'Aquarius' Captures Hippie-Era Terror

Mad Men expertly guided us through the entirety of one of this country’s most iconic and explosive decades before riding off into the sunset this spring. Its conclusion leaves an opening in ‘60s-themed entertainment, and here comes Aquarius to fill it. The NBC crime-drama stars David Duchovny as Sam Hodiak, an LAPD cop investigating the disappearance of a young woman from a respectable family. Emma Karn (Emma Dumont) is a fictionalized example of the many women that serial killer and cult leader Charles Manson drew into his murderous “Family” nearly 50 years ago. The reality of the story still haunts us today. (His legacy even loomed over Mad Men. Isn’t that right, Megan Draper conspiracy theorists?) But, what’s there to make of the series celestial title? Why is it called Aquarius when it's a show about Charles Manson and his West Coast reign of terror?

My fellow theater geeks might have instantly made the connection between the Zodiac sign and the era of free love thanks to the legacy of the classic musical Hair. “Age Of Aquarius (Let The Sunshine In)” is a stand-out song in the score; in fact, plenty of people without a Musical Theater History credit to their name can probably recognize it.

When the moon is in the Seventh HouseAnd Jupiter aligns with MarsThen peace will guide the planetsAnd love will steer the starsThis is the dawning of the age of Aquarius

There is an actual astrological meaning to the term. It has something to do with “precessional rotation” (OK...) and can last for for 2.5 millennia. (Sure!) But, for the show's purpose, and those of stage-dwelling pseudo-hippies in community theaters across the country, the “Age Of Aquarius” is a catchy term for the cultural emphasis on tolerance, acceptance, and self-examination that powered a youth movement in the New Age of the ‘60s and ‘70s. As a reaction to the buttoned-up repression of the ‘50s, as well as the United States' involvement in the war in Vietnam, free love and flower children promoted liberation in all forms, and a “live and let live” agenda.

Charles Manson, on the other hand, was racist, sexist, and hateful, and did everything he could to spread his toxicity. Worse, he utilized the trendiness of the hippie movement (and the corresponding hallucinogenic drugs) to his advantage.

By titling this show Aquarius, NBC highlights the stark, yet frighteningly narrow, differences between the kind of group-think that enacts positive change, and the kind of brainwashing that obliterates individuality and destroys anything that would oppose it. In the show, Hodiak oversees two colleagues who infiltrate Manson’s cult. To go undercover, they have to force themselves to understand and ape the twisted brand of hippie culture that Manson traded in, all in an effort to bring him down. In that way, the name Aquarius instantly puts viewers in a specific time and place; a time and place where a chaotic evil cast a shadow over a remarkably open-hearted generation. It may be fictional, but the fears and unrest that Aquarius deals will still feel very real.

Images: Vivian Zink/NBC; Giphy (2)