In January, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner told the Daily Beast that the show's sixth season would "reflect the times we, the viewers, live in." For a show that thrived throughout the recession, comforting viewers with its mid-century grandeur, Mad Men's characters experienced a turbulence evident in the sets, clothes and rhythm of the stories. But this season also reflected another kind of story that viewers have embraced in recent years: the kind told by Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey.
There is much to suggest that Weiner and his writers were sensitive to the BBC hit's influence and the resurgent popularity of stories focused on the relationship, in resplendent manor houses, between servants and the served. For those unfamiliar with that dynamic, the proto-Downton Abbey 2001 feature Gosford Park, written by Fellowes, provides a great foundational overview: the servants stay downstairs, and those to the manor born rule upstairs.
Here are three ways in which Mad Men worked a servant class/ruling class dynamic this season:
1. The Stairs
Ever since Sterling Cooper & Partners moved into their current space two seasons ago, a second floor symbolized success. Mad Men has not gone so far as to characterize downstairs — where the creative department dwells — as figuratively beneath the accounts department upstairs, but it is not too great a stretch.
More significantly, though, is how the stairs have functioned since their unveiling in the season six premiere, "The Doorway." In Gosford Park, viewers understand how uniquely strange a mysterious, handsome character named Henry Denton is because he keeps winding up where he should not be. Mad Men got its own mysterious stranger this season with Bob Benson — some of his coworkers do not even recognize him as working there, and he is only noticed when he's hanging around the wrong floor. In fact, if the stairs did not occupy the prime real estate in front of Don Draper's office, the only way viewers would consistently understand the agency had an upstairs and a downstairs is Bob Benson.
2. The Opportunist
This clue serves primarily to give credence to the suspicion that Weiner is a Fellowes fan: Bob Benson distinguished himself in the episode "Favors" by declaring love in a bolder and more direct way than has ever been seen on the show. And that love is for "sour little man" Pete Campbell. The mastery of the scene notwithstanding, Matthew Weiner described Bob in his episode summary as an "opportunist," not to be considered by viewers as homosexual or otherwise, necessarily.
This was noted and dismissed by Mad Men critics extraordinaire Tom + Lorenzo in their stirring and thorough explanation of gay life in the 1960s. They are right in that Weiner purposefully disseminates incorrect information about ongoing story-lines — he frequently acknowledges opinions that sympathize with viewers' with no intention of heeding their wants and woes. But, crucially, this is the exact way Julian Fellowes described Henry Denton in Gosford Park. Fellowes refuses to dignify Denton with a precise sexual orientation and insists that observations one way or another are wrong: he is only in it for what it can get him.
3. The Perfect Servant
In the episode "A Tale of Two Cities," Joan delivered a momentous line that is a blood-relation of the canniest moment in Gosford Park. In a meeting, an executive asked Joan what her position is at the ad agency. Since it is probably still lurking somewhere circa "Director of Agency Operations," unimproved since she became an executive herself last season, Joan produced a description of her job using terms almost identical to Helen Mirren's character Mrs. Wilson, the head of the servants in Gosford Park.
Joan, finally being treated like an instrumental part of her business, says her job is "thinking of things before people know they need them." Mrs. Wilson says, "What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? Its the gift of anticipation. And I'm a good servant. I'm better than good, I'm the best — I'm the perfect servant. I know when they'll be hungry, and the food is ready. I know when they'll be tired, and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves." For how vital Joan has been to Sterling Cooper & Partners' expansion to a second floor, she knows where she has been relegated. Even after landing the client, she is given no ceremony or increased screen time.
Interestingly, Mrs. Wilson's description of her job comes on the heels of her poisoning her employer, and Joan's self-characterization precedes her (almost) sabotaging the procurement of the client. Both schemes are upended by the viewer's guide to these worlds, a young lady — Peggy on Mad Men, Mary in Gosford Park — who knows despite what they want, they are in service to others.
Julian Fellowe's work demonstrates the disintegration of the servant class/ruling class dynamic, and this season of Mad Men saw the advertising agency staff more broken and bullied than ever before. Considering Don Draper's season finale example, it might not be long before the other characters realize how complicit they are in their own servitude.