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.