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"Mad Men": new season begins

By Rich Heldenfels Published: April 13, 2014

Below is my discussion of tonight's season premiere of "Mad Men."  Instead of a full synopsis, it's more notes about at least one element of the premiere.

Spoilers in abundance. You've been warned.

 

Is it really all about Nixon?

In the first season of "Mad Men," Sterling Cooper was helping out on Nixon's 1960 presidential campaign. As we begin the final season, Nixon has survived the failures of 1960, and the 1962 California gubernatorial race, and is being inaugurated as president in 1969.

At that time, the oft-described "new Nixon" was seen as a model of reinvention, someone who had overcome past furies to win the White House. Except, of course, history would tell us that Nixon's reinvention was mere calculation -- that he was still a win-at-any-cost, punish-your-enemies guy. No matter what he said or tried to do, he could not vanquish his demons.

Is this, then, the lesson of "Mad Men"? That no matter what Don, or Roger, or Pete, has tried to do, they cannot put aside their old behaviors -- and will forever have to pay for them? At the end of last season, Don was ahead of the Nixon curve, finally unable to keep Dick Whitman from emerging, and being punished for his honesty.

At the beginning of this season, Don is still Nixonian. The once-confident, solid man now even looks uncertain; riding on an airport walkway, his posture is too stiff, not unlike the physically awkward president. Much the way the president traveled from California to the East and never seemed to belong in either place, Don is now rootless, part of two homes (his New York place and Megan's in California) but established in neither; his putting a big TV in Megan's place is a territorial gesture that offends her. He is also caught between two cultures in terms of fashion (echoes of his Italian journey with Betty), not only more formal than Pete, but thinking Pete's pro-golfer getup is hippie-like. And, of course, he has no professional home, still in exile from the firm because of his too-public confession -- his inversion of the Checkers speech, denying the maudlin in favor of cold truth.

Of course, Don is not the only one who is off balance. Roger is still able to drink Bloody Marys and put on a suit, but he also smells of incense and is living in a fashion where everyone is as sexually casual as he has been -- only Roger, as we know, was always a romantic underneath, and no one around him is. Pete has tried to make himself into a West Coast Don, but as with so many of his attempts to be Don, he's not very good at it; his outfit is absurd even by the time's standards, his hair the period-compromise between formality and informality of extra-long sideburns. (Look at Stan's slovenly, but self-comfortable, appearance for contrast.

In contrast, the women seem to know what they want, and how things should be. Joan is unchanged by the swirls around her. Peggy is operating in what was her ideal world -- one where great ideas win out, because Don always believed in great ideas -- only that world does not exist. Megan aims for an acting career, although irony underlies even that; she is up for the pilot of "Bracken's World," a series that will air for one season, try to improve itself with serious changes for its second season, but abruptly collapse after it has done so. Nixon indeed.

And so we begin and end with Freddy Rumsen, at first seeing him as a reinvention, a suddenly brilliant copy writer, dazzling Peggy. But it's all a front (there are also echoes of Woody Allen in this episode, with the ending recalling "The Front," and Don and Megan's airport meeting recalling the later West Coast trip in "Annie Hall") as we see at the end that Freddy has not reinvented himself, but is giving Don a way to be his old, brilliant idea man. Only the world is getting away from Don, and everyone else, and even this tactic -- with its shoutouts to the blacklist -- is old news.

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