Thursday, June 27, 2013

Imitatio Project: Some preliminaries

I'll start with a couple of quotes. First BobinCT commented yesterday:
I think that part of the ambivalence that people feel about Draper is that he himself is ambivalent. He really is trying to be Don Draper, but you never get the sense that he ever thinks he has succeeded. This goes back to Season 1 when he goes out to pick up the birthday cake and doesn't come home until hours later with a dog no less. Aside from the office,and even there increasingly, he always seems to be at loose ends. He's done the family things--holidays, birthdays, funerals--because that's what was expected of him. He thinks he wants to be Don Draper, but why? Why is being Draper so much better than being Whitman? He never fully answers that question for himself in his own mind. The irony is that his core, that which enables him to set himself apart from others, is pure Dick Whitman, from whom he tries to escape. From what we've seen in the flashbacks, Dick Whitman was a good kid, who suffered at the hands of bad parents. But he didn't become like them, something in him enabled him to rise above that.
And then something I said about Don Draper back in 2011:
Well, let me tell you about an argument I had with an English professor back in university. We were reading Lucky Jim and I was defending an unsympathetic character from that novel named Margaret Poole. After class the professor approached me and said, "How can you like her, she is a psychotic, neurasthenic b____?" And I said, "Yes she is but she is because Kingsley Amis made her that way and I think he was cheating." 
Yes, Dick Whitman never seems to succeed fully at being Don Draper but is that because the trick can't be done or is it because the show's creators won't allow it? This is an argument I've been having with myself about the show for a long, long time. I'd put it this way: Is Don Draper greater than the people who created him? Can we read this text in ways that the people who created it never intended but that is truer than their intentions?

The key to such a reading, as I've said many times before, is Roger Sterling. He is a type of character who is instantly recognizable because he represents an entire moral tradition.
There is a type of dramatic tradition—Japanese Noh plays and English medieval morality plays are examples—which possess a set of stock characters immediately recognizable to the audience. Such characters partly define the possibilities of plot and action. To understand them is to be provided with a means of interpreting the behaviours of the actors who play them, just because a similar understanding a similar understanding informs the intentions of the actors themselves; and other actors may define their may define their parts with special reference to these central characters. (After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre p. 27)
From the moment Roger Sterling walks into a scene in any of the first four seasons, we know where we are. Watch any episode and you will see what I mean. In the pilot, for example, Don Draper's character is drawn out for us in a few short brush strokes when Roger walks into his office and banters with him about the big meeting coming that day. We've been watching Don for a whole 10 minutes at that point and we still don't have any sort of grip on him. It's how he responds to Roger that makes him come alive.

And from that moment we are captivated.

The funny thing is I don't think Matt Weiner had a clue what he'd done in creating Roger Sterling. The evidence for this is that he wasn't a full member of the cast for the whole first season. I think they even planned to write him out of the show with his two heart attacks that season. But they didn't and all you need to do to understand why is to watch that first season—almost every scene with Roger sparkles. Weiner knew he had to have Roger, that's the thing about a stock character, everyone knows they are needed. What Weiner didn't see was just how incredibly important that character was.

A lot of the credit for this lies with John Slattery and he saw it because he wanted to keep working. What he saw was that a certain kind of moral limitation also gives a certain kind of moral freedom. Whereas everyone else (with the possible exception of Joan Holloway) had to be played with a certain ambiguity, Roger can be direct in a way that others cannot be. As a stock figure in a morality play (and Mad Men is very much a morality play) he is expected to have all sorts of scruples in his public presentation but no actual morality. Like Captain Renaud in Casablanca, that allows  Slattery to glory in a certain kind of rakish tendency: "When God closes a door, he often opens a dress."

Now the reason MacIntyre is interested in these characters don't just exist in fiction, they are essential to certain moral ways of life too.
So it is also with certain kinds of social role specific to certain particular cultures. They furnish recognizable characters and the ability to recognize them is socially crucial because a knowledge of the character provides an interpretation of the actions of those individuals who have assumed the character. It does so precisely because those individuals have used the very same knowledge to guide and to structure their behaviour. Characters specified thus must not be be confused with social roles in general. For they are a very special type of social role which places a certain kind of moral constraint on the personality of those who inhabit them in a way which many other social roles do not. (MacIntyre ibid.)
To get what MacIntyre is getting at here, think of teachers and police officers. These people fall in love and lust just like the rest of us but they can't do so when they are in character. It's not that they will be punished for doing so, though they may well be, but that they will stop seeming credible as police officers or teachers if they do this on the job.

There are many good examples of this in the first season. For example, in the episode which Right Guard is introducing aerosol antiperspirant, the junior executives start horsing around in Don's office. He encourages them almost as if he is one of them but he doesn't join in. He can't.

Why not? Because he wants to be like Roger, a point that is emphasized when Roger shows up a few moments later and he and Don go outside to discuss the Nixon campaign with Bert. We can see that the guys in the office continue with their horseplay but these two have to be different because they are under moral constraints that others aren't. Again, it's not the fear of punishment that is the constraint. The junior executives have, if anything, more reason to fear Bert Cooper's wrath than Roger and Don do. No, the difference is that if they join in others will stop seeing them as really being the characters they are. They can't take off their Noh-masks.

Now I could go on and on about this, and I will over the summer, but the important thing to grasp is that Roger Sterling is a sort of replacement father figure for Don. He is a certain kind of father figure that our culture rejects and I'll fill begin to him in a bit on Monday. 

1 comment:

  1. Well Roger is the grown-up, that's what it boils down to, and Don wants to be like him. But Don is also at a stage within the company where it would be unseemly for him to horse around with the junior execs, he wouldn't command the same degree of respect. Its interesting you mention teachers and police officers, that's why schools have (or used to have) "Teachers Rooms" which were off-limits to students. There teachers could take off their shoes, relax between classes or at lunch time, have a cigarette, and not fear any students seeing them. Yes, they played a social role but also a moral role as well, they represented something important and good that they were expected to project at all times in public. Back in the day if one were to run into a teacher shopping or at a restaurant, they still maintained the same decorum they demonstrated in the classroom, it was expected that they do that.

    "Yes, Dick Whitman never seems to succeed fully at being Don Draper but is that because the trick can't be done or is it because the show's creators won't allow it?"

    I don't know the answer to that question. Obviously this is fiction, and the creators have a certain vision of where they want Whitman/Draper to go. But maybe their point of view is something very simple, that at the end of the day what Whitman was trying to acquire outside of himself for so long was in fact within him all along. His core values are his core values, not those of the invented Don Draper.