Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mad Men Season 4: With A Whimper...

Mad Men's last episode until next July (Tomorrowland) was an odd disjointed piece of work. It felt a little soap opera-y, i.e. it felt as if it was just about what was going on with the characters, rather than about something larger or something else, you know, like in art. I'm not sure what they're doing with this. I hate the idea of "shark jumping" as I pretty much reject the idea of one moment from which there is no coming back (me: an optimist! I must be in love or something.). But this has reduced me to a state of listicle again. Some thoughts:

1. The editing and pacing were sloppy as hell. Particularly compared to episodes such as the John Slattery directed The Rejected or the Sally and Miss Blankenship-centric The Beautiful Girls, which were perfect little movies and this... felt like an episode of a television show. Below is Sun Times blogger Jim Emerson's short tribute to The Rejected's use of office architecture:

2. The scene with Betty and Don in the kitchen of the house they used to share was really nice. I miss seeing them together. Not in a fan-ish, "ooh, I wish they were together" sort of way. Just that there was always something so interesting about their interactions, and I miss that exploration of a really bad marriage.

3. Which leads me to Betty. Sigh. Why does Matt Weiner hate Betty Draper so much? This season she's turned into a one-note villain without any nuances. I found her story fascinating in the first three seasons, and maybe it's more a sad statement of where I was in my life at the time, but I kind of, like, related. She was so trapped and thwarted and so viciously manipulated by Don. I found it chilling in Season 1 when she was so deeply depressed and anxiety ridden she pretty much stopped functioning. And then she started seeing her shrink, D'Hoffryn - who reported back to Don what she told him during therapy sessions, breaking doctor-patient confidentiality. I also loved that early in the series, contrary to the typical way icy blonde WASPs are typically portrayed, she was shown as a pretty fully realized sexual being. She's always been a complete disaster as a parent (to put it mildly: see below), but she had layers. The degree in anthropology, the modeling career, the fluent Italian, the desperate seeking for something outside of a marriage in which she was treated like a child. The firing of Carla was just awful, but I think my problem is we've seen so little of her story, just her effect on other characters - mostly Sally.

4. There are so few movies or television shows that really interest me, I think I sometimes fall into the trap of wanting the ones I like to do everything. One stop TV shopping. That said, I feel pretty comfortable saying that Mad Men's flirting with, and then dashing away from the issue of race is getting truly problematic. Mad Men's exploration into the lives of women in the 1960s is brilliant. But it has pretty much used its African-American characters (who appear and disappear with very little fanfare) and the Civil Rights movement to show what's going on with a bunch of white men. Which, in a show as interested in the nuances of social interactions and progress as this one is, is extremely unfortunate. From Lane's Chocolate Bunny to Paul Kinsey's posturing to Carla's constant, unremarked upon presence there are so many opportunities for portrayals of depth that aren't capitalized on. The most interesting conversation about race thus far was between Peggy and that cute writer boy she met at the warehouse art party in which they get into a fight about civil rights, women's rights and working in advertising. But it was still a discussion by a couple of white people and it never really went anywhere. Many people on the internets have been dying for a Carla-centric episode. Obviously, after her wretched dismissal by Betty, we will all likely be waiting forever. And I had totally forgotten about this, which is actually kind of remarkable in its way:

5. After all this griping, I'm now going to turn into a Mad Men apologist on the issue of the abortion that wasn't. We can all list the abortions TV characters have had because there have been so few of them. Maud. Six Feet Under. Um... Oh! Tami on The Real World: LA. Party of Five, almost, but they bowed to pressure and copped out (as per usual) with a miscarriage of some sort. Friday Night Lights. I think that's pretty much it. In the entire history on American television. IRL, something like one in three American women will have the procedure. So, yeah, discrepancy. A couple of episodes ago, Joan found out she was pregnant with Roger's child and decided to terminate the pregnancy. She made the appointment, sat in the waiting room and then we saw her on the train coming home. Speculation was rampant: did she or didn't she? We learned in the finale that she didn't. She has told her [rapist] husband that the child is his (he's off in Vietnam), and she's keeping it. Normally, I would consider this a total bullshit development. But. Joan is in her mid-thirties. She's been unsuccessfully trying to conceive for a while. It's the 60s - fertility treatment options were pretty non-existent. She's already had two abortions, and has expressed concern about whether because of this she is capable of getting pregnant (her doctor seemed unexpectedly reasonable and told her there shouldn't be a problem). So, as this particular woman has been written, keeping the child seems like a choice she would reasonably make. I don't have a problem with it (though Roger likely will).

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6. Who is Don Draper? I've talked about this a little bit elsewhere, but I'm beginning to think that Don Draper isn't really anybody. He's a brilliant ad man, which means he's smart and ambitious and creative. But at its center, advertising is all about insecurity and want and surfaces. Maybe Don is so freaking good at his job because no one has spent more time figuring out how to put a glossy exterior on a pretty unsellable product (i.e. Dick Whitman). No one understands the romance of it all better. As Dr. Faye said as he broke up with her after coming back engaged from a brief working vacation with his children, "And I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things." She's right about Don, and that applies just as well to how America has sold the idea of itself to itself. We like beginnings. They're simple and romantic and they're easy. Day to day is hard. Years are hard. But you don't see any of that in a thirty second clip selling the adventure of stepping on a plane or selling weddings instead of marriages. Don proposes to a twenty-five year old woman he doesn't know at all. She looks right, and seems right, but they've essentially had a vacation fling in lala land, which doesn't sound worlds away from the start of his relationship with Betty. Don is an ad man, i.e. the king of the grand gesture. He's been compulsively unfaithful to every woman we've seen him with. He compartmentalizes to an extent that can only be called pathological. One of the more interesting bits of Tomorrowland was seeing how similar Don and Betty are in their inability to see their lives as a unified whole. They're all about clean slates and fresh starts, which, fine, but fresh starts in the real world always retain some residual odor of what has come before. I'm beginning to think the character of Don Draper is a cipher. A handsome face and a shiny suit standing in for an actual person. There's something... missing. His pitch to the American Cancer Society (Roger's question, "So, did you get cancer?" was priceless) at the beginning of the episode about youth and fear of mortality, explains his crazy-seeming marriage proposal.

7. Peggy's reaction to Don's engagement announcement was the highlight of the episode. The look in her eyes was pure "what the fuck?" and his little speech to her was so completely - albeit unintentionally - insulting, the mind just reels. "She reminds me of you." "She has your spark." The silent part of that sentence was "except she's way prettier and doesn't have my number at all!" And then that completely wonderful little bitchfest between Peggy and Joan.

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If the two of them become allies and cohorts I will truly be in TV bliss. I am almost tempted to write the most boring fan fiction ever about how Peggy and Joan split from SCDP and form Olsen Holloway-Harris and just kill. I'd also be okay with Olsen Holloway-Harris & Cosgrove. After all, they need someone to head accounts. I think it's become pretty clear that Mad Men has duel protagonists: Don Draper and Peggy Olsen. I recently rewatched the pilot, and Don was an advertising superhero. Glamorous and smart, with a brilliance so hard it was positively chitinous. Peggy was a mousy little secretary from Brooklyn at her first day of work. In the succeeding six years or so, Don's unassailable exterior has greatly chipped away. He doesn't quite know it, but he's in Cheever-land, and possibly on the wrong side of cultural history. Peggy is all youth and smarts and ambition. She's the one at the forefront now, and it's exhilarating to watch. We'll see what happens as the 60s take hold and Vietnam heats up. Will Don Draper finally drop out and move to sunny California? Shed yet another wife for a newer, fresher start and a different kind of life? I have a feeling Peggy will wind up running SCDP one day and is on the road to becoming some kind of legend. It's fascinating television to watch, because these differently packaged creatures have so much in common, and both seem to recognize that. But the chasm that separates them will only widen as the second half of the decade progresses I think.

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