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William Bradley

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Mad Men: Whose Side Is Time On, Anyway?

Posted: 04/ 3/2012 5:50 pm

The roar of generational change got ever louder in this week's Mad Men, so much so that Roger Sterling plaintively wondered when things will go back to normal. That would be "Never," Roger. At least for you. As always, there be spoilers ahead.

Meanwhile ... She's baaack. It's around the 4th of July, 1966, and the character so many love to hate, and whom many thought had slipped away from the storyline, Betty Draper Francis, has returned to the show in a big way. Literally. Well, not that big. But the svelte Grace Kelly lookalike has put on a lot of weight. (This is how creator Matthew Weiner deals with star January Jones's real-life pregnancy, which arrived not long after she wrapped her co-starring role as wintry telepath Emma Frost in X-Men: First Class.)

Absent an untimely demise, Betty is forever a key character in the show. She and Don were the perfect couple at the dawn of the '60s, "the pair on top of the wedding cake," as Roger Sterling admiringly and enviously put it. She was Don's trophy wife with a brain, a multi-lingual graduate of a top college, Bryn Mawr, who wanted to partner with Don as he rose in advertising, as we saw in the Rome episode in which she dazzled Conrad Hilton, but was shunted to one of Don's compartments as a suburban housewife, bitterly left only with a new charm for her bracelet.

Now she's married to a doting older man, Henry Francis, a top advisor to the liberal New York Republicans who once played so large a role in American politics. (And if that doesn't date this show, nothing will.) But though she's had a chance to be part of the glittering circle around New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller -- which we sadly never see -- and Henry is now a chief advisor to glamorous new New York Mayor John Lindsay, she's depressed. (In six years time in the Mad Men universe, Lindsay will be an anti-war Democrat running for president.) So much so that she's taken to constant snacking, which makes her heavier, which makes her more depressed. Funny how that works.

And the doctor she's gone to for diet pills, also known as speed, tells her she's a depressed "middle-aged woman." Middle-aged? She's, like, 34 or 35! Even more depressing, but a typically sexist and ageist view. (If I don't mention the sexism that permeates the show, it's because it permeates the show, and the era. It's like mentioning the color of the sky. Feminism doesn't become a big thing till another decade and Mad Men is not scifi. This is not a show about enlightened heroes and heroines.) Then Betty discovers she has a tumor.

It turns out to be benign, of course, but not until the Don-Betty connection rears its head again (she craves his reassurance and he's clearly worried about his "Birdie," and not sold on Megan as the mother of his children) and a fortune teller -- of all story-telling devices! -- makes Betty see the irony of an errant reading of tea leaves. Our Betty, in the reading, is a wonderful person and a light to the world. Er, no. And she knows it.

While that plays out, under Jon Hamm's steady direction, the drumbeat of generational change and ethnic change gets ever louder for the gang at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Much of that drumbeat is a Charlie Watts backbeat as the music of the Rolling Stones takes center stage. Those zany execs at Heinz didn't buy Peggy's rather daft pitch about dancing beans, but they do want SCDP to get the Stones to turn "Time Is On My Side" -- which the exec calls "Time Is On Your Side" until Megan, youngest in the room, tellingly corrects it as "Time Is On MY Side" -- into a jingle. You know, "Heinz Is On My Side."

This is the comic centerpiece of the episode, as Don and Harry Crane venture to a Stones concert in Forest Hills to try to sign the band. (Which had already done a commercial, incidentally. Mick Jagger did go to the London School of Economics, you know.)

Harry, whom Don clearly loathes, tries to blend in, managing to get stoned and to sign the wrong band. Don makes no concession to the emerging hipoisie, looking so ultra-square, as Megan rather perkily notes as he leaves her, that some wonder backstage if he's a narc. He does his usual market research, uneasily, with a would-be groupie who is only a few years older than Sally. Yikes. Foreshadowing, anyone?

Meanwhile, back at the barn, SCDP has reacquired Mohawk Airlines -- which it ditched a few years back to chase after the chimera of American Airlines -- as a client. So they need to hire a new copywriter to service the big new/renewed account. Peggy picks the agency's first Jewish staffer, who may or may not be a friend of Woody Allen, in which case there will be some amusing back story here, with Roger's fairly happy assent. It's another way for the agency to seem modern, Roger figures.

Pete Campbell uses the occasion to tell the agency that, while Roger -- who is, after all, a name partner, which Pete is not -- will handle the account "day to day," he, Pete, will really be in charge. In what may be foreshadowing of an issue to come, i.e., trouble for Peggy's upward mobility, Roger tells her that Pete was the last guy he had hired.

It's the "Dawn" of a new age in another way, as well. Sorry, couldn't resist. SCDP's prank ad responding to the real-life Young and Rubicam water balloon attack on civil rights protesters resulted in a rush of black job-seekers. Which resulted in the hiring of a black secretary who naturally gets assigned to Don, ensuring that we will see a lot of her. Her name, as fate in the form of the writer's room would have it, is Dawn. Heh. Really. Much hilarity, some of it even amusing, is already ensuing over the Don / Dawn match-up, as you might imagine.

Social change is not only in the air, it's sprouting up all around.

In the end, of course, despite all this impending tumult, we know what happens. The counter-culture makes a big and spectacular series of marks but implodes and is co-opted by the same forces controlling Madison Avenue at the beginning of Mad Men.

After all, what industry is better at turning social change into a consuming impulse than advertising?

The first few seasons of the show depict America, and New York, in the full flowering of its post-World War II glory. Finally removed from the horrors of war in the 1940s, emerging from the happy sedation of the 1950s, the first four seasons took us through the first half of the 1960s, a relatively uncomplicated golden age, at least until November 22, 1963. Except for when it wasn't. Now it's all changing. Or is it?

Incidentally, the real world of present day politics impinged on the show with Henry Francis's reference to "Romney" as "a clown" that he doesn't want Mayor Lindsay standing next to.

One or another of Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney's sons -- I'm not sure if it was Tagg or Biff, but I think it was the one who was in business with Meg Whitman's son, Griff Harsh V (I love these names!) -- tweeted angrily about the insult.

The Romney the show's referring to is not Mitt Romney, of course, but his father, George Romney, then the governor of Michigan and a moderate to liberal Republican who supported civil rights who was, for a time the Republican frontrunner for president. A year later, George Romney, speaking about the Vietnam War, will notoriously say that he had been "brainwashed" by generals into supporting it. His presidential hopes went decidedly south after that, and a fellow named Richard Nixon easily secured the Republican nomination in 1968, then narrowly won the general election after vowing that he had "a secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam. It was secret, all right.

All that is in the future at this moment in Mad Men. But Romney did have a reputation for being candid, sometimes too candid. Quite unlike his son, who seems to have overcompensated for his father's foibles. And Henry Francis's principal, Mayor John Lindsay, was planning to run for president himself at some point, which he actually did in 1972. And Henry's previous principal, Nelson Rockefeller, something of a Lindsay ally, was planning to run for president against Romney and Nixon in 1968.

So it's no surprise that Henry Francis would make a crack about George Romney, already a rival of Rockefeller and a likely rival of Lindsay.

Not that grandson Tagg, bleeting about "the liberal media" supposedly allied with Barack Obama, understands any of this.


You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.


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