Monday, May 26, 2014

Mad Men: Waterloo

When it was over, I said, "Well, that was shameless."

And the Lemon Girl said, "In a good way or a bad way?"

Very much in a good way.

They faked us out. They certainly faked me out. I could see nothing but darkness. And I'm just thrilled for having been fooled.

I have nothing but stray bullets this week

  • One of the things about the 1960s, if you were a kid like me, Matt Weiner or James Lileks is that the experience we lived doesn't match the PBS documentary, the Time retrospective or what you would get if you took one of those easy-credit courses on the culture of the 1960s at college. We lived a different life that revolved around school, girls, the usual challenges of adolescence, syndicated TV shows that we watched after school, moon landings and fast food chains. That is the 1960s we see on Mad Men, especially last night.
  • I love Don's visions and have missed them now that he doesn't have flashbacks anymore. Bert's song and dance number was perfect.
  • Did you notice, by the way, that Weiner did with the whole show what Don does with the Carousel pitch? The show connected with us on an emotional level using the pain of nostalgia. Perfect!
  • There is something about Harry. Everyone acted in their own interest last night. There was a moment just before takeoff, when Peggy makes the sign of the cross. Harry beside her, thinks she is worried about their safety. Peggy is actually worried about the astronauts but not, as we might guess, for their sake. What worries her is that they'll have to postpone the campaign if the moon mission fails. If the roles were reversed, we'd see it as more reason to hate Harry.
  • The pilot of the plane talks just like Neil Armstrong. He uses that same flat delivery. We know why, of course, because we've all read The Right Stuff.
  • It never but never occurred to me to think of Bert as the Napoleon character until the shot of Roger removing his name tag. At the same time, even though it never occurred to me, it made perfect sense in retrospect. That's good story telling. I love being taken for a ride like that.
  • I'll also admit that I like it when the people I like, and the moral views I endorse, are vindicated by my favourite show. I was thrilled to see Roger take charge. Roger is my favourite character for the very simple reason that he and I have a lot in common.
  • On that subject, might I point out how good a man Don Draper is? They, meaning people who do recaps,  just hate him all over the Internet but he is a good man. By that I mean three things:
  1. He's is good.
  2. He is good at being a man
  3. He reminds us that a man is a good thing.
  • Final note for now: I'll also claim complete vindication on Peggy's religiosity. It's not just the sign of the cross on the plain but the complete Burger Chef pitch. It's a religious view of life she pushes in her pitches and her campaigns.
  • The most uncool thing of all, when it comes to Mad Men, is to keep talking about it a week after the season is ended. I, of course, will do that either later this week or next week.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Mad Men: Give me night or give me Blucher

Well, tonight's the night.

They've been ridiculously obvious with the hints they've been dropping. Don has a defeat coming. Then he has seven episodes to either fail or succeed next year. Plus, the episode is called Waterloo* and Don is trying a comeback from a period in exile. (I don't have the patience to do it but it would be interesting to date the beginning of Don's return from exile and count forward 100 days.)

I read an interview somewhere where Matt Weiner seemed to suggest that some thing Don has forgotten from the first season comes back to haunt him. I hope that was just a feint to confuse us. I don't see anyway they can do that convincingly at this point. That goes quadruple for his desertion in Korea. Dropping that on us tonight would be to break the rules the show has established for itself.

Which rules, by the way, are straight out Robert McKee. There is no show in TV history that follows McKee's rules more religiously than Mad Men. Every single scene features a value reversal. People start off confident and end up uncertain, or the reverse. Or they start off timid and end up brave, start satisfied and end frustrated, start with a sense of belonging and end up isolated, start with sense of failure and end with a sense of achievement and so on through the list of values. Every scene follows this sort of arc and so does every episode. There is never an episode of Mad Men that is nothing but exposition; the exposition is always slipped into other scenes driven by value reversals. Even if nothing substantial in terms of actual action takes place, and it often doesn't, the value reversal does.

People who love action plots—which could mean anything from a superhero movie to Breaking Bad—are critical Mad Men. I heard a podcast in which Jonah Goldberg complained the show is "existential". That's nonsense. There is never an existential moment for Don Draper or Roger or Joan or Pete or Peggy. Lane had existential moments. That's why he could commit suicide. He had an existential crisis. The principles do not. No matter what happens, they can go on. Their very sense of being is never at risk. To kill one of them off at this point would be deeply unsatisfying; it would feel like a cheat.

Which is probably true for you too! That's the way life is. If someone were to ask you to recount your life story up to the present moment, you'd tell a story with an arc leading to your present happiness or unhappiness. Tomorrow morning you will get up, however, and face an episode with no overarching story arc.

But heres the thing, Matt Weiner needs such an arc for Don Draper and he needs it tonight. He needs a crisis that will ties us back not only to the exile in Elba Don spent at the beginning of the season, but all the way back to season one. I don't know that he can do it.

And absolutely everything hangs on it. If tonight's episode fails, there is no coming back.

* Corrected, earlier version said "Napoleon".

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Mad Men, The Strategy addendum

1. Three photos from three seasons

That's when Adam comes to Don/Dick in season one looking for a family connection and Don refuses him.

That's season five. Paul is in Hare Krishna and he approaches Harry to get help promoting a script he has written on speculation for Star Trek. Harry talks about family.

That's last episode and, again, the context is a discussion of family.

The composition in all three is so similar that it cannot be accidental.

2. There is something about Harry

Why is this man hated so much? And before you say that he lies and cheats on his wife you may want to ask yourself which characters that is not true of on Mad Men. Harry's chief failing seems to be no worse than anybody else while lacking in cool.

3. Waterloo

That's the title of next episode.

That is, as someone says somewhere else, ominous sounding. That is, if we take Don as being Napoleon trying to make his big comeback after escaping Elba.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Mad Men: The Strategy

Was this the episode where Mad Men turned into Cheers? Here is the germ of Peggy's new strategy for Burger Chef. She and Don have been having a discussion about their failures to start a family and about how the family has, supposedly changed. Peggy blurts this out.
What if there was a place that you could go where there was no TV? And you could break bread. Anywhere you were sitting with was family. 
That's a test. If you are part of the cultural elite then you probably missed it. I'll get back to it.

The basic plot line was pretty simple: We have a bunch of people who, for various reasons, have closed the door on traditional family or who have had it closed for them. Pete is getting divorced. Don is divorced. Bob Benson is gay. And, you may want to sit down and swallow your coffee for this one, Joan and Peggy are getting old. (Hey, don't blame me, the show set it up that way.) They're all looking for something to replace that family and so they all settle down in a bar in Boston.

Not really but they may as well have. It's wrong, of course, to credit Cheers with this. It's the plot dynamic of all sorts of TV. Think of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Friends: someone (usually a woman) has failed to get married for whatever reason and they find a substitute family with work or with friends or in some bar somewhere. This sort of group dynamic is a speciality of television but you find it in some movies, think of The Big Chill or any of Whit Stillman's films.

The dynamic tends to work a lot like family. You have difficult brothers and sisters (Pete and Peggy), creative ones (Peggy and Don), kids who resent that they're not the favourite (Pete and Don), matronly motherly types (Joan) and fatherly types (Roger, Bert and sometimes Don). You also have bullying types, scheming types and a whole raft of others in supporting roles too but there is always a core to the group.

And it occurs to me to wonder if the real theme of Mad Men all along hasn't been leaving family behind. I leave that vague because it could be that the theme is "leaving your family behind" in the sense of growing up and becoming an adult or it could be "leaving the family behind" in the sense of abandoning traditional family structures for some sort of new arrangement.

Reality check: people who go to the same bar every day in real life are losers and people who go to fast food restaurants all the time are obese and people who get their sense of purpose and meaning in life from work are pathetic. Which is to say, it's much easier to make something that feels like a replacement for the family you've left behind work in drama than it is real life.

The thing is, you leave your family and you feel a hole where family used to be. And this is perverse because you feel that hole even if your family life was nothing to regret having left behind. Even if you remember your childhood fondly, you make it play a bigger role in retrospect than it ever  did in real life.

Back to the skill testing question at the topic: the answer is that Peggy is a Catholic! The place you can go to where there is no TV and you can break bread and everywhere you sit is family is weekly mass. Don't believe me? The episode ends with Pete, Don and Peggy together on Sunday.

We're being offered a kind of religious solution. I say "kind of" because it isn't clear that anything really happens. Don and Peggy get up and dance to Sinatra's most embarrassing song.  Sinatra himself hated it but he was a consummate pro who didn't make himself the centre of everything and he sang it because the audience wanted it. That's ironic.

And there is a difference between your strategy for dealing with life and what actually happens. At this point, the penultimate show of the first half of the last season, we have a strategy.

Stray Bullets

  • Speaking of strategies, one of Matt Weiner's favourites is to handle the big, issues in the second last shot in order that the finale can be a dramatic joy ride. So far, he is running true to form.
  • Megan is packing her stuff and not just her summer clothes. When Don suggests that he can bring some of it for her when next he comes out she says, "I want to see you somewhere where there is nothing else going on." Is she having an affair? With Amy?
  • Flashing back on Megan 1: Four years ago I said, "... it is tempting to think that, "Faye Miller is playing a part and Megan appears to actually be the part". But I meant only that it is tempting to think and not that that is the case. Having just rewatched the episodes in question to prepare this post, it is pretty obvious that Megan is playing a role every bit as much as Faye." Which raises the obvious question: Is Megan Bob Benson in reverse?
  • Flashing back on Megan 2: In season 4, episode 4, there were some weird dynamics between Megan and Joyce.
  • They played two nice tricks on us this episode. The first was when the phone rang in the middle of the night and we thought it must be Don's phone only it was Bob's. Then we get virtually teh same scene only it's Peggy waking up in the middle of the night to work on something. Finally, we get Don waking up in the morning.
  • The other great trick was the false ending. Don and Peggy get up to dance to the Sinatra tune, the camera zooms out and the music shifts from a sound on the set to a sound from our speakers and we think it's over because the big pop song of the day always comes at the end. But there is four and half minutes left.
  • I used to think that the recap over at Slate was childish but, more charitably, I now think it's childlike. 
  • It's hard to place the time on this one but "My Way" hit the charts in June of 1969. June is the most popular month for weddings. 
  • The Lemon Girl and I were at a wedding last week. A young man at our table confessed that he has based his personality on Don Draper (I lean more to Roger Sterling myself). A number of the people at the table said they were disappointed with the show. I made the suggestion that I have often made here, that the 1960s were a cultural tragedy and that was why. The young man smiled and said, "That is what is so great about it: the culture is degrading and the show is going with it." I wish I'd said that. I'm going to try to cultivate his attitude.
  • Donald Barthleme: "Writing is a process of dealing with not knowing". This is a very meta show. Often the characters say something that appears to be about life but is actually about the challenges of writing. "Living with the not knowing," sounds like a profound existential statement when Don says it but but it's really the writers putting their own writing challenges into the mouth of one of the characters.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Victoria Day weekend

From the big meal we served in honour of the Queen Empress.

That's Duck à la Water Scott. It's pretty simple recipe: the duck is roasted at high heat, apples are cored and cooked bonne femme style and then served on a large crouton fried in butter and then spread with  paste made from the ducks liver. Final touch, the apples are filled with a sauce made of Dundee marmalade and whisky. Absolutely straight-forward and simple but you can imagine Victoria and Albert having a meal like this at Balmoral after hunting.

My only regret is not digging out the good china and silver. I have no idea why I didn't—too focused in cooking I guess.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Friday roundup: Buick Rviera plus added stuff

Only one item this week. Since posting this yesterday, I've thought of some some more stuff I wanted to add:

1. Mad Men ratings are down!

So why is it? One theory is pure aesthetics: the show's always been emotionally ugly, but in its new time period it's got the exterior to match. The first season took place in 1960, and the sheer glamour was so compelling that it brought about a revival on modern high streets: hello tailored suits, skinny ties, pencil skirts and so on. But now the 1970s are looming large over Don & co, and if there's one thing that era isn't known for, it's beautiful clothes. Banana Republic probably isn't planning a clothing line based around plaid sport coats and paisley ties. 
Shockingly enough, it turns out that style matters. A whole lot.

2. Manly virtue 

So Mad Men has ceased to be aspirational, which is surely deliberate on the part of Matthew Weiner and his team.
Yes, it is deliberate. The creators of the show, along with the critics, want to make Don, and everything he represents, a failure. The problem is that Don Draper and everything he represents is what attracted viewers to the show. "Aspirational" is right; we wish we could be like that again.
There is a large portion of America that doesn’t feel about America the way we did in 1960, and I think we want to know why we don’t,” said Mr. Kartheiser, 29. “We want to know what went wrong.”

3. Story arc

I wrote this four years ago:
Story arc is not Matt Weiner's forte. As we saw in The Sopranos, his stories don't go anywhere. Although it is often said that these new series are novelistic, his really work more like the writings of Ovid (a comparison that is far more flattering than this stuff deserves). What I mean is that Weiner's forte is not showing change but rather showing the same things happening over and over again.
I think that holds up pretty well. And catch what Weiner himself says about his episodic approach to writing in his very revealing Paris Review interview:
They were uncomfortable with a movie like The Godfather or a story like theOdyssey, where the only thing holding the events together is the characters. Now, there’s this monster, this obstacle, but there’s no real progression—the hero just keeps trying to get home. Sure, Michael Corleone starts off as a young war hero and ends up as the godfather, but the wedding takes up the first half hour of the movie. People liked to talk about “act breaks” and “rising action” leading to a climax, but what about Apocalypse Now? Someone’s on a journey, and sure, we’re heading toward a climax, but there are so many digressions. To me, those digressions are the story.
All of which is fine but there is usually more than just characters holding together an episodic structure. There is a particular worldview at work. When we read good or great episodic writing—Dubliners,  Lives of Girls and Women, Anne of Green Gables, The Odyssey—the thing that makes this writing good or great is the moral worldview at work.
If the question is, "What is it that is making Mad Men ultimately unsatisfying?" the answer is going to be that world view.

4. Nooooooooooo! Not John Cheever!

Yes, John Chevver. If anything at all explains the long-term problems that plague this once-great show, it's this:
And then, with John Cheever, I recognized myself in the voice of the narrator. His voice sounds like the voice in my head—or what I wish it sounded like.

Cheever's entire career was based on his "exposing" the sordid details hidden in the lives of people like Don Draper. That might sound good if you didn't know anything about Cheever himself.

5. How long do you think it will take us to be a in a place like this again?

I wrote the following four years ago, right after the brilliant ending to an otherwise-disappointing season three. I think it holds up pretty well.
My title for this post is the question that Roger asks Don as they stand in the office of Sterling Cooper for the very last time. My answer; not until the early 1980s. I don't mean for them but the whole culture and what I mean by that is in the following paragraphs. It is also my explanation of why I am almost certain that Season 4 is going to be a major disappointment.
The infamous line about Mad Men is that it will explain why the sixties had to happen. Implicit in that very statement is an admission of failure. No one says they need to explain why good thing had to happen. Good eras are their own justification and we thank God they happened at all. No, the second someone says they are going to explain why something had to happen they are already apologizing for it. It's like a divorce or an abortion, no one thinks these things are good; the most they can do is try to justify why they "had to happen".
I doubt very much that Mad Men will pull this trick off; it's hard to see how any TV show could but if they were even going to try that wonderful set had to go. More than one critic has bemoaned its loss but that style—American High Modernism—was a style of optimism and hope and the period we are about to enter from the mid sixties until the crashing failure of the Carter Administration is an era when style and optimism almost died in America. It's still on life support even now.
And it almost died at all levels. The establishment culture of the 1960s was awful and so was the anti-establishment culture. To have showed the cultural events of the 1960s against that background would have been a cruel indictment. And that bodes ill for this show for at least half the enjoyment was being able to see that wonderful style brought back to life. God preserve us from the thought of Nehru jackets, sideburns, bell bottoms, long hair on men, waterbeds and lava lamps ruining this wonderful show.

6. Back to our originally programmed Buick Riviera

This is the early 1970s model. That sales were disappointing is an indictment of the culture of the era and not the car. Even with the front bumper missing, this Riviera looks better than anything on the road today.

Best of all, a boat tail!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Bill Maher's rant

Here it is. I think almost everything he says is right.

The one thing he gets wrong is his assumption that Kathleen Parker is in the business of speaking her mind. She isn't. (BTW: Her answer to Maher is about as good an example of deliberately missing the point as you'll ever see. ) Kathleen Parker is in the business of editing her thoughts. That's what she does. She thinks it's a good thing if everyone has to edit their thoughts because that gives her an advantage because it means everyone has to operate on the playing field where she excels.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Mad Men: The Runaways

I have a full schedule this week so I will write this right away.

This episode was good drama but good drama purchased through deep dishonesty.

The first thing that rang really wrong for me was the musicians at Megan's party. They should have played jug band music. It's easy to see how it was supposed to play. The tenor banjo player starts to play Dixie and everybody groans. Then they cut into Petite Fleur and everybody likes that. It's all a terribly subtle, the way getting kicked in the testicles is subtle, racial undercurrent that runs through the episode. Dixie is, well, Dixie and Petite Fleur was written by Sidney Bechet in the early 1950s and then a huge hit for British trad jazz artist Chris Barber at the end of that decade,

The problem is that the crowd at Megan's party would have groaned just as much at Sydney Bechet as they did at Dixie. There was a very good reason that jazz giants like Bechet and Ben Webster were living in Europe in the late 1960s; it was the only place where they were still being taken seriously. The only person at the party who wouldn't have thought Petite Fleur was a joke, the only person at that party who would have appreciated it as music, was Don Draper.

And tenor banjo players. The tenor is a four stringed instrument tuned in fifths, just like the viola, CGDA. It was the backbone of early jazz bands. When people think of banjos, however, they think of the five-string banjo used in bluegrass music, pseudo folk such as the work of Pete Seeger and, most famously, in Duelling Banjos and out come the Deliverance jokes.

This is the tenor banjo's second appearance in Mad Men by the way. It's associated with trad jazz then too and features Roger Sterling's turn at black face. Again, the poor tenor is miscast; the instrument used in the Minstrel show was the five string. (As I said at the time, the deeper problem is that Roger would never do such a thing.)

The model for Scout's Honour has to be Beetle Bailey. What gets changed is that Scout is drawn to resemble, wait for it, a monkey. I take it the racist implications of that aren't too subtle for you to figure out for yourselves. Let's all hate Lou.

One touch I liked was the way Betty's feminist turn was inspired by her being the only one willing to defend the Vietnam war. This is good drama in the sense that her feminist turn comes from a completely unexpected place. Except that feminism is completely out of character for her. Betty is drawn out of a feminist fantasy. Real feminism was really taking off at the time because women on the radical left found that radical leftist men wouldn't take them seriously, a rather different story than the mythology the viewers of Mad Men so desperately want to believe.

Don's response via Phillip Morris is also completely wrong. If Don fails to meet the stipulations set for him, his partnership shares are reabsorbed. That is to say, he loses his job and all his money. One of those stipulations is that he sticks to the script for meetings with clients. If, on the other hand, the other partners decide that they need a new tobacco client badly enough to push Don out, then they have to buy him out. And they have to do so in a context that would have made it clear to the entire world that the issue was not Don's performance on the job. There is absolutely no reason for him to fight for his job here.

Was the whole 2001, A Space Odyssey thing with the computer just a set up for a sick joke where Ginsberg goes crazy? Again, this gets the era all wrong. The hip young people were very anti-computer in 1969. The way Ginsberg talks is exactly the way non-crazy people of the era talked. I know it would pain the audience to have to think about all the ways the supposed heroes of the 1960s called it as wrong as wrong could be but really.

The overall problem is that we're in drama land here. These are plot details driven not by the actual history and culture of the time but by what TV writers thought would make good drama. And a big part of that "good drama" requires them to flatter their audience.

The threesome rang true. The whole Megan-behaving-like-an-absolute-shit thing rang true.

Remember back when Megan wanted a break in the Butler shoe ad? Remember how she broke down and cried and said that if she couldn't make it in acting that would mean that sex was all she was good for? Her behaviour here shows us that she really believes that about herself. When she is threatened by Stephanie, Megan's way of winning Don back is to give him sex. That's all she thinks she is good for!

Final thought: as I've said before, Weiner is setting everything back to zero. Tobacco ads! We're right back to the pilot.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The opposite of smooth songs of summer #1

I think I'll do one of these weekly.

Did you have a record that saved you back in your teenage years when puberty and high school had so upset things that sometimes you just couldn't deal with anything anymore? I did. It  was called Let It Bleed. This is the cover:

That image is courtesy of Wikipedia. In one of those actually-true-even-though-it-sounds-too-good-to-be-true details, the cake was baked by a not-yet-famous Delia Smith. I don't know that I'd like it if I was just discovering it now but the adolescent me got through puberty, being bullied, humiliating failure, my first break up and every other should-have-been crushing moment between my thirteenth and nineteenth years thanks to this record.

Anyway, this is a remix of one of the tunes by a guys who specializes "industrial house"or some such thing. I need a very fast car so I can listen to this while driving way too fast barrelling down the Pacific Coast Highway in the rain.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Mad Men: The Monolith

I didn't like this episode at all. Not because of any particular parts of it, although it was very bad in parts. It was also very good in parts. (It was the best of episodes, it was the worst of episodes. Ha ha.)

It bothered me most because, like the lawnmower episode (the worst episode ever) it achieves nothing over all even though there are some nice moments scattered here and there. There is nothing important about Don in this episode that wasn't already done, and done better, in previous episodes. And some of what it fleshes out is stuff that shouldn't have been done at all.

Well, as is my wont, I'll start with what was good.

Women behaving badly and ineffectually

I've written before that the female characters in the story sometimes suffer from being written off of a feminist template. They are either victims of men or brave trailblazers. As a consequence, it's wonderful when a female character is allowed to just be weird, difficult, irrational, stupid about sex, or just a bitch.

We get lots of scenes of men being irrational, violent, dangerous, stupid about sex or just selfish pricks. Too often, the show is scared to go there with women. So it was wonderful this show to see Margaret/Marigold being a narcissistic jerk and to see Peggy and Mona both being ineffectual bitches.

We'll start withy Mona. Her interaction with Marigold echoes the conversation between Betty and Francine. Mona, like Betty, argues that Marigold should return to being Margaret and find her identity as the mother of her son. The thing is that this isn't completely crazy. You can, and should, argue that women shouldn't have their identities strait jacketed but it's also clear that a mother shouldn't abandon her child to go out and find herself. But it is also more complicated than that.

What makes it more complicated is that both Betty and Mona are lousy parents. Much of the commentary on this episode has focused on Roger's failings as father, and rightly so, but Mona is much, much worse just as Betty is much, much worse than Don. And the eldest daughters of both families show this. No matter how crazy Marigold/Margaret is, she knows to go to her father.

Consider, for example, the conversation about consensus-based decision making on the porch while peeling potatoes. Roger cuts right through the bullshit: "Believe me, there's always a hierarchy." He knows, he understands. Mona doesn't have a clue. She gets dismissed early on. Marigold/Margaret's comment about hiding in the bathroom with a pint of gin hits the target so accurately that Mona is done after that.

Marigold/Margaret is a minor character and need not actually develop. Maybe she will and that might be good but nobody will feel cheated if we never see her again. What we have seen here is entirely convincing and we don't need anymore. (she might recover by the way. I have a very close relative who made the same sorts of choices and actually managed to put her life together afterwards. You couldn't call her current life a success but it is a success that she prevented it from becoming a complete disaster.

Finally, there is Peggy. Poor Julia Turner gets her little fascist feminist panties all knotted up about this and it's easy to see why. But, if we, unlike Julia, don't feel the need to see everything in terms of feminist categories, the way this episode works out for Peggy is entirely convincing. She's trying to play the role but she keeps chickening out and it is cowardice that makes her come across as such a bitch and not her attempts to be assertive. (This is true of men as well, as I've said before.)

She tries to knock on Don's door after the meeting with Lou but chickens out. When Don doesn't do the work, she can't bring herself to confront him. By the time she's ready to confront him, way too late, Don has already worked through his problems himself and there is nothing for her to do.

When Joan pops by her office (with a really great Raquel Welch vibe going by the way) she mentions cowardice and Peggy says, "Mine or theirs?" She gets it.

Men behaving badly and being ineffectual getting away with it

As to Don's story, we could moan about the fact that nothing about it rings true but the better question is why this utterly false narrative ever got onto television. On the inside short that came with this episode, Matt Weiner opines that while people who do bad things so too people who are self-destructive do little things to save them. The designed-to-fail suicide attempts of Sylvia Plath and many others are a good example of this. And that rings true. Don calls Freddie who can save him while in the middle of his drinking binge. Okay, but why can't Freddie masterfully save him. He could sweep in and save the day and the story would have been much more believable. Instead we get what should have been a disaster as Don immediately sets about screwing up and he should get caught. That he doesn't is utterly unbelievable.

The problem, of course, is that the men cannot be seen to actually be masterful because that would undermine the feminist categories that were used to frame this episode. Ironically, the feminist categories didn't make the women seem false but did do it to the me. nNever mind that both Don and Roger have been convincingly masterful over and over again through the series. Now they are ineffectual losers because ... well... because.

In any case, Don can screw up and can do so in over-the-top ways and still come out okay and who cares that it isn't believable on either end. The scene where Don throws his typewriter at the window, for example, rings completely false. So does his drinking in the office. He has a fortune on the line here. If he wanted to get drunk, he'd go to a bar or home to do it.

The story with Roger is a decent attempt to show how men like Roger failed as fathers. It fails because there is a false equivalence at the heart of it. Roger wasn't there for Margaret as a teenager. She is abandoning her son and husband when her boy is still a child. We have to judge her more harshly. When Roger walks away from the commune in his muddy suit we may not sympathize but we do empathize.

As a consequence, it plays as a personal growth moment. Roger doesn't so much see his failure as a father as he sees the emptiness of the life he is leading. It would be entirely convincing, and quite a beautiful story, if he ended up raising his own grandson himself and did it well.

My final question is this: Did the Don scenes in this episode even have to be made? Is there anything about his development we know now that we didn't already know at the end of last episode? Actually, it's worse than that. The episode made his already implausible choices seem even more so.

Stray Bullets

  • Damn, Marigold made me hot. I had a bout 9,000 wet dreams about Natalie Merchant back in the 1980s and I relived every one of them watching Elizabeth Rice with her wild hair and in her flower child get ups this episode.
  • On that subject, the move from New York preppy girl to flower child is practically a cliché (there is even a section in The Official Preppy Handbook on this motif). But it's redeemed by it's being the truth. The kids protesting the Vietnam war and the ones in the crowd at Woodstock were mostly from elite eastern colleges.
  • Someone else doing recaps speaks of the show's 1960s moments. These are moments that focus on little 1960s ticks. It can be done well. The bit in the first episode this season when Megan has to reach up and turn the light out before sex is a good example. Who knows why that was always required but it was. Most of the time, however, it fails. Marigold was wonderful but the other hippies were just pathetic.
  • One of the shows worst habits is sticking the writers' thoughts into the mouths of characters. We get a good example this episode when Lloyd says that the computer is "a metaphor for whatever is on people's minds." Well, that is obviously what is going on in the way it is used in this episode and it is also what was going on in 2001, A Space Odyssey, but no computer geek would talk that way except to be dismissive.
  • One of the real joys of this season is seeing Pete thriving as he does. The best part is that he has found happiness without ceasing to be Pete. I find myself rooting for him and that has me worried because who knows what humiliations Weiner might have in store for the guy.

Monday, May 5, 2014

L.I.P. service

Since I'm evil, I keep thinking of evil things to do. Lately, I've taken to Googling things people say. Not just any things but things they say when debating politics and culture. It all started because I've found you can't respond to these arguments anymore. Someone will make a strong claim and then get upset with me if I disagree. Or, they will simply terminate the conversation but get some quick jab in as if I am the one causing the difficulty and they think it's a shame that I can't be more civil.

Anyway, given that dissent isn't appreciated, I just nod politely now and let people ramble on. While they do so, I make a mental note of any particularly striking phrases. Not necessarily striking to me, sometimes the only thing that makes the phrases stand out is that the person using it places particularly heavy emphasis on it. Later, I pull out my phone and Google the phrases. That may sound boring, but it's simply astounding how often I find out that the most passionate arguments that people make are actually just low-information parroting of something they read elsewhere. Google will find the phrase they put such emphasis on and it will be in the middle of a piece making exactly the argument later repeated as a heartfelt belief.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Friday thoughts: the uses of moral argument

1. "Morally reprehensible."

That's what she said. She was speaking of an affair a woman she knew was having. I never met the woman she was speaking of until much later. I've often wondered whether this other woman really had the affair she was criticized for. What I did learn for certain some time later was that my friend, the one who spoke of another woman's affair as "morally reprehensible", was herself having an affair even as she spoke those words in a censorious tone.

I never confronted her about it. You don't in those circumstances. I don't anyway.

Ever since I've always wondered what the person I hear someone condemn someone else's sexual conduct is up to themselves.

What good is your morality doesn't actually help you do right and stop doing wrong?

Why even have a morality?

2. Spring

This is the season with the highest suicide rate.

People with bipolar syndrome are most likely to commit suicide when they are coming out of a depression.

The same mechanism is at work in both cases. Yes, the snow is melting and the sun is shining but that is a curse if all that is happening is the beginning of another cycle.

3. Parody

One of my first jobs I was production manager for the student newspaper. The production manager was the one responsible that there actually was a newspaper published every week. Every one else on staff was having a good time.

The most tedious time of the year was the preparation for the first edition for April because that was the parody edition. Every year they'd have a meeting to decide what to parody. The National Enquirer was a popular suggestion. It took them a while but the kids would eventually figure out that it couldn't be done. The problem is that you can only parody something you admire. Otherwise, you will produce something like this.

4. The religious left 

Someone named Francis J Butler at the National Catholic Reporter thinks more lay people, and fewer clerics, should be canonized. It's not a bad point. NCR, however, cuts the ground out from underneath it by running a picture of Sargent Shriver speaking to Peace Corps volunteers that makes it painfully clear that, in their view, canonization is a political project.

5. The religious left again

You may have heard that the Brookings Institute has a paper out suggesting that the religious left is poised for a come back. I hadn't noticed it had gone away myself.

I mean that quite seriously. I spend a lot of time in religious circles and the inescapable truth about such circles is how liberal-left they are. Bishops are overwhelmingly left wing, so are most priests, so are most religious educators and so are most of the support staff who work in church offices. These people never went away. What happened is that the media stopped paying attention to them.

The report inadvertently underlines this point. It tells us that the real left is, at best, ambiguous, about the participation of the religious left. And then it gives them marching orders:
We began our convening in December with a discussion of economic justice: what does it mean; where are the tensions in the concept; and how do we move through the practical difficulties of achieving it?
That's paragraph one of part one. Notice what's missing? 

Think of it this way: imagine your boss invites you in to talk about your future and then immediately outlines his goals without mentioning you at all.

And when do the poor religious left actually get mention.
Our initial focus was on the challenge of building a cohesive and sustainable religious movement for economic justice, given sharply divergent definitions of its purposes.
Message: Our interest in you is limited to your usefulness to us.

6. Even more religious left

The Brookings guys are enthusiastic about Pope Francis.
At the same time, he has suggested that the issues linked to the politics of the culture wars have been allowed to displace other concerns. "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods," he has said. "this is not possible."
Basic writing lesson: the first sentence is supposed to set up the second. It is supposed to explain the context in which the statement is made. It is not supposed to create a new context that will alter the basic meaning of the quote. How do you think they did by that standard?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Not having time for games is itself a game

That's the new uncool quote of the month.

I identified it as The Last Psychiatrist Channels Wittgenstein. It's from TLP's comments on Twilight four and a half years ago.

To get the point, you need to understand that there are serious games and unserious games. Boxing, for example, is a serious game where the point is to damage your opponent so much that he can't fight anymore. If you get into the ring without understanding that but your opponent does you will have a very rough time of it.

TLP's point about Twilight is that love is a serious game with serious consequences. Edward is easily able to convince Bella that he doesn't have time for games because she has already convinced herself that there must be some magic way to cut past all the games and get straight to the point. But what would getting straight to the point mean here?

Jerry and Lisa go to a really good restaurant together. They discuss wine and food together. They both enjoy the experience so they start going to a really good restaurant together once or twice every month. They also start doing other things together. They become a couple. Lisa becomes less and less interested in going out to restaurants. She is perfectly happy eating microwave dinners at home. Jerry asks what is is wrong and Lisa admits that she only pretended to like fine food and drink because it was a good way to meet men and have a relationship. Jerry is a little deceived at this but he really likes Lisa and he figures that he and Lisa can do other things together. Meanwhile, because he really likes fine food and drink, he finds someone else to do that with.

Does that sound like an acceptable arrangement to you? It seems fine to me. Okay, let's replace fine food and drink in the above scenario with sex. "... Jerry asks what is is wrong and Lisa admits that she only acted interested in sex because it was a good way to meet men and have a relationship. Jerry is a little deceived at this but he really likes Lisa and he figures that he and Lisa can do other things together. Meanwhile, because he really likes sex, he finds someone else to do that with."

The point is that once you grasp that you can't separate sex from love while you can separate love from sex, then you should be able to understand why all the "games" that women and men play on the way to love are absolutely necessary and not some ploy to frustrate you.

Postscript: TLP's title for his piece is "The Twilight Movie Review Your Boyfriend Doesn't Want You To Read". He gets that completely wrong. It should be, "The Twilight Movie Review You Don't Want Your  Boyfriend To Read"

When someone accidentally blurts out the truth in passing

I remain unconvinced on Pope Francis. My hope is that I'll have to eat my words, that, several years from now, I'll be writing a post where I say that I'm sorry I ever doubted him.

But I keep reading things that discourage me. Notice, here, for example, how John Allen, seeking to praise the Pope makes a staggering admission in passing:
In Rome the pendulum is swinging from public theater to behind-the-scenes substance this week, as two closed-door meetings tackle two of the most serious challenges facing Pope Francis: Vatican reform and the child sexual abuse scandals.
A more direct, and more honest, way to make the same point would be to say, "He hasn't actually done anything yet."

And that is a little troubling, don't you think, after a barrage of articles about how wonderful he is. John Allen is probably the best English-speaking Vatican journalist in the world and here he is allowing that Francis hasn't actually done anything. Pope Francis was made Time magazine person of the year in 2013 and here is the best-informed journalist we have on the subject casually allowing that the Pope's achievements are just street theatre!

And then there is this from the same article:
As is his custom, Francis is sitting in on the meetings but generally not saying much, preferring to listen to the discussion without injecting himself into it.
I'm sorry, but that isn't encouraging. As I say, I hope and pray that I am as wrong as wrong can be on this but what if this man is just a clever PR master who isn't up to the job? What if he is getting all this good press while sleepwalking into disaster?