Last Night’s Mad Men: The Vietnam Theory

Slate's Culture Blog
May 20 2013 1:49 PM

Last Night’s Mad Men: The Vietnam Theory

Kenneth Cosgrove (Aaron Staton)
Are the men of Mad Men in the midst of their Vietnam?

Photo by Jordin Althaus/AMC

Spoilers ahead

Is the Chevy account Mad Men’s Vietnam?* The Internet’s army of recappers seems uncharacteristically unsure of what to make of last night’s episode, complete with company-sponsored juicing, exhaustion-fueled hallucinations, and a song and dance number from Kenneth Cosgrove. But I have a crackpot theory: After a season that began by teasing a year of violence in Vietnam, this episode’s trip down the rabbit hole finally led to that distant war abroad—a “fever dream” treatment of the nation’s panic not unlike the show’s treatment of the Kennedy assassination—or at least that’s how I’d explain everything that went down at the office.

That’s where most of the episode takes place, with Draper, Chaough, and co. faced with an uphill, years-long battle—to conquer the apparently impossible demands of Chevrolet—that they’re deluding themselves they can win. On some level they all seem to know they can’t do it. Early on, someone notes that they need to recruit more men. But instead they press on with blind optimism, on the grounds of what they see as their heretofore perfect record. That’s how Don sees it, anyway: “In my heart I know we cannot be defeated,” he says, in a delirious rallying speech that seems oddly hawkish for an ad agency. Some say their work will take several years, he explains, but all it will really take is an idea. If only they could figure out what that idea was.

If the company is blind to its doomed mission, Kenneth Cosgrove starts the episode literally blinded, with hands over his eyes and a gun to his head. His faceless bosses at Chevrolet are forcing the young man to race into danger, though all he wants to do is go home. When this campaign leaves him injured—the first casualty of the Chevy account—and he returns home hobbling around on a cane, he’s left like a Vietnam veteran: No one understands or cares about his injuries, mental or physical. It’s this experience that drives him into a fugue of tap dance, in which he complains about having had guns fired by his head. Still, he carries on, because that’s company orders.

To boost morale and keep the troops alert through the battle, Jim Cutler calls in Dr. Hex to administer amphetamines. In addition to paralleling an actual New York doctor, Max Jacobson aka Dr. Feelgood, who was later exposed for keeping the city’s rich and famous (not to mention John F. Kennedy) fueled on amphetamines, Hex’s practices also mirror those of the U.S. Armed Forces, which administered amphetamines to sleep-deprived soldiers during Vietnam. As Cutler puts it, when telling Don to see Dr. Hex, “that’s an order.”

Just as unusual is the appearance of Frank Gleason’s hippie daughter, Wendy, who shows up to administer to a different set of needs. We first see her come on to Don, who doesn’t mince words when describing her: “Every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse!” he complains, referring to Wendy’s advances as well as a number of other recent Mad Men events. While Wendy’s choices of reading material (the I Ching) and recreation (I Ching coin divination) are not out of character for a hippie, they also code her promiscuous character as Eastern, like the prostitutes who sprung up around American servicemen stationed in Vietnam. (The I Ching is Chinese in origin, but it’s also a key text in Vietnamese culture.)

Finally, at the center of this maelstrom is Stan, who spends the episode trying to forget about his cousin, whom he reveals was killed in action. This perhaps explains why he spends the episode (just as he has much of the season) dressed in a green, two-pocketed shirt, not unlike those worn by soldiers like his cousin. (Ken, too, wears an unusual, camo-colored tie.) At one point in his deranged sadness he even plays a game of William-Tell-meets-Russian-roulette, which for me couldn’t help but bring to mind another image of Vietnam trauma, perhaps the most iconic in our culture:

130520_BB_Vietnam_Mad_Men_Deer_Hunter

Left: Photo of AMC's Mad Men on author's TV screen. Right: Still from The Deer Hunter © Universal Pictures

Toward the end of the episode, when Stan confesses his grief over Vietnam to Peggy, Peggy responds with some sage advice: “You have to let yourself feel it. You can’t dampen it with drugs and sex.” Stan doesn’t follow Peggy’s advice—instead, he pays a visit to Wendy—and no one else does, either.

Update, May 20, 2:45 p.m.: Vulture points to yet another apparent allusion to Vietnam made by Stan’s William Tell scene. When Ed Gifford says that Stan is “gonna look like St. Sebastian,” he conjures up this iconic Esquire cover featuring Muhammad Ali, posed like St. Sebastian, martyred by arrows. The cover appeared only weeks before the events of this episode, in April 1968, for a story about Ali’s arrest for evading the draft.

Muhammad_Ali_Esquire_cover
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Correction, May 20, 2013: This post originally identified Don Draper's new account as being with Chrysler. It is with Chevrolet.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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