Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Nixon vs. Kennedy" (season 1, episode 12)

Mad Men - "Nixon vs. Kennedy" (season 1, episode 12)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Most days (except Saturday) I am offering a short review of another episode until concluding the first season. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on October 11, 2007/written by Lisa Albert & Andre & Maria Jacquemetton; directed by Alan Taylor): Sterling Cooper nervously celebrates the tally of votes across the United States, hoping their client Richard Nixon will become the next president. When he doesn't, they don't seem very disappointed - they have other matters on their minds. An office party becomes a predictably frisky affair as the horny trio of young admen pursue different women: Ken assaults Allison (Alexa Alemanni), tackling her and exposing her underwear to the rest of the party to loud guffaws. The married Harry timidly kisses Pete's grouchy-turned-plaintive Hildy (Julie McNiven), removing his glasses when they retreat into an office and waking up half-naked with her the following morning. Paul, emboldened (after initial embarrassment) by the cheeky performance of a script he'd hidden in his drawer, and looking for all the world like a dashing young Orson Welles (a comparison he himself proudly notes), hits on Joan with the implication that they've been down this road before. She'll dance with him but stops there because, it seems, he has "a big mouth."

Peggy and Pete neither join the office merriment nor renew their own much-beleaguered romance. Neither one is in the mood for love. Peggy, continuing to consolidate her undesired reputation as office stick-in-the-mud, goes home early and then lodges a complaint with the building when she returns the next day to find her wallet emptied, her locker trashed, and her trash can full of puke. She's next seen crying in Don's office; her complaint resulted in the dismissal of cleaning staff rather than the reprimand of the white-collar (not to mention white, period) office workers who were actually responsible for this mess. Pete, meanwhile, broods in his own home, leafing through a shoebox full of Dick Whitman snapshots and mementos (Adam's suicide gift) and finally deciding to blackmail Don the next day. And so it is done. The hidden secret first teased in episode three is exposed: the worst person in the world to know the true identity of Don Draper not only holds this information but is ready to use it, hoping he'll get a promotion - a recognition of power in lieu of the respect he really desires.

As a too-close-to-call Election Night stretches into the morning and finally the following night before the Vice President concedes to Senator John F. Kennedy, Don has a meltdown. He flees to Rachel, ready to drop everything - his job, his wife, even his children. "I'll provide for them," he mumbles, proving how little he actually cars about his socially-approved role as Sturdy Patriarch - or for that matter, the emotional well-being of his children themselves. Rachel is disgusted by Don's pathetic desperation, by his callow indifference for his family, and perhaps most of all by her epiphany: he's just using her as an escape vessel. "You don't want to run away with me," she realizes. "You just want to run away." Finally Don returns to Sterling Cooper and plays his last card: walking the plank side by side with Pete, seeing who backs off first, and when neither does, taking the plunge and hoping Bert the Shark bites the other one. Sure enough, the old man chooses Don. "Who cares?" he repeats to a crestfallen Pete, later advising Don (with duly-noted double implications), "Fire him if you want. But I'd keep an eye on him. One never knows how loyalty is born."

Finally, in flashback, we witness the origin story of the Don Draper we've known for a dozen episodes. The twentysomething grunt is as hesitant, abashed, and uncertain as the "Don" we saw in Rachel's office; indeed, we begin to realize that Don Draper has become Dick Whitman again in the present, at least for the moment: a complete physical transformation to suit the personal one. The real Don Draper was an officer, alone with Dick in an isolated corner of Korea, blown up by an accidental explosion. On, seemingly, a whim, Dick switched dog tags with the corpse, and becomes Don Draper...in name, anyway. He's still uncomfortable in the new skin in the last scene of the flashback sequence, peering from a train window at his hometown as only little Adam catches the big brother's eye and calls after him down the track, a voice that will haunt - and threaten - Don a decade later.

My Response:
I was correct about this being a big episode; though I haven't seen the finale yet, I'd have to imagine this one has bigger implications for the series as a whole and perhaps acts as the season climax. The title event doesn't have much to do with the magnitude of episode twelve, but it does provide a suitably iconic historical backdrop for the characters' individual crises, and some of the election's themes are mirrored in the episode's primary conflict. That's true whether you see Kennedy vs. Nixon and Campbell vs. Draper as any of the following: a scrappy underdog willing to fight dirty against the sturdy establishment or, conversely, an entitled Ivy Leaguer threatening a hard worker of humble origin...or even (if you want to swap out who corresponds to who) an unlikable, resentment-driven conniver defeated at the last minute by his handsome, charismatic, (seemingly) confident rival. However, the business of "Nixon vs. Kennedy" is personal rather than political, and I was surprised to see Don's secret backstory get this much exposure this early in the series.

On the one hand, this makes it seem like a MacGuffin, something to tease and provoke the viewer while luring them into the story's main concern: an existential inquiry into identity and illusion, whose universality is not as flashy as the "Dick-to-Don" conceit, but more deeply rooted. On the other hand, we spend too much time with Dick Whitman to think he only matters as as a symbolic cipher. The details of this particular history seem relevant: the impoverishment, the provincial life experience, the war trauma, the consequent self-doubt. Don's divided identity has a striking specificity. In both the past and present sequences, we've never seen Don this shaken, even...weak. His usually firm features become soft, sagging, his eyes beam desperation to anyone looking close enough (only one person will, though she arguably misidentifies its nature). This is a rather bold way to undercut a character expected to carry eighty more episodes, whose charisma is based in part on the admiration of alpha stoicism punctuated by well-timed macho assertion. He's been thoroughly exposed, to us anyway - how does he go forward from here?

The episode also does something quite interesting with its coding of class and masculinity; the earthier Dick Whitman of Korea, clothed in an Army uniform far from luxury and education, is presented as much less stereotypically masculine than the comfortable Don Draper of Manhattan, clothed in soft suits as he works with his mind rather than his hands. Far from particularly contemporary cliches about the "white working class" - authentic in their distance from bourgeois privilege - impoverished, uneducated Dick seems lost, lonely, and overwhelmed, even compared to the actual Don Draper, his authoritative if not especially inspiring commanding officer. Poverty (bound up with illegitimacy) is the social mark on Dick Whitman's childhood and youth. Poverty is what Don is fleeing, even as he occasionally draws upon its mental reservoirs to sympathize with a worked-his-way-up Nixon or sneer at the flabby entitlement of a Campbell, and poverty is materialized by Adam Whitman, a stain on his shiny workplace. As much as American culture is willing to fetishize "the working man" in the abstract, it has always loathed, stigmatized, and often feminized and racialized poverty.

To borrow the terminology Roland Barthes applied to Charles Chaplin, Dick Whitman is the poor man, not the proletariat. This is something "Donald Francis Draper" never wants to be again, which Pete may suspect. But what the younger, wealthier man doesn't realize is that his emasculating threat puts Don in an impossible bind. Unlike the pampered but eternally patronized Pete (who dreams of abandoning urban aristocracy to become a rugged outdoorsman), Don deeply associates material security with masculine authority. Therefore he can't sacrifice one for the other, except perhaps in the affirming arms of Rachel, whose status as an outsider with her own rooted identity offers his only potentially sympathetic harbor. (In this sense, if not in others, she's wrong when she describes herself as an incidental excuse to justify his flight-over-fight impulse; she's essential to it.) Without an Eve to relaunch Eden (an analogy the ever-adept adman actually reaches for himself), Don is left with an apocalyptic choice between materialism and masculinity. He has to hope for both and brace for neither.

There's something else too, and I don't know what to make of it yet. The crucial turning point for Don comes after Rachel has rejected him, when he returns to his office and is confronted by the weeping Peggy, arguably the most important character in the series besides himself. It's her explication of her situation - trying to do the right thing and being hated for it, watching innocent people suffer while the guilty ones get away - that triggers Don's final rejection of Pete's blackmail. Why is this? That's a question I look forward to figuring out as the series progresses...one of the remaining mysteries of Mad Men.

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