Sunday, April 7, 2013

"Mad Men," Season Six, Episode 1, "The Doorway"

“Mad Men” is back and enters the realm of 1968, the most eventful year of the 1960s.  As it does, the show’s clothing and aesthetic have clearly evolved from the 1950sish feel of season 1 to reflect the cultural and social changes that marked the decade.  The first episode of season 6, “The Doorway,” also continues the program’s commentary on key events of the period such as the Vietnam War and the decline of New York City.

Appearances clearly mark the time as several characters are sporting facial hair, which was stigmatized at the outset of the decade, but became more and more common in the era.  Gone are the days when only Paul Kinsey had a beard; now, Ginsburg, Stan, and Abe Drexler all have some, along with the hippies in Greenwich Village.

The drug culture emerges in full flower as several characters use marijuana in the episode, including Megan and the young employees of the booming Sterling Cooper.  More and more people tried marijuana as the decade progressed.  As late as 1960, only 4 percent of college students had tried it.  By 1972, 50 percent had used it.

As always, gender is central in “Mad Men,” as a precocious 15 year-old family friend named Sandy lectures Betty on the downsides of domesticity and expresses a desire to move to some kind of hippie commune in the city.  Meanwhile, Peggy seems like Don circa season 1, ripping into the workers under her for their poor work.  She appears very self-confident and the epitome of a 1970s career woman, a far cry from season 1 and 1960.

Vietnam makes two important appearances as Don meets a soldier on R&R while vacationing in Honolulu.  The soldier notes that everyone in Hawaii has been friendly and that “after all the shit that went on last summer stateside I was looking for a fight,” a likely reference to the growing antiwar movement at home.  By the end of 1967 and three years of an Americanized war in Southeast Asia, a majority believed the war was a mistake and protests were spreading from university campuses to the rest of the country.

In addition, Peggy has to change an ad campaign after it turns out it resembles a comedy routine on “The Tonight Show” that referenced American soldiers cutting off the ears of the Viet Cong.  Over the course of the war, some Americans turned against the conflict because of stories about crimes committed by U.S. soldiers. The most significant atrocity, the My Lai massacre, where a U.S. Army unit killed 300 to 500 Vietnamese civilians in March 1968, would not be exposed until 1969.

The decline of New York City, symbolized by rising crime and urban decay, comes further into view.  After Sandy reminds Betty that she lived in the city while working as a model, she replies, “It was different back then.  There weren’t all the riots and robberies.”  Indeed, crime had increased dramatically in NYC over the decade.  When Sandy makes good on her promise to go to the city, Betty travels to Greenwich Village to find her.  While much of the area is very gentrified today, it was a much different picture at this time, with decaying buildings and other symbols of urban blight.

Of course, the Village had long served as a home for artists and political radicals.  After finding the commune, Betty talks to some of the kids staying there and encounters a Jerry Rubin/Abbie Hoffman wannabe.  Mocking her search for Sandy, he says “Why can’t you leave her be.  It kills you to be out of control.”  Betty responds, “Someone needs to control this mess,” reflecting the growing generation gap.  “We have to take everything the establishment throws away.  That’s all that’s left,” he lectures her, adding, “We don’t like your life any more than you do.”

Toward the conclusion of the episode, one of Don’s neighbors jocularly relates a story about the police arresting gay people in the bathroom of a Bloomingdales store.  Except for one minor character, I believe this is the first significant mention of homosexuality in “Mad Men” since Sal left during season 3 and a reminder that even New York City was in many ways a center of homophobia at this time.  The modern gay rights movement did not really gain momentum until the Stonewall Riot of 1969, which took place in Greenwich Village.  Perhaps this will be referenced again next season.

As the episode ends on New Years Eve 1967, Don reads a newspaper with the headline, “World Bids Adieu to a Violent Year.”  Indeed, it had been a difficult year with major race riots in Newark and Detroit while the Vietnam War dragged on with no “light at the end of the tunnel.”  With an even more divisive year beginning and Don Draper fixated on the fact that he was once Dick Whitman, who know what season 6 holds?

The first iteration of this post left out the fact that the character of Sal was a vehicle for referencing and discussing gay issues and the closet during the 1960s. Thanks to readers for reminding me about this. It was very late when finished the post

1 comment:

  1. The first iteration of this post left out the fact that the character of Sal was a vehicle for referencing and discussing gay issues and the closet during the 1960s. Thanks to readers for reminding me about this. It was very late when finished the post