Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 6.10
"Us, Them"
Guest Writer: Caroline Levine

Monday, June 3, 2013

[The ninth 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]

"Us, Them"

Written by: Caroline Levine (University of Wisconsin-Madison) 

Carnation Instant Breakfast or Life cereal? CGC employees or the SCDP team? On the one hand, this episode is pretty relentless in its insistence on division. It’s either them or us: New York or Los Angeles, Joan or Pete, Humphrey or Nixon, demonstrators or cops. Don reminds Megan that she’s Canadian, not a US citizen. Avon Cosmetics faces a choice between getting groovier and waxing nostalgic. Joan think she’s on a date, but it turns out to be a business meeting. She then replaces Pete at breakfast, while Carnation replaces breakfast itself. Not both. One or the other.

And yet, in California, “everyone shares”—at least according to Don’s drugged fantasy of a hippie Megan. Don has always been two rather than one: Don Draper and Dick Whitman, husband and lover, outsider and insider, ethical hero and repellent antihero. And his preference for both/and turns out to govern this episode as much as either/or. Ted shuts Pete up with the assertion that “we’re all working together: all agency business is your business.” Peggy, after fighting bitterly with Joan, rescues her. And of course, the episode ends with the overcoming of a bitter conflict. A shared identity for the agency replaces a string of separate names and letters in a new prospect of togetherness: Sterling Cooper & Partners. “Partners” in the name does double work: the word itself is a compromise that requires both sides to give up their individual identities, and what it conveys is an assertion of their new identity as partnership rather than opposition.

But what can be shared, exactly? “The whole world is watching,” chant the protestors at the Chicago Democratic Convention as they are brutally beaten by the police on national television. We watch Don, Megan, and Joan watching, sharing the televised experience of the Convention with millions of others. But this is togetherness without amity, without concord, without partnership. Megan is scared, Joan horrified, Don dismissive. The experience of network television news joins but also separates, inviting us to enter the common world of public life from the privacy of our living rooms. And the world it allows us to share is a scene of violence and discord.

The agency’s partnership doesn’t do much better at accomplishing togetherness. It’s not an image of harmonious values, or a unity that either transcends or blends differences. The name is a working solution precisely because, as Jim puts it, it’s “equally offensive to all.”

And so this episode moves us past the simple binaries that organize so much experience—butter or margarine, cereal or instant breakfast, Democrats or Republicans, hippies or housewives—to bring into focus instead the troubling, sometimes even sinister, task of togetherness. It is during this episode that the Democrats officially embrace a pro-war platform, meaning that the contest between Nixon and Humphrey is not much of an opposition after all, but a choice between war and war. Even voting turns out to be one of those choices that does not fall into the easy logic of either/or.

On a smaller scale, this episode repeatedly explores the strange fudging of togetherness, the fragile, uneasy, disturbing attempt to unite across the usual binaries of us and them. Megan identifies with the protestor whose skull is cracked by the police, only to find Don disparaging—scornful not only of the protestors but also of Canadian Megan herself, unable to vote. And yet, Megan and Don manage to cross these divisions to revive feelings of connectedness anyway (Don says, “I miss you,” and seems to mean it), and both find it difficult to end the connection by hanging up their expensive long-distance phone call—to fall back into two separate worlds out of a shared experience that feels terribly precarious, always capable of drowning in the magnitude of their differences.

The intriguing Bob Benson also creates commonness out of division. He has been studiously learning about sales success from business gurus. He then tries to put the advice into practice, using clichés to inspire Ginsberg to join him in making the pitch to Manischewitz. But if he starts with painful banalities to jolt Ginsberg out of what he thinks is simple stage fright, he eventually succeeds when he learns that Ginsberg is tortured by feeling split into two, guilty for colluding with capitalist thugs and pigs. “There is no harm in this!” he cries. “Manischewitz are good people. They’re your people. And they sell wine for religious ceremonies of all faiths.” Stressing both the singularity of group belonging (“your people”) and the universalist aspiration to transcend singularity (“all faiths”), Bob makes Ginsberg whole again, at the same time that he imagines the distinctively Jewish Manischewitz as a product for all peoples. This is the goal of all advertising—to reach beyond limited demographics to an ever wider world of consumers—just as it is the goal of a liberal democracy—to unite a people across divisions of race and religion. At the same moment that democratic processes are dissolving into violent conflict, salesman Bob is uniting self-divided Ginsberg and uniting with him, holding out his hand in a gesture that is part support, part enactment of the amity possible across groups, part profit motive. The handshake between the partners that ends the episode offers an echo of Bob’s connection to Ginsberg in another uneasy makeshift of togetherness.

Even self-interested Pete manages to work up an alliance, a spectacularly ironic camaraderie with the Chicago demonstrators. Our first inkling of this is his anger at the agency’s new name, which he calls “a gravestone to our resistance.” Horrified at Don’s capitulation to the enemy, he then takes up a joint, a gesture of common cause with hippies and Chicago demonstrators. Pete as antiwar protestor? This is laughable, of course, except that all togetherness in this episode is brittle and strange, worked out of conflicting values and aspirations that never harmonize into a common vision.

In a world of fragile alliances, hallucinogenic experience is one way to check out altogether, and lots of people are trying it in 1968. But even here this episode refuses the logic of either/or. Hashish allows Don to escape, but it also connects him to a newly collective Megan, one linked to other women and to their unborn child. The drug connects him back to the soldier of the first episode, who invites Don to see his own body dead—a moment where Don manages to share the experience of his own death with the dead by an impossible traversal of time and space. Don’s near-drowning is strangely undramatic, not treated as a suicide by Roger. It emerges as both mundane—his way of following Megan’s advice to go for a swim—and terrifying—his desire to die, which has been with us since the opening of this season. Drugs are often said to have utopian potential, freeing the imagination to conjure up whole new kinds of community, but here we see the difficulty that surrounds all utopian imaginings: figuring out how to link these visions to other processes of living in the world.

If I have been emphasizing this episode’s refusal of the logic of us and them, either/or, you might object that I’ve been ignoring the geography of the episode and its title. “A Tale of Two Cities” of course refers to Charles Dickens’ novel of 1859. Dickens divides his novel between revolutionary Paris and aristocratic London. Mad Men invites us to think that we’ll encounter a comparable two cities but then makes it impossible to decide exactly which two cities are in question—is it the choice between slick New York and groovy Los Angeles, which is certainly how Roger sees it, or is it the divide between capitalist New York and revolutionary Chicago, which seems a closer echo of the Victorian novel? Dickens, in the most famous run-on sentence of all time that opens A Tale of Two Cities, actually chose to leave out the conjunctions of and and or. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity….” Juxtaposing opposites by commas alone, Dickens insists on a binary logic but does not articulate how or even whether the poles are connected. Are best and worst joined or conflicting? Joined and conflicting? Does one side work to the detriment of the other, or do they somehow operate together?

If Mad Men takes something from A Tale of Two Cities, it is the question mark at the heart of connectedness. Can unlike things be joined? Can opposite sides find ways of linking together in common cause? Or linking together despite vigorous and profound disagreement? As usual in Mad Men—and what makes it so good—is that the same urgent questions reverberate across registers. Finding modes of connectedness is a problem in marriage, in business partnerships, in advertising, and in democracy. And the series is right to suggest that there are no neat, easy, portable solutions for bringing unlike things together. Decades after the Nixon campaign, the nation is deeply divided politically, and the legacy of Reagan—the Carnation executive’s preference over centrist Nixon—is a gap between rich and poor that has been inexorably increasing. Few questions seem more pressing than the problem of connectedness posed by this subtle episode.

On the surface, then, Mad Men seems to invite us to dwell on two cities—on the split between east and west coasts and between hawks and doves—but it repeatedly pushes us past this binary logic to recognize the vast challenge of joining multiple disaggregated parts: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles; hippies, capitalists, working women, and Jews; antiwar demonstrators, horrified observers, angry patriots, and armed police officers. Mad Men presents us with a nation barely managing to keep many disparate pieces stitched together. “Ampersand partners” is one way to imagine moving forward.


Make A Comment


fab said...

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity….”
Yeah, i was in Chicago in 1968--both in the Amphitheater and Downtown. fab.

Jez B. said...

Excellent blog. The scene with Nixon, Reagan and Carnation's guy was crazy. In the same city as the party as you point out. The two "sides" of LA.

Lauren said...

fab - welcome back to Kritik. It would be great to hear more about your experiences in Chicago!

Caroline, thanks so much for this great piece. As is my wont I am checking in just to welcome everyone and to thank you publicly for your contribution. I'll stop back again after others have had their say since I like to listen!

I am especially please that a fellow Victorianist was able to cover the Tale of Two Cities angle--and wonder if any other nineteenth-centuryists who are reading the blog have thoughts on that dimension.

Lauren said...

PS - meant to say hello to Jez B. and accidentally left it off!

fab said...

ok. well during the last week of august 1968 i commuted back and forth from the Chicago Ampitheater to downtown chicago and grant park and lincoln park. fortunately i missed getting beaten up by the police. but they almost got me on a sweep of state street. from my unique vantage point on these events, it was obvious that Chicago was under de facto marshal law from McCormack Place at south 22nd street where the national guard had bivouacked up north into lincoln park near the zoo and then west over to the chicago river and on up. hard to believe that was 45 years ago. but it was certainly the best of times and the worst of times.....

fab said...

PS. i should have added. The Chicago Amphitheater was not under de facto marshal law. but the entire union stockyards where the Amphitheater was located was surrounded by Chicago police barricades. you needed a special pass to get through, which i had.

Lauren said...

Thanks fab very interesting!

Anonymous said...

I am new to posting on this blog but having been reading it for two years.

I’m writing anonymously in a confessional mode. For much of this season "the thrill has been gone" for me, about which I feel the need to keep quiet, so as not to pester the blog with negativity.

Too many affairs in lieu of plot; too much history-as-tv-spectatorship-of-big-event-serving as prompt/allegory-for-shakeup-of-mad world-and personal catharsis; too little effort to have certain historical subject positions clearly articulate as set of social and political claims. (I think my peak fury was at the mammy figure a couple of episode ago; ok, blacks as trickster/signifying whatever use hyperbolic, iconic, radicalized subaltern performative subjectivity to get over on/rip off whitey as a kind of meme for black power -- why couldn't we have a smart black power character, with all the human dimensions MM can pack in, somehow make a credible black power intervention in the world.) Too much white fear of a black planet (as some said Planet of the Apes in the MLK episode). "The world" still at too great a distance. Too much politics and history evoked but not explicated, functioning by discursive equivalence, and so forth.

All this, and the sense that the show was simply in its post-buzz, post-mastery phase (the far of every show, including the last 2-3 seasons of the sopranos) was limiting my ability to enjoy watching it the way I once did, though I’ve somehow kept on. My wife also agrees that MM is "done" and so even though we watch our inability to enjoy the show has hurt our ability to care about the show in the way we once did.

The turning for me was the feelgood/shot episode (Ted gets Don to get a shot from a doctor) which uses the quasi-realist world of character and plausible plot to have a highly conceptual and almost play (theatre) like premise of "creatives" in search (in vain) for some definitive, ultimate idea to answer a challenge/question from on high (Chevy) that never gets specifically articulated. No surprise, the "revelation" never materializes -- just the ineffable intimation of having cracked some master code of consumer culture, human desire, etc. So I loved the abstractness of it, the deferral of the answer. (Though the mammy bit was in in the same feelgood epsidoe)

With this last episode, I guess my regard is: Dr. Feelgood, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About How MM Butcher History and Enjoy the Show Again

Lauren said...

Thank you very much for these interesting thoughts, Anonymous. I agree that the political episodes stand out awkwardly and hope to say more when it's my turn to blog.

Since you have been reading you probably know that we'd appreciate it if you joined the discussion with some made-up name to preserve your anonymity since we have so many different Anonymous commenters.

I hope you comment again.

lilyagain said...

Thanks for the great analysis. I love to read what those of you who live the life of the mind have to say!

Sadly, I agree with much of what Anonymous wrote. The series feels like it has spread itself too thin and spends too little time in plot and character development and too much time trying to portray what it feels like to be under the influence of some drug or another.

I simply don't care about or feel for the characters the same way I did before. We see so little of Betty and after last episode's coup d'éta at summer camp, anything else will be an anticlimax (ha...pun unintended!). Peggy's break up in the last episode provided only black humor, which although very well done, isn't a substitute for pathos. The writers have opened up interesting potenial in Joan's character but can someone who has been such a blatent sex symbol make the transition from the stereotypical handmaiden whose only option was to sleep herself to the top into a viable professional career woman? And finally, Don is becoming less sypathetic with each episode. I think many of us are just curious to see if he finally hits the pavement or will somehow continue to miraculousle end up on his office couch, calmly smoking his cigarette.

If the series is true to life, the '50's 3 martini lunch types will be pushed aside by the MBA types over the next few years as the baby boomers come of age big time. But would a slow fade to the oblivion of the side lines be as satisfying as seeing that free fall extend to its logical conclusion? I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

The wait is certainly richer with Kritik at my side!

Lauren said...

Thanks so much for these comments lilyagain. I hope that you will comment on the other posts in the series.

Since I will blog on the last episode I am holding some of my thoughts on these subjects in reserve but I do appreciate your comments on how the show has changed very much--they very insightful.

Lauren said...

They ARE very insightful!

frank said...

Could it be that after all the meta criticism of Mad Men (i.e. the Dick Whitman/Don Draper story), that the whole series boils down to the most basic strains of American storytelling: the Horatio Alger legend.
Think of Whitman/Draper pulling himself up by the proverbial bootstraps. Over coming poverty, horrible upbringing and a terrible socially unexceptable name? Tradionally the Don Drapers' are the ones' most likely to think outside the box. The repressed and marginalized become the ones with the creative force.
As for Ginsberg, he said he was related to Allen, 'I've seen the best minds of my generation…..etc. And further back to Williams, 'The pure products of America go crazy. Which should apply to Whitman/Draper, only he's the STAR of the show so will likely escape this fate.

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