Friday, May 29, 2015

The songs of summer for 2015: "Innocence"

That's from The Exotic Sounds of Love by the 101 Strings Orchestra featuring Bebe Bardon. I don't think Bebe Bardon is the name on her birth certificate. She specialized in breathy recitals punctuated with sounds meant to suggest that she was approaching orgasm. You can listen to the album at this great site, where I got the above image.

Before getting to some music, I want to comment on the image. That's a very 1970s image, which isn't surprising on a 1972 release. I was just coming of age at the time that this sort of photography was so popular so it had a huge effect on me.

The angle of his arm and her gaze tells you that she is on her knees. You can easily imagine two possible sequences following this. One, familiar from many black and white movies, has the man pulling her to her feet and kissing her. The other, familiar from dozens of soft-core porn films, has her remaining on her knees. I was eleven years old when this came out and the only sequence I was capable of imagining was the black and white movie one. As the 1970s went on, I got other ideas and became less and less innocent. In another sense, however, I remained very innocent. For while I could easily imagine a sequence that led to this woman performing oral sex on the unseen man or, almost but not quite beyond my wildest dreams at the time, me, I always thought I was the only one so degraded as to have such a thought.

Later, as I came to understand that these images were intentionally created to plant such ideas in our minds, I remained convinced that only boys—and, more particularly, depraved boys like me—had such thoughts and that it was a sign of how bad I was that I responded to this crass stuff. The now unsurprising fact that nice girls my age looked at the same image and, with equal shame, were aroused by it was something that neither I nor the society of the time was ready to accept. Even now, we hide these things from ourselves, although a lot less than we used to. That theme is the inspiration for this year's "songs of summer".

That said, there is one, and only one, place to start. Paris! There a cynical jazz musician Serge Gainsbourg was asked to help create pop songs for a teenager named France Gall. In 1966, he wrote this song:

It was a huge hit. It's now painfully obvious what it's about. At the time, the whole thing hinged on plausible deniability. It's creation depended on the cooperation of a lot of people.

It's not clear that France Gall herself got the joke. She has always denied that she did and resented it when the meaning became clear. That's possible. More likely, I think she figured out that rather than being in on the secret joke, she was the joke.

That's a recurring theme, we might say a recurring problem, with these songs as we shall see.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Tomorrowland: 'Atlas Shrugged reimagined by Mickey Mouse'

That unintentionally revealing headline appears at Reason in a discussion of the movies of Brad Bird. The article suggests, I think correctly, that the spirit of Ayn Rand hovers over these films; that these films have an esoteric message and that message is Randian Objectivism.

Before going on, here's a question: Was Ayn Rand a libertarian? Or was she a frustrated oligarch? Keep those questions in the back of our head.

Back to the article. Here's a sample paragraph:
The Incredibles (2004)? "Here, an ungrateful (i.e. complacent, average, worthless) public bands together to force superbeings into a life of mediocrity, so terrified are they of anything powerful or special. The film's villain, who embraces envy as much as Rand rejected it, also has a half-cocked scheme to mass-produce superpowered weapons, laying out Bird's guiding philosophy in one tidy pull quote: 'When everyone's super, no one will be.'"
It's the sort of vision one can easily imagine a lonely young boy coming up with in his bedroom at night. The key difference being that lonely adolescents don't have super powers and, because they don't, they have no choice but to make their separate peace with the world.

Why do the incredibles have superpowers? The answer is because the script says they do. But what do we do in real life where there is no script, no animation and, most importantly, no one has superpowers?

There were geeks and there were bullies (equally divided between mean girls, thugs and the jocks) at my high school as is the case for just about every high school. The geeks were dead certain they were smarter than the bullies. They certainly got better marks but they did not get the best marks at the school, that honour went to some very neat, obedient and hard-working girls whom no one took seriously despite their high academic achievement and, as it turned, never amounted to much in life.

Every once in a while, though, one of the geeks would challenge one of the bullies to a battle of wits. The thing that always impressed me about these showdowns was how often the geeks lost. But they always thought they'd win, probably because the superhero script they had in their heads said they should win.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

F. Scott Fitzgerald on nice-guy syndrome

There is a recurring secret subtext of same-sex love running through the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. One of the more interesting cases is the story of Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby. Ostensibly a woman, Jordan can easily be read as a man, too easily for it to be an accident.

There is a lot that could be said about that subject but I want to focus on one passage from the last pages of chapter 3 that interests me because Fitzgerald describes a moral in Jordan that corresponds to nice guy syndrome.
 Jordan Baker instinctively avoided clever, shrewd men, and now I saw that this was because she felt safer on a plane where any divergence from a code would be thought impossible. She was incurably dishonest. She wasn't able to endure being at a disadvantage and, given this unwillingness, I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young in order to keep that cool, insolent smile turned to the world and yet satisfy the demands of her hard, jaunty body.
That last phrase is an esoteric reference to sex. If Jordan is really a man disguised as a woman, and I'm not alone in suspecting this, we have a fairly classic example of nice guy syndrome. Fearful that some hidden weakness (in this case, being a closeted gay man) will cause us to be shamed and rejected instead of loved, we develop a habit of lying to everyone.

This is just as true for heterosexuals like me as it is for closeted gay men. Nice guy syndrome isn't something new; it has been around for a long time, probably for as long as there have been men.

PS: Our narrator Nick immediately goes on to reveal that he has been less than honest in his dealing with someone back home and then says this,
Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people I have ever known.
Whatever The Great Gatsby is about, it isn't about anything that your high school English teacher told you it was about.

Friday, May 22, 2015


The people at Salon aren't quite as dumb as they look.
It’s not often that a Texas-reared conservative and a liberal-seeming Hollywood showrunner concur on something, but this week revealed a strange conjunction: Both Jeb Bush and Matthew Weiner don’t want you to think for yourself.
Now, that is perceptive but exactly backwards: it's the people at Salon who don't want you to think for yourself. Don't believe me? Read it for a week. It's all about maintaining orthodoxy in the face of whatever threats might prop up. And that is what makes their take on the the Mad Men finale so interesting; they think it's a threat to liberal orthodoxy.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mad Men Finale: the last word

In a long-ago television show called Yes, Minister a politician asks a public servant for advice on how to undermine someone he doesn't want to appoint to a position. The public servant, Humphrey, advises him to begin by praising the person. When the politician is puzzled by this, Humphrey adds, "It is necessary to get behind someone in order to stab them in the back."

What Mad Men did was to get behind the sixties idealists in order to stab them in the back. It told a story of the 1960s that appeared to support what boomers believed and what boomer parents taught their millennial offspring to believe but kept failing to quite come through for that vision. The end result is that it is now no longer to believe the sixties mythology. What's wrong with peace, love and understanding? Well, quite a few things actually. For starters, it's just empty piety.

One of the best ways avoid upsetting  people who demand that you adhere to conventional pieties of your era is to get behind them and then disappoint them. You come out with an argument defending some ruling piety and then, well, you heart is in the right place but your argument isn't as good as might have been. It looks like it's not your fault. Maybe you made a bad argument. Maybe you got a few facts wrong. Maybe you went so far overboard in your praise as to undermine the very cause you appear to be supporting. People will be disappointed but they won't be able to accuse you of actually fighting for the other side.

In that regard, it's staggering how many people loved but simultaneously felt disappointed by Mad Men because it didn't do as good a job of promoting their pet causes as they expected it to do. And this was particularly evident after the finale.

Matt Zoller Seitz thinks the message is good but has to acknowledge that it was somewhat undercut by being too sentimental:
I’ve been reading descriptions of Mad Men’s last few minutes — a meditation followed by a Coke ad — as “cynical,” confirmation that all Don really learned in season seven, and at the retreat in particular, was how to hug and get his job back. 
I couldn’t disagree more strongly. I think the optimism is sincere, bordering on maudlin. The whole episode fits that description. The Coke ad — a Madison Avenue incantation insisting that the momentary happiness of soda is the Real Thing — undercuts this a bit, because it’s ironic and funny, and consistent with the rest of Mad Men.
Yeah, and you can, as Zoller Seitz goes on to do, just slide right by that and not let it bother you.

Allan Sepinwall is one of many people to notice that the Peggy-Stan romantic scene was unconvincing:
Peggy and Stan's phone call was about as sappy and wish-fullfillment-y as "Mad Men" has ever gotten, yet if there was one character I wanted nothing but good things for at the end, it was Peggy.
But he really, really, really wants to believe so he will. Good thing to as he finds everything else about the show very cynical.

Ed Driscoll loved the show and watched every minute of it but was disappointed that it didn't do more:
Mad Men could have been the perfect show to comment on what drove the fast-paced radical change of the 1960s, just as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street explored the financial industry of the 1980s, but instead, producer / creator /primary writer Matthew Weiner was far more interested in the interpersonal relationship of his characters rather than social commentary.
He also wishes there had been more of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the JFK assassination and Vietnam. Well, the show at least name checks all of those. But that's all it does. A Beatles song is almost played but then Don gets up and pulls the needle up of the Beatles record, clearly bored out his gourd by it and everyone is disappointed that he didn't like it more.

John Swansberg thinks it was all a little too neat:
Then along comes the finale, a 75-minute exercise in bow tying. Mad Men has rarely been sentimental, even when it comes to its heroes, but last night everyone got their exciting new job, their longed-for loved one, or, in the case of Pete, both. I don’t mean to suggest that I wished ill on any of these characters, not even Pete. But I preferred the sense of possibility, and precariousness, that each character brought into this episode to the sense of dreams delivered with which they left it.
Well, he's absolutely right about that (except Betty, of course, ba ha ha ha ha ...). It was all too neat. And he's just smart enough to realize that he goes, as he puts it, from "too saccharine" to "too bitter":
As you noted, Hanna, if we believe Don is the author of the Coke ad, that would suggest that he’s taken the idealism of the ’60s—represented here by the coastal retreat, a hippie-enclave cut off from society (the poor transportation options literally a function of Charles Manson’s end-of-an-era violence)—and turned it into a jingle to sell a soft drink.
Well, that would be horrible wouldn't it? But we can rest assured that the man who created the series would never do this because he really believes in the idealism of the 1960s as demonstrated by the following quote:
All of that leads to the era Weiner witnessed as the child of a liberal father in the 1980s, by which time the activists of the ’60s had flipped and become the “greediest—can I say mother****ers in The Atlantic?” When he talks about individual characters, Weiner is a gentle creator, reserving judgment about their sins. But when he talks about society at large, he is a god of vengeance, and doesn’t hesitate to condemn. “I was 18 years old, watching the world being run by a bunch of hypocrites, is what it was. And at the same time, they were telling us how they had invented sex, how great it was to do all those drugs, they had no responsibilities, they really believed in stuff, they were super-individuals. Then along comes this incredibly repressive, selfish, racist, money-grubbing …”
Oh my! What a surprise, Matt Weiner feels very bitter about the sixties idealists. He believes not that sixties idealists were subverted but that they themselves went bad. But all those who believe in 1960s idealism can get a good night's sleep because they still think Mad Men is a show about how bad other people were back then and how the sixties idealists saved the day well, until Carter came along and screwed the pooch or Reagan stole the presidency or whatever your favourite explanation of how it all went wrong is.

Hanna Roisin thinks the treatment of women's issues on the show is just wonderful except for one niggling doubt,
Jessica Winter wrote last week that the great subject of Mad Men was not masculine self-reinvention but women in the workplace. I agree that Matt Weiner took this on as a central and recurring theme but I also think, in this finale and elsewhere, it was somewhat dutifully executed.
Well, yes, he does rather just go through the motions and give us storylines right out of a how-to-teach-feminism-in-middle-school manual. But his heart is in the right place so all we can do is wish the show had done a little better.

Julia Turner got everything she wanted but, as so often happens, wasn't happy with it once she had it.
The finale was kind to Don, and kind-hearted generally. Watching Matthew Weiner dole out so much redemption, hope, and love, after all his years convincing us that people are bitter, cruel and self-defeating, that they can never escape their own foibles and sins—well, it was what I said I wanted before the season began. In practice, it felt a little weird.
Theirs, by the way, is the best analysis you'll find anywhere but right here this week.

You get a powerful foreshadowing of where they are going in the word "unlikeliest" in that final sentence. And they're right: the morality and logic of this Esalen-like place where Don and Stephanie go is beyond dubious. The whole sequence there is meant to signal the shift of sixties idealism to vapid self interest that so angers Matt Weiner.

The biggest hint of this is the moral reversal we see in Stephanie. How do you feel about her dutifully accepting the shame the woman in the blue denim overall dress (a singularly ugly fashion choice that could only have come in the 1970s) lays on her? When Don confronts her she says, "It's true. You think I don't want to hear the truth?" And she says to Don of his proposed solution, that she can "put this behind you as you move forward", "Oh Dick, I don't think you're right about that." And then she runs away making further dialogue between them impossible. Okay, you can agree with Stephanie or not but, either way, another question should hit you in the face: What about Peggy?
No one should have to be able to make a mistake, just like a man does, and not be able to move on. She should be able to live the rest of her life, just like a man does. 
The whole discussion between Stan and Peggy in the Time & Life episode goes the exact opposite direction.
I don't know but it's not because I don't care. I don't know because you're not supposed to know; or you can't go on with your life.
You can't square Stephanie's decision with that. She doesn't choose to go back to her son because it's what she really wants to do. She chooses to go back because a woman in an encounter group shamed her into it. And, as Tom & Lorenzo rightfully point out, if you want to believe that Don achieves inner peace in that final scene, you have to believe that he did it thanks to that poisoned apple morality.

Matt Weiner (assuming he's not a closet conservative) sees the 1970s as a cultural tragedy resulting in the Reagan presidency.  His intention was always to be cynical. The final point of the show is not that Don actually wrote the Coke ad but that this was exactly where this kind of morality would lead. The show has come full circle: in exactly the same way that Don realizes that the regulations governing tobacco ads have inadvertently created a situation where advertisers can now say anything they want, he now realizes that the 1960s idealists have created the same opportunity for cynical exploitation. That is what all this abolition of the word "should" (with the powerful exception that other people should love you evoked by Leonard) and all this emphasis on what you feel instead of what you believe has done. Put that narcissistic selfishness together with fact-free feeling and you have a great ad for Coca Cola. (PS: Watch the ad again and notice how only white women get closeups while other races are used for background "colour", then come back and tell me how it's a step forward.)

 When the show debuted, we were in the early days of the Obama presidency and Obama had explicitly stated that his goal was to reverse the Reagan revolution so Weiner probably started off feeling less cynical than he does now because he, like so many others, thought that something like sixties idealism was coming back. No one, progressive or conservative, can be so foolish as to imagine that now.

But whatever Weiner believes it is not that the 1960s was subverted by cynical ad men like Don Draper. He believes that some disease infected the idealists and that they went wrong. There is a powerful metaphorical hint of that this episode when Joan switches the TV from a report on the then-exploding gonorrhoea rates when she and Roger enter her apartment. That and Joan and her boyfriend experimenting with cocaine are powerful foreshadowings of all that was about to go wrong. And it did go very, very wrong. You can believe that Reagan saved the day or you can believe that he was the ultimate symptom of the decline but, either way, the people who made it go wrong were the sixties idealists and that is the deepest message Mad Men has for us.

Okay, you may say, but how is that this esoteric message is going to have any effect if it's so well hidden that all the critics I cite above, all of them very smart people, missed it? Think of how this show has changed the way the 1960s are represented. Think of the typical PBS documentary—the kind they used to show at fund-raising time to get all those aging boomers to donate—and how differently it told the story. THose documentaries always went from smug, complacent 1950s squares to the Beatles, to civil rights struggles and victories, to Woodstock to anti-Vietnam war and the sexual revolution. Thanks to Mad Men it's no longer possible to tell the story of the 1960s that way anymore.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Men: Some thoughts on esoterica and the triumph of Don Draper

It's not easy to accept the idea of esoteric writing mostly because it seems too exotic and life is mostly not exotic. You know weird, exotic things exist but you also know that most things and, not incidentally, most people are exactly what they appear to be.

My job in this post is to convince you that esoterica is an ordinary, everyday thing that lives right on the surface; that it is something hidden in plain sight.

Esoterica seems like it must been something hidden deep inside because, when you hear the suggestion, you imagine something completely weird like a child's letter that is actually a code created by a spy to smuggle secrets out of the country, or it's full of Masonic rites, or it's got some weird sexual message, or it's really about drugs. And the problem with that sort of esoterica is not that we don't think it could exist but that it's not psychologically interesting. If it should turn out that "Puff the Magic Dragon" is really about drugs it would be a less interesting song than the one about a little boy and his imaginary friend.

Most esoterica is both commonplace and interesting. It's so commonplace that I'm willing to bet that you do it. Here's how: suppose that someone you cannot afford to offend expresses an outlandish opinion. Your boss, your new girlfriend's best friend, or just someone whose co-operation you need to achieve something important tells you what their favourite book, movie, song is. Or they tell who their favourite Mad Men character is. And the choice is crazy. Keeping an open mind, you let them explain their reasons for this bizarre preference. Unfortunately, their reasons are not only just as crazy as their preference, they are morally offensive. But you cannot afford to offend this person right now. So you say, "That's an interesting choice." Or something like that. You mean that it is interesting in the sense that it is interesting that anyone could be so stupid but you leave the explanation of what is interesting out of your comment.

You've done that.

Here is a further wrinkle. In addition to this person you don't want to offend, there is also someone you'd like to get to know better in the room. You don't want them to conclude that you actually approve of this crazy and offensive nonsense. But you cannot say anything openly. The best you can do is to leave enough of an opening (for example, by stressing the word "interesting" such that it might be interpreted as ironic) that the person you really like might approach you later and ask you to explain further.

Congratulations. you've planted an esoteric message.

A curiosity from the finale

It's a bit different with a written text or a TV show. It might be set up so as to inspire you to ask a next question but it can't answer it. And neither can its creator because that would give the game away.

Here's a little curiosity from the Mad Men finale. At the beginning, we see Don driving a souped up car, a 1968 Chevelle Super Sport, across the Bonneville salt flats. We have no context and everything—the setting, the other characters, what he is doing—is new and strange. When he turns the car off and gets out, the Doors 1968 hit "Hello, I Love You" is playing. Why is it there?

First issue: it's a two-year-old pop song at that point. It would not have been in high rotation on Top 40 radio so it's not there just to provide the right atmosphere for late fall 1970. It might be there just because the music director likes the song but it may be there for other reasons. Here are some facts about the singer and the song:

  1. The Doors lead singer Jim Morrison was an iconic 1960s figure who rejected his parents belief system completely, lived poor and nomadic, was creative, was something of a con man, reinvented himself and became rich, and had a drinking problem. He would also die within a year.
  2. The relationship between the two young men who own the muscle car and Don is not unlike the relationship between Morrison and the band. The band needed him because he was their ticket to fame just as Don is the guy who can fund the muscle car builder's dreams. At the time that "Hello, I Love You" was recorded, Morrison's drunkenness was getting to be more and more of a problem just as Don's is here.
  3. The album the song is found on is called Waiting for the Sun.

That last is probably the least interesting detail at first glance.

But let me remind you how the episode ends. Don hugs Leonard and cries with him. Then we get a montage of all the people who've been most important in the life of Don Draper moving on without him. Then we get a shot of Don standing on the edge of the cliff watching the sun go down. And then it's morning and we get a voiceover. Here is what it says:
Mother sun, we greet you and are thankful for the sweetness of the earth. The new day brings new hope. The lives we've led. The lives we've yet to lead. New day. New ideas. A new you.
Uh uh. I know what you're thinking. "Is it just a bizarre coincidence that the episode started with a song from an album called Waiting for the Sun by a band from California ended in California and, well, here is the sun being greeted?" Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost myself. But this is a show where every detail is planned carefully, you've gotta ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk?

Lucky? Yes because the thing with an esoteric reading is that you can never be sure. You interpret and you decide and, whatever you decide, you have nothing to go on from now on but your own authority and that only foundation for that authority is your ability to think for yourself.

What is a man?

If you were to peel off everything that you have draped about yourself, would you be left with the pure hard truth? Or would it be like peeling an onion, meaning that when you peeled off all the layers you'd have nothing at all? 

For weeks now Don has been becoming a Dick again. He's peeled off layers. In this final episode he's been "Dick" ever since he knocked on Stephanie's door at the eighteen minute mark and she greeted him by that name. 

Dick is the guy, the first man, who walks across the room and hugs Leonard. And he cries. Real tears I think. There is nothing at all that would entitle us to assume he is acting, that he is just faking it. The hug is followed by a montage of the people most important to Don's life. A lot of people have made something of his gradually shedding all the material trappings of Don Draper the last few episodes but this montage is much more serious. All of these people are moving on without him. He's been stripped down so that he has nothing but himself. Even Stephanie has left him.

But what is that self? When know who. What he is we don't know.

A lot of people want that self to be Dick Whitman. They want Don to reconcile himself with what they believe to be his true, authentic, inner self and that inner self is a Dick.

In his conversation with Peggy he makes a confession. He also made a confession last episode.

A brief digression. The letter Betty writes to Sally with her last wishes is dated October 3, 1970. In the this episode, Don tells Sally about the Blue Flame breaking the land speed record in Bonneville. That was October 23, 1970. Yom Kippur was on October 10 in 1970, right between the two episodes. Weiner has used this trick before. In the period in between the 10th and 23rd of that year was Sukkot, or the festival of booths/tabernacles.

Anyway, here's the confession from this episode:
I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man's name and made nothing of it.
The first two are very serious sins. The last just isn't true and Peggy says so. What's more, it is obviously not true because it is simple, objective fact that he has made something of the name and has made more of it than the original Don Draper would have.

So, here's the question: What is really more important: the Dick inside or the draping? Feel lucky punk?

Here is another thing that probably isn't a coincidence: the one thing Don can't get rid of is Anna's wedding ring. It's an outward sign of the acts that made him Don Draper, he really divorces Anna to marry Betty but he never married Anna. A man is what he does and he is not some mysterious kernel of authenticity at his core. The man this show has been about, our hero, is Don Draper and he is very much a man and our era, unlike his,  does not celebrate manliness so his story had to be told esoterically. The show made regular obeisance to the modern anti-male pieties but there was a hidden message for anyone who wanted to see it.

It doesn't matter, by the way whether he actually writes the Coke commercial or whether he is merely given a vision of the future as he sits there. What matters is that the man he really is, is Don Draper. A flawed man but a very impressive, manly man for all that. He's something to be not someone to hate and despise as so many do.

Why does Dick cry real tears at Leonard? Because Leonard is a dick too. He's a pathetic nothing of a man; he is a prime example of the nice guy who thinks that other people should love him but is willing to let some hippy dippy fraud of a  therapist talk him into believing that he himself should eliminate all use of the word "should" to describe any moral obligations that might apply to himself. Others should love him and he shouldn't have to do anything to earn that love. That's 100%, high grade narcissism. Sniff that up your nose and you'll be messed up but good.

And Leonard is messed up. He's a pathetic, crying little boy in a man's body. Don cries because, in that scene, he grasps that his inner Dick has to die. It's not easy letting go of that whiny little boy inside.
The new day brings new hope. The lives we've led The lives we've yet to lead. New day. New ideas. A new you.
Person to person was a kind of phone call but it might also mean a kind of transition. You know the person you are and you know the person you could be. Morally speaking, what you are is more important than who you are. Over to you now.

(Tomorrow, I'll present some exterior evidence for this esoterica.) 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men Finale: The tale of the three shoulds

"You don't know what happens to people when they believe in things."

And then Stephanie disregards Don's advice and ... what? She goes back to her baby? Are they going to let her do that? She hasn't been much of a mother. Does she think that she can screw up as completely as she has and just go back and that people—you know, people like child-protection agencies with the full force of the law behind them and relatives who don't trust Stephanie, and with good reason apparently—anyway, that these people will just say, "Gee, we're so glad you got in touch with your feelings, that's all we need to know."

By the way, the list of good mothers on Mad Men is very short isn't it?

And before you think that Don blew the chance to be a part of Stephanie's life when she was pregnant and needed someone who was family and turned to him, you may want to go back and watch that episode again because it was actually a petty and jealous Megan who slammed that door shut.

Do you think we're supposed to believe the scene where Don hugs Leonard at the consciousness-raising session in Big Sur (or whatever-that-was-supposed-to-be)? Do you think that all he needed was love?

I loved the way the transcendental meditation morphed into the Coke ad. That was the first time I smiled during the entire finale. What can that possibly mean but that it's all just another con?

I've seen this all before on the washroom wall of a bar. It said, "Everyone has to believe in something, I believe I'll have another beer ... or coke ... or ...

"You don't know what happens to people when they believe in things."

Of course you don't because you live in a world where nobody believes in anything and they're all desperately trying to reassure one another that that's okay and that's why we need a billboard to tell us that whatever we're doing it's alright. To live in a world where people don't believe in things is to live in a world where everything is just another ad for something. Where love is just a feeling. Where a happy ending is the one where you get to have a good feeling just before you die and a sad ending is an ending where you don't get that feeling. (Which is Betty's end by the way. PS: I told you so. )

Is there an esoteric message hiding in all this? You damn well better hope because otherwise, another feel-good ad linking a mixture of syrup, artificial flavouring and carbonated water with L-U-V is going to be what you believe in.

It's odd that Stephanie accuses Don of thinking that everything is a big laugh? Why would she say that? Nothing we've seen indicates that he thinks that. He seems to think it's all pretty stupid and that isn't surprising because it is. And you know, that Coke song stands up just as well as any Beatles song. If all you've got is another con, go to McCann Erickson because that way it will at least be a well-written and well-produced con.

The three shoulds? In the session where Don has his big hug moment Leonard starts his take by saying he "should" be happy and is promptly admonished for using the word. But then he turns around and says of others in his life, "They should love me". Why is that second should okay? Why should anyone love you? Just 'cause?

Go ahead and tell me and then explain how that you're not a narcissist.

And then there is Stephanie's big should—that she should go back to her child—which she takes as binding.

By the way, the woman in the session gets it wrong. Adopted boys get over their mothers completely. Daughters often seek out their mothers but not necessarily so. It's the mothers who spend their whole lives looking at the door and hoping that their child walks in. There are pretty obvious evolutionary reasons why that is so.

I told you long ago that Don Draper and his past were the MacGuffin—that he was just a plot device to move the story along. The list of good mothers on Mad Men is very short and there is nothing by-the-way about that. That's the esoteric message (and it's really there whether Matt Weiner put it there consciously or not).

Actual children of mothers, which is all of us, spend a lot of our lives wishing our mothers would just get the hell out of our lives.

How does that make you feel?

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Mad Men: A personal confession regarding Don Draper on the eve of his final appearance

According to the Mad Men Wiki, Bobby Draper and I are about the same age. He and I have another thing in common: our parents were moral nihilists of a sort.

Don seems to be overtly so. He tells Rachel Mencken,
The reason you haven’t felt love is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.
Later, he will tell a room full of beatniks,
I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie, there is no system, the universe is indifferent.
That sounds like nihilism but I don't think it is quite. I think it's the way someone who feels like they are being driven into it but who really doesn't want to go there talks. Context always matters and Don has been through an emotional roller coaster when he says this. A real moral nihilist may get there enthusiastically or they may get there reluctantly, but they get there. There is still defiance in Don. (And Rachel's response confirms this.)

My parents got there even while denying it to themselves. They got to a point where they effectively decided that all moral beliefs are founded on the wet marshes and, therefore, moral argument doesn't matter except as a way of achieving the outcomes you want. They are far from alone in this—an era that can idolize Seinfeld and David Letterman is only possible because a lot of people have gotten themselves to the point my parents did.

The wet marshes is a Gatsby allusion in case you missed it.
Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth. 
And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don't care what it's founded on. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions into the human heart.
And that's not quite moral nihilism. It leaves a door open. Not very far open as Nick is concerned; a hope founded on the fear of "missing something" is not much. That is why Nick needs Gatsby and it's why we need Don Draper.

There are a lot of Gatsby references in Mad Men. My favourite is the moment in "Shoot" when Betty pulls out all her dresses from her modelling days for Francine the way Gatsby pulls out his shirts for Daisy.

And then there is Don. Don has no pedigree, no roots, no father to give him advice he might later turn over in his head. All he has is a dead drunk for a father and two prostitutes for a mother and step mother.

His life is, literally, nostalgia. That is to say that both as a fictional character appreciated by us and in his own self understanding he always turns to nostalgia as his moral foundation.
When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him. He has a million reasons for being anywhere, just ask him. If you listen, he'll tell you how he got there. How he forgot where he was going, and that he woke up. If you listen, he'll tell you about the time he thought he was an angel or dreamt of being perfect. And then he'll smile with wisdom, content that he realized the world isn't perfect. We're flawed, because we want so much more. We're ruined, because we get these things, and wish for what we had.
Which is a sentiment not unlike,
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning... 
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
My parents, like a typical Slate writer, always dismissed nostalgia, even their own, by mindlessly using magic words like "racism" and "sexism". That is, they had a sense of having lost something really important but dismissed it any time they got up to the edge of it. 

I like Don Draper for Nick-Carraway-like reasons. He goes right up to the edge and stares into the abyss. His conduct, very clearly founded on wet marshes, stands up pretty well if you take the blinders off and compare him to his peers. I've argued many times that he doesn't have, as so many have accused him, a stolen identity. He has a stolen name, although why anyone should begrudge him that as the man is dead is beyond me. And that stolen name is the peg on which everything about him is hung. But it's just a peg. He didn't steal anything because there was nothing, except a set of dog tags, to steal.

So where does he go from here? There is a sense in which it would make perfect sense for the final episode to end with Don getting off a bus and walking into the military base where he first enlisted and turning himself in for desertion. 

Except that that would solve nothing. It would put an end on the thing but, morally speaking, it wouldn't be any more satisfactory than having him wander off down a beach somewhere and become a surfer.

I remember the jolt when I realized, about 15 years ago now, that my parents didn't really believe in anything. The discovery was triggered by my mother. She did a very cynical, manipulative thing and I caught her at it. I remember an odd sort of chill coming over me and I told myself that that cold, empty feeling was because this thing she had done was so unlike her. 

I couldn't shake it out of my head, though, and I kept returning to it month after month and, as I did, it hit me that this cynical, manipulative thing she done wasn't unlike her at all. The more I reviewed her life with me, the more obvious it was that this thing was very much like her. Her moral beliefs were like Nick's: they were all about maintaining a fixed moral frame around her. She didn't actually believe them. Not overtly, as Don does when he says the sorts of things I quoted at the top of this post but implicitly in the way she lived. It was most obvious in the way she'd take incredibly strong moral stands about matters such as sexuality only to completely forget them a few years later when she had other objectives.

I was very angry at my parents for this at first much as Sally is angry at her parents. Ultimately, I forgave them for it but I do not excuse what I forgive. I am, odd as this might seem, more willing to forgive Don because he is open about what he does. And I find his imperfect conduct, as much as this will appall many, admirable.

In this last regard, he differs from Gatsby in one very important respect. Take one word out of these famous lines about Gatsby and it would describe Don perfectly:
If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he was related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of "creative temperament"—it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.
The word to take out is "unbroken". What distinguishes Don is how often his string of gestures comes to a crashing halt. And then he picks right back up again. As he tells Lane,
I've started over a lot Lane, this is the worst part.
Lane doesn't believe him because he thinks Don has always had it easy but we know better, or we should know better. 

I knew men like Don while I was growing up. One was an uncle very close to me. I don't know what his secret was but I know he had one. And I know that he, like Don, found ways to keep pulling himself up and starting again. Perhaps he could do this because he, like Don, started with nothing; he was one of ten children in a poor Irish household dominated very much by a mother with scandalous secrets of her own.

Whatever he had, and I can't put it in words, it's something people like my parents and, I suspect, Matt Weiner's parents, had already lost. Properly understood, Gatsby and Don Draper are both indictments of us not them.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mad Men: Male types

I promised this yesterday and then ended up driving around doing errands all day long.

Anyway, the question I asked myself was, "Can I line up the three binary qualities that I applied to female characters on Wednesday and apply them to men?"

The three binary pairs were:

  1. Romantic or Realist
  2. 2nd generation feminist or 3rd generation feminist
  3. A morality based on rules and duties or a morality based on what makes you flourish

Okay, so it's obvious which one is difficult. I mean, male characters might well be concerned about treating women fairly and equitably but they aren't necessarily concerned. And, even if they are, they don't have the same visceral concern for the issue that women do.

Of course, some might question my applying the categories of second and third generation feminist to characters set in the 1960s. I might too, except that they really do fit. There are two reasons that might be. That might be because all the episodes for the show were written in the last decade and the writers unconsciously applied characteristics from contemporary women to women in the past. Or it might be that while second and third generation are contemporary categories they mask something far deeper and more permanent about the human condition; it might be that there are different ways to approach being a woman that currently manifest themselves in terms of feminism but are always there, feminism or not. I believe the second is the case.

The reasons why I believe that are complicated I won't go into in any depth here. Instead, let me suggest that, for men, the similar categories are, drawing on the distinction that anthropologist Michael Herzfeld found villagers in Crete made, 1) that one can aim to be  good man or 2) that one can aim to be good at being a man. Brett McKay has already applied this distinction to Walter White on Breaking Bad and noted that we can't help but admire White for being good at being a man no matter how much we might want to criticize him for being a bad man.

We can find the same deep rift in feminism for a second generation feminist would argue that even to suggest that it is important to be good at being a woman is sexist. A third generation feminist will soft pedal the claim that a moral woman is a woman who works at being good at being a woman but this is implicit in all third generation feminism whether acknowledged or not. At the same time, everyone knows that some women really are better at being women than their peers and we all can see the difference and they get admiration just as Tony Soprano, Walter White and Don Draper do.

McKay says there is something potentially amoral about such men:
It is possible to be good at being a man, without also being a good man. For example a mob boss has a dangerous job, supports his family, and is highly resourceful. He also whacks people on a whim. He’s not a good man, but he’s good at being a man.
McKay's point is not that being good at being a man is necessarily amoral but that it can be. I think that's right if we use "amoral" in the very specialized sense of ignoring socially accepted rules and duties as opposed to being genuinely amoral as no one would admire someone genuinely amoral.

McKay does not think the reverse is the case. I think he's wrong about that but that he is wrong for an important reason that cannot be denied. Why do I think he is wrong? I hesitate to even bring it up as it is such a hackneyed argument but, here goes, the concentration camp guard is a good man who is essentially immoral. The guard knows full well what is going on in the camp but he keeps doing his job because he is a good man. His morality is really just pragmatism and he knows it.

I know why McKay makes the the claim he does. A man who is good at being a man may or may not be a force for social good. That is what plays as amorality. But none of the dark trio of the television renaissance are amoral: they have morals they just aren't very comfortable morals for a citizen to have. A good man is always a force for social good by the standards of the society he lives in but those standards may be depraved when viewed from outside that society.

I could go a lot of places with that but I want to focus on one thing and that is that the man who seeks to be good at being a man or the woman who seeks to be good at being a woman will always be in tension with the social order they live in. They are doing what the Greco-Roman culture of the Roman empire called being a philosopher (a very different thing from most of the boring dweebs who teach philosophy at universities nowadays). Ultimately, though, I also think that the only way to be really happy (in the Aristotelean sense and not just feeling happy) is to be good at being a man or good at being a woman.

I could go on about this but I'm going to abruptly shift the discussion back to Mad Men. Earlier this week we had a discussion in the comments about why we like Pete even though "he has never lost that swarmy feel". I think the reason for this is where Pete fits on the grid. He's a romantic at heart: he aspires to a romantic life and we see this in his buying the rifle, in his wanting to be a writer, in his attempts at being a lover, in his love for Beethoven. He's also driven by a desire to flourish and to help his wife and child flourish. By the rules I established Wednesday, he should, therefore, be under pressure to embrace a rules and duties morality and this he tries to do.

But he really doesn't want to. That's the fault line of Pete's character. He goes along to get along but he chafes at his leash and collar. For example, everybody goes to brothels so Pete doesn't feel any remorse with doing it until he runs into his father-in-law at one. Also, when he discovers Don's double life he is genuinely shocked that there is no consequence of his exposing it. There could have been a consequence, of course. But what shocks Pete is that there wasn't necessarily a consequence.

Why does that shock him so? Because the way that rules and duties moralists talk themselves into accepting rules and duties that often run at cross purposes with their personal desires is by convincing themselves that, however much they might seem contradictory in the short run, ultimately they line up. This can be done in an idealist way or in a cynical way. The idealist will either argue, like Kant, that the rules can be good even if we struggle with them if they are dictated by reason or, like a modern Catholic moralist, that the rules can be ultimately beneficial even if we struggle with them if they are dictated by God. The cynic will argue that no matter how much good might come out of ignoring a rule, the punishment for being found out would be so severe as to make it not worth the trouble. Most will do a bit of both as every cynic is a disillusioned idealist at core. At that's Pete.

Pete is swarmy because he keeps following rules he hates while quietly rebelling against them in little ways that he thinks he won't get caught at. Mostly, he keeps to the rules because he thinks that if he is a good man—we might just as easily say, a nice guy—that he will be rewarded in the end no matter how uncomfortable it is for him now.

And Pete is a classic nice guy in that he feels he is a good person for following the rules but he is really doing so for base reasons. He'd never really thought through what it would be to be good at being a man until he met people like Don Draper and Bob Benson, and if that should make you think of Tyler Durden and Lester Burnham.

Don is something of the reverse case. He broke the rules to get what he wanted and he did it big time. As long as he can be Don, that's not a problem; but whenever he is faced with the risk of exposure, he runs. Don, like Tony Soprano and Walter White, lives in a way that is a threat to society but society is also a threat to him so he, like an ancient philosopher, must live esoterically never revealing his real purposes except to an inner circle of trusted collaborators.

And, let's face it, you know Pete because, most of the time, you are like him thinking that if you keep on being a nice guy you will be rewarded. And, just maybe, you might get to know Don too because once there was an opportunity to do something you really wanted to do even though it was against the rules and you did it and, once it was done, it could never be undone. It probably isn't anything as big as what Don Draper did but this transgression might give you enough of a thrill that the thought of making the jump starts to feel real to you and ... well, you should be able to figure out the rest for yourself shouldn't you. (Note, this author takes no responsibility for any consequences, good or bad, of your treating this as an advice column.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Mad Men: The SATC grid

Remember Ted's Gilligan Island grid? The one where he mapped out every possible type of product spokesperson according to which Gilligan's Island character they corresponded  to? You can do something similar with Sex and the City. One of the really fascinating things about SATC is that all the women were characterized in terms of three binary qualities. I take this from Emily Nussbaum but I have renamed the qualities.

These are all foundational qualities. If I tend to be Romantic, and I do, my base belief is that life can and should be romantic. I may, certainly will in fact, modify my attitudes to deal with certain inescapable facts. But I always start out meaning to be romantic. Likewise, a Realist like my wife, may pursue romantic possibilities, but the thing that defines her is that she always starts off prepared to deal with the hard facts of life.

That's the first binary quality.

The next is second versus third generation feminist. A second generation feminist believes that women do best when they pursue equality first. Women may have special qualities as women but the foundation of their social, as opposed to private, life must be the pursuit of equality. A third generation feminist believes that equality is a good thing and commends second generation feminists for all they have achieved, as we all should, but argues that equality will only get us so far and that to complete the job, we must all recognize that women have special strengths, needs and wants.

The final binary split is moral. Some believe that the foundation of morality is rules and duties. We can argue about what those rules and duties should be but, in the final analysis, some set of rules and duties are the basis of morality. Others believe that the foundation of morality is human flourishing. Rules and duties have their purpose but they may be modified or even profitably ignored because the real point of morality is to help me and you flourish. This is not a selfish morality, I can want you to flourish every bit as much as myself, but it is a morality that demands a certain amount of hypocrisy for there will always be necessary social rules that people who hold this view will tend to secretly break.

Once we have that set up, we can chart the women from SATC:

If you were paying attention back in math class, you will know that 2x2x2=8, which is to say that there are four other possible combinations of these binary qualities. The other four just don't seem to come up in fiction, which is not to say that they cannot in real life. 

Why not? I suspect the reason it works out this way is that certain combinations are so threatening to the social order that they cannot be allowed. If, for example, you are a realist and a third generation feminist, to base your morality on rules and duties would just be impossible because the required rules and duties wouldn't feel like morality at all. Likewise, if you are Romantic and third generation feminist, the only kinds of flourishing that would leave open could only make sense in an alternate universe ruled by butterflies and unicorns.

The four existing combinations all embody tensions, that is, they will obviously be difficult to live, but will not seem impossible. 

Joan is established early on as a Romantic and third generation feminist who wants to flourish but she cannot because the first two qualities leave her needing rules and duties to govern her life. Roger appeals to her Romantic side but she is always in some tension with him because she wants live according to a script dictated by rules and he wants to buy her a bird.

Betty has the same qualities but it works out differently. She is also third generation feminist and rules and duties moralist (remember her saying that getting the analyst to look down her top made her feel like she was doing her job?) Her Romanticism, however, keeps her directed at modelling and she therefore fails to see that Jim Hobart's job offer is just a ruse to capture her husband who is more desirable than she is. (Even when planning her burial and trying to be a hard-nosed realist, Betty can only pursue Romantic outcomes.)

The basketful of kisses established Peggy as a Romantic and her long struggle with Joan's attempts to make her play up her sex appeal establish her as second generation. She can, like Carrie, take a very male approach to sexuality but, also like Carrie, she quickly realizes that what she thought she wanted isn't what she likes.  Similarly, when each dresses up in the killer dress she gets Ted/Big to take her home that night but immediately realizes there is no commitment. A point nicely highlighted when she delays sex with Mathis's brother because she thinks this has the possibility of being something good.

Trudy is very much rules and duties driven. Remember her countering Pete's suggestion that their love life was the most important thing in their marriage with the claim that caring for their daughter is? And remember her seeing Pete with the box of Don's secrets and bluntly telling him that it isn't his? What I want to call attention to here is not her moral conclusions but her moral foundations. At the bottom of Trudy's moral arguments there is always rules and duties. At the same time, she is a realist and that means she must be a second generation feminist like Miranda and, also like Miranda, she is a joyless bore. (It's telling that in SATC, which is all about domestic play, and in Mad Men where a woman like Trudy is kept out of the office environment, both Miranda's and Trudy's very real strengths are hidden. Carrie would be immediately exposed as the shallow twit she is if she were forced to work beside Miranda and Joan would seem a lot less impressive if we had an office Trudy to contrast her with.)

There weren't many Samanthas in the show. The most obvious was Bobbie Barrett. The fascinating thing about her is the way the show slut shames her just as SATC relentlessly slut-shamed Samantha. She's a realist who wants thing so she goes out does stuff that will help her to flourish. But she wants to flourish as a woman and society punishes her for the ways she pursues sex.

Well, that's all pretty miserable. Have I closed all the doors to happiness? No, I haven't.

The way out is to live esoterically. My choice, if I were a woman, would be to present like Charlotte and while secretly pursuing a morality based on flourishing. I'd do that because I am a  romantic at base. If I were a realist at base,  I'd present like Miranda while secretly pursuing a morality based on flourishing. (Don almost gets it right when he says, "You're born alone and you die alone and this world drops a lot of rules on you to make you forget those facts but I never forget." But it isn't life that drops the rules on you, it's society.)

I get the appeal of Carrie and Samantha but both those combinations make a woman very vulnerable: Carrie (like Peggy) is vulnerable to Mr. Big's endless games while Samantha (like Bobbie Barrett) is vulnerable to slut shaming from other women. This happens because to be either of those types is too threatening to either men (Carrie) or women (Samantha). We all pretend that this plays the other way but trust me, there are a very good reasons millions of women read Pride and Prejudice and millions of men don't. Watch movies aimed at men—you might want to start with To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Mask and Fight Club—and it should soon become obvious just how un-threatening Samantha type women are to men. Challenging is a different quality than threatening.

Okay, the obvious question is can we do a similar grid with male characters? I'll try tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mad Men: The Milk and Honey Route, Betty & Sally edition

By this time next week, it will all be over and, as the perverse rule of the Internet requires, nobody will ever discuss the show again. With that in mind, I'm going to blog the show every single day this week.

Let's start with Sally because I know Sally. Although a few years younger, I am Sally. I had a mother a lot like Betty, although not quite so bad. But bad enough. Sally and I have very similar life stories.

It's a good thing to be able to be honest about Betty. An awful lot of people feel they have to find reasons to like Betty, or pretend to like her, just as they pretend to like the awful Sal Romano. Betty is not hateful but she isn't much of a mother and she isn't much of a woman and she isn't much of a wife.

Here is the best and the worst of Internet commentary in one post from Hanna Roisin.
For me, the episode revealed how deeply moralistic Weiner is. Each character became the best they could be, given their own limits. Betty, the least loved character on Mad Men, suddenly seemed like a realist, and tough—this is the Betty who once expertly shot a hunting rifle. Her concern about appearances seemed less like superficiality than a candid assessment of the only field she ever knew how to play on, and win. After all, even the boys at school don’t value her for her brains. (Mrs. Robinson.) I’ve never known anyone to accommodate to a cancer diagnosis so quickly. But in Betty’s case it made sense. What her letter revealed is that she knew she wasn’t cut out for an era where girls wear their hair long and loose, travel to Europe with their girlfriends, and debate psychoanalytic theory. She was made for an age of surfaces, and it was time for her to go, so she accepted the diagnosis with grace.
Let's begin with the worst. Betty fires an air rifle, not a hunting rifle, and there is no evidence that she does so expertly. The reason Roisin things she did it "expertly" is because she does it with style, a cigarette dangling from her mouth (just like Peggy's entry into McCann Erickson this season). Now, mull that over for a minute. Think of how sexist it is to judge women that way. (I also suspect that Roisin has strong views about guns even though she has made it abundantly clear that she is absolutely clueless about them.)

Okay, on to the good. The point that the characters are becoming the best they can within their limitations is pure gold. That is what Matt Weiner has done so far. This show, as I've said since the beginning, is about virtue ethics and becoming the best you can be within your personal limitations is a pretty good capsule definition of what virtue ethics is about. As such, it has a much broader scope than what we normally think of as ethics. 

Another way to put that might be to say that you are responsible for your own personality. Betty didn't just come to be the person she is, she trained herself to be this person all her life. Given what she has, which is a combination of limitations that life has dealt her and those she has created for herself, Betty does the best she can. And we should applaud her for that. We should also recognize the limitations she placed on herself, just as I did with Joan last week, and see how those play out for her character.

Betty is well set up to die bravely and we should admire that. The episode was a bit eerie for me for her attitudes and behaviours are exactly those that my mother showed when she died. Dying bravely is not easy and none of us have any idea how well we will do. 

At the same time, her bravery is very Betty like. She has no profound lessons for anyone as she is, as Roisin correctly notes, a very surface person and her concern with appearance is exactly what we'd expect of her (a subject I'll get back to in tomorrow's post).  I was reminded of something that Dani Shugart said about will power: that will power is unquestionably a virtue but we should remember that anorexics have wills of steel. That is a classic observation in virtue ethics, namely that virtues are of little value in isolation or, to flip it around, you need many virtues for any of your individual virtues to be of any use. It's no good being strong and brave if you aren't just and fair and it's absolutely useless to be just and fair if you aren't strong and brave enough to back up the just and fair stances you want to take in life. 

Betty is strong but there is something shallow and narcissistic about her strength, which isn't surprising as Betty is a shallow and narcissistic person and it is her fault that she got to be that way. We see this in her behaviour. She picks Sally to make sure her final wishes for burial are taken care of not out of any love for Sally but because she has made self-interested choice. Her attitude towards Henry is no better.

Sally is crying now but there will be a day, probably about a year after mother is gone, when she will suddenly find herself filled with rage. On that day, she will have put enough distance on her mother that the emotional ties will no longer blind her and the barely controlled resentment she now feels for her will break open and she will grasp that her anger is entirely justified. And then she'll be able to forgive her for she will finally see Betty for what she is. 

Then she can stop trying to be "a different person" than her parents as she says at the end of The Forecast and follow Don's very good advice:
You may not want to listen to this but you are like your mother and me. You're going to find that out. You're a beautiful girl and it's up to you to be more than that.
Betty never was.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mad Men: The Milk and Honey Route

First thought: "Oh my God, they're killing Betty. Those bastards."

And then I giggled. Not because it's funny that someone, even a fictional character, should die but because it was so perfect. It's like the writers read all the Don haters and saw how many of them wanted Don to die of lung cancer and thought, "We'll show them!"

Second thought: "I want Pete to be happy. He's a good man."

He's not a perfect man but he's more like most of us than his many haters realize. He's certainly a better man than Ken. I really hope this all works out for him.

Third thought: "There hasn't been a bad episode all (half) season."

This is, touch wood because there is one show to go, the best television there ever has been. There have been off moments. The scene in Lost Horizon when Don starts rubbing Betty's shoulders was Joe Biden creepy. And the Glen Bishop send off rang false from end to end and side to side. But that is small stuff. This is brilliant story telling and I don't know that we'll ever see anything on television this good again.

Fourth thought: "Get Back".

Is it just a coincidence that the characters come together in 1960 and the show is winding up in late 1970? That's exactly the life of the Beatles. I wouldn't want to make too much of this but it's like Matt Weiner took the boomers favourite mythology and remade it with the very sort of people whom boomers feel most superior to in the lead roles. It's as if he were saying, forget John, Paul, George and Ringo, here are the people who really made the sixties. (And they were!)

There is a perverse genius in all this. It's the truth hidden in plain sight. I've said so many times before and I'll say it again now: everything you've been told about the sixties is a bunch of self-serving lies told by boomers. Mad Men is, while fiction, a useful corrective to the mythology. The primary force behind 1960s culture was always corporate.

Ante-penultimate thought: "Don has made peace with himself."

The kid who thinks he knows how to work a con has no idea where Don's advice and generosity comes from but we do.

Penultimate thought. One of the rules a show like this cannot break is to have a plot point that requires anyone to rewrite all the history books. I take that from the Bugs Bunny episode "Hare We Go." Bugs and Christopher Columbus cross the Atlantic and they have a dispute about how discovers America. Bugs gives in because, well, it's stupid to explain this because everyone has seen it. But it's a good rule for writing historical fiction: nothing a character does, whether fictional or a real historical figure, can require the audience to rewrite history.

That's the real reason why Joan can't stage a feminist sit in at the offices of McCann Erickson: if she had, there would have been a story in Time and a photo spread in Life. It's also why Don can't be exposed as a deserter: a big ad executive being arrested as a military deserter would have been a national story in 1970. There is no Dick Whitman arrest story from 1970 so the show cannot go there. (It could, of course, but they'd pay a huge price for it.)

Really, the final thought: The wild days of the advertising industry are over but the wild days of the computer industry are just about to begin. In California! And it involves a level of con artistry that makes Don Draper seem like authenticity itself by comparison. It's like Don is travelling west so he can hand the baton over to the next runner in the relay.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Why are there so many more antiheroes than antiheroines

It's going to hit 30 degrees here today, as it did yesterday. That's 86 Fahrenheit. Ottawa was built on top of a malaria infested swamp so that sort of weather is part of the price you expect to pay for living here but it is only May 8. Anyway, it's got me thinking about summer. Years out of school, I like to have a reading project. I've been thinking about antiheroes.

It's one of the odd properties of television to create unintentional antiheroes. The Simpsons, for example, was a cartoon created around a dysfunctional family and the character we were meant to sympathize with was Lisa Simpson. For a brief time, our real sympathies attached to Bart but real star of the show in the long run has been Homer Simpson. I read an interview with one of the show's writers just a few years ago and his sympathies were still firmly on the side of Lisa. They try to make her shine through but it doesn't work. It's not that everyone hates Lisa, some do but most like her, but Lisa doesn't capture our imagination the way Homer does.

We hear a lot of complaining about our anti-male culture, I do a lot of it myself. Homer is often advanced as a proof of this and I think there is something to that. But Homer Simpson is a double-edged sword. There is the possibility of a subversive rebellion hiding in a character like him.

That's also true of this guy:

Here's my theory. Women thrive on society, it's what they want. Men don't. Men are driven by forces that are fundamentally anti-social. We get tamed by society and that's a good thing. Sometimes, however, society goes too far. It goes from the perfectly reasonable requirement that men should be able to temper their emotions to the unreasonable requirement that we shouldn't have them in the first place.

More to come ...

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Mad Men: Are you ready for a disturbing episode?

If we've learned anything from watching this series it should be that Matt Weiner usually makes the second last show of the season disturbing or unsettling. If something really threatening is going to raise its head, it will do so this Sunday.

This Sunday is the episode that will shake things up and next Sunday will be a sort of send off. As others have second, every season until now has really ended before the end.

Either way, the reputation of the entire series rests on this upcoming episode. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Mad Men: Lost Horizon metacommentary

Why Joan Had to Fail

Is Peggy doomed? That's the fear that grips John Swansburg,
I want to believe that she’s poised to pulverize the glass ceiling there, leaving those conniving plant-bringers soaking in her spent rocket fuel. But Hanna, as you noted, the villains at the top of McCann are so cartoonish in their villainy that it’s a little hard to imagine Peggy succeeding where Joan failed. 
and Julia Turner,
Between the plant-bearing creatives gunning for her accounts and Jim Hobart’s steely dismissiveness, I think it’s unlikely that her McCann stint will help her achieve what her male mentors have achieved, and what she wants—a shop where her “name is on the damn door.” I suppose it’s possible that Peggy will find a happier outcome than Joan did. Peggy had a different style to start with, one that plays her womanliness down rather than up. (“You know I need to put men at ease,” she tells Roger when he first proffers the lascivious cephalopod.) Her post-skate aggression is badass, but again, not womanly. Maybe she’s the SC&P star who won’t get chewed up by the McCann machine. But I doubt it.
I don't know if she will succeed; only her scriptwriters know for sure. But we do know that some women facing her challenges did succeed.

And we know that Joan failed. And we should know why.

In bed with Richard, she discusses her problems. After a few clarifying questions, Richard says, "So this is a business problem, now I can help."

He suggests two ways to deal with the problem. Suggestion one is, call a lawyer and throw all sorts of legal obstacles at the person. But Joan isn't paying close enough attention. Richard may be a thug but he isn't a stupid thug, he understands that there are limitations and he tries to tell Joan about them.
Nobody wins but it loosens the earth.
The second suggestion is, "You can call a guy." Joan, like us watching at home, wonders what "a guy" does and Richard explains, "If you get the right guy, all he has to do is show up." And then this very important interaction.
Joan: "You've really done that?" 
Richard: "You seem to like it, so I'm going to say yes."
And she does like it. Joan gets an erotic thrill at the thought of this appalling brutality.

The problem, of course, is that Joan has already taken the second approach before this conversation even took place. The reason she's in trouble is that she went to Ferg with her problem precisely because he had lots of the sort of presence and power that gives Joan such a thrill. She did not do the thing that she told Don she would do: that she would figure it out herself.

Joan should also be smart enough to figure out that a guy who has an intimidating presence such that he can make people do what he wants simply by showing up is going to want something in return. What's she planning to pay him with? If one of the male characters had gone to Ferg looking for help, we all would have understood that he was putting himself under Ferg's patronage by doing so and that it would cost him something.

Okay, you say, but why sex? Well, that's where it gets interesting. The thing that defeats Joan is not sexual harassment. As awful as that is, Joan has dealt with it many times before. She didn't like it much but she dealt with it. Why does she give up this time?

I think we were given the answer to this back in the Severance episode. Joan and Peggy have just been through a meeting in which Joan was subjected to a whole lot of sexual harassment.
Peggy says, "I know, they were awful. But at least we got a "yes". Would you rather a friendly "no"?" 
Joan, coldly, "I don't expect you to understand." 
Peggy, says "Joan" very softly as if trying to mollify her and then, toughening up a bit, adds, "You've never experienced that before?" 
Joan, even chillier says, "Have you Peggy?" and we can't miss the implication that Peggy isn't attractive enough to warrant the attention that, however undesired, Joan did get. 
Peggy starts to say one thing, "I don't ... " but trails off and, feeling more assertive says, "You can't have it both ways. You can't dress the way you do and expect ..." 
Joan, cutting her off, aggressively asks "How do I dress?" 
Peggy, defensively, "Look, they didn't take me seriously either." 
Joan in a condescending tome, "So you're saying, I don't dress the way you do because I don't look like you and that's very, very true."
Now we hear, and the writers must have intended us to do so, a set of contemporary overtones that neither Joan nor Peggy would have been aware of. We hear a discussion about Slutwalk and that dressing sexually does not constitute an invitation to rape or sexual harassment. But one thing it does do, and here we have another esoteric message, is to tell the world that Joan thinks that her value lies in her sexual desirability. And this is confirmed by her nasty put down of Peggy.

Some kinds of feminism play down or deny that women are in competition with other women. This episode does not; and Joan should know because she's already been approached by two writers hoping to steal Peggy's business.  Joan has bigger breasts than Peggy and she uses them not only to get attention from men but also win status battles against other women as she does with Peggy here.

Here's a couple of moral scenarios for your consideration:

  1. A number of both men and women are competing for the same job or business and one of the women gets the job or business by having sex with the person hiring or buying.
  2. A number of both men and women are competing for the same job or business and one of the women has very beautiful breasts which she plays up in her dress and she gets the job because the gets the job or business because the person hiring or buying likes her breasts even though he doesn't hope for or get any actual sex.

Is this woman who gets the job in these two scenarios being fair to other women? Confronted with this sort of challenge, feminists have a tendency to say, "Men are pigs and that explains everything." (That is the takeaway in Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride.) This episode of Mad Men asks very quietly if it is fair for women to do this to other women and it tells us, esoterically, that it isn't by hiding the fact that Joan loses because she deserves to lose.

The Severance also features Ken's firing and we learn that the real reason is that Ferg is upset because Ken went around town calling him a "Black Irish thug". Ken's comeback is to turn to Roger and say that that is what Ferg is in the false hope that Roger is the real decision maker. If you tell someone they are a, Black Irish thug, whether or not it's true, you give them permission to act like one. (And I speak here as someone descended from men who were unquestionably black Irish thugs.) Joan is erotically attracted to powerful men because she likes to wield that power. Having chosen to (figuratively, not literally) live by that sort, she will (figuratively, not literally) die by it.

A final rude question: How would these scenes have played out if Ferg and Hobart had known how Joan had gotten her partnership in the first place? The answer is, even more harshly but not substantially differently.

One of The Onion's most brilliant pieces began as follows:
OBERLIN, OH—According to a study released Monday, women—once empowered primarily via the assertion of reproductive rights or workplace equality with men—are now empowered by virtually everything the typical woman does.
The whole thing is worth reading but you can get the point from that excerpt alone. You don't want to be Joan Harris or Carrie Bradshaw. They both have glamour and sexual power but the way they use their sexual power is not empowering simply because they both really want to do it. It's the opposite of empowering. Lots of bad things can happen to women in this world and some of those bad things are the fault of men and some of them are the fault of the women themselves.

A brief digression on antiheroes

One point I've hammered more than once in the past few Mad Men posts is that Richard is creep. Guys who hire actual thugs, not just brutish guys like Ferg but guys who use violence or the threat of violence to achieve things are in a special class of their own. Joan's unhappiness is not just going to be short term. She's headed for a life of it.

What I've been arguing here is that it's important to make distinctions. One distinction that needs to be made more often is that antiheroes are not all morally equivalent. Or to put it more directly, Don Draper is not the moral equivalent of Tony Soprano or Walter White. The latter two were vile men and deserve to be judged as such. You can criticize advertising all you want but if you can't see that there are important distinctions to be made between an advertising executive on the one hand and a mobster or meth dealer on the other, you don't deserve to be taken seriously.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Mad Men: Lost Horizon

My first thought was, "Why not just end it there?" I'm not sure this series has anything left to say.

My second thought was that McCann Erickson must have their lawyers watching every episode very carefully. And AMC probably did likewise prior to broadcast.

Third thought was, "Goodbye Joan." She may appear again, as Bert did this episode, and she may be spoken of, but she's gone now.

If we go back to the first year, there were five stars at the centre of the show right from the beginning. In descending order of importance they were: Don, Roger, Pete, Peggy and Joan. Everyone else was either second tier or they were a guest star. Aaron Stratton was listed as part of the cast right from episode one but he was really a guest star. Roger was listed as a guest star but we was indispensable to the show.

It makes sense that Joan would go.

Let's sell some cigarettes beer

You may balk at my rating Pete ahead of Peggy and Joan. Think of Gilligan's Island. The name of the show tells you who the real star is but we tend to forget that when we watch because Gilligan has no power or authority in the fictional world we saw on the screen. It seemed like every single person on the show could tell him what to do but they owed their jobs and all their stature to Bob Denver. Don isn't quite the joke Gilligan was, although, to read some critics you might think he is, but he's never as central to the fictional plot as he is to the real life one. In fiction, Jim Hobart has more power, in fact, Jon Hamm is listed as the show's producer.

And it's not just a show about a man, it's a show about men and no amount of feminist subplots will change that. This show is called Mad Men and the "men" in that title is important.

The most important scene in this  episode is the one where the researcher talks about the average beer drinker.
He lives in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio. Some call it the heartland, some call it the beer belt. He has some college, makes a good living, but it doesn't feel like it because he works long hours. He has a lawnmower, wants a hammock, a bunch of power tools in the garage that he never uses. He loves sports because he used to play 'em. He loves dogs because they don't talk.  
We all know this man man; because there are millions of them. And he drinks beer.
Not just any beer, it has to be his brand. What is his brand? The one he drank in college? The one his dad drank? The one that comes in the best bottle? Can? Tap? It doesn't matter because that's it and its not open for discussion. 
Now you all know that's not true. But how do you get him to open his mind. Better have something more. Or, in this case, less. 
And that's tricky. When we talk about a low-calorie beer, we immediately become feminine. It's the word "calorie". It makes you think of a reducing plan. Or a note on the fridge to remind her about her diet.
That should take you right back to the pilot. The challenge selling beer is the same one Don had selling cigarettes. There's a health concern that is far less serious but health isn't really important. What's important is identity. What kind of man reads Playboy? or smokes this cigarette or drinks that beer?

We don't actually care about the magazine, the cigarette or the beer but we care a whole lot about the man. The whole series has been about a crisis of manhood from the very first moment. Yes, Peggy and Joan have their struggles but we know how that one turns out even if they don't. The crisis of manhood is still with us today and no one knows how that one works out.

The word "tricky" in the Bob Phillips pitch should remind you of Don's description of the word  "delicate" in the nostalgia pitch in season one. One of the delicate esoteric messages in Mad Men is that men have lost something, suffered a wound. It's not going to be enough to simply say "new" and then pitch the product as the way to scratch that has thereby been created.  It's tricky because men have to be told how to settle for less in order that they can be more like women and start obsessing about weight loss and stuff.

Don, not surprisingly, walks out of that meeting. On the other hand, he later pretends to be Bob.

Let's sell some margarine

To get back to Gilligan, the real importance of the characters on the show was determined by their fictional relationship to Gilligan (Don). The Skipper (Roger) was the most important guy. Then the Professor (Pete). Then Mary Ann (Peggy).Then Ginger (Joan). Then Thurston Howell (Bert). The least important character was Lovey, who was just an adjunct to her husband and has no Mad Men equivalent. Her role on the show was to incite incidents.

The Thurston of Mad Men was Bert Cooper. He was only important to the drama because he had power in the form of money. That became less important as soon as the new agency was launched. Much like Thurston Howell, Bert's wealth is mostly an illusion. His real importance to Don is as a sort of father figure just as Thurston Howell is to Gilligan.

Did you know that there are people who write up elaborate sex fantasies based on the characters of Gilligan's Island?  There are. Google it. But, before you do, ask yourself this question: Who are the first two characters you'd match up sexually? It's obvious: the Professor and Mary Ann. And the equally obvious corollary is that Gilligan can't have sex with anyone. So Don can't have sex with Peggy or Joan. But Pete can. And did.

Who goes next? Everyone has to go by the way. My guess is that they go in the reverse of the order I've listed them. I predict Peggy goes next.

Most desirable assets

Can we take a moment to discuss the hard realities of business? As half owner of a company that provides creative services, let me tell you that owning a company like SC&P is an interesting prospect. If you own a farm, you have a bunch of land in play. You can do something with the land even if you never farm it again. It can, for example, become a subdivision. With a business services company, any business services company, there are no important physical assets. They lease their office space and nothing else they own has significant value. The only tangible asset a company like that has is accounts receivable. And that runs out after thirty days!

So why would a guy like Jim Hobart buy the company? Well, there are two kinds of assets he might consider: knowledge and relationships. Some companies own intellectual property. SC&P did not. That's nicely underlined by the discussion that Roger and Harry have about the computer. McCann Erickson has more than SC&P could have dreamt of.

There are other kinds of knowledge but they only exist between ears. You could buy a company for its human resources but those resources can quit, die, or lose their lustre. No star will be a star forever. Worse, there is the issue of chemistry. A person who plays brilliantly with one set of team mates, may not be able to perform with a new set. You can ensure that this knowledge doesn't go anywhere else by having everyone sign a non-compete contract but there is no way to know that they'll actually perform for you for certain ahead of time.

That leaves us relationships. You might buy a company like SC&P for their clients. That's done all the time just as Hobart tells us in this episode that he bought a company in Milwaukee in order to get Miller Beer. But that too is an intangible asset because those clients don't have to stay and they don't have to like the new owners.

There's another reason though. You might buy a company like SC&P in order to shut it down. In fact, anytime a company like SC&P gets bought, shutting it down is part of the motive. Remember, it has no tangible assets. If it stops being a farm and you have to auction everything off, the stuff that can actually be sold under the hammer has very little value and you cannot recoup your investment that way. But, even if nothing else pans out for you in this purchase, you have eliminated a competitor. New competitors spring up all the time but they can't have those intangible assets. You may not gain them for yourself but, at the very least, you are taking them off the table for everyone else.

Lost Horizon

And notice how that business objective lines up with the artistic one. Matt Weiner also has to shut down SC&P. And the challenge is that, in fiction, no one can actually leave the Island. You can show them leaving the Island, you can even show them landing on the dock back in Honolulu but they can't really go anywhere or be anywhere but the Island because the show is set on the Island, or Cheers bar or the office or ... . Mad Men was set at the office.

Christians always insist that a real church is not the building but a group of people but that's not really true. The people need a building they can go into to define them as a group. If the church burns down or has to be sold to pay the debts, the future existence of the people as a group is in doubt.

Christians believe in Jesus. We believe that he is is vine. No, I'm not going to evangelize you. This is a purely sociological point, for the purposes of this post anyway. We believe that both the church as building/Island and the church as people/the cast of castaways exist from him and through him and for him (Romans 11:16). You don't have to believe that. You can believe it's all cosmic fluke if you want. But every narrative has a creator and a teleology. And every narrative has an implied parallel to life. Try as you might, you cannot create a narrative without a teleology. Seinfeld wasn't really about nothing, it only pretended to be. Louie isn't any different.

Diana Bauer's ex-husband offers Jesus to Don. Don isn't down for that. But what? The Diana dream is complete deflated now. Maybe you don't like the Jesus answer, and that's fine, but is there any alternative besides the absurdist one? For Don Draper I mean? I've promised to leave you out of it.

There's lot's of scope for the absurdist or nihilist ending.

Don picked up a hitchhiker. Was he a killer on the road like the man in Riders on the Storm, release date one year away (June 1971). Don has gotten into trouble with hitchhikers before. Or was Ferg's imitation of Nixon an intimation that scandal will undo him (Watergate break was September 1971). He compared himself to Nixon in the first season. Or there is, my favourite, the hobo ending where Don just drifts off to wander.

The thing is that they all make sense. If we think of Don not as a villain but as a representative of a certain kind of manhood, a certain kind of self-made man, the end is nigh. At this point, does it really matter what the exact machinery of his end is? At the end of Season 5, Don walks off one fictional set and right into another. That can't happen this time. The thing about absurdist endings is that, no matter how hard the critics try to pretend otherwise, they always feel like a cheat.

Is there any important point for Matt Weiner to make with the ending?  If there is, it has to be about Don. And he hasn't set anything up with regard to Don.

Except maybe this: Jim Hobart wants Don to bring everyone up a notch. And no matter what the man Don haters say, that has been the impact his type has in the larger culture. This throwback, this creature of nostalgia offers us a connection with an ideal of manhood that goes right back to the Greeks. How do we end his story? Do we simply write him off as so many critics want to? Or do we make something of him? And, once you know that, how much does it matter to you what Matt Weiner wants to make of him?