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.