Tuesday, July 6, 2010


The Virtues of mad men
Out of town
 I have just a few scattered thoughts on this episode and nothing like a thesis to set forth.

Don says at one point in this episode, “I don’t know, I keep going to a lot of places and ending up someplace I’ve already been.” That could sum up the entire season this year. And the writers seem to realize they are in trouble because they keep putting their own concerns about the plot into the mouths of characters as above. (There is a really astounding example of this coming in a later episode.)

Anyway, there is meta-commentary on itself all over this season. For example, Lane is up in Bert's office looking at a rather odd Japanese print of an octopus performing oral sex on a woman. Bert says, "Who is the man who imagined her ecstasy?" Then Don enters and he says, "We were just talking about you." The whole thing is unbelievably heavy-handed, about as subtle as a kipper in the face. Later, when Don is constructing a fantasy for Betty at the beginning he tells her she puts her hand under her chair to feel the cool sand in the shade underneath it. In a future episode when he is looking at his daughter’s schoolteacher he himself puts his hand underneath his chair to feel the cool grass in the shade. It really couldn’t be more obvious.

And that is the bad news, the quality of Mad Men drops off sharply in this third season. The best episodes are as good as they ever were but there is more bad episodes and and a few hat are plainly there as filler. You could easily skip most of the season and watch the opening three and the final three shows and miss nothing of importance.

But let’s make the best of it shall we. Let’s try and find/make some depth where the writers could not.

I think the precedent to keep in mind here is a story that Sam Spade tells in the Maltese Falcon. It's the story of a missing persons case Spade once handled. (It's in Chapter 7 of the novel and is well worth looking up as it's probably the best writing Hammett ever did.) Anyway, the point of the story is that Flitcraft leaves his comfortable family life meaning to start sopmething brand new only to settle into more or less the same sort of existence as before. As Spade says:
His second wife didn't look like the first, but they were more alike than different.
Something like that happens in this episode. Don and Sal are on a business trip and Don takes a false name after being given it by accident. The stewardess he ends up with isn't exactly like Betty but she is more like her than different.

Most interpreters read this bit of Hammett as some sort of existential message but I think Hammett is really thinking of Marx here. One of the few ideas Marx got right. It's from The 18th Bru
maire and it's worth quoting at some length:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. 
And that is what happens over and over again this season.  People set out to take on new roles, new jobs, new apartments and even new identities only to conjure up the past. As Matt Weiner has put it in a couple of interviews, "People don't change." My Serpentine friend reminds me that I'm fond of saying that myself but I'd qualify it a bit, people don't change easily and the most extravagant gestures in the way of change are the ones least likely to work for us.

So how do you make a real change?

The nature of the “flashbacks” has changed this season. Don is flashing back to things he never could have experienced with this episode. He is no longer remembering his past so much as he is constructing it. And, in so doing, we might say that he is facing it for the first time.

BTW: Is it a coincidence that Don remembers his mother in terms not unlike the women he has been having affairs with? I don’t think so.

Another chance at marriage
Did you know that all stewardesses are airheaded sluts? Neither did I because they aren’t and never have been but in this episode they are. You have to love the stunning hypocrisy that goes with indulging in stereotypes while pretending to be commenting on them.

In any case, the stewardess Don ends up with this episode is not his usual style at all.  She is more like a Betty clone than any of his other choices. But, then again, he didn’t choose her. She chose him. And the same is true of the bellboy who comes on to Sal. Both men have been role-playing under assumed names.  In adopting these roles, neither man changes an iota.

In the hallway, where she has gone after him very aggressively, Shelly suddenly pauses to tell Don that she is engaged. Then she says that, on the other hand, it might be her last chance. Don says he has been married fifteen years and that “you get lots of chances.

Lots of people have dinged Don for the cynicism in that line. I’m not so sure. On the one hand, you don’t have to take a chance just because you get it. And does anyone really think this is the first time Shelly has used this line? But it is also true that you get lots of chances to make a marriage work. And that is really what happens this episode. Don does this wild thing and gets away with it. He gets another chance.

Don as  closeted gay man
This suggestion was made in the comments and I think it is a good one. There is something about Don Draper that is like the life of a  closeted gay man. I think it is more like the life of a  Jewish man who is passing but the same issues arise. And they were raised by Rachel Mencken way back in the first season:
"Mr. Draper, I don't know what it is you really believe in, but I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. There is something about you that tells me that you know it too."
Don doesn't fit. He doesn't belong and even when he is with the people who are closest to him he is alone and isolated. But, for all that, Don is not miserable. I think this is an aspect that many commentators miss. Don is not unhappy and he is not neurotic.

Which is why I think the actual closeted gay male in the show doesn't work. Sal is gay but bot "gay". he is far to sad and conflicted. Sal would have been a better character if he'd been allowed to be a charming rogue, passing at the office but out on a tear every night. Sadly, that sort of character isn't allowed in American fiction where there seems to be some sort on unwritten rule that gay men must always be unhappy.

By the way, notice that while he gets closer to joy than any other episode, Sal is still denied. Why? It wouldn’t change the plot even a tiny bit. Let the poor man get laid for heavens sake.

The fight club interpretation
I mentioned this a while ago and I still like it.  Does Roger really exist? Think of how easy it would be to have him be just a figment of Don's imagination. Don's Tyler Durden.

Season three blogging begins here. The next post will be here.

Season two, if you are interested, begins here.

Season one begins here

1 comment:

  1. Very well put Jules. I agree that Season 3 was pretty lousy except for a few episodes of brilliance. I always felt they didn't know what to do for the six months leading up to the Kennedy assassination after they let it be known early in the Season that Margaret's wedding day was November 23, 1963 and the audience knew that was the day after and was dying to see how it would screw up the wedding.

    I appreciate your compliment and was about to take issue with your view that Don resembles more a Jewish man trying to pass than a closeted gay man thinking that the consequences of being discovered as Jewish would be less severe than being exposed as gay, but then I remembered Gentlemen's Agreement which put that to rest.

    You're assessment that while Don is lonely and isloated even from those closest to him he is not unhappy or neurotic I think is accurate. But I do think he blames others for the failures of his relationships, not until the end of the season does he being to examine himself honestly which he had heretofore had not been able to do.

    And I never understood why they didn't let Sal get laid either, and adding insult to injury get fired because he turned down Lee Garner's proposition! There was so much potential to do something with his character but they blew it at least for now. But your comment that American fiction doesn't portray gay men passing at the office and at home and then going out on a tear every night (which I think was the reality back then and is even today) is very telling. I think it has to do with the culture of Victimhood and the gay community's rejection of Bisexuality as a legitimate option. While there were certainly men like Sal who were chronically frustrated, I believe there were an equal if not greater number of men who were and are doing what you suggest, married to women, raising children, hetero in every way, who have hook ups, even romances with men. Most of them don't consider themselves victims, and wouldn't think of "coming out" in today's parlance. But they are largely rejected and condemned as hypocrites by the gay community because they don't fit into the gay/straight social construct, and can't be considered victimized or oppressed.