Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Goodbye to a legend

The virtues of mad men
Six Months Leave
I'm sorry but no one like Don Draper in 1962 would have opened the door of their hotel room wearing just boxer shorts.

That aside, there is a nice parallel between the dead Marilyn Monroe that Don reads about in his newspaper in the hotel where he is staying and the bedraggled Betty who gets out of bed in her nightie. Ever so slowly we are starting to say goodbye to the culture that the show has gloried in up until now.

One key moment in this episode occurs when Betty turns on the radio long enough to hear the announcer quote Marylin saying that it is unfair to criticize stars and that stars are what is right with the movie business. Now that is telling if you've been reading the on-line commentary and blogs about this show. Critics and pundits defend Betty (no one loves her). They see her as a victim and a vindication of the Friedan thesis.

Everyone else dislikes her. Visit the discussion groups and you'll see that no other character is so widely abused and disdained as Betty. No matter our sex, race or religion, we are united in our dislike of Betty Draper. The writers know this and they were already plotting her demise when they wrote this episode.

There was  a scene last episode when she appeared without make up and that  carries through this episode (I suspect she is actually made up to look like she's not made up but the effects is what we see not the reality). And here we get some nice retroactive context. A couple of shows ago, we thought of Joan as the Marilyn type, now we see it is Betty who represents the false image of womanhood that has to go.

In any case, we see de-glamourized Betty actually doing housework. But not actually raising her children. She's not much good at that. She is better at relating to objects than people.

Grown ups
The distinction that will become so important in Season 3 between the people who are grown ups and the ones who act like children starts to be drawn here. One thing you have to say about Weiner, is that he is always laying the groundwork for future developments. "Grown up" doesn't mean morally perfect here. And we should remember that the 1960s was increasingly, as the season opener reminds us, the era of youth.

In this episode, a couple of icons disappear. There is Marylin. Marylin is one of those people, foreshadowing JFK here, whose achievements objectively considered are not nearly as impressive as the mythology around them would have us think. Both are all about image rather than actual achievement. And historically speaking, the show is about to enter an era where image trumped substance.

How do you play this to someone in their 20s or early 30s? Remember that, for them, people who morn dead icons are like those pathetic idiots who went around wailing after the death of Princess Diana. For them, the grown ups are the people who get on with life and don't engage in self-indulgent hysterics. How do you sell them on the virtues of a  decade that made self-indulgent wallowing in the death of a minor president into a cult religion?

Surprisingly, Weiner plays a nice game of bait and switch. He teases us with Marilyn but instead gives us Freddy Rumsen, about as unglamorous an icon you could imagine. And instead of mythologizing Freddy, he gently moves him off stage paying due to him and his era. I won't say anything about it here because the show itself handles it so well. Buy the episode and watch the scenes where Don and Roger take Freddy out for a final night on the town. It's as rich and beautiful a performance as this show is capable of, absolutely full of humanity like a Louis Armstrong trumpet solo.

There is also another retrospective twist here. When JFK is shot in the penultimate show of Season three,  the characters will again divide into grown ups and children, Joan will be one of the grown ups then. Here she is still a child. I'm pretty sure that is not the way the writers had originally planned it. I think she was meant to be the one who got phased out. But everyone loves Joan and no one loves Betty, so plans were changed.

And there is a minor joy. Jimmy Barrett is, as I noted before, a decidedly Seinfeldian character and there is a lovely moment when Don punches him in the face. Rogers says he doesn't know why Don did it but a lot of people will tank him. And we do. The only way it could have been betterw as if they had cast Jerry Seinfeld himself in the part.

He could have been a legend
The other key moment is when Peggy chews out Pete for ratting on Freddy. She says he could have been a legend. And perhaps he could have.

Marylin did become a legend in a way that is all too typical of the 1960s. In the same way that Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix later would . The joke in the 1980s was to say that dying was the best career move they ever made. Except, of course, that they died. Freddy get's to live.

And also except of course that they were all pathetic washed up addicts when they died. The legend hides that.

Leaving the past behind
Weiner has said that the first season was a complete idea. He put everything into it because he had no idea if there would be a second season. Now that he has one, he has to expand his scope to include the sweep of history. It's not enough to present costume drama now. he has to show us why the very attractive culture he showed us in Season one withered away.

That carries immense risks for the show's writers. Most importantly because the people who actually watch the show love the culture and style of this era. And an era that had lots of style is about to be replaced by an era that had none.

Equally troubling is the values. I'm not sure the writers grasp this one fully. The critics and pundits come from a generation that still saw the 1960s as a time of great liberation.  They are looking for a show that will justify the 1960s. That will, as someone else put it, show why the 1960s had to happen. And that is going to be a lot harder than it sounds.

But most people who watch his show are ten to twenty years younger than the critics and pundits. They grew up sneering at oldsters sitting in front of PBS documentaries about the summer of love or the nine-millionth Peter, Paul and Mary Special. To them, the 1960s is just history. It's got nothing to do with them. They, correctly, admire the style and flash of the early 1960s are not going to be conned into believing that protest songs, long hair, Nehru jackets and jeans were a step up.

Season 2 blogging begins here.

The next episode blog will be here .

(Season one begins here if you are interested.)


  1. There's a lot going on here but I will try to be brief. No one has ever been quite sure what Weiner was trying to do with Betty. Some on the other blogs have said that she represents what Betty Freidan called "the problem that has no name." Others have said she's a spoiled mainline Philadephia brat. Still others have wished that Weiner would have gone further in getting to the issues and tensions in her family of origin that are only hinted at, which in many ways are played out in the family she created with Don Draper/Dick Whitman. I've always said you can't judge Betty by 2010 standards, and the 20 and 30 yr olds have no clue about how attitudes toward women changed from the early 60s to today, and how womens' attitudes about themselves changed.

    I agree that Marilyn's death foreshadowed the JFK assassination, but of course was only a small taste of the impact the latter would have on the country. Marilyn was an icon but Kennedy was The President. To the people of the United States in 1963, assassinations only happened in third world South American countries if there was a coup d'etat. Yes, Lincoln was asssassinated, but that was ancient history by that point, and Lincoln didn't have the Secret Service. So there was a sense of disbelief and shock that this could have happened. What followed susequently in the 1960s was, in part, a reaction to the assassination, which according to the most recent polls, 76% of Americans do not believe has ever been fully explained. Whether Kennedy was a minor or a major President only history will determine, irrespective of the mythology that surrounds his brief period in the White House. But he was our President. I don't know if Canadians feel the same way about the Prime Minister as Americans do about the office of the Presidency, or if you can understand what it means to most Americans. What you read in the newspapers today about the fringe elements who now seek to denigrate that Office because a black man is in the White House is not representative of the feelings of most Americans, but that's a subject for another discussion. Regarding John Kennedy, I and others on the blogs believe Weiner used the "grown ups" as a metaphor for the United States of America. When Kennedy was killed we lost our innocence as it were, and were forced to grow up. So while the 60s started out as "young and carefree" it went through a major cultural change in a brief 10 yrs, and it started with the assassination. I would call your attention to a book that was published in 2008 entitled "JFK and The Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters" by James Douglass published by Maryknoll Press, and now in Orbis paperback. "The Unspeakable" the author refers to in the title is a reference to Thomas Merton who figures prominently in the book, as does John XXIII and Norman Cousins, former editor of the Saturday Review. When I first became aware of this book I had assumed it was just another conspiracy theory. Its not. The author had access to new information that heretofore was not available, and his argument is compelling. It has not received much play in the mass media for reasons which will be obvious if you read the book.

    Back to Mad Men, I believe that Weiner is trying to show the societal change that occurred in the US in the 1960s through the characters that are portrayed. Their stories in and of themselves are almost less important than what they represent from a cultural/societal standpoint.

  2. Thanks for the considered comment.

    The standard I judge Betty against is my mother who was about three years younger by my calculations than the fictional Betty would have been.

    Short version of my thesis on Betty: I think Weiner was trying to apply the Friedan thesis in creating Betty and that is the main reason the character was such a failure. I don't think we'll be seeing much of her in Season 4. (I'll have more to say in an upcoming post. Although I consider myself a feminist, I think Friedan was just wrong and considerably less than honest.

    As to Kennedy, my point is not a matter of political judgment. JFK might have been a great president if he had lived. We'll never know.

  3. Hi Jules,

    Its funny, the standard I judge Betty by is my mother too. As I figure it, my mother started having children at a younger age than Betty was, and my last sibling was born in 1961, so my mother would have about the same or maybe a few years older than Betty. I agree with you about Weiner and the Freudian aspect and why the character of Betty is such a problem. They could be gradually writing her out.

    I also agree with you about Betty Friedan. While I too consider myself a Feminist, I believe that Freidan was wrong because she tried to universalize her limited experience as an upper-middle class well-educated housewife and apply it to all women. Bell Hooks in her 1984 book "Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center" does an excellent critique of Betty Friedan and "The Feminine Mystique" along these lines.

    You are correct that we will never know the kind of President John F. Kennedy would have been if he had lived. And that was part of the desolation and sadness people felt following his assassination because of the high hopes that people of my parents' generation had. That President Johnson followed through on much of Kennedy's domestic agenda, e.g., the most sweeping Civil Rights legislation in history, healthcare coverage for seniors and the poor (Medicare and Medicaid), made his loss all the more poignant.

    Also, while the style and flash of the early '60s seems like a refreshing change today, the rebellion that occurred later on was against what was perceived as the shallowness of that, that it was all style and no substance. People dressed well and were polite, but that was seen as a veneer masking deep inner turmoil, which was correct in many cases. So, PP&M and Joan Baez (whom I adore to this day) were seen as a more honest and genuine counter to the larger culture. Things went wrong with the introduction of drugs, but that's another story. Also, the lifestyle that is portrayed in Mad Men was not available to everyone, i.e., black people and middle and lower class whites and blacks. Draper, Sterling, Campbell et al are definitely upper middle-class, and the class boundaries were still very clear back then. That's part of the reason Whitman had to turn himself into Draper.

  4. I think I made a Freudian slip by misreading what you wrote in your last post. Hmmmm, my subconscious.......