Monday, May 27, 2013

Mad Men: The Better half

I thought the key quote of the episode was something Megan said:
I keep trying to make things like they used to be but I don't know how.
Anyone who has ever been in a marriage (or other long-term sexual relationship) will understand that sentiment. There was an odd kind of magic when you didn't know one another quite so well as you do now. Part of this was the sexual mystique that a partial stranger has and the sense that every knew encounter could teach you something new about you and them. And part of it had to do with  the fact that you both used to try harder. Now both know how to shut down the other with little passive-aggressive tricks any time they start something that requires a reciprocal effort from you. And you use those passive aggressive tricks not because you no longer fear losing them but because you no longer want to try as hard as you used to.

What do I mean? Well, lets look at Don and Betty in this episode. It will be interesting to see how the other commentary runs because you could use some dime-store Freudian analysis to diminish either  either to a nothing. Don cannot connect sex with intimacy. Betty on the other hand, needs attention from men other than the one she is married to to get her batteries charged (and Henry has a latent cuckold fantasy in that he gets his charged by seeing her pursued by other men). My prediction is that most of the other armchair analysis of the show will consist of people picking the person they least like and crap on them from great height for their shallowness. But all three are equally shallow—or all three are equally deep if you prefer that option.

And so to are Megan, Pete, Joan, Roger and Peggy. They are all have mixed feelings for the man that used to be. The women are looking for it in their partners and the men are looking for it in themselves but neither knows how to make that happen any more the way they live now.

Here is a bit of grand theory of Mad Men. Don Draper is an heroic ideal of manhood. I know, but he's a "fraud who is living a lie"  and all the other bullshit that sensitive modern guys aren't supposed to be opposed to but, and this is the important thing, all men and all women find him more interesting that modern sensitive men. Fake or not, Don actually has an identity that is the sum total of what he does. He is what he does. And he is mysterious because his identity (his primary identity) is the sort of secret alter ego that all the wimpy little hipsters who watch the show dream of having. (Yes, I appreciate that that might be applied to me as well.)

But every man alive knows that Don Draper isn't just mythology no matter what they taught him at college. We know this because we all knew men like him. In my case, it was my godfather who rose from a family of dirt poor famine Irish to considerable success in business. Along the way he ditched his "authentic" poor Irish wore identity and killer suits with fedoras, drove luxury cars with leather seats, was a member of an exclusive salmon-fishing club with rights to some of the best salmon water in North America and ... well, it's hard to tell how much else because the man was a bit of an enigma.

That male past was real and it was compelling ane, let's be blunt, erotic in a way that current men are not.

And this episode seemed to me to be about that. Everyone seemed torn between examples of that old masculine ideal and some newer, less exotic but supposedly more dependable type.

Having trashed the show a lot this year, I thought they did one thing very well this episode. That is they started to use nostalgia within the show itself. When we all started watching this, Mad Men was about our nostalgia. Critics claimed it was a past that never existed but we know that's beside the point: any past, real or fictional will no longer exist precisely because it is past. But the show has been on the air long enough now that the characters' nostalgia for their own past is becoming a factor. Thus we have Megan wanting to make things like they used to be.

The point of any nostalgia worth the name is not the accuracy with which it portrays the past that it is nostalgic about. What matters is the sense of loss that we feel right now. That's what it has to get right.

A final brilliant touch was the visit to Bobby's camp. That knotty pine paneling, the dining hall, the picture windows with the lake in the distance, even the country gas station where Don and Betty run into one another on the way. All these things touch some chord with anyone who ever went to camp.

Perhaps more importantly, they also touch a chord with anyone who didn't go to camp but who once visited or even just saw pictures of some classic old camp and wished that had been part of their past.

I have one major problem though.  As I've said many times before, the show moves too quickly to actual sex. In real life, Betty and Don most likely would not end up in that cabin together. All the same sexual tensions would exist between them but it's rarely that easy to end up having sex with someone. It hardly ever happens in fact. Most people might have an experience where sex happens that easily maybe once in a lifetime.

In real life when two people who used to be lovers get together, they go through the same sort of exchange Don and Betty have here without any actual sex. It would have been better drama and more honest drama if they had talked and talked with all sorts of sexual tension and then one morning Don had woken up and gone to talk with Betty over breakfast again only to find Henry sitting with her.

And that would have opened other moral possibilities as well for we all have these sorts of sexually charged encounters that go nowhere in real life and they are useful things to us. In the show they can't be precisely because the show treats actual sex too lightly.

PS: I thought the episode did a nice bit of teasing it's critics. That portrayal of Abe this season was like saying "this is what you really look like to other people" to the people who write at Slate or The AV Club.


  1. I still maintain that Draper is the anti-hero. He's still Dick Whitman, his new "identity" is a shell, there's nothing beneath the surface, all style no substance, which is why he's so lost. He's got all the outward trappings but not the invward experiences and memories of the person he wants to be. Like it or not, his memories and past experiences are Dick Whitman's, which make him ashamed and sad, hence the flashbacks. Your godfather might have gone from dirt poor Irish to upper class with all the outward trappings, but his past was his past, and I would venture to say he owned it, didn't try to pretend it hadn't happened. That's Draper's problem, he doesn't realize that you can change the outward trappings but you can't change your past. You have to embrace it, integrate it, and move on. A good example of that last night was his comment to Betty about never having gone to summer camp. The person Draper wants to be would have gone to summer camp, of course Dick Whitman didn't so that's not part of his experience or memories.

    1. I think the illusion is to think that there is something beneath the surface. All any of us is is what we are on the surface. There is no inner self, no real being. You become the part you act.

      PS: The episode does some cute stuff in this regard by putting Megan into a blonde wig and telling her to be a different person. She fails.

      I like Don because he succeeds.

  2. Succeeds? At what? Relationships? And its not illusion to think that there's something beneath the surface, as a Catholic you know better than that. There's always something beneath the surface, how we act is a reflection of what's inside, of which our past experiences are a major part. That's what life is all about, growing and learning from our experiences. That doesn't mean pretending they didn't happen, which is what Draper is trying to do. What he's created for himself is a facade of a person. If he was unhappy with who he was inside, he could have changed that, and that change would have been reflected on the outside. He did it ass backwards.
    I think the one thing we learned last night, if anyone had any doubts, was that Betty made the right decision in marrying Henry Francis. He's normal, Draper is not.

    1. We can tell he succeeds because several million people watch the show each week and he's the reason. No other character is compelling and interesting enough to draw that audience. That's success.

      No, there is no real you under the skin. How we act is a reflection of who we are but how we act also makes us who we are. There isn't any "real you" inside who determines who you are.

  3. You're confusing a character's success as a person/character with an actor's (and writers') success in putting together a TV program. A program about Charles Manson presumably could attract viewers every week if it was done right. Just look at the last program Weiner was involved in, The Sopranos.

    I think the real question is what kind of person does Draper want to be, and I don't think even he knows the answer to that. The problem is that once you get past the trappings there's nothing there.

    1. Just thinking, maybe that's the point Weiner is trying to make. People who spend all their time and energy trying to achieve the outward trappings of success to the neglect of their interior lives and personal relationships wind up with nothing in the end. We shall see.

    2. A show about Charles Manson might well attract viewers but it wouldn't also inspire Men's magazines to write articles about how to get Manson's style. People watch the show because they admire Draper, a fact that drives a lot of critics crazy.

      "People who spend all their time and energy trying to achieve the outward trappings of success to the neglect of their interior lives and personal relationships wind up with nothing in the end." That strikes me as the sort of thing that terribly romantic girls who dot every "i" with a little heart and have posters of puppies on their wall might believe.

      Remember that Draper is relatively uninterested in money or even status. He is a man who is, or at least who has been up until this season, a man driven by a desire to be a certain sort of man. My big fear this season is that Matt Weiner is going to turn around all that brilliance so he can slip in some shallow bromide about "the outward trappings of success" in the end. That would be a real disappointment.

      You mention the Sopranos, you no doubt remember the terrible cop out of the final episode.

  4. Yes, it ended not with a bang but a whimper. Nobody changed, life went on as it always had.

    I think there's something here you're not getting when you say that Draper isn't concerned with money. Of course he's concerned with money, money enables him to acquire all the outward trappings of success on which he bases his identity. He wants to be the type of man who wears a certain suit and drinks martinis, he never gets beyond that as though that's enough to define him. Maybe its enough to define him for people who only know him on a superficial level or from afar. But it just doesn't cut it when its up close and personal.

    You're right when you say that Men's magazine's wouldn't write article's about Manson's style, and that's the point. They aren't writing articles about Draper the Man, they're writing about Draper's style. Similarly, people don't watch the show because they admire Draper, they admire Draper's style. Certainly very shallow, but that's our world.

    "People who spend all their time and energy trying to achieve the outward trappings of success to the neglect of their interior lives and personal relationships wind up with nothing in the end." 'That strikes me as the sort of thing that terribly romantic girls who dot every "i" with a little heart and have posters of puppies on their wall might believe.'"

    Well, the Church teaches this too, and I think that's how most mature adults try to live their lives.

  5. Jules, I'm interested in your view, but as Bob says it seems like you're overreaching. I mean, sure, internal thoughts and memories, if they don't amount to any change in your behavior or who you are, would certainly be useless--that seems clear enough. But some of the stuff you say here seems to cut off the possibility of having a meaningful interior life at all. OK, if you are Achilles maybe this doesn't matter. But from a Christian point of view I think there are plenty of things like belief and repentance that are, in fact, basically interior...

    1. Yes, I have strong views on this.

      "Inner life" can mean a lot of things. There are things in the Bible that suggest interiority such as God telling Samuel not to be swayed by the outward appearance of David's older brothers because he, the LORD, looks at what is inside. We also get mentions of people who say one thing with their lips but mean another with their hearts. And, certainly, real repentance is one in which I am shaken to the core and not just making outward gestures that, however extravagant, mean little to me.

      Finally, and most importantly, there is the Augustinian notion of inner life that seems to derive from his observation of phenomena such as Ambrose being able to read without moving his lips (which was a very rare skill at the time). From this comes Augustine's very profound observation that we can live an interior life and that God, when he very generously touches us with his grace, may touch us inwardly just as easily as he might, for example, heal an outer wound.

      All that, however, seems to me to be very different from two other concepts of interiority that are at work. One of which is the psychologizing view that explains what we really are or are not in terms of some inner theatre full of forces. This often gets combined with a Stoic view that we have a sort of inner self that is free of all constraints that affect our outer being such that we always have moral freedom in the attitude that this inner self takes to the world even if the outer self is severely constrained by, for example, slavery. Combined, these two views have resulted in a sort of philosophical anthropology that says that the real me or real you is this inner being and that the outward self can be, to use Bob's word, a facade.

      I don't buy that.