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How Scottish history (and Game of Thrones) explains this week's best Mad Men gag

The king ordered it!
The king ordered it!
AMC

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode of Mad Men over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by education reporter Libby Nelson and political writer Dylan Matthews. Keep checking in all week long for new entries.

Dylan Matthews: There are so many things about the episode's Massacre of Glencoe joke that I love. There's the surrealist delight of two characters very seriously sparring over events that occurred nearly 300 years prior, across an ocean. There's the fact that Pete didn't even hesitate with his "The King ordered it!" rejoinder (clearly, the Campbells have been schooled on their massacre-defense talking points). There's the implicit link it creates to Mad Men's Sunday night rival, Game of Thrones, whose Red Wedding sequence was inspired by the massacre.

But mostly, making Pete one of those Campbells is a brilliant character note. Pete is a deeply privileged man who's always coming up short.

On the one hand, his pedigree is impeccable. His mother is a Dyckman, the descendent of a family that used to own much of Manhattan. He went to Deerfield and Dartmouth. But his adult life has seen humiliation after humiliation chip away at this image of himself. His parents were embarrassed by his choice to go into advertising. He had to accept money for an apartment from his wife's parents after his only family wouldn't help him (and because Sterling Cooper didn't pay him enough). His father squandered the family fortune. He got divorced, with all the social ostracism that entails. For heaven's sake, there's an entire episode devoted to Pete failing at stuff: fixing a sink, fisticuffs with Lane Pryce, sleeping with the high school girl he has a crush on.

The Clan Campbell — Scots who allied with the English crown — is a wonderful metaphor for this. Pete isn't a real WASP, not on his father's side at least. He will never be at the top of the social ladder. If the Upper East Side elite were the Mafia, he'd never be a made man.

And yet he tries all the same, just as the Clan Campbell tried to gain the favor of the English for a taste of the privileges Englishness offered. The result is that Pete gets humiliated by a preschool headmaster. In 1970, even fake Englishness doesn't buy you much of anything anymore. Even the toniest nursery schools are run by goddamn MacDonalds.

To people whose ancestors didn't hold British titles of nobility, these distinctions probably seem very fine and trivial indeed. But one thing I did like about the episode, which you gesture at, Todd, is that it's partially about the evaporation of distinctions amongst the powerful.

Today, we don't talk about WASP privilege relative to Scots; we talk about white privilege relative to nonwhites. I remember in college hearing an Irish-American classmate protest that he wasn't really white; he wasn't an Englishman, and he didn't have those privileges. It sounded ridiculous at the time, and even more so now. It was a narcissism of small differences, a person in a position of privilege desperately trying to claim the mantle of the underdog without enduring any actual oppression.

That's what Sterling Cooper & Partners' freakout at the prospect of being taken over by McCann feels like to me. SC&P wants to think of itself as an agile, nimble team of innovators who've been shaking up the industry and playing by their own rules. But as you say, Todd, they're just another group of white guys (plus Joan and Peggy) painting the same Norman Rockwell visions of America as everyone else.

In 1963, in "Shut the Door. Have a Seat," it's easy to miss this, because the possibility of a real alternative to the model felt so faint, so hopeless. But in 1970, the counterculture is real. Black Power is real. Women's liberation is real. Even gay liberation is real, if only just beginning (note the couple who greet Don at Diana's former apartment). There is a world outside the tiny bubble in which firms like SC&P and McCann did battle, and splitting hairs within that bubble is starting to look rather ridiculous.

It does make me wish that the show lasted long enough to document advertising's co-option of the counterculture, the moment when the traditional strategy of firms like SC&P and McCann began to fail and bursting out of their bubble became a business imperative.

We've seen Peggy hang out with Warhol types. We've seen Roger trip on acid. We've seen the whole office inject a strange drug into their asses. But we haven't seen advertising work that takes these changes seriously.

Read the recap, and come back tomorrow for more thoughts.

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Next: Libby on when the show stopped being about advertising