In its own way, Bye, Bye Birdie, both the Charles Strouse and Lee Adams stage musical and the George Sidney film of the material, is an uneasy attempt to bridge a divide that was already becoming apparent in the late ’50s and early ’60s. It’s simultaneously an attempt to understand a coming eruption. Also, it’s a goofy comedy musical that seems like it’s trying to understand what the matter is with kids today but ultimately ends up siding with their parents. It’s like someone made a musical of the comic strip Zits. There’s nothing as mean-spirited about the work as I’m making it sound, since it’s basically just a lighthearted, gentle look at the sorts of teen frenzies over rock stars that were becoming well-known in the late ’50s, but there is at least an undercurrent of uncertainty to it. When Paul Lynde sings “What’s the Matter with Kids Today?” in the movie version, it’s a joke, yes, but there’s also a vague sense of unease, a sense that things may never again be the same. Kennedy’s in the White House, rock ’n’ roll is here to stay, and there’s a growing sense that youth is driving the conversation now instead of following it. Plus, you’ve got Ann Margaret, sensual and seductive but also somehow innocent (at least in this film). Maybe to our modern eyes, it’s possible to see how corny it all is, but at the time of its release, she must have seemed intoxicating.
“Love Among the Ruins,” written by Carolyn Humphris and Matthew Weiner and directed by Lesli Linka Glatter, similarly places itself in the midst of people trying to cope with the fact that everything is changing, both in the world at large and in their personal lives. Penn Station is being closed down to make way for Madison Square Garden. Betty’s (January Jones) dad is unable to care for himself anymore. Don (Jon Hamm) is doing his best to be the devoted husband and father he wasn’t before. Even Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is facing the fact that she’s had to sacrifice things to become the person she is today. When she has a tryst with a boy she meets at a bar, who’s probably her rough age, she seems decades and decades older next to him.
What’s fascinating about this is that Mad Men is very carefully positioning its characters on either sides of the generational divide that’s coming down the pike regardless of their actual ages. Peggy is exactly the right age to be a part of the so-called “youthquake” that will shake the American foundations, and with her position as a young woman working a professional job, she seems like she’d be in a position to be uniquely affected by that. Instead, we see that, proto-feminist that she is, she’s got a bit of conservatism to her. As much as her dislike of the idea to sell a diet cola to women using an Ann Margaret lookalike is based on some perhaps well-founded ideas of what women want to see, it’s also based in a deep-seated insecurity about who she forced herself to become to get what she wanted. On the other hand, she’s also Don’s most avid pupil, and Don seems likely to ride out the turmoil of the ’60s fairly well. He may have that side of conservatism to him, but he’s also eminently adaptable, willing to greet change and roll up his sleeves in the face of it.
As another example, look at Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) and Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), two rough contemporaries who are already lining up on opposite sides of the divide to come. Paul often seems to be trying far too hard to be hipper than he actually is, but some of the more liberal tendencies of his generation seem to be rubbing off on him. A lot of this is probably an act—he was in no hurry to rush off to Alabama to help register blacks to vote last season—but his anger about the thought of Penn Station being destroyed (something that marks him as a radical and a Communist, apparently) places him squarely on the side of the hippies to come. Harry, on the other hand, has frequently expressed his retrograde opinions (though not in this episode), and it seems like he and Paul will likely become intellectual adversaries as the show goes along, despite the fact that the two started out the series as close friends.
Similarly, the show has placed Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) directly at odds but also subtly shown how their different approaches to landing accounts place them on opposite sides of the conflicts we know are coming. Some of this is probably by virtue of the accounts they’ve been handed, but Ken is embracing that new, youthful world, of Ann Margaret dancing before a giant, blue screen, while Pete is forced to play up his ties to the old New York, the America that is rapidly trying to forget itself. My friend Steve Heisler said on his Twitter recently that the opening scenes of Mad Men’s second season neatly encapsulated everything that was to come in the season. He thought that this did not bode well for season three, which opened with those oft-criticized scenes of Don imagining his conception and birth as he heated milk for Betty. I liked those scenes, so I’m not as worried, but I also think that Steve may be on to something. This season seems to be shaping up to be a season all about how these characters and the country as a whole rushed headlong into forgetting both what it was and the things that had made it that way. Mad Men is not naïve enough to think that the youth-driven cultural revolution of the ’60s is wholly good or bad, but it does seem intent, this season, on figuring out just what is lost when we dive pell-mell into an uncertain future.
No one stands more for the old ways than Roger Sterling (John Slattery), but, interestingly, Roger is also the person who is positioning himself most firmly as someone who’s trying to forget an old self, having taken Don’s advice about moving forward and reinvention and completely misread it (in a way that Peggy, seemingly the one kindred spirit Don has on the show, never would). Roger has divorced his first wife, Mona (Talia Balsam), to wed secretary Jane (Peyton List). Jane has yet to appear this season, but the fallout from Roger’s decision has affected his relationship with everyone else on the show, including Don, his onetime friend, who now seems awfully cool to him. Mona returns this week to reveal that she’s moving on, bringing a friend as a date to she and Roger’s daughter’s wedding, and that daughter, Margaret (Elizabeth Rice), is intent on Jane not attending the wedding either. Roger, of course, can’t understand why this reinvention isn’t working in the same way Don’s reinventions would seem to work, but he also doesn’t grasp something everyone in America is going to understand intuitively in just a few years: If you want to make some changes, you have to act like that’s how things were going to be in the first place. Otherwise, you risk upsetting both the fruit basket and a whole bunch of people. Don is smooth enough to pull off a reinvention because he understands that you have to lose something to do it. Roger doesn’t quite grasp that. The fact that his daughter’s wedding is scheduled for Nov. 23, 1963, is interesting on the one hand because JFK is assassinated the day before that, but it’s equally interesting because Roger fundamentally misunderstands the nature of change.
Don, whose whole being is predicated on change, can never misunderstand that. In fact, when he’s trying to deal with the people from Madison Square Garden, he points out that they should embrace the fact that they’re building something new in a city that is so old, comparing it favorably to his visit to California last season (a pivotal point in his life), where everything is new and gleaming and white. This, he said, could be the start of New York’s reinvention as the city on the hill. “Let’s also say that change is neither good or bad. It simply is. It can be greeted with terror or joy. A tantrum that says, ’I want it the way it was’ or a dance that says, ’Look, it’s something new,” he says in the sales pitch (in a quote that seemingly everyone who reviewed this episode wrote down for later), and while the destruction of Penn Station will turn out to be a black mark on the city historically speaking, Don’s getting at something very primal, something he himself has dealt with time and again.
If season two of Mad Men spent a lot of time expanding the various characters around Don, especially Pete and the women of the show, season three seems focused, at least early on, on re-establishing Don’s primacy. Last season was all about Don going through a crisis of the self, watching his lies come crumbling in on top of him and yet somehow not able to fight back against them because at some level, he didn’t realize they were lies. During his California trip, Don seemingly embraced all of the contradictions of just being Don and came back to New York determined to do better at the elaborate disguise that is his life. A disguise only works, to some degree, if you believe it to be true on some level, and Don is believing in his disguise awfully hard this season. Look, for example, at how he watches his daughter’s teacher dance around the Maypole and yet sublimates the desire he obviously feels for her into stroking the grass that her bare feet are touching, a much tinier and perhaps less fulfilling connection than having sex with her but a connection nonetheless.
Don’s also stepping up as Betty’s father finds himself unable to take care of himself and his children squabbling over who’s going to take care of the old man, his son trying to get while the getting is good, more or less. It’s just another example of the old giving way to the new, but it’s such a personal one, conducted on such an intimate, familial level, that it almost doesn’t seem like it. Don sees it as an opportunity to assert his primacy yet again, but when all is said and done and Betty’s brother has been sent packing (on a train via Penn Station no less), the Drapers still have to deal with the fact that her father hears police sirens in the dead of night and thinks that it’s still the time of Prohibition. Don’s never seemed to have especially strong feelings about Gene one way or the other, but taking him in is going to upset his new order more than anything else, it would seem.
But this is an episode filled with people trying to deal with the fact that the times, they are a-changin’, and not just on the sort of national level we think of when we hear the words “the ’60s.” Joan (Christina Hendricks) can still drive guys wild even with pretty terrible jokes, but she’s still going to lose her perch as the top girl at Sterling-Cooper when her husband insists that she come home and start popping out kids. There’s something weirdly poignant about the scene where Roger and Joan, both realizing how much things have changed from the time when they were an item, edge around the prospect of having a conversation with each other and then just decide not to, Roger leaving by addressing her as “Mrs. Harris.”
So if season three is going to be about change, both on a societal and personal level, then “Love Among the Ruins” hits that theme in a myriad of ways for nearly every character (except for the one character who seems resistant to change because he’s just who he always is—Bert Cooper). But, more significantly, it hits that theme in the season’s overarching plot: the story of how Sterling-Cooper deals with its new British owners. The British are slowly learning that their empire is not what it was, and as it crumbles, they’re taking down Sterling-Cooper with them, with a new focus on a bottom line designed seemingly to keep the parent company in business, not shift with the times. And that’s ominous indeed.
Some other thoughts:
1. It was a Peggy-heavy episode. I always love a Peggy-heavy episode, precisely because of how inscrutable the character can be. I mean, every character on this show is pretty inscrutable, but Peggy takes the cake as the most inscrutable, I think. I love a girl with some mystery to her, and when Peggy seemingly couldn’t speak in this episode or danced in front of her mirror in imitation of Ann Margaret, it was great to wonder just what the hell was going through her head.
2. Keeping on the Peggy theme, perhaps my favorite moment of the episode was her trying to be Joan in the bar. And, also, I liked it when she used that college kid. She really is turning into Don!
3. I wonder why, exactly, the show is keeping both Joan’s husband and Roger’s new wife off screen, just when we might be most interested in seeing how they’re adjusting. I admire the show’s desire to withhold things from its audience, but it’s sometimes fun to try and guess why they’re withholding exactly what they’re withholding.
4. The push-pull over the Patio ad campaign is a reminder that this show could very easily be the best workplace drama on TV if it really wanted to. It’s just interested in different things.
5. There were times in season two when characters would disappear for episodes at a time, but it doesn’t really seem like that’s happening this season, perhaps because of the expanded budget for this season. Then again, Sal (Bryan Batt) didn’t appear at all after his big breakthrough last week.
6. Most men who watch this show really want to be Don Draper, but I increasingly think it would be fun to be Bert Cooper. My wife begs to differ.
7. Finally, it seems like Tuesdays are going to be the days when I can write these things up. Sorry if that’s too late for you folks, but it’s just going to work out that way.