Mad Men: Nixon vs. Kennedy (S01E12)

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A small reminder: I’m making my way through all of Mad Men before the last episodes premiere next spring. The plan is to do two episodes a week, with reviews going up Mondays and Wednesdays, but the schedule might vary a little bit. 

We have reached the last few episodes of Mad Men’s first season. Two episodes that were, the time I first saw them, the deciding factor in making up my mind about what I thought of the show. “Nixon vs. Kennedy”, and the season finale “The Wheel”, feature some of the series’ most defining moments. It’s simply that the plot-lines planted throughout the season finally come to a boil in a couple of episodes that set the tone not only for what the show’s M.O. will be going forward, but for how the audience should expect when engaging with the show in the future.

Two of the season’s most important story-lines reach their peak in “Nixon vs. Kennedy”, and they also find pretty much all the resolution they will have until next season. The first of these, and probably the one that seemed most important and daring at the time, comes in the last few minutes of the episodes, during Don’s flashbacks to his days as a soldier in Korea. This is the definitive moment in which the myth of that idealized version of masculinity that is Don Draper is finally shattered for good. Throughout this season, the show had slowly revealed snippets about Don’s past, each more telling than the one that came before. First, by introducing us to Adam, and Don’s previous identity as Dick Whitman, we were introduced to the darkness of the character’s past. Then, the flashback in “The Hobo Code” painted a backstory that seemed more tragic than heartless. But it is finally in “Nixon vs. Kennedy” where the tragedy of Don’s past takes full shape, as we are presented not only with an incredibly sad and traumatic story, but one that turns Don Draper, the handsome epitome of cool, into an incredibly pathetic figure.

One of the effects that the last couple episodes of this season had on me the first time I saw them was that I finally had to recognize that, not only was this a great show, it might actually be kind of genius. The thing that did it in this episode was the way the show decided to juxtapose the big reveal about Don’s backstory with the story-line it had crafted for Pete Campbell, a character that had, from the very first episode, been positioned as the complete opposite of Don. Don is handsome, he is strong, he is brilliant. Pete is a weasel, he cheats, he is petty, entitled, and, worst of all, a huge jerk. We have bared witness to the fact that Pete can have wonderful ideas this season, but almost every episode in which we gained a little sympathy for him (most notably “New Amsterdam“), was surrounded by moments in which he acted like a complete asshole (be it to Peggy, his wife, or his secretary). Pete’s story-line wraps very neatly, as he gets to perform the ultimate despicable act, as he reveals Don’s true identity to Bert Cooper, only to discover that Cooper doesn’t really give a shit about who Don might have been in the past. “A man is whatever room he is in”, he says, “and right now Don is in this room.”

However, the true genius of positioning Pete at the center of this episode is that, even if he is being a dirty weasel, he is acting out of fear, and it’s in this very episode that we are confronted with the reality that Don is, in fact, a coward. When Pete first comes into his office and reveals his office, is to use the information he has acquired to blackmail Don into giving him the newly open position of Head of Accounts. Don’s reaction to this? He shows up at Rachel Menken’s office, and tries to convince her to run away with him, and in one of the character’s best moments, Rachel picks up pretty quickly what is going on with Don. “You don’t want to run away with me. You just want to run away”, says Rachel, “You’re a coward.” That’s our first sign that Don might be weaker than we thought, but then… then comes the flashback. We find out that not only was Don incredibly scared as a soldier, it was because of how afraid he was that he accidentally set the original Don Draper on fire, and that it was out of fear of having to keep fighting that he switched tags with him, making the Army believe that it was Dick Whitman that had died.

Don has done some pretty despicable things this season. He is definitely not a role model, but no matter what horrible thing he was doing, we had been kind of rooting for him, and most importantly, kind of admiring him. A part of us wanted to be him. Meanwhile, we disliked Pete from the start. Pete, too, wants to be Don, but he is so desperate to be him that he falls flat on his face. We can see through him, and through every stupid thing he does in order to feel masculine and powerful. We despise Pete Campbell, and yet, in this episode we discover that the winner and the loser have much more in common than we thought. Are Pete and Don two sides of the same coin? This season very clearly positioned them as enemies, but as Bert Cooper says to Don when he suggest he doesn’t fire Pete, “one never knows how loyalty is born.” Mad Men is simply fantastic when it comes to wrapping up its seasons, and if you thought this was good, just wait and see what happens in the next episode…

Also in this Episode:
Somehow I wrote the whole review without mentioning that the episode is set, as the title suggests, on the day of the 1960 Presidential election. This setting, of course, resonates with the fight between Don and Pete, and the idea of winners and losers that I just talked about in the last paragraph. It also lets us spend some time with the show’s supporting characters as they have an election party at the office. The most important development of the party is probably that Harry Crane cheats on his wife and feels pretty bad about it.

Random Thoughts

  • Ok, so I just lied in the above paragraph. The most important thing that happens at the election party is obviously the fact that we are introduced to Death is My Client: a play in one act by Paul Kinsey.
  • This is kind of a spoiler, but I’m pretty sure this is the last time we see Rachel Menken on the show. I always liked the character, and was surprised revisiting the show to find out she wasn’t in as much of the season as I remembered. I don’t know how to feel about her last appearance on the show. On the one hand, her last scene seems to be in service of Don’s arc more than it feels like a proper goodbye to such a memorable character. On the other, the scene is fantastic, and her last line to Don incredibly appropriate.
  • This episode is also notable for introducing us to Duck Phillips, who ends up getting the position of Head of Accounts, and who will play a big role next season.
  • I wonder what was going through Joan and Sal’s mind while they were sharing that kiss.
  • This show’s been on for sevens seasons, and Robert Morse never really has gotten much to do as Bert Cooper. This is one of the rare episodes in which he actually plays a relatively big part, and he also gets to be at the center of a fantastic scene.
  • That moment in which the momentum of the heated fight between Don and Pete has to be stopped for them to take off their shoes so they can enter Cooper’s office has to rank somewhere high on the list of Mad Men’s most awesome moments.
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