I remembered why I have a blog! (It’s to complain about things)

2011 February 3
by kvanaren

It’s blatantly obvious that I haven’t been able to really figure out what to do with this whole blogging thing for a while. The problem is that I’m trying to figure out how to make the switch from Early-Mid Grad Student mode to Late Grad Student mode – ie, from taking and teaching classes, working on the occasional paper, and generally consuming (TV, novels, theory, cookies) to generally producing (a dissertation, hopefully, but probably also cookies). I’ve never really been good at writing more than one thing at a time, which is why the blog was much easier to do every day when the rest of that day’s goals weren’t necessarily to Write Something Totally Made Up Out of My Own Head. The goals tended to be things like reading The Ambassadors or finding something to do in section that relates to Mrs Dalloway or writing a paper for Readings in Close Reading (oh yes), which made blogging a totally different thing, a thing springing completely from My Head. As it turns out, though, dissertations are apparently largely the productions of Your Own Head, or Someone’s Head, anyway – (I read this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the growing economy of ghostwritten academic work, so maybe some peoples’ dissertations come from Other Heads than Theirs) – and it’s made my blogging fall to the wayside as a lesser Heady pursuit.

But then I read this piece from the New York Review of Books on Mad Men, and I thought, “I am never going to be able to adequately express my disdain for that review in my dissertation. So this is what the blog is for.”

The piece is called “The Mad Men Account,” and its premise is that Mad Men is actually much, much worse than everyone seems to realize, but the reason we all like it anyhow is that it allows people who were children during the 1960s to relive their childhoods. We are supposed to be identifying with Sally and Glen rather than Don and Betty, argues Mendelsohn, and it is this complicity with a child’s eye view of the world that creates such appeal for a show that is otherwise poorly written, poorly acted, shallow, and over-designed. To restate the argument in a way that might be more generous, the static, staged and superficial quality of the show’s cinematography can actually be read as a child-like cinematic narrator, who observes the grown-ups with curiosity and admiration, but cannot understand their motivations or inner lives.

The argument that Mad Men might have more sympathy toward, complicity with, or even identification with its child characters is worth considering, although the connection Mendelsohn makes that Glen = Matt Weiner’s son, and thus Glen = Matt Weiner is clearly a reduction of Glen’s complexity (or at least, one has to hope so for Matt Weiner’s sake). I’m open to the suggestion that occasionally Mad Men can suffer from a lack of subtlety – some moments are about as subtle as cheetah-print stilettos or a hammer to the thumb – and I don’t have a problem with Mendelsohn’s nearly categorical disapproval of both the writing and acting on the show. Surely that opinion also lacks subtlety, but it’s an opinion, and he’s entitled to his own.

My real problem with “The Mad Men Account” comes in this territory:

“Worst of all – in a drama with aspirations to treating social and historical “issues” – the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic. By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination: sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, racism, the counterculture, and so forth.”

Boo, soap operas! Apparently Mad Men isn’t “dramatic” like The Sopranos, The Wire or Friday Night Lights, shows approved by Mendelsohn. Instead, Mad Men…

“…is, essentially, the stuff of soap operas: abortions, secret pregnancies, extramarital affairs, office romances, and of course dire family secrets.”

Because there are no abortions on Friday Night Lights, no adulteries, alcoholism or drug addiction on The Wire, and certainly no “dire family secrets” on The Sopranos! Either the author has never seen any of these shows he professes to enjoy, or the argument against Mad Men is actually something else that goes unspoken. It feels to me as though the real meat of this problem is in the term “soap opera,” what it means for Mendelsohn, and what its alternative might be. At least twice, Mendelsohn defines the soap opera with a list of troublesome, soapy plotlines, despite their ubiquity on television (and novels, and comic books, and radio drama, and epic poetry for Pete’s sake), but his real definition actually comes earlier. Soap operas, he says, “proceed[ ]…serially…generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises,” and this melodramatic form of fiction is opposed to his preferred dramatic structure: “exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena.”

Never mind that of course, The Sopranos, The Wire and Friday Night Lights also proceed serially, generating and resolving personal crises, and never mind that if Peggy Olson isn’t a means of “exploring, by means of…conflict between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena” then I don’t know who is. No, the craziest thing here is that all Mendelsohn’s really saying is that he doesn’t like serial fiction. Sure, he complains about the acting and the writing, but his biggest problem is that the show lacks a single direction or obvious trajectory. The one episode he does enjoy, “Hands and Knees,” he describes as both “Aristotelian” and “Sophoclean,” knowingly or unknowingly suggesting that good fiction is complete unto itself, containing balanced internal structure, a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s no surprise that Mendelsohn also points to his pleasure in Law and Order, even though the thing he points to is not its episodic structure, but the fact that people walk in and out of the frame. (Really? Law and Order? Not Sorkin?)

Listen, there’s nothing wrong with not liking serial TV. The issue here is that Mendelsohn is ragging on a television show for being a television show, or at least, an American-style TV show, where personal crises wax and wane with the crest and valley of each season. It’s anyone’s prerogative to dislike serial fiction, but don’t pick on Mad Men for qualities shared by nearly everything else on television, including The Sopranos, The Wire, and Friday Night Lights. Or at least, do it a little more thoughtfully.

Mad Men – Tomorrowland

2010 October 18
by kvanaren

Is it possible that Don is marrying Megan just because she taught his kids how to sing a song in French and can mop up a milkshake without flipping her lid?

Given his history with Betty, those qualities may already put Megan ahead of his previous marriage, and could even mean something like a healthy relationship, but it’s Don’s conversation with Peggy that really points to how misguided he is about this engagement. He tells her that she reminds him of Peggy, and that she has the same spark in her eye. And yet, Megan’s face does not read as particularly engaged or knowing – she expresses concern and affection, she appears competent and balanced, but her gaze has never held the same piercing quality we see in Peggy, Joan, or even Betty. I was astonished by that last scene in the Francis house, because I would never have expected to come away with an impression of Betty as experienced, resigned, or wry, but there she was, smiling knowingly up at Don. I suppose Betty has always managed to appear shrewder than she actually is, but it’s only with the added lens of Megan’s straightforward, untarnished youth that Betty actually comes off as worldly.

Of course, some of Betty’s world-weariness comes from a new pragmatism about her second marriage, and her smile reflects her and Don’s shared history of marital imperfection. Betty in fact appears all the more sophisticated because she has been forced to confront the realities of a hasty, escapist wedding, and she’s doing it at the same moment that Don has managed to forget almost every lesson he might have learned from his first marriage. Don’t get me wrong – Betty is still Betty, totally flummoxed by her inexplicable feelings about Glen, vindictive and unfeeling toward Carla, obviously upset by the news of Don’s engagement – but it’s an odd turn of events to watch Betty cope with introspection while Don looks innocently toward a new beginning.

The episode’s title reflects the one thing Don does seem to be taking into consideration about this sudden leap into re-marriage. For all his failures as a parent, Don is committed to choosing a wife who will give his children more stability and affection than Betty ever could, and we retrospectively understand the significance of Sally’s office meltdown. Don comforted Faye and told her it didn’t matter that she isn’t good with children, but in the end, all of Faye’s independence and career savvy couldn’t endear her as much as Megan’s unflappable milkshake cleanup skills. This engagement, however mistaken and hurried it might be, is a testament to Don’s optimism about the future and the life he wants for his children.

The Tomorrowland of Don’s optimism is distinctly different from the Tomorrowland of Peggy’s ambition. Don’s bright new future looks remarkably like his past, and however much he may claim to value Megan’s intellectual “spark,” if this were actually his main priority, he would have proposed to Faye long ago. Instead, it’s hard to imagine Megan continuing to work at SCDP, and I’ll be very surprised if a pregnant Megan quietly takes pride in her empty new job title the way Joan obviously enjoys hers. Don goes into season five looking to move forward, but only as long as moving forward is a more effective do-over of what came before. Meanwhile, as Peggy makes clear in that fabulous scene with secretly pregnant Joan, Peggy’s ideal Tomorrowland does not entail substituting a personal life for professional success, and she scoffs at Joan’s rejoinder that Peggy not make work her entire source of satisfaction as “bullshit.”

At the end of the season, then, we’re left in the same place Mad Men loves to inhabit – a space that yearns for the past even as it hurtles into the unknown. On one end, we have Don’s obsession with childhood, nostalgia, and a blissful, unblemished ignorance about the world that he obviously admires even as he finds it impossible to accomplish for himself. On the other, Peggy charges into the Topaz pantyhose office and unblinkingly pulls brilliant ad campaigns out of thin air even though the male executive can’t even bother to remember her name. To Mad Men’s eternal credit, though, every time we reach this familiar place, it changes. Season one ended with just this same balancing act, as Don idealized the happy nuclear family and Betty took her first steps toward their eventual divorce, and Bob Dylan’s reflective guitar picking hinted at the coming cultural shift. Now, with Sonny and Cher belting “I’ve Got You, Babe” over the closing credits, Don’s turn to the past looks less like a loving portrait of a lost family, and more like a hopeful but clearly desperate attempt to glue the pieces back together. I wish him luck, but I doubt he’ll succeed.

Mad Men – Blowing Smoke

2010 October 11
by kvanaren

There were several things I found difficult to believe over the course of last night’s episode. The first thing that I still can’t believe is that I thought for any moment that the ridiculously accented Bobby Kennedy was supposed to be real. If I’d paused it and thought about the potential ramifications – SCDP is instantly propelled into stardom, runs major democratic campaigns and takes over Manhattan, it would have become clear that of course it wasn’t actually Bobby Kennedy. But really, if I’d paused it and just thought about the phone call, there’s no way I wouldn’t have realized that absurd Kennedy impression was a joke. Next, I can’t believe Betty is actually so childish and petty that she would move away just to separate Sally and Glen (and by result, in some twisted way, force Sally to act out again, thereby upping her weekly therapy and allowing Betty to continue seeing the child psychiatrist). It’s not as though it’s implausible, given Betty’s stellar parental record, but it was still astonishing. What I could accept, no problem, were Betty’s fabulous sunglasses as she spotted Sally sneaking away and leapt furiously out of her wood-paneled station wagon.

The biggest piece of the episode that I found nearly impossible to believe was that the partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce couldn’t see Don’s “Why I’m Quitting Tobacco” gesture for what it was – a brilliant piece of advertising. This is just my gut reaction theory, but that full-page ad creates a generational jolt of a very different kind than the standard “oh right, women were second-class citizens!” reminder that Mad Men has been so effective at administering over the last several seasons. The show has become comfortable with playing with historical juxtaposition, frequently through representations of gender or race, but also through smaller-scale details like the enormous, new-fangled Xerox machine or the advent of The Beatles. We love them and they work largely by playing with familiar aspects of life in 2010 that we are also aware have changed dramatically over the last several decades. Images of pregnant women drinking get to be astonishing and self-congratulatory for the audience (“we know better than that”), but they work partly because they’re not that astonishing. We know that we think about pregnancy differently now than we did then, and we understand that a fax machine would have been a magical thing.

The “Why I’m Quitting Tobacco” piece almost works the same way. A modern audience knows that tobacco advertising will be a source of endless tribulation and congratulates Don on being on the right side of history from a public health perspective, even if Peggy derides an employee who asks if Don will quit smoking. But my admiration for the letter was not really for its historically fortuitous stance against big tobacco; I loved it because it was smart, unexpected, and re-positioned SCDP as a company in control of its future. It immediately struck me as effective because it looks like a public relations maneuver that would happen at a canny modern company today, and it comes across as ahead of its time. It’s not hard to believe that an employee would get flack for dating a black woman because this is a part of our history we’re proud of having changed; it’s much harder to believe that an advertising strategy this calculating and self-conscious would be misunderstood, because it’s not easy to face up to how comfortable we now are with advertising “shenanigans.” This is an aspect of ourselves and the way media has changed that we think about much less than we do things like women in the workplace or joint custody. It’s so difficult to believe that Sterling, Cooper, etc. don’t love the ad because this is a historical rearview mirror we’re less familiar with consulting. Maybe we forget that advertising innovation wasn’t always synonymous with stunt advertising we were bombarded with stories about Taco Bell buying the Liberty Bell or half.com purchasing the town of Halfway, Oregon.

One more thing on the list of things I couldn’t believe about last night’s episode: how completely and surprisingly effective I found Don’s voiceover. Since it happened, I’ve been crossing my fingers every time Don even looked toward that little notebook, and I was really leery when I saw him put pen to paper in this episode. Instead of the overwrought SATC musing from last time, though, this was almost a vindication of the previous voiceover. We watch Don sit down, rip apart his previous diary entries, and begin to write what appears to be a personal, vulnerable account of why he’s quitting tobacco, fueled no doubt by the disturbing return of Midge as a heroin addict. The shot of him sitting contemplative at his desk in the Village segues into the familiar “sad Don goes swimming” shot, and then that voiceover fades away as a new one begins – still Don, but this time he’s pitching a campaign, not quietly considering the human condition.  What we get turns out to be a fabulous bit of wizardry, where the personal account turns into the public declaration and Don’s honest, open tone actually restores the calculating, intelligent, and still unreadable personality underneath the outer persona.

Can’t wait for next week!

Mad Men – Chinese Wall

2010 October 4
by kvanaren

It’s the last days of Rome at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and I can’t help but wonder if the subplots in these last few episodes are building into a rhythm of collapse. A week ago, those Beatles tickets hinted at coming disappointment that is alleviated in the last moment as Megan hands Don the envelope with the tickets inside. Of course, the ticket device was the frame for a much bigger set of failures and disappointments, so by the time the tickets arrived, they were really just a reminder of their own relative inconsequence. The stakes were much bigger in last night’s little off-screen framing narrative: poor Trudy was back in a hospital room giving birth, and I kept waiting for the dark clouds on the horizon to build into a thunderclap, particularly with the comment about the baby being too large for Trudy’s pelvis. Like the Beatles tickets, though, Baby Girl Campbell made it safely into the narrative world, but it was clear she was born at a moment when her father’s company was falling apart, its future resting on a distant possibility of hope in the shape of Heinz ketchup. These two episodes seem like a set-up for a rule of three plot arc – first the tickets, then the baby, and next week?

I say this in part because it’s easy to see the really big storms growing, and to imagine their fallout. Faye seriously compromised herself, and the effect of her professional betrayal on her relationship with Don was strongly hinted in their posture, which mirrored Roger and Jane’s snuggling on the couch. You never want your relationship to be compared with a marriage where all the husband can think to say when dedicating his autobiography is “to my loving wife,” the most generic inscription imaginable. Between that breakdown and the undoubtedly poor decision to have an affair with Megan, regardless how sincerely she promises not to cry the next day, it’s easy to see that Don’s personal life will continue to fall apart. Professionally, the upcoming obstacles are even more obvious. Pete’s dissatisfied with Don, he feels undervalued at SCDP, and maybe Ted Chaugh will make him feel more loved. Without Lucky Strike, Roger has almost no role in his own company, and it might not even matter because he might not have a company for much longer. It’s nearing the end of the season (it’s the end of Rome), and big things are happening.

But I’m stuck on the Beatles tickets and Trudy’s baby because Mad Men has always been a show that thrives on detail, and that aspect was never more obvious then last night. The empire may be collapsing, the partners may be driven to poaching clients at a funeral for God’s sake, but we’re going to spend several deeply awkward minutes focused on a smear of lipstick on Peggy’s teeth. Oh the lipstick. Oh the cringing. The funny thing about that sequence was that it probably made the meeting go much more smoothly and quickly than it could have – my impression was that the clients, like myself, just wanted the whole thing to end because it was so awkward and gahhh. This is the same quality I’m referring to with the tickets and the Campbell baby: it’s a small aspect of the episode that snowballs into a painful and embarrassing sequence, and I feel like the season is preparing to perform the same mountain out of a molehill performance in a far more damaging way. Except the next time, the mountain won’t be revealed for the molehill it is; it will keep growing and gaining mass until it really is a crushing, insurmountable peak.

A last word on using physical metaphors to describe plot elements – it’s not like the episode’s title wasn’t asking for it, you know?

Mad Men – Hands and Knees

2010 September 27
by kvanaren

A while ago, I was writing about procedural narratives, and was discussing the way procedurals work by creating the illusion of change without ever actually changing. A show like CSI can go on forever, with characters leaving and coming back, serial killers rampaging around the office and employees being kidnapped, without anyone showing more than temporary signs of trauma. More importantly, the standard operating procedure (dead body, murderer unveiled) carries on without the slightest hiccup. Maybe the most exciting thing about cable television right now is the regularity with which that model is broken on HBO, FX, or AMC. There are procedurals on cable as well, of course, and I’m happy to admit to loving procedurals just as much as the next person, but it’s hard not to be drawn toward shows with less investment in maintaining a status quo.

I bring all of this up in the context of “Hands and Knees,” and also brought it up after the show’s season three finale, because Mad Men has done a masterful job of both maintaining the possibility that everything could come crashing down, as became frighteningly clear last night, and occasionally living up to that threat, as was the case at the end of last season. It helps that the entire show is built on the instability of Don Draper’s founding lie, because it lets the show flirt with discovery and dissolution every time the dam springs a leak. It started with Don’s picture being printed in Advertising Age in season one, continued through his confession to Betty and their divorce, and finally reached a stage of real threat when the FBI begins to ask questions in last night’s episode. While Mad Men has yet to perform a great unmasking of the So-Called Don Draper, it has obviously been willing to dismantle pretty much everything else in the show, and “Hands and Knees” made it seem likely that a much bigger crash is coming.

The truly remarkable thing about “Hands and Knees” is that by the end, very little has actually happened – the episode begins with Don promising to take Sally to the Beatles concert in Shea Stadium, and ends with the tickets safely in his hand. Nevertheless, by the episode’s conclusion, it’s clear that almost every lie ever told on the show is on the verge of collapse, and the doom is so imminent that it feels as though everything has already fallen apart. Pete manages to stop the investigation into Don’s identity at the price of a major account and Pete’s escalating rancor, while in the meantime, Don has a nervous breakdown and tells Faye everything. Betty toys with the idea of telling Henry Francis, which is where my money falls on how this whole thing actually comes down. Lee Gardner, Jr. tells Roger that the Lucky Strike account is gone, and even though he gives Roger thirty days to patch something together, the future of SCDP is clearly in doubt. Lane Pryce’s evil father arrives from London, wielding domination in the form of corporal punishment. And of course, Roger and Joan’s encounter from the previous episode results in Joan sitting in a doctor’s office in Morristown, contemplating her third abortion. In spite of all of these things, Don’s secretary Megan is able to cheerfully hand him the Beatles’ tickets at the end of the episode and smile that everything worked out, and manage to be both mostly right and terribly wrong in the same moment.

The music playing over the end credits – an arrangement of the Beatles’ “Do You Want To Know A Secret?”, the actual song being prohibitively expensive, I’m sure – was a nice tie in to both the Shea Stadium concert and the episode’s thematic threads. The secret I’d particularly like to know is whether Joan actually had the abortion. The episode left it carefully unspecified, but Alan Sepinwall seems to take it as a given that she had the procedure, while I was left feeling like maybe she didn’t go through with it. Thoughts?

What does one even say about this outfit?

I enjoyed “Hands and Knees.” It was well crafted, suspenseful and surprising, and even funny, namely in the scene when Don and Betty quickly shift into “the government is listening to our phones” mode and in the shape of Trudy’s unbelievably amazing maternity nightgown. But mostly I enjoyed “Hands and Knees” for what it promises about Mad Men through the end of its fourth season, and likely into its fifth. It seemed that with Don’s divorce and Anna Draper’s death, Dick Whitman would fade into the background, but he’s still here, making it possible for Don’s life to further disintegrate. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is not just a replacement of the old Sterling Cooper – its continued existence is no more assured than Don Draper’s.

Mad Men – The Beautiful Girls

2010 September 20
by kvanaren

Thankfully, my prayers were answered and last night’s Mad Men featured none of Don’s Carrie Bradshaw-esque voiceovers. As though it were determined to do a Sex and the City riff one way or the other, however, last night’s episode focused on the women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and all of their different but equally upsetting dissatisfactions. It’s a good thing Mad Men switched from playing with that show’s narrative style to addressing its thematic concerns, because Don makes a poor Carrie Bradshaw, but Mad Men does a great job of exploring femininity, changing social positions, family politics, women in the workplace, and women’s rights as an ongoing social inequality.

It was an episode about the women, and emphasized its focus by eliminating or downplaying the presence of many of the male characters, and by positioning those it retained (Don, Roger and Bert, Peggy’s adversary Abe) as foils for Sally, Faye, Joan, and Peggy. Pete only got an appearance in the Great Ida Blankenship cover-up, and Harry Crane’s one line was a thematically-appropriate quip: “my mother made that!” Faye, Peggy and Joan’s roles in the episode were all variations on the same questions – how can you be a professional woman? How do you negotiate between traditional choices and the nascent possibility for professional careers? These aren’t new questions for Mad Men, but it was fun to watch the show grapple with placing those three women side by side, teasing out their common desires and diverging priorities. I do think that final shot of them in the elevator did a disservice to how complex these characters have become. We see Joan on one side, having chosen marriage and lower status in the workplace, Faye on the other, with no husband or children but a flourishing career, and Peggy in the middle, ostensibly caught between the two choices. It’s true, but it’s a little too black and white, and obvious enough that it’s distracting rather than revelatory.

To my mind, the most interesting and heartrending aspects of “The Beautiful Girls” lay at the opposite ends of the spectrum with Sally Draper and Ida Blankenship, the bookends to Joan, Peggy and Faye’s triptych. Ida’s death is played mostly for laughs, given the macabre game of Hide-the-Corpse and Roger’s wry eulogy (“she died as she lived, surrounded by the people she answered phones for”), but it’s easy to see the tragedy in that statement even without Bert’s far more elegant obituary. But their connection is made explicit by the overt sense of displacement each portrays, and their mutual frustration with the contemporary moment. Ida is a relic who can barely cope with this new workplace environment, and Sally is an unhappy child of divorce in a time when no court would ever grant her father custody. As if to underline their affinity in the most unpleasantly literal way imaginable, Sally and Miss Blankenship are also visually paired in the episode. Miss Blankenship’s dead weight propels her head face first onto the desk with a darkly humorous thunk, and then that image of a lowered head comes back in Sally’s desperate, furious flight from her father’s office and her subsequent wipeout in the hallway. It’s an awful, brilliant correlation between Miss Blankenship’s literal death and the collapse of poor Sally’s hope for freedom as she is strong-armed back to her thoughtless, resentful mother.

It’s a testament to the story’s compelling quality, but also certainly to Kiernan Shipka’s talents as an actress, that although this episode included Joan and Roger’s mugging and public tryst, Peggy’s growing awareness of civil rights, and some excellent verbal sparring between Stan the brutish art director and Joyce the lesbian Life photographer, all I really remember is how terribly I feel for Sally Draper.

Mad Men – The Summer Man

2010 September 14
by kvanaren

I am perfectly fine with one episode of Mad Men like “The Summer Man.” Things have to change up every once in a while, and it’s a good thing. It’s certainly better to try new things and experiment a little than to fall into familiar, boring ruts. In many ways, I liked the tenor and direction of “The Summer Man” – it is a relief to see Don trying to move out of his downward spiral into alcoholism, it’s nice to return to telling stories about Joan, even if they’re stories about how rough her life is right now, and it’s useful to color Peggy’s upward trajectory into power and success with obstacles that come from her own misreading rather than perpetual unfairness from the outside. There’s no question that most of Peggy’s trouble at the office has to do with unstable bosses and idiot asshole co-workers, but Peggy isn’t a genius who sweeps through the hallway confronting injustice. Sometimes, she does things like fire Joey without seeing the bigger problem lurking underneath the outbursts, and while it’s great that Peggy clearly respects Joan, she’s never really understood her. Peggy fires Joey and flushes with her newly attained power, and then proudly presents her action as a gesture of friendship toward Joan. In the process, she completely ignores how hard it must be for Joan to watch Peggy “rescue” her and then expect thanks for doing it.

mad men 408 3

I appreciate “The Summer Man” for returning to this relationship between Peggy and Joan, because it’s always been a touchstone for Mad Men of how much things have changed. Their shifting positions relative to each other are more telling and markedly changed than Peggy’s relationship with Don or Joan’s position inside the company. The first season sets them out as blatant foils for one another, working inside a well-delineated hierarchy with Joan placed firmly ahead of Peggy on the ladder. Peggy and Don may have had the more personal and creatively challenging connection over the past several seasons, but Peggy and Joan are still poised in a culturally illuminating opposition to one another. Much though I might wish it could be otherwise, it seems that they’re meant to remain counterweights – one character rises, and the other one falls.

mad men 408 2

All that said, “The Summer Man” was really about Don, and it’s here that I worry a little about Mad Men straying a little too far from what works. Don’s trying to get sober – great. Don wants to get in shape, and have a relationship with his youngest son – good for him. Don manages to go out with Faye Miller, who would actually be an interesting match for him – all for the best. Don’s journaling becomes a theme-laden voiceover, a la Carrie on Sex in the City, Doogie Howser’s diary, recorded letters to unseen friend Sally on Felicity, the Captain’s Log on Star Trek, etc. etc. etc. – oh please, Mad Men. Let this be a one episode thing.

For my money, one of the most brilliant things about Mad Men is that it dramatizes the most frustrating aspect of any film-based fictional form. We see characters and we watch them interact with each other, but unlike a novel, we ultimately have no way to access to their thoughts. Film and television are perpetually fascinated by and grappling with this problem, which is why we have such a bounty of scenes with therapists, of heartfelt tell-all conversations, and of shows that reach for devices like voiceovers, journals, and other internal monologues to give us an inside view. Rather than fight with its medium, part of Mad Men’s genius has always been to capitalize on this absence of interiority. Instead of attempting to get us inside its characters’ heads, much of the surprise and pleasure of the show comes out of appreciating the gloriously manicured, gleaming surface appearances, and then delighting at how different everything is underneath. Mad Men works best as an anti-Facebook. The pilot episode illustrates this perfectly – first we get the silhouette of Don Draper in the opening credits, then we slowly meet a beautiful, struggling ad man with a bohemian girlfriend, then we realize he’s actually an insightful advertising genius, and finally, we discover he’s married. Mad Men does not begin with a close-up of Don Draper’s face and a voiceover that explains, “My name is Don Draper, but it wasn’t always that way. I have a girlfriend, but also a wife. I may have trouble at work, but sometimes I manage to see everything just a little different than everyone around me. My name is Don Draper, and my life is complicated.” *Cue wackadoo theme song*

Can't get no satisfaction, something you know all to clearly from his voiceover informing you he caught a whiff of perfume

Can't get no satisfaction, something you know all to clearly from his voiceover informing you he caught a whiff of perfume

And yet, this is sort of what happens in “The Summer Man,” complete with the hilariously over-sexified opening scene that features Don posing outside the New York Athletic Club like he’s a Brooks Brothers model. It’s sort of fascinating after all this time and his after oft-repeated distain for self-examination, Don Draper would become a guy with a journal. It makes sense that it would happen at a time in his life when his only remaining connection to Dick Whitman has been severed, his family dismantled, and his career disrupted. It makes sense, but after years of a fiction organized around the surprise of what’s inside, it feels too close and too revealing. My hope is that the episode’s title is a sort of excuse for the voiceover, and a suggestion of its impermanence. Right now, this summer, Don is a guy with a journal who can’t get no satisfaction. That’s fine, but I’d like it to be fall now, please.

Mad Men – The Suitcase

2010 September 7
by kvanaren

I am officially in love with this season of Mad Men. The flavor of it is distinctly different than the past three seasons – the switch to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has been accompanied by a new tone for the show, so that it feels a little looser, a little more comfortable being funny and brutal and strange. Last night’s episode was astoundingly good, so much so that I feel like instead of writing this blog post I just want to watch it again. Of course, episodes like these don’t roll around every day, and it’s because they can’t. You can’t have Don and Peggy holed up together in the office for every episode, ripping each other to shreds and then baring their innermost secrets, because if they did, Mad Men would quickly become a trashy, will-they-or-won’t-they soap opera with Don and Peggy in the starring roles. Instead, we get this one episode organized around a boxing match, and everyone gets beaten to a pulp so they can wake up the next morning with a belief that today will be different than yesterday.

Although the central idea works well – two competitors in a ring, working at each other until one of them prevails – none of the matches in the SCDP world end with nearly the speed or the definitive conclusion of the famous Muhammed Ali/Cassius Clay knockout. The battle between Don and Duck Phillips does at least have a victor, as Don says “Uncle” and Duck backs off, but the thing is so messy and ill-conceived that unlike Ali, Don’s big opening swing doesn’t even land, and their undignified thrashing hardly comes off as impressive. There are similarly chaotic fights all the way through, including everything from that goofy Samsonite commercial Peggy and Stan pitch in the episode’s opening to Peggy and Mark’s embarrassingly public break up, but of course, the title match-up is Don and Peggy.

mad men 407 2

The fight feels like something Mad Men has been building toward since its opening episode, and you can see all of their history being woven into the different sections of their showdown. Peggy is struggling with her need for equal treatment and fair recognition for her work, Don can’t cope with the meaning of Anna Draper’s death, and they both have huge, ever-looming backstories that they perpetually try to keep crammed inside of – well, inside of a suitcase, and the baggage follows them everywhere. At some point, the fight turns into something else, and as they sit chuckling over Sterling’s Gold and the idea that Bert Cooper has no testicles, those hidden histories begin to unfold. It’s remarkable to hear Don tell Peggy about his childhood, but I think it’s even more amazing to hear them both talking about Peggy’s pregnancy, something she has managed to keep almost completely separate from her working life. Her openness to the subject is no doubt triggered by Trudy’s visible pregnancy and her fantastically mean comment in the bathroom, and the acknowledged presence of Peggy’s storied past puts Don and Peggy on the same side rather than allowing them to remain adversaries. The fight that began as a breakdown between a boss and his protégé turns into a bigger battle about how much your past defines you, and Don and Peggy finish the showdown as allies against a world that doesn’t know them.

mad men 407 1

As anticipated, Anna Draper’s death kills Dick Whitman. Collapsed onto Peggy’s lap, Don sees her going, suitcase in hand, and Peggy’s suggestion about the most exciting thing about a suitcase takes on a more existential meaning. From the first person perspective, the most exciting thing about a suitcase is, as Peggy says, “going somewhere.” Of course, if you’re not the person carrying the suitcase, “going somewhere” becomes “watching someone leave.” With no one left here who remembers him, Dick vanishes inside of Don Draper’s past, and Don can no longer be that split personality, shifting back and forth between sophisticated ad man and country yokel. His task now is to be a single person containing both of those lives, and although it may seem impossible, Peggy Olsen pulls him out of the initial despair. When Don says that there’s no one left who knows him, and Peggy answers, “that’s not true,” she’s not saying she knows Dick Whitman. She knows the person he is now, Don Draper, who grew up on a farm and saw people die in Korea and became a successful ad man. She knows him better than Betty, or Pete, or Bert Cooper, all of whom know the story about Don’s stolen name, because she sees all of the aspects of him at once, as part of a single person.

mad men 407 3

There can only be episodes like this if they’ve been earned, and Mad Men has been setting up this moment of understanding between Don and Peggy for a long time. In keeping with that idea, I think Mad Men also earned the gesture they made at the show’s end, which I loved but which it can only do once in a while. One of the easiest ways to evoke a time period is through musical reference, but that’s a game Mad Men has often refused to play. Stephanie won’t dance to the Beach Boys, she’ll dance to now-forgotten Jan and Dean; Don will talk about Bob Dylan, but only two seasons after he gets used as the final music of season one; the only Beatles presence on Mad Men is a two second clip where Don tells his secretary to buy an album for a Christmas present. Still, every once in a while, you get to pull out something iconic, and it’s hard to get more sixties than Simon and Garfunkel. “Voices leaking from a sad café / smiling faces trying to understand” – Oh, Mad Men. You got me.

Mad Men – The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

2010 August 23
by kvanaren

From its first season, Mad Men has occasionally done this type of plotline. Beginning with Rachel Mencken and the Israeli tourism board, and then continuing through Pete’s support of a black-focused campaign for Admiral televisions, we’ve gotten a few glimpses into a 1960s perspective on otherness. “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” extends this into an encounter with Japanese culture, and as with the previous experiences, the methods and the results are much the same. Don and company do some research (Don read Exodus before his meeting with Israeli tourism just as he reads The Chrysanthemum and the Sword to prepare for meetings with Honda), and at the end of the day, whatever everyone’s personal inclinations may be, more tolerance means more business.

mad men 405 1

But it’s clear that this experience with Honda is much more strained than the earlier incidents, and the pressure is coming from a few different angles. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce needs the business more than Don-Draper-era Sterling Cooper ever needed any individual account, so the corporate stakes are far higher, and as Roger Sterling made painfully obvious, the emotional stakes are similarly raised. Roger’s questions about the world are the same as our questions watching Mad Men – how much of this world has changed? Are we still the same people as these characters, or are the differences just superficial? And the analogy works for our perpetual questions about Mad Men’s historical specificity as well. Roger is furious that no one remembers Dr. Lyle Evans, while Matt Weiner engages in a weekly game of “name that 1960s reference.” (This week: Sally watches The Man from UNCLE, Benihana was founded in 1964, and the internet seems to be scrambling this morning to identify Dr. Lyle Evans).

mad men 405 2

It’s a carefully orchestrated episode of television that can begin with an uncomfortable cultural reaction that we now view as painfully old-fashioned (“your new yellow buddies”) and then shift to a topic that we still feel a hefty dose of awkwardness about, although it may not be quite at the level of Betty’s mortified 1960s reaction. “Look!” it seems to say. “We may feel superior and dissimilar to these crazy Japanese-hating pre-hippies, but you felt pretty uneasy yourself, didn’t you?” Even among a group of academics at Dickens Universe, the subject that created the most debate and emotional response was the concept of Oliver Twist as a sexualized child, an object of pedophilic lust, or a child in danger of falling outside of heterosexual relationships. This episode took an enduring cultural queasiness about the sexualized child and connected it back to The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, a text all about guilt and shame-based cultural values. Don managed to successfully negotiate the unfamiliar waters by demonstrating his personal sense of honor (a quality on display for the Honda executives if not for many other characters on the show), but Betty’s mortification felt like the episode’s dominating mode.

mad men 405 3

If nothing else, this incident with Sally means that she’ll be getting some therapy which she almost certainly needs, although Betty probably should be the one going four days a week. It did feel appropriate that after Betty’s disastrous therapy experience in season one, she is far more comfortable and open in a session with a children’s therapist. Of course she is. I think at this point, even Bobby is more adult than Betty, who responds to her daughter’s self-applied haircut by slapping her across the face and calling her a Mongoloid. I’m glad that at least for now, Henry Francis is willing to be the father figure Betty obviously desires, although it’s unclear how long he would be satisfied by a wife who has no more control over her emotions than her ten-year-old daughter.

mad men 405 4

Three cheers for Peggy, right now the least embarrassed of the bunch, as she tools around the empty sound stage on the Honda motorcycle. May we all have many similarly shameless moments.

Mad Men – The Rejected

2010 August 17
by kvanaren

This was the funniest episode of Mad Men I can remember, and a lot of it has to do with Peggy Olson. Of course, because it’s Mad Men and because things are not going well for Don Draper, it was also quite sad, and especially painful for poor Allison, who was absolutely right to chuck that knickknack at his head.

Don’s status as a character is balancing between two statements. “I don’t say this easily,” says Allison as she storms out of his office, “but you are not a good person.” So much of the series is based on the questions surrounding that judgment, testing what pushes these characters toward being good or bad people, and at feeling around for what point they become irrevocably one or the other. Don’s many sins have been thoroughly documented on the show, as have his many causes for sadness and anger. At what point do we have to throw up our hands and pronounce this to be an irredeemably awful person? Or, as Don so fervently hopes in his spirited denunciation of Faye Miller’s report for Pond’s Cold Cream, “you can’t tell how people are going to behave based on how they have behaved.” I can turn this around, he says, and indeed, his whole life is based on the experience of waking up one morning as a completely different person. Let’s hope he manages to do it soon, because right now, he’s so lost that he can’t even finish his pitiful letter of excuse to Allison. “Right now my life is very…”

mad men 404 3

On the flip side of the coin, we have Peggy, who responds to the news of Pete’s impending fatherhood (err…re-impending?) by diving into some welcome counter culture, the first extended portrait we’ve gotten since Don’s days with Midge in the first season. Nudged along by the lesbian photo editor from Life, Peggy gets to stand next to a guy walking by wearing a bear head, get high and watch anti-Catholic art cinema, and be the snappy wit she has long wanted to be. (“He doesn’t own your vagina!” “No, but he’s renting it!” is one of the funniest lines of dialogue we’ve ever gotten from Peggy.) It’s a relief to get these occasional glimpses of other worlds. We remember how insular and controlled it feels at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, even in this newer and scrappier incarnation of Sterling Cooper. We can also better contextualize the choice that Peggy is trying to make, highlighted by the opposition created at the end of the episode. On one side of the glass, Peggy and her new bohemian friends, on the other, Pete and the good ol’ boys. The other side of the glass may not seem appealing – a guy who left her pregnant, a boss who sleeps with secretaries. But it also represents professional success, mentorship, and the telltale engagement ring she surreptitiously slips on during the focus group. If Don is balancing between his past and his future, so too is Peggy. The difference is that our metaphor for Don’s choice is an unfinished sentence that makes us wonder whether he even knows enough about his life to pick one option over another. Peggy’s metaphor is a glass door, which lets her see both options clearly and which only requires that she pick a side.

mad men 404 2

The last thing I’d like to say about this episode is just a praise of its undeniably infectious swagger, which began with that disastrous, hilarious conference call (“Oh my god, there’s some kind of fire”) and ended with a moment between an elderly husband and wife that swerved from saccharine to comic at the last possible moment (“We’ll discuss it inside”). Its peak, and the moment that made me laugh out loud and then rewind, was this hysterical bit of physical comedy from Peggy.

mad men 404 1

There are all sorts of things you can say here – more about Don’s roll as Peggy’s mentor, a little bit on Peggy perpetually looking through glass, maybe something about the drinking. When it comes right down to it, this scene was ultimately a moment of levity in a show that can really use a little fun now and again. It won’t last, because it never does. But every once in a while there’s a guy with a bear on his head, or Peggy peaking over your office wall, and thank goodness.