Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Mad Men: Mary Magdalen made him do it

Following up on yesterday, what are we to make of the implied explanation of Don's womanizing? It was very clearly implied: when Don knocks on the door, it is the hard, calculating look on Sylvia's face that sparks the flashback to a similar look on the face of one of the women working for "Uncle Mack".

And then there is  his stepmother Abigail who thanks "the Lord" that they are accepted with Uncle Mack and Ernestine but then Uncle Mack makes the remark about "Of course Ernestine told you that we could always use a little help around here." Abigail's facial expression in response to that coupled with later events make it very clear that Abigail is under no illusions as to how she is going to be paying for her room and board.

The rest of the story comes right out of Freud. A boy raised by a cold and distant mother looks for a wife who can deliver the kind of love his mother never gave him and looks for sex with women he can see as whores and, therefore, not need to have any sort of emotional relationship with.

A school of cultural criticism follows. According to it, not only do men have a hard time in individual relationships because of this complex, it also effects the way women are portrayed in art and media. The poor things are forced to be one or the other. You can't be both.

There are all sorts of problems with this: first and foremost, there is nothing that even looks like empirical evidence for it. That hasn't stopped several generations of novelists and screenwriters from using it to explain male behaviours. Again, though, there is an appalling shortage of evidence for the cultural criticism. Just stop and think about it and you will see what I mean. When was the last time heard an actual man complaining that the woman he loves shocked and dismayed him by being too enthusiastic about sex? You do hear an awful lot of complaining about the opposite.

In fact, the Madonna-Whore complex is more of a problem for women than it is for men in that they struggle at being both for the same man at the same time.

Yeah, I'm sorry to be so rude about it, but it's a fact. Once you grasp that, you can see that the cultural criticism that grows out of Freud gets everything exactly backwards. And Freud is always more about cultural criticism than curing people; Freudian psychology is more or less useless at curing people.

But let's take a step back and consider another way we might handle the story.

Don meets Megan at the office. That's the context he knows her in. She is both a loving, nurturing woman and good in bed. They have a great affair and they really connect emotionally. He encourages her in her work.

Then one day her father shows up and reminds her of a childhood dream to be an actress. This dream is pure Cinderella-becomes-a-princess, one-hundred percent on the Madonna side of the equation. Suddenly, Don's fun and exciting work, life and sex partner is into a silly girl's fantasy that is, as Megan's mother grasps, perfectly fine in an eight-year-old but something a woman of Megan's age should have grown out of by now.

(By the way, why is that feminist fantasies about women pursuing the independent career always seem to involve fantasy jobs—newspaper columnist, environmental lawyer, activist, actress, fashion business and so forth?)

And Megan doesn't make it on her own. She needs to turn to Don, now a Daddy figure who can dispense favours, who gets her the commercial job that gets her TV career going. And notice how much of a hurry most people writing Mad Men recaps are to forget that Megan stabbed a friend in the back when she did this.

Now we can see a whole other way to see the story. Don thought he had a found a whole human being in Megan rather than the child-woman Betty but he sees that Megan is slowly transforming into something like what Betty had become. When, at the end of last season, the woman in the bar asks him he is alone she is asking after sex but there is a sense other than the existential one in which Don can say yes to that question. He can say, "I thought I wasn't when I married Megan but it turns out that I am.

I have no idea which way the show's writers will go with this, although I am not holding out a lot of hope.


  1. I enjoy your Mad Men comments and agree with most of them. What we--not just you but others who post on other sites--seem to have forgotten is that Don/Dick did commit a serious crime, he was a deserter during the Korean War. I don't know if there's a statute of limitations on that, I doubt it, but there are serious consequences for desertion, and that only adds to his sense of loneliness and alienation. I've read your comments about authenticity and where the writers are going, but its not just his horrid upbringing--whore mother, living in a whorehouse--that make him to the things he does. It is also that he committed a crime by assuming Draper's identity and pretending it was Whitman who died. That's not just a philosophical issue, its a legal one as well. I'm wondering if the last scene in the last episode of the series will show Don/Dick turning himself in to military authorities.

    1. Good points. I wonder, though, if that is dramatically credible. Given that we now live in the aftermath of the Vietnam war and President Carter's subsequent pardon of draft dodgers (which would NOT apply to Don), do most people feel that Don's crime really is a crime? Even the people who hate Don most, and there are lots of them, tend not to care about his desertion.You are quite right that it would be a legally airtight case against him but Weiner also has to make the story seem morally credible to the audience watching.

      And remember that the audience watching have been taught all their lives that the Vietnam and Korean wars were not good wars. Raised on M*A*S*H, they are more likely to view Don's desertion as a good thing.

      Where it all gets interesting will be with regard to the draft dodgers. That's just around the corner and Don will, as everyone alive at that time had to, have to take a moral stand on the issue. That will create all sorts of moral tensions for him.

  2. That's right, the draft dodgers will open up a can of worms for him, no doubt about it. But remember what the climate of that time was. This was before M*A*S*H and the Carter amnesty, the country was polarized worse than what we see today. So while today's audience might view Vietnam and Korea as bad wars, that was not the case in 1968 and people on both sides had very strong opinions. Those who fled to Canada did so on moral grounds (so they said) but Don/Dick can't even make that claim. If what he had done were to be exposed, the authorities might come down very hard on him in order to make an example of him and discourage others from going to Canada.