Today, our Great Mad Men Re-Watch puts Season 1 to bed. The final two episodes get pretty soapy, what with Peggy's surprise delivery and Don's battlefield identity theft. But the season ends with both feet on the ground, with one of the most memorable speeches in modern TV history. Hop aboard the carousel, everyone. We're about to get nostalgic for the way things were back in 2007.
Season 1, Episode 12: “Nixon vs. Kennedy”
Mad Men did a whole lot right in its first season, so long as it stuck to 1960s workplace and domestic settings. But in “Nixon vs. Kennedy,” the show’s huge ambitions were finally felled by its own creative limitations. All was finally revealed about Don’s secret past as Dick Whitman in a Korean War sequence that, upon second viewing, was just as sloppily executed as I’d remembered. The show did a remarkable job at stretching a small budget in amazing ways, but this flashback just felt slight and amateurish to me. (Downton Abbey, by comparison, is far more successful in staging their battle scenes.)
There were a few big leaps of faith we as the audience were required to take for this episode, and indeed the climax of the Dick Whitman storyline, to seem believable. One, that Don, knowing nothing about the background of the lieutenant he’d accidentally barbecued beyond recognition, would have had the balls to snatch away his identity through some creative dogtag-swapping. Two, that Pete would have intercepted and opened a package addressed to Don. And three, that Bert Cooper wouldn’t care once the truth about Don’s past was revealed to him.
Of those three scenarios, only the third strikes me as genuinely plausible. But through it all, I just keep coming back to the why of it all. Why? Why did Don need this secret past? Yes, Don is Dick, and his lies would inform his existence. They’d make him the best creative mind in the ad industry, able to hide the darkest truths behind the most seductive of psychological window dressing. Later in the series, the secrets will hasten his divorce, and forge his unlikely friendship with Anna, the real Don Draper’s widow. But right now, re-watching it, I’m just left thinking that, placed as it is within a show that excels at microscopic character observation, this plot just feels cumbersome. Don is fascinating because Don is fascinating, not because Don is not who he says he is.
All that said, the episode did provide some great moments. Pete’s blackmail stand-off with Don, and the scene in Bert’s office—“Who cares?” Bert says, dispelling a lifetime of shame in two words motivated by Ayn Randian self-interest—are forged in my memory and were as riveting now as they were back in 2007. (My god, was it that long ago?) There was the election night party scene and that disturbing moment when Ken tackled Allison and hiked up her skirt to see what color her underwear were. There was the premature celebration of Nixon’s victory, and then the sinking realization that he’d met his defeat—echoes of the 2000 election, in reverse. And then there was Rachel, realizing she’d picked up with the wrong kind of man after a desperate Don begged her to run off with him to California to start again, “like Adam and Eve.”
Hampered by that damn flashback.
Season 1, Episode 13: “The Wheel”
With the Dick Whitman business out of the way, the stellar Season 1 finale of Mad Men returns us to the meat of the series, plumbing the depths of Pete and Peggy’s naked ambition, Betty’s increasing isolation and alienation, and Don’s own ongoing efforts to plug a seemingly unfillable void.
Though it has moments of levity, Mad Men is at its core an incredibly sad show, about the manufacturing of the American dream and the emptiness that fuels it. It’s a show about how what we want is not necessarily what we need, but that we have been systematically conditioned to want, period. And so it is not surprising that Matthew Weiner left his biggest trick for last, a tour de force that sees all of the thematic threads of the series come together in one advertising pitch, for the Kodak Carousel. It’s a classic moment, perhaps the most referred to and quoted in the entire series.
Background: Duck Phillips, brought in as the head of accounts, encourages the team to go for the big fish, and mentions Kodak is looking for a way to sell Kodak’s new product, a circular slide projector the company is calling "The Wheel." It comes at a good time, as Don, having learned his half-brother has killed himself, has fallen into a tailspin of nostalgia for the past he has gone to extreme lengths to outrun. “This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards, it takes us to a place where we ache to go again,” he tells the client, cycling through family photos. “This device isn’t a wheel, it’s a carousel. It lets us travel as a child travels. Around and around again, to a place where we know we are loved.” It’s enough to send Harry, who's been sleeping in his office since his wife kicked him out, fleeing in tears.
Elsewhere in this episode, big things happen for Peggy. Don promotes her to copywriter—as much to spite Pete, who brought in the client Clearasil, as anything else. And then she learns she’s pregnant. It’s not exactly the news she wanted to hear on the day of her big ascension into the rat race. In another credulity-straining development, the baby is born exactly one scene later, and Peggy refuses to even touch or look at him.
A modern classic.
– At this point, Mad Men was a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. Do you remember the moment you first fell in love with the series?
– Who do you perceive as the show’s most tragic figure?
– Have you ever been moved to tears by a moment in a Mad Men episode, a la Harry Sloane?
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch, Part 4: Hearts, Diseased
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch, Part 3: The Miseducation of Peggy Olson
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch, Part 2: A Basket of Kisses
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch: Here We Go!