Mad Men: alien life

Don Draper. (Photo by Justina Mintz/AMC)
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Starlee Kine

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The mid-season finale of “Mad Men” airs Sunday night, May 25 at 10 p.m. Catch up with Starlee Kine’s essays on each episode. Last week: counting stars. See them all here.

The arrival of the computer brings with it an important lesson: a new model can be replaced with an old one. Stephanie is younger than Megan but was in Don’s life earlier. She knew his secrets first. Her unborn child is a more direct link to Anna than a wedding ring. The real Don Draper had once slid that ring onto Anna’s finger and Dick reenacted that same scene, complete with a prop from the original cast production. Megan always thought of a baby as something that destroys your life, not saves it. The soggy wreck that is her mother was all the evidence she needed. Now, though, she can’t get over the beauty of this pregnant girl. Even through all the greasy hair, that dirty poncho, there’s a glow. It throws Megan off. How can an alien that’s living inside you add color to your cheeks instead of draining it? In Rosemary’s Baby, Mia Farrow, pregnant with the Devil, devours raw meat while in a trance. “I know, I’m a Madonna,” says Stephanie and pushes away her plate of steak.

“Make yourself at home,” Megan tells Stephanie. That word—home—can be a tricky one. There are so many different models. Luckily Megan is an actress and knows how to play all the roles. At first she is the caregiver. She slips on her old costume from when she and Don went to California together for the first time. She crosses the room and is on a new set, a sunny kitchen. She hurries to change into her traditional role as cool older confidante who conspires with the children against grumpy dad but it doesn’t fit. She discovers she’s been cast in another part: Betty Draper. Megan turns on Stephanie as fast as Betty turned on Bobby. Her place in the world felt threatened. Part of her power over Don is that she still looked at him the same after he told her his secrets. She made her face into a mask. With Stephanie, the connection is deeper. Don’s real identity is not a story she was told or a confession she dragged out of him. It’s part of the fabric that makes up her own life. She knew him as Dick in the present moment instead of just in the past. You can’t compete with family.

Stephanie tells Megan that nothing happened between her and Don but she leaves out the part where he tried. Megan was appalled when Don withheld the truth to her about his job but she doesn’t just leave out details about Stephanie to him; she actively orchestrates the deception. This whole season Don keeps arriving a little too late or standing just out of earshot to get the full story of what’s being done to him. He didn’t know about the meeting where Roger broke down his worth. He’s unaware of Cutler and Lou’s plot against him. Lou makes him stay late at work (an extra jerk move considering he thinks Don’s about to get fired) and so he misses his flight. When he lands in the morning, his niece is gone and his wife is lying to him without his realizing.

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There’s only one moment where we see Amy interact with anyone besides Don and Megan, when she passes a joint back to an anonymous partygoer. Otherwise it’s easy to believe that she’s just their imaginary friend. Instead of a baby, Megan’s created a life-sized robot that she can use to control her husband. She’s modeled the robot after herself. “I know what he likes.” Amy even wears some of Megan’s clothes. She does the dishes when Megan doesn’t feel like it. Her hair is red like fire, to burn away the memory of all the blonds in his life.

Amy yells “Wilmaaaaa” as Don walks through the door. She’s calling him a cave man, out of touch with modern times, who’s come home to drag the women to his cave by their hair. “You're an actress too?” asks Don. “I will be if someone will let me.” “The Flintstones” was the first animated show to show two people of the opposite sex sleeping together in one bed, side by side, not touching. The first to capture that particular form of loneliness. It was originally sponsored by Winston cigarettes, with Fred and Wilma smoking in armchairs during commercial breaks. Once Wilma gave birth to Pebbles, she and Fred stopped smoking Winstons and started drinking Welch’s Grape Juice.

“The Flintstones” takes place in a past that is just like ours except for the absence of machines. Hanna-Barbara had a rivalry with fellow director, Tex Avery and an early cartoon he did called “The First Bad Man” might have been one of the influences for the show. It’s about the history of Texas and man named Dinosaur Dan who keeps causing trouble and running off with all the pretty women. He’s finally captured after he runs into his literal man cave and the people chisel away the whole outer rock until his home has become a jail. The final scene takes place in the present, with Dinosaur Dan still in jail and asking, sadly, “When are y’all gonna let me out of here?”

The nation is ailing. Older people are infected with the disease of wanting to be young. Stan and Mathias shove each other in the agency hallway. Don snickers in the meeting with Lou. Younger people are infected with the disease of wildness. Black circles are forming around their eyes. They’re revolting against the ones who created them in their likeness, destroying the features they have in common, slicing off their nipples and breaking the delicate bones of their nostrils. “It was a perfect nose,” says Betty to Sally, “and I gave it to you.” She’d rather hide her daughter from the world than have her face forward with features that are less than perfect. Pebbles Flintsone was originally supposed to be a boy until marketing discovered that girl dolls sell better.

Betty arranges tiny franks on a tray. She hasn’t learned yet what Burger Chef is just discovering with its mascot, Little Chef: if you’re going to replicate the same design, you can’t offer less than what came before. She claims she insisted on going before the others to put her neighbors at ease but it’s all about control. Nostalgia is a powerful thing and there’s nothing like the memory of the first place you called home. Still, it’s Betty who tries to diffuse the fight later in the bedroom with Henry. He’s the one who holds on tight to his anger. He’s upset about having to spend the night stag, without his wife on his arm. He played the role of Megan as he went door to door, a single person who is married. But more than that, he feels his grip on his wife’s mind slipping and it’s making him uneasy. “Guess what? I think all by myself,” says Betty. Scout, the monkey, cocks his bazooka and aims it at cartoon Lou, who raises his hands, shocked: “I created you.”

“What am I? Cassandra?” says the prophet Ginsburg, cursed with foreseeing the future but not being able to make others believe it. Cassandra predicted the fall of Troy and saw the Trojan Horse for what it was: a lifeless shell providing cover for a vengeful army of men. She told the truth again and again to deaf ears, until finally she went mad. Ginsburg feels like he’s got a bomb inside him, the pressure is so intense. He can’t get the sound of the computer hum out of his ears. In 1933, the German government decided to do a nationwide census, to help identify the different ethnic groups living in the country. Using punch cards made by IBM, they were able to determine there were two million Jews instead of the previously thought four to six hundred thousand. Later, the concentration camps used IBM punch cards to keep tabs on the inmates. “That machine came for us,” he tells Peggy. “And one by one…”

Ginsburg stuffs tissue paper in his ears to drown out the hum. Odysseus had his men plug their ears with beeswax while he kept his unblocked. He wanted to know what the sirens sang. The sirens made predictions about the future. “‘Come here,” they sang, “and listen to our two voices. No one ever sailed past us without staying to hear the enchanting sweetness of our song— and he who listens will go on his way not only charmed, but wiser, for we know all the ills that the gods laid upon the Argives and Trojans before Troy, and can tell you everything that is going to happen over the whole world.” But he did a bit of prophesizing too. He knew that once the sirens started singing he’d be too weak to resist and so he made arrangements to protect his present self from his future one. He had his men lash him to his ship’s mast, therefore making failure impossible.

Stanley Kubrick read an article by game-theory scholar Thomas Schelling that led to the making of Dr. Strangelove. Schelling wrote about deterrence, which can be used to dissuade an opponent from taking an action that’s not yet started. In order for deterrence to work, you have to convince your opponent that the threat they’re facing is real. Pre-commitment strategy can be used for this, where steps are taken to show your opponent or enemy that you’re not going to back out. An army decides to go to war and burns the bridge behind them that they rode in on, making retreat impossible. Don Draper quits his job before starting in on the pitch, showing Cutler and Lou that he’s done messing around.

Underdog’s main enemy was Simon Bar Sinister. A bar sinister is a line from the top right to the bottom left that was used in the nineteenth century to convey the illegitimacy of a child. Underdog was voiced by Wally Cox, who grew up with Marlon Brando. Brando started acting while Cox made a living selling jewelry, lugging his wares in a pillow case from party to party, a burglar who was terrible at his job. Brando found him so funny and encouraged him to go that route. Cox got his first break on radio, doing a comedy routine where he started off as one character and then abruptly shifted to another, throwing the audience off their guard. At his wake, Brando climbed through a back window into the bedroom where Cox had died and stayed there the whole time. Most people weren’t even aware he was there. He didn’t want them to see him and he didn’t want to see them. “Wally was my friend,” he later explained, “nobody else’s.” Cox had left instructions for his ashes to be scattered over some hiking trails he’d loved but Brando refused. He kept the ashes with him, in his home or under the front seat of his car. It wasn’t until Brando died that Wally’s remains were finally set free, when the two men’s ashes were scattered together over Death Valley. Best friends for eternity.

“You have a thing to learn about patriotism and loyalty,” Lou lectures the team. “Turns out Lou thinks he’s Mort Walker,” says Stan. Mort Walker created Beetle Bailey. The comic strip started in 1950 and has been stuck in time ever since. Its characters still wear the uniforms of the late forties. Beetle’s Sergeant Snorkel is often seen hanging helplessly from a cliff. While he is never shown falling off, he always seems to hold onto that same branch, forever yelling for help. The strip is known for having one of the largest permanent casts. While many of the older characters are rarely seen, almost none have been completely retired.

“We don’t turn on our friends as easily as you do,” says the one in command of Commander cigarettes. Cutler and Lou shift uncomfortably in their chairs. In the past, Don drew strength from the same creatures who made him the weakest: women. But now it’s friendship that’s anchoring him to shore. Anna calls Megan magnetic but it’s Harry that Don is gravitating to. The siren song the musicians play at her party has no affect on him. The threesome he suddenly finds himself participating in seems to have faded like a dream by morning. He only has work on his mind. “First you were dead,” says Ginsburg. “And then all this activity started in your eyelids.” The old Don Draper appears to be back.

“Once the smoke clears I need to rush some things out,” Don tells Lou. There’s only one more episode before the break. It seems like there has to be a fire coming. Some scholars believe the Sirens were fated to die if someone heard their singing and escaped them. Which means that after Odysseus passed, they flung themselves into the water. Death by drowning instead of suffocating. And there’s also this: Sharon Tate died in August of 1969. At the trial, one of her murderers, Manson Family member Susan Atkins, said, “They didn’t even look like people … I didn’t relate to Sharon Tate as being anything but a store mannequin … She sounded like an IBM machine.” Joan Didion, writing of the aftermath: “The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.”