From Russia (And The Future), With Love


Clearly, Russian dystopian literature is providing the creative influence for Season 6.  (Credit: AMC)
Clearly, Russian dystopian literature is providing the creative influence for Season 6. (Credit: AMC)

“The future is something you haven’t even thought of yet.” – Don Draper

In Season 1 of “Mad Men,” Don’s then-Sylvia, Rachel Menken, tells him the word “utopia” has two meanings: “’Eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”

We should have seen it coming, when the season began with Dante in paradise, but the last two episodes of the series have definitely taken a dystopian turn for the worst. Matthew Weiner’s use of biblical, formulaic and futuristic allusion throughout the season in several ways mirrors motifs introduced through dystopian literature, specifically in the early Russian science fiction novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin.

A brief synopsis of the novel:

The narrator of “We” is a young man who lives in the futuristic One State, a world overseen by the great Benefactor. Individuals do not exist in One State, only We exists and the narrator’s identity has been reduced to a letter and number D-503, which also signifies his apartment of residence. One State is founded on the principal that pure happiness can only be achieved in a world measured by formulaic reason.

The narrator works as an engineer, building the spaceship Integral, which will be launched to imprint One State’s method of oppressive societal purification on the less-advanced societies that live beyond the Green Wall. The narrator begins to question his existence when he falls in love with I-330, a young woman who challenges the authority of The Benefactor and is planning a revolution against One State. After meeting I-330, the narrator senses that he is not one, but two of himself. His former self is a being governed by the rules of reason, whereas his new self is controlled by instinctual impulse and plagued with a primal sickness marked by dreams and known in One State as Incurable Soul.

This may all sound light years away from 1968 Madison Avenue, but this week’s episode, “Man With a Plan,” inspired the comparison. When Don meets Sylvia in hotel room 503, it alludes to the identity of the narrator in “We,” whose his apartment number in OneState is D-503.

But the series’ dystopian shift actually began with last week’s episode, “For Immediate Release,” when Don dumped Jaguar, then merged SCDP with competitor CGC to win Chevy. Don’s initiation of the strategic merger came in the wake of Joan’s denouncement of his selfish firing of Jaguar, an account for which she had sacrificed much more than him.  “Don’t you feel 300 pounds lighter?” Don asks her. Joan responds: “Just once, I would like to hear you use the word we. Because we’re all rooting for you from the sidelines, hoping that you’ll decide whatever you think is right for our lives.” This criticism from Joan appeared to impact him, and may have subconsciously inspired the merger. At the episode’s end, Don surprises Peggy in Ted’s office with the announcement: “We got it. We won Chevy. They wanted our ideas and a big agency, so we gave them both.”

Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce & One State: Don and Ted’s compliance with Chevy’s formula for the perfect agency was appropriate considering that they would be working together to sell Chevy’s new “perfect car.” Unlike Jaguar, a brand reliant upon its frivolity and luxury, Chevy’s new model would capitalize on the ultramodern use of computer technology. The implication of the merger, along with the flavor of the new campaign, closely echoes the principles governing One State: perfection is achievable through technological advancement, formulaic reasoning and the sacrifice of individualistic freedom. For the first time, Don will be expected to partially surrender creative control to his professional equal, Ted Chaugh, for the betterment of the company.

Sylvia & I-330: “We” explores the notion that “those two in paradise were given a choice: happiness without freedom, or freedom without happiness. There was no third alternative.” This season has similarly investigated the relationship between freedom and happiness, through religious allegory. As the world of SCDP becomes more “We”-like, Don personifies many of the psychological conflicts explored by the novel’s narrator. Don’s affair with Sylvia parallels D-503’s clandestine relationship with I-330. In the novel, the equivalent of marriage is prescribed through One State’s system of pink slips, which regulate sexual encounters and has matched D-503 with a woman called O-90 (basically, the novel’s version of Megan). However, D-503 meets I-330 in secret and is overcome by his carnal attraction to her. At the same time, he is troubled by the dichotomy this creates within his psyche, which until that point had always been controlled by reason and “ethics based on subtraction, addition, division and multiplication.”

In the same way that Sylvia’s character is charged with biblical allegory (giving Don her copy of “Dante,” wearing her cross necklace, praying for his peace, dressing up in a red dress then ending the affair with the mention of “shame”), I-330 seems to embody a divine corruption that implores D-503 to consider the greater implications of his existence. I was reminded of the bizarre scene in which Don asks Sylvia to remove her cross necklace after D-503 describes I-330 as having “a face marked with a cross.”

Disorientation & Sickness: Everyone needed medical help this week. Sylvia’s husband, Dr. Rosen was away on business (or as Don suggested last week, “playing God”). Joan is waiting in the emergency room with an ovarian cyst. CGC’s artistic director Frank Gleason is dying from cancer. Pete’s mother is wandering around his apartment, deteriorating from Alzheimer’s and sucking down gin and tonics. Sickness is thematically prevalent in “We,” since D-503 reasons that the only justification for his sudden awareness of self is illness. He writes: “Only an eye with a speck of dust in it, an abscessed finger, an infected tooth feel themselves; a healthy eye, finger tooth are not felt—they seem nonexistent. Is it not clear that individual consciousness is merely a sickness?”

There were several references to disorientation in this week’s episode. When Don commands Sylvia to be ready for him when he returns from his business trip upstate, Sylvia responds, “I can do that standing on my head.” While piloting the flight upstate, Ted tells Don, “Sometimes when you’re flying, you think you’re right side up, but you’re really upside down.” Similarly this idea of inverted perspective is addressed in “We,” notably as D-503 walks to the Medical Offices for treatment of his “illness” in this passage: “I remember: what I resented most of all was that for the last time in my life, I was seeing everything in this absurdly upside-down, unreal state.”

If Weiner was at all deliberate in associating Don with D-503 and is in fact thematically channeling Yevgeny Zamyatin, it will be interesting to see how he incorporates “We” into the second half of this season. Several characters in the novel evoke an emblematic resemblance to this season’s auxiliary cast. Unfortunately, Zamyatin provides no hypothesis for the fate of Bob Benson.


The Ties That Bind


In time of tragedy, Don and others turn to those they've often shunned - family. (Credit: AMC).
In times of tragedy, Don and others turn to those they’ve often shunned – family. (Credit: AMC)

All of the vaporous allusion seeping through the plot lines of  this season of “Mad Men” converged into one big storm cloud on Sunday night’s installment, aptly titled “The Flood.”

So far, ominous murmurings of civil rights and Vietnam have peppered the episodes, in cocktail conversation and background radio, but 1968 really soaked in on Sunday, when Matthew Weiner decided to dress Don up in a tuxedo on the night that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Weiner was bold in choosing to focus on MLK’s assassination, considering the criticism the series has received for failing to infuse its African American characters with the authentic dimensionality that has defined the core cast. But since “Mad Men” is simplistically a show about a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960’s (and not about the 1960’s itself), it seemed appropriate that Weiner didn’t attempt to use the event as an opportunity to cheaply memorialize the civil rights movement. Instead, the plot developed around the central characters’ (primarily upper-middle-class-white ones) respective reactions to the tragedy and the turmoil that followed.

The hour begins with Don and Megan, along with the rest of the SCDP crew (plus Peggy), at The Ad Club of New York’s Awards Dinner. A tiny Paul Newman is just wrapping up his speech when an anonymous crowd member shouts that Martin Luther King had been shot. Everyone moves to the lobby, stunned by the news. Abe heads up to Harlem in a tux, Megan dries her tears on Don’s shoulder, Peggy pops a breath mint and Pete gets aggravated with everyone ahead of him in line at the phone banks.

At the same time, Ginsberg is nervous, eating soup at a diner, on a date with a pretty girl that his father had insisted he take to dinner. “Do you like kids?” he asks the young student teacher, before a misdirected justification for the question clumsily transforms into a declaration of virginity. Then over the radio they hear that MLK has been shot and the date is cut short. In comparison to the award’s gala, the scene was well-lit and awkward, but proved to nicely highlight the redemptive implication of “The Flood,” which Ginsberg’s father seemed to spoon-feed later on:

“Now is the time when a man and woman need to be together the most – in a catastrophe. In The Flood, the animals went two by two. You, you’re going to get on the Ark with your father?!”

Thematically, the episode was very similar to a combination of Season 2’s “Meditations in An Emergency” (which pivoted around the Cuban Missile Crisis) and Season 3’s “The Grown Ups” (which followed the week of John F. Kennedy’s assassination). All three episodes are hinged on the notion that in times of fear and sadness, people seek love and security.[1] But I thought “The Flood” was most effective at communicating catastrophe’s ability to temper existential indulgence, to push people to glean a version of clarity through the promise of purpose that comes only through family.

After news of the assassination, Pete displays some uncharacteristic decency when he calls his wife Trudy, asking to come home and be with her and his daughter Tammy. This is a stark contrast from Pete’s behavior in “Meditations” when Trudy asks Pete to come with her to Rehoboth Beach out of apocalyptic precaution. Pete responds, “If I’m going to die, I want to die in Manhattan.” After Trudy’s response to him this week, I wouldn’t be surprised if he does.

At the office the next day, Pete instigates an argument with Harry when he expresses frustration that business will suffer in wake of the tragedy. “It’s a shameful, shameful day,” Pete says, reprimanding Harry for his insensitivity and reminding him that MLK “was a man with a wife and four children.” The scene suggests that Pete, despite his terribleness, may have a soul. I’m not sure there’s hope for Harry.

Peggy appears uncharacteristically conventional when disappointment over losing her chance at an Upper East Side apartment transforms to joy after Abe insinuates it was for the best, since he had envisioned raising their kids in a more diverse neighborhood. This scene, again, directly contrasts Peggy’s attitude toward motherhood in “Meditations.” Back then, when Pete confesses his love for her, she responds: “I had your baby and I gave it away. I wanted other things.”

Don, whose initial reaction to the tragedy closely resembles his response to JFK’s assassination,[2] appears genuinely moved after a trip to the movie theater with little Bobby to see “Planet of the Apes” (twice). Don is touched by Bobby’s reaction to the to the film’s bleak conclusion, coupled with his unassuming exchange with an African American usher at the theater (“Everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad,”).

Later that evening, hunched in his bedroom, Don tells Megan that he’d only ever felt a kind of guilt-induced love for his children, but “[t]hen one day they get older, and you see them do something and you feel that feeling that you were pretending to have. And it feels like your heart is going to explode.” Don’s paternal epiphany is tainted when Bobby later tells Don that’s he’s only scared his stepfather Henry Francis (aka Don’s replacement) will be killed just as MLK had been murdered. “Henry’s not that important,” Don responds.

The final scene of the episode is Don standing on his balcony, overlooking a city drenched in mourning. It suggests that Don is beginning to realize he, too, may not be all that important. Perhaps it takes a tragedy of this proportion to make a Don Draper realize that the “catastrophe of [his] personality” that he’s been quietly nurturing since Season 2 may in fact never “seem beautiful, or interesting, or modern”[3] again.

[1] In “Meditations in An Emergency” Don is living in The Roosevelt Hotel, “staring at the back of Sally and Bobby’s heads,” when he decides to write Betty a note telling her how much he loves her and at the end of the episode Don moves back home and Betty tells him she’s pregnant. In “The Grown Ups” the tragedy of the day was counter-balanced by the celebration or Roger’s daughter’s wedding.

[2] “I can’t sit here and watch the T.V. all day,” Don says to Betty. “Bars are closed,” Don says in response to Peggy asking why he’d come in to the office.

[3] Meditations in An Emergency by Frank O’Hara, as quoted by Don.