Monday, June 10, 2013

Mad Men: Favors

The clichés came down so fast this episode that I wanted to put on a raincoat.

You can't entirely fault the episode as a single episode. Everything in it made sense and the story arc was logical. The characters all acted in credible ways. They just didn't act in ways that matched the show they were supposed to be in.

The set up wasn't quite credible. As Raymond Chandler put it once, it is perfectly believable that that all these things might happen to various people at various times. What issn't believable is that they could all happen to such a small group of people all of whom are connected to one another within such a narrow time frame.

But, then again, that's what had to happen if they were going to make the story fit the 1960s mythology. Every businessman at the GM meeting spoke exactly the way they would have had they been cartoon characters, straight out of Doonesbury, rather than real human beings and ..., perhaps the less aid the better.

I said last week that I think the show is using the Dawson's Creek playbook this year and last night's episode had it all. It was certainly there on the surface. The show is doing just what Dawson's Creek did in taking the 90210 teen soap conventions and using them in a more serious way. There were the too cute moments with Pete's mother and then Bob Benson's gay come on to Pete and, most of all, the heavy dramatic irony of Ted seeing the connection between Pete and Peggy and getting jealous.

But there was also the dramatic arc issues. Here's the problem. Shows like this are conceived like novels with a clear dramatic arc that takes characters from their inception to a self- realization and then a conclusion. That's the scheme that Jane Austen set out and pretty much every serious English novel has done since. There is a lot of other Jane-ish touches as well, such as the difficulties faced by families where the father is absent or distant, but I'll leave them aside for now. The problem I want to highlight is that the creators of a television series never know when it is going to end,

A novel is driving towards an end so everything goes to that purpose. A TV show has to keep entertaining people for a middle stretch of indeterminate length. In Dawson's Creek, the arc went as follows:
  1. a boy and a girl grow up together, puberty changes their relationship, 
  2. he has a bit of a Peter Pan syndrome and wants to keep living in a world where this sexual tension doesn't exist, 
  3. his best friend does see the girl in a sexual way and they fall in love, 
  4. our hero gets enough distance on the episode to muse about childhood and puberty and the lessons learned and feel grateful for it all which, we realize at the end, was the reason he has been telling us this story as the show is really about storytelling.
Okay, but all that could be covered off in one season or two at most and the show ran for six. As a consequence, you get a lot of episodes in the middle that are pure filler. And then, at the end, it has to get yoked back to the story arc again.The thing that the writers at Dawson's Creek realized is that you had to state the theme early and then keep pulling it back every once in a  while just so viewers could remember what the show is really about. For six years we wondered, Dawson or Pacey? Doing that was incredibly silly but it was at least honest.

Mad Men didn't do that. We got the set up of Don's character but we never got an honest treatment of what was at stake for Don. Perhaps because none was possible. All we knew was that there was this guy who had assumed a false identity and was, sometimes perilously, living it out. The relationship with Rachel showed an odd neediness on Don's part but it wasn't explored at any length.

Meanwhile, another Don Draper and another Roger Sterling managed to sneak in between the lines. The best moments in the entire history of the show were those moments between Don and Roger that first season. Without really meaning to, the show's creators gave us a story about a man's world from a-not-so distant past that was compelling and interesting, much more interesting than the domestic dramas that ran parallel to it. That set of the original Sterling Cooper offices was magnificent, to be sure, but one of the reasons so many people loved it was that you knew you were in for a treat any time the camera panned across those desks. The same was true of most of the flashbacks. Some were deeply flawed, but you knew you were going to get a story about manliness.

To put it bluntly, the filler turned out to be better and more meaningful drama than the intended story arc. a Better artist than Matt Weiner would have realized this and gone with it. For a brief moment with the magnificent Bond-ish ending to last season it looked like he might.

The problem with Mad Men this year is that the story arc everything is being yoked to a story arc that doesn't match the opening. It's all has a sort of wimpy, PC quality. For example, notice how we went from gay Bob Benson to gay Pete. That's classic Dawson's strategy. Handle the sexual issues with great gestures of being open and honest but don't connect them to any of sex's wet and sticky flavour. So Bob makes his pitch to Pete in terms of love and tenderness as opposed to, hey Pete, how do you feel about raw sex with another man? It's as if gay men spent their entire lives feeling vaguely different without knowing what it was that made them feel different. That, as opposed, to getting erections when they looked at other men, which, while honest, would actually force the audience to acknowledge that gay love means means gay sex: you know, two men actually doing things with one another's erect penises.

I know, you'd rather not think about that. But is that honest? I mean, you're so terribly hip and cool and so much more open than those uptight evangelicals. But, if that is really true, then why can't you handle a story in which gay men actually do what gay men do? Which is to penetrate one another in various ways. There was no explicit sex between Don and Sylvia but the show is at least honest enough to acknowledge that Don penetrates her.

As a consequence, we get this deeply dishonest account of the gay love. Try to imagine, for example, how Bob Benson would come off as a heterosexual who just tried to get with a girl by being really nice to her all the time. That he never once told her what his purpose was but that he just hoped that, as Bob ultimately explains it,
Is it really so impossible to imagine ... couldn't it be that, if someone took care of you, very good care of you, if this person would do anything for you, if your well-being was his only thought, is it impossible that you might begin to feel something for him?
Recognize that? It's the nice-guy strategy for picking up girls or, in this case, another boy. You run around being a nice guy—just 'cause, you know—and hope that this magically turns into love. You hate that nice guy. Remember? Women certainly hate him. And he always loses in any half-way credible drama. He loses because there is always another guy who pays attention to a woman but not "just 'cause". This other makes it clear that he is paying attention to a woman because he wants her sexually. And that guy had a name for the first five seasons and his name was Don Draper.

How did he suddenly turn into this pathetic, needy loser? The whole Sylvia thing has a deus ex machina quality wherein it pulls Don into a character that just doesn't fit with the guy we have been watching all these years.

It's like the pathetic, nice guy dweeb got to be a TV producer and now he is going to get his revenge on the guy who actually had sex with the girl his nice-guy strategy failed with by making the more successful guy into some pathetic loser after all. And, in that sense, it fails to live up Dawson's Creek. The Dawson who told us that story was honest enough to admit that Joey chose Pacey over him for reasons that made perfect sense seen from a mature viewpoint. For five seasons, Don Draper was a complex, flawed but manly man whom people watched because he was more interesting than the dweeby losers that television and movies feed us these days. Now, he seems to be morphing into an unconvincing Alan Alda type. Don is no longer interesting and the show is no longer interesting.

BTW: Did you notice the guilty quality in Megan's voice when Sally's friend, a character so boring and predictable she doesn't deserve a name, asked her if she was calling her agent? If that turns out to be an affair, I may vomit all over the screen.


  1. I wish I had watched Dawson's Creek so I'd understand your comments more. In any case, I''m not reading much about Draper's trying to help out the Rosen's with their son's situation. I don't know how realistic or effective that would have been given the times. And what was Draper's motivation, to get back into Sylvia's pants?
    I think you're too hard on Bob Benson. It seems to me he's trying to find his way in a straight world and hold on to some of his values. He doesn't fit the stereotype of the gay man, dressing up in leather on the weekend going to gay bars, maybe because that's not who he really is. He apparently is looking for more than just sex, so what's wrong with that? Hitting on Campbell probably wasn't a wise move, either personally or professionally, I thought he was more astute.

    1. What you are probably missing is that George W. Bush served in a way very similar to what the Rosen's son would do here. Because a Bush-hater like Weiner can only picture that as draft-dodging, he takes that angle in this show. Logically, they should have picked some other favour Don could do for Sylvia, he's in the position to do a lot. Instead, this draft stupid sub-plot got stapled into the story so Weiner would have an excuse for a cheap shot at Bush.

      It's pretty clear from what happens that Don doesn't do it to get Sylvia back by the way. He only speaks to her by accident while trying to track down Dr. Rosen. It's the conversation he has with him that inspires Don to try. The whole dialogue between Don and Sylvia is just insane, by the way. What the hell does she mean by he treated her better than she treated him? This whole relationship with Don and Sylvia makes no sense at all. That's the main problem with the season so far. This is utterly unlike Don as we have known him and the show's creators have given us nothing at all to explain the change.

    2. I hadn't made the connection between Mitchell and GW Bush, you're probably right but he made the whole thing seem sympathetic. I think more than once Draper says this war is wrong unlike Korea which he was in.

  2. I think Sylvia's comments about how poorly she treated Don, and his asking her if she didn't feel anything illustrates your point about women being better able to separate sex and emotion than men are.