It’s been widely acknowledged that the most recent episode of Mad Men, “Mystery Date,” was the show’s creepiest yet, full of rape fantasies, fever dream stranglings and morbid fascinations. Given the disturbing subject matter, it may be surprising that what I gleaned from this episode had only a tenuous connection with the macabre.
Mad Men has been playing with the concept of old ideas, styles and places falling out of favor the entire time the show has been on the air, most notably in the second episode of Season 3, “Love Among the Ruins.” In it, Paul Kinsey argues against the planned destruction of Penn Station, while Don is optimistic that Madison Square Garden could mean “thirty years of business.”
This season I am sensing an even stronger antipathy toward buildings of the 1860-1910 era, primarily with regard to the Francis mansion, played on the show by Los Angeles’ Stimson House (c. 1891).
Don calls the Francis home a “haunted mansion” and likens it to the Addams Family’s abode. Granted, part of the negativity is tied up in Don’s ill-favored attitude toward Henry Francis; after all, the house is haunted by the ghosts of Don’s past. What is most troubling to me is that Don’s attitude toward his ex-wife’s choice of house is emblematic of the general attitude in the 1960s toward Victorian and Edwardian-era architecture: It’s old and needs to be “updated.”
The 1960s were a time of widespread destruction of Victorian and Edwardian-era homes. Homeowners tore out ornate mantels and gingerbread in favor of the cleaner lines of the Mod movement. Slate roofs gave way to shingles and tar, and stained glass was transformed into picture windows. High ceilings were lowered and wall-to-wall carpeting replaced rich hardwood. What wasn’t torn out was simply painted over. For an excellent example, see the film adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), in which a newlywed couple paints an entire apartment worth of elaborate woodwork in New York’s Dakota Building. (Thankfully, some kindred soul recently atoned for these grievous offenses.)
For Betty, her new home represents the fulfillment of the fantasy that occupied the early days of her relationship with Henry. In Season Three (“Seven Twenty Three“), Betty buys a Victorian fainting couch at Henry’s suggestion, despite the fact that it doesn’t fit in with her newly-redecorated living room. That the couple now lives in a home full of antique furniture suggests that the fantasy lives on, even though the reality is not as glamorous. Betty is now relegated to the role of sad, spoiled princess, munching on Bugles and glued to the television. For Henry, I would imagine that the Gilded Age mansion lends him an air of superiority
that may be satisfying to him at least on a professional level. Though Betty and Henry clearly view the house as a “dream castle,” their contemporaries are not quite as enthusiastic. (Perhaps we have 1960’s Psycho to thank for that.)
In any case, the writers and set designers are clearly showing us that Betty is moving backward, becoming an antique and clinging to past comforts, while Don continues to move forward with his shiny new wife and stylish apartment.
As an historic preservationist, I don’t see the Francis house as spooky at all; I eagerly await every shot of the interior and exterior so I can soak in more unpainted woodwork and original built-ins (I am seriously coveting Henry’s study with its built-in bookcases). Sally Draper, how I envy thee!