From the sedulous to the surreal in cultural context

Mad Men Reloaded: Don, Pete, and California

Good Vibrations?

Don and Megan 

someone’s not ready for 1969

The “Mad Men” industrial complex—of which I’ve been a card-carrying member for the full seven years of the series—has made us all into neurotic little freaks, working over the show like a Saturday Times crossword. There are essays about how the series is overrated; there are other essays about how the essays about how the show is overrated are overrated.

Emily Nussbaum

 

No sooner than AMC aired “Time Zones,” the first episode of Season 7 of Mad Men, the web crackled with blogs, tweets, GIFs, and other responses.  This season’s commentary seems particularly acute, perhaps because the show’s fans suffer “final-season nostalgia (it’s the pain from an old wound),” as Don Draper explained to Kodak in his famous first season demonstration of how to use nostalgia to sell slide carousels.

Although my own response emphasized the importance of Joan and Peggy’s efforts to climb the ladder at Sterling Cooper & Partners, most have concentrated on the show’s central figure, one who cuts a hapless figure in “Time Zones.”  Draper, suspended now for nearly two months from SC&P and temporarily replaced as Creative Director in New York by the unimaginative Lou Avery, makes an oddly un-sensual sojourn to California.  Whereas Don’s Season 6 vacation to Hawaii left him oddly moved (“I had an experience.  I don’t know how to put it into words”), his January 1969 visit to his Hollywood actress wife Megan proved uneventful.  As Molly Lambert notes:

Faced with the vastness of Los Angeles, he retreats into a familiar Manhattanite position: curled up indoors. He has been to the weird pool parties and tried the hashish and found that he remained a creature of old habits, comforted by cigarettes and bourbon bottles.

Meredith Blake’s appraisal for the Los Angeles Times emphasizes how out of place Draper looks in LA, despite the thumping confidence of the music (“I’m a Man”):

Don, in his staid gray suit and fedora, looks like he traveled to the West Coast via a time machine from 1960. . . .

California was once a special, almost sacred place to Don, but the luster of the Golden State has gradually worn off since he and Megan fell in love at Disneyland. This disenchantment began last season with a hallucinogenic plunge into a pool at a showbiz party, and now it’s the setting for a nervous reunion with his wife that underscores the emotional gulf between them.

In effect, Draper flew to LA and mostly sat watching TV.

It used to be quite different.  Whether falling in with the “Jet Set” (and collapsing poolside) or washing away his adulterous sins in the ocean in Season 2 and recharging his sense of self (such as it is) by hanging out with Anna Draper, Don used to use California to extend and reboot himself.  He fell in love there with Megan in Season 4 and, as Lambert reminds us, he did a face plant in the pool in Season 6 after cavalierly agreeing to sample a hash pipe.  No such stunning event or revelation occurs this time, except for one: the sights and sounds of the New Pete Campbell.

Despite his California adventures, Don knows little of LA.  In the final episode of Season 6, he told copywriter Stan not to go there for the Sunkist desk because LA is a backwater, “like Detroit with palm trees.”  To go there, he tells Megan, is to romantically find an office by the beach and live “like homesteaders.”  Don is equally clueless about the lifestyle, mistaking Pete’s preppy Southern California look for something counterculture.

lunch draper and pete

Pete, having relocated and reinvented himself following his divorce, his mother’s murder, and the disaster with Chevy, gives Don the lowdown:  “The city’s flat and ugly and the air is brown, but I love the vibrations.

Pete and his new woman

As Heather Havrilesky responds,

But there’s something empty about his gushing, and about his lonely office and the fact that his apartment is “next to the tar pits.”

Too, as Meredith Blake comments,

Yet Pete’s embrace of West Coast living is undercut by their meeting place — a New York-style deli — and by his gripes about L.A. bagels and the city’s ever-present smog. What I can’t quite determine is if Pete is trying to convince himself that he loves California, or that there are still things he prefers about New York. It’s interesting, though, how Pete continues to follow in Don’s footsteps. Don once loved California too.

For Pete, California once meant something different, too.  When he joined Draper there for a convention in Season 2, the flourishing business of arms manufacturers and space program contracts led him to gush, “It’s a gold rush!”  He performed adroitly and paved the way for the landing of North American Aviation (a lucrative account he had to spike in Season 4 to spare Don a rigorous background check that could have exposed his identity fraud).  The people, however, struck Pete then as lazy and, well, not enough like New Yorkers.  How things change.

don and Pete 2

Season 2 (1962)

Whether landing the fish and chips chain account (which, he tells Don, has four stores!) means Pete is building a comeback, or whether his new love interest marks a fresh start or a new low, Campbell at least has a job.  Don claims he has one, too (and Megan seems none the wiser), but these days, Draperism issues not from his mouth, but from good ole’ Freddy Rumsen.  No longer the man who once wet the fine line of Madison Avenue binge drinking, Freddy now pitches Don’s ideas to Peggy (which, alas, turns out to be a circuitous route, given her lack of rapport with Avery).

What to make of Freddy’s return?  Is it a sign of Don’s desperation, or a clever move to keep a foot in the door?  Forthcoming episodes will tell the tale at the office, but it’s worth remembering that, last season, Ted Chaough rightly guessed that Don doesn’t “have many friends.”  Freddy is an exception (unless, of course, you count Pete, with his over-enthusiastic greeting).  Will that solitary friendship suffice to prevent Don from being “damaged goods” at work and suicidal at home, as the final scene suggested (“You Just Keep Me Hanging On”)?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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