Monday, July 12, 2010

They hate it but they can't stop it

Note: I'm up to the third season now and I'm going to assume that readers remember the details of the episodes. There will be far less summary and far more commentary as a consequence.

The virtues of mad men
Love among the Ruins 
Love Among the Ruins was a made for TV movie starring Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier first shown in 1975. This is from imdb:
An aging actress is being sued for breach of promise. She hires as her lawyer a man who was an ex-lover and is still in love with her, although she doesn't know it. She realizes that the only way to win this case and protect her assets is to destroy her reputation.
I suspect that, and not the Browning poem, is the inspiration for the title of this episode. For it is something like this that drives the various behaviours this season. Last week we had people adopting new roles to find they hadn't changed at all. Now we have people struggling to see what they can save.

Matt Weiner, as I said last time, believes that people do not change.  That belief, and the accompanying view of human nature that goes with it, is a deeply conservative one. That all by itself is interesting as it is deeply subversive in that regard. It is especially so in the entertainment business. But it leaves aside an interesting question, how do people build character in the first place. Because that is what determines success in this show (and, I would argue, in real life). How is it that the fraudulent Don and seemingly amoral Roger have real moral depth? How is it that Joan and Peggy, both seeming throwbacks, have more real depth than the post-feminist options offered on other shows? And how is it that Betty, Pete and Paul just keep failing and failing as moral characters?

And does Matt Weiner realize that he agrees with Aristotle, Jane Austen, Edmund Burke, Evelyn Waugh and William F Buckley? I suspect he either doesn't or is effectively in denial.

Roger Sterling Esq.
 The most interesting character this season—for all the others, even Don Draper, fail to be as interesting as they have in the past—is Roger Sterling. He is a fascinating study. Every time he looks like he is about to go down to complete defeat, he bounces back. Even when it looks like he has nothing else he still has something that never fails him. He is like the actress in the TV movie of the same title as this episode.

By the way, notice the little touches such as how Roger gets the bottle of Bristol Cream out knowing his ex-wife will ask for Sherry and is even already pouring her a glass before she asks for it. This is the sort of moral quality we like to sneer at but really need in our friends. It also tells us something about their marriage. The problem is not that they aren't compatible. The problem is the thing he feels she is denying him and that thing is not just sex, although sex is clearly a very important part of it.

The title also obviously flashes forward to the JFK assassination as we learn that Roger's daughter's wedding will happen the day afterward. A funny thing about that. Matt Weiner said he didn't wasn't going to deal with it as he had nothing new to say. It shows up in the second last episode of this season, so everyone assumed that was a fib. I'll get to that later as I think he actually keeps the promise. The assassination is there, of course, but it also isn't.

Finally, the title gives us a taste of the whole season as various loves will come to ruin. Roger and Jane's will, so will Joan and Greg's and, most obviously, so will Don and Betty.

Which brings me to an odd thing. This whole show is built on nostalgia. That's a painful subject for many liberal intellectuals. Go to college and you will be taught that nostalgia about what the USA used to be is all one big lie only meant to sugar coat massive injustice and moral repression. And critics tend to be boomer era liberals who have their own creation myth about the late 1950s and early 1960s. They (falsely) remember that era as one of particularly awful repression followed by the great flowering of the age of Aquarius. They want to see the facts shoehorned into that mythology.

It puts someone like Matt Weiner in a difficult position. He knows that viewers love the nostalgia, love the sense of freedom that comes from imagining life in a  different era when differnt rules apply. But he also has to satisfy the critics who will savage him if he doesn't pay respects to their cherished illusions. It was this season where the two came into conflict and that explains a lot of what went wrong with it I think.

An interesting shift this season is the diminished use of nostalgic songs during the outro. As I count it, only three episodes use them (interestingly, the last three and the the three very best shows of the season). In the first season, 10 of thirteen episodes used period music in the outro. Twelve of the thirteen shows in Season 2 did. It's almost as if there was a conscious attempt to ditch the nostalgia to ward off the critics wrath only they realized that didn't work and plunged back in at the end.

One fascinating twist this episode is a new sort of woman appearing in Don's life in the person of his daughter's schoolteacher. Over at Slate the discussion group seems to hate her flowerchild persona. But that  was the 1960s wasn't it? Anyway, the visual parallel the camera sets up between her, Sally Draper and Peggy Olson is fascinating. She gets on the elevator with Roger and he pegs her (pardon the pun) right away as a young girl. Which of course she is and she isn't. We learn about her father's death and, like many people who lose their parents at a young age, she grew up quickly but is still haunted by the childhood she seems to have missed. Beginning this episode we see her setting out to play out some second childhood adventures.

Related to that, and one of the really interesting things to watch for this season, is Sally Draper. Weiner has been laying the foundation for her rebellion. She has taken to drinking and smoking on the sly. She is already pushing the sexual envelope ever since the series began. She lies, she cheats, she is in a  rage at her mother. (An aside, one of the odd things about the 1960s kids was how angry they were about their mothers. Even feminists of that era seemed to hate their mothers.)

Key to this is the relationship between Sally and her grandfather. We see in this episode that Betty is once again obsessing about her father and how he is doing. Only we learn over the next few that she doesn't even know her own father. What she is really obsessing about is her own childhood. Gene, meanwhile, strikes a real chord with Sally the next few episodes. It is said that moral values always  skip a generation. That we pick up from our grandparents rather than our parents. (That is certainly true in my case.) Anwyay, whether you believe that our not we see it nicely dramatized in the relationship between Sally and her grandfather the next few episosdes.

And we can see something like it also the relationship between Don and Roger. Roger is one of those characters who seems to transparent that we instantly feel superior to him. They play at this this season with a series of jokes about what exactly Roger's job is supposed to be. He is a lot like the blonde who seemingly is famous only for taking off her clothes but is actually a genius. Roger keeps behaving in ways that invite us to sneer at him but he is the man who made Don Draper. And Matt Weiner keeps leaving hints between the lines, if only we care to notice, of how deep the relationship between the men really is. Throughout this season, Don keeps trying to distance himself from Roger but cannot because he owes everything to him. He is the father he never had.

I find that an odd rule of thumb for determining whether an episode or a scene of Mad Men is going to be good or awful is figuring out how much testosterone there is around. And the rule is: the more the better. Get Don, Roger or (this season) Lane Pryce into a scene and it sparkles. Put any of pseudo-males in (Paul Kinsey, Salvatore Romano, Duck Phillips, Pete Campbell) and it starts to limp. That, as I have said before, is the show's subversive secret. It was said of Sex and the City that it appeared to be about sex but was really about friendships between women. Well, Mad men is really about being a man. This season goes off track whenever it forgets. That.

Anyway, watch Roger, Don and Lane deal with problems thsi year. There is a lot to learn.

Cue Professor Higgins
And if you don't think that is Neanderthal enough, consider the morally attractive women on the show. The standouts are Joan and Peggy. What makes them interesting? Answer: they missed the irony and took the advice below to heart:

Quick hit: The bit where Don says that California is the place where everything is new and the people are full of hope is painfully ironic to us now as that state careens towards bankruptcy but it was true enough back then.

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

Season two, if you are interested, begins here.

Season one begins here.   

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