Monday, October 27, 2008

Mad Men: Mutually Assured Responsibility

It's the end to another thought provoking season of Mad Men, one that begat as many questions as it answered -- like leaving some armed munitions buried to be discovered at a later date, or better yet, season. The tension in the Draper marriage has been a season long build up to some sort of open conflict, and the Cuban Missile Crisis provides the perfect backdrop as not only a metaphor, but also a catalyst for the Drapers (and, by that token, Peggy and Pete) to let the chips fall where they may. It could be the end of the world, with both the US and Russia playing a game of chicken, and it has folks understandably on edge, and more willing to make confessions.

Don, for his part, is still cool as a cucumber, believing correctly that there is a lot that they don't know about it -- top secret information that they're not privy to that will alleviate the situation. Don's works well with secrets (which is why he would do so well with selling Cold War Defense contracts). He believes the crisis will all blow over, saying as much to Joan, and in that moment it seems he could also mean his marriage and the Sterling Cooper merger. His calm demeanor reminded me of the perhaps unintended foreshadowing of having Jon Hamm briefly play the ghost of JFK in a sketch on Saturday Night Live the night before. While it's tempting to see him as Kennedy in either of his conflicts, Matthew Weiner provides no easy mapping to the Cuban Missile Crisis real life metaphor, which is just as well, as the Don/Betty dinner table summit raises as many questions as it answers.

But before getting to Don and Betty's uneasy peace, Peggy's confession to Pete deserves mentioning. Like many conflicts this season, it had been building between her and Father Gill for much of the season, with the priest acting similarly to Russia, pushing the dangerously armed confession on Peggy's shores. Just as Pete tries to invade her heart with his (fair weather) confession of love, she drops the bomb in his lap, essentially shedding the Crisis metaphor. It was a powerful scene, that Weiner says "they could have shot it on toilet paper" with all the tears that were shed. Meanwhile, in the merger crisis, Duck underestimates Don's standing in the company, and over plays his drunken hand, launching a personal attack on Don, making it a battle that Don will inevitably win, by staying cool. Don's not beholden to a contract, and has over $3.6 million (in 2008 dollars) to play with thanks to the sale, so it's no bluff -- he's got the missiles pointed and can afford to use them. It's almost as if the handling of these two conflicts could serve as a lesson in what could've happened in the Cuban Missile Crisis if cooler heads hadn't prevailed.

Getting back to the Drapers crisis, it's interesting that it took Betty acquiring a couple secrets of her own to finally let Don back in. The first being the one that she uses as to bring them together, that of her pregnancy. Betty doesn't see raising the child as a single parent to be an option to her, so it becomes clear that this decision is about Don. She can either get back together with Don (have the baby) or cut him out of her life (abort the baby). Forget about Bobby being a young Don/Dick, this potential younger sibling is Don. That's the first bomb in her arsenal. Then, after Don makes his (somewhat) confession to try and begin to mend the relationship, Betty embarks on her second secret.

It's been brewing all season since the encounter on the highway with the tow truck driver, and later the cat and mouse games with Arthur, but Betty finally has her affair -- and it's with Captain Awesome! (Chuck's Ryan McPartlin). The scene in the bar was fittingly to Acker Bilk's "Stranger on the Shore," a song used for a British series of the same name, which is about a French Au Pair experiencing culture shock in England (more on the song below). Betty is a bit like that stranger on the shore here, albeit freed a bit by the fears of both the beginning (pregnancy) and ending (Missile Crisis) of life. She now has another bomb in her arsenal.

I had theorized last week that Don might drop his Dick Whitman bomb, which I would still defend as I think he had it at the ready if the time was right. But Betty's preemptive strike made it an impossibility, and a reminder that she's only bringing him back because of their mutual responsibility to this unborn child, which, like the resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis itself, makes for an uneasy peace (the grief-stricken look in Don's face says it all). Note, too, that the scene was framed so that we could believe that she could drop either bomb on Don -- the one that brought them together, or the one that could tear them apart for good. If Don had dropped the 'Dick Whitman' bomb, it too would've torn them apart. It again is like the Missile crisis, in that neither one really knew just how close the other one came to blowing it all up.

One final thought on the music:
I had thought that, like last season, they might perhaps pull a song that would foreshadow the next season, in this case using a Beatles song, but instead they kept the moment somber with use of David Carbonara's score. There's still a subtle pointing to the coming British invasion here, though, with the inclusion of Acker Bilk's "Stranger on the Shore." That song was the first British song to go to number one on the Billboard Hot 100, taking the top spot in May of 1962. The Tornadoes' "Telstar" was the next to do it (December 22 that year,) which you'll remember closed out an episode a few weeks back ("The Jet Set"). And the next British song that would go to #1? That was The Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" (January, 1964,) -- it's no accident that those two prior song choices acted as a precursor to the coming British Invasion. 1964, here we come.

Previously: Man, Be Thyself (Episode 2.12)

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