Thursday, December 18, 2014

Why do all these great TV series end badly? (part 1)

We're coming up on the finale of the finale of Mad Men and it's going to be disappointing. Most probably. They might pull it out and ...

Except they won't.

Why am I so certain?

Short answer: Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Hamlet (whoops, not a TV show) all end unconvincingly.

The obvious counter to that is that Mad Men could be different. But it won't and the reason it won't is because it started badly.

You can already see this in the way the show has wallowed since the end of Season three. It doesn't know where to go. The initial tension points—nostalgia, Dick Whitman, Peggy's child, Betty—have just gone away. If, in the final episode, Don either dealt satisfactorily with the Dick Whitman issue or the MPs showed up and arrested him for desertion, we would feel cheated. We would feel cheated because that issue has disappeared from the narrative.

We might be tempted to argue that Don has merely repressed the problems that go with Dick and that they are waiting to explode onto the surface. But it's not just Don who has made the problem go away. It's the narrative that has dispensed with Dick.

Another way to ask the question might be: What's wrong with Don Draper? And the answer to that would have to be more than a list of normal human failings. There has to be some deep problem that requires resolution for a happy ending or leads to a sad end if it is not resolved.

And we can't beg the question. That is to say, when we ask "What's wrong with Don Draper?" we have to be open to the possibility that the answer might be "nothing is fundamentally wrong with Don; he has the same ordinary faults the rest of us do."

I think I know the form the answer must take. It must be about manliness. The thing that Don Draper, Mr. Big, Tony Soprano, Walter White and Hamlet (I put him in here for a reason) have in common is that none of them have grown up and assumed the responsibilities of manhood.

They all have obvious character, but not story, precedents:
  • Don Draper descends from Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith in Hail the Conquering Hero
  • Tony Soprano descends from Michael Corleone
  • Mr Big descends from Mr. B in Pamela
  • Walter White descends from Goethe's Faust
I'll take them backwards.

Walter White is the easiest. He sells his soul and that has consequences but, like Goethe, Vince Gilligan wants Walter to be a redeemable character despite his selling his soul. The interesting new detail is that he doesn't sell his soul in pursuit of a romantic ideal but simply acquire some manly dignity.

Mr. Big withholds himself from the heroine and, just like in the original, eventually marries her, turning from cad into knight in white armor. The story is told from the heroine's perspective and she too, has challenges, but no essential flaws she needs to overcome; she just has to persistently be herself until he stops trying to just bang her and swoops down and picks her up. The interesting new detail is that ... oh yeah, there isn't one.

Tony Soprano is sort of the story of Michael Corleone dragged out of its manly trappings. It asks the question: What would it be like to follow the story of this man and see how he deals with all of the ordinary domestic challenges and not just the big, manly drama of assuming responsibility for the mob family.

Don Draper in a desperate, crazy moment participates in a deception that puts him in another man's uniform. Unlike Truesmith, he doesn't get off the train, but the hero's role gets hrust on him anyaway. He is passively swept up by others eager to believe that he is a hero but lives with the knowledge that he isn't really the person others believe he is; that, at heart, he is still the Dick who runs away.

Okay, let me add another twist. Mad Men is really the story of "I'm Peggy Olson, the new girl", which is obviously intended to make us think of Jimmy Olsen, the newsboy. It's really the story of Peggy the same way that Dawson's Creek was really the story of Joey Potter or, if you prefer a more exalted precedent, The Great Gatsby is really the story of Nick Carraway.

Peggy, like Jimmy, is thrust into a world populated by giants. Don is her Superman, Joan is her Lois Lane and Roger is her Perry White. She, and not Don, is the real nostalgia-driven character for she knows that none of these people really fits the legendary roles assigned to them. And she is the one who will have to go on living after the superheroes have left the earth.

But she embraces the legends and the legend. Think of the way she responds to Peter outing Freddy Rumsen after he gets so drunk he blanks out and wets his pants. Peggy thinks that Pete should have covered for Freddy and then he could have been a legend. She can see the problems with this legendary era but she still wants it and perhaps needs it.

Which makes her a stand in for us. We also need that world. Mad Men is a lot like Downton Abbey. Both shows are re-examinations of how the world changed. That the world had changed for the UK was driven home by the 1920s.  That the world had changed for the US was driven home by the 1960s. The weird straddle the show is faced with is that everyone loves that era that preceded the new world.

You might sum it up in a very short dialogue:
"You can't be Don Draper and he couldn't either."
"Sorry, could you repeat that. I was picking out cufflinks to go with my new shirt and gray suit. You should see them. I  actually bought them from Brooks Brothers."
No matter how plucky and determined little Peggy is, she will always be little Peggy in a world of giants. Which is especially odd when you consider how very hot Elisabeth Moss is in real life. Like Betty versus Wilma or Mary-Ann versus Ginger, no boy would have to think longer than two seconds to decide who he really wanted.

And yet, there is something about that era that is more compelling than our own.

It's not the actors playing the roles but the roles themselves. It's not just that Jon Hamm, John Slattery and Christina Hendricks are all disappointing when compared to the role they play in the series, it's that January Jones is! Betty, who sums up everything that was supposed to be wrong about pre-feminist womanhood, is so much more interesting than the actor who plays her that it is embarrassing.

The consequence of that is that, even if this is really a show about Peggy, and it is, we still need a satisfactory end for Don Draper. He has to have some problem with his character and that problem has to be faced and dealt with for a convincingly happy ending or not dealt with for a compellingly sad ending. And the sow just can't do that. It hasn't done the ground work.

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