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.


  1. Cathy, in that take where Don walks away from his Beauty, did you notice a visual quotation from Citizen Kane--the magnate who sets his talentless wife up in show business?? (I JUST finished watching Season Five last night and don't have cable, so I'll catch up with you on Six six months from now!!)

  2. It's probably been 25 years since I've watched "Citizen Kane," Beth, so I didn't think about that, but it's a really interesting thought. And if that is what Weiner intended, that would answer my question about whether Megan really does have any talent. I'm sorry you won't be able to get into Six right away. Come back here when you have....