Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Trouble At Home (Mad Men 3.03)

As established in Episode 3.02, “Love Among the Ruins,” there are two competing worldviews depicted in Mad Men’s universe. One uses long established societal institutions such as family and marriage to enforce a rigid system of individual roles assigned according to demographic factors (gender, income, race). The other is an emerging social doctrine that is at odds with the aforementioned societal institutions and stresses a more open, flexible and organic method of self determination. While Don Draper certainly has his share of demons to contend with, the cultural shift itself generally impacts more bluntly on MM’s three main women characters (Betty, Peggy and Joan) who struggle to find their place in a world where the definition of female gender identity has become increasingly unclear.

Twice in MM’s third S3 episode, “My Old Kentucky Home” Sally Draper reads from Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” to her grandfather Gene. These scenes form bookends for an episode that pointedly depicts other elements of 1960’s society as also being in a state of flux. While MM has always highlighted anachronistic mores, MOKH starts to turn the focus a bit more directly on the state of race relations and class distinctions in America during that decade. The episode also explores the nature of marriage and its correlation to personal satisfaction.

Near the beginning of MOKH, Sally reads this passage from Gibbon's book:

"The warmth of the climate disposed the natives to the most intemperate enjoyment of tranquility and opulence; and the lively licentiousness of the Greeks was blended with the hereditary softness of the Syrians. Fashion was the only law, pleasure the only pursuit, and the splendor of dress and furniture was the only distinction of the citizens of Antioch."
Near the end of the episode she finishes with this:

"...the rustic manners of a prince who disdained such glory, and was insensible of such happiness, soon disgusted the delicacy of his subjects; and the effeminate Orientals could neither imitate nor admire the severe simplicity which Julian always maintained and sometimes affected."
Here Gibbon describes strained relations between Roman Emperor Julian and the citizens of Antioch resulting from the fact that his “rustic manors” were at odds with the population’s reverence for opulence and hedonistic pursuits. Julian unsuccessfully tried to stem what he viewed as a tide of negative social change that was engulfing Rome. The first passage leads Gene, MM’s personification of the waning post-WW2 era mores, to predict that “all hell” will break loose. He also pointedly characterizes Don’s world as “Babylon” (another conquered empire).

The first scene opens at Sterling Cooper where an audition for a suitable Ann-Margret look-a-like to perform in the Patio television ads is taking place. As laid out in LaTR, Ann-Margret’s Kim McAfee in "Bye Bye Birdie" represents a old female construct that will soon become obsolete. Present at the audition are Sal, Paul, Peggy, Smitty and Harry. With the notable exception of Peggy and Sal, the SC creative team members are taken with a shapely aspirant clad in a form fitting pink outfit. Peggy, wearing blue (the "uniform" of the currently dominant worldview), seems uncomfortable at the display of female objectification exhibited by her male co-workers. The sexy pink outfit on the would be Ann-Margret will be echoed later in a dinner scene at Joan and Greg’s apartment when it’s revealed that “Code Pink” is the term for a practice engaged in by male hospital staff members who playfully alert each other to the presence of attractive females. Pete and Ken interrupt the audition to inform the creative team that they will have to work over the weekend to generate new ad concepts for the Bacardi rum account.

Jane, the new Mrs. Roger Sterling, and Joan exchange a contentious moment when the former plays up her new found status as the wife of a top executive. That Jane is dressed in an outfit dominated by black squares and makes reference to losing weight (both previously established as symbols for unrequited needs) suggests that despite all of its trappings, her marriage to Roger, at least from her perspective, is not a “happy” one.

At the Draper home, Sally who, in the first two S3 episodes, was dressed in blue is now wearing red (as will Peggy during the “pot party” sequence), tells Gene that she was “walking backwards.” This may be represent Sally’s confusion over how she should function in the world and leading up to her “experiment” with stealing five dollars from Gene’s money clip. When Gene notices that his money is missing, he leaves some not so subtle hints that the Draper’s African American housekeeper, Carla, may be the thief. While the tension between the two never erupts into a full-blown argument, this hints at more explosive confrontations involving race that may take place in subsequent episodes.

Don and Betty assume that, given his current challenged mental state, Gene simply forgot what he did with the money. A news broadcast can be heard on a radio in the background announcing that New York’s attorney general, Frank Hogan, wants to investigate corruption at the State Liquor Association but doesn't have the resources. In 1963, Hogan was attorney general under Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The mention of “liquor” and “corruption” acts as an allegory for the sort of “licentiousness” that troubled an equally helpless Emperor Julian. It also paves the way for a theme examining the nature of marriage through an offhand reference to Nelson Rockefeller that will pop up later during Roger’s party.

A low shot up the side of the skyscraper housing the SC offices leads into the next scene. This vantage point suggests the view one would see if, as depicted in the opening credits, one fell from the building itself. Indeed, Peggy (her head on the desk), Paul and Smitty are at their wit’s end trying to come up with suitable “Rum situations” while at work that Saturday.

Meanwhile, Joan and Greg are getting the apartment ready for an important dinner party that evening. Dr. Ronald Ettinger, the Chief of Surgery, his wife and another couple will be joining them. Joan insists on seating the guest according to rules of etiquette that would place Greg at the head of the table. As with the Art Department at SC, Greg makes it clear that there is a defined class system for the doctors at his hospital. He insists on putting Dr. Ettinger at the head of the table. Joan instead suggests that they serve dinner “buffet style” which is a less formal setting. Joan scolds Greg for yanking the vacuum’s power out of the wall. This foreshadows the revelation that one of Greg’s recently performed medical procedures (a pneumonectomy) had a bad result. In effect, he “pulled the plug” on a patient.

Back at SC, an unmotivated Paul and Smitty decide to call one of Paul’s old Princeton pals, Jeffrey, to bring some marijuana. It’s clear that their experience in that area is somewhat limited and the two are mostly posturing in order to impress the other. One of the euphemisms they employ for marijuana is “mary jane.” On a symbolic level, this is a play on the words “Marry Jane” and relates to Roger and Jane’s recent marriage. Specifically, it suggests that the traditional institution of marriage acts as a sort of narcotic intoxicating those who participate in it. Don would later castigate Roger for Jane’s drunkenness and accuse him of appearing foolish (not “happy”) as a result of his marriage to the young secretary.

Roger is throwing a Kentucky Derby party (setting the date of this episode as May 4, 1963) at his “members only” country club. Shortly after their arrival, Pete points out some high profile clients to Don. This includes a man in a “glen plaid” from DuPont next to another important executive with Pan Am. This is significant and reinforces the comparison of marriage to a drug (or worse, a life ending state). Shelly, the Pan Am stewardess from "Out of Town," was reluctant to have sex with Don because of her fiancé. Furthermore, Paul’s supplier, Jeffrey Graves, also wears a plaid jacket (and his last name connotes death). Thus, Jeffery, the supplier at SC’s pot party, parallels both the “chemical” company (DuPont) and symbol of forced fidelity (Pan Am) at Roger’s Derby party.

The Negro spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” can also be heard in the background. This subtly associates the setting of this upscale gathering with death. The tent in which the gathering takes place is blue (MM's symbolic color for an old construct). Outside of the blue tent is a lush green garden that also was established in LaTR as the motif for the new worldview.

Peggy, as mentioned above, wears red like Sally when she decides to partake of the marijuana. That both engage in illicit acts with green objects seems deliberate. Also, Peggy encounters Olive in the coffee room. Olive (dressed in blue) waters a number of green plants. Olive is, in effect, forced to contend with the signs of change that are randomly growing up around her. Having the SC folks indulge in pot, another form of plant life, is also consistent with this imagery. Under the influence of "mary jane," Peggy feels confident and happy about her future. However, could her "happiness" (as with Roger) be self-delusional?

Back at the club, Roger sings “My Old Kentucky Home” in black face. The original lyrics, as performed by Roger, refer to plantation slaves as “darkies.” On one level this blatant display of racial insensitivity is somewhat disconcerting for a contemporary audience and helps to flesh out the cultural environment of the early 1960s. On another level, Roger’s black face can also be seen as a sort of mask that may be suggesting something about his current psyche. In other words, Roger’s affectation of happiness over his recent marriage may be sincere or a facade for him to hide behind.

Don grows bored with the class-consciousness festivities and wanders around the club into room furnished with a bar. There he finds a kindred spirit in Connie, a man with a similarly modest background. Don climbs over the bar rather than using a side door. This suggests that Don’s ascension into high society has not been through traditional channels ("noveau riche"). Drinking “old fashions” the men share how unwelcome both still feel when finding themselves in upper class settings.

Meanwhile, Betty has a flirtatious encounter with Henry Francis--another guest at the party. She lets him provocatively feel her pregnant belly. Significantly, the baby stops moving when two women dressed in blue bridesmaid outfits walk by. In effect, as with Shelly the stewardess, the specter of marriage intrudes upon a sinfully intimate moment. Henry Francis turns out to be on Governor Rockefeller’s staff. A remark about Rockefeller “marrying Happy” refers to the governor’s actual marriage to a woman named “Happy.” However, continuing the theme of marriage presented in MOKH, it can also be play on words reflecting on his (and Roger's) emotional state ("he married happy"). Rockefeller's marriage adversely affected his presidential bid and allowed for the ascension of Senator Barry Goldwater. Goldwater's candidacy ushered in a new "Conservative" movement and marked an to end the dominance held in the GOP by the type of blue-blooded Republican Roger epitomizes (commonly referred to as a "Rockefeller Republican").

At SC the pot party has rendered the creative team useless. Paul is angered when Jeffrey disparages Paul over his relatively austere background. Under the influence of marijuana, the two men from different social standings reach an accord that culminates in them singing a duet of “Hello My Baby.” Peggy blurts out that she feels “high” in stark contrast to the “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” number played at Roger’s club. Later, a drug inspired Peggy reassures Olive that the change both see coming should be embraced not feared. Likewise, Sally’s returning of the stolen five dollars seems to have a calming effect on Gene. Seemingly resigned to the bleak fate that the future has in store for him, he lets Sally continue to read passages form Gibbon’s book.

At Greg and Joan’s party Mrs. Eddington seems impressed with Joan. The chief surgeon's wife also tries to downplay the glamour associated with being a doctor's wife and chastises one of the women (dressed in blue) for getting pregnant. Trying to find another activity for the group, someone suggests playing charades. Greg comments that Joan is quite good at it. This is a not so subtle reference to the different personas Joan manages to present to the world (sex pot, confident career woman, happily married woman). Greg coerces Joan to sing for them. The mood here is similar to the scene from last season when Greg forced Joan to have sex in one of the SC offices. Playing an accordion and singing “C'est magnifique,” Joan hides her emotions well (not unlike Roger's black face). However, her disdain for Greg at that moment still peaks through and speaks volumes. That, coupled with lyrics (in French) such as “But when one day your loved one drifts away, Oh la la la, It is so TRAGIQUE,” does not bode well for their marriage.

Paul and Smitty now strongly feeling the effects of the pot, ruminate on an uncertain and threatening future. Visible in the background is a framed picture with the Roman numeral for nineteen prominently displayed on it. Showing the Roman numeral is a conscious decision linking the characters here to a fallen empire. This is probably coincidence, but nonetheless noteworthy, that Chapter 19 of “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” contains the following passage on the future emperor of Rome: “The licentiousness and corruption of Antioch recalled to the memory of Julian the severe and simple manners of his beloved Lutetia, where the amusements of the theatre were unknown or despised.” Paul, in a tone similar to Gene’s earlier, exclaims loudly, “This is how it all ends.” Paul’s words spill over a jump cut to a scene at Roger’s party where Pete and Trisha dance the Charleston. The Charleston is an interesting choice for a couple of reasons. The idea of corrupting influences is reinforced because of the fact that the dance gained popularity in the "Roaring 20's" with young people as part of their open defiance to Prohibition. Also, that it's dated by even by 1960's standards continues the motif of a culture in decline.

A close-up shot of a melting ice sculpture signaling the end of the Derby party also further adds to the imagery of a decaying social order. Drunk, Jane blurts to Don and Betty something about their marital troubles. Angry, Betty storms out of the tent. However, instead of this leading to another ugly moment for the couple, MOKH has a seeminglyupbeat ending. Don ventures out of the blue tent and across the green lawn to find and embrace his equally receptive wife. At a grade school Maypole celebration from the last episode, Don first encountered the almost hypnotic attraction to a similar looking garden setting. The Draper's kiss in the final scene is reminiscent of the Browning poem, “Love Among the Ruins,” for which episode 302 was named. The protagonist meets his lover in the green pasture that has overtaken the ruins of an ancient city. Tossing aside the past, he concludes, “love is best.” However, it remains to be seen if this couple's "happy" ending is genuine or artificially induced as with Roger and Peggy.


Anonymous said...

I don't think Joan and Greg are living in sin...unless it has another meaning here. Apparently she is now Mrs. Harris, they've been married during the break.

Matt Maul said...

Wow. Thanks for catching that. I totally missed it. I just assumed her remarks about how she couldn't wait to leave SC referred to when she got married. And I took Roger's addressing her as "Mrs. Harris" last episode as his brand of sarcasm. Anyway, it's been fixed.

The Rush Blog said...

Also, Roger is not blue blood. He is the son of a self-made man . . . like JFK and Trudy Campbell.

Matt Maul said...

I hear what your saying -- techically Roger is not a true "blue blood" per se. But I'd argue that in the context of the episode, Roger is closer to the idea of "nobel birth" than not. Don and Connie, the man Don encounters at the club bar, are the new money types that the old monied members of Roger's club look down on. And Episode 1.10 established the notion (as expressed through Don) that Nixon was a self-made man compared to JFK's being born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

Anonymous said...

Roger defintiely belongs in that world, he could be like Pete and have that old money background on his mother's side. There's nothing about him that gives off a struggle to fit in.