Sunday, August 8, 2010

Being Dick

Mad Men, Season Four, Episode Three, "The Good News"

This episode moved me and its title is intriguing. I'm interested to know of other interpretations you might have of it. It is an ironic title. There really isn't any good news in this segment. The only reference to "good news" is in Stephanie's story of her college roommate who started reading the bible one night and Stephanie woke up the next morning to the woman asking, "Have you heard the good news?" Don and Anna laugh over that and dismiss the religiosity. Indeed, the entire episode deals with serious questions and issues without any consideration that religious answers might be meaningful. The idea that answers simply found in a book could fully address the heavy themes explored here doesn't make sense in the context of this world. And, I'm glad for that. The theme of being onesself v. being who others expect one to be was directly addressed in last week's episode. The question of how much control one really ever has over life's circumstances was explored rather powerfully in the season opener. Tonight they both came together.

Anna Draper came up in the comments on my last week's blog. I've been hoping to see her again. Sadly, this might be the last time. And, this is wrenchingly sad for Don/Dick, since it's only with Anna that he can truly be himself. As she said to him, she knows everything about him and she loves him just the same. He was back to looking good tonight as he was cruising down the California highway in the convertible. He's relaxed when he's with her. He talks openly with her about his feelings. They give each other genuine hugs that seem to express much caring. It's too bad they can't be a conventional couple. She's good for him. And, she's dying.

In the too-typical 1950s/1960s way of avoiding discussion of anything unpleasant and unhappy, her sister and niece acquiesce to the medical establishment's arrogance in presuming to know what's best for everyone, concurring with the doctor that Anna shouldn't be told she has bone cancer. As her niece tells Don, she doesn't have long, so why tell her? Don is justifiably outraged at this and insists she be told. I'm fascinated by his relationship with this woman. He is so different with Anna than he is with anyone else. While he does have a progressive side to him where some women are concerned--e.g. furthering Peggy's and Joan's careers--and he chooses mistresses who are intelligent and interesting, his idea of what a wife should be is completely conventional and many women are just sex objects to him. And he can get very controlling where all of these women are concerned. Some of last week's comments speculated on the origin of Don's exploiting women side. But, we don't see any of that with Anna. To him, Anna really is a person who has rights. They have a mutually nurturing relationship. He allows her to take care of him emotionally and he seeks to do the same for her. They have discussions in which important questions are discussed casually: She tells him she's seen UFOs (which he suggests might be down to her pot smoking) and seriously says that wondering if there might be another planet with intelligent life has gotten her "thinking of everything I know to be true and how flimsy it all might be." Don retorts, "You don't have to see a UFO to figure that out." These epistemological questions began to be asked anew with a vengeance by post-modern philosophers and theorists in the 1960s and beyond. Don and Anna discuss them comfortably while he's painting her wall in his shorts and she sits on the couch smoking a joint. While two episodes ago, Don seemed too old for the newly modern office, a relic of the 1950s about to be lost in the new decade, he seems to fit right in to the '60s mileu here. Is the dynamic of his and Anna's relationship possible because there's no sex involved? Or is it because he can just be Dick with her (as opposed to being a dick with his secretary and some other women)?

Yet, she's dying and Don has no control over that. He's even powerless to control the circumstances surrounding her illness and impending death. When he complains to her sister that she should be told, the woman tells him, "You have no say in the affairs of this family. You're just a man in a room with a checkbook." Ouch. To Anna, though, he's so much more. I have to suspect that she already knows something bad is wrong with her. Did she smoke pot before or is she doing this to manage the pain? Don does decide not to tell her, though. He accepts his limited role in her life. But, he leaves her after he's signed the wall he's painted with "Dick + Anna '64." When he returns to New York on New Year's Eve, having foregone his planned trip to Acapulco, he's back to being Don, but his evening with Lane--whose wife has also threatened to leave him and stay in London--shows a different side of him. He's sought out Lane's company (the old thing about what misery loves?) and the scene of the two of them watching "Godzilla" in the theater was hysterical. Lane is a very funny drunk. The comedian at the club they're attending mistakes them for a homosexual couple and makes a few jokes about/at them. But, Don is serious too, bringing up one of the key questions of the season. When Lane tells Don of his wife's announcement that she plans to stay in London, he says to Don, "You're supposed to tell me to get on a plane." Don replies with a question: "Is that what you want or is that what people expect of you?" The evening ends with two prostitutes Don has procured (back to being Don again), but he's got a new relationship with his newest partner. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Finally, the theme of lack of control over one's circumstances is illustrated through the poignant Joan and Greg sub-story. Dr. Greg is so tender with Joan in the scene in which he's stitching up Joan's hand that I almost forgot what a nasty jerk he was to her last season. Joan would so like to plan for their future, but the Army is taking it's sweet time in calling him to basic training and deployment. While I don't understand why anyone would think it's a good idea to plan to have a child in such uncertain times, I think it's Joan's way to create an orderly timeline. Once pregnant, she knows what the next nine months of her life are going to be. Unless something goes wrong, babies come on a fairly predictable schedule--give or take a week or two. She might end up being a single mother for the time Greg is in Vietnam--or a single mother forever if he's killed there--but she'll have made sure that the part of her life plan that calls for her to have a child will have been fulfilled. But, she's smart enough to know that things really are uncontrollable. Greg tells her, "Everything's gonna be alright." Her response, "When?"

But, at work, she can assert control. At the office meeting to set out the finances and timeline for the new year, she has the opening line of the meeting and the closing line of the episode, "Shall we begin 1965?" They can begin; they can plan; but they can't know or control what's really in store.

1 comment:

  1. Great comments!
    1964 has been a year of not-very-good-news for Don Draper. Yes, he's achieved success on the professional front, although the agency's future is still not secure (but they're getting there - I thought I saw a conference table in the final scene!). However, the rest of Don's life is one big mess - sloppy apartment, sloppy drunk, sloppy gropings on a couch.
    Enter Anna Draper - sunshine, sweetness, and all around good news. With her, Don/Dick can be himself and he can be loved unconditionally. She even tells him so - the opposite of Betty. Keeping in tune with all things 1964, however - "nothing gold can stay", as Robert Frost reminds us. Anna has cancer and she won't see 1965 (btw, my grandmother died of cancer in 1966 - and, like Anna, was never told that she had it. I have a feeling that she, like Anna, figured it out by the end.)
    And in other good (?) news - Joan is cleared to go for a new baby.Will Joan be able to conceive? Does she truly want a child? Or is she just trying to fit in to "type" - just as she married a doctor, who turned out to be less than, will motherhood be a disappointment? - And Lane -marriage dissolved - begins the New Year on a debauched night on the town with Don. It is interesting that in this episode Don willingly reveals the loving side of himself to Anna (as Dick) and the dark, desperate side of himself to Lane. Don has never done this with other co-workers...except, perhaps, Allison. Will he pretend NYE never happened, when he returns to the office and sees Lane again? Will he return Lane's hooker money in a Happy New Year card?
    The religious allusion to the biblical NT gospels - the good news - is very brief but, as you suggest, serves as a counterpoint to the struggles for those here on earth who question and flounder. The Time Magazine Cover: Is God Dead? appeared in 1966. Don and company are heading, surely, toward this question.
    One last comment: I truly hope that the whole Don complex with the Madonna/Whore issue gets resolved very, very soon. Anna is too saintly and Betty is bordering on the detestable. I have hopes for Dr. Faye Miller - she's lovely and she's smart. Please, writers - let's move on. And also, writers - is there a leg fixation on Mad Men? Anna, her polio and now the broken cancer-ridden limb, the writer from Advertising Age and his fake leg, and Guy meeting the John Deere...anything going on here? Or are legs in cast just easy TV visuals?