Monday, May 4, 2015

Mad Men: Lost Horizon

My first thought was, "Why not just end it there?" I'm not sure this series has anything left to say.

My second thought was that McCann Erickson must have their lawyers watching every episode very carefully. And AMC probably did likewise prior to broadcast.

Third thought was, "Goodbye Joan." She may appear again, as Bert did this episode, and she may be spoken of, but she's gone now.

If we go back to the first year, there were five stars at the centre of the show right from the beginning. In descending order of importance they were: Don, Roger, Pete, Peggy and Joan. Everyone else was either second tier or they were a guest star. Aaron Stratton was listed as part of the cast right from episode one but he was really a guest star. Roger was listed as a guest star but we was indispensable to the show.

It makes sense that Joan would go.

Let's sell some cigarettes beer

You may balk at my rating Pete ahead of Peggy and Joan. Think of Gilligan's Island. The name of the show tells you who the real star is but we tend to forget that when we watch because Gilligan has no power or authority in the fictional world we saw on the screen. It seemed like every single person on the show could tell him what to do but they owed their jobs and all their stature to Bob Denver. Don isn't quite the joke Gilligan was, although, to read some critics you might think he is, but he's never as central to the fictional plot as he is to the real life one. In fiction, Jim Hobart has more power, in fact, Jon Hamm is listed as the show's producer.

And it's not just a show about a man, it's a show about men and no amount of feminist subplots will change that. This show is called Mad Men and the "men" in that title is important.

The most important scene in this  episode is the one where the researcher talks about the average beer drinker.
He lives in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio. Some call it the heartland, some call it the beer belt. He has some college, makes a good living, but it doesn't feel like it because he works long hours. He has a lawnmower, wants a hammock, a bunch of power tools in the garage that he never uses. He loves sports because he used to play 'em. He loves dogs because they don't talk.  
We all know this man man; because there are millions of them. And he drinks beer.
Not just any beer, it has to be his brand. What is his brand? The one he drank in college? The one his dad drank? The one that comes in the best bottle? Can? Tap? It doesn't matter because that's it and its not open for discussion. 
Now you all know that's not true. But how do you get him to open his mind. Better have something more. Or, in this case, less. 
And that's tricky. When we talk about a low-calorie beer, we immediately become feminine. It's the word "calorie". It makes you think of a reducing plan. Or a note on the fridge to remind her about her diet.
That should take you right back to the pilot. The challenge selling beer is the same one Don had selling cigarettes. There's a health concern that is far less serious but health isn't really important. What's important is identity. What kind of man reads Playboy? or smokes this cigarette or drinks that beer?

We don't actually care about the magazine, the cigarette or the beer but we care a whole lot about the man. The whole series has been about a crisis of manhood from the very first moment. Yes, Peggy and Joan have their struggles but we know how that one turns out even if they don't. The crisis of manhood is still with us today and no one knows how that one works out.

The word "tricky" in the Bob Phillips pitch should remind you of Don's description of the word  "delicate" in the nostalgia pitch in season one. One of the delicate esoteric messages in Mad Men is that men have lost something, suffered a wound. It's not going to be enough to simply say "new" and then pitch the product as the way to scratch that has thereby been created.  It's tricky because men have to be told how to settle for less in order that they can be more like women and start obsessing about weight loss and stuff.

Don, not surprisingly, walks out of that meeting. On the other hand, he later pretends to be Bob.

Let's sell some margarine

To get back to Gilligan, the real importance of the characters on the show was determined by their fictional relationship to Gilligan (Don). The Skipper (Roger) was the most important guy. Then the Professor (Pete). Then Mary Ann (Peggy).Then Ginger (Joan). Then Thurston Howell (Bert). The least important character was Lovey, who was just an adjunct to her husband and has no Mad Men equivalent. Her role on the show was to incite incidents.

The Thurston of Mad Men was Bert Cooper. He was only important to the drama because he had power in the form of money. That became less important as soon as the new agency was launched. Much like Thurston Howell, Bert's wealth is mostly an illusion. His real importance to Don is as a sort of father figure just as Thurston Howell is to Gilligan.

Did you know that there are people who write up elaborate sex fantasies based on the characters of Gilligan's Island?  There are. Google it. But, before you do, ask yourself this question: Who are the first two characters you'd match up sexually? It's obvious: the Professor and Mary Ann. And the equally obvious corollary is that Gilligan can't have sex with anyone. So Don can't have sex with Peggy or Joan. But Pete can. And did.

Who goes next? Everyone has to go by the way. My guess is that they go in the reverse of the order I've listed them. I predict Peggy goes next.

Most desirable assets

Can we take a moment to discuss the hard realities of business? As half owner of a company that provides creative services, let me tell you that owning a company like SC&P is an interesting prospect. If you own a farm, you have a bunch of land in play. You can do something with the land even if you never farm it again. It can, for example, become a subdivision. With a business services company, any business services company, there are no important physical assets. They lease their office space and nothing else they own has significant value. The only tangible asset a company like that has is accounts receivable. And that runs out after thirty days!

So why would a guy like Jim Hobart buy the company? Well, there are two kinds of assets he might consider: knowledge and relationships. Some companies own intellectual property. SC&P did not. That's nicely underlined by the discussion that Roger and Harry have about the computer. McCann Erickson has more than SC&P could have dreamt of.

There are other kinds of knowledge but they only exist between ears. You could buy a company for its human resources but those resources can quit, die, or lose their lustre. No star will be a star forever. Worse, there is the issue of chemistry. A person who plays brilliantly with one set of team mates, may not be able to perform with a new set. You can ensure that this knowledge doesn't go anywhere else by having everyone sign a non-compete contract but there is no way to know that they'll actually perform for you for certain ahead of time.

That leaves us relationships. You might buy a company like SC&P for their clients. That's done all the time just as Hobart tells us in this episode that he bought a company in Milwaukee in order to get Miller Beer. But that too is an intangible asset because those clients don't have to stay and they don't have to like the new owners.

There's another reason though. You might buy a company like SC&P in order to shut it down. In fact, anytime a company like SC&P gets bought, shutting it down is part of the motive. Remember, it has no tangible assets. If it stops being a farm and you have to auction everything off, the stuff that can actually be sold under the hammer has very little value and you cannot recoup your investment that way. But, even if nothing else pans out for you in this purchase, you have eliminated a competitor. New competitors spring up all the time but they can't have those intangible assets. You may not gain them for yourself but, at the very least, you are taking them off the table for everyone else.

Lost Horizon

And notice how that business objective lines up with the artistic one. Matt Weiner also has to shut down SC&P. And the challenge is that, in fiction, no one can actually leave the Island. You can show them leaving the Island, you can even show them landing on the dock back in Honolulu but they can't really go anywhere or be anywhere but the Island because the show is set on the Island, or Cheers bar or the office or ... . Mad Men was set at the office.

Christians always insist that a real church is not the building but a group of people but that's not really true. The people need a building they can go into to define them as a group. If the church burns down or has to be sold to pay the debts, the future existence of the people as a group is in doubt.

Christians believe in Jesus. We believe that he is is vine. No, I'm not going to evangelize you. This is a purely sociological point, for the purposes of this post anyway. We believe that both the church as building/Island and the church as people/the cast of castaways exist from him and through him and for him (Romans 11:16). You don't have to believe that. You can believe it's all cosmic fluke if you want. But every narrative has a creator and a teleology. And every narrative has an implied parallel to life. Try as you might, you cannot create a narrative without a teleology. Seinfeld wasn't really about nothing, it only pretended to be. Louie isn't any different.

Diana Bauer's ex-husband offers Jesus to Don. Don isn't down for that. But what? The Diana dream is complete deflated now. Maybe you don't like the Jesus answer, and that's fine, but is there any alternative besides the absurdist one? For Don Draper I mean? I've promised to leave you out of it.

There's lot's of scope for the absurdist or nihilist ending.

Don picked up a hitchhiker. Was he a killer on the road like the man in Riders on the Storm, release date one year away (June 1971). Don has gotten into trouble with hitchhikers before. Or was Ferg's imitation of Nixon an intimation that scandal will undo him (Watergate break was September 1971). He compared himself to Nixon in the first season. Or there is, my favourite, the hobo ending where Don just drifts off to wander.

The thing is that they all make sense. If we think of Don not as a villain but as a representative of a certain kind of manhood, a certain kind of self-made man, the end is nigh. At this point, does it really matter what the exact machinery of his end is? At the end of Season 5, Don walks off one fictional set and right into another. That can't happen this time. The thing about absurdist endings is that, no matter how hard the critics try to pretend otherwise, they always feel like a cheat.

Is there any important point for Matt Weiner to make with the ending?  If there is, it has to be about Don. And he hasn't set anything up with regard to Don.

Except maybe this: Jim Hobart wants Don to bring everyone up a notch. And no matter what the man Don haters say, that has been the impact his type has in the larger culture. This throwback, this creature of nostalgia offers us a connection with an ideal of manhood that goes right back to the Greeks. How do we end his story? Do we simply write him off as so many critics want to? Or do we make something of him? And, once you know that, how much does it matter to you what Matt Weiner wants to make of him?

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