Monday, June 3, 2013

Mad Men Season 6, Episode 10, “A Tale of Two Cities”

This week’s episode is titled “A Tale of Two Cities,” and revolutionary motifs and themes ripple throughout the episode, which takes place in the midst of the riots during the 1968 democratic convention in Chicago. Various plot threads explore the conflicts and contrasts between the older generation of hard line conservatives and the politically active American youth culture, and the way in which the Mad Men’s characters navigate this “revolutionary” divide.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the machinations taking place at the newly-named Sterling Cooper & Partners. The name is an eloquent solution to the company’s name problem, even if Ted and Jim Cutler compromise on it only to distract the rest of the partners from how the two of them are subverting the rest of the partners’ importance. Don and Roger strike out three times in Los Angeles, while Ted and Jim subtly shift people with dubious loyalty (like Bob Benson) to the important accounts. Pete’s the only one to correctly recognize what’s happening, but when he tries to tell Don
about it near the episode’s end, Don doesn’t listen, because Pete’s anxiety over his position at the company throughout the season has turned him into the boy who cried wolf. Picking up the revolutionary theme, Pete calls the company's new name “a consolation prize, a gravestone to our resistance.” It certainly seems like a gravestone for Pete’s resistance. After storming out Don’s office, he walks into the creative lounge, bogarts Stan’s joint, inhales, and exhales in slow motion to the tune of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.”

We can see more “revolutionary” clashes elsewhere in the episode, as when Don, Roger, and Harry must contort themselves in order to do business on their trip to Los Angeles. In the Carnation board room, the three run up against hard line conservatism, and then encounter drug-fueled liberalism at a party afterwards, where Harry and Roger hope to network. They fare poorly in both cases. Casual political conversation sets the Carnation meeting off on the wrong foot, and drugs and smart-talk at the party lead to Don nearly drowning in a pool and Roger getting punched in the groin.

Don even needs to navigate the culture clash in his personal life. Megan and Don begin the episode in a slightly healthier place than at the end of last episode, as they are now at a point where they can joke about their marital difficulties: Megan chides Don that the last time she was in California she made the biggest mistake of her life (accepting his marriage proposal), and Don jests that he hates actresses. Doubtless these sentiments contain a degree of truth, and despite their joking about it, their differences remain significant. Megan calls Don in his hotel room while they both watch footage of the riots in Chicago, and Megan expresses sympathy for the protestors, asking, “Can you imagine a policeman cracking your skull?” Don however, seems to sympathize more with the policemen, replying, “Honey, they’re throwing rocks. They prepared for trouble.”

Some of the characters are more successful at slaloming the cultural revolution than others. Back in New York, the events of the democratic convention prompt Michael to have an extreme crisis of conscience: he flies into a rage when Jim Cutler dismisses Michael’s politics, a rage which Cutler exacerbates further by reminding Michael that Dow Chemical and General Motors signs Michael’s checks. For Michael, Cutler represents everything that’s wrong with the establishment, and it galls Michael that he too is complicit in it. Later, he’s on the edge of hysterics; Cutler has pushed the right (or wrong) buttons, throwing Michael into a pit of self-loathing and despair. Bob Benson, of all people, tries to pull Michael out of it, even though Bob seems -- on the surface -- as representative of “the man” and “the system” as is possible (more on this below). Benson reasons with Michael by putting his Manischewitz pitch in perspective, hammering home the idea that Manischewitz is not a part of the problems in the world. Obviously, he’s never tried their wine.*

* This scene also provides a piece of the puzzle that is Bob Benson: Michael asks Bob to tell him truthfully whether or not Bob is gay, and Bob laughs it off. 

However, perhaps the most revolutionary events concern Joan, as this week’s episode has Joan and Peggy working together to outmaneuver the male executives at SC&P to nab Avon. It’s the kind of story I’ve long wanted to see – the show’s two most sympathetic characters working together toward a common goal – but one that hasn’t been possible until this season, given these characters’ histories. Previously, they have always been in separate or conflicting orbits: In the first few seasons, Joan was committed to presiding over the secretary pool, and she and Peggy often clashed over Peggy’s desire to become a copywriter, a desire which was unfathomable to Joan. And once Peggy became firmly ensconced as Don’s protégé, the two simply didn’t have much cause to come into contact, except over matters of office sexism, an issue toward which they each took different, clashing approaches in season 4. They refer to this history themselves when they fight later in the episode. Peggy asks if Joan is trying to intimidate her, and Joan replies sarcastically, “No, that’s always been impossible because that would require respect for me or what I do.”

However, this season, Joan’s newfound interest in becoming more than just an in-name-only partner has apparently led her to reconsider Peggy’s upward mobility, as Peggy is the first person she turns to for help with Avon. It’s a move that makes sense: this is uncharted water for Joan, and Peggy is the only other woman with any power at the firm, but also is not in accounts so she won’t try to poach the client. Peggy is excited by Joan’s interest in business as well, and is very sympathetic to Joan’s desire to handle the client herself, as we can see when she takes Joan to tell Ted about the news. However, approaching Ted proves to be a miscalculation, as Ted immediately calls for Pete, who then dismissively insists – despite Peggy and Joan’s protests – that Joan fade into the background while he and Peggy take over the account. Joan wilts, and Peggy flashes Joan two sympathetic, guilty frowns as she follows after Pete.

Time for insurrection! Joan schedules a meeting with Avon for her and Peggy without telling Pete, and when she tells Peggy what she’s done, Peggy is both livid and horrified, responding, “You can’t do that!” It’s an interesting reaction from Peggy, considering how many barriers she has broken through herself, and considering their sometimes contentious relationship. Their differing approaches to how to get ahead at Sterling Cooper have always been a source of conflict from the very start of the show, and this episode continues that tradition in the next scene, when the two get into a heated argument over Joan’s quiet rebellion. It’s by far the most rewarding scene of the episode, as it calls upon the long history these two have together. Peggy insists this will go badly for Joan because she’s not in accounts, and Joan tells Peggy that Joan was never so discouraging when Peggy started writing copy. Peggy calls her on her bullshit while simultaneously being sympathetic to her: “Yes you did. Every day. And it was worse because you made me feel like I couldn’t do it. I know you can do this.”

It’s an extremely complex response, one conditioned by Peggy’s anger over Joan’s treatment of her in the past and tricking her in the present, but one also laced with sympathy for Joan’s attempts to break out of the confining box into which all the men in the office have placed her. Peggy can see past what others think of Joan, and acknowledges her great talent and resourcefulness (after all, Peggy knows what it’s like to be undervalued simply because she’s a woman), but at the same time, she’s still upset that Joan is breaking rules to get ahead. Joan is adamant, however, that this is the only way she can break into accounts.

In the end, Joan is mostly right, and Peggy realizes it while eavesdropping on the confrontation between Joan, Ted, and Pete. Joan has no reply for when Ted pointedly asks Joan if she tried to squeeze out Pete (apparently mindful of the evening’s theme, Pete yells, “It’s a revolt!”), and in a heartwarming display of solidarity, Peggy bails out Joan by having Meredith interrupt the confrontation with a fake phone call from Avon . Upon hearing the news, Ted looks at Joan and tells her to take the call. For better or worse, this is Joan’s client now. So, Joan was right about her needing to have the relationship with client, but wrong about having to do it by herself: she now has Peggy as an ally. Like Peggy, I certainly hope that Avon calls back, because Joan and Peggy are always a fruitful pairing.

Other thoughts:

- I like how they keep threading Pete’s anxiety about his place in the new firm through so many of these episodes. As this week’s episode shows, he’s absolutely right to be concerned, but he can’t help being as petulant as possible over it. When Ted calls Pete in to handle Avon and states that he’s head of new business, Pete pouts, “Since when? I don’t want that!” Considering how adept he was at bringing in new business in seasons 4 and 5, this is absolutely the perfect title for him. His petulance here is more a product of another decision seeming to have been made without him, rather than the news itself. Once he gets over the authoritarianism with which he learns of his new title, he’s actually intrigued by the potential whale client.

- Joan is in date-mode until the Avon representative starts talking business, at which point she realizes that she’s the one who needs to win him over, rather than vice versa, which must be a first for her. This exchange also offers a couple of other interesting details: Joan is definitely not dating the probably gay Bob Benson, and Joan’s priorities and past experiences are leading her to look for very particular qualities in potential mates. It would appear she’s no longer interested in dating young and handsome men, but instead is looking for successful businessmen. While the latter has always been her goal (to a certain degree), her experience with Greg, and her attempts to navigate the world of corporate executives have perhaps made her more interested in the latter.

- Great work from both Elisabeth Moss and Christina Hendricks in this episode. In the scene where Joan and Peggy meet with Avon, I enjoyed how Peggy keeps casting furtive glances at Joan, as well as how her behavior is somewhat uncooperative. When Joan doesn’t know what to say next, Peggy makes Joan plead for Peggy to contribute to the pitch.

- Another excellent touch: when Joan and Peggy begin to argue outside the Sterling Cooper elevators, Jim Cutler exits from another elevator and says hello. Joan and Peggy’s anger suddenly evaporates, and they say hello back in their sweetest, most deferential voices before they return to their argument. It was an excellent moment of solidarity and professionalism; they might be fighting, but they’ll be damned if they’ll let Jim Cutler know about it.

- When Don asks Roger if he prepared at all for the three client meetings they have scheduled in Los Angeles, Roger lists the first two and then refers to the third as the “avocado people.” Roger’s lack of preparation is partly at fault for the disaster at Carnation – had he researched the CEO’s politics, he would have known to stay away from the topic. Instead, he opens with it.

- This week provided evidence both for and against the hypothesis that Bob Benson is a sociopath. On the one hand, he listens to motivational speakers; on the other hand, he also talks Michael off a ledge, and is probably gay, which in 1960s corporate culture would be enough to push any closeted homosexual toward seemingly sociopathic behavior (just recall our last glimpse of poor Sal, who seemed on the verge of mania).

- More evidence that Michael is a bit touched as well – during his breakdown he calls back to an earlier conversation from last season where he described himself as an alien who receives transmissions in his head.

- Given that Mad Men just did an entire (largely disappointing) episode about Don on speed, I wasn’t too keen on Don going on another drug trip again here, although it did provide a chilling exchange between Don and the ghost of the soldier he met at the Hawaiian bar in the season premiere. Don wonders why the soldier is missing an arm if he’s dead, and the soldier replies, “Dying doesn’t make you whole. You should see what you look like.” Given Don’s behavior this season, I doubt it’s pretty. Also, if we’re to trust this drug trip, apparently Megan is pregnant again. More fuel for the Sharon Tate theorists.

- Don and Roger couldn’t look more out of place at the party. Don’s the only person there wearing a tie.

- Meredith’s blithering idiocy continues to delight. When Joan asks Meredith why Pete wants to see her, Meredith tries to divert a potential scolding by replying that it’s because a package arrived from Avon and that another secretary opened it, not her. Later, as Peggy eavesdrops on the tensest part of the confrontation in the board room, Meredith bursts into Joan’s office to ask Peggy if the color of lipstick she’s wearing looks good on her. I can just imagine Peggy drilling Meredith to read exactly what she’s written on the memo pad when she sends Meredith to interrupt the meeting.

- I like that Roger can relate to Lotus once he finds out she’s tripping acid. I also like that Roger apparently dove into the pool to save Don. Best friends forever.

- Some fun California bashing: Upon spotting Don kissing the party’s hostess, Drug-trip Megan says, “It’s cool. It’s California. Everybody shares.”

- Ted thinks Joan’s lead on Avon is “Very groovy.” Apparently this is Ted's favorite adjective.

UPDATE: Tom and Lorenzo have an number of  excellent observations about this week's episode as well. I particularly liked their assessment of all of the things Joan does poorly in her first stint as an accounts woman, as well as their pointing out how pissed Peggy is about Joan's sleeping her way into a partnership.

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