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Mad Men Recap: Season 1, Episode 12, "Nixon vs. Kennedy"

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Mad Men Recap: Season 1, Episode 12, “Nixon vs. Kennedy”

“I wish I knew more—I bet a lot of people do”— Pete Campbell

Well, after “Nixon vs. Kennedy”, just about the only things we don’t know about Don Draper are his shoe size and the age at which he lost his virginity. While the wartime flashback felt a little bit as if the writers were checking off items on a list of things that need to have happened (in a manner that reminded me of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, oddly enough), the present day action gave us a powerhouse climax to the season.

I was pleased to see that my two main predictions last week were on the money: Bert Cooper was indifferent, if not approving, toward Don having taken an unorthodox path to the top—and, a la The Sopranos, the penultimate episode proved to be the most explosive, setting the stage for episode for next week’s finale to be more of a denoument. Elements of the episode seemed like examples of what the otaku crowd call “fan service”—the acknowledgement of Michael Gladis’s resemblance to Orson Welles, and a long-overdue subplot for Harry Crane—but they felt organic and not like gratuitous winks. It’s hard to imagine how a Mad Men fan could fail to be thoroughly satisfied, unless he or she is the kind of person who feels it’s capable to get too much of a good thing. Certainly, I felt “Nixon vs. Kennedy” to be the best episode in several weeks. Some of the metaphors may have felt obvious, but the show’s tendency to “overclose” had nothing to do with it—these metaphors, I realized while digesting my first viewing, speak very much to what I now realize is one of Mad Men’s most significant points about how America has changed since 1960, and it’s a complicated enough point that Matthew Weiner et al can be forgiven for using the occasional broad stroke to address it. But we’ll get to all that in time.

We begin with the introduction of Herman “Duck” Phillips (Mark Moses), in a scene that proves his caginess as well as offering more delicious evidence of that of Bert Cooper. As Don escorts Duck out of Cooper’s office, we get a healthy earful of exposition about him from the junior execs. Duck’s “disintegration” and divorce in London after an affair with a woman he met at the British Museum is a scenario that sounds very similar to Don’s relationship with Midge if it had played out differently. The juniors, too young to have really had such experiences themselves yet, see Duck as a pathetic case of self-destruction—in particular Pete, whose sense of entitlement is inflamed by his anger at the prospect of someone who fucked up getting a job that “he” deserves. Don’s transparent disdain when Pete reiterates his interest in the account services job turns our boy’s seething up to 11, and the game is afoot.

Pete, it seems, has been haunted by Don’s mystery box since the end of “Indian Summer”, and not just for the leverage it gives him—I doubt he’d be losing as much sleep and going through tbe box so obsessively if it contained photos of, say, Don injecting heroin or having sex with one of Sterling Cooper’s black elevator operators. Richard Whitman’s self-reinvention as Don Draper and subsequent success at elevating himself from nothing is something Pete’s brain is conceptually incapable of rationalizing. To him, the only way someone could pull it off is if they were patently a criminal. Pete’s definition of manhood is 180 degrees from Don’s: He lives in a world where it’s determined by how once fared in the genetic lottery and how good one is at exploiting old-boy-network connections, not on the basis of ingenuity and hard work.

These two paradigms have their first collision when Pete drops the Dick Whitman bombshell and Don responds by playing dumb. Don’s body language is clearly intended to intimidate—he hopes he can get Pete to back down simply by establishing himself as a more powerful alpha male. Pete’s failure to fold makes it clear that it’s not much of an exaggeration to describe the stalemate as being in the league of a clash between the proverbial irresistible force and an immovable object.

Don’s visit with Rachel, however, reveals just how much Pete spooked him, in addition to revealing that his machismo and creative intelligence mask a childlike naivete that emerges in crisis moments, the result, no doubt, of the mistreatment he received from his stepmother (the one are of his past that isn’t cleared up by “Nixon vs. Kennedy”. When the shit hits the fan, as the Korean war flashback also illustrates, Don’s first impulse is to run and to do whatever it takes to get a fresh start with a clean slate. Rachel is entirely correct when she accuses Don of acting like a 15-year-old; fortunately, he’s smart enough to listen to what she’s saying and process it.

Much as Don has created brilliant ad campaigns as the result of coincidental inspiration at various points during the season, he has an “eureka” moment (off-camera) in which he realizes that Rachel’s admonitions contain the key to his problem with Pete: When he blindsided Rachel—and when Pete blindsided him—neither of them had really thought through the consequences of their actions. When Don returns to Sterling Cooper, he goes another round with Pete and we get one of the most explosive scenes of the entire series. In the plainest language possible, each of them tells the other exactly what they’ve wanted to say about him since episode one but hasn’t, and the fireworks are really something to behold.

Despite Don’s comparison of Nixon to himself in “Long Weekend”, the parallels between the Don-Pete standoff and the Kennedy-Nixon election didn’t dawn on me until they were virtually at the door of Bert Cooper’s office. When I realized what the writers were up to, it didn’t strike me as forced in the least—if these story lines had been introduced maybe two episodes earlier, sure, but the tension in the scene is something that can only result from lots of planning and groundwork, and the confrontation is one that’s been inevitable since early in the very first episode. If the standoff with Pete had come at any other time, it’s quite possible Don might have caved and given Pete the job he wanted. The outcome of the election, however, changes everything.

The election night focus on the junior execs kept us from seeing Don’s immediate response to the election result—what we see instead is his reaction to Bert Cooper informing him of what was then kept from the public but is now generally accepted as fact: That Joe Kennedy colluded with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley to deliver Illinois’ 27 electoral votes to the Democrats by padding the vote total in Cook County (Illinois’ electoral votes alone would not have put Nixon over the top; if he had also carried Texas, also reputed to have been the site of chicanery, its 24 electoral votes would have made him the 35th President of the United States). Believing Kennedy to have won on the basis of privilege and parental interference, Don is fiercely determined to keep the same thing from happening at Sterling Cooper. Kennedy didn’t deserve to be president just because his father was a rich, well-connected bootlegger-turned-U.S. ambassador, thinks Don, and Pete doesn’t deserve to be head of account services just because he went to Dartmouth and his mother’s a Dykman. When Pete asks “You’d rather blow yourself up than make me head of accounts?” (an ironic question in light of the subsequent flashback), Don doesn’t hesitate to do so—to back down would be to surrender to a cultural paradigm he opposes with every fiber of his being.

For a few seconds, it appears as if Don’s rigid posture and withering stare will intimidate Pete into keeping quiet…but he drops the bomb anyway, and Bert Cooper’s response—“Who cares?”—causes one of Mad Men’s main points to click into place.

The differences between 1960 and 2007 that Mad Men usually dwells on are right there on the surface—drinking, smoking, women’s social roles, etc. When Cooper says “this country was built and run by men with worse stories” than what he says Pete made up, he knows what he’s talking about: Joe Kennedy’s corruption makes JFK, in a sense, a much bigger fraud than Don. But to the world—and, more importantly, to his wealthy peers-Kennedy represents the ultimate triumph of privilege. Yes, the five presidents that followed him —Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan—were all men of modest beginnings. But our current chief executive (like his father, the 41st president) is a product of the same monied prep school/Ivy league culture that created Pete Campbell.

Kennedy and Nixon, in the context of this episode, represent dueling visions of America that have been dividing our country for more than 200 years: In some ways, the episode could just as well have been called “Jefferson vs. Adams”. Implicitly, I believe, Matthew Weiner is saying that the presidency of George W. Bush, a to-the-manor-born, second-generation commander-in-chief who fakes the common touch and somehow persuades poor and middle-class Americans to vote against their best interests and thereby reinforce the culture of privilege, represents the ultimate triumph of inherited power over hard-earned success. Today, Dick Whitman couldn’t get away with remaking himself as Don Draper—electronic records and DNA tests obviously complicate things, but the most significant factor is how the cultural changes of the past 47 years have resulted in the extinction of the values that led Cooper to tolerate—indeed, to approve of—Don’s means of ascent. And the message I believe we’re supposed to take away is that with this paradigm shift, America lost a significant chunk of its national soul.

By all accounts, Marilee Jones was a superb Dean of Admissions at MIT, but when it was revealed last year that she’d faked her academic credentials, her actual job performance was suddenly meaningless and she became a national pariah. David Edmonson, the former head of Radio Shack who resigned in 2006 when his fake résumé was exposed, might not have been the greatest CEO in the world, but there are Wharton grads who have done worse as the head of major companies. The degree to which both were vilified speaks to a fundamental cultural change in a country that was once a place where outcasts could come from a second chance. In the “three strikes” era, could Tim Allen, who spent more than two years in prison for trafficking cocaine, still become a sitcom and movie star? Could Charles S. Dutton, who served time for killing a man in a fight, still gain admission to Yale and go on to win multiple Emmys? Could former career criminal and longtime convict Danny Trejo become a ubiquitous character actor? In all three cases, I’m not inclined to think so.

Obviously fraud is a serious crime, and those who fake medical or legal credentials to get ahead can put the public at serious risk. But in a true meritocracy, the kind of system that Bush seems determine to abolish via his attack on the “death tax” and other measures designed to make the rich richer, smart and capable people can succeed even if they’ve invented their past. The 19th century political success of unsophisticated figures such as Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln fed a fundamental American myth: That anyone can rise to the top, no matter their origins, if they just work hard enough. It doesn’t matter if it’s never been completely true—the popular belief that it was true created a spirit of energy and infinite possibility that is reflected in a thousand American movies from the ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s—and very few American movies today. In our more cynical age, thanks to the victories of the John F. Kennedys and George W. Bushes of the world, the more widespread belief that certain doors are closed to those without connections can keep the Dick Whitmans from even making an effort to improve their lives. The damage that such beliefs have inflicted on America is something that, in my opinion, speaks for itself.

Due to the length and the tardiness of this week’s recap (the latter the result of technical and medical issues), I’m going to wrap this up without touching on the junior executives and their election night revels (or, unfortunately, on the Korean War flashbacks) though I hope to touch on the behavior of Ken, Paul, Harry et. al. in a general sense when I weigh in on this week’s season finale, “The Wheel”.

Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.