Mad Men

'Mad Men' Recap: Technophobia

Technology Continues to Disrupt, but It's Not Technology's Fault

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Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin) and Lou Avery (Allan Havey) in episode five.
Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin) and Lou Avery (Allan Havey) in episode five. Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC
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When Michael Ginsberg was introduced in season five as the agency's first Jew, we were set up for the show to grapple a bit with Madison Avenue's -- and by extension American culture's -- history of anti-Semitism. We never really got there, even though Ginsberg, born in a concentration camp, made for a vibrant supporting character. This season, though, the quirky writer has slid into mental illness only accelerated by the installation of a mainframe computer in Sterling Cooper & Partners.

Last night's episode marked what we can only assume is the end of the character. Michael Ginsberg, sounding a bit like Allen Ginsberg, spouts paranoid delusions, talking about the "pressure in my head, like a hydrogen bomb that's gonna go off." He warns the machine will "turn us all homos." He makes a pass at Peggy, who handles it all well, right up until he slices his nipple off and gifts it to her.

Last week, we examined how the technophobia expressed by Don wasn't really technophobia at all. In much the same way, you have to look beyond Ginsberg's ravings about the agency's brand-new IBM 360. Sure, there's the surface-level paranoia, but there's also some foggy historical subtext, including IBM's alleged role in the Holocaust, about which little was known until 2002, when investigative journalist Edwin Black reported that IBM's German subsidiary helped facilitate genocide by helping the Nazis by creating punch cards based on census data. (IBM has questioned the writer's methodology.)

To be clear, this history is mentioned nowhere within the show. I admit I am reaching, but doing so with a few hints that bring the Holocaust to bear. Perhaps most jarring among them is Harry Crane's weird use of the phrase "final solution" in a wholly unrelated context. There's also Ginsberg's use of the "on the fritz," a phrase of indeterminate origin that may or may not be the early 20th Century cartoon the "Katzenjammer Kids," written by a German-American Rudoloph Dirks.

What does this all amount to? In the end, Ginsberg probably ends up in restraints more because of his personal history or because of our general societal blinders to mental illness (see also any number of real-life instances of contemporary mass violence) than anything to do with technology. "It's just a computer," Peggy tells him after one of his rants. She's right, but she's also missing the point. Despite his erratic behavior, no one cares about him until he does something that can't be ignored.

The other main action consisted of the continued deterioration of two marriages. First up, the Drapers.

With the help of "Amy from Delaware," Megan is really trying to keep Don happy. Like, really really trying. Going the extra mile. Over and above. Above and beyond. Giving 110%. What else can you say about giving Don a threesome -- even one that he doesn't seem to want?

Like everything else about Megan, this little gift seems to issue from desperation. In this case, she finds herself competing with a fragment of Don's past life that has come back in a big way. Stephanie, the hippie chick you'll recall from the Anna Draper death episodes, is pregnant and needs help. After she calls Don from Los Angeles, he sends her to Megan on the eve of a big party for her acting class. Stephanie's return communicates two facts: One, Don exhibits real concern for her, which is, in and of itself, remarkable given that he's basically an unfeeling beast. Two, his concern for someone he hasn't seen in years clearly outweighs his interest in Megan, who, as we mentioned above, is trying really, really hard. She only ends up frustrated, as would anyone, especially when their response to the gift of a threesome is to talk about coffee and Harry Crane.

Now for Betty and Henry. That marriage needs to be viewed through the lens of Betty's cosmic boredom. The latest drama comes when Betty pipes up about the war at some terrible-seeming gathering of their rich and powerful neighborhood. Henry basically tells he to stick to making her rumaki, to which she responds, "I'm tired of everyone telling me to shut up. I'm not stupid. I speak Italian."

Icy as Betty is, it's hard not sympathize a little here. It's not that what she says is smart; from a pure content perspective, it's kind of tough to blame Henry for not wanting her to air her pro-Vietnam War views in 1969. He does, however, deserve blame for trying to shut her down and relegate her to trophy wife status. Henry as jerk feels like a bit of a swerve in his characterization. He's still good with the kids -- when Sally comes home with a black eye, he keeps the mother and daughter from destroying each other. But he seems to be losing patience with Betty. Maybe it's just the bloom is off the rose of the marriage.

Or maybe it's the scriptwriters struggling with wrapping up this half-season. While the first four episodes were uniformly strong, in my mind better than anything we saw in season six, last night's show felt a bit strained. The Don-Megan experiment feels like it's beyond rehabilitation, while Betty's ennui is only so interesting.

More alarming than the failure of the marriage plots to grip us, though, is how clunky Don's political maneuvering is. While in Los Angeles, Harry Crane lets Don in on a secret: Jim Cutler and Lou Avery are chasing the Commander cigarette business from Philip Morris. If they were to win, Don would likely have to be sacrificed. After all, he's persona non grata in the tobacco industry since he published his open letter to the tobacco industry in The New York Times (losing the Lucky Strike account, he wrote in that letter, "was my chance to be someone who could sleep at night, because I know what I'm selling doesn't kill my customers").

To short-circuit his ouster, Don pops up uninvited at an agency-client lunch and suggests that if Philip Morris were to make him apologize and work on the account it would really rile up rival American Tobacco. Apologies to Don and his creative genius, but it's actually kind of hard to imagine anyone from American Tobacco, or otherwise, caring. Maybe the writers are just trying to make Don look ridiculous and, to be fair, it is unclear whether this move was successful or not. Either way, the stink eyes given by Cutler and Lou and just about everything about the moment felt rushed and forced. It's a pity, too, because the backstabbing and end-arounds are usually high points of the show. But I guess there are only so many ways to demonstrate one man's amorality and I think we've probably hit the limit with Don Draper.

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The funniest moments of the episode are provided by Lou Avery's passion project comic strip, Scout's Honor, which is roundly mocked when the creative department gets it hands on it. Lou defends the hacky project by pointing to "Underdog," the cartoon series created by a couple of executives at his old agency, Dancer Fitzgerald Sample. In 1960, they created "Underdog" as a way for client General Mills to get its products in front of kids on Saturday mornings. Shortly thereafter, they left the agency and created Total Television, a production company that would actually fold in 1969 upon losing General Mills as a sponsor.

Here's an Underdog commercial for Cheerios: