Monday, June 4, 2012

"Mad Men," Season 5, Episode 12, "Commissions and Fees"

Though the character-level subplots regarding Lane and Sally drive the dramatic arc of episode 12, I’m focusing on the small pieces of history referenced in “Commission and Fees.”  In particular, Don’s desire for bigger and more prestigious clients reveals key issues about America in 1967.

Frustrated that the shenanigans surrounding Joan tainted the firm’s acquisition of the Jaguar account, Don declares that he isn’t interested in a relatively minor car company, telling Roger, “I want Chevy.”  In doing so, Draper reminds us that the American auto industry remained dominant in the 1960s, as Japanese, German, and South Korean companies had not yet penetrated the U.S market.  Chevrolet was G.M.’s biggest brand, and a “Chevy” represented the epitome of a middle-class car before anyone had ever heard of a Honda or a Toyota.  When high oil prices and concerns about the quality of American cars emerged in the 1970s, Japanese brands started to break the long-held oligopoly of G.M., Ford and Chrysler.

In response to Don’s frustration, Sterling arranges a meeting with Ed Baxter, the CEO of Dow Chemical, in the hopes of getting their business.  Draper remains upset that Baxter told him the firm wouldn’t be able to get certain clients because of “The Letter” Don wrote denouncing tobacco after Lucky Strike left Sterling Cooper in season four.  At the meeting, Roger tells Baxter that the firm worked assiduously to hold the account but that “nobody’s going to be in that business.  The government is in the process of killing it.”  Sterling exaggerates the weakness of Big Tobacco in the late 1960s.  While the government mandated health warnings on cartons after the release of the Surgeon General’s report in 1964, the new legislation prevented the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) from placing warnings on cigarette advertisements as well.   Though bans on television ads were in the offing, many believed the federal government had gone easy on the tobacco companies in the 1965 bill, largely bowing to the political power of the industry.

Another Dow executive mentions that the company is the primary manufacturer of napalm, an incendiary bomb used by the U.S. Army in Vietnam.  At the time, napalm was drawing the ire of the anti-war movement while causing civilian casualties that weakened the military’s ability to win the “hearts and minds” of the people of South Vietnam.  Even arch-conservative Roger responds, “You mean that stuff those kids outside your building are screaming about?”  By early 1967, the anti-war movement was gaining momentum and increasingly targeting groups and organizations, such as defense contractors and universities, who were assisting the military effort in Southeast Asia.  A majority of Americans still supported the war and even those who opposed the war were often angered by the countercultural behavior of segments of the movement, where long hair and drugs were prevalent.  Perhaps in hopes of acquiring the account, Don espouses the more hawkish perspective, remarking, “The important thing is when our boys are fighting and they need it…when America needs it… Dow makes it and it works.”

Napalm figured in the most indelible representations of the era.  40 years ago this week, a photographer took a picture of a nine-year old girl running naked from a napalm attack.  Taken near the end of American involvement in the conflict in 1972, the photograph became one of the iconic images of the Vietnam War.  In addition, Robert Duvall’s character in Apocalypse Now (1979) infamously declares, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” 

The last two episodes have witnessed dramatic turns of events, including (SPOILERS) Joan’s liaison to acquire a client and Lane’s suicide.  One can only imagine what Matt Weiner has dreamed up for next week’s finale.

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