If season five of "Mad Men" is heading toward the kind of dramatic finale to which we've become accustomed -- the sale of an agency, the dissolution of a marriage, an engagement, the threat of nuclear annihilation -- it's going to be a complete shocker. The dramatic buildup has been minimal and mainly limited to Pete Campbell, whose snowballing misery seems to have him headed for some kind of crash, and Megan Draper, who at most seems ripe to pack off for a touring version of "Mame."
The other main characters are in as good places as the script will afford them, wrestling with petty issues such as the jealousies dramatized in last night's episode. Its title, "Dark Shadows," is a reference to the vampire soap opera that debuted in the summer of 1966, just a few months before the action on the show. ("Dark Shadows" now has a Johnny Depp-starring feature reboot in theaters. Let's hear it for accidental, cross-content-company synergy!) More than anything, the reference seems like a wink and a nod to the soap-operatic tendencies of "Mad Men," which were on full display.
Happily, Betty Francis, still hefty and delightfully bitchy, found her way back into the action. She's introduced weighing cubes of cheese, part of the Weight Watchers regimen that's giving her something of a self-help vocab. (She uses that new language to reassure her hubbie Henry, who's backed the wrong political horse.) Jealous of both Megan's blossoming BFF relationship with her daughter and the new Mrs. Draper's flat tummy, Betty tells Sally about Don's first wife, Anna Draper, the dead woman whose forbearance gave Don his identity. It's a devious little maneuver designed to disrupt the mod haven on Park Ave., but doesn't really go anywhere thanks to some stern and relatively transparent parenting by the Drapers. They manage to calm a furious and splendidly mouthy Sally.
Don, meanwhile, is jealous of Michael Ginsberg. As creative director, Don is removed from day-to-day writing and is proving to be somewhere on the irrelevance spectrum between rusty and completely useless, muttering awful potential taglines for a Pepsi snow-cone product called Sno Ball into his dictaphone. Before the pitch, he leaves the young copywriter's fresher and generally superior work in a cab. He's confronted later by Ginsberg, who tells Draper he feels sorry for him. Don responds, "I don't think about you at all." Of course, that's a lie. We've already seen Draper rooting through Ginsberg's folder, chuckling at the concentration-camp survivor's rendering of a snowball hitting Hitler in the face.
Roger Sterling's envy of Pete Campbell's account management and new-business acumen has him furtively stalking the Manischewitz account, not-so-quietly employing Ginsberg out of his own pocket to come up with creative ideas for a Gentile-targeted campaign. Some Jew jokes, you'll be shocked to hear, are dropped along the way. At this point, Pete and Roger, as a pair of generation-gapped empty suits, can be plotted at opposite points on the happiness-success matrix. Pete, who we see fantasizing about his recent one-night stand and getting left out of a New York Times Magazine story about Madison Ave., is miserable despite killing it in the office. Roger, post LSD and split with Jane, is content but struggling to claw back some professional worth.
All told, the episode, propelled along by Betty Francis' eyes, Roger Sterling's mouth and some great elevator scenes worth of the early seasons, was composed of quotidian torments.
Ad-history buffs will find that Times magazine article worth a look. Though penned by Victor Navasky, future editor and publisher of lefty weekly "The Nation," it's far from an anti-consumer culture screed. In the long, dense piece, Navasky tries to put advertising in a philosophical context and inspire some sort of dialogue between Madison Avenue and the intellectual class that loathes it. I can't claim to have figured out what Mr. Navasky was going for here, but it's difficult not to read the piece -- Ogilvy as a Platonist, Bernbach the Aristotelian? -- as at least mildly satirical.
There are some choice bits that show just how little has changed over the decades:
- Mr. Navasky declares that Madison Ave. has an "image problem." His evidence is critics from Vance Packard to John Kenneth Galbraith, and the fact that Wall Street has passed its "whipping boy" mantle onto Madison Avenue.
- There's one debate over whether it's more important that advertising be original or effective and another over whether small agencies are better situated to do superior work. The conclusions, unfortunately, are inconclusive.
- There's also a debate over how agencies should get paid, with fees or by commission. A bit of agency-wonk background: The commission model is the highly lucrative and largely bygone system whereby agencies were paid a percentage of media billings, usually 15%, thus incentivizing shops to spend more on media, not less. Calling the commission system a "kickback," Howard Gossage said, "It's as sensible as paying a lawyer for the number of lawsuits he gets you into." Gossage also beat about 4 million social media gurus to the punch when he said "an ad ought to be like one end of an interesting conversation."
- Mary Wells, the trailblazing adwoman of Wells Rich Greene, is described by Mr. Navasky as "comely but aggressive." Noticing the picture of the agency principals, Don jokes that they look like Peter Paul and Mary.
As mentioned, the kosher wine Manischewitz plays a key role in the episode. Back in 1966, the brand, licensed to Brooklyn's Monarch Wines, as depicted in the show, already had a campaign with some legs. "Man-o-Manischewitz" debuted on the radio in the 1940s and made its way to the moon when, in 1973, astronaut Gene Cernan was inspired to utter the tagline while walking on the lunar surface. The brand resuscitated the slogan in 2009 for its line of kosher foods.
Which is all well and good, but I'll take this Sammy Davis Jr. ad: