Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"Mad Men," Season Six, Episode Eight , "The Better Half"

Soap operas both real and fictional continue on a strong episode of “Mad Men” as the differences between Peggy and Abe reflect an important divide over crime that emerged in the country during the late 1960s.  Police sirens blare in the background throughout “The Better Half” as “law and order” became a dominant issue in American politics.

Previously, Abe had resisted Peggy’s desire to live on the tony Upper East Side, saying he saw them “raising our kids in a place with more different kinds of people.”  The growing crime in their neighborhood, however, is straining Peggy’s patience, especially after Abe is attacked while getting off of the subway.  The police officer dealing with the case is frustrated by Abe’s unwillingness to give more details about the incident, asking, “Were they colored or Puerto Rican?”  “Or white!” shoots back Abe, yelling  “fascist pigs” after the cop leaves.

Peggy is furious that Abe won’t provide more information to the authorities, but he says, “I’m not going to give them an excuse to shake down every kid that walks through this neighborhood,” adding, “This is a fucking police state and we’re going to have to fight, OK.  They did it in Paris and they did it in Prague and believe it or not we’re going to have to do it here, too,” referring to the student revolts in those countries in 1968. “That doesn’t mean protecting criminals!” Peggy responds. “Those kids have no other recourse in this system,” declares Abe, seemingly sympathizing with his assailants.

As crime grew in the late 1960s, it moved beyond its traditional status as a state and local issue and became the subject of intense national debate.  While New Leftists like Abe and many liberals talked about the need to address the “root causes” of crime and the importance of addressing poverty and the underlying issues of American cities, Republicans forcefully called for tougher penalties on offenders and “law and order,” which was key to the party’s resurgence after LBJ’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964.  Richard Nixon made the cry central to his 1968 presidential campaign as he attacked Democrats and liberals as “soft on crime.”  In particular, Nixon focused his ire on the “activist” Supreme Court, which had made decisions enhancing protections for criminal defendants, such as the famous Miranda vs. Arizona case of 1966, which brought about the warnings we have heard police read to accused criminals in every police drama since.

As Abe suggests, many liberals saw the  “tough on crime” rhetoric as little more than code words for bigotry. With explicit appeals to racism no longer acceptable in the aftermath of the civil rights victories of the mid-1960s, they saw it as a new and more sophisticated way to appeal to racial prejudice.  While no doubt racism played a role in the success of such language, many Americans were simply worried about their personal safety in the late 1960s and uninterested in broader discussions of the rise in crime and its “root causes.”  Indeed, Peggy responds to Abe’ understanding of his attackers’ plight by saying, “They’re animals.”

Calls for “law and order” were essential to Nixon’s narrow win over Hubert Humphrey in the fall of 1968, as well as George Wallace’s strong third-party showing in the election.  “Tough on crime” rhetoric would become a central part of the GOP strategy from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, when crime finally began to fall.  Even in liberal New York City, a Democrat like Ed Koch touted his support for the death penalty during his mayoral campaigns in the 1970s as support for capital punishment rose in Gotham’s outer boroughs as well as across the nation as a whole.

Fearing for her safety, Peggy accidentally stabs Abe when she hears noises toward the end of the episode.  While en route to the hospital, Abe ends the relationship because he believes her work in advertising is antithetical to his values, adding, “you will always be the enemy.”  Quite a unique break-up.  This episode was much better than most of this season’s fare, perhaps because the history was in the background as opposed to the foreground.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

"Mad Men," Season Six, Episode 6, "The Man With a Plan,"

The shark is rapidly approaching as the summer of 1968 comes closer on “Mad Men.”  With Don Draper’s Sterling Cooper merging with Ted Chaough’s firm in “Man With a Plan,” the longtime rivals compete while a few historical notes are heard in the background.

Early in the episode, one of the new employees asks Stan if he worked on the “daisy,” a reference to one of the most famous television spots in American political history.  In 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s campaign ran an ad showing a little girl counting down while picking a daisy.  Eventually, the child’s countdown stops and a more frightening voice replaces hers, intoning  “10…9…8…,” until reaching zero, followed by a nuclear explosion.  Then Johnson himself comments, “These are the stakes.  To make a world in which all of G-D’s children can live...Or to go into the dark.  We must either love each other or we must die.”  The narrator concludes, “Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”  Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, LBJ’s Republican opponent, had made some frivolous comments about the use of nuclear weapons and the Johnson campaign repeatedly tried to make Goldwater look like a warmonger.  Though the “daisy” ad aired only once, it went down as a classic example of negative advertising.  Ironic that it would be Johnson who would Americanize the war in Vietnam after his landslide victory.

Meanwhile, Sylvia is upset that she hasn’t heard from her son, who is apparently in France.  “All of France is on fire,” Sylvia tells Don.  Indeed, a student/worker uprising basically shut down France in May 1968 as they protested the policies of President Charles De Gaulle.  Her comment reminds us that 1968 was a turbulent year across the world, not just in the United States.  In addition to France, Mexico was racked by protests that the government violently quelled months before Mexico City hosted the 1968 Summer Olympics.  Inspired by the reformist government of Alexander Dubcek, the “Prague Spring” thrived in Czechoslovakia as openness came to part of the Iron Curtain, at least until the Soviet Union sent in tanks to crush the movement in August.

Discussion of the 1968 election is heard once again, as the new co-workers express their allegiances to McCarthy, Kennedy, and Nixon.  Don observes that “Humphrey has all the delegates,” a reference to Vice-President Hubert Humphrey’s hold on the Democratic political bosses who still controlled the nomination process in 1968.  After RFK’s victory over McCarthy in the California primary on June 4, he told the audience at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, “Now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there,” a reference to the site of the Democratic convention.  In all likelihood, Kennedy would have lost to Humphrey, but RFK never got the chance as he was shot and killed by Sirhan Sirhan as he left through the hotel kitchen, only two months after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis.

“I don’t understand what’s going on. It seems like they’re shooting everyone,” declares Pete Campbell’s mother after hearing of RFK’s assassination.  Megan is also visibly upset while watching television coverage but Don seems nonplussed and distant, more focused on the end of his affair with Sylvia than in the events of the day.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

"Mad Men," Season Six, Episode 5, "For Immediate Release"

After a “Mad Men” episode with enough twists to fill a season of a daytime soap opera, major changes are afoot.  By the end of “For Immediate Release,” Sterling Cooper goes through yet another major renovation as the agency merges with a rival.  Some interesting historical themes lie beneath the major plots of the episode.

As the company readies to go public, Pete celebrates by going to a house of ill repute in Manhattan.  In an unbelievably awkward moment, he sees his father-in-law with a prostitute as well.  Concerned about the personal and professional implications, Pete asks Ken for advice and he tells him that his father-in-law, who is also an important client, will have to keep quiet because to do otherwise would expose his own culpability.   Talking about the bizarre encounter, Ken says, would be the equivalent of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD).

Of course, MAD represented the military doctrine governing the use of nuclear weapons during the Cold War.  As long as both the US and USSR maintained huge stockpiles of missiles aimed at each other, neither side could use them because it would precipitate the end of the world.  “It’s why I don’t worry about the bomb,” concludes Ken (though as the season 2 finale of “Mad Men” showed, the world came perilously close during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962)

With less apocalyptic issues at stake, Pete’s father-in-law pulls his business from the agency.  Furiously, Pete storms over to his office and tells him “you just pressed the button, Tom” a reference to the nuclear analogy.  Though his father-in-law believes Pete won’t respond to his first strike and tell Trudy, he proves to be wrong.  Only time will tell what the fallout will be from this radioactive exchange.

Meanwhile, Peggy is frustrated by the decline of her neighborhood, a concern shared by many New Yorkers during the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Abe reassures her, “Look the neighborhood’s changing….Everything’s getting better.  Johnson’s gone.  The war is going to end. We’re going to have a new president no matter what.  Maybe McCarthy.  At worst case Kennedy.”   Peggy, who was raised Catholic and has a picture of JFK on her wall, responds, “I love Bobby Kennedy.”

Abe and Peggy will both experience disappointment.  Though Johnson pulled out of the race, the war in Vietnam would drag on until 1973.  As the episode occurs in May 1968, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy will duel for the Democratic nomination for the next few weeks, until Sirhan Sirhan assassinates RFK following his victory in the California primary in June.  Relying on the strength of the party bosses who still determined presidential nominee at this time, Vice President Hubert Humphrey garners the Democratic nomination at the party’s convention in the summer and would likely have done so even if RFK had lived.  One guesses we will hear Abe yell “Dump the Hump” at some point this season, due to Humphrey’s rhetorical support for the war from 1965-68 (despite his private misgivings)

Historical references notwithstanding, the firm’s major concern is how to recover from Don’s sabotage of the all-important Jaguar account.  He gets an opportunity to redeem himself when a revitalized Roger gives him a chance to compete for a new Chevrolet product.  Remember when Don declared, “I want Chevy” last season? The importance of the account reminds us that Detroit and the American auto industry remained dominant in the 1960s, before the high oil prices of the 1970s opened the door for more fuel-efficient Hondas and Toyotas.  General Motors reigned supreme and Chevrolet was the car designed for the burgeoning middle-class in 1968.

In the end, Don concocts a scheme to merge with longtime rival Ted Chaough’s agency in order to win the Chevy account.  With this accomplished, Peggy and Don can be together professionally again while she flirts with Ted while living with Abe.  How will this all turn out?  We’ll find out next week on “As the World Turns”… I mean “Mad Men.”