Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Mad Men: The Monolith

I didn't like this episode at all. Not because of any particular parts of it, although it was very bad in parts. It was also very good in parts. (It was the best of episodes, it was the worst of episodes. Ha ha.)

It bothered me most because, like the lawnmower episode (the worst episode ever) it achieves nothing over all even though there are some nice moments scattered here and there. There is nothing important about Don in this episode that wasn't already done, and done better, in previous episodes. And some of what it fleshes out is stuff that shouldn't have been done at all.

Well, as is my wont, I'll start with what was good.

Women behaving badly and ineffectually

I've written before that the female characters in the story sometimes suffer from being written off of a feminist template. They are either victims of men or brave trailblazers. As a consequence, it's wonderful when a female character is allowed to just be weird, difficult, irrational, stupid about sex, or just a bitch.

We get lots of scenes of men being irrational, violent, dangerous, stupid about sex or just selfish pricks. Too often, the show is scared to go there with women. So it was wonderful this show to see Margaret/Marigold being a narcissistic jerk and to see Peggy and Mona both being ineffectual bitches.

We'll start withy Mona. Her interaction with Marigold echoes the conversation between Betty and Francine. Mona, like Betty, argues that Marigold should return to being Margaret and find her identity as the mother of her son. The thing is that this isn't completely crazy. You can, and should, argue that women shouldn't have their identities strait jacketed but it's also clear that a mother shouldn't abandon her child to go out and find herself. But it is also more complicated than that.

What makes it more complicated is that both Betty and Mona are lousy parents. Much of the commentary on this episode has focused on Roger's failings as father, and rightly so, but Mona is much, much worse just as Betty is much, much worse than Don. And the eldest daughters of both families show this. No matter how crazy Marigold/Margaret is, she knows to go to her father.

Consider, for example, the conversation about consensus-based decision making on the porch while peeling potatoes. Roger cuts right through the bullshit: "Believe me, there's always a hierarchy." He knows, he understands. Mona doesn't have a clue. She gets dismissed early on. Marigold/Margaret's comment about hiding in the bathroom with a pint of gin hits the target so accurately that Mona is done after that.

Marigold/Margaret is a minor character and need not actually develop. Maybe she will and that might be good but nobody will feel cheated if we never see her again. What we have seen here is entirely convincing and we don't need anymore. (she might recover by the way. I have a very close relative who made the same sorts of choices and actually managed to put her life together afterwards. You couldn't call her current life a success but it is a success that she prevented it from becoming a complete disaster.

Finally, there is Peggy. Poor Julia Turner gets her little fascist feminist panties all knotted up about this and it's easy to see why. But, if we, unlike Julia, don't feel the need to see everything in terms of feminist categories, the way this episode works out for Peggy is entirely convincing. She's trying to play the role but she keeps chickening out and it is cowardice that makes her come across as such a bitch and not her attempts to be assertive. (This is true of men as well, as I've said before.)

She tries to knock on Don's door after the meeting with Lou but chickens out. When Don doesn't do the work, she can't bring herself to confront him. By the time she's ready to confront him, way too late, Don has already worked through his problems himself and there is nothing for her to do.

When Joan pops by her office (with a really great Raquel Welch vibe going by the way) she mentions cowardice and Peggy says, "Mine or theirs?" She gets it.

Men behaving badly and being ineffectual getting away with it

As to Don's story, we could moan about the fact that nothing about it rings true but the better question is why this utterly false narrative ever got onto television. On the inside short that came with this episode, Matt Weiner opines that while people who do bad things so too people who are self-destructive do little things to save them. The designed-to-fail suicide attempts of Sylvia Plath and many others are a good example of this. And that rings true. Don calls Freddie who can save him while in the middle of his drinking binge. Okay, but why can't Freddie masterfully save him. He could sweep in and save the day and the story would have been much more believable. Instead we get what should have been a disaster as Don immediately sets about screwing up and he should get caught. That he doesn't is utterly unbelievable.

The problem, of course, is that the men cannot be seen to actually be masterful because that would undermine the feminist categories that were used to frame this episode. Ironically, the feminist categories didn't make the women seem false but did do it to the me. nNever mind that both Don and Roger have been convincingly masterful over and over again through the series. Now they are ineffectual losers because ... well... because.

In any case, Don can screw up and can do so in over-the-top ways and still come out okay and who cares that it isn't believable on either end. The scene where Don throws his typewriter at the window, for example, rings completely false. So does his drinking in the office. He has a fortune on the line here. If he wanted to get drunk, he'd go to a bar or home to do it.

The story with Roger is a decent attempt to show how men like Roger failed as fathers. It fails because there is a false equivalence at the heart of it. Roger wasn't there for Margaret as a teenager. She is abandoning her son and husband when her boy is still a child. We have to judge her more harshly. When Roger walks away from the commune in his muddy suit we may not sympathize but we do empathize.

As a consequence, it plays as a personal growth moment. Roger doesn't so much see his failure as a father as he sees the emptiness of the life he is leading. It would be entirely convincing, and quite a beautiful story, if he ended up raising his own grandson himself and did it well.

My final question is this: Did the Don scenes in this episode even have to be made? Is there anything about his development we know now that we didn't already know at the end of last episode? Actually, it's worse than that. The episode made his already implausible choices seem even more so.

Stray Bullets

  • Damn, Marigold made me hot. I had a bout 9,000 wet dreams about Natalie Merchant back in the 1980s and I relived every one of them watching Elizabeth Rice with her wild hair and in her flower child get ups this episode.
  • On that subject, the move from New York preppy girl to flower child is practically a cliché (there is even a section in The Official Preppy Handbook on this motif). But it's redeemed by it's being the truth. The kids protesting the Vietnam war and the ones in the crowd at Woodstock were mostly from elite eastern colleges.
  • Someone else doing recaps speaks of the show's 1960s moments. These are moments that focus on little 1960s ticks. It can be done well. The bit in the first episode this season when Megan has to reach up and turn the light out before sex is a good example. Who knows why that was always required but it was. Most of the time, however, it fails. Marigold was wonderful but the other hippies were just pathetic.
  • One of the shows worst habits is sticking the writers' thoughts into the mouths of characters. We get a good example this episode when Lloyd says that the computer is "a metaphor for whatever is on people's minds." Well, that is obviously what is going on in the way it is used in this episode and it is also what was going on in 2001, A Space Odyssey, but no computer geek would talk that way except to be dismissive.
  • One of the real joys of this season is seeing Pete thriving as he does. The best part is that he has found happiness without ceasing to be Pete. I find myself rooting for him and that has me worried because who knows what humiliations Weiner might have in store for the guy.

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