Monday, May 11, 2015

Mad Men: The Milk and Honey Route

First thought: "Oh my God, they're killing Betty. Those bastards."

And then I giggled. Not because it's funny that someone, even a fictional character, should die but because it was so perfect. It's like the writers read all the Don haters and saw how many of them wanted Don to die of lung cancer and thought, "We'll show them!"

Second thought: "I want Pete to be happy. He's a good man."

He's not a perfect man but he's more like most of us than his many haters realize. He's certainly a better man than Ken. I really hope this all works out for him.

Third thought: "There hasn't been a bad episode all (half) season."

This is, touch wood because there is one show to go, the best television there ever has been. There have been off moments. The scene in Lost Horizon when Don starts rubbing Betty's shoulders was Joe Biden creepy. And the Glen Bishop send off rang false from end to end and side to side. But that is small stuff. This is brilliant story telling and I don't know that we'll ever see anything on television this good again.

Fourth thought: "Get Back".

Is it just a coincidence that the characters come together in 1960 and the show is winding up in late 1970? That's exactly the life of the Beatles. I wouldn't want to make too much of this but it's like Matt Weiner took the boomers favourite mythology and remade it with the very sort of people whom boomers feel most superior to in the lead roles. It's as if he were saying, forget John, Paul, George and Ringo, here are the people who really made the sixties. (And they were!)

There is a perverse genius in all this. It's the truth hidden in plain sight. I've said so many times before and I'll say it again now: everything you've been told about the sixties is a bunch of self-serving lies told by boomers. Mad Men is, while fiction, a useful corrective to the mythology. The primary force behind 1960s culture was always corporate.

Ante-penultimate thought: "Don has made peace with himself."

The kid who thinks he knows how to work a con has no idea where Don's advice and generosity comes from but we do.

Penultimate thought. One of the rules a show like this cannot break is to have a plot point that requires anyone to rewrite all the history books. I take that from the Bugs Bunny episode "Hare We Go." Bugs and Christopher Columbus cross the Atlantic and they have a dispute about how discovers America. Bugs gives in because, well, it's stupid to explain this because everyone has seen it. But it's a good rule for writing historical fiction: nothing a character does, whether fictional or a real historical figure, can require the audience to rewrite history.

That's the real reason why Joan can't stage a feminist sit in at the offices of McCann Erickson: if she had, there would have been a story in Time and a photo spread in Life. It's also why Don can't be exposed as a deserter: a big ad executive being arrested as a military deserter would have been a national story in 1970. There is no Dick Whitman arrest story from 1970 so the show cannot go there. (It could, of course, but they'd pay a huge price for it.)

Really, the final thought: The wild days of the advertising industry are over but the wild days of the computer industry are just about to begin. In California! And it involves a level of con artistry that makes Don Draper seem like authenticity itself by comparison. It's like Don is travelling west so he can hand the baton over to the next runner in the relay.


  1. I've never really come to like Pete fully, he's never lost that smarmy feel... though I was rooting for him too.

    1. I agree that he was smarmy and I have a theory about guys like him get that way I'll be sharing in the future.

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  2. I understand your positive take but I also wouldn't have been surprised if you'd had a negative take on this episode, and there were quite a few moments that seemed all-too-fitting--playing to the exoteric meaning of Mad Men, i.e. why the 60s had to happen. The lung cancer seems to be the perfect apogee for all the isn't-smoking-terrible overtones of the first few seasons; Betty's will seems to be an almost ridiculous distillation of her vainest facets (I kind of like Betty when she is calm and collected and well coiffed); they brought back the Don-in-Korea/Don's Big Lie plotline; Pete's interlocutor in the conversation about chasing women seemed designed to highlight the offensive attitudes of men of the past, etc.

    One more comment, I really do like Trudy. Alison Brie plays a very different character in the show Community (a very silly comedy that is almost always extremely clever) and maybe it is this contrast that makes me appreciate Trudy's maturity and poise...

    1. Yes. The great danger of reading anything for esoteric meaning is that you could be projecting things into it that aren't really there because, barring a confession from the author, there is no authority outside the text you can appeal to. There are also all sorts of cases, the 1980s hit "Every Breath You Take", for example, where people clearly prefer the "wrong" interpretation of a text even after the author attempts to set them straight. And, to some extent, if they really do prefer it, why shouldn't they have what they want?

      At this point, I should turn the microscope around and subject myself to the same sort of scrutiny. Am I just reading what I want to see into Mad Men? It's entirely possible that I am. But I'm absolutely certain of two things:

      1. This is a show about nostalgia and to mercilessly shred Don, who embodies teh show's nostalgia, in the final episode would be to betray itself.
      2. While the internal logic of the show suggests that Don must now disappear into the mists of time, the external effect of the show on the larger culture has been to show that he represents a kind of manhood our era craves and that will remain very much alive after the show ends and everyone stops talking about Mad Men and Don Draper.

    2. PS: I like Trudy too but I wouldn't want to marry her.