Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Mad Men: Time Zones

It was an entertaining episode. I've watched it three times in the last 24 hours and even the third time was entertaining. But will the final 14 shows be morally satisfying?

Hank Stuever, at the Washington Post, asks the question that most of us are asking in one way or another.
Perhaps “Mad Men” is crashing and burning before our eyes. It’s as watchable as ever, and also as unsatisfying as ever, as it veers toward the helter-skelter. What is its strongest theme? What question is it trying to answer? Who is the most important character here? Watching Sunday’s episode further broadens the field of possible (and wacko) answers, up to and including a sneaking suspicion that there is no such thing as Don Draper — even beyond his stolen identity. 

Wouldn’t that be something, for Weiner to reveal that Don was just a figment, a ghost? If any show has the right (or the courage) to pull the lever marked “it was all just a dream,” shouldn’t it be “Mad Men?” Because in every way that matters, it already is a dream.
I should say that I've often found Mad Men satisfying but I have no idea how Matt Weiner finishes this. Contrary to what most critics say, I don't think the ending of the Sopranos was much good and I thought the ending of Breaking Bad was deeply dishonest. In any case, Mad Men is a head and shoulders above those shows. I expect better from it.


When Peggy falls to her knees at the end, she looks up as if she were praying. That seems important to me. I've seen people break down in tears in real life. They turn down. If you are in an empty room when you break down and you look up, you're appealing to God and that remains true even if you don't officially believe in him.

The reason I find this show so compelling is abandonment. I've never minded being alone. I've spent a lot of my life alone. I spend hours each day alone working at my computer or iPad. I don't think about it and it doesn't bother me. What tears me apart me is abandonment. When a woman I loved cheated on me, many years ago now, the thing that tore me apart was not the sexual issues but the feeling of abandonment: the feeling that she didn't even think about me when I wasn't around.

The central theme of Mad Men is loss and longing. In one way or another, all of the main characters have had to deal with it. Freddy Rumsen says to Don,
You know, I've been there; you don't want to be damaged goods.
But you are damaged goods. If you think otherwise, it's because you haven't lived long enough. Your cross is coming. It isn't what damages you, though. It just makes you painfully aware of where the damage is.

Stuever's comment  also reminds me of the MacGuffin issue. Draper is the MacGuffin and that means that ultimately the story isn't his. Like Moses, whom he was compared to several time sin the first season, he is unlikely to enter the promised land himself. As Don explained Mohawk Airlines in season two:
That Indian. That's not about the majestic beauty of the Mohawk nation. It's about adventure. Could be a pirate, a knight in shining armor, could be a conquistador getting of a boat. It's about a fantastical people who are taking you someplace you've never been.
A fantastical people taking you somewhere you've never been. He didn't mention the Israelites but he could have. It's funny to think of Madison Avenue leading the revolution except for the fact that it's true. As I said four years ago, Don Draper turns the 1960s mythology on its head.

The most troubling scene in this episode was that between Margaret and Roger. As usual, Margaret is being aggressive, this time under the guise of being forgiving. The thought that worries me is, Does Matt Weiner realize this? Or does he see Margaret as doing something good that will liberate Roger? 

Like Stuever, I've sometimes imagined a fight club interpretation where someone, perhaps Don, turns out to have been the figment of someone else's imagination all along. I favoured Roger for the role of imaginary Tyler Durden myself in the first few seasons but his character has, unfortunately, been diminished the last few seasons. I say unfortunately because the old Roger lit up the screen every time he walked into a scene. The new Roger is pathetic.

Ultimately, though, a fight club interpretation wouldn't work for two reasons. 

First, it wouldn't work because Don isn't a monster. Last year saw Weiner pleading with people not to hate Don. His problem is that the critics want to see Don fail while the lion's share of fans want to see him succeed. The critics want him to fail—I think they will insist on it or they will write the finale off as a miserable failure. Most of the rest of us, however, like the guy and want to see him succeed.

Second, and more importantly, it wouldn't work because of the nature of the story it is. It operates like a founding myth. Think of the opening of this episode. Suddenly we have Freddy Rumsen, played by an actor who has about the same manliness status as Matt Weiner, speaking right at us, breaking the fourth wall as it were. Except, we know he's not precisely because it seems as if he is. Anything and everything in this show that seems to cut past illusion to reality turns out to be a dead end. This is a phenomenological life. You only have the impressions of things and never things themselves. But the impressions can be shared with others. 

Once upon a time, breaking down the fourth wall was seen as a daring thing to do. Mad Men is a show that insists that, no matter what you do, even when there is no camera, there is always a fourth wall. You can't change that. 

Matt Weiner on Don:
“There’s been a constant assertion about Don being out of touch, and that, by 1968, his style of advertising isn’t working anymore. I’ve never felt that,” Weiner says. “What I do feel, particularly last season, is that society has caught up to him. Identity issues caught up with society, which made the society more like Don. He’s never been MORE in touch. 
“The world is changing. That was the original intention of the show. And change makes everybody feel out of place.”
We might finish the thought by saying, he has never been more in touch except for right now.

Final thought: For melodrama to work, and Mad Men is melodrama, the characters have to end up going in the opposite direction of where they started. Don and Peggy have to turn it around. Now, as any Dickens fan can tell you, there is nothing to stop a character in a melodrama from turning it around only to crash even more.

Stray bullets

  • "This watch makes you interesting." That's actually a very bad pitch. It's too girly an approach for a man's watch. It's also very girly to want the guy who looks like Steve McQueen to take an interest in you because of your watch. The male sell: interesting people wear this watch and you want to be an interesting person, so you will want to do the things, and have the things, that interesting people have. No one really believes that the watch alone will make them interesting.
  • Tom and Lorenzo say of Joan: "Power has actually made her more vulnerable, ironically." Why is that ironic? Isn't that what power always does?
  • In our not-that-there-is-anything-wrong-with-that department, we have Alan Silver the flaming queen reassuring Don that he shouldn't worry about all the interest he is taking in Megan is purely about money. Is it okay to laugh at gay men if you don't let on that that is what you are doing? By the way, when you Google, "Alan Silver", the first link to come up is a gay porn star. Probably just a  coincidence.
  • When Megan throws the February 1969 issue of Playboy onto Don's lap, she says, "Don't tear the ads out of my magazine". Is the point supposed to be that he tear them out oh his magazine instead? If it was, she would have said "magazines" plural. I think it's her copy of Playboy
  • Nixon's inaugural was January 20, 1969.
  • There is an irony in saying that Don is out of step and that is that well know that he and his type came back. Don became incredibly popular just seven years ago.
  • Roger would take the ugly celery garnish out of his tomato juice but he would not drop it on the white linen table cloth. He also would not wear that paisley tie.
  • In addition to loss and longing, the other Season 1 themes that were underlined in this episode were utopia (brought up by Rachel Menken in season one) and Nixon. I thought Neve Campbell's character was meant to recall Rachel.

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