Are Mad Men’s critics “for the birds?”
How else does one explain their endless chirping about this season (Le Cirque?)— even as they largely missed the flock of imagery critical to understanding last Sunday’s episode, “To Have and to Hold”.
Sure, everyone caught this flipping of the “bird”:
But unlike my heavy-handed references, “To have and to hold” weaves in subtle—even teasing— avian imagery into the episode’s multilayered plot to drive home a significant point.
I’ll show you all the images in a second, but first, let me answer the first obvious question: why birds?
It’s simple: “To have and to hold” is a modern re-telling of the Inferno’s Canto V, which chronicles Dante’s entrance into the Second Circle of Hell, where those whose sin is lust are condemned. In Inferno, Dante represents the inhabitants of the Second Circle as birds— starlings, doves, and cranes to be exact— who shriek cacophonously as they are whipped around by the winds of their own desires.
Sure sounds like the cast of SCDP, doesn’t it? And like in Inferno, Mad Men is going to use birds to symbolize its characters’ various lusts. (Spoiler alert, if you read to the end of this blog, you will see the episode also steals the ending of Canto V, potentially also foreshadowing Don’s fate).
The bird imagery in “To Have and to Hold” comes early and it comes often. Ken Cosgrove opens the references by entering the office of “Mr. Crane” (get the allusion?) to ask the subtly profound question: “What are the Madison Avenue closing dates for Birds Eye?”
In other words, “when will we all stop fucking around?”
Not this episode, Ken.
Soon afterwards, we see our first visual representation of birds. Not coincidentally, two pairs of them are shown hanging in Megan’s dressing room right after she is offered a love scene with the soap opera’s star. (Is that a “starling” to go along with our “starlet?”)
The presence of dueling pairs of birds, of course, foreshadows the “swinging” offer that Don and Megan are soon to receive from the show’s director and his already swinging wife.
But before that awkward dinner we already get to see the birds already pecking at Don’s mind.
Indeed, soon after, Don comes home to a scene that encapsulates not only his state of mind but the status of his marriage.
As Don arrives home—after running into his Mistress in the elevator— Megan greets him by saying that “I’m going to get you a drink and then I’m going to stuff you with coq au vin”— the famous French dish of cooked chicken (cooked “cock”, to be exact) stewed in wine.
Then a bird over Don’s shoulder appears. And Sometimes a bird is NOT just a bird.
It grows larger and moves closer to Don:
And starts to rival Megan for his ear—as they begin to argue about her forthcoming scene:
And even as Megan wins him over— swan-like in her touch— the actual swan remains at the back of Don’s head as a reminder of his mistress.
Indeed, as she relishes her victory, it never leaves his mind. It lingers in the background— and in his imagination:
Which brings us— before we return to the bird parade— to the second major theme of “To Have and to Hold”: the conflict between “the external mind” and “the internal mind”; in other words, between “what is said” and “what is thought” and “what is seen” and “what is imagined.”
This theme is most obviously present in the competition between Don and Peggy for the Heinz ketchup account.
In their dueling pitches, Don emphasizes the importance of having something in one’s mind versus seeing it. As he says to the Heinz execs: “The greatest thing you have going for you is not the photo you take or the picture you paint… it’ s the imagination of the consumer…if you can get into that space (headspace!), your ad can run all day”.
And so Don and company leave the ketchup bottle to be imagined.
Peggy, for her part, chooses to visually represent Heinz Ketchup (even if the Ketchup bottle ends up getting a little frisky with her—notice that phallic second shot).
As she tells the exec, “Imagine this 40 feet tall in Times Square”:
Perhaps, she’s the only one able to catch up with Don? Maybe the Heinz exec just really likes her… I leave that to you to interpret.
Before we get back to the birds, I want to show how the writers show us this divide— between the “internal” and “external” mind—visually throughout the episode.
In fact, they literally create Warhol-style “thought bubbles” for the characters—Peggy’s Heinz Ketchup ad is, of course, also Warhol-style and the pop artist was shot in 1968 in an attempted murder (coincidence? I think not).
It’s not just the bird inside Don’s head, the writers create thought bubbles for almost all the characters. Remember, in Mad Men, no shots are wasted or unintentional. The writers are helping us read the character’s minds—and testing our ability to keep up (or catch up?).
And so Dawn—who’s worried about the consequences of having punched another Secretary’s timecard— has time on her mind:
Peggy—before the pitch—is feeling inspired (light bulb!) by her great idea.
She’s also an angel apparently. Notice the halo effect—we’re in the Inferno, after all.
Contrast that with Pete Campbell—fuming after SCDP loses the account. Are those horns there, little Devil?
Speaking of Pete Campbell, here he’s confused by Harry Crane referencing his brilliant “Broadway Joe on Broadway” idea. Notice the abstract painting in background) when Pete asks: “what the hell is that?”
Have another question, Pete?
Here he’s responding indignantly to Harry Crane for implying that Joan got to be a partner by sleeping her way to the top: “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Pete asks.
You think that “Hell” was thrown in Pete’s questions by accident? Hell, no.
Just to show that it’s not only Pete who’s confused, here’s Meredith not sure how to answer Joan’s question of “where were we?” Apparently she hasn’t caught on that she’s in the second circle of hell.
Of course, it makes you wonder if Harry Crane just walked into a career firing squad. And sure enough, check the reference to the “Death Wish” from Season 1, Episode 1 “Smoke gets in your eyes”. (Ken Cosgrove smoking).
Before we get back to the birds, and for those of you in doubt about the intentionality of these thought bubbles, let me point out that there are tons more throughout the episode.
To give you just a few more:
Here’s the ad exec from Dow Chemical, contemplating the prospect of “Broadway Joe on Broadway”
Giddy-up, there, Dow exec.
Here’s Burt Cooper— relaxing like the Japanese emperor he is (shoes off, please!)— with a reclining geisha behind his head, even as he tells Harry “I was different than you, Mr. Crane. In every way.” (There’s that bird imagery again.)
And the writers don’t just do this with heads, but also, well, with “heads”.
Here’s that now infamous swingers dinner. Remember that coq au vin?
I’d say that bottle of wine is a tad phallic there, wouldn’t you? Swingers do get excited after all (but hands above the table from now on, please!).
And Here’s Megan’s on-screen lover, ahem, aroused by her acting skills (that’s one large, wooden phallus):
Well, at least, maybe, in Don’s mind, she’s not that into it:
Er, not so much.
No slut-shaming intended, this is her job after all. And Don is the biggest hypocrite in the Second Circle.
But not in Don’s mind. But before we get back there, let’s just run our course on bird imagery first.
For instance, did you catch birds there in that scene (above the phallus—with the blue-framed, presumably male one swooping down on the red-framed, presumably female one). Here it is, in close up:
And we haven’t even talked about Joan and her sister:
I wonder what they are thinking about? (Call me maybe?)
Yeah, definitely call (and now check out the man as Joanie’s thought bubble— ps, that song they hook up to has bird calls in it).
Of course, it’s not all dirty. Doves and branches can signal peace occasionally, even in the Inferno.
Which brings us back to Don. What is going on in his head?
How about this for a clue? A “shot” of Don’s head as news about RFK’s still ongoing campaign is read out over the radio in the background.
He doesn’t look so happy— does he?
And the casual reference at this moment to RFK on the radio (who, of course, later gets his head shot off) as the camera focuses on Don’s head can’t be good. Especially considering Burt Cooper casually references “the ghost of Kennedy” earlier.
But maybe his wife can give him some peace (there are those olive branches again):
But maybe not—that light is still not on after all:
So how does he react when he views her with another man? (She may be acting—but again—not in his head.)
Now those birds in Megan’s room just look angry—as Don and Megan parrot each other’s arguments back and forth:
Like in the image, Don tries to show his dominance (he’s the taller bird with the bigger head, after-all), but it just doesn’t work.
He ends up just lashing out at her— cacawing if you will— for being a “prostitute” (so much to say there— as prostitution is one of the major themes of the show, of course: Don is the illegitimate son of a prostitute; and everyone on Madison Avenue is a prostitute of some sort, etc.).
But Don now needs his fix. He goes back to Sylvia and finds the token they use to signal availability: the penny outside her door. This penny isn’t just a reference to prostitution (he’s still paying for his sins, after all, isn’t he?) or to the proverbial fare for the journey across River Styx to the Underworld (he’s already there).
Remember, the penny has Lincoln on it. And Lincoln, to put it subtly, just like JFK and RFK, gets his head blown off.
But then the crucifix Sylvia wears distracts Don. At first Don doesn’t notice it, of course. It’s there in the center of her chest, but he’s distracted by the Roses on both of her lapels (Roses, not coincidentally, are traditional symbols of female genitalia).
But the cross has been there all along. Check it out the first time Don sees her this episode—right before Megan offers him that notorious coq au vin. Not coincidentally, check out her halo (Peggy-like, definitely not Megan-like).
Now back to the love scene: Check out her halo (and cross) as the darkness of Don approaches (Don Draper, vampire?).
Don even has a momentary halo as he overtakes her.
But then he notices the cross:
Check out Sylvia bathed in light and Don in darkness as they “discuss”.
And so Don mocks her: “What do you do when I leave here? Get on your knees and pray for absolution?”
She replies: “ I pray for you.”
Don: “For me to come back?”
Sylvia: “For you to find peace.”
More on those lines in a moment, but first notice how she comforts his head (significant wouldn’t you say?):
It’s almost as if he accepts love and forgiveness (and protection for that imperiled mind/head).
But then he turns the cross around:
And Don goes back to darkness.
Man, this stuff is good. (And I can go on and on about other religious symbolism from this season so far— future blog post).
But for now, let’s just answer a simple question: Where does Wiener get it from?
Oh yeah, it’s right there in Inferno’s Canto V.
Listen to what another pair of star-crosses lovers, Paolo and Francesca, tells Dante:
“If were the King of he Universe our friend,
We would pray unto him to give thee peace,
Since thou hast pity on our woe perverse.”
Sylvia just prayed for Don to have peace, but he turned away any reminder of the “King of the Universe”. But oh lord, does he certainly knows some “woe perverse”. I sure hope it doesn’t cost him his head.
So to sum up, in the game of Critics vs. Mad Men, the result is: Game, set, match, Mad Men. It still soars.
PS, I got your back, Matt Wiener.
I got your back, and I got you.