Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mad Men: going meta-meta on New Business

I've always pushed for an esoteric reading of Mad Men. That is to say, pay attention to what actually happens as opposed to what merely seems to be happening. Too much of the analysis of this show is based on critics desperate need to see themselves vindicated by the past, as opposed to be history, which, unlike the past, rarely vindicates anyone. And thus the endless tiresome, because sexism, because raaaaacism readings.

But I've always assumed that it was just my reading that was esoteric. That is, that I was finding ways to read the series that were accidentally in the text (or, when I'm wrong, are just things I'm projecting into it). When I sat down this morning to read what others have made of this most recent episode, I began to wonder if maybe there isn't some esoteric writing here as well. Maybe there are intentionally hidden meanings.

I don't want to believe it but then I read John Swansburg:
Don’s message to Peggy is to put the trauma behind her. “This never happened,” he says. “It will shock you how much this never happened.” I’ve always loved that moment, as it was one of the first times we saw Don betray emotion for a woman he wasn’t trying to sleep with, and one of the first indications that he saw promise in Peggy. Of course, his way of showing he cares is by offering her some deeply unhealthy advice—bury your trauma so deep inside you that it simply disappears. Then again, it worked for Don, and, actually, it seems to have worked for Peggy, too. We haven’t heard much about that baby in a while, and she doesn’t seem to be losing sleep over it.
Notice the contrasty between:
Of course, his way of showing he cares is by offering her some deeply unhealthy advice—bury your trauma so deep inside you that it simply disappears.
Then again, it worked for Don, and, actually, it seems to have worked for Peggy, too. 
Well, yes, it has worked hasn't it? If there is one bit of pseudo-scientific nonsense our era will not give up on it is the hydraulic theory of mental health, the belief that you have to let things out or else some mental pipe somewhere will burst and cause untold damage. This belief, although widely held by people like Swansburg, has absolutely no evidence to back it up.

Where does the show stand on this? It's hard to tell as it usually seems to vindicate the popular view that Don is a mess who is suppressing his past at enormous cost to himself. Then again, as Swansburg reluctantly acknowledges, there are times when it seems to say the opposite

Which brings me to Megan

"What do you call your mother?"
Megan angrily blurts that out at Don in Howard Johnson's back in season 5. Nice eh?

And here is Joan and Peggy discussing Megan in Season 6.
Joan: Second wives, it's like they have a playbook.
Peggy: I don't think she's like that.
Joan: Peggy, she's going to be a failing actress with a rich husband.
It goes on from there to blame Don for always marrying the same kind of woman. Joan winds up by telling Peggy that Betty was model and that Don met her at a photo shoot. And we might just let that go by except that Megan told Don that she was interested in the advertising business. She presented herself as the opposite of Betty and then turned into another Betty anyway.

One way to plant an esoteric message in a book or a TV show is to have a scene that very plainly says something but is somehow obviously false. Like, say, the confrontation between Megan and Don at the lawyer's office. The scene is poorly acted on one side. "Megan" has actually become the minor soap character star she used to play on TV. And then Don writes her a cheque and goodbye Megan.

 Here's what Tom & Lorenzo had to say about it:
As for Megan, she’s following the Betty Francis model of ex-wifery, by causing any sympathy for her to evaporate in the wake of some seriously off-putting immaturity and anger. When Betty was firing Carla and slapping Sally for masturbating, we could at least look at her monstrous behavior and understand why she was so angry after a decade-plus of a mountain of lies. Megan’s bitterness here only serves to make her look selfish and childish in a lot of ways.
True, but what if it's not an accident? What if Matt Weiner wants to make a point not about men like Don Draper, but about women like Megan, a point that it would be politically incorrect, "politically incorrect" as in fatal for his career, so he decided to make it in-between-the-lines? 

I thought the most telling lines in the show were the ones where Roger talks about how Jane accused him of destroying her life and career even though the only career she'd ever pursued was hustling men into supporting her. Forget everything Megan's character seems to be and ask yourself who she really is? Forget all the brave, feminist ideals you want to project onto her and consider what she actually does. Think of that meeting: doesn't she accuse Don of everything that Roger says Jane accused him of?

Finally, here is what Megan says of Don:
You’re nothing but a liar. An aging, sloppy, selfish liar.
Nasty, nasty stuff. But she could just as reasonably say the same of herself.  Any honest liar could, especially a failing actress with a rich husband whom she is now leaving and whose entire future depends on his ability to support her.

Final thought, here is a bit of dialogue from the end of the show. Don tells Diana that he's pretty sure he's had a worse day than her. She says "I’m not in a mood and you’ve never had a worse day than me." Well, you know, I think he's right. He probably did have a worse day than her. And he has had lots of worse days. And she doesn't have a clue because she doesn't care. She only cares about herself.

Almost everyone who wrote about this episode seized on the obvious contradiction in that an episode called new business is actually all about old business. You can go on hating Don if you want but it's a very old business indeed that she's in.


  1. Dear Jules,

    Sorry for the out of topic question (i'd send it to your e-mail address, but i couldn't find it):

    According to you, are there real differences between men and women? What are they?

    Perhaps you've already written something about it?

    1. Interesting question. The short answer is, Yes. The longer answer will appear as a new posting as soon as I get it written.