Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mad Men: What actually happened?

Updated 2015/05/17: Some light editing for clarity.

The question above is one of my favourite critical techniques when approaching a story. You can spend so much time wrapped up in the subtext that you fail to notice the text. It's important to forget about interpreting events sometimes and just figure out what actually happened.

Ted goes to see his now ex partner in the hospital (soon to be simply "ex period") and talks about how he can't make Don out. His partner quotes Sun Tzu at him:
 If I wait patiently by the river, the body of my enemy will float by.
and then:
Give him the early rounds, he'll tire himself out. Go home, shower, walk back in there like you own half the place.
But that isn't what actually happens. Instead, Don gives Ted the next round by telling him that no one at Mohawk will listen to anyone but Ted now that he has flown his own plane up. Is he really as upset as he looks or is he acting? Ted has no way of knowing and neither do we. Which is the same point I made yesterday about what happens with Sylvia. (I was flattered to see that show up, uncredited of course, in the comments at other sites.)

The most important thing Ted says this episode is:
You don't want to take in the wonder of God's majesty?
Remember in episode one when Peggy is facing a crisis and Ted isn't returning any of her calls? It's because he is on a religious retreat. Ted is a religious man! That's unusual on Mad Men.

The other thing that is really jumping out at me this season (besides how awful it is) is how much this year is a mirror image of the first few seasons. The second last episode of season one was the defeat of Nixon. This year we're building up to his victory. The second-last episode of Season two ended with Don walking into the western ocean seeking redemption. This season began with him in Hawaii dreaming of redemption. The second-last episode of Season three featured the JFK assassination followed by a massive reorganization at the office spurred by an inspiration of Don's. This season featured two political assassinations and massive reorganization at the office spurred by an inspiration of Don's building up to the mid point. Finally, we get the odd replay of the conflict over Peggy between Don and another man that we saw in Season four, only Ted stands in for Duck this time.

It's almost as if we are building everything back to the starting point again. Only it's not the starting point anymore. There is a loss of innocence.

Not much commentary on the commentary this week. The writers at Slate were reliably shallow though. They were gleeful in their speculations that Ted would replace Don, that Don is yesterday's man. But do tell me, why do you think people watch this show with such earnest devotion today. It would seem that Don was actually tomorrow's man, or even the eternal man. On the other hand,
... and again my thoughts drifted to Don, a man falling swiftly out of step with the times. As you note, Hanna, Don still gets drunk at the office, still shaves off the sideburns every other man grows out, and still hearkens back to the earnest simplicity of the Depression when Ted speaks the language of dippy, high-concept sitcoms. 
Ted also says "groovy" and talks abut "rap sessions". Does Seth Stevenson  think that represents the future? The thing we're supposed to have looking at a show set in recent history is the advantage of hindsight. Too many of the people commenting on this show seem to have forgotten that history didn't work out the way earnest liberals thought it would. The summer of love is over and it's the winter of discontent. There is still Woodstock to look forward to in 1969 but there is also Altamount. And looking back from 2013, what seems like the more important cultural event: the depression or Gilligan's Island? Take your time.

The more important issue is that women hate sensitive guys with trendy facial hair. It was interesting that when Peggy asked Joan how her little boy was, Joan asked back, "How's yours?" With the possible exception of Ken Cosgrove, the new generation doesn't seem very promising and that is right because they weren't. The 1970s sensitive guy was a cultural and moral disaster.

PS: Burt Peterson was let go the first time in "Out of Town" the opening episode of Season three. Roger actually misses the meeting, walking in after the news has been broken. Burt handles it very badly. There is actually a valuable life lesson here: no matter how gracious or ungracious the people who let you go are, listen to what they have to say, say little in return and make sure that whatever you say or do is gracious. Firing him the second time has to have been the easiest thing Roger has ever had to do.

PPS: I note that while Peggy praised Dawn for being a good secretary who didn't divulge any of Don's secrets we didn't actually see Dawn. There were several scenes where Dawn plainly wasn't there and others had to do her job for her. What's up? (Perhaps they were too cheap to pay Teyonah Parris's salary?)


  1. I think that the earnest devotion that people who watch this show had is waning. The Yahoo Mad Men group which I've been a member of since Season 1 used to have dozens of comments following each episode. This Season so far there's maybe two or three comments, and they're mostly superficial, about Peggy's dress or Trudy's hair, but nothing substantive. I don't think a lot of people know what to make of what's going on this Season so they've just moved on.

    The stereotype of the "70s sensitive man" was strongly influenced by the culture of the time, the zeitgeist. The mass media of course played a large role in this, and they were wrong. They turned Woodstock into a cultural icon, but the so-called Woodstock generation only represented a very small minority of people, this wasn't a major cultural turning point as the media potrays it. But the media also trivialized important issues, like sex for example. It was a time when very loud voices--feminists, gays--were urging--demanding--that the time for change had come. The young man graduating from college in the early 70s was at a loss in terms of what was expected of him, so many had a difficult time trying to figure out their place and where they fit. I also think that the assassinations of the 1960s--as well as Watergate--strongly influenced what happened in the 1970s, which was demonstrated by the cynicism that began to take hold. Its interesting that in the mid-70s pop psychology had a field day with books like "Looking Out for #1" and "I'm OK You're OK." So gradually the notion that material success was all that mattered began to work its way into the public consciousness, and we still have that today, on steroids. John XXIII's idea of "opening the windows and letting some fresh air in" devolved into throwing the baby out with the bath water, not only for the Church but society at large. I don't think that was ever the original intent of most of those who advocated looking at things in a new way, but maybe it was inevitable.

    1. BTW, did you notice the prophetic allusion that Ted Chough makes while piloting his plane to the fatal air crash of JFK Jr's plane some thirty years later? He's telling Draper about spacial disorientation and how sometimes you think you're right side up when you're actually upside down. That could also be a metaphor for all of them and society in general at that time.

  2. "The 1970s sensitive guy was a cultural and moral disaster."

    That might be true if subsequent generations understood this and sought to reverse the trend. But that's not what has happened. The 1970s sensitive guy was perhaps Step 1 in the continuing evolution of our notions of masculinity and what it means to be a man. So this assertion misses the point, he represented the beginning of a cultural change. Who in their right mind today would drink the way Don Draper does except an alcoholic? Back then they didn't call it that, today we do. Who today would do the chronic womanizing that he does except someone with serious issues, and what woman would tolerate it? Certainly not a woman today in the same circles Draper traveled in, just ask Arnold Schwarzenegger. So maybe the 1970s sensitive guy started it all, but this is what we're left with, and I don't think its been all bad, and today in 2013 we take so much of it for granted. Who among us would want to live like Don Draper in real life? He's a fantasy of a bygone era, those like him who didn't change with the times were considered old farts. If he doesn't get with the new program to some degree he will become obsolete.

    1. You're absolutely right. Subsequent generations—or at least the subsequent generations who work in media and government—have no desire to reverse the trend. If anything they want to get behind the wheel of the bus headed for the cliff and push the accelerator to the floor.

      My hope is this: the bus will crash and probably will do so pretty soon. At one point this culture collapses and when it does I suspect that the elites find out that most people never got on the bus with them and we all go on to something different.

  3. I agree with you that the bus is headed for the cliff and that this culture will collapse. However, women today hold so much power and influence, and young men have been so thoroughly indoctrinated, that even if we could rebuild I cannot see us going back to the time of Don Draper. The women you sometimes cite as saying they really prefer a man like Draper are talking about fantasy and what turns them on sexually. Which is fine except that there's a shallowness to that. In the day to day real world, few women could live happily with a man like that. In addition, few men would want to have their masculinity judged or based on how much they drink or how many notches they have in their belt. A lot of bad things, e.g., domestic violence, losing jobs, not to mention just lousy self-worth came about as a result of that. I think we're at a point where men are rejecting the efforts of the most radical elements to feminize them, and are trying to discover what it means to be a man and how to assert their masculinity without turning into the brutes of Don Draper's time, I think that's what the Art of Manliness website is about. Let's face it, if Draper didn't look the way he does (and most men don't look like him) his behavior would be condemned, and we'd consider it boorish to say the least.