Monday, April 6, 2015

Mad Men: The severance

Well, Nixon is still president so the rumours about it being set in 1976 turned out to be false.

And cue the obvious Dick Nixon/Dick Whitman parallels.

I didn't hate it. I rather liked it.

There was one awful scene. Even in the 1970s, the sexism was never as bad as it was for the scene where Joan and Peggy meet the guys from McCann. It was all stupid to keep making Catholic jokes about McCann because it implied that the sexism and nasty business ethics being associated with that firm are somehow "Catholic".

That aside, there was a lot of brilliant stuff in the episode. First there was the nice little trick they paid on us. They called the episode "the severance" and the teaser said that Don's past haunts him. Well, we all groaned and thought the whole Korean war desertion was going to somehow lead to his getting fired. I laughed out loud when I realized how well I'd been fooled.

As I've said before, In see strong parallels between the narrative style of Mad Men and that of Dawson's Creek. Despite all the claims that these new TV shows are novelistic, it's nearly impossible for television to really be like a novel. Any show can be cancelled at any time and viewers, knowing this, want the full impact now. Dawson's Creek dealt with that by setting up the premise and handling it fully early on while pretending not to have done so. Then the show noodled around, endlessly circling back to the same themes for several seasons. The final episode just set up the original themes again and handled them exactly the same way they had been handled the first time around, only they let it show that time.  Mad Men seems to be doing the same thing only with the final seven episodes.

They set this brilliantly by seem to put Don back in the seduction and fur businesses before panning back to show us that everything has changed and nothing has changed. In 1972, Nixon will be reelected and this song will be a big hit:

And that's the big recurring theme of Mad Men: men keep trying to change their lives and ending right back in the same place.

And it's a show about men. That hit me really hard watching this episode. The feminist gesturing in the background is just that. Women, blacks, just-about-everyone-else, they play the same role that Africa does in Heart of Darkness. They provide a backdrop against which this real drama can be played out. Unlike Chinua Achebe I have no problem with that myself.

The three women in a man's life?

Ted says that. It's an old line that can be filled out in several ways. "His mother, his wife, his mistress". Or, "His wife, his mistress and his girlfriend". (I relate that one myself, probable because I haven't ticked off the girlfriend box yet so it makes it feel like I still have something to look forward to.) In Don's case, I'd tend to go with the first: Abigail, Betty and Megan. Except the show wants us to believe that Rachel was really important to him. Sorry, I don't see it.

I think what is really going on here is the dragging the opening themes back again. So we go back to season one and in comes Rachel. I think she comes in because she's Jewish. The show keeps treating Don as if he might be too only he isn't. That's really important for some reason.

I'm not sure why. I doubt I'll guess.

Anyway, final thought for now: when Ted whips out the line about the three women, Don' says, "You didn't just think of that." Well, no , he didn't. It's been around forever. Knowing Ted's Gilligan's Island strategies, he may have gotten it from Mrs. Howell, Ginger and Mary Anne. But he didn't come up with it himself. And the same is true for the central theme—this story about men in endless cycles—it is very much the sort of thing 1960s-1970s dramas tended to be about. Carnal Knowledge, to pick a not-random example. The nostalgia here is complete: Mad Men doesn't just recreate the trappings of the era, it helps us really feel inside it.

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