Watched an episode of Naked City last night that had Detective Adam Flint investigating a breakin and murder at an ad agency. It’s a small but elite agency with a few select clients who pay big bucks to have the mad man who started the outfit put his special genius to work for them. This mad man, Carl Ashland (played by the original Fugitive and the great Harry Orwell, David Janssen), is a relatively young man at the top of his game who runs the creative and business sides of his agency almost single-handedly. Ashland takes a liking to Flint. He sees in him a version of himself, a smart, ambitious, working class kid with an intellectual and creative bent that has taken him farther, faster than someone from their background might have expected of himself, but taken him to a place where he’s alone and lonely---Ashland is too streetwise, too hard-edged for the company of the button-down Ivy League types who work for him, Flint is too thoughtful, too intellectually refined for a cop. That’s how Ashland figures it, at any rate. He thinks Flint is wasting his brains and talents and offers him a job that would more than double his salary right away, triple it in a couple of years.
Now, considering I started watching Naked City because I wanted to see how the world of Mad Men, New York City in the early 1960s, saw itself, it’s not surprising that this episode had me looking for comparisons between the two depictions of the advertising business, made nearly 50 years apart.
I expected to find points of difference to use against Mad Men, which no matter how good it can be is never very good at portraying the Mad Men and Mad Women at work and in its thematic need to show the worst of the the time period often reduces its characters to the equivalent of stock figures from Sunday School lessons for 21st Century adult liberals.
But I found similarities.
Some striking similarities.
Probably too many.
It was late.
Gave me a new respect for Mad Men though.
Start with this. Carl Ashland’s agency has a Pete Campbell.
Guy named Phil Seaver.
Phil’s a baby-faced seeming smoothie, an obvious product of his good schooling, a more refined and sensitive character than his boss, whom he both admires and despises. In one short scene he and Ashland act out a scene Pete and Don Draper repeat in practically every encounter. Phil has pushed back against one of Ashland’s ideas and offered one of his own, but Ashland shoots him down in a way that simultaneously humiliates Phil and praises him. Don does this to Pete regularly, calling attention to Pete’s weaknesses at the same time he identifies a strength. Both Draper and Ashland slap their man down with the same message, “You can do better, I expect better, and it’s your own fault that you don’t produce better and keep undercutting yourself with me.”
“What do you want me to fight you for, Carl?” Phil says. “Did you ever let me win an argument?'”
Carl replies in words and tones Don could use with Pete, “Phil, if you fought a little harder because you really wanted to win more than you wanted to complain about how often I beat you, you might come out ahead of me once in a while,” leaving Phil feeling the way Pete is often left feeling, infuriated more at himself than at his dismissive boss, trapped by his own insecurities, self-doubt, and self-loathing, while at the same time admiring his boss and rival for putting him in his place. As Pete often does, Phil seems relieved to have been smacked back into his natural role as a beta male by the alpha male.
And Ashland’s agency has a Joan Holloway, Miss Chain. She’s the Juno-esque office manager, tall, voluptuous, subtly flirtatious, aware that an important part of her job is to be ambulatory decor but with the purpose of keeping clients and underlings off-balance and distracted so that she can manipulate them the ways her boss wants them manipulated because the other, more important part of her job is to run the place.
Joan and Miss Chain are the chief petty officers, the master sergeants, to Draper and Ashland’s captains. At Sterling Cooper, Don Draper and Joan Holloway often seem---seemed. Thanks to an unfortunate plot development that’d better be rectified soon, Joan, the now Mrs Dr Harris, no longer works at Sterling Cooper.---to be a team of two playing against the entire rest of the firm. They respect each other and rely on each other without needing to be confidantes or friends. In this episode of Naked City---and again it happens in just one short scene---we see Ashland focus on Miss Chain as soon as she enters the room with a directness and energy that he hasn’t bothered to give to his creative team, and it’s obvious it’s because he knows that whatever Miss Chain has to tell him is only and exactly what he needs to hear at the moment. She’s his eyes and ears, he trusts her to do exactly what he’d do if he had the time to run the office himself, and he knows she will not waste his time. If she’s bringing him a problem, it’s because it’s a problem only he can solve.
But the most striking similarities were between Carl Ashland and Don Draper. In fact, Ashland struck me as the proto-Draper, and not just because of their dark-haired handsomeness, coolness and detachment, and sexy way with a cigarette. First, though, the differences.
Ashland is not a closet hedonist. He’s the opposite, practically monastic in his habits of self-denial and self-discipline. He doesn’t just live to work. He is his work. People are what they do, and he is unsparing in his judgments and his expectations, of others, of himself. That’s one of the qualities in common with himself he sees in Adam Flint. Don Draper uses his work as a disguise and an excuse. He rewards himself for his success at the office with his double life, and he assumes, correctly (at least within his universe), that everybody else is doing the same. Nobody in the Mad Men universe is who they appear to be. In Carl Ashland and Adam Flint’s world people are precisely that and whatever they say or think to the contrary is self-delusion. As far as Draper’s concerned, the lives we appear to lead in public are lies or at least clever illusions. To Ashland and Flint, lies happen in private and it’s the personal that is illusionary.
But while Ashland’s ruthlessly realistic and a hard-headed materialist and Draper’s a dreamer and an idealist, they are both solitary, self-contained, secretive men, nations of one, but lonely nations of one always on the lookout to let someone else inside their borders even while they guard those borders fiercely. Ashland’s single secret is noble. Don’s secrets are many and, to put it kindly, less than admirable. But the outward effect is the same for both men. Neither can let anyone else get close. Surrounded by people who admire and like them, who even love them, they have to keep to themselves. Their coolness, their ironic detachment, their seeming indifference to other people and their opinions are for both the source of their charisma and attractiveness, but they are defensive qualities and their apparent independence is actually only an unassuageable loneliness.
In the end, Flint turns down Ashland’s job offer, rebuffing Ashland’s attempt to break out of his own self-imposed self-confinement. Ashland’s reaction is to retreat immediately into work. He shuts down the conversation by grabbing the phone and calling for someone to bring him an important file, apparently dismissing Flint from his thoughts as well as from his office and forgetting about him immediately as if he’d never been worth Ashland’s time or more than polite attention. Flint leaves, hurt and baffled, but the camera doesn’t follow him out the door. It stays with Ashland, sitting alone at his desk. In the final shot he is turning toward the window behind him and in effect turning his back on the camera, on us the audience, on the office, on the agency he created, on all human company and sympathy, retreating into himself, and to my eyes beginning to assume the Draper-esque pose that opens every episode of Mad Men.