At the height of Star Trek hysteria in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a bunch of uber-nerds decided that it wasn’t enough to enjoy watching various iterations of the Star Trek universe on the screen, or even to dress up like their favorite characters from the series–or even to invent their own characters and start United Federation of Planets outposts in their basements with their uber-nerd friends. No: some of them decided they needed to learn to speak Klingon.
Perhaps people still speak Klingon, although the website for the Klingon Language Institute looks to have been optimized for CompuServe. (Also: check out the great piece by Arika Okrent in Slate on the origins of the language, “There’s No Klingon Word for Hello.”) Perhaps, also, it’s a sign of the times that we’re not flocking to summer camps to learn made-for-TV languages. “Fluent is Klingon” doesn’t really play on your resume these days.
People speaking Klingon with varying degrees of fluency is the major topic of “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” Episode Five of Season Four of Mad Men. From the opening shot–a close-up of a crossword puzzle being worked by Don’s inscrutable, warlike secretary Miss Blankenship–we know we’re in for word puzzles. Prepare for characters to have difficulty understanding each other.
Take, for example, our young heroine Sally Draper. Sally’s pretty screwed up over Mom and Dad’s divorce. Poor Sally chops off her hair in one scene and lifts her nighty at a slumber party in another: two pretty unambiguous cries for help. (The latter occurs while Sally watches the dreamy Illyah Kuryahkin, played by David McCallum, on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Oh, how I remember the mystery of this show: it was on too late for kids, and it was the only thing I wanted to watch.) Of course, it’s 1965, and not every adman’s kid is seeing a headshrinker. But Henry Francis, Betty’s patient new husband, talks her into it. “You’re soft,” she tells him. Clearly, there’s more than one way to take that comment.
Speaking of warlike and inscrutable, our favorite hedonist Roger Sterling has a foe in the office: the Japanese executives from Honda of America. Roger was a Navy man in WWII and lost a lot of friends in the Pacific. When he barges into a meeting at the agency, his words about “dropping the big one” and “surprise attacks” could be interpreted in a couple of different ways–although Roger’s demeanor when he talks about “Jap crap” makes his position pretty clear. His outburst nearly squirrels Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s chances to win a much-needed bit of business. But our boys are trying hard to navigate the murky waters of negotiation with the Japanese. Pete Campbell’s “Christ on a cracker!” outburst alone is worth the price of the the episode.
Meanwhile, Don’s running a little sneak attack of his own. Upstart agency Cutler Gleason and Chaough has taken both the Jai Alai and Clearasil accounts from SCDP, and they’re the other finalist for Honda. Don runs a nifty misdirection game that gets the competition thinking he’s zigging when he’s actually zagging. I’ll not ruin the surprise; suffice to say, Don Draper once again proves why he’s worthy of the “genius” tag a former employee gives him in this episode.
As usual, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” crackles with thematic electricity. It’s interesting to compare and contrast with last week’s episode: “The Rejected” was all about the danger of poking into other people’s heads, while here we see the characters needing the pressure relief of talk therapy. Don even asks our favorite researcher, Dr. Faye Miller, why people need to talk. She tells them she doesn’t really know–but that “it makes them feel better.”
Such is life in the Mad Men universe. One day you’re hiding your secret identity; the next day you’re spilling your guts to a stranger. Some days, you get the business in spite of your best efforts to screw it up; some days, you think you’ve shot down the competition, only to have him smash into your boats and sink you. It’s warlike out there, folks. Until next time, “ghIj qet jaghmeyjaj.” That’s Klingon for “May your enemies run from you with fear.”