‘Mad Men’ in Hooterville

mad-men-hooterville
Valentine's Day. (AMC)
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Starlee Kine

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Sally loses her purse and, with it, the only way of keeping in touch with her past. She goes to the one place with an address she doesn’t need to look up in a book. She’s had it memorized since she first learned that while crying might be more effective for getting your needs met, you need language to get what you want.

She hasn’t been to her dad’s office since it turned into a house of mirrors. Women call into elevator chambers and the men hear no sound. Secretaries call each other by their own names. The front receptionists keep changing color. A woman walks through one door as head of personnel and exits through another as an account man. A fiancé turns into a married man.

The only doors open to Sally these days are ones she’d prefer stay closed. The door leading to Sylvia’s bedroom through which she glimpsed, with horror, a new side of her dad. The lid to the casket at her roommate’s mother’s funeral. Lou Avery’s office door, wide open, his name clear as day on the plaque: Not Your Dad.

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Lou’s our first clear-cut villain. No ambiguity there. Peggy wasn’t reading into things last week; he hates women. Dawn tells the next girl to always patch his son through when he calls and in the spaces between those words I pictured an army of daughters being told their dad was in a meeting or out to lunch or training a new copywriter, until they finally hung up, gave up, tore all traceof s him from their address books and wedding photos and diaries. Lou has exactly one “Can I help you sweetheart” in him for Sally before he’s exhausted, like Mr. Burns attempting a smile. Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. He sends Sally on a wild Joan chase but all the women with maternal instincts are gone. Don married one of them. Another had a secret baby and to insulate herself the heartbreak of losing him, she disguised herself as a man. Sally goes to find Joan but she’s been sawed in half, in order to be able to do two jobs. Sally doesn’t know how the trick works and so she knocks on the wrong end, Joan’s lower half instead of her upper. The door remains closed and from behind, she hears Lou Avery’s door slam shut too, denying her entrance to the legacy she grew up waiting impatiently to reject. Then he hurries to call Dawn into his office so he can take back her keys.

Cooper is fine with the firm hiring black employees, as long as the image they’re presenting to the world is still white. Peggy doesn’t care whether her secretary is black, she just wants to be entitled to the same rights. The right to be sent flowers. The right to have a guy to come home to who sees her as a girl, after a day at the office surrounded by guys who don’t.

An unhappy person is like a strand of hair placed in a door jamb. The slightest activity will snap it in half and that’s all the evidence that will be needed. Lou doesn’t like how his encounter with Sally makes him feel. He needs things to be uncomplicated. So he transfers his discomfort onto Dawn, turns the table so it was she who messed up instead of he. Peggy does the same with Shirley and Don with Sally. Don is so relieved to catch his daughter in a lie—the opposite of how she feels about catching him. It’s like a mini vacation, a little break from his having to feel terrible about himself. He gets to be the dad again, demanding his daughter account for her whereabouts while he doesn’t have to tell her a thing about his. When Sally tells him she knows he’s lying, he turns this on her too. How could she have let him do that? She didn’t say anything for the same reason that Shirley tried not to, too. Becoming an embarrassing reminder will only get you moved farther out of sight.

Long ago, Peggy and Pete were briefly a thing. It’s hard to remember sometimes what drew them to each other back then but this week it was clear. Neither of them knows how to be happy, how to stop making everything so intense and hard. Peggy turns (what she believes to be) a gift into an insult. She’s single but still manages to get into a relationship fight on Valentine’s Day. Pete lands a new client and feels worse than ever. “Why even bring in an account!” he asks Ted. “They’re just going to take it away.” It is true that this has been the sad pattern of Pete Campbell’s life so far. Most everything Pete he once had is now gone: his wife, his parents, his hairline. He was told of the loss of his son years after he even knew he had one, so that he then had to go back through the files and make the proper adjustments.

Now Pete’s got a new girlfriend and he looks at her with his teardrop colored eyes and says, he’s sorry but their problems aren’t the same. Of course not, she agrees, hers are worse. “An act of God,” she says. “That’s how you know when things are really against you.” Is it God who chooses who will be born a woman instead of a man? Who decides the color of one’s skin?

In the same way that not all humans recognize themselves in others, ghosts can’t see every other ghost. Peggy and Pete are feeling invisible but instead of this eliciting compassion toward others in a similar predicament, they’re lashing out against the living. It’s the opposite for Joan. They’ve been humbled. The tar has reached their knees. Joan doesn’t try to compete with Dawn over who has it worse—a single mom or a minority female—but instead itemizes what they have in common. She laces her hands together and catapults Dawn up over the wall.

To be Machievellian means to always have an ulterior motive for everything you do. I’m sure Joan’s alliance with Dawn comes from the right place. She was acting from pure instinct—but there is an added advantage. It’s suddenly apparent that Dawn is a more valuable ally than she once seemed. Out of everyone in the office, it is only her and Shirley who have actual job security. They can’t get fired. More importantly, she now realizes this and it’s hard to imagine her not sharing this with Shirley at their next kitchen meet-up. Pete tells Ted the only chance for advancement is the slightly bigger office in the next room but it’s Roger who’s looking around and realizing how little room he has left to move. Cutler to Roger, “I’d hate for you to become an adversary” while to Joan, “Maybe you should be complaining.”

The connection’s getting bad, full of static. When people want to be heard, they can’t. When they don’t, they can. “Let me try out there,” says the girl. “What difference can that possibly make?” asks Roger. Don’s relationship with Megan is now mostly on the phone but when they see each other, it’s like they’re talking through tin cans tied to opposite ends of a string. Shirley’s desk is right outside Peggy’s door but that’s enough of a barrier to keep her from being able to claim what belongs to her. Pete asks Ted why the hell he’s in California but storms off without waiting for the answer. Pete says no one feels his existence but he’s the one treating Ted like the ghost. It’s just the two of them working in that office, with only each other to talk to, and each day, they’re learning less and less. Pete has sex with his girlfriend on his desk, forcing Ted to flee their shared office space, and then feels upset that his colleague doesn’t appreciate what California has to offer. Seconds after he asks Ted why he’s there he declares they shall no longer speak.

In 1969, Bell Labs was gearing up to release its long anticipated Picturephone. They were sure it would be the future. “The urge to travel and see the world with one's own eyes will probably be enhanced,” they predicted. “But the need for many ordinary trips for shopping, for conducting normal business … should be greatly reduced …. It may in fact help solve many social problems, particularly those pertaining to life in the big city.” It never really took off, though. As any future earthling could’ve told them, there’s nothing worse than accidentally activating Facetime and suddenly finding yourself exposed.

Phones with pictures don't make lonely people feel more loved. They just train them to listen less. Bell Labs’ chairman, Mervin Kelly, believed that physical proximity was essential to the generating of ideas. The company’s thinkers and makers worked side by side, under the same roof. In 1941 he designed an office in Murray Hill, N.J. that made it so colleagues would interact with one another on a regular basis. Some of the hallways were so long that to look down their length was to see the tips converge into a vanishing point. Employees were instructed to work with their doors open so that, walking down those hallways, it nearly impossible to still be alone by the time you got to the end.

The Picturephone couldn’t work unless the other person had one too. The same goes with a sense of humor. Roger tries to make Lou laugh and as the story unspools, the hall stretches longer and longer between them, until they’re standing on opposite sides of the building, screaming to be heard. Don could always be depended on to turn on the charm but that’s not of high enough value anymore, at least not in a business sense. The clients will see through it now; he’s made them nervous, which is what they’re paying not to feel.

Now he’s been banished to a solitary life, where he grows sicker of himself by the hour. There’s no escaping his own thoughts, every distraction feels like a reproach. He turns on “Little Rascals”and there are he and Peggy conducting a focus group for lemonade. He opens a magazine and sees an ad for soup. “How do you handle a hungry man?” The cost of Don not eating lunch alone is to hide his loneliness from whoever he’s dining with. He needs to convince McCann Erickson he’s still handsome, hoping they don’t notice the salt and pepper forming at his temples, the Ritz Cracker crumbs caught in the knot of his tie. He needs to keep all those ad guys who used to admire him amused and drunk. But still, there are giveaways that Don’s out of touch. In response to rumors about his meltdown he counters with, “I don’t care what the Hooterville telephone operator has to say.” Even if you don’t know the reference, it feels old and uncool. Lou Avery’s trying to keep up with the kids by calling everyone Gladys Knight. Hooterville was the town where first “Petticoat Junction” took place and then “Green Acres,”a world that gradually grew more and more surreal until finally vanishing in the “rural purge” of the ’70s, where networks “cancelled everything with a tree.” “Green Acres”revolved around Oliver Wendell Douglass, who fled the big city for the country, only to find himself in a new life where everyone (including his wife) understood the language and culture but him.

Lou Avery doesn’t see the value of women. Don always has. They’ve consistently been the way he’s proven that he exists. He stayed in New York to fix what he broke but it’s not until he’s sitting across from his daughter, confessing his sins, that he knows what it means to heal. Sally doesn’t need him to entertain her. She just needs him to make her feel safe, which means no lies. He doesn’t have to go into details. She’ll hear what he’s saying as long as it’s sincere. “What was the truth?” she asks him. “Nothing you don’t already know.” It’s a kind of communication that’s almost the same as not speaking, except it’s warm instead of cold. It’s the difference between quiet and silence, between telling a lie about still having a job and making a joke about not paying the check. How do you handle a hungry girl? You tell her you’ve run out of gas and that you’re sorry for everything.