Charles in Charge: Mad Men and the Sixties

So here’s my theory for the arc of the season. A few years ago, I watched Monterey Pop and Woodstock within a couple of days of each other. I was struck by the differences in Hippie Nation between the two, the events in both occurring a little over two years apart. I’ma gonna throw around some cliches here, but Monterey was all sunshine, flowers and patchouli (with the notable exception of the chaotic antics of the Who). Woodstock is a descent into mud and madness – the gate crashing, overdosing, bad trips belying the communal ideas which groups like the Diggers and others were trying to uphold. Just the change in Hendrix is instructive. At Monterey, he’s a revelation, blowing apart R&B and “folk” rock with only his guitar and two other guys. Of course, he does set his axe on fire at the end, having to do something to upstage the Who. At Woodstock, he’s a diminished figure, the toll of his drug use and the weight of the expectations on him visible in his every gesture. Even though the sun is coming up as he plays, he’s well on his way to death and will arrive there in just a little while. At Monterey, Joplin storms the stage, takes the crowd by the throat and tears out a piece of her heart to inextricably bond herself to the crowd. She was still just a girl from a small town in Texas at that point. By the time Woodstock rolled around, she had become JANIS!, Just like Hendrix, the pressures she was experiencing, and the ways in which she dealt with those pressures, were ripping her to shreds. That arbiter of hippiedom, Abbie Hoffman, tried to storm the stage at Woodstock during the Who’s set, only to be dissuaded from delivering his screed by Townshend’s axe. Hippie nation was beginning to turn on itself and letting itself be destroyed, trying to put a flower in the gun barrel in front of them while failing to notice all the OTHER guns pointed its way, including some pointed from within. Pop will eat itself, indeed.

The book in the 33 1/3 series on Forever Changes by Andrew Hultkrans is what led me to start reevaluating the 60s and having a more jaundiced eye. Prior to reading that, I was blinded by my own naivete and willfully failing to see that Manson and the events at Altamont were as much of a result of the 60s as was flower power. Neil Young was never particularly hippie dippy. By the mid 70s he seems to have soured on the era he came out of. Revolution Blues, on On the Beach, is a scathing indictment of the idea that if only we can move away, live amongst only the like-minded and develop our own culture and morality, utopias will spontaneously emerge. The needle came, the damage was done, and flower power began to rot and stink, as will all beautiful things if they aren’t properly watered and cared for.

Back to Mad Men. I didn’t realize until this week how apropos the first word in the title is, in terms of insanity. Bob Benson, with his self-help honed interpersonal skills, is THE creepiest character they have ever had on the series. Creepier than Pete at his smarmiest, creepier than the fat Jaguar guy, more disturbing than Betty at her worst. He’s the Manson – mark my words – there is a reckoning coming this season, or maybe next. It will make the lawnmower incident and Lane’s suicide look like phantasms cooked up in a creative meeting. I just hope Joan, Kevin and Joan’s mom survive it. Part of me hopes I’m wrong, but the entire series is a mirror or macrocosm of its times, and I don’t think Weiner will avoid addressing the darker aspects.