“In Care Of” and the Narrative Engine of Place in Season 6
June 24th, 2013
“This is where everything is.”
Mad Men began with a spatial divide. In the series’ pilot, we are introduced to Don Draper in Manhattan but only get the full picture when we follow him onto the train to the suburbs, and to the family life he leaves behind every day he travels into the city. The show was invested in exploring the distinct ebbs and flows of those two spaces, and on Don’s ability to travel between them. While we could come to learn that Don had been living a double life for most of adulthood, initially we watched a man live two lives separated by the train ride between them.
The show evolved beyond its urban/suburban divide, adding enough complexity to both Don’s family life and Sterling Cooper as a setting that it would seem reductive to boil the show down to this dichotomy. And yet although Don was no longer traveling to the suburbs since separating from Betty, the spatial divide stuck around thanks to characters like Pete, who began the season in his city apartment that would become his primary residence after he proved less agile in his duplicity than Don was. And as Betty explored the life of young runaways or as Peggy let Abe talk her into living in a nascent neighborhood, New York City was no longer confined to the offices of Sterling Cooper, gaining diversity and perspective as the turmoil of 1968 played out over the course of the season.
Mad Men’s sixth season was far from then first time the show has become invested in the meaning of space and place, but “In Care Of” highlights how central the idea of “going somewhere else” has been to this season in particular. For a season that began in the escape of Hawaii, and jetted to Los Angeles and Detroit and to upstate New York in a very tiny plane, it ends with multiple characters imagining what life would be like away from New York. In the process, we can imagine a final season spread across the country, even if we can also picture a season that remains tethered to the Manhattan Mad Men has over time embedded into the fabric of its storytelling.
I am resistant to the suggestion that a city is a “character” in a series. It’s become a rote way of suggesting that a series has a sense of place, acting as though placing it on the same level of a character is the only way for setting to have meaning in a television series. It’s often used as a basic form of distinction, implying that place is “just a setting” on other shows, and it’s therefore no surprise it’s most often associated with premium cable or basic cable drama series (thinking specifically of shows like Boardwalk Empire or Breaking Bad). There was a joke in 30 Rock’s seventh season premiere where Liz Lemon suggesting somewhat facetiously that New York is like a character on their show, an acknowledgement—to my mind—that it’s lost any specific meaning beyond saying “Place was important to this show more than it was to other shows where it was less important.”
This is not to suggest that place isn’t more important to a series like Treme than it is to your average broadcast crime procedural; it is. However, I’m not convinced that Treme is doing something dramatically different to the point where place transcends setting and becomes “a character” in its own right. What these statements are trying to describe, to my mind, is the city as a narrative engine, one capable of acting upon the narrative and upon characters as though it had its own sense of agency (which I’d argue is present in most series to varying degrees). It’s this agency that producers/actors/critics are working to capture when they refer to a city as a character, but I’m not convinced it’s necessary or productive to do so.
The reason I resist referring to it as a character is that it requires a surrogate character through which to act, or a character to act upon. For our impression of a televisual city to change, there needs to be something else to contextualize that change: we need Betty and Peggy to see the darker side of New York City in 1968, just as we need someone to hear the sirens that echoed so prominently earlier in the season. Grandma Ida is perhaps the clearest manifestation of this principle, an embodiment of the city’s growing crime rate invading the Draper residence.
The other reason producers love the character simile is that it speaks to the evolution of setting, but I’m not convinced that we need to refer to it as a character to acknowledge this. One of Mad Men’s defining characteristics is how it has allowed its narrative engines to evolve. It still technically revolves around an advertising agency, and often uses individual accounts to tell stories as it does with the arrival of Hershey in “In Care Of,” but the road from Sterling Cooper to Sterling Cooper & Partners is a long and complicated one. We don’t need to call Sterling Cooper a “character on the show” in order to identify the way its evolution has functioned in a reciprocal relationship with its characters; we can acknowledge that it is a narrative device, one that Matthew Weiner has carefully designed, adjusted, and deployed as a key structural component of the series but which has been enriched by the sense that the characters within the show see it as something real, and tangible, and central to their identities.
Place is not as generative a narrative engine as Sterling Cooper has been, but it has functioned in a similarly reciprocal fashion. “In Care Of” builds on Don Draper’s connections to the west coast, which date back to his return to Los Angeles at the end of the second season, his trip to Disneyland with Megan and the kids, and the season’s two-hour premiere in Hawaii. When Stan pitches Don his idea of Los Angeles it’s an exciting career opportunity, but he’s selling Don something much deeper. As Don spirals out of control in the wake of his fractured relationship with Sally—who herself sought out boarding school to separate herself from her family—he sees Stan’s idea as a way to rebuild his life, a new place giving him a second—or third, or fourth—chance to make it work. It’s an acknowledgement of how much he sees place as holding tremendous power in his life, as it would be the only thing that changes: Megan has been turning down work in Hollywood to begin with, the kids can come out during the summer, and he’d still be working for Sterling Cooper & Partners.
But then it turns out everyone has a reason they want to escape to Los Angeles, to the point where it really does mirror Europeans traveling to the new world in search of a better—if uncertain—future. Ted, after giving into temptation with Peggy, sees Los Angeles as the only way to save his marriage and avoid hurting people he loves and affecting their lives forever (something that Don can relate to, having just had a phone conversation with Betty about the impact of their “broken home”). Pete, meanwhile, sees Los Angeles as his only option after he sours his relationship with Chevy in Detroit, has nowhere to live in New York (having subletted his apartment), and wants space to clear his head following his mother’s death at sea.
What I like about this development is that it both reinforces how place can function as a blatant narrative engine—the idea of the Los Angeles office proving convenient end points for ongoing storylines—while also demonstrating its reciprocal relationship to these specific characters. Ted’s Los Angeles is about protecting what he has, while Pete’s Los Angeles is about creating something new in the absence of anything to protect (although the episode certainly leaves his relationship with Trudy in a better place than when they first separated). Weiner uses place as a way to force characters to make decisions that are about their relationship with place rather than about that place in particular; Los Angeles in Mad Men is an idea, discursively constructed by each character as they imagine what it could mean for them personally and professionally.
Ryan McGee tweeted during “In Care Of” that the number of satellite agencies being discussed in the episode suggested the Game of Thrones credits sequence—above—could be required next season, and he raises a good point: both Detroit and Los Angeles featured prominently in the episode, and the Sunkist and Chevy accounts represent important touchstones for the agency. And yet it’s meaningful to me that Don Draper chooses to stay in New York. It’s a decision that he makes because he decides in his meeting with Hershey that he doesn’t want to run anymore, reconciling his past as Dick Whitman with his present as Don Draper. As Megan informs him, though, the train had already left the station: Don wants to stay in New York to fight his demons, but he’ll do so without his wife, and without his job after his partners choose to place him on indefinite leave.
You could argue that the city is all Don Draper has left, which is why I have my doubts Mad Men has intentions to significantly expand beyond it. Some of this has to do with logistics: James Wolk has a broadcast sitcom that’s likely to keep him busy, and Bob Benson has remained a marginal character to the point where occasional mentions of Detroit would likely suffice. Meanwhile, I’m certain the show will follow Pete and Ted to Los Angeles, but the nexus of the show will always be Don and Peggy, who will to remain in New York with the bulk of the characters we’ve followed for six seasons.
To that latter point, I would simply contend that this has always been a story located in New York in the 1960s, and it will always remain one. Now, there is an increasing amount of mobility: as Jim Cutler points out, we have airplanes, and telephones, and Mad Men has moved outside of New York in telling its stories more and more often as the series has progressed. However, as it took its detours into the American south or into the Hollywood Hills, it’s always felt like just that: detours. The idea of Los Angeles may loom large in this episode, but it looms large because it’s placed in contrast with the New York we’ve come to understand over the course of six seasons, and which carries the weight of six years of narrative and character development.
Something that I realized when I read Ryan’s Game of Thrones tweet was that we never see Mad Men’s New York, at least not in the same way we see Winterfell or King’s Landing. The limitations of a basic cable budget mean they don’t have the money to create their own 1960s New York backlot, especially given that they’re filming in Los Angeles (which is why we really only get location work when the series goes outside of the city, an example of how “authenticity” is—oddly enough—often more easily achieved when moving outside of the series’ regular setting). While the series delivers striking period details in its interiors, its placement of those interiors in New York has been less about detail and more about atmosphere. By necessity, Mad Men’s New York is constructed through the series’ characters, and through the idea of New York manifesting in sounds, people, ideologies. And so it’s fitting then that our glimpse of Mad Men’s New York in its opening credit sequence is a city constructed from other images, as though we can’t confront the city directly. While the Game of Thrones credits offer a glimpse of the inner workings—the gears—of Westeros’ elaborate cities, Mad Men’s credits gives us an abstract New York where we see nothing and no one, a blank canvas for the show to fill in over time.
“In Care Of,” one of the series’ finest finales, uses place as a way to demonstrate just how much of that canvas has been filled in. In the end, “place” has probably taken a back seat to “time” in the show’s balancing the two words in “period setting,” but the characters don’t have control over time in the way Matthew Weiner does. While the increased focus on place is just as much a construct of Weiner’s writing as his jumps in time from episode to episode, it more easily becomes a function of his characters once it is introduced into the narrative. The season’s biggest weak point has been its flashbacks, which suffered from an unclear purpose and some generally poor acting. They remained boring as the season concluded, but they held greater purpose once we discovered how Don is capable of accessing those memories. While there is power in Don leveraging his past to reconcile his conscience with the people at Hershey, there’s even greater power in taking Sally, Bobby, and Gene to the home itself.
While place might not be a character in its own right on Mad Men, that place is so capable of feeling as though it belongs to those characters—as the Pennsylvania house does to Don—is a testament to its integration as a narrative engine within both the entire series and particularly within this penultimate season.
- There’s another point to be made about distinct spaces within the series’ New York, thinking specifically about Don sleeping in Sally’s room or Peggy sitting at Don’s desk. The production design on Mad Men has always been spectacular, but it’s also been equally reciprocal with the characters who inhabit it.
- While I’ve understood some of the reactions to this season, I have to admit that I’ve never had an issue with how little Don Draper has changed given how much the rest of the show has changed around him. Inscrutable as it can sometimes be, I’ve never found Mad Men anything other than dynamic, albeit not in the same plot-heavy way as some of the other dramas.
- Some really tremendous Pete material in “In Care Of,” once again demonstrating that Vincent Kartheiser is a very good actor who deserves award recognition for this show before it’s over.
- Todd VanDerWerff wrote a great piece at The A.V. Club reflecting on the run of Grey’s Anatomy where he discussed the show’s ability to make characters that weren’t around in the beginning feel like they have. On that note, I was impressed by how the show fairly seamlessly brought the two agencies together, which is a credit to both Kevin Rahm and Harry Hamlin (who never got a whole lot of character motivation but was doing some good work).
- Matthew Weiner was a busy man giving interviews to every outlet under the sun—it’s Emmy season—but I’d suggest checking out Alan Sepinwall’s interview, and then both Alan and Todd’s reviews.