industry, at least once per season.

But it doesn't have to be either/or. Let's do that analysis, right here in the comments!

lilya said...

I'll have to disagree a bit with anonymous to say that the show has always had a meta component that is worth pursuing, but, if we want to get back to close reading:

1) the homoeroticism of this season has been fascinating. I wish Alex Doty was still with us to really do it justice, but I'll point out briefly, that this is the second time this season that Don picks up a guy in a bar. (The first moment was of course in Hawaii, and it had a great double ref to the closeted homosexual: the exchange of lighters that recalls both Hichcock's Strangers on a Train, and MM's own "The Golden Violin" where Sal ends up with Ken's lighter.) Which brings us to point 2

2) I-we. In an episode of various heterosexual short comings (Peggy and Ted; Marie and Roger; Pete and Trudy), we end with the success of the homoerotic: Don and Ted merging into a happy union (how happy we'll of course only see next time).

3) death. The show is pretty obsessed with the topic and here it was again--cancer, DOA, drifting away, drifting apart. To get back to the Law of the Father, it is interesting that the company has been having trouble with all their accounts that have to do with older white men (Vicks, Dow, Heinz, Jaguar). All the "fathers" are perverse (as Pete's so clearly demonstrates), and they're standing in the way of the company moving forward--to the Corvette (we assume) that will capitalize on youth and speed. It's also interesting as a side note that the two cars dumped in this week's episode are both British--to be replaced by something 100% American.

Which is all finally to say--great post on what was probably the best (in the sense of most interesting/productive) episode of this season so
far.

Rob Rushing said...

So, I really liked this episode—maybe my favorite of the season so far. Some things I noticed, in no particular order:

• the goofy "television music" I blogged about a few episodes ago is back. I'm torn between finding it funny and annoying
• I said to Lilya right after the episode ended that I'd always had some trouble buying the incipient romance between Ted and Peggy, because Ted had always struck me as gay. And then we decided that the bar scene was one of the queerest in the show so far, and Nicholas' analysis seems spot on.
• A curious "failed theme"—mother's day. It's mentioned a half-dozen times, but then doesn't develop into anything. Perhaps just a subtle way to remind us that it's May, and the Mad Men ensemble is so busy with their scheming and sleeping around that they are completely oblivious to what's happening out in the world?
• Pete Campbell. I love this character: rarely has there been such a sniveling little turd of a man on television. I think, however, that he's a bit wasted on these scenes in which he tries to upbraid Don but falls down the stairs (see the lead image), or gets roundly—and predictably—smacked down by his father in law and his wife. Like almost everyone in the show, it's the combination of his secret, inner suffering and his blustering impotence that really makes him work for me. All in all, the slapstick humiliation of Pete is a tool best used sparingly—preferably involving Lane Price rolling up his sleeves and smacking him around.

Nick M said...

Hi y'all--there's the question of how to fit in as a 'guest' writer and I decided not to imitate the great close readings but to go for a symptomatic reading.

I don't find it depressing to consider how culture is capital: Mad Men's place as part of cultural capital is what blogs like this are all about after all.

What happens to Pete in this episode is a bit depressing though--it's almost as if he gets punished for raising the theme of white racism, the first moment in which he seems less than awful. This week he falls downstairs, gets rejected by father and daughter and so on. "Do not let white privilege hear its own name" is the warning.

The queering of the show is going to be interesting going forward: will it be "bracketed" as the racialized politics of episode 5 now seems to be? Or developed?

Zina said...

Actually, the 3.4 million viewers was for the S6 premiere, and was their second best viewed show. The Flood got 2.4 million . Also, up to last season, MM kept increasing viewership. This has stopped.

I found your postfascinating and very apt. I would like to add a couple of comments.

It's been several seasons that the show is framed by ads featuring the main actors: Hamm for Mercedes, Slattery for Lincoln, and now Hendricks for JW. These ads reflect how the show represents the characters they play: alpha males for the men. As for Hendricks, it is impossible to believe that "You ordered it" does not reflect the prostitution of Joan to Herb, and put the audience in the latter position.

The original homoerotic couple on MM is Don and Roger, the old guard, who are, according to last episode, still on top, at least when it comes to the women: their younger, submissive handmaidens (Megan, the stewardess ), and the so called independent women who are brought back to where they begun: Don alludes to the Herb - Joan hook up in terms that would make Harry blush (300 pounds off you), and Peggy is brought back under the power of Don, which she tried to escape. The show has kept gesturing toward the liberation of the oppressed thus justifying the representation of misogyny and racism, and is stuck in this mode. Any advance of the characters can be negated at any time, bc the glamour of the show is tied to having the white man as superior to non white non males. especially the glamour of the main character that cannot be let go.

Jez B said...

This was a good analysis and definitely the best episode of this year (so far).

Lauren said...

Nick, congratulations on a wonderful blog. I have been traveling as you know and so can write only in haste. But I wanted to say, welcome back Zina, it is nice to hear from you and welcome Anonymous: please continue to join us but please choose a pseudonym of some kind to "sign" your posts so that we can differentiate between our many Anonymi.

One thing that strikes me about the move in the later 60s is how much Abe--a character whose underdevelopment really bugged me when he was first introduced in Season 4--has come to embody a kind of countersubjectivity to the various iterations of the "mad" advertising world. I watched the episode in a state of jetlagged confusion so I need to look back but I distinctly recall thinking that his explanation of the transitioning neighborhood to Peggy marked a compelling distinction between his relation to history and hers (she so completely wrapped up in the commodified relation to her new fixer upper even while is hardly the most damaged of the "mad" characters.

Anyway, I must run but thanks and please keep the conversation going.

John Branch said...

Two thoughts in response to particular points.

One, I've forgotten exactly how the mystery car is described in the episode, but my quick intuition that it might be the Corvette was reproved by my recollection soon after that the Corvette had been introduced years earlier. It was launched in the 50s, in fact (and I had a small model of one in the early 60s). The Wikipedia entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chevrolet_Corvette) explains that a third-generation redesign was introduced in 1968. Possibly what we're seeing and about to see is Chevrolet seeking a new ad agency for Corvette to re-launch the model line. The talk sounded like something genuinely new, though, didn't it?

Two, regarding the ads seen during the show: No doubt AMC and the show's creators have an interest in the ads and especially in how its actors appear in ads. But it may be going a little far to imagine that the showrunner has much influence over the ads; I may be wrong, but this probably the province of the network. (I'm basing this on indirect experience with another part of TV advertising and direct knowledge of print journalism.)

Thus, when our author this week points out the repetition of two striking ads, explains how this evokes the death drive, and announces, "That's a risky place for a show…to go," he may be assuming something that's not really the case: that the show had any choice in the matter. Of course, setting aside the question of who was responsible for what, we can read the program with its included ads in whatever way we find rewarding. And I may have overinterpreted the author; maybe he was speaking of the show-network complex.

Lauren said...

So I finally had the chance to watch the episode while awake and to appreciate the blog and this commentary anew.

Yes, Zina Don is baaaaaack in Peggy's life. What a double take for her: powdering her nose in readiness for an assignation with her new fantasy man--the boss who actually finds her desirable--only to find him in cahoots with Don. I also appreciated the way in which Peggy's tentative come-hither dialogue with Ted was paired with Megan's full-on version with Don later in the episode. Both men are feeling less than their most confident selves (Ted reluctant to be called "nice" and Don describing himself as "desperate and nervous") and both women are ready to deliver the reassurance on cue (Peggy says Ted is "strong" and Megan IIRC says Don is "fearless"). Each is rewarded for their masculinity-boosting with a smacker.

Peggy's not liking change, though she is still under 30, speaks to both sides of her female "bildungsroman." The upwardly mobile professional woman would prefer the Upper East Side with a view of the East river to the transitional neighborhood that Abe has persuaded her to choose. The less confident girl who still wants to be wanted now has to deal with Don back in her professional life just in time to displace (at least for the moment) the fantasy of Ted as boss and lover in one. In either case Peggy is now marked as someone who, unlike Abe, is not in sync with the counterculture--she is at home on Madison Avenue. Her preference for Bobby Kennedy, as Nick noted, is of course doomed.

Rob, I wonder if the goofy TV muzak is, as much as anything, a financial decision. The period songs that would make the biggest impact on audience are increasingly going to cost a lot to use like the cool 1/4 of a mill I heard was the cost of last season's "Tomorrow Never Knows."

My favorite thing in the episode happened early: Marie's choosing Arnold Rosen as the man to go for. Though she can't possibly know that Don is cuckolding him and that his wife is the one displacing Don's attention from Megan, she doesn't really have to know. Not only Don but also Tilden Katz is baaaaaaack complete with his parallel story of professional disappointments in the world of heart transplants and Don's advice (which also felt like an echo from some S1 or S2 episode) that there is no fate; you make your own opportunities.

Happy mum's day....

Jez B. said...

interesting about the corvette John Branch I had the same thought.

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