Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What is sin?

The virtues of mad men
Meditations in an Emergency
Note: a special two-fer on this episode. This morning, I'll set up the problem, as I see it, and  tomorrow, I'll dwell on how the episode does and does not resolve the problem.

We've had an entire season that has come back to the theme of atonement again and again. We'll see in this final episode that it never comes to any sort of satisfying outcome. What goes wrong?

Well, it's in the question I used for the title above. If we don't have any idea of what we mean by sin, then we won't be able to come up with a satisfactory narrative about sin and atonement.

We all know that sin is even if we don't know what it is. Everyone, or almost everyone, knows the feelings of remorse that come from wanting to be able to undo some thing we have done. Sometimes this feeling attaches to surprising things. Things that seem objectively evil, things we couldn't easily bring ourselves to tell others about (some desperate things we did for sex or to avoid getting fired or something we stole) often don't bother us at all. And then some little thing that doesn't seem like much will haunt us for years.

For a long time, under the influence of Freud, we tried to convince ourselves that dealing with sin guilt was a therapeutic thing. We just needed to fix the part of our mind that was causing us guilt. We don't believe that anymore.

What do we believe? Well, this season has given us a number of options to consider. Three children and two adults. First, the three children.

Three little children in a grown-up world
Betty thinks like a child and acts like a child. Her notion of sin was formed by the family and she craves a parent or parent substitute like Don or her family maid Viola to come hold her hand and make the evil sin monster go away by telling her that everything is okay. But what does she do when it is the parent or parent substitute who has sinned against her?

Pete Campbell is something bordering on a sociopath. He doesn't have feelings. When his father dies, he keeps saying things like, "It feels like it should be significant." Its not that he has no idea how to react but rather that he can't react. His parents were cold, distant figures beholden to a highly mannered life that had no real morality that he can respect. He craves some sort of adult figure to show him but, at the same time, wants to compete with and conquer the adult figure.

One of the people he looks to be an adult is Peggy. Like Don, Pete has married a childish woman and his marriage brings him no chance to grow. But Peggy is also a child and Pete is always disappointed when Peggy fails to be the adult he wants her to be. When he sees her having fun dancing the twist at the bar after work, for example.

Peggy's father is simply absent with, as near as I can tell, no explanation (perhaps I missed something that explains it). She is desperately in need of some sort of father figure and keeps latching onto any male who offers something like fatherly maturity to her including, this season, a priest and a gay man. The one exception, that we have seen anyway (and more about this in Season 3), is Pete with whom she had a sexual relationship of exactly the sort you might expect when a love-and-approval-seeking child meets an exploitative sociopath. It's Echo and Narcissus all over again. She keeps looking to him for the thing he cannot provide and she cannot ask for. He can only see himself so only loves what he can project on to her.

Dashing thy little ones against the stones
The two adults are Roger and Don. They both have different versions of the same problem. They did the right thing and got married and now they are stuck in unhappy marriages. Roger thinks he can simply get out of his. It's a simple matter of "Here is the problem, let's apply money and strategy to deal with it". His near-death experience in season 1 has defined the problem for him. Faced with the thought that he will go to his grave having nothing but a sexless marriage and affairs on the side, he is desperately looking for a woman who can offer him both sex and love. The right choice for such a woman is obviously Joan but some barrier stands in his way. He can't bring himself to say it to her or himself.

I think the explanation is in Jane Siegel's college degree. Culturally speaking, Roger and Joan don't match up. I'm not sure Weiner himself realizes how significant the gap really is. Roger couldn't be happy for long with a woman who gets all worked up about As The World Turns. Thus, when Jane writes and reads a poem, he goes over the edge and proposes.

That poem feels familiar in both it's cadence and style of exposition. Here it is:
I lay on my pillow
At the Sherry-Netherland Hotel
Delicious and destroyed
Feeling the warmth
Where you were just laying.
You make me new with laughter
You make me old with wisdom
You make wine taste sweeter
It's a better poem than we might be inclined to credit, clearly the work of a professional writer. It doesn't go anywhere, of course, but that is also the mark of a professional writer writing a poem for a relationship that has nowhere to go beyond the desires of two people seeking comfort.

The key couplet is  "Feeling the warmth ... were just laying" It breaks the rhythm of the rest of the poem and thus draws attention to itself. And note the word "laying". Joan would have said "where you were just lying". That would have opened up a nice ambiguity that is missing here but it also would have been less correct.

Okay, I'm a snob. I'm not so sure that the cultural difference here isn't more important than we think. The Hollywood version is to think that love will conquer all. That it doesn't matter that Joan has the wrong cultural background and Jane the right cultural background. We want to believe that the gap between Roger and Joan is really only contingent. It isn't and I suspect it matters a whole lot. (There is a hint of this in Joan's denying to herself that she is still in love with Paul Kinsey. They are much more similar than she and Roger are.)

That poem, should feel familiar by the way. It draws heavily on the influence of a poet that Jane may well have studied in university.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Notice how "As the clever hopes expire" breaks the rhythm the same way the line in Jane's poem does. How it starts with the same sense of anticipatory nostalgia. Auden already is missing the thing he knows will be lost. Jane doesn't know that things are already over just as they seem to be beginning with her and Roger but we know it and her poem's anticipatory nostalgia lets us know this.

Auden, of course, was also echoing a poetic tradition.
By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat down,
yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps
upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth,  saying,
Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the LORD'S song in a strange land?
The thing that all these have in common, besides a thematic and rhythmic similarity I've already noted, is the need for restoration. The sense of wanting to return home. All are written by exiles.

So, to answer the big question. Weiner has a surprisingly theological view of sin. Sin exiles us us from something we need to be restored to. And yes, I suspect that (on some level at least) that something is God but we see it here in various ways people feel like exiles.

Okay, I hear you thinking, Jane is an exile? Well, her name is Jane Siegel. You can draw your own conclusions.

What about Don? Well, as happens so often with Mad Men, once you have explained Roger, you also have explained Don. His problem is not a sexless marriage (although the sex can't be very good) but rather that he has married a woman who has nowhere near his depth. He needs to feel a connection with something profound and he has married he a shallow, silly woman utterly lacking in self awareness. He needs someone more like himself.

Again, the Jewish subtext is there for us to take up and ignore as we like. Don is not Jewish but he has this secret identity he is hiding. He is much like a Jew passing in WASP society. But all the time, he knows he has this past inside and he has no one to share it with. And the most important human relationship in his life is with a woman who not only doesn't share that hidden culture with him, she is so vapid that she could not even if he tried to invite her in.

But Don, unlike Roger, is held back by a concern for others. If he thought entirely in terms of fulfillment, as Roger is doing, he'd leave Betty. But he cannot bring himself to abandon the children. There is a  delicious moment in this episode where Bert's sister Alice refers to Roger's children and he says he has only one and she snidely suggests otherwise. Well, Don has children plural but Betty is one of them.

Roger doesn't care anymore that others must suffer. Don still cares.

Season 2 blogging begins here.

The next entry on this episode's will be here.

(Season one begins here if you are interested.)


  1. You raise some interesting points here, some I agree with (Betty), some I don't remember well-enough because it was so long ago that I watched the episode. Yes, they are all exiles, even Rachel Mencken and Midge of Season 1. The irony is that they all work in or are tangential to the ad industry, which told people how they were supposed to look, act, feel, what was "normal" if you will. Each of these people feels in varying degrees that they don't fit the image they work so hard to project, that they don't belong. I think both Pete Campbell and Peggy Olsen look to Don Draper as a father figure. Pete's father was cold and distant, Peggy's father--I think we can assume--died, probably when she was in high school, so at a young and critical developmental stage. I think where we part company is the notion that they need to be restored because of sin. Whose sin? What you would call sin I would call "Life." Neither of them is responsible for the circumstances of their birth and upbringing, they are both looking to fill a void that they didn't create but is nonetheless there. So both of them entered adulthood with something of a handicap, which makes growing up a bit more difficult. Pete's salvation is Trudy, who is a grown-up, and will help him become the man that he is capable of becoming. And she will do it without sacrificing her own grace and dignity, or smothering Pete in the process.

    I'm ambivalent about Roger. I agree that Joan didn't have the social standing that men of his generation and social class would have required in a wife. I also recall him telling Joan he would marry her (I think it was the episode where he gives her the caged bird during one of their trysts at the hotel), and she rebuffed him. While Jane has the breeding, she is also several decades younger than Roger, which was also frowned on at that time. I don't think setting up that scenario was unintentional on Weiner's part, where Roger has less than ideal options. He could stay in a sexless=loveless marriage and fool around on the side, he might have married socially inferior Joan if she would have agreed, or marry Jane, a women 30 yrs younger than him who worships the ground he walks on. Yes, Mona and Margaret were hurt, but the life they were living was a LIE (going back to your earlier post). But they got over it and were forced to move on. And that's Life.

  2. "Roger doesn't care anymore that others must suffer. Don still cares."

    I'm sorry, but I don't believe that Don's concern about abandoning his children is as much of a driving force as preserving the life and image he has created for himself. I think he really cares about his children, but they are also props in his stage play as is Betty. Betty's pulling the plug, in an uncharacteristically bold move, is the best thing that can happen to Don. It will force him to become who he really is.

  3. Very interesting stuff, especially your last comment.

    In reply, I'd say that I think the life Don has created for himself is his secret strength. If he was just playing the role it would be different but he is really determined to be the role rather than play it.

    Don's obvious flaw is his infidelity. Why does he do it? He isn't quite like Roger whose marriage is sexless. Don's problem is Betty. She'd still be wrong for him even if the sex were great, although my feeling is that it's not very good.

    (That said, by marrying Jane Roger is making himself more like Don not less. Jane too is a child.) I'll have more to say about that in the post coming up later today.)

  4. "I'd say that I think the life Don has created for himself is his secret strength."

    Yes, he never has to be vulnerable to anyone, especially his wife. Its his way of maintaining control over all of his relationships.

    "If he was just playing the role it would be different but he is really determined to be the role rather than play it."

    Yes, he is really determined to be the role, but its still a role. Don Draper is his alter ago, an invention he created because he can't embrace and accept Dick Whitman, his humble origins, his abusive childhood. Until he can integrate all of that he will remain a shell.

    "Don's obvious flaw is his infidelity."

    The infidelity is a symptom--and a confirmation--of all of the above. It affords him sex without real intimacy, because true intimacy demands making oneself vulnerable to someone else and relinquishing control, which he can't do.