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.

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