Monday, April 27, 2015

"What's In a Name?"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Eleven, "Time and Life"

When Roger laments the loss of the Sterling name--"No more Sterling Cooper. And no more Sterlings"--Don of the stolen identity and buried birth name retorts with a stolen line: "What's in a name?" But, as the partners know, an ad agency by any other name would not smell as sweet. Even Ted, who welcomes the chance to "let someone else drive," knows that being part of McCann Ericson is not the same as being SCP or Sterling Cooper West. The "name change" represents so much more: loss of autonomy, control, and identity. And represents different changes to different members of the team.

To Ted--the least striving of the bunch, who now wants a calmer life in which he can focus on nurturing a good relationship--being absorbed by the large firm is a relief. To the blue blood Roger, who's never worked very hard, it means a loss of the family name. As the father of a daughter whose child has another man's name and the father of a son whom he cannot acknowledge, who also has another man's name, his agency was the only Sterling legacy. Now it is gone, sold off for the millions they all lusted after a year ago.

Pete, too, had to contend with a battle over his blue blood name this episode: huffing and puffing that a Campbell has always attended the elite school that won't take poor little Tammy Campbell, how dare they decline her, he must punch the snarky school headmaster because that's what blue-blood gentlemen do to defend the honor of their women folk, I guess, though I wouldn't know for sure since my blood is more reddish brown, and I have never attended an elite private school, nor even ever been anywhere near Connecticut. But, surprisingly, after it was all over, Pete--who is typically the most whiny, angry, and/or expressive of a strong sense of entitlement over events he doesn't like--is the most sanguine after Ted. He tells Joan, "For the first time I feel like whatever happens is supposed to happen." He says this after he and Joan leave the group at the bar because he wants to check in with Trudy, who he recognizes has also had a really hard day. What? Pete maturing? If this lasts until the end, it will be quite the surprising, but nice, character development to wrap-up with.

How Don is reading this change is a bit harder to suss out at this point. In some ways, it's the biggest hit to him, the man who has always been able to mine the pain and screw-ups of his life and create out of them supremely persuasive and often beautiful advertising campaigns: the Carousel, the suitcase, the Hershey bar. He has on more than one occasion taken the firm at crisis points and lifted it out of the ashes to be reborn and re-formed. Yet this attempt did not work. Jim Hobart wouldn't even let him finish his pitch. It's Hobart who attempts to persuade them, through re-defining what has happened: "It's done. You passed the test. . . . You are dying and going to advertising heaven. . . . Buick, Ortho Pharmaceutical, Nabisco, Coca-Cola. Stop struggling. You win." But the partners know they have not won. And, while Joan tells Pete that "Hobart listed off accounts for everyone but me," after last week, when Don couldn't believe that all Ted wanted out of his work were bigger accounts, after he mused to his tape recorder about how "It's supposed to get better," I wonder if Don will be the one to opt out of Hobart's heaven. He's the master of re-defining, re-naming, and re-creating himself. Perhaps he will do so again now. Because the name is not as important to him. His autonomy and ability to act and create are.

Although these professional changes present varying levels of challenge for the men, it is the women of the episode who are most strongly affected. From the black secretaries who worry that the new firm won't "need one more black girl," to Meredith, who makes a surprisingly strong stand for herself and the other employees when she tells Don that he must talk to them because everyone is so worried about what's going to happen, to Joan who knows "they won't take me seriously there" after all the hard work and fight and putting-up-with-bullshit she's gone through to make partner at SCP, the women's positions are most precarious.

Yet it's through Trudy and Peggy--and even Tammy--that this episode most effectively demonstrates that even more than a name, what matters is one's sex. What's in a name? Not much for the women, who trade their names for a man's when they marry. Yet this name trade can be seen to stand for so much more. For Joan, it's the possible loss of recognition of her intelligence and worth as an executive. For Trudy, it's the situation of a suburban divorcee: being hounded by all the husbands at parties and school officials when she checks out schools for her daughter. She had wanted nothing more than to be a suburban wife, but now seems to be recognizing that this particular suburban life is not all it was cracked up to be. Her daughter fails her 'draw a man test,' only getting on to paper a head and a necktie. Some psychologists would likely theorize that this is because she lives without her father in her home, and it has stunted her emotional growth. But, what if it's a sign of the lack of wholeness and the emotional barrenness of these men--who, in the drawing, are only heads, but not hearts? (And on this show penises, but one could argue that their frequent sexual encounters with women they hardly know are also indicative of a failure to relate emotionally). When Jim Hobart walked out of his conference room, he left a tableaux of the five SCP partners, sitting in a row on one side of the table. Each one of them--the woman included--has been divorced; some more than once. Each one lives alone, partnerless. Only Joan, the woman, lives with her child. Peggy spends the episode having to work with children, which only serves to remind her of the sacrifice she made for her career. She argues to Stan that "no one should have to make a mistake and not be able to move on like a man does." She's right about how women and men shouldn't have to give up different things for their careers. But, don't these characters demonstrate that all of them--the men and the women--have given up too much in the realm of human emotion and relationship and closeness for their careers? And perhaps because they're too afraid to finish up that drawing of the man that is only a head.

Yet, interestingly, when faced with a career- and life-changing day, each one of them reached out or went in search of someone to love. Joan calls the new Roger; "I just wanted to hear your voice," she tells him. Ted leaves the gathering at the bar to meet the new woman he's in a relationship with; Roger leaves to go to Marie; Pete leaves to contact Trudy; and Don goes off in search of Diana. Peggy shares her deepest secret with Stan and the next day wants him just to stay on the phone with her while she's working. Who knows where they will go next with all of this. These characters are great for back-tracking, but they made some interesting emotional acknowledgments and movement tonight. We'll see where it takes them.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What's Next?

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Ten, "The Forecast"

While the first two episodes of this half season drew us backward: into an exploration of Don's losses, into a focus on the relationships to which he can never return, this episode looks forward. It invites us to consider--with Don and others--what might occur after our time with them is finished. What's next? What's "the forecast" for their lives?

In the guise of preparing the "Gettysburg Address" speech on SCP for a McCann retreat that Roger will attend, Don wanders from colleague to colleague to suss out ideas on where the company is headed. But, it's soon clear that this is merely cover for his quest for a direction to and the meaning of his own life. His apartment "reeks with failure," according to his realtor, and while he protests that "a lot of wonderful things happened here," we know--and I expect he does too--that that's untrue. So, as President Lincoln sought to make meaning out of the deaths of tens of thousands of people on the fields of Gettysburg, Don Draper (on a much smaller scale) takes Roger's inflated metaphor for his talk and tries to engage others in discussions on the meaning of life. When Ted responds to Don that he hopes for perhaps a tire account, or bigger yet, a pharmaceutical company, "That's your dream?" Don wonders. "Bigger accounts?"

He pulls Peggy closer to where he wants to go, using her performance review to get her finally to say that she wants to create "something of lasting value." "In advertising?" he laughs. She just gets aggravated with him, though, retorting, "This is supposed to be about my job, not the meaning of life." When he responds, "So you think those things are unrelated?" we can glimpse what he wants, but she storms out of his office, thinking he's being critical of her aspirations, but I see him as trying to figure out his own.

When he's musing on the speech into his tape recorder, he says, "Four score and seven years ago. We know where we've been and where we are. Let's assume that it's good. But it's gonna get better. It's supposed to get better." How can Don Draper--who's so seriously mucked up his life and relationships--create something of lasting value that will make his life get better? For all of his faults, he does have a sense of how it should go. Though he should never have told Mathis the story about his comment to Lee Garner, Jr.--and Mathis shouldn't have been dumb enough to re-use it--Don does tell the younger man the truth when he says that he needs to fix his own mistakes and deal with his own problems. Is that what Don is finally--or again--trying to do? Mathis tells Don that he has no character; "you're just handsome." That's often true, but Don strikes me as giving it a sober effort in this episode.

He also has not been a good father in so many ways, but is right when he tells Sally that she is like him and Betty. For better and worse, we all are created out of the forge of our families, our childhood highs and traumas, our cultures, our time periods. Don knows that he is like his parents in many ways, that killing off Dick Whitman and adopting a new identity did not shed him of the dead young prostitute mother, the cruel father, the fundamentalist stepmother, the whore-house setting, or the grinding poverty. But, his advice to his angry daughter--who dreams "to get on a bus, get away from you and Mom, and hopefully be a different person than you two"--offers a kind of hope, both to her and to him: "You may not want to listen to this, but you ARE like your mother and me. You're gonna find that out. You're a very beautiful girl. It's up to you to be more than that." And, it's up to Don to be more than just the handsome, but characterless, man Mathis accuses him of being. When he stands outside his sold apartment door, is he on the threshold of something new? Or will he again step back into the old? Or find some balance between the two?

--And--more briefly: is Joan also poised on the cusp of something new with the new Roger? It all moved very quickly, but there's not a lot of time left in the show. Will she have really found love before it's all over?

--And Glen Bishop. Yikes! I wasn't expecting him to be the means of bringing the later part of the war home, and don't know why we needed to have this minor character make an appearance in the show's wrapping-up stage, but, since Weiner apparently feels his reappearance is necessary, I'll try to make some sense of it beyond just saying "Eeew, creepy! Leave Betty alone!"

While I get a kid having a crush on an attractive adult neighbor (I had one of those when I was young too), Glen's means of expressing it has always creeped me out. Betty handled it better this time than when he cut some of her hair off as a souvenir when he was little, but did he really expect her to give herself to him as his going-off-to-war present? Not believable. So, I'm going to assume something beyond a literal interpretation is suggested by the whole scene. Does Betty have some sort of mystical meaning to Glen? Is she the beautiful Helen over whom war becomes worth being fought? Or a courtly love figure? The beautiful married woman sung of from afar by the medieval bard? But, what happens when the warrior actually talks to his idol on the pedestal? When she doesn't accept that role, the facade of the noble warrior starts to fall away: "But you understand why I'm doing it," he wants to believe, but instead Betty--one of the few characters left who does support the war--says, "Do you want me to say that I like it?" "I know you do," he presses on, "because I'm brave and I want to protect this country and everyone in it." Yet he and Betty both know that's a slogan. When she looks skeptical, he confesses that he's really going because he flunked out of college. His myth of the beautiful woman to fight for "was going to be the good thing that came out of it." He leaves on another lie--or at least a promise that cannot be kept--when Betty tells him, "You're going to make it. I'm positive." It's a kindness to send him off with, but her actions later with Bobby's toy gun show that she is now disturbed by and questioning the enterprise. It's an odd way to get at the way Vietnam was still a force in American life in late 1970, but it's either that or just "Eeew, Glen, stop."

Either way, the episode ends with questions about what's next for a number of the characters. And only a few more episodes to suggest where they might be headed.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Back to the Beginning

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Nine, "New Business"

In the car as they head to the golf course to meet clients, Pete talks to Don about the challenges of being a high-profile businessman post-divorce. He admits that his failed marriage was his fault and worries, "What if you never get back to the beginning again?" Don doesn't answer him, but his actions demonstrate the paradox of his life (perhaps of any life): while he knows he can't get back to the beginning--in terms of starting again; there are no do-overs--at the same time, his loveless beginning will always be a part of him and will forever drive him: to continually seek the love that was withheld from him in his childhood and to muck up his relationships when he thinks he has found it.

In the evening's first scene, we see him in the Francis kitchen, making milk shakes for his sons and himself. They all seem to be having fun, but when Betty and Henry return, Don takes his leave, with a kiss to the top of Gene's head, without drinking his shake. At the door, he turns back to look with sadness at the family he failed to make work. There's another man at the center of it now, and Don is the outsider. There's no way he can go back to the beginning with Betty and their children.

We next see him alone in his dark apartment, on the phone with his soon-to-be second ex-wife. The pained look from the Francis home returns as he hangs up the phone. With no apparent emotion, he later writes Megan a check for a million dollars to give her "the life you deserve" and to end their fighting. This is another failed relationship that he knows he cannot go back to the beginning to fix.

Yet, he holds fast to the quest for a meaningful relationship, pursuing Diana--a woman whom he thinks is simpler, with her Avon shampoo and a ranch house in Racine, Wisconsin--to the new restaurant at which she waits tables. She at first acquiesces to his request for time together, but Don soon discovers the extent to which she--like he--has been emotionally damaged by loss and feels herself unworthy of giving and receiving love anymore. He initially relates well to her, expressing his sympathy for the death of her daughter and taking time off work to comfort her in the room his children inhabit only every other weekend. But when he later visits her rented room, the "dump," so like the place he chose after his and Betty's break-up, he realizes that she too thinks she doesn't "deserve any better." After she discloses that she left a second daughter back in Wisconsin, Don realizes the extent to which she has allowed her child's death to wall off her core self: "I told you about my heart," she says. "I don't want to feel anything else. When I was with you, I forgot about her. I don't ever want to do that." Don places the guidebook he'd bought her on the bed before he walks out, but I can't see Diana being guided out of her hell of deep sorrow anytime soon. Does Don's leaving signify his respect for her feelings? A recognition that she's right, and it's not wise for her to be in a relationship at that point? His awareness that since she is incapable of being a mother to her own surviving child that he's not going to get from her the mothering he often looks for in a lover? Whatever his leave-taking means, all it leads Don to is an apartment that is now not just empty of other people, but also of every stick of furniture. Our last glimpse of him drives home just how very alone and isolated Don Draper is.

While Don is continuing last week's focus on loss that began with the death of Rachel, other characters provide fodder for continued reflection on the culture of commodification that these advertising industry workers create. The photographer, Pema, opines that "All art is selling something," when she decides to place her photographs at the service of an ad campaign. The episode takes this further, though, when it demonstrates that all relationships are about selling something. Everything is a transaction: in ordering all of the Draper furniture onto a moving van, Megan's mother asserts, "I took what you deserved." She then offers Roger sex in exchange for the few hundred dollars she needs for the extra work of the movers. "Please, take advantage of me," she moans to Roger--who is ever-accommodating in that regard. Don exchanges a million dollars for an end to fighting and divorce negotiations. Harry expects sex from Megan in exchange for his advice about an agent, and she has the idea planted in her head that perhaps the reason she is not offered leading roles is because she is not following directors to the casting couch. (As scummy as Harry is, he might not be wrong about that.) Stan has a hard time at work; now he not only has a female boss, but he is told he has to contend with a female photographer. "It's hard to keep my balls at this job," he says while leaving Peggy's office. Once he's able to put his balls into play again, though, asserting his manhood with Pema in a bit of darkroom sex, he's willing to exchange this for his approval of her work. He's on familiar footing. The woman who was threatening has now--he thinks--been placed under his control. He exudes enthusiasm for her being placed on a number of accounts. Peggy, however, is in charge of this transaction, and she's not having it. Completely disconcerted by Pema's advance to her, she refuses to consider her for another job. And Stan, disconcerted by the idea that he might not have put Pema under his control, refuses to believe Peggy.

While this episode jumped around a great deal, I found most interesting the situations of the three women with whom Don has to contend as he faces his existential position with regard to Pete's question on beginnings. Betty may actually be in a position of beginning again. After last half season's struggle with judging Francine for going back to work after not finding her family to be enough, and her fights with Henry over her right to her opinions, Betty has declared her intention to go back to school. Don is dismissive, but she seems not to care about his opinion. I hope the show gets back to her to explore this more fully; I find the offer of nothing more than an enticing glimpse into her possible future frustrating, but it's an intriguing development.

Megan is unsure which story to tell herself about her divorce. When her sister refers to it as her "failure," she fights back, arguing that the States are in the 20th century. She is a modern woman following her own path and career. When with Don, she sounds like Roger's version of Jane that he whined about to Don earlier: "I wasn't going to give you the satisfaction of knowing you ruined my life" and "I gave up everything for you." Is she letting her mother's and sister's judgment get to her here? Is she feeling hopeless, after her lunch with Harry, about the career that she never gave up for Don? For all of his serious flaws as a husband, Don did provide the financial support that allowed her to quit office work and pursue acting full-time. She's right that Don is a liar, but is she lying to herself about what's happening too? She seems truly stuck between having no desirable beginning to head back to (her family-of-origin is a mess; her marriage is a deceased mess) and the recognition that the career she does desire might have too high of an entrance transaction fee.

Finally, there's Diana. A character I wish we'd have more time to get to know. There's no going back to the beginning for her either. With her grief for her dead child strangling her ability to be a mother to the child she has left, she outcasts herself to a shabby, unhappy room in a big, unhappy city, having managed--perhaps--to find, and then reject, the briefest of respites in the arms of a man who also feels unloved and unlovable.

An interesting, but most unhappy, episode.

Monday, April 6, 2015

"Is That All There Is?"

"Mad Men," Season Seven, Episode Eight, "Severance"

This episode is fraught with tensions. As it begins, a sexy woman, dressed in not much more than a fur coat and high-heeled shoes, walks into a room with Don Draper's gaze on her. He stands near a window, smoking and flicking the ash of his cigarette into a paper coffee cup in his left hand. He rather seductively tells her what to do: "You're not supposed to talk. Just tell me how you feel. . . . Look at yourself [in the mirror]. Do you like what you see?" She complies with his continued demands, putting her leg up on a chair as a woman's voice-over draws us into a story: her father saved her from their burning home when she was a child. Watching the fire from the street, she wonders, "Is that all there is to a fire?" The camera pulls back to reveal a group of men on a couch taking notes, and my question is answered. This is an audition for a commercial, not the foreplay to Don's latest dalliance.

The opening scene rather brilliantly encapsulates the questions and issues to be dramatized: What is real and what is fantasy? Can Don Draper and other characters ever direct what occurs in their lives or are they always subject to the whims of fate--that director across the room? Can one--particularly the women--escape the objectifying gaze of those of a higher social status? Can there be meaningful human connections forged in the world of modern advertising, which is always about commodification and acquisition? Will these characters ever be satisfied (look in the mirror and like what they see)? And then there's the reference to fire, repeated several times: the child saved by her father. We then learn from Joan that "department stores are being blown up by radicals every day." Fire is used as a form of protest against capitalist excesses. Later, Joan herself tells Peggy that she wants to "burn this place down" after the women have been subjected to sexist disrespect by the team of McCann men with whom they'd been meeting. The fantasy of fire is used to express anger and hurt over unjust treatment.

The 1969 Peggy Lee song bookmarks this episode--an atypical way for the show to use its weekly song. Raising the question "Is that all there is" to fire, to love--to life, essentially--the music expresses Don's existential anxiety over the losses he faces and the tension between them and the excesses he engages in to avoid them. Though we don't hear the chorus to the song, it hangs in the air, heavy with relevance:

Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing.
Let's break out the booze and have a ball
If that's all there is.

In a March 29, 2015 interview published in The New York Times, Matthew Weiner discussed his perception of how his show "mines" the secret shame that all people feel, and that leads to a sense of isolation: "We're all alone. And we all have a fake identity." While I observed in blog posts on the first half of this season that characters like Don, Peggy, and Pete were making moves to bridge that isolation and forge more meaningful relationships with others (Don with Sally, Peggy's Burger Chef campaign on a new kind of family that included Don and Pete), in their post-sale of the firm to McCann, they once again are essentially fragmented and alone, seeming to revel in the luxuries the new money can buy, but not finding real connection. We barely see Don and Peggy together. Peggy and Joan are working more closely as a team, but instead of allies in the face of the dismissal and sexist comments they receive from men in the field, they once again have an elevator spat as Peggy opines that Joan should dress differently if she doesn't want to be told she should be a brassiere model, and Joan retorts, "I don't expect you to understand." Peggy makes the first of the show's references to the fact that non-partners in SCP resent the millions the partners made in the sale of the firm when she spits back, "You know what. You're filthy rich. You don't have to do anything you don't want to!" But, Joan is doing what she wants to do. She just would also like to dress in her style while doing it, and be respected for her brains and ability. Instead, she and Peggy--intelligent, creative ad people--are objectified by the gaze of the three males across the table from them as much as the fur models are.

Peggy is attempting to create a social life for herself when she accepts Mathis' offer of a date with his brother-in-law. She and Stevie hit it off, laughing and drinking through a long dinner that ends with  Peggy proposing a trip to Paris. That falls through when she can't find her passport and the next morning, she wakes up hungover and questioning whether they could have a relationship that will go anywhere.

Don starts out the episode seeming on top of his world, if in a superficial way. He's back on the team, leading the audition for the fur ad. He has a date with a model and a mustached Roger sitting between two young models. They've been someplace fancy, but are ending the evening at a diner, where Don is comfortable enough to tell stories about his step-mother, uncle, and their impoverished past. Roger tells the women, "He loves to tell stories about how poor he was, but he's not anymore." The implication is that Don really is moving forward. When he gets home and calls his answering service, he has messages from three women among whom he can choose to spend the night with. But, he doesn't seem happy. With his arm around a young, beautiful, well-dressed model in the diner's booth, he is more drawn to the hard-working waitress with the John Dos Passos novel sticking out of her apron. When he arrives home and turns on the light to reveal the empty apartment, he looks sad. Megan is gone. There is no hint at all of his children in this episode. We could be back at the series premiere in which we don't find out until the very end that this man with a lover in Greenwich Village has a wife and children in the suburbs. The stewardess on lay-over whom he calls to spend the night seems there just to dispel the isolation; she allows him to don a mask so that he doesn't have to deal with the question, "Is that all there is?" As in Peggy Lee's song, he is just dancing so he doesn't have to stand still. The news of Rachel's death, though, forces him to slow down.

Don has a special sensitivity for seeing the shades of dead people as they're on their way out of this life. Anna Draper appeared to him in "The Suitcase" (Season 4.7), saying nothing, but smiling beneficently at him as he wakes from a drunken nap on Peggy's lap. At the end of the last episode of Season 7, Part 1, he sees the recently deceased Bert Cooper engage in a song and dance routine, exhorting him to realize that "the best things in life are free." He seems in this episode to be trying on the lifestyle of the millionaire he's become, but also to recognize that it doesn't offer the best things in life. So, when Rachel Menken Katz enters the room, clad in a fur coat, for an audition, he is thrown off guard. It can't really be her, can it? Her message to him is that he's missed his flight. All he can think to say to her is the ad slogan-sounding "You're not just smooth. You're Wilkinson smooth." What the hell does that mean? A day or so later when he receives the news that Rachel had died the week before, Don is thrown into a search for what it all means. He visits the Dos Passos reading waitress and receives some quick sex in the alley. For him, it seems to be one of those attempts to hold fast to one's physical nature when forced to face the gaping hole of mortality--especially the mortality of someone younger than oneself. For the waitress, it is what she expected she'd have to pay out for the glib $100 tip Roger left her to make up for having been rude. "You got your $100 worth," she tells Don. "You can go." But, he doesn't want to go. He wants to talk to someone with substance. To someone who reminds him somehow of Rachel.

He makes an awkward visit to the Katz home while the family is sitting shiva. Rachel's sister makes it clear that he is unwelcome: "I'm not sure what you're looking for here." Don just wants some knowledge. He wants to know what happened, what her life was. "She lived the life she wanted to live," the sister tells him. "She had everything." "Good," Don replies, his face full of pain. Whether or not Rachel actually did find full satisfaction in the life she had, Don is shown the disparity between having the life one desires and living the one he has made for himself when he confides that he is about to be divorced for the second time. He's alive, but a failure at relating: to his wives, to this lover who is now dead. Rachel is dead, but leaves behind a husband, children, sister, and others who grieve her passing. He returns yet again to the diner, to the woman whose social status is closer to the one in which he was raised. He again wants answers; he is again looking for meaning--"Is that all there is?" The waitress can only tell him, "When someone dies you want to make sense of it, but you can't." Then she leaves him to sit alone at the counter, again in isolation, listening to Peggy Lee sing, "And then one day she went away and I thought I'd die, but I didn't and when I didn't, I said to myself, 'Is that all there is to love?'" Another thought-provoking question to add to the one that begins the episode. This time it is Don who is the object of our gaze, and it seems clear that he does not like what he sees when he looks into the mirror within. A haunting beginning to these last few episodes.....