Monday, June 28, 2010

Lies, lies and more lies

The virtues of mad men
The Mountain King
There are so many lies, so many false lives being lived here it would take all day to chart them. We open with two transparent lies. Sally tells her mother that she wasn't smoking when we all just saw her smoke. Betty tells Sally that her father is on a trip when we all have seen that Betty is not letting him come home, just as Sally has surmised.

Just one more for me but there are others. There is a nice subtle touch with Bert Cooper's sister Alice. Up until now we have heard her first name only. We have no idea if she ever married. We get a bit of a giggle when it comes out in the partners' meeting that her full name is "Alice Copper".  And if we keep the sexual ambiguity that goes with that name in mind long enough, we just might think that she has never been married and lives with a companion named Florence.We might just wonder about the nature of her relationship with Florence and the various deceptions that go with that.

Finally, as I noted before, there is the rather strange touch where Roger knows the actual facts behind Don's absence. The most likely explanation of this is that Don has called Roger to tell him what is up or that Roger is in touch with Betty. Either way, there is more concealment here.

Retroactive context
As I said last time, it is with the playing of In The Hall of the Mountain King in this episode that we get the clue for understanding the last episode. Peer Gynt is the perfect choice for Weiner to use because the play threw away all the conventions including even a vague unity of time and place. It jumps all over the place. It also mixes fact and fantasy freely. Just like Mad Men.

By the way, one thing to keep in mind is that flashbacks all take place in Don's imagination. Because we see these events happening "on film" as it were, we assume they are true. But there is no reason that the reverse couldn't be true. That the present is more real than the past. All the encounters with Adam take place in odd, dreamlike settings. (If you want to get really crazy, there is even room for a Fight Club interpretation here where Don is just something Roger has invented)

There is an odd little flashback scene here where Dick meets some hot rod guys. He sees how they have put a number of old cars together to make a hot rod. The scene is completely unnecessary to the plot. It includes a suggestion that one of the guys could put together a hot rod that 'looks just like you". Maybe this is where Dick got the idea of making up a new life out of parts of others. Alternatively, perhaps Don keeps all the paraphernalia from his "past life" because he made that up.

Or is this just a post-modern touch wherein Weiner lets us have a glance into the stuff from his inner life that he has put together to make up Don Draper? That is to say a moment where we see that the creator has made his creation in his own image?

Anyway, back to the action. (The Peer Gynt references here won't make any sense unless you read the post on the previous episode.)

When Peer Gynt imagines his relationship with the Troll King's daughter he projects all sorts of stuff from his real life into the fantasy. When he leaves the fanatsy world all sorts of moral consequences of what he only imagined there come back to haunt him in real life.

Here is an example. In the play, Peer fantasizes about the Troll King's daughter. Later the Troll King will tell him that he has gotten the girl pregnant through his fantasies. Earlier this season, we might remember that Betty wakes Don up in the middle of the night while they are visiting her father and they have this rather dreamlike sexual experience. We will soon learn that Betty has conceived as a consequence of this. And it has to be that time because we also know they haven't been having any other sex lately.

But this stuff refuses to fit neatly together like the jigsaw puzzle that Don and Gene work on in The Inheritance. As with the play, the series we are watching doesn't obey the unities. The stuff from Peer Gynt is scattered all over Don's life like so many ghostly images.

In the play, there is also an incident where Peer seems to be about to settled down happily with Solveig in a cottage he has built in the wilds, only an older woman in a green dress shows up with a limping child to burden his conscience. In the series, it is the older woman herself who limps but she still shows up to haunt Don's conscience.

Let me introduce a Catholic notion to suggest what I think is going on here. The notion I have in mind is the Pieta. No, it isn't referred to anywhere in Mad Men but, as Peggy says this episode:
"It's Christian; as in behaviour not religion." Here, courtesy of Wikipedia, is what the most famous Pieta looks like:

Now here is the thing. This statue cannot represent any actual even from the life of Mary. We know this because the woman in this statue is far too young to be the mother of the man whose body she is holding. The giveaway is that she is holding him like a child. The statue does not represent a moment in time but the entire life of Mary in relation to her son.

Something similar is going on in Peer Gynt and something similar is happening in Mad Men Season 2. The thing Don is struggling with is not any particular incident in a particular relationship with a particular woman but his entire life in relationship to women. His entire fantasy life as we know that he has invented himself. He is at once the son, husband and father to Anna and he also plays all three of these roles in the life of Betty.

By the way, if you really want to make your brain hurt, "Anna" or "Hannah" is the name of Samuel's mother in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible). There is also an Anna in Maccabees who, to further complicate matters, is also sometimes called Miriam and that is interesting because Anna is also the name Catholics traditionally assign to the mother of Mary and the original form of "Mary", the name Mary herself answered to, is Miriam. And, oh yeah, there is a long tradition of assigning names to the  nameless characters in the Bible. If we think of Don Draper as being like a biblical figure, and Weiner keeps treating him that way, then Don Draper must have a mother and that mother must have a name even if the name is not mentioned in the text and, therefore, Anna.

And there is a little in joke this episode about Peggy slipping a Catholic image of crucifixion and Eucharist into the Popsicle ad, just as Weiner is just loading this episode with religious imagery.

If you don't want to make your head hurt, you can ignore all that.

The Western Ocean
In the play, Peer returns to Solveig and tells her that he has sinned. Don says,
I have been watching my life. It's right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can't.
We might reasonably ask ourselves if this is Don Draper speaking or the person trying to play the role of Don Draper. We might also remember the bit of Frank O'Hara we hear Don read back in The Gold Violin:
Now I am waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again - and interesting, and modern. The country is grey and brown and white and trees, snow and skies of laughter always diminishing - less funny, not just darker, not just grey, it may be the coldest day of the year, what does he think of that - I mean, what do I.
and if I do, perhaps I am myself.. again.
Don is seeking something. Atonement. But what is atonement? Especially, what is atonement if we take it not as a religion but a way of living your life.

In the play Solveig tells Peer he has done nothing wrong. Anna tells Don exactly the same thing here. In the final scene of the play, Peer lies in Solveig's arms, whom he calls mother, and perhaps dies there, we never know for sure.

In one of the flashbacks, we see Don telling Anna about having met Betty and wanting marry her. They have a brief discussion of what has to be done in order for Don to marry Betty. Don says that Anna can become his cousin now. She says, no, it is a chance for a new life.

The references to religion come so fast and so heavy it's hard to know what to make of it all. Here is the thing though, the play ends unresolved and so does this episode. We don't know whether Peer dies or not and we are left with the suggestion that God is still waiting for Peer.

In the show, Anna pulls out the Tarot cards and tells Don, incorrectly, that the Sun card is a good omen. It could be but it is upside down here. Then he points at the Judgment card and says, "that can't be good." She assures him that it means the resurrection and then says, "Do you wnat to know what this means or not?" Don says, "No, I don't."

And then we get some incredibly lame feel-good philosophy bad enough to be from the Desiderata. 

And then Don goes and stands in the ocean. That, I think, is Weiner's final joke. There is only the appearance of resolution here and only the appearance of religion. It's all sham just like the Desiderata.

We don't have to see that if we don't want to though. We could see a country that has gone all the way to the western ocean and now faces a lonely uncertainty.

Season 2 blogging begins here.

The next episode blog will be here.

(Season one begins here if you are interested.)


  1. Maybe Don going all the way to the Western ocean is a precursor of Conrad Hilton and the increasing wealth and political influence the Western US was beginning to wrestle away from the Eastern elites. Weiner's metaphor for the future.

  2. You may be right. The whole Conrad Hilton plot line was a bit hazy to me.

    In any case, "the west" is a difficult concept. When "the west" meant the Ohio valley it had a very different sense than when "the west" came to mean California. Even Texas carries as sense of open unexplored country going on forever. Once we hit California we have come to the end.

  3. Or the beginning. I seem to remember an interview with Weiner where he said that he was trying to show the rise of the Western US as both an economic and political force. Hilton represented the emergence of a Western US elite, oil money primarily, with a different culture and values, more conservative than the Northeast liberals who controlled everything. The time frame coincides with the beginnings of the Conservative Movement in the US (Barry Goldwater from Arizona). Don Draper and the advertising industry represent the Northeastern liberal establishment, hawks their products and is part of them (or at least aspires to be). So while the '60s represents for many people the hippies and leftist radicals, there was also this other Conservative current going on primarily in the Western US that would gain more power and influence nationwide.

  4. I've read people suggesting similar things about the significance Conrad Hilton plotline. If Weiner has made such comments that would make it all the more significant.

    I guess the question I'd ask is whether the new force that began rising in the 1960s was simply western or south and western. I think it's really the latter and I'd argue that the southwest proved far more significant than California in the long run. I don't want to get too far into it as that would require a move into partisan politics and I don't do that on the blog. There is quite enough of that stuff elsewhere these days and I like to just get away from it.

  5. Well, the Republicans were developing and using their so-called Southern Strategy at that time, I think Nixon and his team were the first to do it. This was to capitalize on the South's anger and fury over the Civil Rights legislation that had been passed by President Johnson, himself s Southerner, in 1964. Until Barack Obama in 2008, no Democratic candidate for President had carried the South since the Civil Rights legislation was passed. I think that was different from what was happening out West, primarily because there was more money in the West and they weren't as concerned about Civil Rights as the South was, they were more upset about big government, and high taxes to pay for social programs, which was the lynchpin of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan's campaigns, although Goldwater did vote against the Civil Rights legislation. They also capitalized on people's perceptions of "moral decline" that was occurring in our country, but that was to woo less educated voters. The Conservative Movement in the West was fueled in large measure by people like William F. Buckley, a New Yorker, who started the National Review in the '60s. I think the South and the West ultimately merged when they realized they could help each other, but I think that came later.