Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Mad Men: Field Trip

I'll tell you what I think is really going on here at the bottom.

Is there any reason to believe that Alan Silver isn't telling the truth about Megan's childish antics? This is exactly the way she behaved back in season 5 when she couldn't get a job. At that time, Don acted the part of the good daddy and got her the Butler shoe ad just like she wanted. Now she is again faced with her own lack of talent and is again acting erratically.

(It's telling, by the way, that her first reaction is to want to fire Alan. Why is it that commentators overlook this sort of failure to face reality in a female character while endlessly castigating men for similar reactions? This is the soft bigotry of low expectations in action.)

ADDED: Imagine you're Allan Silver and this ditz who isn't going anywhere and is becoming more and more trouble fires you. Where is the downside? (Deeper question: Yes, she's hot and easy and has really big breasts but if you're Don, why do you want to stay married to her?)

Tom and Lorenzo point out that all the women in Don's life this week treat him unfairly and that is true. You can see Megan being upset about being kept in the dark but she's a handful and she owes a lot to Don. So does Joan and so does Peggy.

Peggy's make the least sense of all. She has not been happy under Lou. Why is she pretending that it has gone swimmingly? If she already knew that she will be competing directly with Don from now on that would make sense. But she doesn't know.

To ask a rude question: Is this what happens when women get into the workforce in large numbers? The start of the show was driven by outsize egos in rivalry with one another and getting great things done. Now we have a group of people acting to protect their interests through rigid social policing. Both are unpleasant in their own way but one is much more likely to produce good creative work than the other.

The other question that makes no sense at all is why Don accepts the deal that was offered to him. As everyone I've read commenting argues, it was clearly designed to make Don refuse. The harshest line was delivered by Joan: that failure to comply with the stipulations would not only result in termination but reabsorption of his partnership share. That's the part that no reasonable person would have accepted.

A slight break for a reality check here. Lawyers get a lot of abuse but they are absolutely essential to the functioning of our society. No one should ever agree to what Don agreed to without consulting a lawyer.

Everyone hates Betty now

Betty is back and any and all equivocation about her character is now gone. She's awful and no one is trying to hide it anymore. Even people who profess to like the Betty storyline now claim to love it because she is so awful. As Emily Nussbaum put it a few years ago, Betty started as a character whose horrid actions could be explained away because of the way others treated her but slowly came to be fully revealed as "like some hissable Barbie with the most cake". "Cake" here is a very sexual term but, as is so often the case in sexual status pissing matches between women, the cake in question is not the sort of sexual power that men find appealing. That sort of eroticism, as we find out on the school bus, is distasteful to Betty in a way that suggests that she wants the power but doesn't much like or respect men.

An aside, as long as I am asking rude questions: all these shows are feminist on the surface but subversively anti-woman just below the surface. Betty Draper, Livia Soprano and Skyler White are all easy to hate. Mona Sterling you can sympathize with but you know exactly why Roger cheats on her. Even if you sympathize with them, as many do, nobody could fail to understand why these women get treated the way they do. And season five saw Megan start sliding down the same path.

A lot of talk about the show centres on how society treated women back then but the more telling line of inquiry is how this show treats them now.

I don't think Matthew Weiner is entirely honest with himself or us about Betty. There is an interview up with January Jones on AMC's site. The interview starts with a quote from Weiner talking about how great January Jones audition was and then that claim is completely demolished with Jones herself saying that she had to come back twice. And then there is a very telling line that she reports him telling her at the time: “There’s this little scene at the end of the pilot, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the character if we get picked up.”

That rings true. Weiner didn't know where exactly this character would go. I suspect the same is true of every character except Don and even he has been modified somewhat. I also suspect that there is a lot more of both January Jones and Jon Hamm in the character's they play than either would like to want to think about too much.

Turning the dial back

What I thought happened most of all this episode is that the dial got turned back to something like season one. Don is now back in a position like he was then in that he is extremely vulnerable to fate. It's not hard to figure out, for example, how Lou would use the information about Dick Whitman if it landed in his hands. And Lou would use it more effectively than Pete did.

When the blonde hooker approaches Don at the meeting where he is being offered a job, it struck me how much she looked like the woman who approaches Don in the bar at the end of the final episode of season five. She is a different actress. To have the same actress would be to give a plausible reason for the recognition which would ruin the plot point. I think the similarity is intentional though and is meant to show growth in Don. I get the impression that the big challenge for Don, in Matt Weiner's eyes, is for him to confront his past only to do it in an appropriate way and not in the way he did at the Hershey meeting.

I'll tell you what I am hoping for. I am hoping the show will, as Bert does in season one, recognize that our secrets are not nearly as important as the current media culture makes them out to be. We'll see what happens. I suspect that the best we can hope for is a sort of non-ending ending that will allow us all to interpret as we wish. That will make for bad art but this is television after all.

Stray bullets

  • The movie Don is watching at the beginning is called Model Shop. It was made by Jacques Demy and is one of a number of disappointing films produced when French new wave directors were invited to make English movies in Hollywood.
  • The Jimi Hendrix song "If 6 was 9" that plays over the closing credits has one of the all time great rock song openings. Before you blow $1.29 on iTunes, you should know that it devolves into tediously narcissistic noodling that is awful even by Hendrix standards. The lyrics are accidentally interesting. On one hand, the song seems a tribute to individualism. On the other hand, 6 is just 9 upside down.
  • Like the teacher, Megan has also been going braless. The braless look was indeed catching on at this time but large-breasted women like Megan didn't adopt it. It was a look that favoured smaller breasted women.
  • I love the way Betty checks out the teacher's breasts when the school bus causes her, and them to heave forward. It's blatantly obvious and meant to send a message to the teacher. And then Betty turns and makes an utterly inappropriate remark about them to Bobby. That rings so true. I remember my mother doing things like that.
  • I love the Tiki bar in Lou's office.

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