One thing that keeps bringing me back to Mad Men as a period show is that it has a more complex—and more accurate—understanding of the 60s than most period pieces do. There’s a tendency for Hollywood products about the 60s to paint the changes of the era as a matter of the hippies vs. the straights, with the hippies charging ahead with no regard for consequences and straights resisting with all their might. Mad Men tells a different story, suggesting that people from all corners of society were intrigued by social changes, and that this is playing out in different ways for different people.
As we note in this episode of the Orange Couch, a lot of what’s going on here is discourse about authenticity and letting it all hang out, which seems to be an ongoing theme this season. The 60s obsession with, to use an anachronistic term, keeping it real, is handled masterfully in this episode. It’s not just a bunch of hippies deriding the gray suits for their hypocrisy. You see how this new enthusiasm for bluntness and trying to find an authentic self is being felt in all corners of society. Fashions are getting louder and bolder—it’s not just the hippies who feel entitled to express themselves. People are starting to talk about sex a lot more openly. All sorts of people are experimenting with sex and drugs. The subtle reference to Bonnie and Clyde and the overt one to The Smothers Brothers reminds us that this was also a time where edgier, more honest concepts were seeping into movies and TV. By no means is this a smooth or entirely welcome process, but it’s nice to see it portrayed as something people from all corners took on for themselves, instead of something foisted on the hypocritical straights by the shaggy hippies.
So where does that leave Don, the character who is most attached to the stereotypical 50s mentality that put appearances so far above reality that hypocrisy is, as I note, elevated to a virtue? By surrounding Don with professional and personal peers who are much more interested in changing with the times than he is, the show elides easy cliches about generational differences. Don’s reticience is less about when he was born and more about who he is as a person. The show seems to be arguing that certain personalities tend to flourish more in certain times—and against the idea that one is doomed to be a fuddy-duddy simply by virtue of your age or even your gender, though those things can have an impact. Don is the way he is because he’s Don, not because he was born in the 20s. This is a show about people, not archetypes.
That’s why I was pleased to see that Don opposes the war in Vietnam. It would be too easy to paint him as a knee jerk war apologist, but it wouldn’t be true to his character. The one part of Don that has been consistently characterized as not hypocritical is his attitude towards military service. It suggests in a way that Dick Whitman is actually something of a moral bellwether for Don. Dick Whitman reminds Don about the evils of war. Dick Whitman is the person who admires people—mostly Peggy, Joan, and now Dawn—that refuse to accept the low station assigned them at birth. Don is a complex character, still. He does a lot of terrible things, but the writers resist the urge to make him a cartoon villain.
The conflict between Joan and Harry was nicely complicated. While Harry is a douchebag, he was actually right and Joan was actually wrong on the subject of firing his secretary, both in terms of how Joan overreacted to a relatively minor offense and because Harry is right that you really shouldn’t fire someone’s secretary without consulting them. The fact that Joan conducted her side of the battle with more grace than he did and the fact that Joan legitimately has concerns about how little respect she gets at work doesn’t change this. Joan and Harry are both right and wrong. They both are right that they deserve to be fairly compensated both in pay and respect for their work. They are wrong in how they go about this: He lords male privilege over her, and she bullies the secretaries that live in fear of her. The whole conflict did a good job of showing how people who feel like outsiders often end up fighting for scraps. I hope that Joan wises up and sees that Dawn’s attempts at creating an alliance are the smarter route.
What did you guys think? Is Don going to hell? Is Joan going to figure her shit out? Will Peggy and Stan kiss and make up?