I recently went car shopping with my brother-in-law. He’s beginning his second year at college away from home, and his dad felt it would be best if he had a reliable car. He was given a budget and a few specifications, but, above all else, one golden rule: buy Japanese. It was a commandment given and accepted so reflexively that I doubt it was based on anything specific, rather than the general assumption much of America has come to live by, that Japan makes the best cars.
If the first half of the twentieth century was largely defined by war and the rise of the automobile, the great irony of the second half is that Germany and Japan would return to the world stage, only now selling cars. At a time when these cars are the default choice for many American families, it’s strange to think about the transitional period depicted in this week’s Mad Men episode, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” (written by Erin Levy, and directed by Lesli Linka Glatter), during which Americans were still growing accustomed to purchasing Japanese products.
Nearly every episode of Mad Men alludes to the changing face of America in the 1960s, and the assumption has always been that many of the characters aren’t prepared for the sweeping cultural change to come. Last week the transparent walls of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce divided Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and her bohemian friends from the more traditional businessmen inside the office; the new generation was literally standing at the doorstep.
I think it’s a mistake, however, to view Mad Men simply as a story about how the old was washed away by the new. After all, this week the changing face of America isn’t young protesters or liberated university students; change comes in the form of old, incredibly formal Japanese businessmen. Stories of the Selma marches play out in the background, but they don’t really affect life at SCDP in any meaningful way. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) react much like you’d expect mainstream ’60s New Yorkers to; they don’t care a whole lot, but the police violence nonetheless convinces them that civil rights are at least necessary.
But with the increasing role that public relations and market research are playing this season, it’s safe to say that Mad Men is as concerned with how Americans consume as it is with how they vote; the social change most immediately pertinent to SCDP is the rise of global commerce and mass marketing. Enter the Honda Motorcycle Company.
As usual, it’s Pete who is most eager to prove that the need to consume crosses all social barriers, as he brings in the Honda executives to a cavalcade of cultural pandering and awkward bowing (check out his painful triple bow after the initial meeting—hilarious). Honda is reportedly unhappy with its current advertising firm (Duck Phillips’ Grey), and is seeking to expand on its already sizable share of the North American motorcycle market (an aside is made that they’re “venturing into automobiles”). But the plans are derailed by World War II vet Roger, who in a racist tirade refuses to work with the Japanese executives, meanwhile proving himself a genius at inserting as many flagrant war references into a conversation as possible.
It’s left ambiguous as to whether Roger’s motivation is truly his loyalty to fallen comrades, or if, as Pete claims, he simply fears becoming old and irrelevant if the firm comes to rely less on his Lucky Strike account. But either way Roger very consciously draws a generational barrier between himself and Pete, pointing out repeatedly that Pete doesn’t understand the war or why it would be disloyal to work with the Japanese. Pete emphatically points out that it’s been twenty years since the end of the war, and that “these are not the same people.” Roger, incredulous, replies: “How could that be? I’m the same people!”
After Roger’s actions effectively take SCDP out of the competition Honda has set up, Don instead uses the situation to financially destroy CGC, a rival advertising firm. The creative department at CGC is headed up by Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm), a man who sees himself as Don’s chief adversary in attracting cutting-edge business. Chaough is so obsessed with keeping stride with SCDP’s creative development that he follows Don’s feigned lead in producing a prohibitively expensive television commercial in order to impress Honda (something prohibited by Honda’s rules for the competition).
There are moments of “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” that openly mock Don’s efforts to keep SCDP cutting edge, such as the Japanese translator turning Don’s explanation of the office’s mod décor into, “The office is new because they are forward thinking.” Ted Chaough, styling himself as the next Don Draper, often comes across as a parody, especially when he concocts his own Honda commercial in an apparent burst of inspiration.
Yet Don somehow finds himself well placed for the future. It’s unlikely that Chaough and CGC ever posed any real threat to SCDP (Chaough finds it difficult to convince his own staff of his ability to take on Don), but in tricking his rival into financially ruining himself, Don also ingratiates himself to the Honda people by presenting himself as too proper to take part in a competition where the rules are broken. Lane later tells Don that, though Honda has decided to stay with Grey after all, Don’s fake display of honor puts SCDP “first in the door on [Honda’s] little car.” Lane continues on to make fun of Honda’s car, referring to it as a “motorcycle with doors,” and claiming that its best feature is its windows, because you can see “your brains spatter against them.” Pete, as if winking at the audience, says, “They’re working on it.”
Of course, within a matter of decades Honda would become one of the world’s preeminent automobile manufacturers and the entire North American industry would undergo a total restructuring. Mad Men is sometimes heavy on the dramatic irony, winking at an audience that knows that, as a side benefit of their ploy against a petty rival, SCDP may have just landed an account that will one day dwarf Lucky Strike.
The episode’s second storyline takes us back to the Draper family’s melodrama, as Don struggles with being a distant father, and Betty (January Jones) lashes out at Sally (Kiernan Shipka) for misbehaving. Critics who take issue with this season for demonizing Betty to the point of losing all sight of her humanity will likely find this episode particularly egregious. Betty seemingly lashes out at Sally out of bitterness over her own childhood. She slaps Sally for cutting her own hair, and then, defending her actions against both Don and Henry (Christopher Stanley), petulantly complains that her own mother never allowed her to have long hair.
Likewise, her over-the-top reaction to Sally being caught masturbating (she threatens to cut off the child’s fingers!) speaks much more about her own repressed childhood than it does about Sally. Her insistence that Sally not only understands what she’s doing, but is doing it deliberately in order to “punish her” is both monstrous and heartbreaking when contrasted to Sally’s actual naïveté (prior to this she tells her babysitter that she knows that the “man pees inside the woman.”)
It’s not as if either of the things Betty scolds Sally for are particularly shocking, or even out of the ordinary at all for a girl Sally’s age. It’s likely that Sally simply externalizes her issues because she lacks a parent she can actually talk to. Don and Betty are both deeply inadequate parents, though Don comes off as the more sympathetic, as he simply expresses his issues by closing himself off from his kids, while Betty becomes openly abusive, and takes everything Sally says or does as a reflection on herself.
Whatever issues people may have with Betty’s arc, it does produce the episode’s highlight in back-to-back confessional scenes involving Don and Betty, respectively. Don tells market researcher, Faye (Cara Buono), that he doesn’t see why people feel the need to “talk about things,” only to begin speaking at length about his post-divorce difficulties in as direct a manner as we’ve ever seen from him. Betty attends a meeting with Sally’s new therapist because she wants to figure out “what’s wrong” with Sally, only to divert the discussion into one about her own issues and insecurities. Perhaps tellingly, when it comes time for Sally to go to the therapist, it’s Carla (Deborah Lacey) who takes her, not Betty.
In a way, the two overarching storylines of “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” both contrast the change the characters think is happening with the change that actually is happening. Betty is aware that Sally’s life is changing greatly, but is unable to adjust to Sally not reacting to these changes as Betty thinks she should, or as Betty would have. Don, meanwhile, is not only aware that society is changing, but it has become his overriding professional goal to anticipate that change. He may not always be successful, but it’s also not as if he’s about to be blindsided by feminists and hippies storming the translucent halls of SCDP. But for as much as Don tries to change the look of his firm and produce innovative work, it’s clear that his role in the most substantial change coming his way will largely be a matter of chance.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and in this case it might work quite well for Don. It’s not as if his inability to predict the future is some character fault, or as if it would all become clear to him if he were just a bit younger and more innovative and went to parties with Peggy. It’s a reminder that we shouldn’t view Mad Men as some idealized ’60s narrative where all traditional, gray-haired moneymen will be mercilessly kicked to the curb.
It may be unfortunate that we no longer see much of Betty’s humanity, but the harsh reality is that sometimes circumstance produces really bad mothers. On the flipside, we may like to see the ’60s as a time that rewarded those who supported feminism and civil rights—and in a lot of ways it was—but it was also a time of socioeconomic change that rewarded a lot of people who were simply in the right place at the right time. Sometimes a person can mess up an account about as badly as you can imagine, and yet somehow undeservingly land the inside track to hooking Honda as a client.
• After the hilarious shot of her head poking up over the office divider last week, and the empty-studio motorcycle driving this week, it seems Peggy is becoming a master of sight gags. How does she drive that thing in such a perfect circle?
• Little Bobby Draper may be happy-go-lucky, but he’s also sort of a jerk. “You look like a Mongoloid”? I’m not sure I even know what that means.
• John Slattery’s comedic delivery continues to be among the best in the business, but this week he may have been topped by Bert Cooper’s (Robert Morse) reaction to his laxative jokes: “We’ve had that client for eighteen years, Roger.”
• It increasingly seems that Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) is calling the shots at SCDP. Don’s just pulled off a crazy and genius stunt to bankrupt a rival, and Lane’s just all, “the reasons I let you continue…” How did Sterling Cooper ever operate without this badass?
• Joan (Christina Hendricks) is fantastic in this episode, and the scene where she tells Roger that he “made the world a safer place” is one of the more lovely Mad Men moments I can remember (even if her husband’s impending deployment to Vietnam makes it heartbreaking, as well.)
• Can someone explain to me what the deal with those drinking birds is? My only encounters with them are this and that episode of The Simpsons where Homer is replaced by one at his job.
Luke De Smet is a freelance writer based out of San Diego, who spent way too much time obsessing about movies and television while growing up in rural northern Alberta, Canada. He’s currently attempting to avoid movies and television long enough to take up surfing, but is failing, miserably. You can follow him on Twitter.