Mad Men: “Nixon Vs. Kennedy”
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Mad Men: “Nixon Vs. Kennedy”

Forget what Don wants. What does he need?

“Nixon Vs. Kennedy” (season 1, episode 12; originally aired 10/11/2007)

In which Don Draper gets an origin myth

(Available on Netflix.)

“Mr. Campbell… who cares?”—Bert Cooper

Who is this man, who walks into a room and instantly commands it, who builds his handsomeness into a suit of armor, who sees what he wants and instantly has it, who may be asking this question just as much as we are? It’s tempting for those of us who look at this show critically to divide Don Draper into two halves of himself, the Dick Whitman half and the Don Draper half. Nearly everyone who writes about the show has done this, including myself, and there have been times when the series itself has been guilty of falling into that trap as well. But it’s not really true. To love Mad Men is to realize and embrace eventually that this man isn’t an either/or proposition. He is both/and. He is all points on the continuum in between. And, ultimately, he is scared and lonely and ready to bolt at a moment’s notice. He was formed by the act of running away, so some part of him never stopped running.

There is a scene in “Nixon Vs. Kennedy,” one of the first season’s finest hours, where we get to see the “real” Don Draper, the hidden self beneath the perfectly tailored suit. It’s not the one you’d expect, the one where Pete follows him into Bert Cooper’s office and tells the senior partner that Don isn’t who he says he is and is guilty of, at the least, desertion from the Army. No, it’s the scene where Don, after receiving the initial threat from Pete—and trying to talk tough to get the younger man to back down—shows up at Rachel Menken’s office to try to convince her that the both of them need to leave and head for parts unknown, to start over like Adam and Eve, conveniently ignoring the fact that Adam and Eve got to be the way they were because there was nobody else around to learn their secrets. (Once they had one, somebody found it out almost immediately.) He doesn’t sound bold and confident any more. He sounds scared and a little bit whiny. He wants what he wants, and what he wants is out.

It’s a testament to the show’s writing and direction—as well as the perfect performance by Jon Hamm—that we are still on this man’s side after seeing him in such a needy, emotionally vulnerable place. Indeed, because we’ve been waiting to see that side of him, because we’ve been hoping he’ll become a walking wound in front of somebody, we actually have more sympathy for him, even as all of the accusations Rachel levels at him are the case. Don Draper is a coward. He is someone who just wants to leave, rather than leave with her. He’s reaching up for the rope that keeps slipping out of his grasp, and she’s not going to be the one to lower the lifeline just far enough for him to catch hold of it. Whatever has happened to him, he’s going to have to figure it out for himself. So he puts his cool, confident face back on and awaits the inevitable. Because somewhere deep down, he has to know that Bert Cooper—that lover of the self-made man—is going to save him. When Bert told him all about how little he cared about others a few weeks ago (and meant it as a compliment), Don was shaken by it. But now, it saves him. The only thing Bert has ever cared about is the work, and Don is the man who gets the work done.

“Mr. Campbell, who cares?” is one of my favorite moments of the show and maybe even of TV history. There’s so much about it that’s brilliant, from the way that it instantly subverts a seemingly very important plot point to the way it cuts to the quick of every thematic point the first season has been building. We’ve been trained for so long by television to look at these sorts of big, character-defining mysteries as the only things that matter, and on most shows, the revelation of Don’s true identity would have had serious, world-shattering consequences. Here, it’s just a thing that Bert ultimately doesn’t give a shit about. For the most part, nobody is ever as interested in us as we are in ourselves, and that’s a hard lesson to learn. Pete expects Bert Cooper to behave like a character in a story who really cares about the protagonist’s big secret; Bert Cooper is just a man who’s old enough to know everybody has secrets.

One of the oft-noted but still interesting points about Mad Men is that it’s not a historical series about people who are on the side of the winners. It is, in a very real way, history told by the losers, instead of the victors. The show rarely directly comments on this, but “Nixon Vs. Kennedy” is an example of how the show uses this to its advantage much of the time, particularly in situations where it can use the audience’s knowledge of what happens against it. The employees of Sterling Cooper are so sure that Nixon is going to win the election—and not without reason—that they don’t seem to even consider the possibility that Kennedy might win. (Then again, neither does the news, which says that Kennedy has 22-to-1 odds against him after polls close.) By the time the famously close election has dragged into a second day, Bert is already talking about playing ball with a Kennedy administration. By the time Kennedy is declared the victor, so much else has happened that it fades into the woodwork.

The employees of Sterling Cooper are largely conservative. I don’t mean that in a political sense (though some of them are that) but in the sense of not wanting to rock the boat. In that way, the steady-as-she-goes appeal of Nixon’s 1960 presidential campaign is a good fit for the firm. Sure, everybody’s excited because they worked on the Nixon campaign, but it’s also easy to draw quick comparisons between the two. Remember the reactions of the various people at the firm to the Volkswagen “Lemon” ad? In its early seasons—but especially in its first season—Mad Men is great at balancing our expectations of what a show set in the ‘60s is going to be about versus what the time period was actually like. (In its own way, FX’s The Americans does the same with the early ‘80s.) We tend to think of decades as clearly demarcated zones within history, but that’s simply not how they happen to the people that live them. 1959 looks a lot like 1960, after all, and the evolution to 1969 is more gradual than pronounced. Sterling Cooper resists change, not actively, but in the way most of us do, where we’re comfortable with things one way and don’t like it when someone comes in to make them another.

“Nixon Vs. Kennedy,” then, is a pause in the established world order, the break in what the employees of Sterling Cooper expect to happen reaching out of the television to create something else all around them. Harry sleeps with Hildy, and he instantly regrets it. (Reportedly, Matthew Weiner thought about having Harry throw himself out the window and mimic the credits sequence in that moment but decided against it.) Paul’s one-act play is fished out of his desk and performed by the employees of the firm, all of its petty resentments—against Ken, in particular—getting aired out by the acting troupe (which includes a kiss between Sal and Joan). Pete spends election night at home, sifting through the box containing Don’s past, until his wife comes to bring him to bed. And Peggy’s blouse and cash get stolen out of her locker. A black elevator operator and janitor are blamed for it and fired, even though neither was on duty that night.

Peggy closes herself in Don’s office to cry about what happened, feeling guilty and distraught about her role in the firings. Don gives her a drink and listens to her, but her lament that people do bad things and then others take the blame at once spurs him to action (in that it seems to indirectly cause him to not give in to Pete’s demands) and plays off of the flashbacks, in which we find out that Don stole the identity of the real Lieutenant Don Draper in Korea, pretty much on a whim, then ignored the shouts of his young brother on the train platform in order to put his old life behind him. The season has been building to this moment, even as we’ve likely been able to fill in most of its details for ourselves, but it’s also the ultimate indictment of the idea of having no ties to anything or anyone. On that train, Don really becomes Don, and he has to cruelly ignore his past to do that. It’s a lesson he learned this time and tries to keep applying to his life, over and over again, even as Rachel’s right: It’s not smart; it’s cowardly.

The dichotomy of almost every character on Mad Men is that the thing that makes them strongest is also the thing that makes them weakest, and that’s perhaps most true for Don. The awesome cool mystique that makes him so fun to watch and such a compelling hero is something that wears off if you have to be around it all of the time. And yet it also makes him a great ad man, capable of putting himself in any situation or any frame of mind, so long as it lands him the sale. “Mr. Campbell… who cares?” is such a triumph because it subverts expectations and lets Don off the hook, free and easy, and yet the rest of the episode is laying in just how much he needs to learn at least some kind of lesson about how his persona and behavior can be so destructive and cruel to the others around him. Paul’s play, after all, name checks someone called “Galt,” which puts one in mind of Bert’s old pal Ayn Rand. And if the season had a sermon of objectivism, it was likely that speech from Bert to Don about how he’s such a great man because he doesn’t worry about others. What we are looking at in that line is both a victory and a defeat, a man who wins, not in the long term, where it would really matter.

I said in my review of the series’ pilot that Mad Men sets up two questions for itself in its first episode—and its first season. The first is “Who is this man?” and while “Nixon Vs. Kennedy” answers that question on a very superficial level—he’s a poor kid who stole another man’s identity!—it only deepens it when it comes to asking which version of Don Draper is his truest self. But the other question I posited was “Why do we want what we want?” And I think even at this early date, Mad Men is already wrestling with a question that will preoccupy it going forward (and especially, mild spoiler, next week): What do we need? The trick of advertising is to take something that we could probably do without—something we want, in other words—and turn it into something that we think we need to keep living. And yet all of these things and products are just hiding the true emptiness and hunger that can loom large when we really start to think about how all of those things are just things.

The divide in almost all great stories is between what a character wants—what their immediate goal is—and what they need—what will make them a better person or solve their internal dilemmas or what have you. We’re all yearning for some sort of answer to a secret we didn’t know we were carrying around with us, so this speaks to us on a fundamental level. When it comes to Don Draper in this episode, though, what he wants is not to be exposed and run out of town on a rail (or arrested). And he gets that, because of a terrific story turn and a great piece of dialogue from an old man who really would care that little about the “truth.” But what he needs is far more complicated and far trickier to pin down. He thinks he needs freedom, the ability to run away from anything that he bumps up against, be it a childhood that was too painful to remember or a sniveling co-worker who’s somehow discovered his carefully manufactured self. And yet what he needs is to face up to the falseness of his own image, to the product he calls himself he’s selling to the world. He needs to turn away from the pretty brunette and look out the train window at the very real pain he’s causing with this one little lie that will spiral into a million others. But he can’t, and he won’t, and trains are stuck on rails, carrying us forward intractably to the place we always knew we were going anyway.

Stray observations:

  • I always forget before watching this episode that Paul Kinsey and Joan Holloway slept together. I think that my brain just willfully scrubs that fact every time, because it doesn’t want to believe it to be true.
  • It must be said that Elisabeth Moss’ fat suit has been pretty poor all season long, but it looks particularly fake in this episode and especially in HD. You can almost see the seams.
  • I talked last week about how the plotting to bring Pete into possession of the box Adam sent Don was particularly elegant, but the plotting is equally elegant in bringing Don into a situation where he’ll keep his job despite having his secret exposed. I can’t imagine Roger being as blasé about finding out Don’s whole persona was a lie.
  • The episode really does spend an enormous amount of time—particularly for an episode carrying this much plot weight—at the election night party. I rather love it for that, even if that stuff is mostly pushed aside in favor of the Don plot once it’s over. It’s a great way for old secrets to come out and others to be created.
  • What gets Hildy to jump into Harry’s arms is the news that Ohio has gone for Nixon. C’mon, Hildy. Have a little self-respect!
  • Sally gets very excited to see people doing math on TV. Betty, bored, explains to her that they’re figuring out who the president is going to be.
  • Paul’s play is just about the worst thing I’ve ever heard. I think there’s a reason his writing career has yet to take off.

Spoiling Cooper (Do not read if you haven’t seen the entirety of the series):

  • And yet there Paul is, in season five, trying to pitch Harry on a Star Trek spec script! Some dreams die hard, don’t they?
  • Man, watching Peggy drink all of that alcohol this season, knowing that she’s pregnant, is really doing a number on me.
  • Bert saves Don’s ass here, but he’s there to deliver the final judgment when Don is fired at the end of season six. Do good work for Bert, and he pretty much doesn’t care what you do or who you are. Fuck up, and he will rain down his fury upon you, in a genteel, gentlemanly fashion.

Next week: We reach the end of season one—and this project—with the stunning “The Wheel.”

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