In my last post on Mad Men, I ended with a series of questions: “Who will best be able to negotiate the liminal, the in-between? And where will allegiances lie as things become better defined? When we put this in its historical context of 1966 and 1967, which when this season seems set, big things seem to be on the horizon.” The last two episodes have taken us further into these issues.
First and foremost, we have the issue of race that were percolating in the mid- to late-1960s. The Civil Rights Movement is taking hold and we see the characters on the show trying to cope with these changes, most of which seem centered around Dawn, Don’s new secretary. She is a very sympathetic character first in her articulation of her horror at the photos of Richard Speck’s victims and rejection of them as titillation and later in her anxiety about traveling to Harlem late at night and her brother’s concern for her safety. Peggy demonstrates a willingness to put Dawn up at her home, but she has a moment of concern about leaving Dawn to sleep in a room with Peggy’s purse. This dual reaction seems a useful embodiment of the desire to adopt a liberal attitude within a context of white anxiety about African-Americans. It certainly carries the flavor of the liminal, as Peggy tries to determine not only what feels right but what feels appropriate, safe, smart.
Then there is gender. Women dominated the last episode – Peggy takes Roger Sterling for $400, Joan kicks out her creep of a husband, and Don runs into an old lover, Andrea, who he dreams about, in the throes of a fever, as a kind of succubus figure who he eventually kills. Much of the episode saw them assert their will in different contexts and often to great effect: Joan enforces her will over her home and her family, Peggy negotiates successfully with Roger, and Andrea demonstrates that Don’s old lovers and his past pose a potential threat to his marriage to Megan. Don’s murder of Andrea seemed to be a symbolic assertion of male authority over female encroachment, manifested in his dream. All of these various scenes added up to women either gaining greater agency or “engendering” greater anxiety for men. How interesting that Ginsberg’s ad pitch features Cinderella trying to escape from danger only to realize that she enjoyed it and sought it out. It’s a different spin on Don’s dream reaction to Andrea – a man representing a woman as ultimately in the thrall of male power.
Again, I think with both race and gender, it will make for interesting viewing to see how the characters negotiate the shifting ideological allegiances that the 1960s created.
Finally, I’d like to note the business shift going on in terms of the power struggle between Pete and Roger. Roger is desperately seeking to maintain his position and his authority in the office and in the company itself. Pete is asserting himself as at least Roger’s equal. How will this play out? It’s becoming overt, and Pete’s announcement to the office that he got Mohawk Airlines back and taking all the credit is a clear attempt to assert his dominance on the account side. Pete seems an up-an-comer. Many will go with him. But Don noticed Roger’s reaction to Pete’s announcement and sought to allay his fears. Peggy was also aware of it. Still, Peggy happily took advantage of Roger when he needed help of the weekend and she does have lots in common with Pete, especially as the comparative up-and-comer on the creative side. It’s not clear that she will choose Roger should she have to choose between them. Nor is it clear what Don will do. He is closer to Roger and sees himself as more of Roger’s generation than Pete’s. Roger was a mentor of his and he is friends with him. But Don is also sympathetic to Pete and recognizes what he does for the company. He has again demonstrated that this season. Negotiating the delicate balance between the two seems to be one of the central tasks he has this season.
Race and gender. Politics on the national level and in the office. Power and allegiances. Mad Men continues, following much of the same elements that it always has, allowing for differences, cultural contexts, and individual characters to move the story forward and outward.