This episode worked for me upon the first viewing. Some critics felt that it was a bit disjointed, but – when looked at in the context of the other four episodes of this season, as part of a quartet – I think it sounds all the right notes. It’s a little odd, and the scene breaks feel somewhat lurching, but I think this is intentional. The main motif of the episode is the straddling of worlds, and I think the viewer is meant to feel discombobulated. The title, “Love Among the Ruins,” is one of those classic juxtapositions, and the episode hammered home over and over again the message that the characters are on uncertain ground, moving from one world to another. At times this was almost grating – Ann-Margret’s “Bye Bye Birdie” was certainly startling – but this ominous banality, in contrast to the episode’s more meditative moments, definitely created a sense of doom, which seems to be the major theme of Season 3.
The major narrative drive of Season 3 comes not so much from the characters as from the audience. We know that a cultural revolution is coming, and this gives meaning and thematic resonance to seemingly disconnected narrative threads – Grandpa Gene moving in with the Drapers; Peggy’s quest for independence; Sal’s struggles with his sexuality; the British invasion of Sterling Cooper; Don’s mission to become, finally, the family man he only appears to be; Roger’s marital and family conflicts; even the workplace rivalry between Pete and Ken. As other critics have noted, the audience’s knowledge of the revolution to come makes us look at the characters not simply as players in a period drama, trapped in a vacuum-sealed reality as foreign to our own as the moon, but rather almost as contemporaries. We wonder how they will survive in the coming world, one much closer to our own. Some, like Peggy, will benefit from the transition; others, like Roger and Joan, seem due to be cut down by the scythe of history. Roger and Joan are masters of ‘50’s social custom, but their social skills and graces will have no place in the social order to come. We worry that they are too much creatures of their time to adapt. Other characters, like Don and Pete, are question marks, showing both progressive and regressive tendencies. How will Pete, for instance, weather the facial hair revolution? Will Don be able to trade in his suits and ties for Nehru jackets? What about the kids?
What were the motifs of this episode? Ruins, of course; love, of course. Replicas and imitation. There were probably more, but these were the ones that reached out and shook me. Browning’s poem, “Love Among the Ruins,” is about a hill where once a proud city stood. The princes of the city were powerful; they fought and struggled; they warred and spent. Now the hill is bare, populated only by sheep and ruins. A girl waits for the narrator there; they are in love. Their love, according to the narrator, is far more important than the city that once stood, the civilization that fell. Although this poem was written in 1855, it has a peculiarly Baby-Boomer-esque perspective. Like Browning, the Boomers are Romantics – they prize emotion over intellect, youth over history, the individual above the group, the pastoral over the industrial, freedom over loyalty. In other words, the poem epitomizes the coming conflict between the hippies and the old guard. While the Boomer revolution did result in tremendous civil rights gains, it also resulted in a certain loss of gentility, and (arguably) of morality. Young love is glorious; it also tends to be hugely narcissistic. Mad Men’s attitude to the cultural revolution seems to be enjoyably complicated – it celebrates the coming freedom (especially through characters like Peggy) while simultaneously mourning its cost (through characters like Roger, for whom the writers reveal a definite fondness.) It chronicles regrettable social restrictions by showing the struggles of characters like Sal and Joan, while critiquing the naivety of the freedom fighters through its satirical portrayal of hipsters like Paul, whose liberal values are at least 60% affectation.
Mad Men’s extraordinarily conflicted attitude toward change found fertile ground in the Penn Station plot. We the audience know that the destruction of Penn Station will come to be seen as an international tragedy, and that it will spark the creation of the Landmark Commission. Yet we resent hipster Paul for dissenting against the project (in front of the client!) and we yearn for Don to recapture the account. We love Don’s patented Don Draper moment of the evening: “Let’s also say that change is neither good or bad. It simply is. It can be greeted with terror or joy. A tantrum that says, ‘I want it the way it was’ or a dance that says, ‘Look, it’s something new,” and we bristle when London cancels the account.
Don’s evocation of California in this pitch was especially interesting. As we all know, “California” is code for “gigantic hippies.” Don describes California as “new,” “clean,” “young,” and “full of hope.” As symbolized by his stroking of the grass during the May Pole dance, Don is already half in love with aspects of the cultural revolution. And his survivor mentality is encapsulated in his framing of the destruction of the station as something that people can’t change, no matter how much they protest. Don is very fatalistic; he sees change as inevitable, and he seeks to adapt himself to it. Again, though, this is a very strange mentality – Don doesn’t love change because he is a revolutionary who seeks to change society; he loves change because he feels trapped by society, and so he welcomes any shift. His attitude is essentially passive. He will enjoy the cultural revolution because he is determined to enjoy whatever comes his way – it’s part of his philosophy – but in many ways he will be unable to really understand what motivates the revolutionaries, which is the refusal to change themselves, to conform, to say yes. This misunderstanding may prove fatal. Don thinks he is on the side of youth. He thinks that demolishing Penn Station will help New York to reject decay, to become the shining city on the hill again. Yet he is making exactly the wrong choice, aligning himself with agents of the old guard – businessmen who care more for profit than for beauty. London’s choice to reject the account is also ominous – it will seemingly cost Sterling Cooper millions of dollars. Our sympathies are once again with Don – we are angered that London is so shortsighted. London is so reactionary as to cast Don as prescient. But it may be that London is right for all the wrong reasons. Mad Men is expert at creating these layers – at playing with audience expectations, pitting lines of speculation against each other. This is what makes this “boring, slow” show so fascinating. It’s a Greek tragedy, wherein everyone’s fate is created by their fatal flaws. Our foreknowledge of future events lends the show enormous tension – we worry not only about how the characters will survive themselves, but about how they will survive the times.
Penn Station (and by extension, New York itself) wasn’t the only ruin on hand tonight – we also had the fight over Gene’s house; the wedding; Roger and Mona’s marriage; and, arguably, a number of bodies – Gene’s, Betty’s, Roger’s, and Peggy’s. There are even references to redecorating the Draper’s home and to the Draper family going antique shopping (mercifully, these fascinating developments were kept off screen.) Gene’s house is one that seems to have outlived its purpose: Gene is no longer capable of living on his own. Therefore, the sheep (Betty’s brother William and his wife Judy) want to move in. Betty, who no one could ever accuse of not being hugely reactionary, is of course against this – as we’ve seen again and again, she clings stubbornly to her childhood, and she views her parent’s home as almost a shrine to her mother’s memory. (By the way, I wish there had been some mention – or consideration – of what would happen to the Hofstadt’s housekeeper (and Betty’s de facto mother figure) Viola. She seemed a very important part of the Hofstadt family, and I wish they had explained what had happened to her. Then again, perhaps this is symptomatic of the casual racism and passivity natural to Betty’s character.) William and Judy’s instinct to take over the house, while a little venal, isn’t unreasonable. But in Betty’s eyes, it’s akin to a barbarian invasion – the ancestral home will be ruined. Don’s sensitivity to Betty’s feelings on this cause him to insist that Gene move in and the house remain untouched. Yet isn’t that consigning the house to becoming a true ruin – a place where no one lives, a place that has outlived its purpose? Betty and Don see the preservation of the house in its original state as an act of love, but in doing so they show no love for their relatives – William and Judy and their small family. In throwing their loyalty to the dead and almost-dead, they destroy the possibility of future family unity. Don’s insistence that William and Judy leave the car behind seemed especially cruel – and I bet that this slight won’t be soon forgotten.
Roger’s daughter Margaret’s wedding is set for the day after the JFK assassination – love among the ruins indeed! But the second ruin haunting this occasion is Roger and Mona’s failed marriage. While Roger’s attempts to negotiate his “blended family” are rather modern, the roots of the situation are not – Roger’s marriage to Jane was an attempt at recapturing his youth, at denying his own mortality. Here, as with the Penn Station situation, the pursuit of the new is actually regressive, rather than progressive. Roger is not attempting to become a new man; he’s trying to become the man he used to be. He isn’t cool; he’s embarrassing. His willful blindness to the awkwardness created by his marriage to a girl the same age as his daughter has an interesting parallel in Gene’s second marriage. Like Gene, who is pretending that he doesn’t know that Gloria has left him, Roger also puts up a blithe front, insisting that everything is okay even as his family pointedly informs him that no, it is not. Roger is so busy pretending that his new marriage is wonderful and he is supremely happy that he hasn’t noticed that he actually is quite unhappy. His scene with Mona had a nice wistfulness, even a sexual tension, that I hadn’t noticed before between them. Upon being informed that Mona has a date to the wedding, he snaps “Who?” “Bruce Pike,” Mona replies. Roger: “What’s that old saddlebag want?”
Roger may have rejected Mona, but he prefers that she remain untouched, a house that no one lives in. His short moment with Joan was sad as well – “Goodnight, Mrs. Harris.” Roger probably knows that the more mature move would have been to marry Joan, rather than Jane. Her continued presence in the office is most likely another reminder of his cowardice. Roger has no one left, except for Jane – his family holds him in contempt, as does Don, his closest friend. He seems increasingly irrelevant at Sterling Cooper, as Don wasn’t afraid to remind him at the Madison Square Garden meeting. But Roger’s fatal flaw seems to be stubbornness – he refuses to see how badly he’s erred. The more he is confronted with evidence of his mistake, the more tightly he clings to it (and the bottle.) What makes this all the more painful is that Roger is probably the smartest person in the office – wittier than Don, more flexible than Bert Cooper. How else would he get off all those brilliant one-liners? Unfortunately, he seems unwilling to apply that intelligence to anything but those one-liners, redefining fiddling while Rome burns.
Finally, we had all of the ruined bodies. Gene’s mind and body are betraying him; Betty is betraying hers (and her unborn child’s); Roger is killing himself with drink; and Peggy refuses to risk hers again. The Drapers and the Hofstadts must balance their love for Gene against his illness, making difficult decisions about his future. Betty resents her pregnancy so much that she is starving her child. Does she hate her pregnancy because it forced her to reconcile with Don? Does she hate her pregnancy because it detracts from her beauty? Betty seems even more insane than usual, in denial of her father’s condition and of the realities of motherhood. Contrasting Betty’s condition to Gene’s throws her into an even harsher light – she sees her body as “ruined” because she is pregnant, even as her father stands before her as an example of what a ruined body really means. Roger’s dedication to giving himself another heart attack indicates how little he really loves his wife, friends, or family. Peggy’s body is not ruined, per se, but she is a “ruined” girl – i.e., no longer virginal. She’s finally decided to explore what, exactly, this ruined state really means, with (thank God) someone other than Pete Campbell. Because Peggy has already had sex, and given birth, she’s already experienced the worst that can happen to a “promiscuous” girl. Because she has nothing to lose, she’s free to have as much premarital sex as she desires. But she also refuses to compromise this freedom, asking her partner if he has a “Trojan,” and then refusing to have intercourse upon his denial, opting for “other things” instead. It’s easy to see the use of the term “Trojan” as canny product placement or a symptom of Peggy’s ad exec instincts or both. However, it’s also interesting to look at it in light of the continuing Roman motif of Season 3. When looked at in the context of the various Greco-Roman references strewn through the season (Paul’s mention that the greatest Roman ruins are in Greece and Spain, because Rome pulled all its greatest buildings down, the use of Gibbons’ “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” in the next episodes), the term “Trojan” becomes positively loaded. As we know, the Trojan horse the strategy that allowed the Greeks to enter heavily-protected Troy. After besieging Troy for ten years, the Greeks built an enormous wooden horse and hid their warriors inside it. Then they pretended to sail away. The Trojans pulled the horse inside the walls of their city as a prize. After the Trojans went to bed, the Greeks crawled out of the horse and let the Greek army in. The Greek army then totally destroyed the city. A “Trojan horse” refers to any trick that an enemy uses to enter a heavily guarded fortress.
So, this is a pretty gross metaphor – the Trojan horse is the Trojan condom; the penis is the Greek army, the sperm are individual Greek warriors, Peggy’s uterus is Troy, etc. But the Peggy plot line of this episode was all about the war of the sexes. And Peggy understands (as do Betty and Joan) that pregnancy is the ultimate trap – once you are pregnant, you must submit to your husband, or else risk being alone and helpless. Pregnancy, in this era, ends the war of the sexes, and Peggy is determined not to be defeated. She is already battling her colleagues at work; even her greatest ally Don is sometimes against her. Peggy can’t truly “make love,” or else she risks her city being overtaken and ruined (yes, that’s a little bald, but so is the metaphor.) This leaves her more than a little lonely. I saw her imitations of Joan and Ann-Margret as coming from this, at least in part – she’s imitating other women to try to understand what it’s like to be them. She’s wondering if these attractive women that men long to be with aren’t, in their own way, as lonely as she is. I think she’s also noticed that these women are very powerful, albeit in a way that she finds somewhat reprehensible. Peggy is often overtly adversarial with men, but women like Joan and Ann-Margret wield power over men by pretending to submit to them. Part of what makes our Peggy so lovable is her naked hunger for power. Far from taking Don’s advice to “leave some tools in her toolbox,” Peggy has decided to add to her weapons. If she has to act like a sex kitten to win, she’ll do it.
(An aside – the “joke” that Peggy steals from Joan was about the subway – “It’s so crowded in here, I feel like I’m on the subway,” says Joan, to a crowd of admirers. One man says, “I never see girls like you on the subway,” or some such. Joan replies, “Oh, my husband doesn’t let me ride the subway.” So – why doesn’t he let her ride the subway? Is he afraid of her getting raped? When he rapes her, it’s not a violation, but if someone else does, she’s ruined? I saw this throwaway line as an interesting comment on the continuing war of the sexes theme.)
I suppose I should discuss “Bye Bye Birdie” now (in case it isn’t obvious, I’ve been working my way up to it.) As mentioned above, it was a jarring way to start the episode. “Bye Bye Birdie” is the story of a pop idol going off to war. Ann-Margret plays a teenager who worships said pop idol, Conrad Birdie. Her rendition of the song actually has several meanings – yes, she’s wishing him well as he goes off to war(!), but she’s also saying goodbye to her childish infatuation with him, rejecting him in favor of her hometown boyfriend. In other words, she’s saying goodbye to childhood. An additional layer is that the play from which the film was derived was based on the real life drafting of Elvis Presley. As we know, Elvis was the king of ‘50’s pop; by the mid-sixties, however, he had been pushed aside in favor of the Beatles. While Elvis did stage a comeback in ’68, it was as Vegas Elvis. His record sales were good, but he was hardly a symbol of youthful rebellion. So here we have yet another symbol for the ascension of’60’s youth culture and the decline of the ‘50’s. We can also see this as a reference to Betty – Don’s nickname for her is Birdie, and she is positioned, through the ill health of her parent and her coming motherhood, to have adulthood thrust upon her in a more emphatic way than ever before. She must say goodbye to childhood and embrace adulthood, otherwise she will put her family at risk. However, she couldn’t be more disinterested in this. She wants the facsimile of respectable suburban family life, not the reality.
Replicas, facsimiles, fakes, and imitations are some of Mad Men’s favorite tropes, and this episode was no exception. In addition to Conrad Birdie (an imitation of Elvis), we had the proposed Patio commercial, which is supposed to be a frame-by-frame remake of the “Bye Bye Birdie” number. Patio, or Diet Coke, is itself an imitation of real Coke, made with fake sugar. Peggy pretends to be Joan and Ann-Margret (and Don Draper, kinda); the Pryces and Drapers pretend to get along; and the Drapers pose with Gene for a happy family photo*.
What do fakes have to do with ruins, love, and hippies? In a nutshell, hippies hate insincerity of all kinds, because they think it impedes love. Because of this, they’ll destroy an entire civilization. Some of what they’ll destroy will be valuable; some of it will be worthless, even harmful. Love may be better than materialism, but a focus on emotion over accomplishments can lead to narcissism. For hippies, love takes place only among the ruins of society – it can’t be part of any larger structure or else it becomes fake. This world built by Holden Caulfields isn’t nearly as good as it was supposed to be – man cannot live on diet-coke idealism alone.
*My favorite fake of the episode, however, has to be the Pete look-a-like that Peggy picks up in the bar. Brilliant casting, and a pretty pathetic character note.