Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Young people are going to save us

The virtues of mad men
The Good News
One of the really amazing things about irony is what a  varied and subtle tool it can be. It should not be after all. It seems blunt and crude when you think of it and it must have been at one time. But humans have worked out so many ways to use irony and some of them are amazingly subtle.

A good example this episode is when somebody says something true but their hearer cannot believe them. It happens in a bar in California where Anna, Don (as Dick) and Anna's niece Stephanie have gone. Anna asks Dick where he went to school and when he tells her night school, she describes him as a self-made man. She doesn't mean it as praise.

At this point, Anna tells Stephanie that she doesn't like how "political" she has gotten.

Now, let's pause it right there because Anna has not gotten political. I don't think you could conjure up a less politically aware character. So why does Anna take her niece's snide insensitivity as political?

Back to the action. Stephanie says that she isn't political, she "just wants to know who's in charge".

And Don says (this is where the dramatic irony occurs), "You're in charge. Trust me, I work in advertising."

And this neither Stephanie nor most of the TV audience can believe but it is literally true. The growing market power of the young, especially young women, is what is increasingly driving the world in the mid 1960s. The culture that Stephanie and the rest of us baby boomers got was exactly the world we wanted. And we've spent our entire lives trying to find someone else to blame for it.

The contrast between those two worlds is made very clear by us hearing Jan and Dean and then Patti Page back to back on the jukebox. I like Jan and Dean but no one is doing them any favours putting them up against Old Cape Cod.

A young fogey?
is Matt Weiner a young fogey. I think he is. Neither the 1950s counterculture nor the 1960s counterculture come off well the way he represents them but there is a subtle but unmistakable respect for enduring old values in this show.

In any case, I think there is something subtle going on in this episode. On the surface the big news is that Don/Dick goes to California and learns that Anna is dying of cancer. This is a classic soap opera plot. Big, splashy emotional events driving a plot line that features lots of big emotional statements such as the one in the car this episode where Don, predictably, hits on Stephanie and she tells him that Anna is dying.

Underneath that vintage, crude soap opera plot there is something else happening and that is that Don is becoming estranged from Anna. Time and again we see that she just doesn't understand him.

On top of that we see her wrapped up in an ugly California culture of unreal fantasy. A culture that would, in just a few years after the events of this episode, introduce the expression "senseless killing" into the language. Don isn't buying her UFO talk. And while Don will take a joint if someone passes it to him, he wouldn't actively seek it out the way Anna does here.

So, to get back to my question, how does Matt Weiner feel about the counterculture and the youth culture of the 1960s? My guess is that he has an unromantic view of it. The romantic era for him, the one worth remembering is the one John Cheever was still writing about in the 1960s.

There is a moment this episode where Lane is telling Don about his marriage failing and seems to be asking for advice. About one option, Don says, "Is that what you what want or is it what is expected of you." Okay, that applies to the characters but it also applies to the show. Big dramatic soap opera moments and homage to the usual 1960s milestones is what is expected of Mad Men but the show really wants to do something else.

Speaking of marriage failure
We get Don's explanation of the failure here. It comes in a  dialogue with Anna at the bar in California. Don has been talking about bringing the kids out to meet her and Anna asks if she will be their Aunt and wonders if Betty would understand. And this is what follows:
Don: I don’t think she’ll ever understand.
Anna: You had to know she’d be hurt.
Don: After I told her, I felt relieved. I kept thinking how small it was compared to how long it went on.
Anna: Small?
Don: I know, I know. It’s just. I could tell, the minute she saw who I really was, that she never wanted to look at me again.
You can see that as a bitter man in denial or as an accurate representation. As I said about the show in which Betty leaves Don, there is no viable reason on the surface. The story of Dick Whitman is tragic and even inspiring. She should have been able to see beyond that. She should have been able to understand him. (If the roles had been reversed, he would have had no trouble understanding her.) I'm with Don on this one.

Which raises the question, why did he marry her then? It's a good question. Maybe he was doing what was expected of him instead of what he really wanted.

Killing Greg off
For example, consider what has to be the most transparently telegraphed plot point in the story: that Greg will be going to Vietnam and will probably be killed there. This is one of those things everyone expects in a 1960s drama because it's what happened right? If you remember the show The Wonder Years you will remember that the plot of that show dutifully begins with older boy in the neighbourhood be killed in Vietnam.

But if we look at the dramatic sequence in this episode where Joan and Greg discuss their future, we see that this is cover for another issue. Joan cuts her hand and she breaks down and cries and the surface vibe is that it is because she sees their future as a couple as so uncertain with the threat of Vietnam hanging over them. But watch closely, and we see that the tears have nothing to do with that. They are driven by her guilt because she just doesn't trust her own husband to put stitches in her hand.

This is a marriage in deep trouble.

Again, rewatch the scenes between Lane and Joan. Here we have one of the oldest tricks in the book but a beaut nevertheless. Lane and Joan seem to have little sympathy but what is really happening is a deep bond.

A key reversal
On the other hand there is the bond that doesn't happen. I mean between Don and Lane.

This all begins with a key reversal. In the past we have seen that when life gets too difficult for don Draper, Dick Whitman runs away. The exact opposite happens here. When Dick Whitman's life is haunted by cancer, Don Draper runs back to New York.

In New York he has a classic Don and Roger night out only he has it with Lane Pryce in an extended scene that only goes to show how little these men have in common. It's an uncomfortable, difficult sequence from beginning to end. For Don and Lane I mean. Those of us at home couldn't stop laughing.

What struck me most, however, was how much Don needs Roger. That relationship means more to him than Betty ever did. We saw it in episode 2 when there was the little interplay between Don and Roger about the Fuhrer's birthday. These men really get one another.

Which leads me to some speculation. When Don and Lane are talking about Lane's marriage, Don says he has learned the hard way not to give advice. What are we supposed to think that is about? The temptation is to think of the moment at the end of Six Month Leave in season 2 where Don inadvertently talks Roger into leaving his wife. But I have wondered if the reverse isn't the case. When Jane Sterling appeared last episode she looked pretty comfortable in her skin. Could it be that, contrary to everything Don anticipated, Roger and Jane's marriage is going well?

Could it be that the stable factor missing from Don's life is not Betty but Roger? Don talks about being at City College this episode but we know that what made Don is not night school but Roger. he discovered him, he mentored him and, as we have seen in episode after episode, he really understands Don like no one else.

As everyone and his dog has been pointing out, Aaron Staton is still in the credits so we are due for more Ken Cosgrove. I hope for a lot more.

I'm going to have to go back and rewatch the first episode to see if the what is expected versus what you want trope shows up there*. It seems to be a major theme. I can't help but think that it will be the major turning point when Don pulls out his big victory.

And yes, I think that Don is going to triumph again. Why? Because he always does, because he deserves to and because that is how soap operas work (you don't root against Victor Newman or JR because they may have setbacks but they always triumph).

What is with the anti-Christian content here? Last show it was a dig at Christmas, this show a conversion is represented as a nervous breakdown.

By the way, I called it right when I said Don was still living in the furnished apartment Joan found for him after the first episode. That was confirmed this episode.

*Update: That didn't take long. In the very opening scene when teh Advertising Age reporter asks "Who is Don Draper?, Don responds by saying, What do men usually say when you ask them that? He wants to know what is expected of him.

I wish I could say that re[eating the trope makes it any less shallow but it doesn't. It's the sort of thing only someone in the entertainment industry would think intelligent.

Season 4 blogging begins here.
The post on the next episode will be here .


  1. I agree with you about everything here. And the theme of "what you want vs. what is expected of you" is apparently going to be recurring. I also agree that it applies to Mad Men itself. I follow a site devoted exclusively to Mad Men, and the fellow "Madsters" simply don't get it. They keep wanting Roger and Jane's marriage to go south so he and Joan can get together, Rachel Mencken to come back to Don, Sal Romano just to come back, I could go on and on.

    I agree that Roger and Jane's marriage does seem to be going well, she's growing, and I never thought she was the gold-digger that everyone else thought she was. Joan and Greg, well I don't know what to say about that. Its too bad because he seems like a decent guy--aside from that one episode which no one back then would have called rape--who is also growing. What happened to him career-wise is not at all uncommon even today, and many docs have to Plan B it to get their careers going, and they learn and grow from it. And at the end of the day it really doesn't matter because he's still a doctor. How do you think that scene relates to the earlier scene of Joan in the doctor's office and wanting to have a baby now? I'm not surprised that Joan mentioned the two earlier "procedures" she had had, I suspected that in Season 1. I could tell you stories that my parents told me about people they knew, and this was long before Roe v. Wade. If you could pay for it there were always docs willing to perform the procedure under sterile conditions, especially in NYC.

    Lane, I would assume, came out of British "public" education, "the playing fields of Eton" as the song goes, and he and Don will never bond the way Roger and Don did. They're from two different worlds. I might have other thoughts but I have to work!

  2. Ok one more thing, I agree with you that Don was wrong when he thought Roger and Jane's marriage doomed to failure. At the garden party he tells Roger that everyone thinks he's an old fool. This comes back to the theme of doing what we want vs what is expected of us. At that time Don thought Roger should have stayed with Mona because that's what was expected of him, but Roger decided to do what he wanted.

  3. I think one of the things soap operas and ChickLit do very well is to portray the way ordinarily good people do bad things. Regardless of what we call what Greg did to Joan on the office floor, there is no denying it was an evil act but it was a forgivable act. And Joan has lied to Greg about her past. You can argue that his expectations were such that she had choice but to tell such a lie if she wanted to marry him but she did choose to tell the lie and she could have held out for someone else. This might well incline her to forgive.

    A lot of people who watch the show, especially people in their twenties, seem to have a hard time grasping is that good people commit sins. They do really hurtful things that need forgiveness. They want to divide the world into two classes: bad people who need to be condemned and deserving victims who need to receive compensation for the sufferings either as individuals or as members of a group.

    I've noticed for example that when you read what younger people write they often look on transgressions as reasons to eliminate people from serious consideration. X says something that could be interpreted as racist and suddenly we can simply condemn them for all time. They can't see a place in which people can be redeemed.

  4. I couldn't agree with you more. Everyone's playing a game of "gotcha" and all it takes is one transgression or ill-timed remark and, as you say, people are eliminated from serious consideration. And the media feed into it because it boosts ratings. Your analysis of Joan and Greg is very astute, and I agree with it. I hadn't considered that she probably lied to him about her past, and that's a good point. He's utterly devoted to her, and she's far from perfect, yet she seems to demand perfection from him, which to her would mean becoming a fancy Park Ave. doctor raking in the $$$. I agree that their marriage is in trouble, but I think she needs to do some growing. Unless Weiner pulls a deus ex machina and has him killed off in Viet Nam. Since everyone is anticipating that he probably won't do it, which is good.