Monday, May 26, 2014

"The Best Things in Life Are Free"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Seven, "Waterloo"

This was an irony-rich episode. When the shade of Bert Cooper serenades Don--who had just voted for a $65 million deal making SC&P a subsidiary of McCann and all the partners millionaires--with a  Broadway version of "The Best Things in Life Are Free," complete with a dancing chorus of secretaries, it was more than just a fun send-off for Robert Morse, back to his musical roots and whatever version of an afterlife the writers believe appropriate for someone like Cooper. It offered commentary on several of the events and themes of not just this episode, but of this half-season, and posed some interesting, complicating questions.

After watching the awe-inspiring moon walk with his Black "help," who's all dressed-up in a TV character maid costume complete with white frilly apron, the not-yet-ready-for-a-Black-woman-in-the-reception-area founding partner sings "The moon belongs to everyone" (though they did stick an American flag in it; but then Neil Armstrong did say that it was a "giant step for mankind," not just Americans; so--a moment of "national pride" as Roger says to the gathered employees after the buy-out vote? a universal moment of connection, as Peggy tells the Burger Chef reps? Americans appropriating what belongs to everyone on behalf of everyone? a hugely expensive act of hubris, as the Francis' young house guest asserts and gets Sally to consider? some combination of the above?) At least in its depiction of characters raptly watching the event, the show seems to come down on the side of it being--like the Kennedy assassination--a defining American moment that brought disparate groups together in unusual community and family: Roger--who has spent the last few years drifting from family model to family model, through LSD-induced quests for meaning, landing most recently in the position of a city hotel suite commune dweller who criticizes his rural commune-dwelling daughter of being a bad parent--is sitting in a living room with his first wife, their abandoned son-in-law, and their space helmet clad grandson on his lap; Betty, Henry, and Betty's and Don's children are with another family (that of Betty's college friend who's visiting); and Don is in a hotel room with Peggy, Pete, and Harry Crane, sharing a seat on one of the beds with Peggy, whom he leans into as they both watch with wonder on their faces. Harry--master of TV advertising--nearly cries. Afterward, Don reaches out to his children via phone and chastises Sally for being cynical about the whole event. But, Sally is just trying on different viewpoints. She tries Sean's with her father, but after he calls her on it, she goes outside to the younger visiting son who prefers watching the sky through a telescope. He wants to avoid the mediated views of the families and of the news casters.  Yet even viewing through a telescope provides a frame for what one sees. And this ties in to one of the series' themes that I'll get back to.

To Don Draper, whose second marriage has just finally, and not surprisingly, been pronounced dead, Cooper sings "And love can come to everyone." This season has raised some intriguing possibilities around the question of Don and love. The compulsive womanizer has turned down the advances of a few women whom the old Don would have taken to bed: the airplane profferer of sleeping pills and forgetfulness, the woman in the restaurant when Don was with some other advertisers, and--in this episode--his new secretary. The only other woman besides his wife whom he's had sex with this season is the one his wife brought to him for the three-way and  Don didn't seem much into that. No, in this season, in this time after Dick Whitman was allowed to come out in front of his partners, his clients, and his children, Don/Dick has gone after the love he's never felt in more meaningful places than the beds of strangers and employees. And, he's found it: in the Valentine's Day drive and shared burgers with his daughter, in the platonic arms of a dance with his work daughter and soul mate Peggy, and over burgers and fries with his work family Peggy and Pete, after he and Peggy crafted an ad campaign for Burger Chef that urges viewers not just to buy fast-food sandwiches from their would-be client, but to buy the idea that families should gather around a table for food, fellowship, and connection and leave their TVs behind (one of the greater ironies for this firm that's just offered its TV guy a partnership).

These two points of focus on the moonwalk and on the Burger Chef campaign are intimately connected and indicative of the over-arching tension of Season Seven, Part One between those who are in advertising as a means to fuel and play out their creative energies and those who are in it for the business. Don tells Roger, "I just want to do my work. I don't want to deal with business anymore." And, as he tries to sell Ted on the deal with McCann, he shares with him how much, after his suspension, he missed his work. So much that he would "do anything to get back in. And I did..." He wrote tags and coupons, things he hadn't done since his early days. He believes that Ted also would love his work again if he too could do it without the stress of partners' meetings and worrying about business. Yet there is a tension in the creative people's vision of advertising, a tension that Peggy realizes after the moonwalk and before the pitch to the burger people: "I have to talk to people who've just touched the face of god about hamburgers." Their creative efforts are not spent on art for art's sake or art just for self-expression. It's spent on selling stuff in an increasingly consumerist culture. Yet it's a consumer culture that is also fraught with tension, a tension that Peggy again gets. She knows that Americans are not only hungry for fast food burgers, but are also hungry for human connection in a chaotic world: "We can have the connection we're hungry for. There may be chaos at home, but there's family supper at Burger Chef," she sells to the almost weepy-eyed Indiana businessmen. This is in stark contrast to Jim Cutler's vision for the firm as a business that can pinpoint media buys "with surgical accuracy." And hence, this final (for now) showdown between those in it for the technical precision and the money--Jim and Joan most notably--and those in it for the creativity and connection. Pete Campbell is straddling the line between the sides, sitting on the couch next to Joan at the final meeting, crowing over the millions he'll make and spitting out that Ted is being "selfish" as he thinks through his vote AND cheering on the return of "the Don Draper Show," "back from its unscheduled interruption."

Our world comes to us not directly, but mediated through frames--those created through stories ("every great ad is a story"), through computerized data sheets (though data always need to be interpreted), through songs, and through TV shows like "Mad Men." What will Don do with the song and the ironies that Bert Cooper shows him through it? At the end, after watching Bert with a sometimes puzzled, sometimes pained expression, he leans against a desk--thinking? And there, we'll have to leave him. Until next year.

Monday, May 19, 2014

"My Way"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Six, "The Strategy" (or "The Suitcase," Part Two?)

The "strategy" of the title is, on the surface, a reference to that which those characters on the Burger Chef team are trying to figure out: how to approach the would-be client to secure the account. But beyond that, it's what Don and Peggy are trying to accomplish: how can they establish a strategy to work well together again after Don's betrayal of Peggy and Ted the year before and their new turned-on-its-head working relationship of Don reporting to her and then Pete's insistence that Don pitch the campaign to the burger people? But even more deeply, it reflects that which a number of these characters need if they are to negotiate the world of changing family dynamics and women's roles: Pete and Trudy aren't sure how to relate to each other as they're divorcing (though Pete seems to think it should be the same way they had it set up when they were living together--Trudy is always there and chaste, while Pete gets to sleep around); Tammy doesn't seem even to be sure who her father is after his long absence. Peggy, having recently turned thirty while spending time in field research to determine why mothers turn to Burger Chef to feed their families, has looked into too many station wagons in Ohio and Pennsylvania and wonders what she's "done wrong." In the meantime, she can't get Stan to come in to work on the weekend because he has a lover with whom he has plans and she's feeling the lack of someone in her life. Don smiles fondly at Megan on his balcony and claims to be happy she's there, but later looks unsure as he watches her clean out a closet. The long-distance marriage doesn't seem to be working for them as much as they try to pretend. And, most sad of all, Bob Benson needs a strategy to appear the "certain kind of executive" that Buick requires, e.g. not gay; family structure and possibilities of roles for people to play hadn't expanded THAT much yet in 1969, though the Stonewall riots were just around the corner later that month in Manhattan.

The most interesting thing about this episode to me, though, is how it leads us back three seasons and four years of Mad Men time to "The Suitcase," the seventh episode of Season Four--one of the most poignant and beautifully written and acted hours of "Mad Men" they've produced. As it turns out, it was exactly at the center of this series: three and a half seasons had already aired and three and a half seasons were to come. But more, it was also central to the show conceptually. This has always been a show that is at its best when focusing on people's work lives and the office. "The Suitcase" brought Don's and Peggy's complicated personal lives into the workplace. It's a perfect episode to re-turn our thoughts to as they again struggle at work to make sense of the personal, and try to figure out what it means that they both lack meaningful connections with family. In "The Suitcase," Don and Peggy spend a night working together, honestly discussing their lives and regrets--including Peggy's baby--and Peggy helps Don through a difficult crisis, the death of Anna Draper. That night of Anna's death was on Peggy's birthday. This time around--a couple of weeks after Peggy's 30th birthday--Don has it a bit more together and he helps Peggy through an existential crisis--wondering if she will ever know what it's like to be a mom, while she also struggles to assert her authority at work. In both episodes, we see the process of them creating an ad campaign. Alone, they're not doing so well. Together, they come up with something inspired. When I wrote about "The Suitcase" at the time, I commented on how much I enjoyed seeing how their minds work. In this one, a frustrated Peggy, not sure if she can trust Don, says, "You really want to help me? Show me how you think!" And he does, and she smiles, and their connection is re-forged. At the end of both evenings, Don and Peggy share an intimate moment: in "The Suitcase," Don falls asleep on the office couch with his head in Peggy's lap. It is while he sleeps that the shade of Anna passes through, bestowing a last smiling glance on him. In this episode, they dance to Frank Sinatra's "My Way" as it plays on the radio. Peggy rests her head on Don's chest and he looks--what?--almost afraid, uncertain, confused, but then kisses the top of her head. From the time each woke up that morning and chose what to wear, they were apparently meant to have this moment of working out their differences and honoring the kindred spirit in the other because they were color-coordinated, the orange in Don's tie matching well Peggy's shirt. While Joan can't accept Bob's proposal and re-vision of marriage that he offers ("We could comfort each other through an uncertain world"), Don smiles on Peggy's redefinition of family: "What if there was a place you could go where there's no TV, you could break bread, and anyone near you is family?" With his one failed and second failing marriage, he too needs a new way to conceive of family. And who better than Peggy to suggest it, the one with whom he has so much in common? They both live for their work--with all the negatives and the positives that way of being brings to their lives, to their families and to themselves (it was in "The Suitcase" that Peggy said to Don, "I know what I'm supposed to want. It never seems as important as what's in that office.") Why not finally expand the view of family to include their work companions?

And so it is that at the end, we see Peggy with Don and Pete (the two people outside her circle of mother and sisters who know about the baby she had and gave up for adoption), breaking bread (or French fries to be more accurate) at the place where "every table is the family table." Leave aside for the time being that as the camera pulls back from their table to show us other families at Burger Chef and the bright, rather garish red and white building, we're also seeing the way the creativity of people like Peggy and Don helped persuade us Americans to become the 'fast food nation.' It's a complicated, ever-changing world and strategies pursued to resolve one problem can often lead to others. As Don tells Peggy, it's part of their job that they can never know which is the right approach. Don seems to be getting to a place where he's more okay with ambiguity.

Monday, May 12, 2014

"Walk the Line"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Five, "The Runaways"

As Waylon Jennings sings at the end of the episode, a number of characters feel like somebody's "been stepping on my toes and I'm getting pretty tired of it." Lou is fed up with his crew at the office whom he sees as a "bunch of flag-burning snots," who have "a thing to learn about patriotism and loyalty," as well as about taste in comic strips; Betty finally realizes--HELLO!--that a traditional 1960s marriage isn't supposed to include the wife thinking--even in Italian; Henry's put out by his wife's expression of her unpopular opinion on the war because it might cost him votes (who knew there were that many Westchester County residents opposed to the war, even in 1969?); Megan--I'm assuming--worries that Don has sent a woman pregnant with his child to her home for care and money; Sally KNOWS that her mother is out to stomp all over her toes and isn't shy about speaking out, while her poor little brother (weren't those two just a few years apart when the show started? now he seems to be about five or six years younger) fears having to go through another divorce. From the opening shot of Stan laughing at Lou's comic strip about Scout, who can "take anything but an order," this episode is about authority: those who desperately try to hold on to the bit they have left and those who want to defy the authorities weighing down upon them. Some are fiercely trying--like Waylon--to walk a line, but by the end of "The Runaways," Don looks like the only one who's succeeded (for now, at least), while the tragic Ginsberg has plunged headlong over it.

It's unusual to witness Betty as the character voicing the insight that grounds an episode, but this time she is. After Henry diagnoses "wildness in kids" as a "national disease" and their neighbor Mike opines that things aren't just bad in Vietnam, they're "falling apart here too," Betty says, "Well, I don't know that those things are unrelated. I mean first the kids start off protesting and the next thing you know every authority is up for grabs." While I disagree with Betty--I think most of the student protests in the '60s were a good thing--she is spot on that challenges to authority in the political realm are connected to those in the personal realm. Once people see it as okay to talk back, they'll do so whether it's to their parents, their teachers, the President, or the CEO of Dow Chemical. And not all of their protests will be important and meaningful; sometimes they'll just get angry, or aggressive, or bratty and throw some rocks at street lights in the affluent suburbs without leaving a note explaining why, if they know why. Was that just meaningless vandalism or--as the guests at the Francis' party seem to think--a big 'fuck you' to the pristine order the Westchester adults try desperately to impose upon the chaos of 1969?

With that scenario in the background, Betty is primed to see Sally's appearance at the house with black eyes and bandaged nose as an intentional affront to Betty's arduous preparations to marry Sally off to a suitable man who would never condescend to accept a trophy wife with a less-than-perfect nose. No "Come here, sweetheart. Does it hurt?" or even, "Seriously, you're fifteen and you're playing sword fights with golf clubs? But, I hope you're not in pain." No--all Betty can offer to her battered, self-confessed 'idiot' daughter is "That's your face, young lady!"

But, even as she's chastising her daughter for not following the traditional feminine script, and getting an earful from the non-conformist Sally, Betty is also starting to realize--finally--that there is something wrong with that script. Even someone as thick and as limited by self-imposed blinders as Betty is can't fail to be insulted when her husband, in multiple arguments over a couple of days, says things like "From now on, keep your conversation to how much you hate getting toast crumbs in the butter and leave the thinking to me." Betty's having a bit of a crisis. The woman who's always tried hard to walk the line between doing what society and her mother have told her she's supposed to do and what she might be interested in doing is talking back: "I'm tired of everyone telling me to shut up! I'm not stupid. . . . Guess what? I think all by myself!" She tells Henry that she doesn't know what she's going to do. I'm not going to hold out much hope that maybe this time she will do something outside the box; I've been disappointed before, but....

And in the meantime....While Don's first wife is expressing very conservative views about Vietnam, but also staging her own rebellion in the personal sphere, his second wife is nursing her sexual jealousy of Don--which is not unjustified in general, but is in the instance of Stephanie--when the pregnant niece of Anna Draper shows up at her house, and then jumping to the other extreme when she initiates the three-way with Don and her friend. What's up there? Okay she was, as Don pointed out, stoned, but I don't think it was just the drugs talking. Was this her way of trying to contain what she sees as Don's inability to be sexually faithful? If I can't have a faithful husband, I'm going to control the terms on which he has sex with someone else? It's going to be when I can participate too? Or is this Megan just trying to fit into what she thinks everyone hip is supposed to be doing? We first see her dancing provocatively with the young man at the party, but she's keeping an eye on Don while doing so. She then orders Don to "Kiss her. I know you want to." The next morning, she's trying to be cool about making coffee in the apartment where both Don and her friend are, but as soon as Don leaves, she starts to cry into her hands. She's not been real successful at walking the line between what she's "supposed" to do and what she wants to do.

Then, there's poor Ginsberg. He's exhibited scary signs of mental instability before. In the past, he told Peggy that Martians spoke to him. This time, he believes it's the computer that has a plan to "turn us all homo." "Am I Cassandra?" he asks, referring to the ancient Greek character cursed by Apollo with the gift of prophecy and the fate of never being believed. Since the computer first arrived at SC&P, he's seen it ominously. And he's right that it represents some of the partners' desire to stifle the creative team, replacing them with a completely rational, mechanized business model. And, his fears about computers replacing humans in some spheres and about technology's effects on human creativity have proven to be somewhat warranted. But, I don't want to reduce Ginsberg's psychotic break to a metaphor of the tragic components of the conflict between computers and humans. The young man who spent the first five years of his life in a Nazi concentration camp has oppression and control from horrible outside forces impressed into his very being. I couldn't help but think of HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey" as Ginsberg developed his ideas about the office computer. Did he see that movie when it came out in 1968, relating too heavily to the fictional story of a computer that manipulates and then kills people before being brought down itself? Whatever the genesis of this iteration of his mental illness and breakdown, the image of him being rolled out on the gurney, yelling "Get out while you can!" as the tearful Peggy and somber other women watch is one of the saddest and most serious of the show. While Don may or may not have successfully walked the multiple lines drawn out in that meeting with Cutler, Lou, and the tobacco men (the image of him whistling for a cab at the end suggests he at least THINKS he did), this episode was dark and portends the season (or at least this half of it) ending more on an Altamont note than a Woodstock one.

Monday, May 5, 2014


Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Four, "The Monolith"

Jim Crane--with hard hat planted on head--can cheer on about how "this agency is entering the future" because construction is about to begin on 'the monolith' of a computer in a space that used to belong to the creative team, but the main story lines of this episode feature characters riding The Hollies' "Carousel," going "round and round and round and round and round and round." This includes Don and, even more so, Margaret Sterling and her parents.

Don was trying to live up to the stipulations the partners gave for his return: showing up to work every day, staying in his office, not drinking, but being made to work for Peggy on a campaign with no strategy is too much for him. Throwing his typewriter at the wall and storming out on a Friday, he comes back on Monday without his homework done and sits at his desk playing Solitaire. Lou told Cutler that he thought Don would "implode," but it's not until his confrontation with Bert that he almost does. Bert confirms for Don that the partners see him with no purpose to the firm. "We've been doing fine," he says. When Don asks why he's there, Bert throws back at him "Why are you here?" "Because I started this agency!" Bert's "along with a dead man whose office you now inhabit" sends Don into Roger's office to steal a bottle of liquor and drink himself silly back on his own couch. In his conversation with Lloyd, the computer man, Don snarkily asks him about how many people he's replaced that day, but Don is getting replaced not by a computer, but by other people. He's been put out to pasture in the office where people go to die. Fortunately for Don, though, he has his own AA sponsor without ever going through the 12 step program. After calling Freddy Rumsfeld about a Mets game, Freddy comes to rescue him and take him home to pass out. The next morning, with a cup of strong coffee, Freddy dishes it to Don straight and--because he's been there and Don knows it--Don listens. "Do the work, Don," Freddy presses and the next thing we see is a cleaned-up Don entering his office, pulling the cover off the typewriter and tapping out Peggy's twenty-five tags, which he tells her she'll have by noon. The Hollies' song in the background reminded me of another low point in Don's life--but not a low point in his career. He'd just pitched the brilliant Carousel campaign to Kodak. While his career was soaring then, he created the ad out of a false nostalgia for a family past that didn't really exist. This time, Don's career is in shambles and he's riding the carousel right around to his early days as a fledgling copywriter, but he's more honest. We'll see where this carousel ride takes him.

Meantime, there's Margaret Sterling and her parents, going round and round and round in the never-ending dysfunctional family blame game carousel. As funny as Roger is--and he was given some really good lines tonight (the computer's "going to do lots of magical things, like make Harry Crane seem important")--it cannot have been easy being his daughter. Margaret blames him for having his secretary order birthday presents for her when she was a child and blames her mother for regularly locking herself in the bathroom with a bottle of gin, but uses those reasonable complaints as justification for abandoning her own son. I have a lot of sympathy for the need to find oneself and for women who are "tired of accepting society's definitions of who [they] are." I've been there. But Margaret still seems like the same spoiled child who railed against Roger for not giving Brooks money to start a business. This time she's just railing against him for not accepting her choice to live in a filthy commune, but it still all seems designed to punish him for his bad parenting rather than figure out her own path--or maybe I'm just too biased against privileged spoiled rich kids. It's hard to say if Roger is just being a hypocrite, given his current situation living in a tawdry hotel room commune of his own, or if he really has figured out there's something wrong with the way both he and Margaret are trying to find meaning. He admits to her that he's not as open-minded as he'd thought and that while he can understand the temptation, she can't do this because she's a mother. Is that just sexism or has her message about his and Mona's parenting started to sink in? By the end of his time with her, the mud has been literally as well as figuratively slung and he leaves far from the dapper figure he cut when they pulled in.

A couple of final thoughts:

--interesting talk about the symbolism of the computer between Don and Lloyd. Lloyd says that the computer is frightening but it's made by people. "People aren't frightening?" Don tosses back. Don here is the older generation, wanting to focus on people and their experiences. The IBM 360, Lloyd tells Don, "can count more stars in a day than we can count in a lifetime." But, a man lying on his back counting stars isn't thinking of numbers, Don retorts. No, "he probably thought about going to the moon" (Lloyd's response) is just one foreshadowing of the upcoming moon walk in this episode (Margaret and Roger talked about astronauts and the moon too). Science that can send humans to the moon versus the science of human communication and advertising that Lloyd goes into Don's office to ask him about. The dance goes on between these generations and fields.

--it also continues to go on between the genders in the office. I loved Joan's response to Peggy's complaint about them giving her Don on her team so that one of them will fail:
"If it makes you feel better, Peggy, I don't think they thought about it at all."