Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Quality of Mercy metacommentary

This week it's Seth Stevenson's chance to be slow coming up with the commentary at Slate. This year's batch are a major letdown compared to the crew who did it last year. They are dour, unhappy and decidedly preachy. And they are lazy about getting their work done.

Typical of the shoddy work journalists do. On the other hand, last year's crew were pretty good.

Anyway, let's start with Paul Ford.
Kenny wanting off of Chevy means that Pete sees a way onto the account. He wants to schmooze in Detroit, but is informed that he’ll be working with Bob Benson, whom Pete is convinced made a pass at him.
Pete is "convinced" that Bob made a pass at him?  I think he's pretty sure don't you? I mean everybody watching now thinks that Bob Benson is gay and how the hell would we know that unless he actually had made a pass at Pete?

The other thing we know is that Paul Ford could be Miss Utah if he was just a little bit smarter.

He is gentle on his co-conspirators, however.
Hanna, you pointed out that Bob makes a perfect Nick Carraway, but here his story is exactly Jay Gatsby’s—signing up to see the world on Dan Cody’s yacht, and transforming himself from Gatz to Gatsby by pluck and criminality. 
In other words, Hanna, you got that one completely wrong because you were too busy projecting your  smug moral views on the show to pay attention to what was going on. I mean, how much effort does it take to see a movie that is being heavily promoted everywhere you turn as the thing that explains life. Is Hanna going to start seeing everything next week in terms of Superman?

But Paul then makes it too easy for Hanna to turn around and gently make him look like an idiot by saying the following:
There’s been a lot of this sort of Bob/Pete detente this season. (Anyone have any thoughts as to the title, “The Quality of Mercy”? Is it about Pete and Bob? Is Pete the Shylock of Mad Men?) Don and Ted agreed to collaborate; Don and Sally found some sort of compromise through a closed door. If you can’t love one another you can agree not to hurt one another. 
Do tell me, if you can think of a reason, how Pete could be Shylock? Did he make a deal and is now insisting on driving it through no matter what the cost? Did he ... never mind we all know that Paul Ford wasn't really paying attention the day his Shakespeare prof went over this one.

Hanna, on the other hand, was paying attention, to both the play and the to the politically correct moral lesson she was supposed to draw from it in order to get a good mark.
It comes of course from Portia’s speech in Merchant of Venice in which she tries to convince Shylock that he should not in fact extract his due pound of flesh from her friend Antonio, that the more noble, and, in fact, the more powerful thing to do would be to have mercy. It is a beautiful compassionate Christian speech that can move you in the moment—but it’s also utterly cynical. Portia is playing Shylock for a fool; she and the whole wealthy, spoiled Venetian society that is the 16th-century version of Madison Avenue has treated Shylock with nothing but contempt and made it clear that he is beneath their Christian values. Plus Portia is about to use some clever legal maneuvering to cheat Shylock out of his rightful pound of flesh anyway. Mercy in this case is a power play; it is entirely situational and does not arise naturally from a pure heart. 
Well, Portia is playing Shylock for a fool but that's an easy thing for her to do for Shylock is a fool.  Yes, Shylock and other Jews were horribly treated in Venice and, yes, they couldn't catch a fair deal from Venetian society which considered Jews (even the ones who tried to convert) as beneath their Christian values. And, yes, Portia is motivated to save Antonio in no small part because she wants to marry him and live the rich, comfortable life she feels she is entitled to. And, yes, Antonio's greed has led him to enter a stupid contract that puts his life at risk. But that doesn't change the basic fact that Shylock has conspired to use the law of contract to kill Antonio. Shylock knows full well that Antonio will die when he removes his pound of flesh.
Thus her speech and it's a good one:
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes
The point here is that mercy costs you nothing. You gain from giving it as well as the person to whom you grant mercy. The point is not, as these people seem so fond of doing, that you draw parallels between the characters of Mad Men or whatever classic happens to pass under your nose this week. Everything you need to know is that quote itself. (Which doesn't mean you have to take it as Gospel. You don't have to go very far in life to find people who will accept your mercy and then turn around and stab you in the back. There are some of them in Shakespeare even.)

Of course, if you did want to be purely utilitarian about it, you might well draw a very cynical lesson about how you can exploit people to your advantage from that. And it's worth recalling what Bert Cooper says to Don by way of encouraging him to show a little mercy to Pete in season one right after Pete's attempt to expose Don backfires.
Don, fire him if you want. But I'd keep an eye on him. One never knows how loyalty is born. 
Bert, of course, understands full well that it is in Don that loyalty is being birthed at this moment and he will later use the demands of that loyalty to his advantage. Pete was like Shylock in the first season and he isn't anymore.Thus, the quality of mercy for mercy is not charity.

Tom and Lorenzo, as usual, do much better at understanding the episode and I won't do much more than refer you to their site so you can read it all. They do, however, begin by talking about what a great episode it was and I'm not at all sure about that. In previous seasons, Matt Weiner have dished out at least or six episodes of this quality every season. This year, they have given us one good and one acceptable episode and a lot of trash. And next week is the big finale.

The big question is why the show has gotten to be this lame. I think it's because they have so brutally undercut Roger and Don who were the heart and soul, respectively, of the show. You can hate them if you want, and I know lots of people do, but there was no denying the efficiency of these men. They were good, very good, at getting things done. That has changed with no good reason.

Imagine a fairytale in which a castle is guarded by two mean and very big ogres. Along comes a skinny little prince who wants to get in. He can't because the two ogres are bigger and stronger than he is. It's a fairytale so we know the little prince will succeed but don't know how. Here's the thing, there isn't a four-year-old child in the land who would be satisfied by a story that would solve the problem by having the big mean ogres suddenly turn into a couple of ineffectual losers with no explanation.

The point is this: even if you think of guys like Roger and Don as dinosaurs who had to be cleared out of the way in order for the new world to be born, you still have to take them seriously as guys whom the clearing away of would be serious, hard work and the show is cheating on that point.


  1. "The point is this: even if you think of guys like Roger and Don as dinosaurs who had to be cleared out of the way in order for the new world to be born, you still have to take them seriously as guys whom the clearing away of would be serious, hard work and the show is cheating on that point."

    Yes, that's right. The show makes it seem that the old garde stepped aside graciously and let the young ones take over, and that isn't at all how it happened. Here again, the writers didn't live through that period, their perspective is what they've read about it.

    I've been reading Tom and Lorenzo the past few weeks, I'm not as impressed with them as you are. They seem to see everything through a "gay" lens, and that gets tedious. Also on that note, there's virtual silence on some of the blogs about Benson turning out to be a con artist. I give Weiner credit for showing a gay person in a less than favorable light, its so un-PC, takes balls.

    1. Yes, Tom and Lorenzo do see everything through a gay lens. Ironically, they are at their worst when it comes to analyzing gay characters. But they do have a reasonable understanding of how storytelling works and that puts them head and shoulders about the competition.

  2. "Ironically, they are at their worst when it comes to analyzing gay characters."

    Yes, absolutely. They don't seem to be objective, maybe because they don't feel they can deviate from the PC script.

    1. Perhaps, but the three heterosexuals over at Slate are even more afraid of deviating from the PC script. I think what led Tom & Lorenzo to write that long and embarrassing analysis of Bob Benson's character after he was revealed as gay was that they presented themselves as experts on "gayness" simply because they are gay.

      It's an odd thing because no heterosexual man would dream of claiming to know what the heterosexual-male experience is like based on his own life, and he wouldn't do that for reasons that ought to be obvious,and yet gays, blacks. Hispanics and women are all encouraged to talk about the experience of being part of one of these groups as if they could generalize from their own life. It's a way of thinking that is pretty much guaranteed to reinforce stereotypes and yet it is encouraged by people who claim to be offering liberation.

    2. You're right, and I've never understood that either. I think that--and this relates to your post above about women--the "gay" narrative--or black, hispanic, feminist--is written by the most radical and extreme elements in those groups. Its not based on reality or what is, but rather on what they--the liberal elites who are part of one of those groups--feel should be, and it might not even be based on their own experience. They all believe that everything is socially constructed, so its not a stretch to believe that if you describe women or gays, blacks, hispanics a certain way it will stick and the people in those groups will begin to act that way. When they don't begin to act that way they're dismissed.

  3. Two additional points, the PC script never changes, even when people don't act in conformity with it. Those who don't act in conformity to it are condemned as traitors to the cause. I have a gay friend who has been accused by other gay men of being "not gay enough" and "trying to act straight," just because he looks and acts like a normal person, isnt flamboyant, plays sports, etc etc. I've known this man since childhood and I can tell you his affect and demeanor are not an act, its the real him. My 2nd point is that today the PC script has been accepted by the intelligentsia (I use the term loosely) because they've been persuaded that it really is a reflection of the experience of these oppressed minorities, so if they say anything contrary to it they're homophobic, mysoginist, racist, etc etc..