Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Mad Men: going meta-meta on the severance

"The ugliest thing we've ever see Don do"?

Really? Having sex against the wall with a waitress from a diner was the ugliest thing he has ever done? It wasn't pretty but it was consensual and how is he supposed to know that she somehow feels she has to earn the $100 tip that Roger left for her a few days earlier?

Julia Turner at Slate believes it's the ugliest thing we've ever seen him do. Again, yes it's ugly but why is it all on him. What about the woman?

Let's try and recreate the situation today. Not because it can actually be the same. Obviously, it cannot be the same. The thought experiment will draw out both similarities and differences. According to an online inflation calculator, that tip translates into about $600 in today's money. So I go into Starbucks and, after enjoying my coffee with my buddy and three hot women, my buddy leaves the female Barista $600. At some point in the earlier conversation, I had told this Barista that she looked familiar. My buddy treated her badly and I tried to apologize for him. She responded in a surly manner. She, in fact, responds to everything in a  surly manner.

Two days later, I go back alone and she assumes I'm there for the sex, leads me out the back door and takes me in a dirty alleyway. Then we go back in and she, surly again, tells me that I've gotten my $600 worth and I can go now.

Yeah, plenty of ugliness there but why is it all my fault?

That's easy: because the man is responsible!

The whole scene was incredible. Why, for example, is she reading The 42nd Parallel? It's not just that it's experimental novel with a decidedly left-wing perspective. It's a thirty-year old experimental novel with a decidedly left-wing perspective! There is no reason a waitress at a diner shouldn't read Dos Passos but it is unusual and when people do unusual things in a drama we expect that to reflect something about their character.

The problem here is that she has no character. She's all anger. She's one of those always bitter and unhappy people with a nasty political agenda who wonders why they are always bitter and nasty as if they had nothing to do with it. No wonder Roger compares her to Mildred Pierce.

"People have a lot of excuses as to why they haven’t achieved their dream."

That's a recap comment we should all take seriously because it came from Matt Weiner himself. And yet I don't. I think it may be one of the stupidest bits of analysis I've ever seen. It''s completely and utterly tone deaf. I appreciate that this may be difficult for someone who comes from an upper middle class background and went to elite schools all his life and who had the money and time to try at a show business career and then had the good fortune to succeed but most people have really good reasons, not excuses you spoiled brat, for not achieving "their dream". 

And this is a recurring problem with the show. Megan's decision to drop a good job so that she can pursue her childhood dream of being an actor is immature and irresponsible. What's more, the way she goes about trying to get that career started is childish. Finally, she gets her big break not through talent and hard work but by begging her husband to do something unprofessional on her behalf. And let's not forget that she screws her friend and colleague over to get this.

And it's fun to see that the reason Peggy can't just jet off to Paris is because she left her passport at the office instead of at home but most people would have far more serious barriers in their way than that. And we should remember that the number of people who could even dream of actually doing such a thing in 1970 was tiny.

A nephew of mine just left a job in theatre in order to work as a computer tech just this last year. He did it because the work is more regular and now he and his new wife can think about having a family. Because that's what everyone who didn't have the incredibly privileged upbringing that Matt Weiner had has to do. To talk about those sorts of choices as people having a lot of excuses for why they haven't achieved their dream shows a serious lack of moral depth. Yes, I get that Ken is actually in a position where he could easily pursue his dream but Weiner isn't talking about Ken in particular but people in general.

Which brings me to:


The most memorable moment of my story on Weiner last year was when he summoned his disgust about what the ’60s idealists had curdled into, 20 years later: the “greediest ******s” ever, a “bunch of hypocrites” who would lecture you about how they “invented sex” but were actually “repressive, selfish, racist,” and “money-grubbing.”
That's Hanna Rosin at Slate. There's a fair point hiding in that somewhere but it's well hidden. For starters, none of the principals in this show are 1960s idealists. To be a show about 1960s idealists who turned out greedy, the principals would have to be Paul Kinsey, Suzanne Farrell, Joyce Ramsay and Abe Drexler. Those are the people who curdled into the “greediest ******s” ever, a “bunch of hypocrites” who would lecture you about how they “invented sex” but were actually “repressive, selfish, racist,” and “money-grubbing.” That might also be rather uncomfortable for someone like Hanna Rosin who just might catch a rather eerie similarity between those sorts of people back then and people like herself right now and wonder what she's going to be like in 20 years.

And we should remember Bryant Gumbel bemoaning the greedy excesses of the Reagan years while pulling in something like $7 million a year. No doubt he earned every penny and you can bet he didn't sit around making a lot of excuses about why he hadn't achieved his dream but hosting the Today show isn't exactly working at a soup kitchen either.


Looking over the various commentaries 24 hours later, one of the strangest to me is my own. Why wasn't I more upset at the transformation in Roger. I've always liked Roger, so why didn't it trouble me to see what he has become? 

I suspect that some people will read that and be puzzled. They will think Roger is just what he has always been. They imagine that the sort of sleazeball Roger was in 1960 would dress the way Roger does in 1970. The problem with that is that Roger isn't a sleazeball in 1960. Yes, he has lots of flaws but, much as I love you, so do you dear reader. But he's an adult throughout the series. His failings are adult failings unlike Betty, Pete, Joan, Stan Rizzo, Henry Francis, Megan, Harry Crane, Ted Chaough, Trudy Campbell, and Lane Price who all act like hurt little children who've never succeeded at becoming adults. 

The show never seems to grasp that a guy who can step up and handle a situation like his daughter's wedding being just after the JFK assassination is a substantial character. It takes real moral depth to do that. A lot more moral depth than it takes to abandon a career to follow your bliss. 

The same is true of Don himself. The show treats him as a weakling always on the run from becoming the man he should be but it takes real depth to do what he did. Yes, he's deeply flawed at the end but he also has strengths that others do not have.

The only other character in the same league as those two is Peggy.

Okay, so why doesn't it bother me? Because I've already moved on. I'll be pleasantly surprised if the ending of the show is satisfying but I'm not counting on it. It wasn't his intention, but Matt Weiner did me a real favour by reminding me of guys like Roger Sterling and Don Draper. I knew guys like that when I grew up. Some of my uncles were very much like that. They were good men with flaws but well-worth emulating. It was good to be reminded of them.

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