Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Mad Men metacommentary: The Flood

I'll start with Hanna Rosin because she strikes me as a very good indicator. She is like a finally tuned instrument designed to measure the response of urban hipsters. The most notable thing about her recap yesterday was how long it took to get up. It hadn't appeared yet when I went to bed last night.

I am speculating here, but my guess is that she spent a lot of time worrying about exactly what to say; she worried because badly chosen words could be time bombs. Do you know why the intelligentsia reviled the song "Accidental Racist"? Because the two words of the title capture their fears exactly.

1. Anyway, when Rosin produced her words, this is how they began:
I would characterize Mad Men’s oblique way of handling the MLK assassination—what you called “small,” Seth—as pretty brave, mostly because it’s probably closer to the truth about how white people reacted. When they heard the news, most of the show’s characters felt unsettled and even devastated. But they were not so much upset about the assassination as about the general feeling of things falling apart. There was a sense of apocalypse in the air, but it was about the mood more than the event.
Well, that's got a sort of truthiness about it but not really.  The general feeling of things falling apart was there all right but it was driven by an immediate and very pragmatic fear that rioting would, as it did, break out.

And that is where the episode misrepresents. People are aware of the threat but they talk about it in impersonal terms. It just happens. None of the black characters who appear in the episode are angry. They are just resigned and sad.Teh white characters, meanwhile, talk about their feelings as if they were all 1990s male metrosexuals and post-feminist women.

I was on about the word "they" used to describe the assassins yesterday and how this was at odds with the "who" that actually would have been used. If white people discussing the assassination the night after it happened had used the word "they" it would have been used in reference to blacks; as in, "What do you suppose they will do now?"

And that question would have referred to the likelihood of violence. That was very much on people's minds. The division between Martin Luther King's strategy and those leaders who condoned (however evasively they put it) the possibility of violent tactics was well established in the white mind. MLK was, in fact, "the great white hope" for many; he was the guy who might get us through this. The new black leader who could stop a race riot remained the great white hope for a long time. Even in the early 1980s, you would hear such talk. (I remembers seeing a talk show in which James Brown came on as a guest and introduced Al Sharpton as the man who could get us through the long, hot summer ahead without violence.)

It would have referred to more than violence, however. It also would have referred to what many at the time would have called reasonableness. Change would not have happened over night and whites looked to figures like MLK to instill a certain patience in the black community.

2. Rosin notes that the show was very much about real estate. It doesn't occur to her that this is a problem with it. People who own real estate are, of course, very concerned with maintaining the value of assets into which they have sunk so much. But that fear is of what they might lose right now. You worry about your house being burnt down. All the worrying in the show is in the long term and it depends on people having knowledge that they couldn't have had in 1968 about how the real estate market would be affected by race. The real estate agent talks like someone from the 1970s. (And most of that worrying would be a consequence of integration not rioting.)

3. A lot of the commentary praises Pete for calling Harry a racist. Well, they would. The problem is that the word would not have been so loosely used at the time. It is now—when every liberal college grad losing and argument will resort to calling the person they are losing to a racist—but the word was pulled out far more carefully then. There were lots of unrepentant racists about who would have said, "so what". More importantly, though, someone like Pete, while he might have thought Harry callous and insensitive, simply would not have seen Harry's attitudes as racist.

4. To get back to Rosin. She ties Don to Noah in the Biblical story.
Everyone remembers Noah as the hero of the Flood. But he isn’t. That section of Genesis ends with Noah drunk, alone in his tent, and betrayed by his son on whom he, also, takes petty revenge with a few cutting words—a revenge that is interpreted to lead to slavery and the opening of the war with the Canaanites.
For those unfamiliar with the story, she is referring to events that took place after the flood had subsided. Here they are (Genesis 9: 20-25):
Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; and he drank the of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his brothers outside. Then Shem and Ja'pheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backwards and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father's nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what the youngest son had done to him, he said,
"Cursed be Canaan;
a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers."
What exactly all that means, nobody knows.  Seeing the father's nakedness is probably a euphemism for something else but we can only guess what. What ever it was, it was sexual. Ham either did something to Noah or, he did something to his mother.

I think Rosin may be on to something interesting here but I think she has the timeline wrong. If there is a Noah-like character and storyline, it has to be in the future. We should keep an eye out for this as the season goes along.

5. Which brings me to the Mad Men backlash feared by Rosin's colleague Seth Stevenson,
I’ve sensed brewing Mad Men backlash this season. Some whine that the plots are slow. Some argue that the advancing era doesn’t lend itself as well to stylish art direction. But the most common complaint I’ve heard is that Don Draper has failed to progress as a character and is congealing into a grim, awful man. I actually find that a fascinating development—I’m impressed by a show that, steadily over the course of several seasons, manages to turn a sexy pop culture heartthrob into a figure both reviled and pitied.
And there is a sort of impatience with many fans of the show. No matter how much they love Don, they want him done away with. Some want to see him superseded by Peggy or Ginsberg or some other new generation figure. Others want him to change and become the new sensitive man that Esquire will soon be writing about. The backlash that Seth feels brewing is driven by a feeling that the change isn't happening fast enough. Don just keeps being Don.

And I hope, although I suspect my hopes will be crushed, that he never changes. I hope he remians what even Rosin can see, although she doesn't like it:
By this crisis calculation, Don is the last honest man standing. Unlike in the earlier episodes, he is not stumbling around blindly. Unlike everyone else around him, he sees himself clearly and he understands what’s important to him. He does not care about a race vigil. He doesn’t care about Betty’s rules. He doesn’t even so much care about his children, as he confesses in that heartbreaking speech.
And all I can say is, good for him for being a man.

1 comment:

  1. No, I don't think he will change, nor should he. Not only is he the most honest man standing, he's the most stable. What he doesn't know yet is that his upbringing--bad as it was--taught him more lessons than he realized. And he would be the same person, whether he calls himself Dick Whitman or Don Draper.