Monday, April 15, 2013

Mad Men: Collaborators

Well, that was awkward. And that, of course, was the point. It's a modernist story-telling technqiue, very popular with The Beats among others. You deliberately create awkwardness.

Of course, it's commonplace nowadays, every situation comedy and soap opera trades on it. The show used a sort of subtle awkwardness. You kept waiting for the moment when someone would blunder into the truth and the fireworks would start. In the end, the only particular firecrackers to actually explode were Pete's. he was the one who had the most interest in keeping up appearances, so he had the most to lose.

But he doesn't lose in a big, soap-opera like bang. Instead, he loses, in classic Pete fashion, with a pathetic whimper.

There was also retroactive context all over the place. That's another soap opera technique. It consists of taking some known event from the past and completely changing its meaning by giving us some new details that wrench it out of the context it has been comfortably sitting in and drops it into a new context. For example, last season, Trudy proposed that Pete should get an apartment in the city after he lied to her and claimed he had gotten facial injuries as a result of a car crash. In fact, he got them when a neighbour punched him in the face after finding that he'd had sex with his wife. Well, in this episode, it is the neighbour's wife who gets punched in the face after she tells her husband that she'd had an affair with Pete. But that's not all that gets changed. When Trudy finds out the truth, she tells Pete that she agreed to let him have an apartment in the city on the condition he be discreet about his affairs. That sense was completely absent in the past.

The other big bit of retroactive context was Uncle Mack. Up until now, we have known him only as the man that was good to little Dick after his father dies and he and his step mother go to live with him. Today we learn, with quite a jolt that Uncle Mack's rooming house was, in fact, a whorehouse and that he is a pimp ("rooster" is the term he uses to explain it to little Dick). What's more that his stepmother went to the place in the full expectation that she would become one of Uncle Max's stable. We watch, along with Dick, as he stares through a keyhole and sees Mack breaking in the new talent.

That is another complete reversal of meaning as we have seen the step mother only as a woman of strict Christian morality until now. Until now, we've thought of Dick as being born to a prostitute who dies in labour and then raised by a strict Christian. We now learn he was born to one prostitute and then raised by another. And the show goes to great lengths to make us understand that there is a connection between this and Don's womanizing.

Does that sound familiar? It will if you are a François Truffault fan.

The French connections

There were French cultural references all over this show.

Can I take a brief break to note how utterly shallow most of the commentary  on this show is? If you go around reading "recaps" of episode one, you'll notice that a lot of people made a big thing of Don quoting from the Inferno in episode one. What's wrong with that? Well, here is the line Don quotes:
Nel mezzo del cammin
di nostra vita,
mi ritrovai per
una selva oscura...
"Half way through life's journey, I found myself in a dark wood".  That's my rough "translation"; translation being a bit of an overstatement as these are very familiar lines so I can hardly claim to have figured anything out about it. They are familiar lines because they are, I'm going to raise my voice and pound on the table here, THEY ARE THE FIRST EFFING LINES IN THE PIECE! The point being that there is not a scrap of evidence that Don, Matt Weiner or anyone else, real or fictional, associated with the show has actually read the Inferno. So if you read a recap that made a big thing of that reference last week, the person who wrote that recap is a fraud.

This episode, on the other hand, is full of references to bits of French history. There is the title, "Collaborators", which suggests France during the occupation. At the other bookend, there is the outro with with der Bingle singing "Just a Gigolo", which, for those of you who only know Diamond Dave's rip off of Louis Prima's version, is a song about a French World War 1 veretan reduced to being a gigolo.

In the middle, we have the wholesale rip off of subtle homage to François Truffault's L'homme qui aimait les femmes (The Man Who Loved Women) wherein the hero's compulsive womanizing is explained by his having been the neglected child of a prostitute now desperately seeking connection but unable to have a satisfying love connection with a woman because this past has damaged him.

The story arc

Somewhere in the past, I quoted an interview in which Matt Weiner said he threw everything he had at the first season because he didn't know there would be a second one. That came up at lunch when the Lemon Girl said, "How much do you think Mad Men is like Dawson's Creek?"

Let me explain that question before I answer it. Dawson's Creek, like a lot of TV shows had a concept that set out the first season: a guy and a girl are best friends and he, a perpetual child, misses the implications of their having grown up and doesn't realize he loves her until after his best friend steals her away. Okay, but once you've done that, where do you go for the second season? and the third? and ...?

And Mad Men is a lot like that. It keeps circling back to the big concept from the first season. This sort of television often gets compared to novel reading because it uses similar story-telling techniques. But that is only true to a point. The difference is that novels tend to know where they are going. Even a novel that goes nowhere, the most famous example being Tristram Shandy, goes nowhere by design. The author has a plan, a story arc, in mind when he or she starts out. This sort of television doesn't because the writers never know whether this season will be the last one. And so the story circles and circles around the big concept.

(That's the real significance of the Dante reference in episode one of this season: it's an excuse to go back to the beginning. It's as if the producers were saying, "Okay, we've entertained you with a lot of filler to stretch what is really a one season show but now we are going to start the same story all over again only it's now a few years past the original start.")

We need a story arc for each season, of course. But that arc can't drive the original concept off stage. It can't up stage it either. Thus, the odd sort of limbo the story is in and the odd way it has of returning to the various wars US has fought and how those wars serve as cultural and moral markers for the generations who fought them.

That's entertainment

The fascinating thing is how much more entertaining the show gets whenever it goes back to these fundamentals. When Roger, Don, Peggy and Joan dominate the plot, as they did at the best moments of this episode, it gets to be much more fun. There was a magnificent scene where Don and Sylvia end up in the restaurant and she is being difficult and Don solves the problem by dominating her sexually. The female audience at home were all squirming in their seats, and not from embarrassment, for that scene.

The show shines when those for characters—each of which is a throwback to an another era—get to be themselves for a while.

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