Mad Men’s Season Seven, First Half: A Tale of Two Intertexts
The first half of season seven of Mad Men ranks as one of the most sophisticated intertextual webs ever developed by an American television program. Don Draper frequently watches French art cinema in order to escape Madison Avenue commerce, allowing his creative mind free reign. Season seven’s third episode, “Field Trip” begins with a sequence in which Don watches French director Jacques Demy’s first Hollywood film, Model Shop, made in the wake of the success of Demy’s musical masterpiece, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).
Model Shop (1969) concerns a disillusioned architect who dreads being drafted to fight in Vietnam. He forgoes his relationship with his girlfriend in order to have an affair with a French model, working in a sleazy erotic photography studio. Many of these plot elements mimic Mad Men: Draper divorces his first wife and marries his French secretary. Don has all but lost his job and wanders aimlessly between New York City and Los Angeles. Don has recently helped the son of his adulterous lover escape the Vietnam draft.
“Field Trip” opens with the camera staring into the projector’s bright light bulb, panning down to reveal Draper at the movies. The shot echoes the early moment in Citizen Kane when the reporter Thompson is given the task to fix the newsreel he and his colleagues have just watched about Charles Foster Kane. The story of Don Draper is similarly and quintessentially American, charting the rise of a young man born in abject poverty in the hinterlands of the middle of the country, who is transformed into a powerbroker in a major American city, only to fall into abject ruin at the hands of his business ambition and disastrous romantic life.
But another film intertext crept into my consciousness. As we listen to the opening violin solo of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, the soundtrack to the wordless Demy sequence, we watch the main characters drive cars aimlessly through the streets of Los Angeles. Don holds a burning cigarette without moving, rapt in the visual design of Demy’s film. But without knowing the exact film, virtually unknown due to its disastrous release, the sequence most reminds one of Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece in which, similarly, male and female characters drive cars around San Francisco, equally lost and destroyed by the restrictive gender roles of the post-war consensus culture that has left Draper confused, and with little hope.
I begin this analysis of Mad Men with the odd battle between Model Shop, the referential intertext, and Citizen Kane and Vertigo, my imaginary ones, because this serves as a tutor method for the remainder of the Mad Men episodes, deployed in a stunning intertextual frenzy. For it is not Model Shop, which is materially present in the image of Mad Men, that the series of episodes is building toward, but instead 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of science-fiction, released almost a year before, in May 1968. Significantly, no one in Mad Men’s sixth season, set during the tumultuous year 1968, goes to see 2001. Instead, much is made of Don bringing his son to see The Planet of the Apes, which gives the child nightmares, much to the consternation of his ex-wife.
2001 is the ghost text of Mad Men. The very next episode after the Model Shop one is entitled, “The Monolith,” a titular reference to the god-like metaphorical object that dominates Kubrick’s film. Indeed, when Don gets off the elevator to return to his firm, the shot is framed such that a huge black vertical rectangle, the door opposite Don’s car, is the first image he sees. We must assume that this is the monolith of the episode’s title, but even moreso than Kubrick’s film, where at least the monolith is a symbol for human exploration into space—it shows up at crucial moments of human evolution—the meaning of the monolith in Mad Men is even more excruciatingly obtuse.
The visual invocation of Kubrick is, of course, first and foremost a gesture of graphic design. The new offices into which Draper and company move after they form their own agency are dominated by rectangular arrangements of glass and shiny chrome, producing shots obsessed with characters trapped within symmetrical frames, the very language of Kubrick’s critique of humanity having been swallowed up by a cold, commercial culture. The arrival of a huge room of IBM computers to enable the agency to run massive data analysis for marketing purposes, questioning the use value of Don’s entire creative department, invokes the HAL-9000 computer from Kubrick’s film, a parody of the IBM, and a deeply flawed machine who begins systematically killing off the astronauts headed to Jupiter.
The IBM computers not only dominate the rectangular compositions within the shots of Mad Men, they also develop tragic outcomes, as with creative worker Michael Ginsberg who is driven insane by the hum of the machines, resulting in his paranoiac break, in which he cuts off his nipple and hands it to Peggy, his boss. Mad Men proceeds to multiply its 2001 references. Earlier, Ginsberg observes business conspirators plotting against Don inside the computer room. As he reads their lips, unable to hear the men through the large glass windows, Weiner swish pans back and forth between the two executives. This replicates shot for shot the scene in 2001 when astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole enter a pod in order to plot their attack on the malfunctioning HAL, who learns of their intentions not by listening to them, but by scanning back and forth between the speakers to read their lips.
By no coincidence, Frank Poole is played by Gary Lockwood, who also plays Model Shop’s central protagonist. Both men are automatons, destroyed by a hedonistic corporate culture that has left humanity bereft of meaning, the very same forces which assail Don Draper. Season seven of Mad Men is thus a tale of two intertexts, the science fiction of Stanley Kubrick, paid off in the mid-season finale, “Waterloo,” set against the backdrop of the July 20, 1969 moon landing, and the down to earth musical dramas of Jacques Demy. In the penultimate episode, “The Strategy,” Don and Peggy brainstorm about their make or break attempt to land a fast food account. Peggy voices a brilliantly heartfelt campaign while Frank Sinatra’s My Way plays on the office’s intercom speakers.
The episode culminates at the Burger Chef restaurant. Don, Peggy, and account executive Pete sit enjoying their makeshift workplace family, eating the fast food that will destroy the cuisine of the nation, but salvage their careers. A cut reveals the outside of the building, with the camera craning backward and upwards. We hear the soundtrack to Francois Truffault’s seminal French New Wave film, The 400 Blows (1959), but the image replicates the end of Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Having gone off to fight the French neo-colonial war in Algeria, central protagonist Guy returns to discover that the love of his life, Genevieve is now married with children. As Guy leaves the Esso gas station that she runs with her husband, the camera cranes back and up, while the exquisitely romantic music of Michel Legrand laments the vicissitudes of life that keep people from being happy by never being in the right place at the same time. This is what film theorist Linda Williams calls the “too-lateness” of melodrama.
While the Vietnam War looms in the background of Mad Men, the ending of “The Strategy” doesn’t offer the direct critique of the vile effects of the Algerian War presented by The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. But, the ghost text of 2001 indicates that equally grandiose forces are at work on our beloved Madison Avenue workers. In many ways a vile character, a philanderer and a liar, Don Draper is nonetheless a beautiful human being, whose creative genius is assailed by the realities of everyday life. Mad Men offers a portrait of the artist as an afflicted man, resonant with the horrors of a Stanley Kubrick film.
Yet, Weiner is no pessimistic misanthrope. As “Waterloo” ends, the moon landing is successful, and everyone on the planet gathers around the glowing television to celebrate human triumph. This is the opposite of what Kubrick predicted a year before, when the astronauts’ mission to Jupiter ended in disaster. Mad Men instead plays one final intertextual card, displacing Kubrick with Demy. As Don uses the Burger Chef triumph to successfully rescue his company once again, the recently deceased beloved elderly eccentric partner, Bert Cooper greets Don from beyond the grave. Mimicking his silence as he watched Model Shop, Don stands in awe as Bert sings “The Best Things in Life are Free,” whose line “The moon belongs to everyone,” expresses not only the optimism of the U.S. space program, but also the beautifully moving sounds of a Jacques Demy film. In Mad Men’s battle between the cold critique of Kubrick and the warm humanity of the French musical, Demy, and Don, appear, at least for the time being, to have triumphed. And that not only is beautiful, it just feels right.