Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Nuclear Option

As usual, the Mad Men writers threw in a huge clue as to what the motif for Episode 11, "The Jet Set," was going to be during the very first scene. We find Roger and Jane sharing a bed in the swanky Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Jane is writing a poem about Roger that concludes: "You make me new with laughter. You make me old with wisdom.” After upwardly correcting Jane about the difference in their ages, Roger comments that he regrets their relationship has had the effect of making her “older.” She breathily replies that their souls are the same age. Chomping at the bit, Roger responds by proposing marriage. It’s unclear exactly when this conversation occurred because Jane’s reaction after the final scene in Don’s office with Mona and Roger from “Six Month Leave,” would seem to indicate that she knew about Roger’s intentions.

In any event, Jane accepts the proposal and remarks how the experience is like a “mushroom” induced dream from which she expects to abruptly wake up.

Both the mushroom and dream references seem to invoke imagery from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a story that itself turns out to be a dream the title character has while sleeping next to a river bank. In Chapter 5, “Advice from a Caterpillar,” Alice is asked by a hookah smoking Caterpillar sitting on a mushroom who she is. Alice replies, “I--I hardly know, sir, just at present-- at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” This answer is a longer version of the same one that Don Draper will give when similarly questioned later.

The Caterpillar has Alice recite "You are old, Father William,” which contains the verse:

You are old, Father William,' the young man said,
And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head
Do you think, at your age, it is right?
Alice ends up eating some of the mushroom and grows to immense size. This tracks with the hotel room discussion regarding Jane growing older emotionally to catch up with Roger. The scene also foreshadows a similar dream-like relationship that is paralleled in Don’s storyline involving a different “Father William.” In addition to Alice in Wonderland, "The Jet Set" also makes a pointed reference to The Sound and The Fury, written by another “William,” William Faulkner.

The SC creative team, sans Don who’s in California with Pete for an aeronautics convention, lack focus as it meets to ostensibly discuss the Right Guard account. Ken cites statistics on Right Guard users (90 percent engage in sports) while the still closeted Sal, reading a copy of Playboy, chats about the previous night’s episode of Loretta Young with Harry. Taking charge, Peggy adjourns the meeting by stating that the Right Guard approach, “men being men,” is fine until the deodorant manufacturer decides to market a women’s product. On their way out of the conference room, Kurt, one of the two new creative guys (Smitty being the other) asks Peggy to join him for a Bob Dylan concert in Greenwich Village.

We first see Don and Pete by the hotel pool in California. The airline has misplaced Don’s luggage. This reintroduces the metaphor started in “Six Month Leave” comparing one’s life to a suitcase. From that standpoint, Don’s luggage being lost has both real and symbolic meaning. Pete clearly wants to goof off in the pool. But Don sternly tells him that there will be no swimming this trip (a pledge he himself will break). Don is reminded of his marital woes when he later sees what like looks like Betty sitting at a bar with a brunette (continuing the “Jackie/Marilyn” construct from “Six Month Leave"). It becomes clear, however, that the blond only resembles Betty after both women get up to leave. Interestingly, in a few key shots, the illusion is maintained by having January Jones, the real Betty, play her own “look-alike.”

It’s after this eerie encounter that Don is approached by a well-heeled sophisticate named Willy (the same name from the Alice in Wonderland verse) who asks Don if he's an actor or an astronaut. This turns out to be a ruse by the white haired gentleman (whose also has the title of "count") to introduce Don to a younger woman who will later play Jane to his Roger Sterling. She is not so subtly named “Joy.” After initially declining their invitation to dinner, Don, who orders an “old fashioned,” joins Pete at the bar where the junior executive begins to drone on about scientifically engineering man for space flight. This corresponds to Alice’s experience in Wonderland with the shape-shifting effects of the mushroom and a later attempt by a “jet setter” to inject Don with something after he passes out by their pool.

Back in New York, Roger has a distressing discussion with a lawyer about his upcoming divorce and impending marriage. Not soon after, Duck enters his office with a different proposal for Roger to consider. Duck thinks it’s time for him to be made a partner at SC. Roger questions Duck’s actual contributions to the firm and suggests that until he shows more profitable results, such a marriage is impossible.

Mad Men correctly shows how the space program’s altruistic goal to “land a man on the moon,” was inexorably tied to the nuclear arms race. At the aeronautics convention, Pete and Don attend a presentation by a firm that markets “multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles” (MIRVs). Launched from a single rocket, the MIRV releases a number of warheads that can strike several different targets. The slideshow includes a map of the USSR that depicts a number of cities being struck by a MIRV launch. Don's eyes glaze over as he focuses in on an image of a MIRV rocketing upward. It’s at this point where I’d argue that the rest of his encounter with the "jet setters" actually occurs in his mind. After the presentation, Don runs into Joy and, with a little coaxing, impulsively drives away with her to Palm Springs leaving Pete to fend for himself. She’s wearing a scarf with feathers that further suggests the idea of flight.

The pair end up at the swanky house of one of Joy’s friends. As they enter, Don is carrying Joy’s luggage. Returning to what suitcases stand for in Mad Men's universe, this suggests that Don is trying out Joy's lifestyle. Of her European friends, Joy tells Don that they’re "nomads" who, for tax reasons, are constantly on the move. It may be more than coincidence that in the late fifties and early sixties one of early liquid fueled rockets was named “Nomad.” I would argue that a deliberate comparison is being made between these "jet setters" and the MIRV jet propelled device which had mesmerised Don earlier. For example, Willy carries the title of "count" (countdown?) while his lady friend is named Rocci (rocket?).

Memories of Tony Soprano's spells come to mind when Don faints from heat exhaustion while talking to Joy by the pool. Reinforcing the notion that this is part of an elaborate daydream, the shot that follows Don's fall to the ground is angled in a manner that makes him appear to still be upright. This is also reminiscent of Mad Men's opening credits image showing a falling man whose turns out to be sitting on a couch. Don wakes up with a crowd around him. As mentioned earlier, a doctor named Klaus attempts to give Don an injection which he refuses. Thematically, this suggests that Don is not ready to be "reeingineered."

At dinner, Mexican food is served. While Don’s implausible claim to never have eaten Mexican food before is intended to set him up as an outsider, it’s clear that he has an affinity for these people. One of the dinner guests complains that she’d rather eat French cuisine because of a distaste for pig. This almost certainly refers to Don’s younger self as presented in “The Inheritance” who informs Betty that he “hates ham.” Conversely, at another point in the conversation, there’s a reference to the fact that, except for Don, the men in at the table don’t conform to Right Guard’s target audience of 90 percent who engage in sports.

The group is definitely fascinated by Don. It’s jokingly suggested that they thought he was a spy until a search of his wallet proved he was in advertising. Don laughs and replies with an irony that only he'd appreciate that his wallet may only prove him to be a good spy. This exchange struck me as a subtle homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. In that film, another ad man with an identity crisis, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), is mistaken for a spy named George Kaplan. As a result, he's kidnapped by enemy agents James Mason and Martin Landau. Trying to save his life by showing that he really isn’t Kaplan, Thornhill takes out his wallet and points to various pieces of identification. Unconvinced, Landau dismisses the documents and coyly replies that “they provide you with such good ones.” Indeed, much of the Palm Springs sequence and Don’s encounter with the nomads has a James Bond feel about it. Don is a well dressed intruder who's style and charm captivates his otherwise antisocial hosts.

The use of the MIRV imagery as a symbolic represention of the well to do jet setters noted above is further developed when they play a game called “places.” The point of the game is for each player to in turn quickly name a world city that starts with the last letter of a city named by the previous player. The list they shout out harkens back to the map of USSR targets that Don saw during the MIRV presentation. In fact, Odessa is both named during the game and visible on the MIRV slideshow map.

At SC, while Joan, Harry, Ken, Sal, Smitty, Kurt and Sal enjoy a delivery of doughnuts from a new client, Kurt reminds Peggy of their “date.” After some ribbing from the group, Kurt clarifies that he is a “homosexual.” This revelation surprises everyone. Especially Peggy in a classic double take. The team chuckles at the thought of Peggy in Greenwich Village amongst the “lions, and tigers, and bears,” invoking another “dream” story, The Wizard of Oz. This leads to a round of "homo" jokes, which, by locker room standards, is pretty tame, but nonetheless cut deeply into Sal. Bryan Batt's expression perfectly conveys his inner turmoil as the gay remarks are bandied about.

Duck has a lunch with two acquaintances from a British ad agency to inquire about possible job opportunities. The meeting isn’t going very well until Duck falls off the wagon and has a drink. Like Bryan Batt, the look of internal struggle that's visible on Duck’s face as he contemplates the cocktail glass is well portrayed by Mark Moses. The martini seems to get Duck back on his game and he proposes that the British firm should take over SC to get a foot in the door of the U.S. market. Duck points out that SC, rich in clients, is ripe for the taking. All they’d have to do is “change the welcome mat.” For brokering the deal, Duck wants a finder’s fee, the title of “President,” and having “creative” report to him. The meeting concludes with a toast to “old friends,” which has a dual meaning for Duck who’s dry spell has just ended.

In a scene that echoes the first one between Roger and Jane, Don, still in Palm Springs, awakes to find Joy reading William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The novel, set just after the Civil War, follows the sufferings of a wealthy Southern family that can’t cope with the new moral order that replaces their once familiar world. Willy walks in on them. This is unusual enough for Don. But his discomfort is increased when it’s revealed that Willy is Joy’s father. Again, note the connection to the poem “Father William” recited in the mushroom scene from Alice in Wonderland.

Later, showing none of the self-confidence about men displayed at the Right Guard meeting, Peggy confides to Kurt that, like Judy Garland, her Wizard of Oz counterpart, she always seems to pick the wrong “boy.” Kurt feels that it’s a matter of style and offers to “fix” her. He starts the makeover by proceeding to cut off Peggy’s pigtail.

That night, in the pool, Joy makes Don an incredible offer. She and her father, who unlike Betty’s dad, likes him very much, will “take care” of Don by letting him into their exotic world of wealth, privilege, tuxedos, and dropping in on cities at a moment's notice. Joy sweetens the deal by suggesting that she won’t require Don’s fidelity (also unlike Betty). Don seems almost sold until another member of the group, Christian, who, like the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, arrives late. With him are his children from a recently dissolved marriage. The sight of Christian and the children, along with the discussion of Christian's divorce proceedings, seem to remind Don of his own real situation and starts to snap him out of his dream. Referring to Don’s earlier drink choice, there might also be an element of "old fashioned" religious guilt involved by naming the late arriving parent “Christian.” Don's contemplation of his glass at the end of the scene reminded me of a similar moment from Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger where Bond likewise evaluates the pros and cons of his chosen lifestyle over a drink in the opening chapter titled “Reflections In A Double Bourbon.”

The very next scene, in fact, the very next line of dialogue, has Joan entering Duck’s office and, referring to his secretary (whose also named Joy), saying with multiple meanings that “Joy seems to have stepped away.”

Duck, clearly drinking again, pops a Certs in his mouth before approaching Roger and Bert Cooper about the proposed buyout. Duck, not repeating his remark about changing the welcome mats, frames it as a merger, NOT a takeover to the very receptive owners.

In another meeting room, Pete joins the gang as they watch a TV news report of civil unrest in Mississippi. This, incidentally, is where Paul Kinsey went with his girlfriend to register African American voters. The SC staff seem blissfully unaware of the fact that the world inside and out of their office is changing. Pete has brought with him a bag of oranges from California, which, as established in the Godfather films, conveys a sense of doom.

For the last time in this episode, Don wakes up. As with Alice, there's a body of water nearby. However, neither Joy nor the other jet setters are anywhere in sight. Don makes a phone call to someone from his previous life as Dick Whitman. After identifying himself as Whitman, he sets up a meeting. Don/Dick literally and figuratively borrows a page from The Sound and The Fury when he tears out the last page of that book to write down the address of the person he plans to visit.

The final page of The Sound and the Fury describes how one of the main characters, revolting against a world that, for him, has been turned on its ear, is calmed down by the illusion of a perceived return to normality. The last shot of "The Jet Set" shot shows Don’s suitcase being left at his front door. He is not there with it nor does Betty open the door to take it in.

Don/Dick's next journey would seem an attempt on his part to return to normality. However, unlike the title of the Faulkner book, and, with apologies to yet another William, William Shakespeare, from whose Macbeth that book's title is taken, this journey may signify a great deal.

2 comments:

drake lelane said...

Interesting interpretations... the Alice in Wonderland references were very visceral, and I'd forgotten about the North by Northwest moment until reading your post... I'd also add there's a nice nod to Fellini's La Dolce Vita, or maybe Antonioni’s L’Avventura, which Don's movie tastes this season (La notte) suggests he's watching the proceedings unveil like a movie he's watching.

Not sure how intentional it is or not (to be sure, Weiner's usually very intentional with these things, though,) the edition of The Sound and the Fury that we see Don ripping the page out of had an appendix f that ended the book, an edition which Faulkner rewrote the ending for. The appendix lists every character, explaining what happened to them. After the final character is named, it says "They endured." Below that line, Don writes the address (which looks like "1604 N. Station Pl"

Also worth noting, Faulkner's death was was just a couple months prior to the time of this episode, making him more of the moment. Add to that the parallels between Don's fish-out-of-water trip and Faulkner's time in Hollywood, and there's a nice marriage to this pop cultural reference.

Matt Maul said...

Good stuff. Sounds like Faulkner put a happier twist on the edition you refer to. Interesting.

BTW, I replayed the episode from Comcast's "OnDemand" so I could freeze it to take note of the cities on the MIRV map and see what address Don wrote down.

My TV sucks, so I couldn't quite read either. But, I felt like one of those Lost fans who scrutinizes every frame looking for clues. :)