Across the Great Divide- The Political Becomes Personal in Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Ten

by sweatermanifesto


The anti-war demonstrations at the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968 form the backdrop for more intimate albeit less physically dangerous conflicts among the Mad Men cast.  The conflict between the demonstrators and Chicago police are mirrored in numerous ways throughout the episode- doves versus hawks, baby boomers versus the Greatest Generation, Democrats versus Republicans, intense New Yorkers versus laid back Los Angelinos, and closer to home, Joan versus Pete, who sees Joan’s involvement in cultivating a relationship with the new marketing director at Avon as yet another encroachment on his turf and diminution of his role at the firm.

The demonstrations and subsequent physical confrontation in Chicago—later termed a “police riot” in the Walker Commission report– is an allegory for the internal conflicts- both personal and political, happening at the merged advertising firm that at the beginning of the episode is still searching for an identity and struggling to migrate from an “us versus them” to a “we” mentality.  The opening scene at the office is almost a tutorial on the need for merger integration and branding expertise, with Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin, continuing to impress) noting that if the firm doesn’t define itself,  “the world will do it for us”.

While the John Slattery-helmed episode is called “A Tale of Two Cities”, reflecting yet another sensual and surreal Don Draper excursion into the foreign country known as the West Coast, it is really a tale of two agencies- the successful one being run by Ted Chaough and an increasingly Machiavellian Cutler versus the fraying-at-the-edges one being at least nominally helmed by a distracted Don Draper and his own Silver Fox sidekick (more silver but perhaps less sly), Roger Sterling.   The divide becomes so pronounced that Ted needs to rein in his older, affronted partner from keeping him from staging a palace coup while Don, Roger and Harry are on the West Coast.   By the end, however, the one consensus builder in the group, Ted Chaough, lands on an elegant solution to the firm’s identity (Sterling Cooper and Partners, which eliminates both he and Don from the firm’s business cards), while demonstrating once again that he’s the one partner capable and wiling to play the long game.

Unless you’re a big Betty and Henry fan (come on, admit it–you’re not), this episode had something for everyone- an increasingly assertive yet still-enigmatic Bob Benson, who provides a Tony Robbins-style pep talk for an internally-riven Michael Ginsberg, the volatile young copywriter experiencing near-paralysis at his guilt over participating in a presentation at Manischewitz; an all-female team (Joan and Peggy) pitching the firm over a business breakfast (ironically to the male marketing director of Avon); a beautifully realized moment where Joan, at home at night folding baby clothes, realizes what she’s looking at on television and is moved to tears, contemplating the world gone mad that her son may be inheriting; and  a brilliantly shot scene where Don and Megan on the phone are watching the riots at the same time across the continent, commiserating with each other while each tells the other exactly what they need to hear (an interesting counterpoint to the Bobby Kennedy assassination scene two episodes back, where the Drapers were physically together but worlds apart).

But the scene that I’m sure will be burning up the blogosphere over the next week are not any of those, as well developed as they were.   And, no, it’s not the great final scene where a stressed-out, outraged Pete, his protests about Joanie’s behavior deflected by first Ted and then Don, retreats to the creatives’ inner sanctum, snatches a joint from Stan’s lips and, surrendering to the “que sera” vibe around him, begins to toke up.  (Whether the joint will lead to Pete’s growing a beard to accompany those long sideburns, or at least mellows him out enough to stop considering any meeting called without him a personal affront, will no doubt garner some speculation.)

What is going to make the biggest impact, however, is the ominous, foreboding climax of the great set of scenes in LA, when Don, once again under the influence of mind-altering drugs (hashish the drug of choice in this case) hallucinates the presence of Megan–her long, flowing raven hair parted in the middle and looking mind-bendingly beautiful as a flower child–who just happens to catch Don in mid-seduction with a spaced out blonde.   Megan tells Don that she’s quit her job to devote more time to him, and has no problem sharing him with the rest of the female population, because, let’s face it, we’re in LA.  Then beatifically smiling at him, she rubs her belly, signifying that she’s pregnant, telling him that they now have a “second chance”- perhaps referring to the miscarriage from earlier in the season, or the opportunity to recommit to each other and save their tottering marriage.   Don follows her to the bar, where Megan disappears.  In her place is the GI from the first episode who was shipping off to Vietnam after marrying in Hawaii.   His right arm has been amputated and he tells Don that he’s dead, and that if Don thinks the GI looks bad as a dead man, he should take a look at himself.    Then, we cut away to Don at the pool, looking in the water at his own floating, lifeless body, when none other than Roger dives into the water, retrieves him and brings him back to life.

For those who are buying into the premise that rather than All My Children’s femme fatale Erica Kane, Megan’s character is actually modeled after Sharon Tate, the ingénue actress and star of Valley of the Dolls who was brutally murdered at husband Roman Polanski’s home in Benedict Canyon almost exactly one year later (while pregnant with Polanski’s child) by the Charles Manson family, this scene is your “tell.”  Polanski urged Tate to live a hippie lifestyle, and her motto was said to be “live and let live”, which would explain why Megan was so copacetic about finding Don in a clinch with another woman.   Also, a lot of strange people evidently kept coming in and out of the Benedict Canyon mansion, in much the same way that strangers and former lovers- real and imagined- seem to find their way into the unlocked Draper flat.

For others who have believed that Don’s steady personality disintegration and obsession with death this season would lead to his own, there’s ample evidence of that, as well.  But one thing is for certain- there is nothing the least bit benign about this scene, and unless Matt Weiner is just messing with our heads, something disquieting this way comes.   Don had also imagined seeing Betty in his first trip to the Coast, but that was for just a moment, and his reverie was interrupted by his encounter with the appropriately named Joy.   This time, there is something so spooky and off-kilter about his conjuring up of Megan- and the juxtaposition of Megan’s appearance with the dead soldier–that the scene has the unmistakable air of tragedy wafting over it.    Remember Megan’s horror earlier in the episode while watching the Chicago riots- at one point, she says, “all it takes is for one blow to the skull to land to change your life forever.”   Keep in mind that, like the kid in “The Sixth Sense”, Don does see dead people- Anna Draper and Adam Whitman have appeared to him in other altered states.  Are we to believe that the young GI has been a casualty of war, and if so, what are we to think of Megan’s appearance, or of Don himself, face down in a California swimming pool?

One plot line that lives on is Joan’s continuing sense of guilt for sleeping her way to her partnership, and her continuing attempts to show that she’s more than a coolly efficient administrator and truly deserving of her partnership status.    Joanie cuts Pete out of a follow up meeting with the Avon exec, after a typically condescending Pete tells her in essence that she shouldn’t worry her pretty little head (and killer body) over the next steps with the client- that he has things under control and she can get back to her real job.    Christina Hendricks, always exceptional, may have done her best work yet in this episode, especially in the penultimate scene in the show, where we see her famous self-control begin to slip while sitting with perfect posture and hands clasped in front of Ted and Pete as they tear into her- then struggling to reassert her sense of poise when Peggy figures out how to get her out of the room.   Peggy invented a ruse to save Joan- a fictitious phone call from the Avon client- that reaffirms the somewhat frayed bond between the two women.   Both earlier had seen the other as having received favored treatment from powerful men as a means of succeeding, and their resentments flared.    For a moment, at least their conflict receded a bit in a show of female solidarity.   We can’t say the same for the other agency principals- or the country, for that matter.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller


Writer’s Note: This episode was the most overtly political of the show’s entire run, and featured a truly searing confrontation between Air Force Veteran Jim Cutler and Michael Ginsberg over the war- the older man calling the younger one a hypocrite for taking a salary for working on Dow Chemical, and the younger man calling Cutler a fascist who only cares about business- all in response to Ginsberg’s frustration over the Democrats not putting a peace plank in their convention platform.   While much of Hollywood, including Weiner, veers to the left- and some of this is baked in the creative cake of much movie and TV fare– I find Mad Men to be remarkably even keeled and intellectually honest about the politics of the day and the grievances and fears that divided the country.   Other than one gratuitous swipe last year (when Henry Francis calls George Romney- Mitt’s father- a “lightweight”, clearly meant as a commentary on the younger Romney), Weiner tends to show a more morally and politically complicated world.  For example, while Cutler can be unlikeable, it’s more about his manipulative and egocentric nature, rather than his politics. (In fact, we don’t really know what his politics are—only that he wants to keep them out of the office, which is actually a very good idea).  While the Carnation executive is somewhat of a cartoon cut out of a conservative, with his fear of the Bolsheviks being at the gate and his admiration of “Dutch” Reagan, some of the more annoying characters over the years have been committed leftists like Abe and Roy (Midge’s beatnik boyfriend from Season One whose shallow, formulaic indictments of the ad business Don swats away like flies).    I think Weiner knows that Mad Men fans cut across the political spectrum and is one activity that may truly be considered bi-partisan.