Monday, April 20, 2015

Mad Men: The Forecast

My first thought was that this was all set up. Well, not really, my first thought was about how much the use of embarrassment as a narrative technique makes me squirm. My second thought was that the Joan Harris romantic fantasy was completely unconvincing. My third thought was that the Glen Bishop Vietnam story was utterly clichéd and that Glen is still the same little creep he's always been and that it wouldn't break my heart if he gets killed.

But once I was past all that I started thinking the entire episode is just setting up the ending.

The split season has created a very tight narrative arc for Matt Weiner. The guys at Tom & Lorenzo were speculating that there was no room to do anything but dispatch the various characters one by one. And they had me completely convinced until I saw this episode. Weiner clearly means to do more than that.

And that is a huge challenge. Let's face it, none of the other shows of the supposed TV renaissance ended well. Sex and the City ended in a cliché. The Sopranos cheated. Breaking Bad spent several seasons demolishing Walter's own mythology only to completely restore that mythology in the final episode. Weiner defends the ending of The Sopranos because he was involved and so were his friends and colleagues but he has to know it was a cop out.

I think we can assume that Weiner and Draper are alike in one way: they both make their art out of their personal struggles. And I think we can also assume that the Gettysburg address reference is meant to signal something.

Lincoln's problem was to justify "the great civil war" and to do that he had to look backwards and forwards. He had to convince everyone that the nation had been founded on wonderful principles and that the war had defended those principles and that a great way forward lay open to them. And he had to do this for people surrounded by misery.

Okay, 1970 isn't quite the civil war but it was a miserable time. And the show has wallowed in a lot of it these last few seasons. No one could pretend that this show has in any way glorified the 1960s.

Which brings me to ...

Esoteric messages

In case you haven't been paying attention, one of the things that Mad Men has done over and over again is to ditch the conventional account of the 1960s. The figures who play the central role in PBS documentaries about the 1960s—rock stars, hippies, draft dodgers, Democrats—have always been peripheral to the story on Mad Men. Real life seems to happened elsewhere. And, speaking as someone younger than Sally and older than Bobby, that lines up with my experience of the 1960s. Everything about this show screams that conventional story of the 1960s is either false or beside the point: if you really were there then you DO remember it.

Let's reconsider the story of creepy little Glen and Betty the ice queen. When he comes back to visit her before shipping out, he comes on to her and she turns him down. The script has gone to considerable lengths to show us that they are all alone. If this were a soap opera it would end with either wild sex or with Betty fighting Glen off and driving him from the house. Or maybe he'd rape her after being turned down. Whatever might have happened, there is a standard set of soap opera expectations that goes with this set up. The episode didn't go with them but didn't exactly defy them either.

When Betty turns Glen down, he asks why not? And she says, "Because I'm married." Meaning that if she weren't married she'd be on her knees frantically pulling his fly open? Of course not. Why does she really turn him down? Well, mostly because there would be something decidedly creepy about it. No, scratch that, because there already is something decidedly creep about it. Glen has maintained a friendship with Betty's daughter for the best part of a decade so he could be near her again. Betty can see that even if Sally can't.

Poor Sally.

And then in an exact mirror of that, Sally's seventeen-year-old friend comes on to Don at dinner. And Don plays her brilliantly making sure it all ends up harmlessly without humiliating her, just as he explains to Sally.

And then there is Johnny Mathis who can't do anything right. It's like the end of season three all over again: we have a bunch of pathetic little children waiting for Don and Roger to show them how to muddle through.

Final thought: Why would Richard want to marry Joan? They just met. Yes, she has red hair, a serious career and really big breasts but he barely knows her. And it's not just Kevin, anyone who has been paying attention to this show knows that marriage is a bad deal for men. As it is in real life these days. Shy would Richard be so enthralled.

And why does Joan says she has been divorced twice?


  1. Eh, there were a lot of unconvincing moments in this episode. I take it as part of your esoteric Mad Men thesis that a lot of the surface-level plot stuff is basically irrelevant to the real story, which is based on our intuitions about the character types that the different figures reveal. This is an episode that bolsters your thesis because so many of the plot points could just be ignored without much damage to the overall story.

    To be honest, the idea that Glen Bishop has been obsessed with Betty for a decade simply isn't credible. Yes, he did creepy stuff when he was ten, but he was just a weird little kid... then he was semi-normal for about five years (I think he was rehabilitated a bit), and now we are supposed to believe that there was a secret Betty-obsession the whole time? The narrative set-up just isn't there to support that; and why would it be?--Glen has never really been an important character. Really he's the kind of fictional character who should resent his writers because they screw him over all the time, they just throw him in whenever they need a bit of domestic creepiness.

    And yes--why does she say she's been divorced twice?

    1. I understand your point but I buy the Glen Bishop line for reasons I will expand on in a future post. He's a minor character so we don't get to see a lot of his development. In a case like that, I think it's perfectly acceptable narrative technique to have a character do something late in the action that retroactively changes the meaning of his previous actions.

      I'll have a lot more to say about esoterica in future posts too.

      At least one other person noticed the odd second divorce reference. I'd love for it to turn out that she and Paul Kinsey used to be married but I have no evidence for that.

    2. The other thing that makes the creepy-Glen plot credible is the badness of the acting. It has only gotten worse!

      Oh, and I am surprised you didn't say anything about Don's speech as he fires Johnny Mathis. Did you write that part and send it in to Matt Weiner?

    3. Ha. That speech does sound like something I would say. There were a few times in my younger years when I needed to be on the receiving end of speech like that but there was no one in my life to make it.

      I'm amazed how many people writing about the show thought that interaction went in favour of Mathis. A lot of people really, really hate Don.

      I really liked the everything Don had to say this episode and I tend to read his inability to come up with anything in the way of future vision as a reflection of his own unhappiness with the business he is in. It's time for Don to move on.

      You're absolutely right about the acting. Betty is always played in that wooden style, I don't if that is because she was asked to do it that way or if that is all the acting January Jones is capable of. I tend to think the former. Weiner's kid playing Glen definitely can't act.