HBD Chick points out a bizarre stand-alone scene in one of the last episodes of Mad Men (April 26, 2015, scripted by Matthew Weiner and Erin Levy) that sounds like Weiner is trolling HBD Chick’s intellectual obsession with clannishness.
I have to say that Steve’s posts (and Weiner’s own revelations) certainly make the show much more understandable. I honestly couldn’t make head nor tail of it before learning about Weiner’s hang-ups (the clothes were fun to look at, though!).
One scene from the final season (in “Time & Life”, s07e11) really makes sense now!
Ad man Pete Campbell punches the headmaster of the Greenwich Country Day School (current maximum tuition $37,600) for refusing admission to his little daughter.
Initially, Headmaster MacDonald claimed it was because Campbell’s four-year-old daughter scored poorly on the Goodenough-Harris Draw-a-Man IQ admission test:
Pete Campbell: Well, I assume you know why we’re here, Mr. MacDonald. We feel there’s been a mistake regarding our daughter, Tammy. It’s a Campbell family tradition to receive the inimitable education of Greenwich Country Day. … A Campbell has been in attendance since…it was a barn! …
Headmaster MacDonald: I’m sorry, but our decision is final. It’s not a question of space. Your little girl scored very low on her Draw-a-Man test. …
Campbell: Albert Einstein didn’t speak until he was four years old. …
The headmaster is contemptuous of this cliched response of IQ science denialists:
MacDonald: (shaking his head.) Heh. Einstein.
But then we find out that this school discrimination incident is actually just an extension of a Highlander clan war going back at least to the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692 in which Campbell clan soldiers under orders of the new King William of England took advantage of the hospitality of the MacDonald clan to breach the truce. This was a particularly heinous offense under Scottish law: “murder under trust.” (Weiner and Levy were likely inspired by a 2013 episode of Game of Thrones, “Red Wedding,” based on this incident notorious in the romantic literature of the 19th Century.)
Campbell: Would you like to step outside?!
MacDonald: Are you sure you wouldn’t rather get me while I’m sleeping like a real Campbell?!
Campbell: Are you kidding me?!
MacDonald: No MacDonald will ever mix with a Campbell!
Mrs. Trudy Campbell: What are you talking about?!
Campbell: It’s some stupid story! It’s three hundred years old! He’s obviously nuts!
MacDonald: (addressing Trudy) You should know that his clan took advantage of the gift of hospitality and murdered my ancestors while they slept!
Campbell: The King ordered it!!
MacDonald: (still addressing Trudy) Just be grateful you can remarry and get rid of that name.
Trudy: (shocked, raising her hand to her mouth.) Oh!
Pete punches MacDonald.
Pete: Come on, Trudy. (Escorts her out.)
MacDonald: (rubbing his chin.) Another sucker punch from the Campbells! Coward!!
HBD Chick comments:
So, here we have it, I think — Matt Weiner fiiiinally getting a chance to show WASPs — and not just any WASP, but the very guy [Pete Campbell] who made the snide comment about “the rude edge out of people” — how it feels when the shoe is on the other foot. Pete Campbell can’t get his daughter into an exclusive school simply because of who they are — Campbells! So there!
Dylan Matthews at Vox amplified along those lines on April 30, 2015, but approvingly:
But mostly, making Pete one of those Campbells is a brilliant character note. Pete is a deeply privileged man who’s always coming up short.
On the one hand, his pedigree is impeccable. His mother is a Dyckman, the descendent of a family that used to own much of Manhattan. He went to Deerfield and Dartmouth. But his adult life has seen humiliation after humiliation chip away at this image of himself. His parents were embarrassed by his choice to go into advertising. He had to accept money for an apartment from his wife’s parents after his only family wouldn’t help him (and because Sterling Cooper didn’t pay him enough). His father squandered the family fortune. He got divorced, with all the social ostracism that entails. For heaven’s sake, there’s an entire episode devoted to Pete failing at stuff: fixing a sink, fisticuffs with Lane Pryce, sleeping with the high school girl he has a crush on.
The Clan Campbell — Scots who allied with the English crown — is a wonderful metaphor for this. Pete isn’t a real WASP, not on his father’s side at least. He will never be at the top of the social ladder. If the Upper East Side elite were the Mafia, he’d never be a made man.
And yet he tries all the same, just as the Clan Campbell tried to gain the favor of the English for a taste of the privileges Englishness offered.
The result is that Pete gets humiliated by a preschool headmaster. In 1970, even fake Englishness doesn’t buy you much of anything anymore.
Since Weiner has pointed out — “Sterling Cooper is modeled on my high school — that his fictional ad firm is based on Harvard-Westlake School on Coldwater Canyon (tuition $33,500), let me add to Matthews’ point by noting that Harvard-Westlake’s geographically closest social rival is Campbell Hall Episcopal School on Laurel Canyon (tuition $34,400), although Campbell Hall lags Harvard-Westlake in academic rigor.
Campbell Hall alumni include director Paul Thomas Anderson, Molly Ringwald, the Olsen twins, and the Fanning sisters.
Campbell Hall was founded by the kilt-wearing Rev. Alexander K. Campbell. But Campbell Hall Episcopal is not even an authentically Scottish Presbyterian school, it’s an Episcopal school (i.e., the Church of England in America).
Like the craven Campbell Clan in 1692, Campbell Hall sided with the English.
Even the toniest nursery schools are run by goddamn MacDonalds.
To people whose ancestors didn’t hold British titles of nobility, these distinctions probably seem very fine and trivial indeed. But one thing I did like about the episode, which you gesture at, Todd, is that it’s partially about the evaporation of distinctions amongst the powerful.
Maybe, although Weiner’s recent interviews suggest that in the 1980s he was extraordinarily conscious of ethnic distinctions among the powerful families of Hancock Park and Harvard-Westlake School.
Today, we don’t talk about WASP privilege relative to Scots;
Did we ever? Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe, Henry Knox, Andrew Jackson, and James K. Polk were all various kinds of Scots.
But that’s not really the point of Mad Men.
we talk about white privilege relative to nonwhites.
I remember in college hearing an Irish-American classmate protest that he wasn’t really white; he wasn’t an Englishman, and he didn’t have those privileges. It sounded ridiculous at the time, and even more so now. It was a narcissism of small differences, a person in a position of privilege desperately trying to claim the mantle of the underdog without enduring any actual oppression.
I suspect Dylan Matthews can think of an even better example than Irish-Americans of an even more economically privileged American ethnic group who like to talk about all the oppression they have suffered. But, then, how’s Rick Sanchez’s career going these days?
That’s what Sterling Cooper & Partners’ freakout at the prospect of being taken over by McCann feels like to me. SC&P wants to think of itself as an agile, nimble team of innovators who’ve been shaking up the industry and playing by their own rules. But as you say, Todd, they’re just another group of white guys (plus Joan and Peggy) painting the same Norman Rockwell visions of America as everyone else.
In 1963, in “Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” it’s easy to miss this, because the possibility of a real alternative to the model felt so faint, so hopeless. But in 1970, the counterculture is real. Black Power is real. Women’s liberation is real. Even gay liberation is real, if only just beginning (note the couple who greet Don at Diana’s former apartment). There is a world outside the tiny bubble in which firms like SC&P and McCann did battle, and splitting hairs within that bubble is starting to look rather ridiculous.
It does make me wish that the show lasted long enough to document advertising’s co-option of the counterculture, the moment when the traditional strategy of firms like SC&P and McCann began to fail and bursting out of their bubble became a business imperative.
You could also read this scene as Weiner self-parodying his own roiling but ridiculous ethnic resentments that provide him with the ethnocentric anger that fuels the admirable energy he brought to putting together Mad Men.
But does anybody get the joke?