Thursday, July 4, 2013


Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Thirteen, "In Care Of..."

This was probably the best season finale Mad Men has ever produced. And this season needed it. I'd pretty much given up hope for Don, yet he--and the series with him--were profoundly redeemed and I'm hoping it sticks for him this time. The ending of "In Care Of" strikes me as an inverted image of the end of the first season's finale. In that episode--which also happened right before Thanksgiving--Don had just given the brilliant ad pitch to Kodak for their Wheel, which he renamed "Carousel." While his family life was in disarray, he presented nostalgic photo images suggesting they were happy and perfectly suited. After it was over, he slogged home to an empty house--Betty having taken the kids to her father's for the holiday without Don--and we last see him sitting on the stairs, alone. In this episode--five seasons and about eight years later--Don starts out giving a pitch to Hershey's that is full of nostalgia and a false image of his childhood. In a far-away voice, he tells a lovely story of his boyhood and his father buying him Hershey's chocolate bars. "His love and the chocolate were tied together," Don lies. The candy is "the childhood symbol of love." The men from Hershey's like this sentimental evocation of their candy's power and seem to be considering advertising for the first time. But then Don looks over at Ted Chaough, who had just confessed to Don his need and desire to start over with his family--for his kids. And, who had mentioned his father's alcoholism to Don when he told Don he knew he couldn't just stop cold turkey. Here's Don's partner, wanting to start afresh and be a better father than his was. And there's Don, bullshitting about his own father, his family life in disarray again as his daughter continually rejects him. Don glances down at his hands that start to shake and--tells the truth. Which is also a touching story. He tells all of them sitting at the table--three of his partners and the candy execs--that he was an orphan raised in a whore house; that he was unwanted and unloved; that the closest he got to feeling wanted was when one of the "girls" let him go through her johns' pockets while she was with them and root out the change; and, that Hershey's candy bars made him feel "like a normal kid...It was the only sweet thing in my life." "You want us to advertise that?" one of the men says. With that, Don Draper's career at the newly-named Sterling Cooper & Partners is likely over and he is given the same chance to start anew that he granted Ted. (I wonder if Ted's absence at the Thanksgiving meeting signified that he felt differently than his partners about giving Don this "sabbatical." Did he vote yes on Don's forced time to "regroup" because he wanted to help Don also be free to get in touch with the "good man" Ted told him he knows is there? I'd like to think so.) Unlike the first season's Thanksgiving, Don doesn't spend this one alone. He's with his children. And begins their day with some truth-telling to them too with a visit back to where so much of his emotional damage occurred. He's taken the steps to move out of Dante's Inferno and into Purgatorio, the place to work through and off his sins.

In the post I wrote after the season premiere, I wondered who Don's Beatrice might be, if indeed the writers did intend--with the image of him reading "Inferno"--to start him on this pilgrimage. With Sally's look to Don at the very end, I'm wondering if it might be her. Correct me if I'm wrong and forgetting another instance of this, but I think that she might be the first person on the show to term anyone's behavior "immoral": "I wouldn't want to do anything immoral," she pointedly tells Don when he lets her know she's been subpoenaed in connection with the burglar case. He clearly takes that to heart since the next shot is of him in a bar, looking disturbed. The Jesus peddler comes in and triggers Don's memories of a travelling preacher who came to the whore house when he was a teen. Don has good cause to be wary of rigid moralizers. His step-mother was one and she made his life a living hell. Her kind of self-righteous moralizing is dangerous and damaging to others (like the young child she was raising) and is self-deceptive. Mrs. Whitman was a horrible, hateful woman--not a virtuous one. Yet, if Don's reasonable rejection of his step-mother's brand of piety and morals then leads him also to reject any other consideration of morality and a worthwhile basis on which to build a moral system, he is truly lost. To me, his behavior that we have witnessed for six seasons is so often immoral, not because it breaches a biblical or otherwise religious code, but because it hurts so many people--and hurts Don himself. At various points in the series, he recognizes that--as someone who was so hurt as a child--he wants not to hurt others: he tells Betty that he won't hit Bobby because he knew what it was like to be hit by his father; he won't participate in the prostitution of Joan and tries to talk her out of it because he knows how hurtful prostitution is--not because some religions rail against it but because it dehumanizes people. He shines in these moments, but in too many other moments settles into the patterns of behavior he observed and experienced while growing up--cruelty and the use of others for his own satisfaction and to help him closet off his demons. The brothel-visiting preacher was onto something when he told young Dick that "the only unpardonable sin is to believe god cannot forgive you." Don does seem to have always believed that he's unforgiveable. If he can find his way to forgive and accept himself, he might be able to pull himself up that mountain that Dante imagines in "Purgatorio."

I like the way this episode focused on fathers and each of the featured male characters' desire to repair the connections with their children rather than just focus on their sex lives. Don, Ted, Roger, and Pete are all shown to have regrets about their estrangement from their children. The images of Pete--who's never seemed to care anything for his daughter--tenderly stroking the sleeping Tammy's hair, seeming regretful as he's about to leave her to move clear across the country, and of Roger placing his hat on Kevin's head after accepting that Joan has "invited" her into Kevin's life, not her own, were touching. It will be interesting to see where they go next season. Ted Chaough proved to be the basically good guy I thought he likely was and that Peggy kept arguing was there too. I felt for both Ted and Peggy for the difficult bind they're in, but think Ted made the right choice. He seems to know himself so much better than Don when he tells Peggy, "I wanted this so much, but I have a family....I have to hold on to them or I'll get lost in the chaos." Peggy is understandably hurt and throws back at him, "Well, aren't you lucky. To have decisions." But, Peggy too has decisions. When Ted first told her he was going to leave his wife, she said, "Don't say that. I'm not that girl." But, she then started on the path to be "that girl." Saying 'no' to their feelings for each other is incredibly difficult, but Peggy, too, can make the decision to move on. She seems to start that process when she sits down in Don's chair and looks thoughtfully out the window. Too many talented and ambitious women in that period were made to choose between a career and marriage. Not enough men were willing to have a career woman for a wife. That's sad, but I hope she'll see herself as someone with decisions to make. Her future, too, is an open book for next season.

Megan is also an open question. She wonders why she's still fighting for their marriage. Is her walkling out of the apartment the sign that their marriage is over? It probably should be, but another thing to wonder about for next season.

Finally--the firm. I wonder what Joan thought about suspending Don--with no return date. Cutler and Sterling were standing near Cooper's chair; Joan was off to the side. What, if anything, does the tableau signify? And why did Duck show up? The new logo was the first thing highlighted in this episode--on the door and on the loud, orange coffee cups. It and the new name seem made for almost all the partners, but Don and Joan. SC & P can encompass Sterling, Cooper, Campbell, Cutler, and Chaough. No Draper, the man who reveals his undesirable low-class origins in a whore house. No Harris, the woman the male partners made behave like a whore to get her partnership. Most of the men at the company have no scruples about visiting and using prostitutes. But, I can't help but think that their suspension of Don at the end comes not just from his lapses and unacceptable behavior at the Hershey meeting, but also because these blue-blooded men can't abide the thought of partnership with a man who came from such a "sordid" background. I now really am looking forward to Season Seven.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Rosemary's Baby

Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Twelve, "The Quality of Mercy"

Peggy ends this episode fabulously. With strength and insight into the character of Don--whom she knows so well--she confronts him after his betrayal of her and Ted in the meeting with the Johnson & Johnson exec. "You're a monster!" she lets him know, before walking out of his office. She doesn't buy his bullshit that he's "just looking out for the agency," and clearly Don doesn't either, since the last shot we see, he's curled up in a fetal position on the couch, about as miserable as we've ever seen him. All of this in an episode that centers around allusions to the popular film of that year, "Rosemary's Baby." So, is Don metaphorically Rosemary's baby--a monster conceived by the devil and a severely mistreated woman through hatred and deceit, born to serve the goals of--and be used by--others, hailed as something special, but living in a very dark place? Or is he Rosemary's husband--user and deceiver of a woman, participant in bizarre rituals? Or a bit of both?

The period in which this season takes place was prone to fears of chaos, violence, and loss of control--and not without reason. Mad Men has featured the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Democratic National Convention, and repeatedly alluded to the increased violence in the city. We see Don watching a Nixon campaign ad that plays to fears of urban violence and orders its viewers to "vote like your whole world depended on it." Ira Levin's 1967 novel and Roman Polanski's 1968 film use supernatural horror to play on and evoke readers'/viewers' fears of complete loss of conscious control over their lives and the terrifying and monstrous potential results. Megan deems it "really, really scary." Peggy and Ted use it as the basis for a children's aspirin commercial. The title character is unknowingly coerced into a sexual relationship with the devil and made to carry his baby to further the goals of a group of devil worshippers led by her next door neighbors. Along the way, she must face up to the fact that her husband is not who he seemed to be and has betrayed her--which is why I see its themes played out throughout the episode. Sally and Peggy have both figured out that Don is not to be trusted. And, with that, he loses two of the very important people in his life. You can see this as tragic; you can see this as just desserts for his horrendous behavior to those who love and admire him, but it does seem that Don is about as low as he's ever been--in the depths of the Inferno the season started out with. He's rejected by his daughter and his protege who understands him like no one else--save Anna Draper--ever has, because he is devoid of self-control, prone to just following his emotions and physical drives wherever they lead him: to a hurried and careless sexual encounter with Sylvia--that he couldn't have thought Sally would walk in on, but her son or husband easily could have--and to jealousy and bitterness over Peggy's and Ted's relationship that lead him to the typical abusive man idea that 'if I can't have her, no one can.' He's now a father whose child despises him; like his own father, whom he despised and didn't want to be like, he uses women, follows his most base instincts, and shows no regard for his children. He screws over his partner--the nice partner--and Peggy just out of spite and because he can. And he can because they trusted him. The self-righteous pedestal he puts himself on while talking to Ted after the meeting was truly despicable given who he is and what he's done: "Everybody sees it. Just ask your secretary. Your judgment is impaired. You're not thinking with your head." And--"we've all been there; well, not with Peggy..." Yet, it's Ted with Peggy that has brought out this monstrous behavior in Don. Is he really unable to recognize all that Peggy has done for and been to him? Does he deserve Peggy's charge of being a monster? I think so. What do you think?

Like in the last episode, Sally plays a prominent role here. She's smart, driven, and interested in worthy things like the Model UN, yet the poor kid is stuck with such shits for parents--stuck between Don, who's all id, and Betty, who's solely focused on the superficial aspects of what other affluent people think. She tells the woman at the prep school that it's so hard for a girl in that time period to navigate her way in the world. And that difficulty can only be exacerbated if Don Draper and Betty Francis are your parents. Those girls she meets at the school won't be any help to her either. I'd love to see a Mad Men sequel focused on Sally in the seventies, dealing with life as an adult having to cart around the baggage of her upbringing.

A few more quick thoughts:

--We finally got more info on Bob Benson. Pete is so slimy, but it will be interesting to see how this scenario plays out;

--Poor Ken Cosgrove. The last couple of episodes he's been featured in always start out with me thinking we have to be inside a nightmare of his, but it's just the crazy Chrysler guys. Jeez! "I hate cars. I hate guns." He gives up the account and is happy he's going to be a father. I love Ken Cosgrove.

--This episode didn't have a lot of humor in it, but watching Don act out the baby in Peggy's commercial was hysterical!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Political Is Personal

Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Eleven, "Favors"

I've been out of the country for a few weeks, without access to the last three episodes of this season. I'd thought about watching all three--now that I'm back--and writing one entry on the last quarter of the season as a whole, but this was a rich episode, so I'd like to work through it a bit on its own, before I move on to watching the last two:

The feminist movement of the Sixties adopted the mantra "the personal is political." It captured the budding awareness of increasing numbers of women that many of the indignities, dissatisfactions, injustices, and thwarted aspirations of their personal lives weren't only a series of individual circumstances, but had as their source a political structure and ideology (patriarchy) and were shared by scores of other women with whom they could form a political community of resistance. On the flip side, many of the Mad Men characters of this episode--like some of their real-world, privileged counterparts--could have been chanting "The Political Is Personal," turning a political problem--an unjust war and the government's means of recruiting soldiers for it--into a crisis only when it threatens to touch one of their own. Of course, it is all complicated. War is both profoundly personal for those who fight it, and political for those who seek to achieve their goals through it and for countries whose citizens' fervor and nationalism are stoked by it. It can bind peoples and communities together while also tearing them apart--and the same for the units and soldiers on the ground. As a mother of two sons, I'm not unsympathetic to Sylvia's fears and tears. I get why even the GM men don't want their sons and grandsons sent to Vietnam, even though they also see draftees resisting and it makes them "sick." What's so frustrating is seeing these people, who possess--in Pierre Bourdieu's terms--much economic, social, and cultural capital, exhibit a willingness to use it only to save their own youth from being sent into harm's way.

I find this to be most frustrating when it comes to Don. He has shown anti-war sensibilities at various points in the show, presumably stemming from his own experiences in Korea. Years ago, he stopped his father-in-law from blithely sharing a WWI German soldier's helmet with Bobby, wanting Bobby to realize the gravity of that soldier's death. He's expressed his aversion to the war in Vietnam a few times this season and was insightful and spot-on in some of his comments in this episode--stressing to Arnold that 18-year olds' lack of awareness of their own and others' mortality is "why they make good soldiers" and, when Arnold goes on about the importance of "service," flatly stating that "The war is wrong." He's clearly doing as much as he does to help Mitchell because of his feelings for Sylvia. Yet, while the relationship of anti-war protesters to changes in policy was not one of easy correspondences, Don accepts his powerlessness way too easily. This is the man who got a full-page anti-tobacco companies letter published in the New York Times. Alright, that was for self-interested business motives, but still, he did it. This is the man who made people cry over a Kodak Carousel, who poignantly expressed existential angst in a travel ad. And I'm supposed to believe he couldn't do something to lend his creative voice to the attempts to persuade people that fighting this war is wrong? I know. I know. That would be a different Don Draper and a different television show, but still...

All of that said, Mad Men does typically opt for the personal over the political and this episode's best moments were closely-shot intimate exchanges: Peggy and Pete drunkenly laughing together in the diner when Ted's gone to call his wife; they share a look when Peggy admits that she does know him that was touching (but please don't go back to him, Peggy); Ted offering his back to his son as his put-upon wife sleeps on the bed, her book lying open on her chest; Bob Benson (Tom and Lorenzo were right about him being gay) and his earnest plea to Pete to recognize that "When there's true love, it doesn't matter who it is." (But, coming on to Pete? Why him? Mrs. Campbell is horrid to tell her son that he's "always been unloveable," but I feel the same way about him); Don on the phone with Sylvia, close to tears as he asks her, "You didn't feel anything?" Yet much of the vital relating of our main characters happened through barriers. Doors and the need for keys featured prominently in this episode. Characters choose blindness to political forces, but meaningful personal connections so frequently slip away from them too. Peggy's and Pete's intimacy is only facilitated by alcohol; Ted forges a small connection with his sons that his wife urges on him, but his back is turned to her and she sleeps through it; Bob gives a sad-to-watch look at Pete when Pete refers to Manolo as a "degenerate," but forges ahead with his advance despite this wall; Don and Sylvia have a genuine conversation only on the phone. When together, we only see them as Sally does--carelessly having a hurried, half-dressed sexual encounter with the door open.

Poor Sally. While Pete Campbell is completely grossed-out at merely the THOUGHT of his mother having a sexual relationship with someone and tells Peggy that he doesn't even want to think about her brushing her teeth, Sally has to see her father in the middle of sex with their neighbor, like she saw her step-grandmother and Roger together last year. She starts out the episode expressing her idealized version of Don to her mother (probably in part just to piss her mother off) and ends it realizing that--like the GM rep declares about draft-dodgers--he makes her "sick." Don's lame attempt to talk to her (admittedly a really difficult talk to have) occurs just through her closed bedroom door. Like I remember her doing once before with Don when he called her to explain something, she brushes him off with "okay." But, as she lies face down on her bed, crying, and Don stumbles down the hall to his own room, closing the door and closing himself off from everyone, things are clearly not okay. Not for the war in Vietnam and not for the war that Don keeps waging with and within himself.

Though, on the up side, Peggy got a cat instead of a boyfriend to deal with her rat problem. Good move on her part. Keep the cat; avoid thoughts of being with Pete and Ted--and Stan.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Whole World Is Watching

Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Ten, "A Tale of Two Cities"

I found this episode to be enjoyable, from the way it wove the Democratic convention protests throughout the script to its choice of one of my favorite '60s songs as its closer. Could there be a blunter music/image contrast than that of the uptight, constantly angry, suited Pete Campbell smoking a joint to Janis' wail? Is he finally going to learn to lighten up a bit? The imagery and music of the California party also contrasted starkly, from the upbeat "Harper Valley PTA" to drug-induced visions of death. The song offered a quick allusion to hypocrisy--hearkening back to Cutler's accusation of Ginsberg--as well as to a strong woman "socking it to" her critics and those who would hold her back (Go, Joan!), while Don's hash-powered hallucinations darkly lead us back to his season-opening Hawaiian trip and his death by water ad campaign. With the return of the Vietnam-bound soldier, offering Don's cigarette the lighter that haunted Don on his return from Hawaii, we see that Don still has a death wish. Yet the now-dead soldier tells him that even if Don were to achieve death, he wouldn't necessarily find the wholeness he seeks: when Don asks him why he didn't get his arm back upon dying, the soldier tells him, "Dying doesn't make you whole. You should see what you look like." While at the end of one of his previous trips to California, we see Don being "baptized" in the ocean, this time the trip ends with him face down in a swimming pool, miming (or seeking?) the death that he and the soldier discussed.

While Don is on his search for whatever it is he's desiring (a non-working, pregnant wife might be part of it, given the Megan vision at the party), others are--like the characters in the Dickens novel for which the episode is named--engaged in a struggle between authority-holders and revolutionaries. My favorite of these struggles is that between Pete and Joan--and for awhile Peggy--and the one between Ginsberg and Cutler (who completely affirmed my dislike of him; he's not only a dick, but apparently as useless a partner as Bert Cooper).

With the clashes between anti-war protesters and baton- and tear gas-wielding Chicago police setting the televised background of the episode, multiple sets of fighting sides were formed: the SCDP and CGC factions of the new firm with the peace-making Ted Chaough trying to bridge the divide; the younger people with their sympathy for the convention protesters against the older characters who tended to side with the police, with Don and Megan on different sides of this divide, though he did sympathize with her despair over her adopted country; the east coast and the west coast; and those who are primarily business focused against those who also worry about social justice. These were played out most forcefully in the cases of Pete v. Joan and Cutler v. Ginsberg.

I loved Joan's surprise and then delight to realize that what she at first thought was a date (why else does anyone ever set Joan up to have lunch with a businessman?) was actually a potential client meeting. Having never dealt directly with account gathering before--except having to sleep with Herb--she wasn't sure how to describe what she does; she comes up with the apt "I'm in charge of thinking of things before people know they need them." The disappointment she registers when Pete relegates her back to her typical role with the Avon man: "You'll show him around" was sad to see. She decides to go against company policy to pursue the account herself. It wasn't surprising that Pete can't abide the breaking of protocol--a "break of the fundamental rules of this business" as he pompously declares, but I was hoping for better from Peggy. She is shocked and starts arguing about how she worked her way into the role she's in, responding to Joan's taunt about Don that "I never slept with him." She deserves Joan's barb: "Congratulations. You really are just like them." She saves Joan at the end, though, with the fake phone message, prompting Ted to grant Joan the right to the account. "Possession is 9/10 of the law," he tells Pete, who whines, "only where there is no law." Pete sees his firm to be just like the streets of Chicago, but in this case, the one engaged in revolution won--for now. Yeay, Joan!

The other interesting revolt took place when Ginsberg let loose on Cutler for Cutler's lack of concern over the peace plank being voted down at the convention. His rhetoric got a bit overwrought with his charge of Cutler's "fascist boot" on his neck, but he expressed the differences between them. When Cutler, also rightly, points out the disparity between Ginsberg's politics and his acceptance of paychecks from Dow Chemical and GM, he sends Ginsberg into an angst-filled reflection on his complicity in what he sees as evil: "I'm a thug. I'm a pig. I'm part of the problem. Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds." Hearkening back to his initial episode admission to Peggy that he's from Mars, the outsider Holocaust orphan who feels himself from another world, says, "I can't turn off the transmissions to do harm. They're beaming them right into my head." I feel for him. He seems the best illustration of the culture's clashes at this point in time. And a genuinely well-meaning, questing character.

Monday, May 27, 2013

"You'll Always Be a Part of Me"

Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Nine, "The Better Half"

This show has always been cynical, highlighting--week in and week out--the worst aspects of the '60s: thoughtless sexual behavior; overuse and abuse of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs; the crass materialism of the post-war economic boom; rampant sexism and sexual harrassment; racism; violence; and--though I know many viewers love them--some god-awful, tacky clothing and home decor. The noble aspects of the decade--like the Civil Rights Movement, the women's movement, the anti-poverty agenda--are either represented mainly through tragedy: the killings of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy, the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, or not represented at all. National leaders like King and Kennedy are shown to be worthy, but characters in the show who adopt Left principles represent the worst of Leftist movements (think the poser Paul Kinsey or Abe, who could only spout the us v. them, black/white thinking that some on the Left took on). The writers have hinted that the cynicism might be tied to the ad industry on which they focus. At one point early in their relationship, Megan complains to Don that everyone at SCDP is "so cynical." The focus of the show is on privileged, affluent people, whose issues are different than those on which '60s social movements worked. And, the '60s certainly did have its darker sides as well as its brighter sides. Of late, though, the series seemed even to give up hope that individual humans could change for the better. Part of Don Draper's appeal--through all of the ugliness, cruelty, and thoughtlessness he inflicts on others and the darkness to which his psyche subjects his own self--is that he seemed to have better angels dwelling with the demons. As a self-made man with an invented identity, he appeared to have the potential to re-make himself into a better person. And as someone dashingly handsome, yet brooding, moody, attempting at the same time both to protect and yet leak his own deep secret, he has always wielded the attraction that Byronic heroes have held for two hundred years. But, this season has shown him doing nothing but exhibit the same old behaviors again and again. His wish to Sylvia was that he could 'stop doing this,' but he demonstrates no capacity for learning from his mistakes or his past. It got to the point for me that the show was not just too cynical, but boring. This week's episode focused on some characters' searches for "the better half" of their selves. Given Mad Men's history of deep cynicism and characters' past histories of being unable to learn, I'm not holding my breath. But, it did make for a refreshing hour of television.

We briefly see a return of Duck in his new career as head hunter. His job now is to help people find better professional places to be. He tells Pete Campbell that he had to become aware of the "wellspring of [his]confidence--[his] family." While Pete admits that his family is a "constant distraction," Don and Roger (two of the show's lost souls) decide that this might be a good time to embark on a quest for family. Peggy too--as she's been doing for awhile--is trying to figure out with whom she belongs--Abe? Stan? Ted? None of these men are good options for her. Ted might not be a bad choice, but alas, he's married and for now, at least, isn't willing to be unfaithful. There were some lovely, sweet moments to this episode: watching Roger play with his young grandson (did I miss mention of Margaret giving birth? He seemed to appear a full-sized pre-schooler out of nowhere), Bobby's excitement at having both of his parents together with him at camp as all three of them sat at the table singing "Father Abraham." Yet the problem for Roger, Don, and Peggy as they search for their "better halves" is that they continue to look for what will fulfill them outside themselves, rather than within.

As we saw reinforced last week, Don is on a psychic quest for a mother, yet none of the women with whom he has relationships is willing to play that role for long. So, he quickly becomes dissatisfied with a wife or a lover and starts looking on the other side of the fence. Tonight he comes full circle back to Betty. I enjoyed the scenes between Don and Betty. While I suspect Betty--in large part--did what she did to see what it's like to be Don's 'other woman' for a change and to stick it to Megan, these two characters, when at their best with each other, have always been good. While Betty's manipulative half is never far below the surface, she seemed to be happy with Don there and Don has always been a gentle lover with Betty. Betty seemed more wise tonight too. Her observations about Don were spot-on. She recognizes that he can look at her one way after sex, but "then I see a decline." And of Megan: "She doesn't know that loving you is the worst way of getting to you." Don wonders, "Why is sex the definition of being close to someone?" and recognizes that "it doesn't mean anything to me," but he seems unable to connect those insights to his youthful past that we were shown last week. While I expect Betty enjoyed witnessing Don's hurt when he found her at breakfast with Henry the next morning, she's right not to want to go back to Don. He's too damaged. (Though Henry's possessive prying about his colleague when he and Betty were in the car was distasteful. Stuart's approach to Betty while Betty was waiting for Henry was quite reminiscent of Henry's first approach to a pregnant Betty while she was waiting outside a restroom). Don does return to Megan with an acknowledgement that he hasn't been present and an implicit promise that he'll try to do better, but we've seen this before. I'll believe he's genuinely working on himself when I see it.

Roger, this week at least, is not looking for his "better half" in a woman, but in a relationship with one of his offspring. He seems happy when playing with Margaret's son and after Margaret's reaction to the boy's "Planet of the Apes" nightmares (an over-reaction or one borne out of Roger's past behavior with the boy?), he moves on to try to see his child with Joan. He plaintively tells Joan, "I just want to be around." She wisely responds, "I know you want to. But I can't count on that." With Betty, she seems to be one of the few content people this week. Is that because of the presence of Bob Benson? Are they now lovers or still just friends? He seems to be a good guy, and perhaps it's just my cynicism, but I don't fully trust him. Or maybe it's that we don't know enough about him and what his motives are. He seems TOO nice in contrast to everyone else there.

Finally, there's Peggy. She, too, is looking for her better half outside herself. I'm glad that she and Abe are finally through, though I wish she had been able to take control of ending the relationship. From the moment he derided her appeal for women's rights, I haven't thought him good for her. He has some noble instincts, but is such a dichotomous thinker that it does blind him to a lot of what's going on. He is hyperbolic, of course, in his naming of Peggy as "the enemy," but he's right in seeing that they're not a good match. Her turn to Ted Chaough at this point, though, is not healthy. He's too perky in his "It's Monday morning!" "You'll find someone else and whoever he is, he'll be lucky to have you" speech, but he's right. The final shot of her, though, looking pale and unkempt with no make-up and her hair not done, doesn't portend good things for her character in the near future. I wish that she, too, would be able to look inside herself to figure out what she wants and needs--rather than hopping from man to man for the answers.

As the song goes, "You'll always be a part of me..." Betty will always be a part of Don; Margaret and her son, Joan and Kevin will always be a part of Roger; Abe and Ted--and Pete, for that matter--will always be a part of Peggy. But, if Don and Roger and Peggy are ever to be content and wise, like Joan seems to be, they will need to find the part of themselves that is their own self. And not always look for it in someone else. I don't know, though, that "Mad Men" can ever shed enough of its cynicism to allow that to happen.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

He's Really Still a Kid

Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Eight, “The Crash”

This episode adopted the frenetic, fractured perspective that those on Cutler’s “energy serum” might experience. (I’ll give the creators the benefit of the doubt that it was intentional and not just lousy direction and/or editing). It’s never been more obvious that Don is on a quest for a mother. And those women to whom he turns keep letting him down. Sylvia refuses to re-start their affair—or even talk to him about it--and Peggy uses her comforting skills on Ted and Stan instead of on Don. The look on his face when he sees Peggy in Ted’s office following the news of Gleeson’s death was painful. He then flashes back to the prostitute who cares for him when he’s sick as a young teen. That woman’s actual betrayal of trust and abuse of a child is, for Don, conflated with Peggy’s perfectly appropriate behavior. Don comes to a realization that “what holds people together, what draws them—it’s a history.” And, indeed, his history wraps its powerful and ugly tentacles around him and the people who evoke in him similar emotions to those from his childhood. It’s sad and tragic, but Don’s problem is that Megan could have been talking about him when she says, “Sally seems so grown up. She’s really just a kid.” Emotionally, Sally is more mature than her father.

The “creativity boost” the doctor promised Don when giving him the shot sent him instead into a feverish repeat of—and flashback to--his illness as a youth, and into reminders of his need of a mother. The son of a prostitute, living with prostitutes, the young and ill Dick is taken into the room of one of the women at his uncle and aunt’s brothel. “Your mama don’t know how to take care of nobody,” Miss Swenson says. Don denies that his step-mother is his mother, still looking for a woman to fill that role. He’s rightfully—it turns out—distrustful of this candidate, but she does take care of him nicely for awhile. The way the story plays out makes it evident why Don has always blurred the lines between sex partners and mother figures. And why he felt so much for Joan during the Herb incident. I could see a similar disappearance through the eyes of Joan when Herb was undressing her and the eyes of Dick as Miss Swenson lay down on the bed with him. But, in Don’s drug-addled brain, the memories of this woman lead him on a quest for an old ad campaign: “Because you know what he needs” accompanies the picture of a motherly woman feeding a boy. Don—a child really—yearns for that kind of mothering; he’s frustrated that none of the women in his life will give him what he thinks he needs. He married Megan for her mothering skills with his children. He clearly hoped she would shower him with them as well. Come to find out she’s an adult who expects him to be one as well, so she’s off pursuing her own career and aims, not catering to him as much as he wants. Sylvia ceased playing his games and taking care of him. She’s being more adult. Peggy’s not buying his bullshit anymore and exhibits more concern toward Ted and Stan, and with Stan she demonstrates that she’s an adult as well: “I’ve been through loss. You can’t dampen it with drugs and sex. It won’t get you through,” she tells him when he tries to seduce her.

Don has these adult women in his life who do care for him, yet won’t mother him. And then there are the actual damaging "mothers." The episode not only shows the prostitute as a woman being maternal, yet than taking advantage of and hurting a child. The woman who breaks into the Draper home is another incarnation of this type; she pretends to be maternal, yet takes advantage of Sally and Bobby to get her own needs met. When Sally tells Don, “She said she was your mother,” Don’s look is tortured. Again. What’s a damaged man to do? While Don was more of a sympathetic character to me again this week, I don’t hold out much hope that he’ll figure this one out. He doesn’t get the contradictions in his character when he pulls something like what he pulls at the end. He’s right that “every time we get a car, this place turns into a whore house” and that that’s a bad thing. So, he tries to walk away from it, telling Ted that he can’t participate in the Chevy account except by evaluating other people’s work. Yet, the man can’t avoid the history that binds him to prostitutes and to bad mother figures, so he searches for a mother, treats most women as whores, and re-creates the whole cycle again. And again. And again. “Still a kid,” caught up in a messed-up drama that requires some adult (like him) to take charge.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Welcome to the Inferno--It's So Groovy

Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Seven, "Man with a Plan"

Well, if this episode was designed to make me feel like people in June, 1968 might have felt at the center of the chaos and senselessness raging on or oozing out as the darkness was descending or the culture was descending into darkness against a soundtrack of "I Think It's So Groovy," so that everyone screams out a collective "What the fuck?!" then the episode worked. Is Matthew Weiner a man with that precise a plan? I don't know. At least I can say--after my complaints in the last post about the sexism being really boring--that they seem to have had a plan to shake that up as they document Don descending deeper into "The Inferno" he started out the season reading. (I'm not sure which rung of Dante's Hell he's on right now. Is this Violence--the Seventh of Nine?) I really don't want anything to do with Don anymore, though. Yes, I get that he's one seriously messed up man; that he had such a chaotic childhood that he wants always to be in control and so when things start to feel like they're getting away from him--say, when he impetuously decides to merge his company with another and it's all a big mess--that that's when he wants to start playing control games with people; I get that he was conceived, born into, and raised in a culture that despised him but that despised women even more and so he never saw--growing up with his father and step-mother and then in a brothel--what a healthy, respectful, loving male/female relationship might look like and that he just acts out what he knows; I get that he has a fear of abandonment and so pushes and pushes women to abandon him and prove to him again that he really is worthless. But, the time I have to spend inside that man's head and reality to get to that understanding just keeps getting more and more disturbing. I get that Sylvia was a willing--if an increasingly bemused--participant in the whole "game" and I liked that she resisted parts of it, refusing to crawl around like a dog as Megan has done for Don, telling him "I can talk about whatever I want!" But, the deep misogyny he reveals is neither entertaining nor thought-provoking to watch. It's just incredibly creepy. "Why would you think you're going anywhere? You are for me. You exist in this room for my pleasure." And later, "Who told you were allowed to think?" I've never liked Sylvia, but found myself feeling some respect for her that she was able to recognize how twisted they were getting, realizing it was time for her to get back to herself: "It's time to really go home." She refuses to play along with his "It's over when I say it's over." She tells him she's ashamed. He's just sad and reveals how much he needs her with his pleading "Please." I expect that's supposed to draw us back into his camp since he's a hurt puppy again, but as far as I'm concerned he's a hurt puppy who needs some serious help and until he gets it, I'd rather not get dragged into his world and his hell.

Which leads to poor Mrs. Campbell, who, because of her apparent dementia--her hell, is being dragged into the nasty worlds of her sons. As I recall from past seasons, she wasn't the warmest of mothers to Pete, so I'm sure some of his resentment toward her is justified, but as usual, Pete is able to take unpleasantness further than most. He's insecure about his job, reading some deep symbolism into the shortage of chairs in the conference room during the first joint partners meeting, and so spreads the sunshine as far as he can. "My mother can go to hell. Ted Chaough can fly her there!" he yells at his secretary. Don also seems insecure about the relatively more sensitive Ted's flying ability. When they're on their way upstate in Ted's plane, talking about the presentation to the margarine men, Don whines, "Does it matter? No matter what I say, you're the guy who flew us up here in his own plane." We still don't know enough about Chaough, but it would be really pleasant to discover that there's a partner to be had who is a much more decent guy. His visit to his dying partner, his desire to get to know the new creative team, his lack of ability to hold his liquor, the fact that--as we found out last week--people keep calling him 'nice,' his aversion to Nixon on the grounds of wanting to feel hope all suggest that there might be more decency in him than we're used to seeing in men on the show. I love Peggy's line to Don: "When you told me about the merger, I hoped he'd rub off on you and not the other way around." Gleeson gives him the best advice to "just walk back in there like you own half the place."

It was nice to see Peggy and Joan together again. I hope Joan was sincere when she told Peggy, "I'm glad you're here." The show could use some positive woman energy about now. After all the joint firms wrangling over splitting accounts, sharing the load of who gets fired, etc. they could have been setting Joan up to be the partner with cancer to counter CGC's partner with a terminal disease, but fortunately, that's not the case. I don't know what purpose that whole ovarian cyst served other than to raise that possibility and to hoist Bob Benson into a role where he's now in Joan's debt. What will develop with him?

But, finally the episode's title begs the question as to who the 'man with a plan' is. The partners of the two merging firms seem not to have a plan, but to be making it up as they go. Bert Cooper doesn't even have his full welcoming speech on hand. Don concocts a really nasty plan to make Sylvia demonstrate just how much she needs him and "nothing else will do," but is lost when she finally calls him on it. Pete and his brother have no plan for their mother. Though Pete yells to his brother that "she should be locked up," he basically just runs home when called to put out each fire--or roomful of smoke. Perhaps it's just Sen. Kennedy who had a plan--to be elected president, attempt to end the war in Vietnam and work to improve the lives of impoverished families. Yet, in the mad, chaotic world of 1968, such a plan could not be fulfilled. And, it's the confused Mrs. Campbell who sounds the alarm that sets their world into deeper confusion again--just two months after the last assassination.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mothers Day

Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Six, "For Immediate Release"

As numerous characters kept reminding us, it was Mothers’ Day. But, it wasn't about the mothers; we barely saw a mother, except for Marie (and I had enough of seeing her after less than a minute). It wasn't about valuing a relationship of any kind. It was rather about putting a monetary value on a variety of types of human relating: sex, marriage, mother/child, work relationships. It was all about Don, and Pete, and Roger, and Ted, and Dr. Rosen, and even Joan and how they could get ahead. Get rich and famous. Or if, as in the case of Don and perhaps Ted, they're not interested in the money, then it's about getting their creative ideas ahead of those of others, which sounds more noble except their creativity is just developed to create desire in consumers for things they don't need and--in the case of tonight's featured product--build up an American cult of the automobile. And looking back with forty odd years of hindsight, we can see how that hasn't worked well for us. But, cars are power and represent masculinity and the dream of an open road and the freedom to create your own destiny. All things that the Mad Men seem to feel the cultural changes of the 1960s have been pulling away from them.
After Dr. Rosen whines to Don about how “some asshole down in Houston is taking my place in history” because Rosen’s hospital won’t do what’s needed to support his heart transplant work (‘screw the poor kid who died and his or her family; it’s all about me,’ he might as well have said), Don tells him, “I don’t cut people open. I don’t believe in fate. You make your own opportunities.” The episode is full of characters working to make their opportunities—without including others who are part of their enterprises. Pete, Bert, and Joan work together on a plan to take SCDP public without consulting with Don or Roger; Don and Ted conspire to merge their two companies without consulting their partners. When Ted suggests they should—“Well, we have partners,” Don retorts, “who weren’t sitting in this bar.” This after Joan has chastised him for being a poor team player: “Just once, I want to hear you say the word ‘we.’” But, he’s Don; he needs to be the sun at the center of everyone else’s solar system. Megan, Peggy, his partners—everyone must cater to his vision and idea of how his world should be. Pete tries to ape that—as he does so much of Don’s behavior—but can’t make it work. He falters so much this episode that he falls down the stairs.
Meanwhile, Peggy tells Abe that she doesn’t like change, but she’s in for some big ones. Once again, she’ll be working for Don—and for Ted, who’s finally acted on his attraction for her and then pulled away. She wants him, though. So much for her excitement of last episode over Abe’s revelation that he wants them to have children together. The gap between her and Abe was shown to be widening further as he loves the new and changing neighborhood, while she sounds like one of the older generation: “Those kids are living on our stoop, lighting firecrackers, listening to their music…” But, I feel for Peggy; she’s enormously talented and ambitious—just like Don; she’s made it a long distance from her days in the steno pool at Sterling Cooper; but, she’s still subject—both professionally and personally--to the impetuous whims of Don and Ted. I really enjoyed the scenes between Don and Ted when they were focused on each other and their creative ideas. But, I don’t like how much they assume about Peggy—especially Ted. She’s a strong woman and has taken care of herself admirably through worse, but still. She has feelings that are getting hurt. And, since the only man for whom Peggy expressed love during the episode is Bobby Kennedy, she’s set soon to have her heart broken politically as well.
Then, of course, there’s Pete—the first man about whom Peggy exercised really bad judgment and who used her callously with complete disregard for the consequences: He’s back at it again after seeming somewhat sympathetic in last week’s episode. His job is only about how much money he can get out of it as he seeks to get SCDP to go public and become a millionaire in the process. He reveals that to him, marriage is only about sex when he says to Trudy—who’s stopped his advances—“So we’ll just maintain every other aspect of this marriage except the one that matters,” and that sex—like his firm--has a monetary value when he once again makes a visit to the brothel. He rightly tells his father-in-law, whom he ran into there, to take a look in the mirror after they’ve argued over which one is worse for using prostitutes, but would never consider using a mirror himself. Poor Trudy is just cast in a version of the classic, dehumanizing Madonna/Whore construct. To her irate father, she is not a real person, but a “princess.” To her husband, she is only worth anything if she’s willing to have sex with him.
But, these men are not the only ones who see women’s role in a predominantly sexual light. Megan’s mother berates her for her success, which must have driven Don away (why, after all, would any man want to be with a woman who is sometimes the object of attention for something other than her body, Marie wonders after encountering the girls in the elevator who ask for Megan’s autograph). She urges Megan to dress in such a way that all Don will think about is “how quickly he can get between [her] legs.” To her, too, the only part of marriage that matters is the sex. The advice seems to work, though. Don responds to Megan paying more attention to him and their relationship. Her doing so is not in itself a bad thing; it’s the way Marie, Don, and Megan see marital support and attention as a one-way street from woman to man that irks me. Megan tells Don, “I want to do whatever I can to make sure you don’t fail” and performs oral sex on him before he leaves for his big meeting in Detroit. Yet, his response to her new work opportunities is to have an affair with the neighbor and show up while Megan is filming one of her soap opera’s episodes to throw cruel remarks at her.
I’ve rather had it with the sexism of the men on this show. I know it’s realistic; I know I’m supposed to look at how much worse it was back then and be thankful I wasn’t a working adult in the ‘60s, but still. Sexism is painful; it’s unfair; it’s not even just bad for the women; it’s bad for men too. But, after watching it incessantly on a show for six seasons with the men showing so little growth in this area—frankly, it’s also getting boring. I know that Don, Pete, Ted, Harry, and Roger were not part of the generation of men that allowed and encouraged some of its members to become more enlightened where women were concerned. But, then please create a few more episodes that show positive things happening to the women—that show the women making positive things happen for themselves. That would be true to the spirit of the ‘60s. They featured a Beatles concert and a Stones concert. Let the women go see Aretha in concert and come back singing “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” That song came out in 1967; it could help them expand the storyline a bit. And make for a meaningful Mothers’ Day.

Monday, April 29, 2013

On the Ark

Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Five, "The Flood"

"This is an emotional story," Abe tells Peggy as he types (two-fingered!) his news article on Harlem's reaction to the assassination of Martin Luther King. This episode was also an emotional story, but in it, we see how King's murder hit the powerful and privileged White men very differently than it did New York's Black residents. While some, like Harry Crane and Henry Francis, focus on the impact on their business/work enterprises: Harry's upset at news shows pre-empting the sitcoms that his clients pay money to advertise on and Henry has to accompany Mayor Lindsay to Harlem since "they're going to burn the city down," others, like Raymond (Roger's acid-dropping companion?), seek to capitalize on the tragedy by dreaming up new ad campaigns that will prey on property-owners' fears of rioters. Henry, too, benefits from his belief--after watching how Lindsay staves off a full-blown riot--that he could have handled the situation better, without fostering "police corruption, disrespect for authority, and negotiating with hoodlums." He will now accept the latest in a long line of invitations to take a state senate seat vacated by a Republican who has died. Betty is happy about this and responds to his earnest declaration that he can't wait for people to meet her by holding up a dress from her thinner days in the mirror and, I expect, seeing more visits to Weight Watchers in her future. The TVs and radios discussing King's death are on as background to other things these men are doing because the Civil Rights Movement was not central to their lives. Yet, some are genuinely upset. And--after the last few episodes, in which Don and Pete came off looking extra bad--they gain more of my sympathy, as this episode becomes one about fatherhood and loss.

Pete brings the connection out explicitly. He's enraged that Harry is worrying about lost revenues on such a "shameful, shameful day." (I think the last time I had a twinge of sort-of liking Pete was in the Kennedy assassination episode. What is it about slain leaders that brings out the best in him?) His parting, yelled shot to Harry--as he tries to get him to understand why business isn't appropriate to worry about at the moment--is, "Let me put this in terms you can understand. That man had a wife and four children!" I was just seven when King and Bobby Kennedy were killed. I have vague memories of watching both funerals on TV with my mother and her saying something each time about how sad it was that the children we saw on screen had lost their fathers. Indeed, King spent much time and ink in his speaking and writing to develop emotional appeals--attempts to generate empathy for the situation of Blacks from White listeners and readers. In 1963's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," he specifically attempts to engage the emotions of parents for their children in this cause: "Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait.' But . . . when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television . . . when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking, 'Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?'...then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait." On April 4, 1968, Coretta Scott King had to find a way to concoct answers for her children, who would wonder why their daddy was never coming home. For all of Pete's myriad flaws, sins, and crimes, he has always been the most forward-thinking member of SCDP on race issues. He seems to get this painful situation of King's family--and be disturbed by it--and all the more because his relationship with his own family is so imperiled. He calls Trudy to suggest that he could go sleep at the house with them the night of the news: "I don't want you and Tammy to be alone." She won't let him come over, so he tells her, "I want to see Tammy." He cannot see Tammy, though, his own thoughtless and selfish behavior having destroyed his marriage and Trudy's fragile sense of trust in him. So, he stays in the city, and at the end of the show is seen in his quiet, dark, small apartment, alone with a bag of Chinese carry-out. He, like King, is a man with a wife and child--fortunate to be a man alive with a wife and a child--yet he is alone.

And, then there's Don. He's been such a supreme shit the last two episodes, I'd nearly given up on him. But, as Mad Men often does, the writers took many of us just to the brink of complete and hopeless frustration with his repetitive hurtful behavior and lack of self-awareness and then dangled that last set of scenes in this episode in front of us. Don revealed that he truly can be self-reflective, and, when he is--aided by Jon Hamm's supreme, understated acting--he's as good at it as he is at anything else he does. But, is he too much like the Tin Man, who--although he always had a heart--didn't realize it until that heart was breaking? Like Pete's, Don's reflections on fatherhood and loss also come in the context created by the King assassination. Betty charges him with repeated avoidance of his children. That phone call comes while Don is glued to TV images of a burning D.C. where he knows Sylvia is. Worry for his mistress wipes all memory that he's supposed to be spending time with the kids. Though in ways different from Pete's situation, Don also lets his philandering--which he does to avoid and cover up old wounds--get in the way of his relationship with his children. But, Betty forces him not only to spend time with the kids, but to drive through the violent aftermath of King's murder. With all three kids smushed into the front seat with him, Don drives through the streets of the city where sirens and fire cut through the sounds of the radio news broadcast. While Megan tries to face and work through her feelings about the tragedy by taking Sally and Gene to a vigil in the park, Don escapes with Bobby to the movies. They can't escape, though. What's playing is "Planet of the Apes," so Don and Bobby are thrust into a sci-fi/fantasy reflection on the destructiveness of human beings. They listen to one of the apes say, "Man has no understanding. He can be taught a few tricks--that's all" and watch as Charleton Heston falls to the sand of the beach where the head and arm of the Statue of Liberty stick out of the sand: "You maniacs. You blew it up. Damn you! Goddam you!" Bobby stares in shock--"The people destroyed New York?" "All of America," Don replies. "Jesus!" Too obvious? Perhaps. But, fantasy has always served as a way to deal with trauma and tragedy from a removed distance. But, it's Bobby's sweetness with the sad, Black theater employee that triggers Don's love. This show is about White people, with Blacks only ever playing a peripheral role, so we only got their reactions to King's death peripherally, but in that one brief exchange: ("Everybody likes to go to the movies when they're sad," and the look on the man's face as he truly looks at Bobby for the first time), we get the most genuine White/Black interaction of the night. (Peggy was better with her secretary, but Joan's attempt at sympathy for Dawn was painful to watch.)

It's thanks to Megan--who really is good for Don in a lot of ways--that Don is forced to express what he's thinking. "Who knows what you're feeling?" she asks him as he's hiding in the bedroom, drinking, while she puts the kids to bed. "You're better with them," he says. "Is this really what you want to be to them when they need you?" And then came one of the saddest confessions of paternal inadequacy--of human failure or inability to love--complete with awareness of how it probably started: "You want to love them, but you don't. And the fact that you're faking that feeling makes you wonder if your father had the same problem." He's partially evading full responsibility for his feelings with his use of the second person 'you,' but this is still so much more forthcoming than Don has been since--perhaps--he wrote in that journal in Season Four. "And then one day you see them do something. And you have that feeling you pretended to have. And then your heart explodes." Like the country around him. And, though in the final scene, we're back to not knowing exactly what he's feeling, Don's heart must have exploded again when Bobby revealed that it's Henry he's worried about getting shot, not Don. And, like Pete, Don ends up alone at night--on his balcony, sirens blaring, looking out over an endangered urban landscape.

Monday, April 22, 2013

"Pray for Peace"

Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Four, "To Have and to Hold"

From the opening scene in Pete's Manhattan adultery apartment, where he and Don have an "illicit" tryst with Mr. Heinz Ketchup despite Don's nervousness ("Heinz Baked Beans has given us national recognition and Raymond is a friend") to the closing scene in Sylvia's maid's room (Don's new adultery apartment), this episode is focused on betrayal: betrayal of women in marriage and in business, betrayal of those in business who are most woman-like (the weaker smaller companies and divisions of companies), and betrayal of ideals. Yet, while it focuses on this group with the power to hurt and betray others (mostly the men), it is also about people who are very lost and afraid and who have no clue where to go to find themselves. It's about betrayal of the self as well. And Dawn--as a black woman, on the lowest rung of their ladder--is the only one who can see the problem. When her friend accuses her of being unable to say 'no,' "'cause you're too scared," Dawn replies, "Everybody's scared there." She tells her about the crying in the bathroom of the women, the crying in the elevator of the men, the excessive drinking as evidenced by enough bottles in the trash to remind her of New Year's Eve, and Lane's suicide. Yes, everybody's scared, but no one knows how to alleviate it and some try to tamp down their own fear by stomping all over those below them on the ladder. It would never occur to any of them to construct their lives on a model other than a ladder.

At first, I thought this might be an episode about how women are moving up, getting ahead, achieving success. Joan's mother is proud of her: "My daughter is a partner at a Madison Avenue advertising firm," she says over dinner with Joan's visiting friend, Kate. "It does sound pretty good," Joan smiles back. Joan and Mrs. Holloway admire the diamond watch that Kate was awarded from her employer, Mary Kay, for doing the best in her area. Though she feels that she's gone as far as she can go in the Mary Kay organization, Kate is in New York for an interview with Avon. Peggy is one of the few chosen to pitch a campaign to Heinz Ketchup and Megan achieves new success as her soap opera character's story line is expanded into an affair with a prominent man on the show. As Kate tells Mrs. Holloway, "Mary Kay always says it's really about making yourself feel better" and that comes from women doing things for themselves. And, for awhile in this episode, it seems that they may be able to keep achieving more and feel good about themselves. But, no.

Harry Crane, angry that Joan has fired his secretary (and he may have been right that she shouldn't have done so--at least not without talking to him first) and perhaps afraid that he's never going to get as high on the ladder as he wants (though he's such an almighty ass, I have no sympathy for him), barges into a partner's meeting, demanding to be made partner because he's "earned it." "I'm sorry my accomplishments were performed in broad daylight," he throws at Joan, making her aware that others know how she acquired her executive position and making it painfully obvious that a woman can only get so far before a man will work to tear her down. Joan was made partner after sleeping with Herb for the Jaguar account only because the firm and the industry are so sexist, with such a strong sense of male entitlement, that they had no problem running their business as a prostitution ring for an evening, yet would never consider rewarding a deserving woman employee with a partnership based on her work abilities. Joan deserved to be made partner for all of her hard work, skill, and brains that helped the agency get where it was. Were she a man, she would have been made partner at the beginning of the new company. As a woman, though, she could only aspire to it through sex with a demanding, entitled prospective client. And Harry follows in the footsteps of the entitled men, tearing Joan down along the way. She goes from the confident ad agency exec in the beginning to telling her friend at the end that she should never envy her. When Kate tells her, "I wanted what you have," Joan replies, "Why would you want that?" When Kate says she covets Joan's executive status, Joan says, "It's a title. . . I've worked there for fifteen years and they still treat me as a secretary."

Peggy started out as a secretary and worked her way up to a position like Don's. She behaves like Don does, but because she's a woman, she'll be punished for it more severely. Don and his Project K posse went after the money of the ketchup account, choosing to betray Raymond, despite Don's best instincts earlier on. Peggy and her group went after the money of the ketchup account, betraying Stan and the information he shared with her as a friend, despite her instincts of last week. Yet while Stan feels no qualms about what he and Don did, he will punish Peggy for committing the same act: "I think I see a friend," then giving her the finger as he walks by. I know some people have been rooting for her to begin a romance with him, but I think this just proves that would not be a good idea. He still wants to hold her to a different standard than he is held to.

And poor Megan. The secretary turned wife turned dream-chaser. For awhile, it seemed like Don was genuinely struggling with having a professional, working wife, struggling to enter the modern world enough to accept her. After all, when he was married to a housewife, he kept having affairs with professional, independent women. But, it apparently wasn't because that's what he really wanted. Now that he's married to a professional, independent woman, he's having an affair with a housewife. And, he has the gall to be angry that Megan has an acting job in which her character has an affair. He comes to the set of Megan's show and is angry because she seems to be enjoying a scene on a bed with the leading man on top of her--the same position that Don is in with Sylvia in the next scene. He has the gall to charge Megan with "kissing people for money," when that's basically what he does for a living--kissing up to Heinz Ketchup rather than staying loyal to the baked beans division of the company, just so they can get more money. Kissing up to Dow Chemical even though they all know the truth that Ken is able to speak: "If he [Ken's father-in-law] wants people to stop hating them, they should really stop dropping napalm on children!" Well, yeah, but napalm makes a lot of money and SCDP makes a lot of money having the Dow account, so smarmy Harry comes up with the idea for a Dow Chemical sponsored Broadway musical hour on television starring Joe Namath and Ken comes up with the wholesome, obfuscating line "Dow Chemical. Family products for the American family." Don's the bigger whore than Megan (who isn't one) and he acts it out with an infuriating sense of entitlement. He may, at base, be dreadfully afraid too, but he, like Harry, is a big enough ass lately that I can't spare any sympathy on him either.

While Megan cries in her dressing room after Don so unfairly lambasts her, he is off kissing Sylvia, uneasy about the cross she wears around her neck. She tells him that she prays for him. "For me to come back?" he asks. "No, for you to find peace." I started out this season with high hopes for Don, despite his apparent death wish. Might he actually be on this Dantean pilgrimage suggested by his reading of "The Inferno" in paradise? Might he actually reach some sort of enlightenment? But, I'm not hopeful about that now. He's just in the hell that's a treadmill, running and running and going nowhere, his path always wrapping back around on itself. As long as he--and all the others--place themselves in the service of the consumerist American dream, seeing money as their holy grail and marker of success--and he and the other men see themselves as entitled to use women as they want--there will be no peace. They look for peace in all the wrong places: wife swapping, psychedelic clubs, hook-up cafes (that was really weird), affairs, and competitive jobs that work against both their personal sense of peace and against ending the war they say they oppose. Because you can't really protest the United States military napalming Vietnamese children and others when you're worried about the Dow Chemical account being in danger. You can't really allow comedians like the Smothers Brothers to speak out against the war--even if you're a writer who appreciates satire and is opposed to the war as Don says he is--if you're more worried about making the advertisers unhappy. Despite Sylvia's prayer (her religion, which she claims to value, apparently doesn't bring her much peace or satisfaction either since she deals with her housewifely ennui in the extremely uncreative way of sleeping with the neighbor), it doesn't seem that there will ever be peace for Don or any of the other characters. And in the world they're building, there might not be for anyone else either. It's not just the war in Vietnam these folks need to be concerned about. It's the war inside and between all of them.

Monday, April 15, 2013

"Choosing Dishonor"

Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Three, "The Collaborators"

Like the lives these characters are leading, this felt a very fragmented episode. Talking to Don about the mess the firm is in with Jaguar, Roger paraphrases Winston Churchill, attributing the words to his mother: "Your options were dishonor or war. You chose dishonor; you might still get war." The quote points out the irony in this episode's title--people who might appear to be collaborators are actually working against each other, whether they be married couples, supposed friends, ad agency and client, or members of the advertising field.

Like so much on "Mad Men," much of Don's storyline tonight appears to have its roots in his childhood when, after the death of his father, Dick's rigidly religious step-mother goes with him to live with her sister and husband who run a brothel. So, not only was Dick conceived in prostitution, he spends a formative time in his youth living among prostitutes and receives some early sex education watching through key holes where he sees his pregnant step-mother and his uncle together. Mrs. Whitman, I presume, "chooses dishonor" in exchange for her and Dick's keep. Something about his relationship with Sylvia flashes Don back to these scenes from his childhood. Is it that Sylvia reminds him of one of these prostitutes? She once opens her door to him in the same hand-on-hip pose as one of the women at his aunt's house. Later, Don gives Sylvia some money after leaving her bed. They have their "war" after Sylvia learns that Megan was pregnant and is jealous and upset about what she saw as Don's lie that he and Megan were growing apart. While they seemed to be collaborating to ease Don's anxiety about his existence and identity--as I'd interpreted last week's events--they now seem to be working at cross purposes.

Megan thinks that she has a friend to whom she can turn in Sylvia, so looks for a "collaborator" to help her construct a story that would make her contemplation of abortion okay. According to Megan's and Sylvia's upbringings, abortion would be the dishonorable way out of an inconvenient pregnancy. Megan weaves her real-life disturbing experience into her tales of what her soap opera character will be doing, using "I" to refer both to herself and her role. As a result, Sylvia at first thinks that Megan is telling her that the woman she plays on the show has a miscarriage. But, as Megan seeks validation from this "collaborator," it is soon apparent that Sylvia will not be on her side. Megan has no clue how far the situation goes into actual betrayal.

Infidelity also plagues the Campbell marriage and while Trudy--surprisingly to me--knew about Pete's affairs, she seemed to think that she could manage the "dishonor" and collaborate with Pete in hiding the truth away. "I let you have that apartment. Somehow I thought there was some dignity in granting permission. All I wanted was for you to be discreet." (As he says to the new accounts man at the end, "It's all about what it looks like, isn't it?") But, the Campbells are destined for more of a war now that Trudy has discovered that Pete slept with their down-the-street neighbor. While I disagree with her take on marriage, she shows her strength in her knowledge of what she wants and in the forcefulness with which she lays down for Pete how it will be: "We're done, Peter. This is over." She doesn't want to divorce: "I refuse to be a failure. I don't care what you want anymore. This is how it is going to work. You'll be here only when I tell you to be here." She's drawing a 50 mile radius around the house within which "if you so much as open your fly to urinate, I will destroy you." I don't like this woman, but I liked that. Largely because I can't stand Pete. I still don't get what all these women--what any woman--see in him. He's a petulant, whiny, unattractive creep who just exudes his contempt for the world and all in it from every pore. When his neighbor with whom he had the dalliance shows up battered and bloody at the Campbells' front door, her husband yelling, "She's your problem now, Campbell!" Trudy surprised me with the matter-of-fact competence with which she handles the woman's injuries and makes sure she stays away from home. Pete pompously announces that he'll call "the authorities," but settles for a hotel when Brenda insists he not involve the police. When Trudy goes to get a towel, Pete just sneers at Brenda, "What did you say to him?" I don't know that Pete will ever be able to see how utterly dishonorable he is.

But while he's contemptuous with the women in his life, Pete is as obsequious as ever with clients. Herb--of Jaguar--comes back to the firm, demanding the ad men's 'collaboration' in getting his company to agree to put a majority of their advertising budget into a local radio campaign to draw customers into his lot. He also smarmily (is that a word? It is now.) thinks that he and Joan are actually collaborators as well: "I know there's a part of you that's glad to see me." But, Joan, though cold while talking to him, is upset by his presence, walking straight into Don's office for a drink after Herb leaves hers. Pete is willing to collaborate, but Don isn't. When Herb comes back with his fellow Jaguar men, who are opposed to his idea, he thinks Don will sell them: "Lord knows you're so damn persuasive." But, Don doesn't want to persuade. He oozes sarcasm as he throws a cheap argument for fliers in newspapers to draw in the ordinary man and housewives into the Jaguar dealership. Pete is angry with Don, but Don doesn't care: "Something about that guy makes me sick," he says. That Herb exploited Joan is what makes Don sick and that his firm collaborated in her prostitution still gets to him: "We just keep saying 'yes' . . . because we didn't say 'no' to begin with." While his childhood background with prostitutes might lead him to treat his mistress as one, his anger over the injustice against Joan is admirable. He's willing to forego the dishonor and go to war over this one.

Finally, Peggy learns a lesson in what she sees to be the dishonor of advertising when she doesn't want to exploit Stan's telling her about Heinz Ketchup looking for a new agency. Her boss puts it explicitly in terms of war, though. 'This is how wars are fought,' he says. "Maybe you need a friend more than you need a job. I didn't know that. I'm in advertising."

All of this happens in the context of news stories of the Tet Offensive. The United States and South Vietnam thought they had 'collaborated' with the North to grant a cease fire for the Vietnamese New Year, but were wrong. Those whom Americans saw to be weaker are winning the war. And the powerful men of this series have a very hard time with that concept. What if the weaker (like the women in their lives) start winning their wars in other arenas as well?

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Pilgrimage to 'You Know Where'

Mad Men, Season Six, Episodes One and Two, "The Doorway"

This season opener shifts us from the existential question that ended last season (Are you alone?) to an existential consideration of death. From opening on the doctor working on a heart attack patient to Don reading "The Inferno" in Paradise, to discussion of Sandy's mother, to the death of Roger's mother, to the evocation of James Mason's character in "A Star Is Born," to the death of Giorgio the shoe shine man, death is everywhere on the surface of and front and center in this episode. It also lurks around the edges, pushing its way into characters' lives and consciousness in uncomfortable ways, similar to the new accounts man Bob Benson with his two cups of coffee, hoping to run into Don on the elevator. The deaths of Vietnamese and Americans in Vietnam insert themselves through Don's encounter with the soldier in the bar and the comedian's joke about American soldiers cutting off the ears of Vietnamese people, which threatens to disrupt Peggy's ad for the Super Bowl. If the season delivers on what this premiere offers--Don as a Dante figure, journeying through the levels of hell to come to an understanding of sin and suffering, of who he truly is, and of the meaning of life, we're in for an excellent collection of Sunday nights.

Along with the existentialists' pondering of death is always the question of how to live life--how to live it authentically (which was Heidegger's term). In order to be authentic, one needs not only to face death, but to have a strong sense of who he or she is. And this question of identity has plagued Don as long as we've known him and will continue to do so. The soldier on leave defines Don as a veteran: "One day I'll be a veteran in paradise." Yet, having his veteran status brought up always has to bring to the forefront for Don his fraudulent identity. The lighter serves as a reminder of this throughout the episode. When the photographer tells him, "I want you to be yourself," Don is thrown. Who is he? This heightened existential crisis seems to heighten his creative powers. His idea for the Hawaiian resort ad is philosophical and mythological. "Aloa means hello and good-bye" as the soul can leave the body for awhile in Hawaiian legend, walking into the sea as Don's soul seems to do on hearing the waves while looking out of his office window onto a Manhattan winter. I flashed back to his swim in the Pacific Ocean while visiting Anna two seasons ago. That was a swim of baptism and re-birth, while the resort owners see death in the poster Don pitches to them. Is it 'hello' or is it 'good-bye'? Is there a distinct difference, or are they both points on the same circle?

Roger ponders these questions with his psychoanalyst as he worries about his own end and mourns his perception that his experiences haven't changed him enough: "Experiences are supposed to change you; they don't." He thought they should constitute a series of weaving doors, bridges, windows, and gates to interesting places, but ponders that instead "they all open the same way and close behind you." Instead, they are merely pennies that you pick up; they "keep going in a straight line to you know where." Yet his musings feel more like pro forma lines he thinks one must go through to become authentic. Sometimes they sound like one-liners from the comedian he so often is. When his mother dies, he says he feels nothing. It isn't until he receives the dead shoe shine man's box that he breaks down and shows genuine emotion. In it does he see his own end, empty, leaving behind just a box that no one but a virtual stranger might be interested in?

Peggy also suffers a crisis of creativity when her clever and creative ad for headphones evokes for her client the brutal deaths of Vietnamese at the hands of American soldiers. She wants to be an artist, the creator of "a great ad," but is working in the service of consumerism for companies that want just to make money--and so must avoid controversy. Can she be an artist in this commercial world? She seems to be channeling Don, both in her creativity and in her rough way of dealing with her employees. Yet she pulls through, creating another ad that both fulfills her creative impulses and is likely to satisfy the client who is risk-averse. (And, I must say, I think she looks wonderful. Really cute haircut and I loved her outfits.)

The biggest surprise, though, was Betty. She, too, is still struggling with her identity. When she tells Sandy that she's trying to lose weight, Sandy asks her, "Why don't you just be the way you are? You're beautiful." Betty still is heavier than she was when married to Don and dresses more matronly, but she seems more comfortable in her role as mother. She seemed genuinely sympathetic when talking with Sandy about her mother's death, and her trip to the tenement to find the run-away friend of Sally put her out of her comfort zone, yet reinforced her role as mother, wanting to take care of some of the runaway teens. She seems more comfortable in her skin and relationships, though the scene with Henry where she pushed the rape scenario onto him was troubling. I don't quite know what to make of that.

What I most liked about the episode was that it waited until the very end to answer the question of whether Don would start philandering again. And, the answer was surprising--not that he did, but its situation and how it plays out. He didn't take up with a young woman he met in a bar, but with a middle-aged neighbor whom he may have met at the scene of a near death. The quick encounter suggests an answer to the question of why Don does keep turning to other women. After Don asks the doctor, "What's it like to have someone's life in your hands?" the conversation ends with the doctor saying, "People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety." The next thing we see is Don knocking on the door of the doctor's apartment and ending up in bed with his friend's wife. On his journey through hell and (possibly) toward a final paradise of figuring things out and coming to terms with who he is, Don experiences much anxiety. And so, to alleviate it, he turns to the company and bodies of many women. But, when this one asks him what he wants for the new year, he answers, "I want to stop doing this." Which means he'd need to put an end to his constant anxiety; which means he'd need to find some answers to the question of who he is. I wonder who his Beatrice will be.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Looking Back, Moving Forward

April 6, 2013. The Day Before Season Six Begins.

I sit here at the desk in my office, looking at my Severus Snape, Ginny Weasley, and Tom Servo action figures, the John Lennon poster, and the various magnets from Broadway musicals I've attended; at photos of late cats as kittens and of my children from their toddler years to their almost present-day selves; and at hundreds of books on a range of topics and from a range of time periods. My office represents the ride that "Mad Men" has taken us on over five seasons and promises us for the next thirteen weeks:

Commodification. Nostalgia. Using wisdom acquired to reflect and move forward.

Commodification seemed to me the over-arching theme of Season Five. Nostalgia and moving forward are what the series is largely about: presenting those stark choices in the face of sometimes dizzying change; characters and viewers must opt for one or the other--or try to weave the two together in creating an approach to and experience of the world. Is this show an opportunity to long for the fashion, style, and reckless lifestyle of days gone by? Even a fairly quick wade into the sea of web writing and books about the series reveals that for some viewers, that seems to be the case, and fashion and furniture designers have responded with new clothes lines and office furniture. Recipes for Mad Men-style cocktails are to be found and some viewers apparently yearn for what they see as the post-Pill/pre-AIDS world of consequence-free sex. And for the pre-sexual harrassment law workplace. Other viewers see the show's depiction of this world as a critique of the sexism--and to a lesser degree racism--of the period and watch the show with feelings of gratitude that those days are gone. Is it meant to evoke nostalgia, or critique, or to present those of us living in a society that still struggles with gender issues and argues about sex and entitlement with fodder for reflection and movement forward?

"Mad Men" has created wonderfully rich and complex female characters through which to explore these questions. Joan, Peggy, Betty, and--increasingly--Sally represent women whom we can relate to, contrast ourselves against, love, hate, yell at through the TV screen, cry with or for. Yet it is Don to whom I want to turn to exemplify these inter-related "Mad Men" themes/issues as I look back and ready myself for the opening of Season Six. The show enacts these themes most decisively through Don's two most brilliant campaign pitches: Carousel at the end of Season One and Jaguar at the end of Season Five. In these two scenes--and in the episodes between--we see Don both participate in and resist his world's commodification of women. Advertising has--and still does--play a large role in objectifying women--presenting them as commodities for men's use and consumption. In the Carousel pitch, Don employs nostalgia--"pain from an old wound," a "twinge in your heart"--to construct a Betty who is the classic Victorian "angel in the house." The perfect, happy, submissive wife, who allows him to imagine himself part of the perfect, blissful family that provides for the orphaned and mistreated child Dick "a place where we ache to go," "where we know we are loved." He uses Betty, their memories, their photos to meet his needs--both his emotional needs and his need for this account. Yet he seems painfully sincere during this meeting. Watch this scene again and you will see that the emotions that emerge over his face are real and honest. His ad campaign has succeeded in reflecting his desire--which is why it is so successful at "satisfying the itch" he tells the client they must produce for potential customers. Betty--and his children and Don himself--is commodified here, but in such a beautiful, heartfelt way that we almost don't mind. The performance of happy family is meant to obscure the act of objectification.

While in the Carousel scene, Don looks back at the past to avoid the marital problems he experiences in the present, in the Jaguar pitch, he employs nostalgia and evokes desire, but does so to critique what's happening in his world at the present time--to critique and protest the present day objectification and commodification of his co-worker and friend, Joan. In this episode ("The Other Woman" 5.11), Pete and Lane--without seeming reservation--and Roger and Bert--with a few expressed reservations--all move the agency from the business of creating ads that participate in the commodification of women to actually turning one of their female employees into a commodity to gain more advertising business. Don is the only one who objects to the prostitution of Joan and masterfully uses his ad pitch to do so. I wrote about that in more depth in my post on that episode ("It's All in the Eyes" 5/28/12), which I'll copy from here:

------Don's pitch to the Jaguar men is fascinating. He develops the tag line that Michael Ginsberg came up with: "At Last. Something Beautiful You Can Truly Own"...He understands desire and how he can use people's desire to his and his clients' advantage. But,in this pitch, he masterfully speaks truth about desire and how to work with it to sell cars AND critique his audience at the same time. He opens up talking about beauty: "when deep beauty is encountered, it arouses deep emotions. Because it creates a desire--as it is, by nature, unattainable." These beautiful things are always out of reach. The camera keeps cutting from Don's pitch to the scene of Joan with Herb in his hotel room the night before. And Don is explicitly targetting his campaign to those men who lust after just women's bodies. "I thought about a man of some means, reading Playboy or Esquire and flipping past the flesh to the shiny, painted curves of this car." At one level, we're supposed to see Joan as the beautiful "thing" that is desired--like the car. Herb--listening to Don's pitch--seems pretty pleased with himself. He is likely thinking that he got the woman he wanted and can have any Jaguar he wants. He sees himself as different than the man to whom Don is aiming the campaign, the man "who can have the Jaguar," but not the beautiful woman. And this is what advertisers always have to do--flatter their audience members. But, Don is also skewering Herb--whom he hopes he has kept Joan away from. For Don isn't just talking about beautiful women here. He refers to "deep beauty." Refers to "deep beauty" in the context of an ad about Jaguars--a car that he has admitted to others that he doesn't like. He doesn't think Jaguars are beautiful. And if they do have any beauty, it is just surface beauty. Joan, on the other hand, has the "deep beauty" that Don names. And, Don knows that Joan is deeply beautiful. We saw it in his interactions with her last episode. We saw it in his defense of her and his pleas not to sleep with Herb--who only sees her surface beauty. Joan's deep beauty has aroused deep emotions in Don--and they are not emotions that lead him to try to bed her. He is set apart from the other men in the episode in this recognition and it is a sign of how much his character has evolved.-----------

Don has changed. Rather than relating to a mythologized past, here is looking the ugly present squarely in the face. Rather than creating a female archetype, he rails against one. Betty is not really an "Angel in the House" or a "Madonna" and he wants his partners and the Jaguar execs to realize that Joan is not the Whore. While in the Carousel example, Don masterfully sells the first archetype, here he refuses to buy into or sell the second. And, at the end of Season Five, he walks away from his wife who has offered herself up to sell shoes, dressed as the archetypal and Disney-commodified Snow White. Yet, he walks back into an old-fashioned James Bond archetype, with the most recent Bond theme song playing. Is he traveling back to his old philandering ways? Which Don will Weiner and Co. be selling us in Season Six? Or--which Dons? For he is a many-faceted character: nostalgic, calculating at selling, and sometimes reflective and wise. I guess we'll see tomorrow night. Happy watching.