Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Mad Men: Going meta-meta on The Forecast

Four years ago now, Megan McCardle noticed something about internet journalism that still strikes me as very important. Netflix had just made what was, for them, a rare but serious misstep. They recovered but the criticism levelled at the company and its CEO was savage at the time. McCardle noted something bizarre about the criticism:
I don't want to pick on Ms. Martin, particularly, because I've read some version of this lament about Netflix about a thousand times. And indeed, I completely agree that the Qwikster disaster was nothing short of debacletacular.

But how do we get from "that was a bad idea" to "Reed Hastings doesn't understand what business he's in?" When internet commentators see odd behavior that they don't understand, why do they assume that the most parsimonious explanation is that management must be a bunch of drooling morons?

I mean, Reed Hastings did manage to build this rather large and successful business that killed off one of the most successful retail operations of its day. It's possible that he just sort of did this by accident. But is this really the most likely explanation? That he didn't understand the first thing about how people watched movies, or how to run a business?
Don Draper is a fictional character but any reasonable assessment of him should follow similar rules. He has been very successful, he has come up with brilliant campaigns, women find him very attractive (including lots of women at home too so it isn't just because it's in the script) and he often proves to be the only adult in the room. (This includes the assessment made by the shows writers; if he suddenly turns into a complete loser for the final four shows they will have betrayed their viewers.) Yes, he has faults and very real ones but how do we get from man to serious flaws to the following:
  1. ... it’s that Dick Whitman simply can’t keep up the Don Draper facade anymore. The Dick-ishness is seeping through. Don Draper created dreams; Dick Whitman shits on them. Don Draper was a legendary Manhattan sex god; Dick Whitman hits on teenage girls. Don Draper had everything – and deserved it; Dick Whitman has nothing – and it’s all his fault. It truly feels like we’re at the end of Don’s story and he knows it. It’s why, when faced with the kind of assignment the average high-schooler could complete in a weekend (2500 words on the future), he’s completely stumped. Don Draper has no future.
  2. Don’s hypocrisy really shone through when he tried to lecture Sally after his somewhat pathetic performance at the Chinese restaurant. Talk about regression—here’s a man who’s struggling to keep his life afloat and is falling for anonymous diner waitresses because they remind him of an old flame. But put him at the table with a bunch of 17-year-olds, and his tarnished charm finally gets a chance to shine again. Sally’s right about him “oozing,” but what she doesn’t realize is that he can’t help himself—she’s 17, so she’s not in the right place to empathize with her father, but this is a man whose real estate agent thinks he’s pathetic.
That's Tom & Lorenzo and The Atlantic respectively. The big problem here is that Don doesn't hit on a seventeen-year-old girl; she hits on him. And while Sally's unhappiness is understandable, more on this later, she's wrong. Don handles that situation about as well as an adult male could. (BTW: there is a nice bit of esoteric writing in this section when the 17-year-old in question mentions that Senator Dodd is going to given them a tour of the Senate. Anyone want to take a guess at how he and his buddy Teddy would respond to that sort of flirting?)

What's stunning about these assessments of Don is how dismissive they are. There are so many fans of the show who, while they clearly like watching Don Draper, dismiss everything he does as if it was just so much "privilege". 

Not unrelated, here is a snippet from a Slate piece on "Americana".
As a category, Americana has its problems—it’s a very white scene that claims to represent a lineage deeply rooted in African-American sounds (since country, too, was born in blues), and its adherents often cling too rigidly to notions of virtue and authenticity.
There's so much wrong in that I don't know where to begin. Yes, country music is (partly) rooted in the blues. It's also partly rooted in parlour music, Irish, Scottish and English folk music and opera. The blues, meanwhile, while unquestionably African-American, also owes a huge amount to music that was Arabic or European. The problem the writer has here is not with authenticity but with what is, for her, the wrong kind of authenticity. She makes me think of this pathetic display:
My name is such a vanilla, white-girl American name,' said Ashley Holmes of Indianapolis who changed her name online 'to show how little meaning "Hussein" really has.
The McCardle article I opened by quoting asks the rather bluntly how the critics of Netflix can be so much smarter than its founder and yet not be millionaires themselves. What's hiding here is self-hatred and all this raining on Don Draper is really an attempt at virtue signalling.

Mothers and other women

The key to understanding Sally's being so upset at Don is that she has already been through this with her mother and that scene was more genuinely disturbing. (Matt Weiner's mother must hate this show although I have to say I understand where he's coming from; I see a lot of my mother in Betty.) Anyway, if Sally is half as smart as her many fans doing recaps say she is, then the events of last episode must have given her some inkling that the main reason that Glen has been friends with her all these years is so he could keep the channel for future contact with Betty open. And the reason she has to have some inkling is that Betty all but diagrammed it out for her: "Sooo, you two have stayed in touch."

When Don tells Sally she is a beautiful girl and that it's up to her to be more than that, she has to know what this says of her mother.

Speaking of mothers, I mentioned how unsatisfying and unrealistic Joan's romance was and lots of people caught that (although no one mentioned how creepy it was for the guy to stalk Joan by flying to New York). Hanna Roisin spotted something I did not. Speaking of the Peggy and Joan subplots this episode she writes,
Sometime I feel like Matt Weiner lets the men work out their conflicts delicately while the women sound like anecdotes out of the Center for Work and Family. Joan faced the classic baby versus boyfriend dilemma. Only it didn’t really feel like much of a dilemma, because we never got to experience the maternal bond.
That's absolutely right. And it leads me to revisit something I said a long time ago about the show. I can't find the post where I said it but I once replied to a critic who said that the female characters were, as Roisin argues above, straight out of a textbook. I said that one of the great things about teh show was that the women were not like that. I still stand by that because it used to be true. As time goes on, though, the series plays more and more by the feminist handbook and all the women are either victims or role models.

Final thought, that Hanna Roisin piece is called, "Sally is the best character on Mad Men." I don't think Roisin really believes that for a second. Much of the commentary, and I cheerfully admit my own falls into this category, is really a way of voting for what you hope will be the case. Hanna Roisin votes for a future in which characters like Sally succeed. I vote for a future in which the forgotten virtues of characters like Roger and Don are rediscovered by men of later generations. It's funny to be arguing for either outcome as we already know that both came true.

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