Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Mad Men: Season 7, episode 2: Sincerity and authenticity

Get me in a room!

Dion says that all the time. Someone, say Ken, says that a particular company is reportedly looking for a new agency and Don says, "Get me in a room".

Remember this?
The Japanese have a saying, 'A man is whatever room is in.' And right now, Don Draper is in this room.
That is Bert's answer to Pete's claim that Don Draper is really a military deserter named Dick Whitman back in the episode "Nixon versus Kennedy" in season one. It is significant now because Don Draper is not in the room. He is not in his office, he is not in the conference room. And if he isn't in the room anymore, who is he?

And it's not just Don who is worrying about the room they are in.
  • Pete and Ted are not in the room for the partners meeting so take part by teleconference.
  • Then Pete has a thing about working his way up to another office and how meaningless that seems in the new LA office. 
  • And Roger wants to know why they aren't in the conference room.
  • Don wants to know where Lou sat in the room where Don wasn't.
  • Joan is in a room where her identity is split between two jobs, she even has two doors.
Those people see their identity much as Bert describes it in the first season. If they can get into the right room, they are confident they can establish their identity through their performance.

Okay, let's take a break and talk about sincerity for a moment because sincerity has a lot to do with identity and which rooms you are or are not in. Here is a paragraph from a review of a recent book about sincerity.
Before he arrives at sincerity’s present-day rarity, Magill agilely traces his subject through the ages. The word first appeared as a description of objects. A sword was “sincerely” bronze, meaning pure. When, around 1533, sincerity first began to be used to describe people, it referred to faith. The definition broadened when, in the Elizabethan era, the birth of theater, along with the relaxing of sumptuary laws, meant that it was more difficult to tell sincerity by appearance.
The birth of theatre and the relaxing of sumptuary laws! If you aren't familiar with the term, sumptuary laws were laws that prevented prosperous merchants from dressing as well as the nobility. These laws are universal. They spring up in medieval Europe and Japan, for example. Those two societies were pretty much unaware of one another's existence so neither can be said to have picked the idea up from the other. Both societies had an identical need: when trade started producing a wealthier  merchant class, laws needed to be passed so that it was possible to tell the real nobility apart from the newly wealthy merchants.

I trust that the relevance to Mad Men is clear? If you combine that with theatre, the notion of playing a role, and you have our central problem. Why is Don Draper really Don Draper? Because he is and he remains Don Draper year after year even though he "really" isn't, whatever that means.

If that is the problem, then sincerity can seem like a solution.

Do you have Jesus in your heart? That's a question about sincerity.

If you don't like sincerity, you can always try authenticity. That's Peggy's approach. Her need is not being in a room but to be in a relationship. It's not quite that she is no one without a man; rather it is that being in a loving relationship will validate her sense of self.

The two approaches to personal identity aren't mirror images of one another. Proving your sincerity is ultimately a matter of performance. If I ask if you are sincere, you can make promises but ultimately the proof is in your performance. If I ask if you are authentic, then your performance is no help. Think of Senator Elizabeth Warren having claimed to be aboriginal. She can't back that claim up by performing as an Indian. That performance would to undermine her claim and the better the performance was, the more it would undermine. Authenticity claims to be something that is left over when you peel away all the performance. It is something you have even when you aren't in the room.

What sincerity and authenticity do have in common is that they both rely on others to recognize us.

Sincerity works like this. The delivery boy can wear a Hugo Boss suit when he takes a package to the conference room and that gets him into the room with the right clothes on (and here you can see the point of sumptuary laws) but he can only cause confusion. To pull the trick off, he needs to get others to recognize him as legit. They have to recognize not just his right to be in the room but his legitimacy in a certain role.

Authenticity is what Peggy wants. Peggy needs to be loved because she thinks love is going to validate her sense of self. No, that isn't very feminist but it is in line with her character so far. If she is really going to change, she needs to see her identity in her performance and not in some hoped-for authenticity that needs to be validated by others.

If your Peggy, you are looking for something that feels deeper. I would argue that it only feels deeper. Peel away the cover, and authenticity is a cask of vapours.

Don Draper's guide to parenting

I think just about everyone misread what happened between Don and Sally.

What they miss is this: a good parent-child relationships has to be unequal.

There was a great kerfuffle a few years ago when some minor celebrity said she loved her husband more than her children. People told her they were going to turn her into social services so they would take her children. Really! The thing is that she was right, although I don't think she realized why.

A parent who gets their emotional needs satisfied through their relationship with their children is a bad parent. It's not fair to the child. A good parent gets their emotional needs satisfied through their relationships with other adults, preferably a spouse. That way they are always able to give more to the child. Paradoxically, loving the child less is the more generous and giving way to love them. Anything else is just narcissism pretending to be love.

I read various recaps and see people celebrating Sally as Don's possible salvation and I am filled with horror. That would be deeply dishonest. As I've said many times before, Mad Men is chronicling a cultural disaster; it would be awful to have it end being just one more example of that disaster like Oprah Winfrey. Don does not need Sally's love. I'm sure he appreciates it but he doesn't need it.

The really important detail here, and I haven't seen anyone else note this, is that the real problem for Sally is Sylvia. That, and not Don's lie, is what troubled her the most about going to the apartment. Don has let his daughter down and now he has a chance to show her he can be a good father. That, and not her approval, is what he really should be doing. On that reading, her saying she loves him is important because now he is back in that room at least.

And I know a lot of people are going to hate this but the key is that no one, but no one, respects Betty.

Related to the above, consider two lines. First line, Sally talking to her friends at school about the death of another girl's mother says, "I'd stay here until 1975 if I could get Betty in the ground." She is at the age where kids often transfer their primary loyalty from their mother to their father.

I know, "But, but, but feminism, Betty Friedan, the problem without a name!" Don't care, Betty is a lousy parent.

Second line, Sally and Don are arguing about one another's lies to the other. Sally, as everyone notes says, that is more embarrassing to catch Don in a lie than to let him lie to her. Don's answer is, "So you just laid in wait like your mother." And then Sally says, "Do you know how hard it was for me to go to your apartment? I could have run into that woman!" She means Sylvia.

Before I go on, note how casually Sally accepts Don's characterization of Betty.

Okay, now on to the real problem. That is what upsets Sally and not any of Don's other lies. She wants him to be a father and not another child like Betty. And that is problem he pulls off the road to solve.

But how do solve that problem?

They talk about adult problems. Sally gets to see that adults don't know the answer to everything. That's important because every kid goes through a stage of thinking that being an adult means knowing how to deal with everything. And now she sees that it isn't like that. And then Don plays a game of pretending they are going to dine and dash. That's a scared child's solution and it's what Dick Whitman would do. The key to actually being Don and not the Dick inside him, is not being like that. And Don shows Sally that he knows the difference. If I am right, it is seeing that that makes Sally feel better.

Stray bullets

  • I've said this before and I'll say it again, a good book to contrast with Mad Men is about is The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff. It's the story of a man who passed himself off as an aeronautical engineer despite having no training. It's a different story, which is why I say "contrast", and understanding how it is different helps to make Don's good qualities easier to see.
  • I read about thirty recaps over the last two days. This is something that, trust me, I will never do again. I did because I have begun to suspect that most are just glorified plot summaries. I now know that most recaps are just glorified plot summaries. I can't help but think that the real point of most recaps is to save people the trouble of actually watching the show.
  • This episode did not deal with race well. It didn't really deal with race at all. It flattered its audience and the audience are now patting themselves on the back for being so perceptive and wonderful and totally non-racist. I mean, it's not like good liberal New York City has the most segregated schools in the nation or anything.
  • Ginsberg's cruel joke about Peggy's loneliness when he suggests that "masturbate gloomily" is an agenda item for her Valentines' Day rang completely false. Even to have suggested that women masturbate in a general way might have only passed muster in 1969 if the remark were made in an all-male environment. To say so of a particular woman who was your boss would not have been acceptable even in a locker room.
  • Two telling quotes from recaps I read:
  1. I beg you, Matt Weiner, please don’t try to make Lou sympathetic by revealing his wife is dying of cancer or something: In a morally ambiguous world, it’s refreshing to have someone hate.
  2. This leads her to the offices of SC&P, where she runs into Lou, who is a piece of human trash who should be disposed of immediately.
The people who said those things, these are from recaps from the LA Times and the Washington Post, are no doubt firmly convinced that it is not they but others who are the haters. The second is the worst; what do you call it when someone Godwins themselves?

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