Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "To Have and to Hold" (season 6, episode 4)

Mad Men - "To Have and to Hold" (season 6, episode 4)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. Both parts of season seven will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on April 21, 2013/written by Erin Levy; directed by Michael Uppendahl): "Project K" goes for the ketchup and doesn't even get to keep baked beans. SCDP's supposedly secret mission to craft a campaign for a new Heinz client unfolds behind tin foiled windows with only Don, Stan, and Pete in the know - supposedly; Stan's late night call to Peggy obviously let the cat(sup) out of the bag. The disaster is anticipated by both successful and unsuccessful taglines in the agency's tumultuous Heinz history. "Pass the Heinz," Don prints over tantalizing images of topping-less fries, steak, and burger, before Heinz passes over him, whereas in season four Megan pitched Raymond with "Some things never change." In reality, Don's rejected ketchup concept is so damn catchy that Heinz actually did lift it for a print campaign in 2017 - but it's that earlier, solid slogan for baked beans that could be this episode's only partially ironic mantra. "To Have and to Hold" depicts the tug-of-war frustration of finding oneself tormented by both bewildering transformation and the impossible-to-shake tendrils of what holds one back.

Joan may be a leader at SCDP now, at least in terms of her title, but she is still capable of being humiliated by an ostensible inferior (and incapable, it seems, of inflicting that same humiliation on those even further down the food chain). When she tries to fire Harry's secretary and probable mistress Scarlett (Sadie Alexandru) for faking her timecard, Harry explodes, bursting in on an elite meeting to demand his own promotion for work that's valuable to the company "even if it's done in the light of day," an obvious allusion to the seedy Jaguar transaction. Bemused, Bert and Roger don't take the bait, offering a substantial bonus check but no executive perks after Harry successfully coaxes Ken's father-in-law at Dow Chemical into sponsoring a Joe Namath-led musical special to alleviate the company's Vietnam-related PR woes. If Ken cringes at Harry's outburst inside the boardroom, he is more openly outraged by the revelation of Project K's failure, delivering the news of Raymond's departure to both the SCDP reps and, inadvertently, their CGC rivals at the bar where they stew over ketchup's rejection.

Joan meanwhile has better luck with Dawn than with Scarlett. Frightened by Joan's threats (Dawn was the one who agreed to punch Scarlett out long after she left the office), Don's secretary breathes an immense sigh of relief when Joan merely "punishes" her by putting her in charge of the other secretary's hours. "Well, I don't care if everybody hates me here," Dawn tells Joan, "as long as you don't." There is something reminiscent of Peggy here - the secretary who can't quite fit in with the others possibly finding a route to advancement in precisely that discomfort. It's notable that Dawn has several "solo" scenes, featuring just her and a friend discussing work and an upcoming wedding at a diner (where, incidentally, the waitresses repeat the Twin Peaks-clone uniforms last seen in the Westchester restaurant where Betty met with Henry). Dawn is only the second of the show's significant black characters and the first we've spent much time with away from the other characters, so the writers may have more in mind for her.

The rest of the episode is consumed by two other plot hooks. One is Joan's night out with her Mary Kay-promoting friend Kate (Marley Shelton), a wide-eyed charmer pushing forty whom Joan teases by asking, "When did you get younger than me?" It's meant to compliment her looks but could describe Kate's overall demeanor too as she drags her pal to an adolescent soda fountain with telephones atop each table (for giggling would-be suitors to call one another up across the room). From there, they proceed to an Andy Warhol-promoted psychedelic downtown nightclub with one of the waiters. Sipping a traditional drink and still smarting from her embarrassment at work, Joan mostly serves as a chaperone though she eventually pairs off with another groovy clubber impressed by her elegance. Through contrast and compliment, Kate provides Joan a subtle boost in confidence.

Don, on the other hand, tumbles in the opposite direction. Megan, nervous that her husband won't accept an onscreen romance in the soap where she portrays a duplicitous housemaid, is initially relieved to find that he plays along with barely a grumble. He's even amused, if slightly appalled (and maybe even a little flattered), when the producers of the show take the Drapers out...and then try to take them home. But when he shows up on set to watch her kiss a co-worker, he follows her into the changing room and launches into a savage tirade. As if to underscore the incredibly, epically absurd double standard, Don immediately races into Sylvia's arms and flicks her cross around her neck so he doesn't have to stare at it as they make love.

My Response: There is not a vestige of the fifties left in Mad Men. Joan's sojourn at the Electric Circus proves this, particularly since it's that character who's saturated in deep blue and orange lights and the seductive tones of Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot crooning "Bonnie and Clyde." (I'm embarrassed that when the song struck my ear in the very nineties Irma Vep last year, inspiring me to share it on a patron podcast while discussing that film, I never deduced the iconic artists nor traced its origin to my favorite period.) Joan is hardly dressed like a hippie, yet her arguably anachronistic chic doesn't exactly seem out of place either: the counterculture is now ubiquitous enough, at least in New York, to encompass the hip uptown set when they deign to go to the Village. There's no such thing as a square in Manhattan. The loud checked jackets and skirts, the sideburns and shaggy beards, the pot smoke and rock references, all mark the way that American culture has fundamentally shifted by '68 even in a once buttoned-down advertising office (I can't wait to compile screenshots, let alone clips, for side-by-side Mad Men eras someday). And four episodes into the season we haven't yet reached the big crises of that tumultuous year, whose momentousness was unmatched in recent history until 2020.

Nonetheless, "To Have and to Hold" endeavors to remind us that traces of the postwar era live on in the hearts as well as the fashion of a few middle-aged holdouts. Don may pronounce his antiwar values, toke on a joint at work, and laugh off (rather than express outrage at) the advances of a couple swingers. But when push comes to shove, he'll flaunt - utterly hypocritically - values as conservative as the suit and haircut he clings to. It's hard to pinpoint exactly why Don twists the knife in Megan so brutally after playing it cool all episode; the only real turn I can locate is the conflation of his humiliation at the hands of Heinz with his realization that Peggy is now fully his equal (even if CGC and SCDP both lose out to a bigger fish). An argument could be made that the Don/Peggy relationship, subtle as it is and indirect as it has become, lies at the very heart of the show's narrative trajectory. Don can chuckle at his wife's world as long as he still feels he's on top of his own - her independent success only becomes a threat when Peggy reminds Don that a woman he once "raised" can worm her way out from under his thumb. Despite his calm, even mildly impressed, reaction to Peggy's pitch, there's no escaping the conclusion that Don is punishing Megan for his own complicated feelings.

The episode is also focused on Joan's precarious place among the executive elite - deeply impressive to her friend, less impressive to colleagues who know how she got the job, and merely intimidating to underlings. When Joan's in a bad mood and they step out of line, they, like Megan with Don, face the resentful wrath of the high-but-not-quite-high-enough, which always seems to get kicked downstream in American culture (not to mention politics...as if there's a difference). Like so many characters in so many ways in Mad Men, the thirty-six-year-old is caught "in between." I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll have reason to say it again, but even when it strays onto the cusp of the younger Greatest Generation cohort (with the debatable demographics of Don, old enough to serve in World War II but defined by Korea), Mad Men offers one of the most insightful and comprehensive portraits of the Silent Generation. The narrative trajectory reminds us that they defined and were defined by this transitional era as profoundly if more subtly than the boomers. How fascinating that a woman old enough to remember the gray reality of the Great Depression, to come of age to the big band rhythms of the Big One, and to spend the early years of her youth in the straight-as-an-arrow postwar period is still young enough to make out at the Velvet Underground's home club...and only slightly seem out of place.

And then perhaps we think about the other side of that mountain: Joan would be ninety this year, probably packed off in a nursing home somewhere (if spared by Covid-19), no matter that she participated in a society as, if not more, cutting edge and euphoric (and painfully disorienting) as today's social media frenzies. The ship eventually drifts out of the thrilling, exhausting tempest for better or worse, slowing to a crawl. Sylvia may pray for peace, but is that really what Don needs? Won't that peace find him in the end whether or not he seeks it, and isn't the more pressing concern to find bliss in the moments that tick by, packed with an eternity of experience for whoever dares to pick up the ringing receiver?

Next (active on October 4, 8am): "The Flood"Previous: (season 5 finale) "Collaborators"

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