Monday, May 11, 2015

Is Don Draper a man in a hurry? How a "Mad Men" episode echoes "The Andy Griffith Show"

From last night's episode of "Mad Men"
Off-topic warning: This Squawk has absolutely nothing to do with baseball. Instead, I will be talking about “Mad Men,” and “The Andy Griffith Show,” and important plot points of both TV series, so consider this a spoiler alert for both shows, and go read something else if you don’t want anything to be spoiled for you, or if you don’t care about the topic!  (You would think I wouldn’t need to have to put “spoiler alert” about a program that debuted 50+ years ago, but I once got yelled at for talking about the ending of “Easy Rider” – 30 years after the movie was released!)

Okay, let’s get to it. AMC’s “Mad Men” is ending its run next week, and there were three main storylines in “The Milk and Honey Route,” last night’s episode, which involved Don, Betty, and Pete, three of the main characters. This was one of the best episodes of the entire series, IMHO. “Mad Men,” which was once a really great show, had really gone down in quality over the last few years, which made last night’s terrific episode one worth savoring.

Some TV fans got into “Mad Men” from the beginning of the show. As for myself, even though Squawker Jon told me it was the best program on TV, I didn’t start watching it until I started working in advertising, and then I binge-watched and got caught up with the show a few years ago.

Anyhow, what I want to talk about is the “Mad Men” plotline involving Don Draper, the show’s main character. He is on a sojourn across the country, driving hither and yon after walking out of an advertising meeting and hitting the road. (Speaking of which, I am on a sojourn on my own, but will be back soon!)  Don is on his way to the Grand Canyon, but ends up in Alva, Oklahoma after his Cadillac breaks down. He has to stay in this small town while his car gets fixed, which takes longer due to some parts having to get shipped in.

A "Man in a Hurry"
Longtime Squawkers readers know that "The Andy Griffith Show" is my favorite show of all time. In the “Man in a Hurry”  episode of “The Andy Griffith Show,” which is arguably the most famous episode of the program (and the quintessential one to watch if you want to get the appeal of the show), Malcolm Tucker is a city slicker from Charlotte on his way to a meeting. But his car breaks down in Mayberry, North Carolina on a Sunday and he has to stay around while his car gets fixed.

The businessman is increasingly exasperated by the slow pace and minutia of Mayberry. He doesn’t want to hear two old ladies using the telephone party line to talk about their aching feet, or to hear about Barney Fife talk about taking a nap and going over to Thelma Lou’s to watch a little TV.  He can’t understand why Wally, the owner of the filling station, won’t work on Sundays, and he thinks Gomer Pyle, who pumps gas at Wally’s, is a doofus.

But then Tucker gets charmed by the small town niceties – Andy singing and strumming a gospel song on the porch, Aunt Bee making him a sack lunch, Opie giving him a penny that was run over by a train. Even though his car finally gets fixed that day, Tucker makes an excuse to stay another day in Mayberry. In the last scene, Tucker is fast asleep on Andy's porch in a rocking chair, his surrender to the simpler life complete.

On “Mad Men,” the small town featured on the show seems at first like a wholesome scene as well, although Draper is not as cranky as the businessman on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Don checks into a mom-and-pop motel in Oklahoma, where he gets offered a leftover roast and helps fix a typewriter. It looks at first like Don is going to learn about how wholesome small-town Okie life is, as opposed to the venal people in the big city.

But instead of an uplifting “Don learns the true meaning of life” plotline, the way “Man in a Hurry” ended, the “Mad Men” plotline veers in a different direction.

The mechanic overcharges him, something the female proprietor at the motel cheerfully informs Draper of. The male “maid” at the motel is a small-town grifter who also overcharges Don to get him booze and paperbacks.(By the way, the grifter's name is Andy.)

After his car is fixed, Draper is exhorted to stay over that Saturday night for a gathering at the American Legion hall. Far from being a wholesome night, the evening is filled with drunkenness and debauchery, including a really sad-looking stripper jumping out of cake, and Don being pressured to tell his war stories by fellow veterans.  Yet the men around him don’t bat an eye when Don talks about (accidentally) killing his commanding officer in the Korean War, something Draper has avoided talking about for the entire run of the series. Don also gives $40 for a collection to help a veteran whose home burned down.  So in a weird way, it might look as if he is going to be accepted in this little town, the way the “Man in a Hurry” was on “The Andy Griffith Show.”

But after Draper goes back to the motel, the evening takes a turn for the worse when the $500 meant for the veteran goes missing, and everybody thinks Don did it. (Although if the look on the female motel owner’s face is any indication, she seems to believe in Don’s innocence.) The vets and the male hotel owner beat up Don to get the money back, and even hit him in the face with a phone book. It is pretty horrible to watch.

Don figures out what really happened – the male maid took the money. He readily cops to it, justifying it by saying that the vet burned his own house down. Don exhorts him to give back the money, and tries to convince the young man to get off the bad path he is on. Draper ends up getting the money back and leaving it to the motel without explaining what happened. He also agrees to give the con artist a lift to the bus station – the guy is skipping town. But then, when they get to the bus station, Draper gives the guy the Cadillac to keep, and goes to wait for the bus himself.

We won’t find out where Don is going to until next week, but I imagine that small-town life is not going to be where he stays.

Anyhow, it seems to me that Matthew Weiner, creator of “Mad Men,” deliberately chose this plotline to echo “The Andy Griffith Show” one. Incidentally, "Mad Men" has shown characters watching "TAGS," which aired in the show's timeframe.  But in all the recaps I have read, nobody else has made this comparison of the plot points! So if nobody else would write it, I guess this job falls to me!

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