Mad Men’s Top Five Elevator Scenes

 

Matthew Weiner et al.’s Mad Men is the greatest work of elevator art ever, in all media. There are contenders—Miwa Yanagi’s Elevator Girls photo series, Colson Whitehead’s novel The Intuitionist, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Louis Malle’s New Wave thriller Elevator to the Gallows (though perhaps not his wife Candice Bergen’s elevator-heavy sitcom Murphy Brown), the pull-out page in Eloise. But Mad Men is better than them all. The show is prolific in its use of elevators. In the first six seasons, I count 69 scenes in, near, or about elevators. (I’m still counting scenes from the last season.) When I say 69 scenes, I’m including jokes about elevators, but not including every use of the word “elevator.” Mad Men makes a broad variety of narrative and symbolic uses of elevators, in many emotional keys, in short, deft strokes. As Weiner has said, “compression of time, compression of space.”

In the first three seasons, elevator scenes call our attention to big issues about gender, race, and power. In seasons four, five, and six, scenes of crude sexual harassment have given way to more subtle explorations of women’s limited opportunities in marriage and on the job. One theme that runs across all six seasons is the competitive spirit among young ad men. We see this in their shared sexual harassment of women, their weird détentes and awkward moments, their forced conviviality, and episodes of hatred.

5. Hollis the Focus Group

Willis in Mad Men

For three seasons, Don and the gang work in a building that hires black men to operate push-button elevators. This is historically accurate; the 1960s was a period of transition to fully automated elevator service. We only get to know one of these men by name. In his first appearance, Hollis is played by a different actor before La Monde Byrd takes over the role and gives an understated performance that unfolds with each additional scene. In season two, Hollis remarks on the death of Marilyn Monroe, “Some people just hide in plain sight.” The same could be said of Hollis.

4. Tableau of Working Women

Peggy

How to be a working woman in the 1960s ad industry? In the fourth and fifth seasons, Peggy and Joan continue to stake out different strategies—to flirt or not to flirt—and Dr. Faye Miller and Megan offer further contrast. All four characters like sex and are good at their jobs, but for each, the two aspects connect in different ways. The most incisive elevator scene in this period is the dressing-down that Joan gives Peggy for bad strategy—firing a sexist, insubordinate illustrator rather than dealing with him in a more subtle and fruitful (feminine?) way. But my favorite scene from this period silently compares Joan, Peggy, and Dr. Faye. Joan and Faye enter an elevator and hold it for Peggy, and the three stand, a tableau of choices in a sexist workplace, as the doors close.

3. Sally Fears an Elevator

sylvia rosen and don

In the sixth season, Don begins his affair with downstairs neighbor Sylvia Rosen. The elevator figures in a number of ways in the sixth season, but the saddest, most unexpected scene comes in the seventh season, in Don’s car, when his daughter Sally reveals her fear of running into his ex-mistress in his elevator.

2. Broken Elevator

The broken elevator is, of course, a common motif in elevator films and television shows, and a particular challenge to keep fresh. Mad Men does it twice. The first: a story of victory in Don’s battle with Roger for greater manhood in season one, episode seven. After an epic lunch of taunting each other into eating more oysters and drinking more liquor, they return to find Hollis standing in the lobby with an out-of-order sign. They’ve got a meeting with Nixon’s people, so they taunt each other up the stairs too, and then Roger vomits all over the carpet. In the fifth season, seventh episode, Don decides to follow Megan out of the building, but when the elevator doors open for him, there is only empty shaft.

1. Take Off Your Hat

This is the even commoner elevator motif in film and television—sexual harassment. In season two, episode one, Mad Men offers homage to the ass-pinching scene in the Billy Wilder film The Apartment; an early script for the pilot even included an ass pinching of its own.

Those are my personal top five. What are yours? By the time the final episode airs this Sunday, we may have to revise our lists.

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Daniel Levinson Wilk is an associate professor of American History at FIT. He is the associate director of the Elevator Historical Society. This article is adapted from a piece he wrote for the May issue of Elevator World magazine.