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.) 

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