New Amsterdam

Season One, Episode Four: “New Amsterdam”

“Even old New York was once New Amsterdam,” as the song goes, and the fourth episode of Mad Men shifts away from the mystery of Don Draper’s life to focus instead on the larger theme of America’s cultural transformation during the 1960s. “New Amsterdam” circles around the foundations of New York society vis-a-vis their relationship to Sterling-Cooper, and some do indeed stretch all the way back to the days of New Amsterdam. At the same time, you begin to see the cracks showing in that cultural foundation and the first signs of revolution poking through — tentatively for now, but by the end of the show’s decade they’ll have completely uprooted the mechanisms of society.

And yet, will society really change that much by the end of the ’60s? Perhaps on the surface, but even today things still function much as they do in “New Amsterdam” — meritocracy may have more of a place today than in 1960, but parlaying your connections is still a much surer route to the top. And nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the friction between Don Draper and Pete Campbell, whose business rivalry evolves here from a mere workplace conflict to a more fundamental philosophical contest.

As the episode winds down, Sterling-Cooper partner Roger Sterling tells Don he shouldn’t compete with Campbell. Don denies it, but Roger isn’t buying it. “Not on a personal level, but for the world,” he rebukes. It’s a cutting and accurate observation; this competition, in fact, is central to the show. But Roger, himself the beneficiary of privilege and connections, can never understand the motivations that drive his underlings. Roger’s last name may be on the plaque in the lobby, but it’s not his name; it’s his father’s, as we come to realize when we see an old photo of a very young Roger sitting on his partner Burt Cooper’s lap. Roger clearly inherited his stake in the firm from his father, an associate of Cooper’s. He fell into power and wealth through his name, just as Pete manages to hang onto his own job through his mother’s.


Meanwhile, Don Draper, a man whose name isn’t even really “Don Draper,” resents them all for it. While Don’s past hasn’t quite been revealed at this point in the show beyond the fact that he never talks about it and his army buddies know him as “Dick Whitman,” knowing a little more about his backstory gives this episode some useful context. (This isn’t a flaw in the show, it simply makes the episode more meaningful on a repeat viewing.) Don comes from dirt, and seeing people like Roger and Campbell bumble into personal security through the luck of their birth infuriates him.

On the other hand, there’s no small amount of hypocrisy to Don’s fit of pique. After all, we’ll eventually learn that he got to his present station in life thanks to someone else’s name as well. And while he spars verbally with Roger about their generation gap, he still leans on the old guard. His ad sales pitch to Bethlehem Steel features art rendered in the style of pre-WWII WPA propaganda, a visual motif 20 years out of date. (That Don, who the show will eventually reveal to have come from abject Depression-era poverty in rural America, would summon up WPA imagery is probably not a coincidence.) His conflict with Campbell here likewise stems from the younger man’s eagerness to break from the office’s rigid hierarchy and rules of conduct; Don may sneer at Roger’s generation and chafe at the old boy’s network that runs the show, but he’s a part of the establishment nevertheless.

As for Campbell, “New Amsterdam” is the first of many episodes to utterly and completely emasculate him. Don misses no opportunity to belittle him with double entendres that only Pete picks up on. His parents come across as wholly old-world, talking of their summer home and respect and “making something of yourself” amidst casual racism and a clannish mindset that blandly leaves one child to his own devices while circling the wagons around another to maintain an outward image of respectability. Campbell is ultimately forced to rely on his in-laws’ largesse in order to provide his new bride with a home. When he’s spurred into taking a more proactive approach to work by his sense of inadequacy and his father’s barbs, he nearly loses his job.

“We gave you everything,” his father says disdainfully. “We gave you your name.” What makes this rebuke especially galling for Pete is that it’s true; his heritage protects him in ways he’s not even aware of.

Cooper won’t allow Pete’s termination, much to Don’s frustration, though they throw him a bone as well: Not only do they make it clear that they value Don for his skill rather than merely his name, Roger reinstates Campbell’s employment in a way that gives Don enormous power over him. And yet Don doesn’t embrace his induction into the old boy’s network with grace, redirecting his eloquent put-downs from Pete to Roger. Don doesn’t turn down his change in status, exactly, but he makes it clear that he isn’t truly a part of that world.

Still, it’s Campbell who truly represents the world of the 1960s here. Standing astride two worlds, he comes from money and prestige but enjoys only intangible benefits of his heritage. He aspires to succeed on his own merits, but the rules don’t allow it — even when his concepts are a better fit for the client than Don’s.

“I have ideas,” he boasts to Don.

“I’m sure you do,” Don retorts. “Sterling-Cooper has more failed artists and intellectuals than the Third Reich.” Still, there’s more than Godwinning at work here. While Don basically calls Pete a Nazi, his words also echo back to the previous episode’s fascination with the Volkswagen Beetle — a car (and an ad) the older generations sneered at. Campbell, however, praised it and its ads.

Meaningfully, Campbell wasn’t the only one to embrace the VW; it was mentioned in passing that Helen Bishop, neighborhood divorcée and single mother, actually drove one. And here Helen develops a relationship with Betty Draper that somewhat parallels Don and Pete’s. It’s certainly not a perfect parallel (Betty smirks with satisfaction when she learns Helen is several years older than her), but Helen definitely represents a way of life and thinking that Betty finds threatening. Though she may be divorced from a cheating husband, Helen is clearly liberated, getting elaborately made up to do volunteer work for the Kennedy campaign (another bellwether of imminent American social change) and keeping a dial of birth control pills in her bathroom drawer.

January Jones takes a lot of criticism for her acting (or lack thereof), but she does a fantastic job of being Betty Draper in these early episodes — outwardly stoic and flat, yes, but deliberately so. After all, Betty herself is merely acting, and not always convincingly so. She plays the role of perfect housewife, but you see constant glimpses of the unhappiness lurking beneath that sugary-sweet exterior; her couch trip at the end of the episode is particularly fascinating to watch as she tumbles the conundrum that is Helen and her creepy son Glen around in her mind. Helen barely keeps it together in one respect, yes, but in others she seems quite content. Eventually, though, Betty manages to convince herself that Helen is jealous of her domestic bliss and can’t give her son the maternal figure he needs… and yet her words ring hollow, as Helen (not Betty) is the one freed from a faithless husband and able to spend her nights as she pleases. Though, Betty’s not wrong about Glen. That kid is messed up.

Whereas Campbell desperately wants what Don has — respect, authority, power, self-actualization — while Don detests all that Pete stands for, Betty is merely fooling herself when she tells her doctor that Helen is jealous of her. Change is afoot in 1960 for both the American office and the American home, and already the sense that Don Draper will end up on the wrong side of both revolutions is beginning to bubble beneath the surface of the show, like those weeds beneath the concrete foundation.

4 thoughts on “New Amsterdam

  1. Coming from someone who hasn’t watched Mad Men but enjoys reading good meta of shows like this one, I can’t help but notice how you keep alternating between calling Pete Campbell by name and by surname, while everyone save Cooper gets called by their first name. Not sure if that says anything about Pete.

    (Don Draper, meanwhile, gets called either by full name or just Don, as befits someone who’s selling his image like a brand.)

  2. @Quartz Falcon Probably. I have a tendency to refer to sympathetic characters by first name and less relatable ones by last name. Pete straddles the line; he’s pathetic and sulky and throws tantrums, but he also has this weird earnestness about him that gives him a hangdog quality when life takes a crap on him.

  3. I’m also glad you’re writing these. I only watched the first few episodes and stopped, but somehow I found all the issues and angles this show had going on to be harder to grasp than what went on in The Wire.

  4. Hey, Jeremy.

    These have made me start to watch the show after leaving it at the pilot a while ago, and it’s definitely interesting. I am unsure of what attracts me to it, maybe it’s realizing what hasn’t really changed in 50 years, maybe it’s something else.
    These summary’s always point out something I didn’t notice, or foreshadow what will come, so they’re definitely welcome and make the show more intriguing.

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