War Zones

 Posted by on April 18, 2012 at 6:36 am  Season 5
Apr 182012

Beginning as it does just after Memorial Day, a holiday created to celebrate those who have died in war, one of the motifs strongly presented in A Little Kiss is the idea of conflict.  The battles depicted are not graphic as the vivid imagery of spilled blood and guts resulting from warfare described by a Heinz executive/Korean veteran while discussing the public’s perception of kidney beans.  But, they are nonetheless discernible.

This idea first appears in the opening scene showing civil rights protestors.  Battle lines are clearly drawn when African-Americans on the sidewalk (along with an “embedded” reporter) carry signs demanding equal opportunity are mocked by Young & Rubicam employees looking down from an open office window above.  These Y&R employees have signs of their own (“Goldwater in ’68”) and drop water bombs on the unsuspecting crowd.

Later, during Pete Campbell’s train ride to the office, he has a conversation with a fellow commuter about that man’s domestic battles.  The man shares one particularly bad incident that drove him to violently punch a hole in a motel room wall. Pete’s marriage seems to be less combative because, even though he loves the city, he has opted for a strategy of appeasement with Trudy regarding the location of their suburban home.  The other man, implying infidelity, concludes that there’s nothing wrong with a troubled marriage that “a little piece wouldn’t fix.”  One could replace the word “piece” with “peace.”

Throughout A Little Kiss, Pete also finds himself involved in series of tactical maneuvers when dealing with Roger Sterling.  Everything about their interactions suggests a battle for territory.  Pete’s insistence on taking Roger’s larger office is the younger executive’s attempt to storm the castle.  Roger suggests that they decide their differences with a literal fight “outside.”   While that suggestion is ignored, by hijacking Pete’s meeting with the Mohawk executives (fellow veterans) Roger does manage to draw blood. The incident upsets Pete so much that he loses his composure and bloodies his nose by slamming face-first into his small office’s support beam.  Pete gets the last laugh with a shrewd counter attack that makes Roger’s reconnaissance work backfire.

The centerpiece of the episode is a surprise fortieth birthday party for Don organized by Megan. Although decorum is maintained at all times, the event subtly becomes a virtual of theater of war as members from each side of the generation gap gather within their own respective camps.  At one point, a uniformed soldier sailor bound for Vietnam is present to hear Bert Cooper argue the “domino theory” to an anti-war party guest. More pointedly, because Don likes to figuratively keep his head down at all times, having the spotlight thrown on him at this soiree creates a great deal of conflict between he and Megan. Their apartment, still a mess from the previous night’s activities, could very well be viewed as the aftermath of a skirmish (“I love the smell of party favors in the morning!”).

The strained situations of both Joan and her mother and Lane and Rebecca seem to mirror each other.  Each respective household experiences conflicts arising over offspring.  Joan’s mother (there to help with the newborn because Joan’s husband is in Vietnam) does not think it right for Joan (now also a mother) to return to work.  Rebecca argues about the timing of paying their child’s tuition bill.  That these conflicts are related would seem borne out by two quick moments which bookend the episode.  At the start of A Little Kiss, Joan gives her mother ten dollars for groceries. Near the end of the episode, Lane gives Rebecca ten dollars to do her own shopping.

Although Pete is unsuccessful in getting the territory he sought (Roger’s office), the African-American protestors win a small victory when their proxies are able to storm the castle of SCDP seeking job opportunities advertised in the newspaper.  The ad was a meant to be a humorous salvo fired at rival ad agency Y&R.  However, as the episode ends, the small prank results in the SCDP executives feeling hoisted on their own petard.


  9 Responses to “War Zones”

  1. “These Y&R employees have signs of their own (Goldwater in ’68)”.

    After Goldwater was trounced in the 1964 election by LBJ – losing by nearly 19 million popular votes and winning only 6 states – the guys at Y&R must have obviously ingested some bad acid, to think he had a chance in 1968!

  2. Sailor, not soldier, at the party.

  3. “I love the smell of party favors in the morning!”


  4. Thought provoking and well written. Thanks Matt.

  5. Matt, a great post! MM’s had fights and disagreements in previous seasons, but this is the first time that I can recall that we’ve seen literal blood spilled so soon, and shed in combat with each other as opposed to being the result of a tragi-comic accident, like “Guy Walks into an Ad Agency.” Pete’s bloodied noses seem to be emblematic of the deeper discontents you’ve outlined so well. To paraphrase the Buffalo Springfield, in 1966, “there’s battle lines being drawn,” and they are being drawn on every level you can think of: politically, racially, socially, generationally (don’t think that’s a word, but you know what I mean), you name it.

  6. Matt, this is amazing. So much to think about here.

    Some small thoughts before the big one:

    1) The Y&R guys holding their upstairs territory, but so angry: yelling down at the protesters outside their windows. Another handwritten sign in those windows says, “If you want $, GET A JOB.”

    2) I do think the mess in the apartment after the party either reflects or foreshadows a battlefield. What an excellent catch.

    3) We also see Joan trying her hand at diplomacy, confronting Lane with her fears — and reaping the rewards of that approach, in both resolving her internal conflict and finding a friend when she most needs one.

    The battles you see in this season are real, I think — and indicative of a culture that is still at war with itself. As our nation has moved from inclusive participation in wars to the all-volunteer army, it seems to me that we (those of us not personally involved in those wars) have become more militant with one another: quicker to both define what we consider “our” territory, and to use hostility to “defend” it when we perceive ourselves threatened.

    For better and worse, the draft reinforced the sense of this nation as being a huge population more or less united in our struggles. I think — I know — that there was a time when we were a “we”, not just a loose collection of individuals ready to go to war with each other on the bases of what we consider our identities.

    Vietnam was an awful time. I kind of remember. But at least we all engaged in it: not something you can say of us now.

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