Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I have seen the future and his name is Don Draper

The virtues of Mad Men
Public Relations
One of the reasons I'm blogging this show is that I am firmly convinced that many people, especially critics, just aren't seeing it. They watch it but they don't see it.

There are, I think, two things you have to look for to really see what is going on in the show. The first is retroactive context and the second is what actually happens. Forget your notions about who the characters are and look at what they actually do.

Dick matters less and less
The episode starts with a reporter asking "Who is Don Draper?" The question seems pertinent if you value identity and authenticity but it's a red herring.

Don, not surprisingly, has no notion how to answer that question. It has been almost a year since we left the sharply reduced cast in a Hotel room at the Pierre. Don is still living in a furnished apartment that he has made no effort to make a personal mark on. He has installed bunk beds for his kids to visit and a shoe shine kit that he leaves in the middle of the floor. He seems to spend a lot of time in front of the television.

The really telling thing about the question, however, is the dog that doesn't bark. That would be Dick Whitman. The reporter who asks who is Don Draper is a Korean war veteran who lost his leg in the conflict and yet Dick doesn't come up. It looks like Don's past is being sharply revalued down here. It has been heading down anyway. It was the Ace of Spades year one, the King of Diamonds the year after and the Queen of Hearts in year three. To be consistent it ought to be the Jack of Clubs this year but it looks more like a Seven of Clubs so far.

If you will pardon the pun on my subhead above, Don's sexual power also seems sharply diminished this year. It seems to be typical at first in that he meets a woman who resists him but she is not captivated the way Rachel and Suzanne were and resisting her own desire. This woman understands her desire full well and is not in any danger of losing control. We also get to see an odd scene where Don hires a prostitute who will slap him across the face during sex. This scene arrives completely without explanation and it will take a lot of retroactive context to make it credible.

Update: Was revisiting this post today (April 26, 2012) and it occurs to me that they never did make this slapping incident credible. Don has become a less and less credible character and it incongruous events like this that are dropped in but never justified have a lot to do with that.

The woman who turns him down is a blonde who shares some childish qualities with Betty. That may or may not be significant. We'll see.

And Betty grows up a tiny bit
There was a moment last year when I thought that they should just get Betty off the show by having Lois run her over with a lawn mower. Cruel as that sounds, it would have been nicer than what happens to her here.

Last year she made the move from perennial child to spoiled brat. This year she has gone as far as insolent, sex-crazed teenager. Mentally, that is. Physically, they have aged Betty a lot. She looks older and harder. She seems well on her way to a sad end as either an alcoholic cougar sitting in a bar or dead on the floor with an empty bottle of Nembutal and a half-drunk bottle of gin beside her.

Henry's mother accurately, but uncharitably sums up Betty by telling him, "I know what you see in her and you could have gotten it without marrying."

Don fires a client
If we go way back to "Shoot" (season one, episode nine) we may remember that one of the reasons Roger tells Don he won't be happy at a larger agency is that he won't be able to fire clients. In this episode he does fire a client and does so rather brutally. All through this episode we have seen hints of how Don has become the power in the new agency. And yet he is drifting. That is what the opening interview establishes. Don Draper has no authentic past so he can only be what he does. He doesn't tell the reporter from advertising age what he does and so that article is bland.

What happens between the first interview and a second interview with the Wall Street Journal is that Don doesn't rediscover who he is but rediscovers who he wants to be. He wants to head a creative agency. Please note that Don doesn't tell this guy who Don Draper is either. He tells him what he did and, as we know because we have just seen him fire a client, what he is still doing.

I'll make a perhaps odd digression here. Back in the Bush years there was a notorious policy argument. Someone, the who and what doesn't matter for my purposes, disagreed with a proposed policy and advanced reasons why he thought it would fail. The wonk who answered him admitted that all the arguments were rock solid. He then went on to say that that was because the first wonk was part of "the reality based community". That expression became notorious and many people responded by saying they were proud to be part of the reality based community.

What the wonk who used the notorious expression meant was that he believed that reality could be changed. That all the underlying facts could be changed so it didn't matter if reality didn't back up his view. It's an ambitious, even arrogant view.

Leaving aside the political aspects of the argument, what we see here is that Don Draper is not a member of the reality-based community. He wants to change reality. Over the past three years we have seen that he created a new self. Since then he has had, as Roger tells us in a moment that goes by so quickly we might miss it, a very successful year. He has achieved great things. The people around him, including both Pete and Peggy, are still stuck in the past. They still see their job as catering to whatever the client wants. Don has a different vision.

He remains the prophet. He remains the most important figure and flawed as he is, he is the moral leader.

Other dogs that didn't bark
One thing that has apparently had zero impact on the principals is the Beatles. I don't know if any critics noticed but by November 1964, the British invasion was in full swing and there isn't even the briefest mention of the Beatles in this episode. That should have a lot of people eating crow as one of the favourite predictions of many critics has been that the future would lie with whatever character saw the significance of the Beatles.

I'll be honest, I don't think the Beatles had much significance and, therefore, I think the show called that one correctly.

What I am hoping is that the show will see the rising power of girls. Michael Oakeshott, not the most sensitive guy in history when it came to writing about women, made one very accurate observation about movements like feminism and that was that the movement comes after the change not before it.

The little bit of significance that the Beatles did reflect was the market power of girls and young women who bought an awful lot of their records. It was those screaming teens who changed the world not the four young men they drowned out with that screaming.

As I predicted last season, style has been sharply reduced. Style is another dog that doesn't bark because it is almost absent. That was not a terribly difficult prediction. The 1960s were a decade that had little style. This is nicely represented this episode by the lack of a boardroom table and by Don's furnished apartment.

The post on the next episode will be here.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with most of what you're saying here but will add an observation of my own. I've been thinking a lot about how people let their pasts define who they are or who they become. I firmly believe that we can rise above our pasts to become better people, I don't think the past has to dictate what we do in the present. Maybe the reason Dick Whitman is taking on less and less importance is because Don Draper was finally forced to acknoledge him by, of all people, Betty. God works in strange ways, and as bad as Betty is, she was inadvertently the instrument of Don Draper's redemption because he can now move forward without spending all that time and energy worrying about whether the only person who really mattered would find out. Her discovering the artifacts and forcing the issue in fact liberated Don much more than Betty because she is still who she was and getting worse. I also agree that his foray into S&M can't be understood except in the context of his past. Whether Draper is at that level of self-awareness that he can understand that yet is unclear, I tend to think he's not but eventually he will be. The truth really does set us free.