Monday, May 18, 2015

"The Real Thing"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Fourteen, "Person to Person"

I was ten years old when McCann-Erickson first aired its legendary "Hilltop" Coca-Cola ad in 1971. I must have been captivated because I remember acquiring the sheet music to bring to my piano teacher so I could learn to play it. As excellent advertising does, this happy, feel-good, sugary commercial tapped into the emotional state of a war-weary country, still plagued with the previous decade's violence of political assassinations, urban riots, and police brutality toward civil rights and anti-war protesters. The youth counter-culture, at its best, represented an idealistic quest--perhaps naive, but genuine--for love, unity, and one human family that transcends boundaries of race and nationality. McCann expressed in its ad the truth that the violent, warring world could use a little harmony. And with that truth, enmeshed in and inseparable from the pathos of world peace, the big lie that Coca-Cola is "the real thing." If you want one, you need to buy the other. And with the choice to end this brilliant series about advertising and the quests, weaknesses, yearnings, struggles, and screw-ups of those men and women who create, exploit, dream, and consume it with this ad, we receive a glimpse into some of the show's main themes: that in our post-modern world, it is difficult--if not impossible--to discern what is "true" and "real," (if there even is any referent to those words), AND that while people and institutions can and do change and re-create themselves (I was happy about that one), such change is incremental and not linear.

Had someone asked me to list out possible final glimpses of Don Draper, sitting half-lotus, meditating on a California oceanside cliff would never have made it to the top 100. But, while preposterous, it also makes sense. Don has long been on a quest for meaning and always been attracted by California, the land of new starts and make-believe, and of one of his soul-mates, Anna Draper. Like the ocean, his psyche and spirit have been pulled toward a shore of growing self-awareness and authenticity--and back again toward the depths of oblivion, self-absorption, and con-artistry. It was the Season Two finale that saw him walking out into the ocean, arms stretched out, ready to be a part of the inter-connection that Anna spoke to him about. Despite years of attempting to run from his past, in Season Four's "The Summer Man," he recognizes in his journal that "when a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him." He's been trying to come to terms with this life for a long time and with increasing intensity this last season or so. From his truth-telling about his childhood to the Hershey clients, to the trip with his children to the whore-house of his childhood, to his last episode warnings and second chance offered to the young con-man of the hotel, Don has been attempting to be more authentic, to the point of leaving his work as a "con-man" advertiser. But, after each of these steps forward, Don--like any real human being--isn't completely transformed, never to revert back to earlier behavior. This episode finds him a drunken mess again after receiving the news of Betty's impending death. All journeys to the center of the self are, to some degree, selfish--even if necessary to be a better person in relationship with others. Betty calls Don on the selfishness of his hobo lifestyle with the punch-to-the-gut line about his children after her death: "You'll see them as much as you do now, on weekends. Oh, wait Don, when did you last see them?" Yet, it's only with Don that we see Betty able to cry over her death sentence. Despite years of separation after years of a deceptive marriage, they have a strong enough connection that they don't even need to complete their thoughts. "Birdie," he says through his tears. "I know...." she says before hanging up.

So, Don heads to California, to the home of Stephanie--as close as he can get to Anna after her death from cancer--the one person who will greet him as "Dick." Still not sure who he is, he goes to someone who knows he is Dick Whitman, while hoping that she will allow him to be Don Draper--to be her family. But, while she sees he is in trouble and invites him to the retreat with her, she angrily tells him, "You're not my family." After she abandons him there, a seriously despairing Don makes his second person-to-person call to Peggy. She tells him, "You can come home," but he doesn't know where that might be. Mystified and worried, Peggy asks him "What did you ever do that was so bad?" His confession centers on his transgressions against family: "I broke all my vows, scandalized my child," he begins. It is these sins that have left him with no home to go to. "I took another man's name and made nothing of it" reflects his fears that he has done nothing useful with his talents and his professional life. While there is much hokum at the retreat, and much that can foster a me-centered lifestyle, there is also room for genuine soul-searching, and Don finds his truth in the story of the very ordinary man who feels invisible: "It's like no one cares that I'm gone" has always been Dick Whitman's fear, born of having been a child who no one wanted to be there. Like advertising, the retreat is selling some things that people don't need, and offering some truth. What will Don do with this latest new revelation? Go back to New York and his children? Back to McCann to create the Coca-Cola ad that commodifies the yearnings of the sixties movements? Or is the juxtaposition of the smiling, meditative Don and the "Hilltop" ad a reminder that no matter how much we may learn about ourselves, there is also this cultural push and pull between awareness and commodification? That humans will never reach "nirvana," but will always vacillate between a desire for family, for "person to person" connection, and for worldly goods that can more easily assuage our existential anxieties and yearnings? I like that Weiner and Crew have provided no definitive answer to Don's next step. It leaves space for imagination, reflection, and relation to his character. Though some will always want a bow tied around a wrapped-up narrative, this show would not have been true to itself had it offered one.

And, while it might look like the other characters' story arcs have achieved more closure, that's not necessarily so. The Campbells are back together, boarding their Lear jet for Wichita, still after wealth and prestige, but also family unity and connection. The final image of them suggests happiness, but they have not yet reached their destination. Things are still "up in the air" for them. What will these New Yorkers think of living in a small Heartland city? Will Pete be able to remain faithful to Trudy as he'd promised? What is in store for them? We cannot know; a number of scenarios are possible.

The Peggy/Stan shippers will be happy, I am sure. While I wasn't rooting for them to be together, I like the final image of them: at work, Peggy typing, Stan looking over her shoulder. Has she found a way both to have her career and have some happiness in love? Stan has come miles from our first introduction to him. He has gone from a sexist jerk who did not want to accept Peggy as a professional to one who urges her to do what she is good at and is happy to do the work he enjoys from behind her. But, they have both had relationships before. We can't know how this one will work out.

Roger, too, is focusing on personal relationships, making provisions for Kevin in his will and entering his third marriage--this time with a woman close to his age. They both seem happy and keep bickering. We see them mid-toast, but can't know for sure how it will end.

Joan has chosen her work over her unreasonable man: "I can't just turn off that part of myself. I would never ask you to choose," she tells Richard, evidence that 1970 is a hard time for a woman to have both a committed relationship and a career. But, she has grown miles from the office manager she once was, whose goal was a husband and house in the suburbs. I hope that she'll make it in her new endeavor, but we cannot know for sure. She,  like Peggy, knows it's a risk.

The only character, indeed, about whom we can say with any certainty what will happen is Betty. She will die soon. But, she has grown and changed through this as well, allowing Sally to be with her and help her. Perhaps acknowledging that Bobby also knows what is happening. The ad--whether Don or someone else at McCann created it--tells us that Coke is "The Real Thing." Yet, it is not. The only thing that we can know for sure is real is that we will, like Betty, someday die. And perhaps that advertising will always lie to us. This show has always had an existentialist focus, and this ending carries it through: leaving us the image of a dying woman smoking a cigarette, and leaving open the question of what we--like the other characters--will do with the time we have remaining.

There is so much else that I could say about this episode, this season, and how they wrap up the series. I'll be thinking and writing more about those questions in the weeks to come, so stay tuned.

Monday, May 11, 2015

"The Gift"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Thirteen, "The Milk and Honey Route"

What an utterly sad Mother's Day episode! Since "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," our introduction to this series, presents advertisers' work to persuade smokers that cigarettes will make them happy, despite the news reports of links to lung cancer, and since we have watched Don, Betty, and numerous other characters smoke like chimneys over seven seasons, I shouldn't be surprised that at the end, someone receives a lung cancer diagnosis. But, I was not expecting this conclusion to Betty's story. To me, she has been at times a compelling character, but at other times a frustrating or infuriating one. I've found the writing of her screen time to have been uneven: they developed her as a richer character when married to Don, and less so after their divorce. But, she has always been beautiful and almost always graceful. She was brought up to be a lady and to conform to what society and her mother expect of her, though she tells Sally that she has fought for things in her life, and we have seen her do that. Since the title of tonight's story refers to a 1931 book with the subtitle "A Handbook for Hobos," I went back to my writing about the other episode about hobos, Season Three's "The Gypsy and the Hobo." It features an empowered Betty who confronts Don about his identity after discovering his box of Dick Whitman papers and mementos. When a lawyer she consults tells her just to go home and work it out, she handles it her way, and later does fight for a divorce and marriage to the new man she loves. She was capable of going against society's dictates to stay married no matter what.

My favorite image of her is still the one of her standing in the yard in her housecoat, cigarette hanging out of her mouth, rifle at her shoulder as she shoots at her neighbor's birds. She could be a fighter, but this time when Henry and Sally urge her to fight, she declines. Is she--as they think--giving in too easily? Is she just being the "good girl" her mother taught her to be, accepting her fate too willingly? Or is she being wise and much more accepting of the inevitability of death than most Americans? She displays an existentialist's awareness that one can't avoid dying and vital self-knowledge that she does not want an extra six to nine months if they come at the price of painful and debilitating treatment. She tells Sally, "I've learned to believe people when they tell you it's over. . . . I don't want you to think I'm a quitter. I've fought for things in my life. It's not a weakness. It's a gift to me. To know when to move on." She's moving on with grace. And not ceasing to live until it's really time to go. While Henry sees no reason for her to continue going to class, asking her "Why are you doing that?" she responds with "Why was I ever doing it?" I was feeling so sad for her, thinking how unfair it is that now she's finally doing what she told Don she'd always wanted to do, this happens. But, life is unfair; she was going to school because she wanted to learn and grow. So, until she can no longer do that, she's determinedly going to keep learning and growing. Bravo to her! And while she won't give Sally the fight she wants and won't let her take care of her ("I watched my mother die; I won't do that to you"), she gives Sally the beautiful gift of the letter: "I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum. Now I know that's good. I know your life will be an adventure." Sally and Betty have had their battles over the years; some of them featured Betty trying to make Sally be like her. But, as she's preparing to die, Betty gives her daughter the gift of letting her know that it's okay to be herself. And, that she loves her for it. Our final glimpse of her is her struggle to climb the stairs at the college. She doesn't fit in, hasn't tried to look more hip like the kids. But, she's there, fighting in her own way. Marching to HER own drum.

I'd like just to stop there, as this is Betty's episode, but should make a couple of other brief observations:

--Don, we discover, has chosen the hobo life for now, charting out his next stretch of the journey over the phone with Sally, consulting the map on his hotel room bed. His wanderings must stop for a week when his car breaks down in Kansas. At the urging of the man who runs the small hotel, he attends a VFW event and after too many drinks, tells the other men the story of accidentally killing his CO in Korea. They all understand that "you just do what you have to do to come home." This seems to be another catharsis for Don, though the next day finds him getting beaten by the men when they think he, the hobo, has stolen their money. This stretch of road is no longer the "milk and honey route." He offers advice to the young man who actually did steal the money: that since he's committed a big crime, "if you keep [the money], you'll have to become somebody else. And that's not what you think it is. You think this town is bad now. Wait 'til you can't come back." Through his words, we continue to see some of his thinking about his own position. There's been some fan speculation about him pulling another identity shift to escape, but he neither wants nor needs to do that again. He is free to live the life of a hobo for as long as he chooses. He doesn't need a new identity to do that and has no horrible family from whom he wants so badly to get away that he'd "die" to do it. He ends up with no car, smiling on a bench waiting for a bus, with his one small bag beside him. But, for how long will that smile last? He'd promised Sally he'd call her again in a week, so he's about due to talk to her again and receive some sad news. Don has had to deal with Anna's death and more recently with Rachel's. These have shaken him greatly. What will he do when he finds out Betty is dying? The "Land of Milk and Honey" might not be long in front of him.

--And then there's Pete, who finally figures out--after talking with his brother about it--that he is the way he is with women because his father was that way. Has he really learned something? Will he change? He tells Trudy that he's "not so dumb anymore." So, it looks like he'll be moving into the Kansas that Don is vacating. Will it be a "Land of Milk and Honey" for the Campbells? This story arc conclusion felt a bit too pat, but I've never liked or trusted Pete. Trudy seems wary too. Who knows? "Mad Men" isn't Victorian fiction with its reward of virtue with marriage and punishment for sexual promiscuity with death, and it shows particularly strongly tonight when someone who has transgressed against so many in such arrogant and contemptuous ways seems to be granted the happy ending of remarriage, and Betty Francis--no saint, but nowhere near the sinner Pete is--is fated to die in her early 40s.

One more week to see what is in store for Don, his soon-to-be motherless children, and Peggy.


Monday, May 4, 2015

"Not a Very Comfortable Place"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Twelve, "Lost Horizon"

When Roger's secretary informs him that she won't be moving to McCann, she says, "Advertising is not a very comfortable place for everyone." She means that it's not a comfortable place for black women. But, as the episode progresses, we see that advertising at McCann is not a comfortable place for a number of the SCP personnel--for Joan, for Peggy, for Roger, for Don. With the Orwellian plaque asserting the McCann conference room as a place for "Truth Well Told" guiding us through this hour, we catch glimpses of just what is wrong with big advertising.

While Jim Hobart calls Don his "white whale" that he has wanted for ten years, he tells Joan, "I don't care about your SC&P partnership," speculating that she could only have achieved it if "someone left it to you in their will." It's clear that the other men at the new firm--Dennis and Ferg--only want her there as their plaything. These men aren't truth-tellers; they are tellers of whatever narrative will get them what they want. Joan is not to take work seriously by getting concerned about clients and working to keep up with her accounts. "Who told you you got to get pissed off?" Dennis asks her. "I thought you were gonna be fun." With Ferg, she'll get the "respect you deserve," as long as she consents to take unnecessary trips to Atlanta with him. When she complains about Dennis' behavior to Ferg, he retorts, "He has a wife and three children. He's not going to work for a girl." Her prediction of last week that she wouldn't be taken seriously at the new firm was proven correct all too quickly. When Joan brings up the Women's Strike for Equality that happened on August 26, 1970 (the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that granted women the right to vote) to Hobart, I was hoping for a good old feminist showdown to last more than a few hours. I was disappointed she gave in too easily, but perhaps she was just being practical and realistic. It is, after all, 1970. Her new lover described a court case as a way not to win, but to deliver some pain to the other side. They still deserve to get embroiled in one even if Hobart is right that their influence over the New York Times is a sign of their indomitableness at this point in time. But, perhaps we'll get to see what she does with her quarter of a million dollars--still a lot of money today, let alone in 1970. Start her own firm?

Draper Harris & Olson is the new logo I'd like to see, if Don survives his drift around America with a hitchhiker in his "shiny car in the night." Peggy's already been deemed a secretary in the first days of the new arrangement. After her fabulous fantasy power stroll down the hallway with shades, cigarette, and Bert Cooper's painting of an octopus having sex with a woman, you know she's not going to put up with the lowered position and status they have planned for her. While she and Joan have never gotten along real well, they are both smart enough to recognize each other's talents and value. And, for all of his faults with women, Don is a man who respects and admires intelligent, strong ones. When all the yahoos at McCann show they are incapable of working with women as equals (despite Hobart's protestations about Joan having to go it alone were she to file a lawsuit because "women love it here," we know his female employees have formed a "ladies' club," to regularly meet for "a bitch session."), Don is the one man on Joan's side, telling her, "I can still interfere." When she responds with, "No, I'll figure it out," he affirms, "of that I am certain." The three of them could make a great team.

Though odd disjointedness and surreal fantasy dreamscapes feature prominently in this episode, they make sense in the context of upside down notions of "truth well told." If it's a lie that the "creative" men sitting around McCann Erickson's table, listening to a "researcher" spin out a series of stereotypes of Midwestern men, tell the truth well, then we must go elsewhere for the truth. With Ed, the creative ad man not being brought along for the McCann ride, we get a glimpse of what advertising might look like if it told the truth: Dow Chemical's aerosol can cleaning up a quagmire of its own making in Vietnam. That's too subversive for Peggy, who still wants to work with the big boys, but, she's gradually pulled into Roger's bizarre parody of "Phantom of the Opera," which entices her more deeply into the labyrinth of deserted SCP corridors with spooky Hammond organ music. Roger Sterling's is always a masked face; we rarely get to see the truth of what he feels, but Peggy is right when she tells him, "You need an audience." They speak truth to each other when she retorts to his complaints of losing his firm, "You're acting like you had nothing to do with this..." and he tells her, "This business doesn't have feelings." As the evening progresses, she has a bizarrely good time, roller skating around the old office to Roger's phantom music on an organ that has no business being in a business office, but generates a feeling of fun. It's unrealistic, but what is reality when you work in advertising? What is truth?

In more surreal dream-like action, Don has an additional post-death visit from a Jack Kerouac-quoting Bert Cooper. His literary tastes have changed after death apparently, his last author to quote while alive having been Ayn Rand. The shade of Cooper engaged in some truth-telling of his own, noting that Don "always liked to play the stranger" and reminding him that in heading to Racine, he's trying to get "to a waitress who doesn't care about you." Don finally does tell the truth to Diana's ex-husband when he says that he was worried about her. "She seemed so lost." Mr. Bauer offers up his truth in terms likely too reminiscent of Don's step-mother for comfort, and Don is off again, avoiding his commitments and what to do with the truth of his feelings about big-time advertising, like David Bowie's astronaut, "floating in a most peculiar way" down the highway, at the end heading off to St. Paul with the hitchhiker because it doesn't really matter where he goes. He just wants not to be "sitting in the tin can" of McCann's spacious Manhattan office. I laughed when, after Hobart irately told Roger that Don had walked out of a meeting on Wednesday and not returned--his "great white" had gotten away again--Roger told him, "He does that." He does indeed. He usually comes back, but with just two more episodes to go, will he this time? Or will he finally recognize that it's "not a very comfortable place" and definitely not a place where truth is told well?