Monday, May 12, 2014

Mad Men: The Runaways

I have a full schedule this week so I will write this right away.

This episode was good drama but good drama purchased through deep dishonesty.

The first thing that rang really wrong for me was the musicians at Megan's party. They should have played jug band music. It's easy to see how it was supposed to play. The tenor banjo player starts to play Dixie and everybody groans. Then they cut into Petite Fleur and everybody likes that. It's all a terribly subtle, the way getting kicked in the testicles is subtle, racial undercurrent that runs through the episode. Dixie is, well, Dixie and Petite Fleur was written by Sidney Bechet in the early 1950s and then a huge hit for British trad jazz artist Chris Barber at the end of that decade,

The problem is that the crowd at Megan's party would have groaned just as much at Sydney Bechet as they did at Dixie. There was a very good reason that jazz giants like Bechet and Ben Webster were living in Europe in the late 1960s; it was the only place where they were still being taken seriously. The only person at the party who wouldn't have thought Petite Fleur was a joke, the only person at that party who would have appreciated it as music, was Don Draper.

And tenor banjo players. The tenor is a four stringed instrument tuned in fifths, just like the viola, CGDA. It was the backbone of early jazz bands. When people think of banjos, however, they think of the five-string banjo used in bluegrass music, pseudo folk such as the work of Pete Seeger and, most famously, in Duelling Banjos and out come the Deliverance jokes.

This is the tenor banjo's second appearance in Mad Men by the way. It's associated with trad jazz then too and features Roger Sterling's turn at black face. Again, the poor tenor is miscast; the instrument used in the Minstrel show was the five string. (As I said at the time, the deeper problem is that Roger would never do such a thing.)

The model for Scout's Honour has to be Beetle Bailey. What gets changed is that Scout is drawn to resemble, wait for it, a monkey. I take it the racist implications of that aren't too subtle for you to figure out for yourselves. Let's all hate Lou.

One touch I liked was the way Betty's feminist turn was inspired by her being the only one willing to defend the Vietnam war. This is good drama in the sense that her feminist turn comes from a completely unexpected place. Except that feminism is completely out of character for her. Betty is drawn out of a feminist fantasy. Real feminism was really taking off at the time because women on the radical left found that radical leftist men wouldn't take them seriously, a rather different story than the mythology the viewers of Mad Men so desperately want to believe.

Don's response via Phillip Morris is also completely wrong. If Don fails to meet the stipulations set for him, his partnership shares are reabsorbed. That is to say, he loses his job and all his money. One of those stipulations is that he sticks to the script for meetings with clients. If, on the other hand, the other partners decide that they need a new tobacco client badly enough to push Don out, then they have to buy him out. And they have to do so in a context that would have made it clear to the entire world that the issue was not Don's performance on the job. There is absolutely no reason for him to fight for his job here.

Was the whole 2001, A Space Odyssey thing with the computer just a set up for a sick joke where Ginsberg goes crazy? Again, this gets the era all wrong. The hip young people were very anti-computer in 1969. The way Ginsberg talks is exactly the way non-crazy people of the era talked. I know it would pain the audience to have to think about all the ways the supposed heroes of the 1960s called it as wrong as wrong could be but really.

The overall problem is that we're in drama land here. These are plot details driven not by the actual history and culture of the time but by what TV writers thought would make good drama. And a big part of that "good drama" requires them to flatter their audience.

The threesome rang true. The whole Megan-behaving-like-an-absolute-shit thing rang true.

Remember back when Megan wanted a break in the Butler shoe ad? Remember how she broke down and cried and said that if she couldn't make it in acting that would mean that sex was all she was good for? Her behaviour here shows us that she really believes that about herself. When she is threatened by Stephanie, Megan's way of winning Don back is to give him sex. That's all she thinks she is good for!

Final thought: as I've said before, Weiner is setting everything back to zero. Tobacco ads! We're right back to the pilot.


  1. This is really great. I try to do authentic-to-the-time-period posts on my blog. Stop by some time:

    1. Why thank you. As a writer, I rate praise from copy editors very high.

      I like your blog, you obviously put a lot of hard work into your posts.