“Both Sides Now”, Judy Collins
In Care Of, Season 6 Episode 13
You think you know other people. But you don’t, not really.
The majority of Mad Men exists to shade these characters, adding complexities and contradictions and surprises, examining their intimate moments and minute struggles. The drama comes from the glamorous, mysterious, mature surface level dictated by the times not matching the messy, deceitful, broken and unhappy human beings underneath. Like anyone in the viewing audience, the employees of SC&P are guilty of sometimes hiding their true selves, manipulating and strategizing and retreating, but they occasionally see those vulnerable, honest sides of one another. When they do, it’s a significant and transformative breakthrough. Season six flips the script on this charade, tearing the cast apart and putting them through hell to see what makes them function. In an illuminating moment, Don is reading Dante’s Inferno in the premiere, and he indeed suffers through a gamut of escalating temptations before earning his absolution.
This final scene is brilliant, and the climactic musical cue is just an added bonus. The subtext of “Both Sides Now” isn’t as simple as a binary, fill-in-the-blank exercise, although it’s a great thought experiment to treat it as such. Clearly, it explores the cast’s boundaries between façade and reality. This is best expressed by Don’s phony preludes and unforgettable unraveling during a pitch for Hershey’s chocolate, the culmination of a lifetime of bad behavior and risk-taking wearing him down. His demons have caught up to him, and he finally tries to fight them back by telling the truth.
There’s also Pete’s continued irresponsible philandering and ill temper at work, contrasted with his innate desire to be a breadwinning husband and do the right thing. This disconnect between his vocation as a businessman and a family man is exemplified by a hired manservant implicitly absconding with his invalid mother, which in a sense, tears that family apart. (A bizarre plotline, to be sure, but it gets the job done.)
Roger has feared death and insignificance since his heart attacks in season one, and yet in For Immediate Release, he pulled off a business coup that may have saved the agency. Meanwhile, he’s acclimating to statesmanhood, tying up loose ends and fixing burned bridges with his daughter and past lovers. Speaking of which, Joan has flourished after leaving her nightmarish marriage, even deigning to become an account woman. But she still gets undersold, as Don and Ted’s reckless actions busted the former SCDP’s public offering, ruining the leisurely, glamorous life she keeps falling short of achieving.
Peggy thought she was free of a long-running relationship that was wasting her time, and an employer who only quashed her ambition, only to be dragged back into the fray in both cases. Her season-ending triumph as SC&P’s interim Creative Director is hollow and short-lived, since they immediately begin training her new male superior. Finally, Betty and Megan are both torn between the unflappable model women others take them for and the idiosyncratic, nuanced beings they are (and possibly quite jealous of one another’s lifestyle).
These dualities are oversimplifications, but the demarcation between all these margins and temperaments is clear, and it is about to change. In many ways, the events of 1968 subvert the promise and hard work that these characters demonstrated in season five in order to create some urgent stakes. By doing so, Mad Men shows the gradual evolution of social norms regarding emotional openness. Overall, these thirteen episodes tell us nothing is ever so bad that it can’t be improved with human connection. In fact, the signature shot that cements the final sequence among the greats is a guarded look of mutual understanding – not forgiveness, but stunned comprehension – between Don and Sally, as a neglectful father begins to come clean to his daughter.
“Both Sides Now” was originally written by Joni Mitchell and got propelled to fame by the Judy Collins cover heard here. In each verse, Mitchell first examines the idealistic, clichéd signifiers behind three concepts which encompass the human condition: the poetry of nature, the power of love and the beauty of life as we know it. She then undercuts them with frustrating reality, the cynical pragmatism that comes with age and experience. Every stanza concludes with a defeated shrug, acknowledging that the change of perspective only made things less comprehensible. It’s a testament to the simultaneous wonder and sadness of subjective experience, and it’s not preachy in the least, commanding humble metaphors as stand-ins for the mystery of existence. Musically, the track is a folk tune with tinkling, delicate harpsichord backing a fairy tale falsetto. Such a fanciful and dainty song suits a scene that’s coming from a typical young girl’s perspective. But this season has cemented Sally’s journey into womanhood, and so it’s doubly fitting that the lyrics are about the destruction of all that simplicity and idealism.
That’s the year of 1968 in general – the darkness is setting in. Social inequality doesn’t seem to be getting better, as the Martin Luther King assassination sucks even these privileged WASPs into its tragedy during an awards ceremony. Vietnam is getting more and more out of hand, with concerns about its justification increasing while Don helps a friend’s son dodge the draft. The drug and leisure culture is taking a sinister turn, evidenced by the medical quack whose uppers take the whole office out of commission. The very infrastructure and elite background of New York City is crumbling, and the west coast is ascendant in culture and standard of living. The country elects a retrograde conniving conservative to office who had lost his bid at the beginning of the series. These scars and remnants of the past are vividly represented by a decrepit old mansion in Hershey, Pennsylvania, one that used to be a whorehouse where a young Dick Whitman lived in misery. Like the other characters, he makes a decisive move to address his inner pain in the hopes of reconciling all the different parts of himself.
Our protagonists at SC&P are not quite to the promised land, but the gauntlet of season six has taught them a lot. These people have been weathering the tides of time, seemingly unconcerned with anyone else’s problems and grasping for anything that might help. But they’ve passed the point of no return. Everyone is beginning to see their peers in a new light, confounding their expectations and setting a new paradigm.
Roger and Joan come to a friendly, but decidedly businesslike understanding about their child, sacrificing past history for future prosperity. The always insecure Pete brashly moves to California, dodging his damaged life and suffocating responsibilities in a Dick Whitman-esque manner, but he still says goodbye to his daughter in a tender and vulnerable scene. Ted Chaough wisely follows suit, knowing his and Peggy’s interoffice romance will jeopardize his marriage after it becomes an open secret at the agency. After tolerating an inscrutable and distant partner, even the personable, reasonable Megan needs a break from the deceit and neglect, likewise shipping off to California to reassess her marriage. In contrast, Peggy was toyed with and underestimated by virtually everyone during the season, from coworkers to lovers, but ultimately realized her deeper passion was for making good work and gaining social status, clearly a noble priority. Even Bob Benson opens up to Pete, revealing his own two-faced past, and is shown mercy and asylum just for being honest and wanting to change.
After a turbulent year, such stark clarity throws a wrench into a bunch of relationships on the show. But it’s ultimately a good thing going forward – the only way through each individual’s existential Inferno is to ride out the changes. Before, these people lived in fear, but there were rules and peace and order. Nobody tacitly acknowledged anyone’s career ambitions or sexual needs, their secret pasts and desperate manipulating. So many intangible factors kept those avenues closed, the full possibilities of life still cloudy and uncertain. They were comforted in isolation and escapism, believing what they wanted to believe, and now, with a gentle acoustic flourish, it’s gone. The innocence is lost. How wonderful and terrifying it is to see both sides.