Thursday, June 5, 2014

Mad Men: The wrap up

1. Larry Kryszinski

I have a feeling he'll be back. He's the old Army buddy who recognizes Don as Dick Whitman on the train in the third episode of Season one (The Marriage of Figaro). When he hands his business card to Don, it is backlit so that we can read IBM through it.

I know I said that having Don's military desertion come back to haunt him wouldn't work dramatically and I stand by that. What I meant by that is that it wouldn't work if it came in all by itself. It would work if it came in driven by something else. Looking back on the first seven shows, it seems to me that everything is nicely set up to have just that happen. IBM is in the office, Don has dissed the IBM comparing him to Satan and Lou has been set up as the defender of military honour. All we need is for Kryszinski to see Don, tell his buddies and this information to get to Lou, perhaps via Duck somehow, and we have a denouement.

In season one, Don is compared to Moses several times. As I said when covering that season, Moses leads his people to the promised land but doesn't get to enter it himself.

The ending I'd love to see is one in which Don bows out for the sake of others and slips down the road to assume another identity somewhere else, stopping only long enough to carve the Hobo code for "a dishonest man lives here" on Jim and Lou's doors, before leaving.

2. Harry and Betty revisited

In the comments to a previous post, Laura Carney said that Betty looks like she should be the perfect homemaker and yet constantly has childlike motives. Thus people hate her. That's right and I think Harry is a subtler example of the same phenomenon. He tries to be a good husband and yet always reveals himself to be weak in the face of temptation. We cut other, more obvious failures, such as Pete and Don and Peggy some slack because they aren't really trying to fit the role models as an end in themselves. Don and Pete may play at being good husbands and Peggy may seem like she is hoping to get married but they all do this because it is expected of them and not because they really want these things. And they fail because they don't really want it. Harry and Betty start off really wanting to be what they are.

The price they pay for this is going through an identity crisis because the roles they want to play no longer fit into the larger culture.

3. Sexual display

Continuing on the theme, there is a moment in Season one when Betty tells Francine that she caught Dr. Arnold Wayne trying to see down her top. She then goes on, in typical Betty fashion, to say that she had always felt that if she could do that she was "doing my job". The implication is very clear that she learned this from her mother. At the time I said that sounds more like someone in this decade might project back into the past that anything a woman of that generation might have said.

I mention it here because there is a complementary attitude expressed by Harry to Pete when he talks about the pleasure a married man can legitimately take in the company of women.

It all makes narrative sense but it doesn't make historical sense.

4. Roger!

No one remembers now but he wasn't a permanent cast member in Season one. He is the perfect example of a character who surprises his creator by having more depth than expected. Every time he made an appearance the screen came alive. Jon Hamm, quite rightly, gets credit for his acting skills but he is even better when he has John Slattery to play against; we haven't scene this kind of interplay since Lester Young and Herschel Evans. There has been a lot of talk about the moving reconciliation between Sally and Don but the most moving moment for me was Roger and Don last episode.

Friendships between men are a beautiful thing.

5. Emotions

One of the recurring themes of the show is that emotional intelligence is more important than being perceptive. Pete, Harry and Cutler all are more perceptive than the other members of the agency. They see both complex realities (the African-American market, the importance of television and the importance of Harry to the agency) and simple truths (that Joan is doing two jobs) long before anyone else and yet that always matters less than growing emotionally, which is how Don, Roger, Joan and Peggy advance.

6. Loyalty

On the same theme, having the right driving emotion matters. Don speaks admiringly of Harry's loyalty and well he should. Harry saves his butt. In the end, though, Harry fails to want enough. His fear of giving his wife an advantage in divorce proceedings is what makes him delay signing the partnership agreement and that leads to his downfall. Loyalty is a fine thing but it isn't enough in and of itself. You have to have a fire in the belly driving you.

And that's a problem for Don. He has been driven up until now, if he starts talking about just wanting to work, he is no different from Harry.

Harry is too much like the sort of pathetic boy-men we see about nowadays. He could be on the staff at Salon. Which leads me to:

7. The 1960s are still a cultural tragedy

As I have said many times before, the decade from 1960 to 1970 begins with style and ends with none. At which point, everyone who has been through indoctrination college splutters, "But, but racism! and Sexism!" Sure, but as Joni says, somethings lost and somethings gained. We lost a lot and Mad Men has performed a huge service to us all by reminding us of some of what was lost. The show is mind-blowingly stupid about somethings (military culture for example) but brilliant about many others.

This has been achieved to a large extent by simply being honest about the 1960s. Hippies were foolish, impractical and dirty people. The music scene was chaotic. The real work of changing the world was done by adults who worked in offices. In the process, something was lost that would be worth trying to get back again.


  1. Great post! Thanks so much for the shout-outs! Really nice of you.

    1. It is very kind of you to read my post. I was about to ask when yours was going to be up but just noticed that it is and starts with the poster for one of my favourite movies, off to read it now.