The attrition warfare of ‘Mad Men’

attrition-warfare-mad-men
Don and Sylvia. (All photos Ron Jaffe/AMC)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Starlee Kine

Follow: feed

"Now that it’s all over, you really knew it was coming, didn’t you?"
—South Vietnam president Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, to a visiting Washington official, after the Tet Offensive

Don’s left alone in the Italian restaurant with Sylvia after her husband gets called away on another emergency. Dr. Rosen’s off to fight a stranger’s battle while ignoring the war at home. Don notices that Sylvia’s drinking wine and asks if they should order a bottle.

“You’re drinking something else. I don’t want you to have wine if you don’t want wine. I’m not going to drink a whole bottle, obviously.”

“I don’t know how obvious that is,” says Don.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

Maybe that isn’t, but what she is really talking about is. She doesn’t want Don to sleep with her if what he wants is Megan.

“I want you. All the time,” he tells her, but even such a flat-out declaration isn’t the truth. Don Draper doesn’t know what he wants anymore. He accuses Sylvia of being bothered about everything working out perfectly; they get to have a romantic dinner for two. But isn’t that exactly what makes him so restless? He married the sort of woman he thought he wanted, one who was the opposite of Betty, and still the dissatisfaction remains. He gives Sylvia a hard look and then, clarity.

“Now I understand,” he tells her. “You want to feel shitty right up to the point where I take your dress off. You want to skip dinner, fine. But don’t pretend.”

As Don speaks, we’re thrown into the future, after the meal is done and the two of them are falling together onto her maid’s bed. That’s the moment Sylvia’s really been after all along and the only way she can allow herself to have it is by punishing herself beforehand. Because she was raised the same way Megan was, with a nun’s voice always in her head. I want to linger on that time jump for a moment because to me it felt like the way we’re come to watch this show. We sit quietly through the meal so that we can enjoy ourselves once it’s done.

In this week’s episode and last, nearly every line felt as though it were laced through with another meaning besides the line being said. Two meanings, actually, since at this point we’re interpreting both the character insinuations and Matthew Weiner’s. I do wish he would give us a little more room to breathe, or at least more credit. Why train us how to watch his show if he’s not going to give us the chance to figure some of this stuff out on our own?

Must Peggy’s new boss refer to her old colleague Stan so explicitly as the enemy? Is Roger going to keep spelling out to us the metaphor behind each episode’s title? When the Heinz client, Raymond, said he wasn’t “winking here” it came as a jolt. Total transparency is not how it’s normally done, and Ken immediately dismissed him as weak as soon as he was out of the room. The same thing happened when Megan tried to confess her true, conflicted feelings about her pregnancy and miscarriage to Sylvia. The thought of a baby coming now that her acting career was starting to take off filled her with panic and dread and Sylvia reacts to Megan’s honesty by making her feel ashamed. Later when Megan tells Don about the miscarriage, she leaves the part about having considered the possibility of abortion out. They each tell the other what they think the other wants to hear, and the "Mad Men" universe is snapped back into alignment.

Last week death was the silent threat that hung in the air. This week, we have the louder theme of war, literally announcing itself under and in-between character’s words. As Don he points to his head and says his and Sylvia’s affair didn’t happen except for “in here,” a radio news report can suddenly be heard; the subject is the Tet Offensive that had just occurred. Then he hands her a wad of cash along with a suggested lie: “Just say you found it in the cookie jar.” She takes it, smiling. If he didn’t make her feel like trash, none of this would be any fun. I watched the scene twice, the second time giving listening preference to the radio show, and it was amazing how Don and Sylvia’s domestic problems receded. It felt like when you leave a TV on just for background noise, with a show like Megan’s soap opera playing.

“Crack the sky, shake the earth” the communist forces were told as they prepared for the Tet Offensive. Don’s aunt gives her husband credit for bringing Don’s pregnant stepmother and him to their new home-sweet-whorehouse. The uncle refers to himself as the rooster who brings on the day. Don betrays Pete but stays loyal to beans-man Raymond, telling Ken that “sometimes you need to dance with the one who brung you.” Just like Don’s step-mother danced with the rooster while a teenage Don watched through a peephole. A prostitute, whom his current mistress reminds him of, sees him watching, and acts all flirty as she calls him dirty and suggests a new lie for him to tell the next time he’s caught.

One of the Viet Kong’s prime targets was the radio station in Saigon where they had hoped to broadcast a tape recording of Ho Chi Minh calling for an uprising. They understood the importance of mass advertising to get their message out. Herb the Jaguar client knows that too. He wants to divide the account more evenly between national and local, drawing customers out of the city and into his dealership in New Jersey. The sight of Herb’s forehead dripping with sweat after walking up just one flight of stairs was enough for me to cringe all over again on Joan’s behalf. Don sees it too and won’t shake his hand, while Pete is now the one left picking stuff out of his hair. Don sabotages Herb’s plan by selling the idea of Jaguar as an aspiration for everyday folk. Last season he was comparing the car to the woman you couldn’t have. Now he’s calling it a common housewife. He asks Harry to back him up on the stats, which felt like another nod to the war. When the U.S. realized a decisive victory wasn’t possible, winning became a numbers game.

“We gave them peace for their sacred holiday,” says Dr. Rosen. “Next thing we know they cut us to ribbons.” Stan tells Peggy about SCDP being able to represent Heinz while they’re having a time-out as friends, not rivals, and she accidentally uses his own intel against him. The place you feel most safe is becoming the most dangerous. The North Koreans tried to assassinate the President of South Korea in his home. Don is sleeping with his neighbor’s wife in their own apartment. The Tet Offensive drew American troops to the cities, leaving the countryside more vulnerable. Pete and Trudy moved to the suburbs for some peace and quiet but that just meant the enemy was now even closer, living right across the street.

On the evening of Jan. 30th, 1968, 200 US officers attended a pool party in Saigon, not one of them aware that the city would be attacked in a few hours. Trudy gets invited to a pool party too, unaware that her husband is peddling hot dogs in the foyer nearby. He holds up two coats for two women. It seems like either one will fit. After Trudy finds out about Pete’s affair, he asks her if she wants a divorce. “I refuse to be a failure,” she tells him, not understanding that sometimes continuing to fight can make you seem like a much bigger loser.

Dr. Rosen, standing in for his Mr. Weiner (they do have the same hairline) draws an explicit comparison to Castro, whom the U.S. didn’t take seriously until it was too late. Is it a veiled threat to Don about not underestimating him? That seems the most obvious interpretation. But there were also all those references to hired help in this episode. The maid Megan plays on her show pushed her boss down the stairs but she still fires her real life one for minor offenses. Don orders an old-fashioned and then curls his lip insultingly while saying the word’s “maid’s room.” Dr. Rosen wants the waiter to put on a show for them.

Peggy seems to be the only one interested in real progress in this area. Her black receptionist is the only person she respects in her office (although she still craves approval from her boss).

Is this the show’s way of acknowledging how badly it's been underestimating the significance of race in the 1960s? For six seasons, we’ve watched this show dwell upon the transformation of white women and the slow death of white men. Considering nothing ends up in these episodes without a reason, I’m hoping all these little asides are building toward something, that some of the most important changes are yet to come.

Starlee Kine is a a frequent contributor to PRI's "This American Life." She writes a weekly essay on "Mad Men," every Monday after an episode airs. Previously: Donald Draper might just be the devil.