Thursday, January 10, 2013

Mad Men: Nixon vs. Kennedy (1.12)

The campaigns for Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy both represented these enormously influential political frameworks, in which age was seen as a flaw, youth and sex appeal forcibly promoted, and backgrounds carefully smoothed over depending on which corner you wanted to exploit... or suppress. It's an idea that provides season one's penultimate episode its most interesting symbolism, Don and Pete representing both extremes -- Don the self-made man in more ways than one, who rose through the ranks to get where he is today; and Pete the silver-spoon son of money, bristling with entitlement because of what he believes should be the natural order of things. They finally collide here, not only due to Pete's blackmail and Don's package of secrets, but because of their own social complexities.

Pete's blackmail isn't just rooted in his desire for the Head of Account Services gig, but also because of his desperation to find out the 'truth' about Don's success. Here's a guy who can't fathom the idea of coming from nothing and becoming rich and respected. It just doesn't compute. So there has to be something there, something salacious or unfavorable. However, it's still hard to entirely see him as a villain. The way he thinks over the package for weeks, and only talks about it with Don after he is finally rejected for the position, showcases that it's not behavior he takes lightly. He almost dresses it up as a kind of 'right thing to do', like he's exposing it for the sake of the real Don Draper's family, and not just because it could benefit him long-term.

As we go deeper into Don's back-story and witness the events in Korea that led him to steal the identity of the real Don, we learn more about his character and the fragility beneath the surface. Jon Hamm does a fantastic job here, clearly differentiating the roles of Don and Dick, raising his voice to this child-like pitch, his demeanor so nervous and vulnerable. It's this entirely different person, an acting decision that makes it easier for you to sympathize with him. Yes, what he did was wrong, and it was obviously tragic to see young Adam chasing after that train, sure he glimpsed his older brother on board... but Don is a man who has always run away from his problems, so wounded that he sees it as the only choice he can make. When Rachel calls him on it, writing him off as a insecure child, it suddenly comes down on Don like a ton of bricks.

All of these revelations also help bring Don and Peggy closer together. Both feel somewhat distant from their co-workers, like impostors in a world that they weren't supposed to be in. Don, obviously, with his poverty-stricken history and the way he had to become somebody else to fit in, and Peggy this week with her early departure from the Sterling Cooper election party and her subsequent task of cleaning the vomit from her trash can. She's somebody who tries so hard and works so much, yet is made to feel alien and different by her peers. It's this lingering connection between the two of them that gets pushed, though, Don fine with Peggy seeking out his office for some escape time from it all.

As much as it upends expectations, there's a neat quality of confirmation to Nixon vs. Kennedy, events in Don's past unfolding how you would imagine, but performed with such tragic conviction that it winds up feeling just right, instead of predictable. This is a show consistently intent on giving elaborate weight to its cast of characters, and it's hard to not adore it all. A+


- Why would Cooper care? Don is a star, brings in money, and is so ingrained in this persona that his personal life and history is irrelevant. It's also Ayn Rand speaking, naturally, his belief in self-interest discussed weeks ago once again becoming an important theme this season.

- It's such a small bit, but Joan's face after she kisses Salvatore is so incredibly intense. She just notices something was a little different, her mind ticking over with theories within the moment. But it's also interesting to watch Salvatore himself right after, how he turns to the watching crowd and bows. It was so much a show, done for others, lacking in any kind of sexual substance.

- Strong subplot work for Paul and Harry this week, from Paul being exposed as a junior Orson Welles with a hammy play (titled "Death Is My Client"), to Harry sleeping with snarky Hildy and his morals being just as broken as his trademark specs.


Hildy: I've never really seen your eyes before.
Harry: Well, there they are. Just the two of them.

Rachel: Why are you doing this to me? And what kind of man are you? Go away, drop everything, leave your life?
Don: People do it every day.

Peggy: I don't understand. I try to do my job. I follow the rules, and people hate me. Innocent people get hurt, and other people... people who are not good, get to walk around doing whatever they want. It's not fair.

Guest stars
Robert Morse (Bertram Cooper)
Writers Lisa Albert, Andre Jacquemetton, Maria Jacquemetton Director Alan Taylor

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