Friday, October 12, 2007

Mad Men: "Nixon vs. Kennedy" - Who is Yma Sumac?

Well here we are, with only one episode left of the best new show of the season, and, like The Sopranos, the climax of the series came with the penultimate episode. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner wrote the explosive series penultimate Sopranos episode "The Blue Comet," so he's well acquainted with the David Chase school of season enders. With Mad Men, it's no different, as we find out how Dick Whitman became Don Draper via flashbacks triggered courtesy of Pete's blackmail.

The factual setting drama for this episode is election night -- Kennedy versus Nixon. Or, as Don/Dick sees it, silver-spooned Pete versus self-made man Don. After the metaphorical candidates head home, the rest of the employees throw a party, which is home to our only music placement of note. Peruvian singer Yma Súmac's "Gopher Mambo" plays while secretary Alison is chased around the steno-pool by Ken, and use of the artist's music isn't just for it's kitsch-like fun. Around 1950, rumors spread that Yma was actually a Jewish secretary at Capitol Records named Amy Camus, who was born in Brooklyn, not Peru (Amy Camus is a backwards spelling of Yma Sumac). This challenge (a hoax, I should point out) to her exotic identity was a serious blow to her career at the time. She bounced back, though, since fans ultimately replied like Bert Cooper with "Mr. Campbell, who cares?" How does her being Jewish effect how I much I like to mambo to her freakish octave-like singing?

This party, meanwhile, has devolved into a Dionysus-like affair, with alcohol, sex... and a one-act play. This play within the show has more to it then just to embarrass Paul "Orson Welles" Kinsey -- the title ("Death is My Client") alone achieves that -- but also to tell us more about Dick Whitman/Don Draper. As I mentioned last week, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged celebrated it's 50th anniversary today, and I still think it's no accident that this episode coincides with the occasion. Kinsey's play references two character names (not counting "that hack Cosgrove,") Galt and Tollefson. John Galt is a central character from Atlas Shrugged, one referred to often in a question: "who is John Galt" -- much like this series' question: "who is Don Draper?" The other character is Tollefson, which could very well be Garrison Keillor's character from The Lake Wobegon Boy -- a small town boy who makes a new life for himself in Upstate New York. Sound familiar? I realize Keillor's work is from a different era entirely, but it's just too perfect for me not to at least suggest that Weiner might be positing Rand's (from the right) and Keillor's (from the left) contrasting ideologies upon Don/Dick's mythology. Meanwhile, in the play, Sal (as Tollefson) kisses Joan, and their reactions afterwards are priceless. Sal beams with pride, and Joan has a subtle look that suggests she's realizing he might just be gay... an imposter metaphor once again referring to Don.

As the party continues on, another song plays, "Metro Polka" by Frankie Lane. This is used mostly for the lyric "I asked her for a little kiss, a little kiss, a little kiss" as Harry and Hilda lock lips. After they take it to the next step in Harry's office, Mad Men uses more subtle brilliance using Harry's glasses as metaphor for his marriage. He takes them off to slip out of his marriage. Later, when he scrambles to find them he's distraught, and when they turn up broken, it's indicative of how Harry feels his marriage is. At this point, Hildy recognizes Harry's marital fear and apologizes. "I hope I didn't step on them," says Hildy, meaning, again, his marriage. It's scenes and details like this that make me love this series so much.

And what about Don? Who knew he was really such a coward, someone who pissed themselves at the first sign of combat and killed his commanding officer (and future identity) through ineptitude. (That Lt. Don Draper was an engineer, is another Atlas Shrugged reference, by the way -- John Galt was an engineer.) When Don's faced with the prospect of being found out, he can't escape who he really is and turns coward again. Thankfully, Rachel calls him on it, and takes him to task after seeing Dick Whitman the coward for herself. "You haven't thought this through," she says, which Don/Dick would use against Pete later. Peggy also unwittingly props him up with her speech saying "people who are not good get to walk around doing what they want... it's not fair." The last bit, echoing Don in his lament about Nixon conceding to Kennedy. Don/Dick takes these weapons and confronts Pete, willing to "bury himself" if necessary to make sure Pete doesn't succeed in his black mail. Bert Cooper's "Mr Campbell, who cares?" is the climactic question answering a question... the one the series posed all season: "who is Don Draper?" It was what you'd expect from an Ayn Rand objectivist, and you have to imagine that Cooper would be even more enamored with Draper if he knew just how far he had to re-invent himself. Ultimately, it's the story of an American Dream, morally ambiguous warts and all. (Thank God there's another season!)

Mad Men - Ep112
1. "Gopher Mambo" - Yma Sumac
2. "Metro Polka" - Frankie Laine

Previously: The Virtue of Selfishness (Episode 1.11)

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Beth said...

This is an EXCELLENT review of this week's episode. I just finished watching it via OnDemand, so I hit your blog at the right time.

Damn, I'm gonna miss this show. Nothing else has captured my attention since ... well, since "The Sopranos" ended.

drake leLane said...

Thank you! You know the detail and care that goes into this show makes the rest of what's on TV look just plain lazy.

Anne said...

Wow, great review. I saw the Rand influence even in the stylized intro, and of course with Cooper hitting us over the head with it in comments to Don, but never pieced it together like you did. Fantastic.

Love this show so much.

Thomas said...

I just started with this fantastic show and really appreciate your blog for helping seeing all those clever cultural references.
Did anyone mention that the station in which the Whitman family waits to receive Dick's alleged body is called Bunbury?
In Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of being Ernest one character has made up a second identity so he can enjoy life in the countryside away from London's high society. This alter ego he names Bunbury and he refers to his hobby as bunburying.
So I don't think the name of the Station is a coincidence at all.

drake lelane said...

great catch.... and you're correct to assume it isn't an accident ;)