1. The Importance of Being Dickie, Mad Men Episode 13, Post 3

    Well, I feel foolish. One hazard of writing about a show while it’s happening, especially when the current season was planned out entirely in advance, is that our understanding of an episode is rooted in that particular episode and so we lack the context to properly make sense of what’s happening. I don’t mean to throw my lot in with David Simon on this, as I think the episode-to-episode reading is entirely legitimate because it lets us dissect a real-time emotional experience while letting us reach and consider what will happen next, which adds a sense of intellectual exhilaration to the story’s unfolding. I mean instead to echo Nabokov’s sentiment (he is apparently one of Cool Medium’s patron saints) in saying that “A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” Any story worth its salt should gain—rather than lose—its emotional and intellectual magic once we have become acquainted with all its details and tricks, once we can see the artistry of its construction.

    To a degree this season passes the test. Though in the moment, it felt like a long, boring slog, it landed gracefully on its feet during the final episode. With the benefit of hindsight it seems like a bold move on the part of Weiner et al. to strip Don, a beloved asshole, of his glamor. By making us sick of him, he was recreating in us the feeling that he was slowly coaxing out of Don himself. Yes, perhaps it could have been done a bit differently, with a bit more levity, but would this episode have felt as exhilarating, as hopeful otherwise? I think not. The season was messy and certain parts didn’t quite work, but it all landed in the right place. There is artistry in that.

    If you haven’t already noticed, my reading of this episode skews toward the optimistic.

    Greg, I’m so glad you asked if Ted’s relationship with Don acts as a loose proxy for Ted’s relationship with his father. First because, yes I do think so now that you’ve mentioned it, and second because the question acts as a perfect introduction to a theory that I had about the episode as a whole, that the parent/child relationship acts as a sort of emotional key. I’ll risk being too Freudian: Much of what Don does in this episode can be drawn back to his not being loved as a child. This is not to say that he has a single repressed traumatic experience that led him to act this way, but rather that his childhood was a traumatic experience—born to a prostitute, unloved by a cold father, reviled by his stepmother. The only love he felt growing up in the whorehouse was from the whore who bought him a Hershey bar if he stole enough money, and maybe from the Hershey bar itself. 

    It may seem overdetermined or a lazy way to instill meaning (I do remember the Nussbaum piece, Greg) but want to make the case that Mad Men decision to present a set of childhood conditions that could give rise to an adult like Don does not somehow rob the character of his complexity. In other words, it explains some things about Don, but the show hardly uses it as a psychoanalytical crutch to explain everything—for instance, much of Don’s current state results from the damage of living the life we’ve witnessed over the past six seasons. Some may want more ambiguity in the storytelling, but I am perfectly satisfied with what is already there. Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I am taken by the idea of Dick Whitman’s transition into Don Draper and I will defend its validity to my grave. In fact, I see it as something of an origin story, but that’s a pet theory for another essay.

    And so, more or less predictably, more or less reductively, I see the performance of Don as the means that Dick developed to draw attention and affection to himself. Erinrose, this is why I agree when you posit that all Don knows of intimacy is performativity. The tragedy of the situation is that Don, the persona that grew out from a lack of love in young Dick’s life, is the very same persona that prevents this man from loving or being loved as he has grown up. After all, what kind of love can Dick have when he loves while wholly and aggressively inhabiting a performance? How is it possible for anyone else to love him they can only direct their love toward is that same performance? Though Don was born out of a lack of love, Don ensured that Dick would never receive that love. 

    This brings us to Don’s confession after seeing Planet of the Apes with Bobby earlier in the season. As I read this speech, Don is expressing that he wants to love his children but can’t, and this is precisely because he has always been Don with them and rarely—if ever—Dick. As a result, the most touching part of this finale for me was watching him bring Sally and Bobby to the whorehouse he grew up in. Don, it seems, is realizing that to love and be loved is to risk being known as an imperfect thing not as a grand, sparkly performance of what he imagines perfection to be (but what is, in practice, horrible and shitty). When he and Sally exchange glances in the final moments, I see him as making himself known to her as Dick, letting himself be known at his worst and most pathetic, in an attempt to foster love between them. It’s a delicate and risky thing to do, but a hopeful one. 

    So, it follows that Don’s abrupt confession during the Hershey pitch in this episode struck me as another intentional stripping away of the superficial and emotionally stunted performance. By confessing that his strongest memory of the Hershey bar was of eating them in a whore house, he is actively giving the lie to the idyllic life that stood at the basis of his entire too-good-to-be-true Don Draper act. By claiming that, if he had his way, Hershey would never advertise, he is denying the value of the career that allowed him to sustain that act. He is also ensuring that this career at Sterling Cooper and Partners will be going the way of Freddy Rumsen’s. As my good friend Troy Patterson has put it, Don is starting to reconcile be and seem.

    Is this arc any different from Don’s other moments of truth? I think so—previous arcs featuring moments of truth all showed him rising again as Don but in slightly different form, and this one shows him attempting to reconcile with the self he has spent the show up until this point running away from. I am optimistic for his future as long as he gets the fuck out of NYC. It won’t be easy, it is likely to be messy. There is no certainty, but there is hope.

    For a quick change of gears, I’ll move onto another enduring mystery, the death of Mrs. Campbell, something I too remain uncertain about. There is a part of me that believes Matthew Weiner must have been hip to the Tom Ripley comparison (Manolo makes another interesting Ripley proxy). In thinking about Manolo and Pete’s mom on the boat, I can’t help thinking of the murder scene in Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, which also went down on a boat. I imagine Manolo wearing a cardigan, his pants rolled up just below the knee, thwacking Mrs. Campbell with an oar and dumping her off the boat tied to an anchor. If Weiner ever wanted to write a series about a Ripley-esque character, I could guarantee him at least one viewer.

    There’s one more thing about this Bob/Manolo fiasco that has been bothering me—I feel like I’ve been hoodwinked, too. I had assumed when Pete threw a fit about Manolo and his mother, he was simply being a prat, but it looks like he could have been right in his assessment of the situation. Was I being too harsh on him? This whole storyline, in retrospect, seems to have a sly way to soften us to Pete and develop his character by underlining the torturous relationship he had with his mother and family (he believed he was owed something for his family name but also resented it). Pete is, again, Don’s foil—a man who is perhaps fundamentally decent but trapped by the constraints of the life he thought he was meant to build. He has half a chance at happiness, too, and wouldn’t it be wild if he ended up the happy one? Zoller-Seitz has a theory about how that might come to pass.

    And what of Peggy? More pant suits, please. I have nothing to add to what you’ve already said, guys, only that I saw the first episode of Mad Men with my dad the other day. Peggy was hardly recognizable.

    I’d tell you to go to hell, but I never want to see you again.

    Sean

     

  2. Origami, Mad Men Episode 13, Post 2

    Sean, Erinrose,

    You won’t believe it, but I’ve managed to write a post that hardly mentions Bob Benson. That said, let me start with my answer a question darkened by his coffee-holding shadow: What do we make of Mrs. Campbell’s death?

    Dorothy’s falling off a boat neatly—and conspicuously—mirrors the airplane-crash death of Pete’s father in season two. This is as close as Mad Men gets to outright metafiction—the show threatens to fold in on itself, at least in one strange corner. Perhaps the decision, along with Bob and Don’s similarities, marks an experiment without a specific intended outcome—to see what frisson develops when the show quotes itself in this manner, to see what develops organically thereafter.

    Strange, overfamiliar contrivances like this could also be part of Mad Men’s ongoing exploration of communication and performance. (The kind of performance that Don finds inseparable from intimacy.) Am I reaching? Or is the decision to throw Pete’s mom off a boat an acknowledgment that Mad Men shares Don’s problem: How to fully explore the question of how to live within the bounds of artifice.

    Erinrose, you’ve also asked, “Do we concede to loose ends and dropped lines?” May I concede to the former and not the latter? I don’t find any rich ambiguities in the show’s failure to do something interesting with an always-promising character like Michael Ginsberg. I’ve read suggestions elsewhere that Ginsberg and Dawn, characters who arrive with the potential to disrupt established dynamics, reinforce larger points about (the challenge of) change in their failure to do so. But note how SC&P employees behaved toward Dawn during “The Flood,” or how Don briefly sparred with Ginsberg in season five; these characters manifest a disruptive power whenever Mad Men gives them the time.

    (Side note: according to Matthew Weiner, Joan’s presence at Don’s semi-firing is evidence that she landed Avon, which requires an awful lot from viewers in terms of closure, but there you go.)

    And what of Peggy? I wonder if, in season seven, we’ll see her continue to struggle with the challenge of being a good manager as well as a talented creator. The midseason merger truncated this story thread, but for a while, Peggy’s vs. her underlings at CGC was compelling TV. I’m nonplussed about where “In Care Of” left Peggy—her moves upward are always deserved but increasingly less surprising, and her Draper-pose moment was a little fan service-y for me. But if that scene signals a departure from storylines that consider Peggy mostly through her proximity to Don, then I’m looking forward to the future.

    As we move to you, Sean, let me end with a question of my own. Ted’s revelation that his father was an alcoholic: extra grab for gravitas in an already moving scene, a moment that changes our understanding of Ted vs. Don, or both? Ted’s tentative remarks about Don’s drinking at least invite us to reconsider earlier interactions through the lens of father-son relationships. (Including that time Don pressured Ted to drink.) The impulse to challenge, the desire to measure up, the challenges of understanding the person across from you—all tensions that affect father-son relationships, and tensions that affected Don and Ted’s as well. It’s reductive to say that for Ted, interactions with Don give him a chance to do things over again with this father. Mad Men has presented them as foils and contemporaries too many times for that. But I’m also looking forward to rewatching season six’s Don and Ted scenes, wondering what kinds of uncomfortable resemblances Ted saw in Don Draper.

    Misc.:

    - I’ve barely touched on this, but “In Care Of” was probably my favorite episode of the season.

    - For a lot of reasons—it moved me, man!—but also, plot matters, and having so many things happen so quickly was a rush, right?

    - Seriously, though, where the F was Ginsberg?

    - “It’s not the way I wanted.” “Now you know that.” Damn.

    - One last Bob Benson observation for the road: Given that Bob and Don share certain grifter-like qualities, let’s also note that Don creates life inconvenient for others on a daily basis but in usually non-insurmountable ways, whereas Bob lives to please but seems like he could totally ruin your entire life.

    Greg

     

  3. I know there’s a good man in there, Mad Men Episode 13, Post 1

    Greg and Sean,

    Last week, Sean put it so succinctly: “Hell is being returned, eternally, to the fact of yourself.”

    Mad Men, like all media worth dissecting, asks of its viewers what shape it holds. This season, we’ve envisioned the show as a meandering line, shot through with unpredictable spikes and valleys. Or as “depicting endless circuits”—a fatalist orb rotating in on itself. Or as some wave of infinite regress borne back ceaselessly. Within these iterations, we wonder what movements our anti-hero makes: does Don rise up gradually in a series of come-to-Jesus moments (as many have debated), spiral downward into an inferno only to rebirth himself from the ashes, or retrace his steps ad infinitum? At points, we’re inclined to picture Mad Men as all of the above (and I think that, by and large, it functions well within each of these renderings). But now, in light of Season Six’s finale, shapes and trajectories seem less relevant. We can picture the show as… anything, really so long as we know that it’s all crumbling away: “In Care Of” appears to expose whatever essence lies within these chosen forms. What is the Thing at everyone’s core?

    It’s a liberating conceit, and one that makes perfect sense given the frustration so many of us have felt w/r/t Don’s perpetual monster. Slate’s Hanna Rosin recalls Weiner’s Vulture interview at the beginning of Season Six wherein he states that “this whole season is about an attempt to deal with returning to your basic problem, which is that you are you.” Now, in “In Care Of,” we watch Don peel off his layers and return to his natural state, confronting—once again—the great dilemma of his own existence. When Don unravels at the Hershey’s meeting, he does not transcend his own faults or hit rock bottom (though some argue this case). Instead, Don reverts to his truest self: a person who wants to do right for himself and those around him, but does not know how to do right for anyone and thus defaults to performative and thus selfish acts (unloading his devastating childhood on Hershey’s execs and compromising his agency’s success, respectively). His performativity*, as I’ve said before, is the closest thing he knows to intimacy. This is no sweet release or revelation. This is just Don being his truest Don.

    (*A question, though: I originally read Don’s admission of past as less than genuine, but I’ve since reconsidered. After watching the Hershey’s meeting scene over and over, I can’t parse the real from the “real.” What do you two think? Both scenarios seem like Don at his Don-est.)

    This isn’t to say that Don isn’t trying. I admire his attempt at honesty within contexts that often bring out his deceit (in the office, around his children). And this season certainly does not cast Don in a forgiving light. We’ve now seen him pass out, sweat profusely, ramble incoherently, wake up in prison, and panic with his pants down. Moreover, “In Care Of” showcases Don’s rare admission of fault. “It’s gotten out of control. I’ve gotten out of control,” Don says to Megan the morning after he punches a minister in a drunken stupor. He wants things to be better and goes so far as to suggest a move to California (in one of the most devastating lines of the season): “We were happy there. We could be happy again.” But we’re aware that the quaintness of a “small team, desk, window, some sunlight, the ocean” won’t ameliorate their troubles and no amount of reinvention or escapism will ever evade the past or the truth. This rule is The Rule of the show, of course.

    The Rule is then what makes other attempts at reinvention all the more difficult to watch. Ted is now “the one who needs to start over,” a desire that Don acknowledges and thus caters to (albeit at the expense of his relationship with Megan). Bob Benson (Could I ever refer to him as just “Bob”? Obviously not.) replays Don’s Season One identity slip and we watch his mask fall away for several seconds amidst self-preservation (and oh, what glorious seconds!). And Pete—so painfully hopeful—is suddenly “free of everything” now that his mother is “in the water… with father” and his separation from Trudy seems finalized. The allure of starting fresh is inescapable, apparently, but never, ever fulfilled.

    So I guess my earlier desires for Don’s transformation feel less strong now that I’ve come to terms with the show’s dedication to his intrinsic nature. We see this dedication in his desire to return to his [comically dilapidated] childhood home, his myriad character foils, and his daughter, now suspended from Miss Porter’s for buying, drinking, and handing out beer. She is, as Sean pointed out, unmistakably her father’s daughter.

    Some lingering questions: 1) What ought we make of Pete’s mother’s death? I understand the thematic significance of the ocean, but I can’t wrap my head around the absurd deus ex machina element—a plot line that takes up significant screen time for how little it shows. 2) So many threads are left untied: Joan’s account involvement, Ginsberg and his virginity, anyone of color; this is predominantly a Don post because “In Care Of” is largely a Don episode. Do we concede to loose ends and dropped lines? 3) Now that we’ve witnessed Betty articulate that their daughter comes from a “broken home,” we see Don and Betty’s softened relationship going… where? 4) And what of Peggy? This season she’s had a rough go of love (and with it, the predictable thwacks of 60s misogyny), but also several moments of thrilling power—most recently, her moment [in a pantsuit] at Don’s desk. Will she fill Don’s shoes now that he’s on indefinite leave or will Duck Phillips’s newest recruit pull the rug out from beneath her? Speculation on all fronts is, as we know, totally fruitless.

    We’ll be bi-coastal!

    Erinrose

     

  4. Coldness and Cruelty, Mad Men Episode 12, Post 2

    Greg, Erinrose—

    Though we were blessed this week with another Bob Benson episode, I’ll admit I was a little disappointed. I had hoped that he would prove to be a bottomless mystery, an endless stream of nesting dolls, rather than an imposter. On the other hand, this fits the show’s thematic trajectory rather perfectly. Mad Men has, with Bob, added another entry to its collection of people perpetually reinventing themselves only to end up right back where they started. If the show can be said to have an ur-theme, it’s this: There is no exit, not really, not for Peggy who is brought back to the place she escaped from, not for Don in his new marriage or new agency, not for Pete or Bob. Hell is being returned, eternally, to the fact of yourself. 

    I think you’ve hit on a perfect literary comparison yet again, Greg, by noting the similarities between Bob and Tom Ripley, Pete and Dickey Greenleaf. First, I want to talk about Pete and Dickie, both snotty children of privilege. Dickie’s cruelty to Tom and Pete’s cruelty to Don and Bob  grow from a carelessness with the feelings of others and an isolation from the difficulty of life for classes lower than theirs. As such, Dickie and Pete can only recognize these people as a threat to the smooth, leisurely life they believe they deserve. We see this when Pete’s disdain for Bob is visibly amplified by the knowledge that Bob once worked as a servant and in the classist undertones at play when Pete tries to expose Don as Dickie Whitman earlier in the series. Pete sees Don and Bob as ruining the life of advancement he believes he was born into. This is, no doubt, part of his joy in taking on Chevy after Ken gets Dick Cheney’d in the face. He would feel right at home among the hunting, drinking, steak-eating, cigar-smoking, good ol’ rich boys out in Detroit—Pete gets the advancement he believes to be his due, and he gets to go spend time with his people.

    But the Bob/Tom comparison bears fruit ripe for thought as well (and your post, Greg, would indicate you’re totally aware of this). It’s always seemed to me that Highsmith’s Ripley series—tales of a lower-class faker—worked well as allegories for the hiding of one’s sexual orientation. The story of Bob’s life as a chameleon, a constant reinvention, could be read at the same level. Both stories touch on the personal malleability that must have been necessary for closeted homosexuals to protect themselves from scorn and persecution. 

    As for any working theories on Bob Benson’s future, I also imagine that he will fade into the background like Ginsburg or else disappear entirely, only to be mentioned sometimes in passing, as a sort of reference to the show’s deep mythology, like Peggy’s baby with Pete. Since Bob is a secondary character, I imagine his main purpose is to set off a chemical reaction among the other characters and no more. It’s too bad, though, because seeing Bob Benson every week has made me feel a bit better after the cancelation of Lone Star.

    On to Don, our hellish monster. The Quality of Mercy features a distinct change in the tenor of Don’s trip to the bottom—for the first time I can remember, in this episode he destroys something not for personal gain, but simply out of spite. The shots of Don in the fetal position were very effective at communicating his state of mind throughout the episode, as they express both his regression (“If I can’t have my toy, then Ted can’t have one either!” “No, we’re going with MY juice!”) and the deep sense of despair into which he seems to have sunk. I wonder if seeing himself through the eyes of Sally, who was placed into the same position as Don was when he just young Dickie, has allowed Don to see the worst in himself the way Rachel and Peggy only thought they had. As a result, Greg, I didn’t see the scene telling Don’s attack on Ted and Peggy as galling at all, but rather an important next step in the fall of Don Draper. I’ll admit it, I found Don’s despair strangely moving. 

    Lastly, this episode made it clear that Sally is, without a doubt, Don’s daughter. The girl is comfortable with a drink, eager for a cigarette, and well aware of how to turn an unfavorable situation to her benefit. Knowing now what problems she’ll face because of Don, she shouldn’t say her father never gave her anything. Now that I’ve noticed the passing down of disfunction from Don’s parents all the way to Sally, Mad Men suddenly seems to me the most fatalist show on TV, a story set on repeating its tragedies over and over.

    You didn’t bring a bottle?

    Sean

     

  5. The Talented Mr. Benson, Mad Men Episode 12, Post 1

    Sean, Erinrose,

    Does the mystery of Bob Benson have an endpoint? We’ve discussed Bob a lot these last several weeks, but he’s still perhaps the best way into talking about the (sometimes dubious) pleasures of this season. Now that Duck Phillips has filled Bob’s backstory, the question becomes, why would Matthew Weiner and co. create a character whose path so resembles that of Don Draper?

    In recent seasons of Mad Men, Ted Chaough and Michael Ginsberg have both served as foils for Don, but Bob marks Mad Men's most aggressive attempt at Nabokovian doubling. Pete makes this explicit for the viewers at home, treating his spat with Bob as a chance to relive earlier battles with Don. He learns that Bob Benson, birth name unknown, is a former butler out of West Virginia. Bob has faked his way into many jobs, but the lax HR practices at SC&P have finally given him a home.

    More so than Don, Bob resembles Patricia Highsmith’s fraud and forgery artist Tom Ripley, to the point of admiring Pete in a manner similar to Ripley’s obsession with Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley. “You walked in, complimented my tie, and walked out. It was the best day of my life”—this is Bob, not Ripley, but it could be either character. Same with, “You should watch what you say to people.” I won’t indulge in further comparisons, but suffice to say you could catalog even more, and the Ripley connection is one useful way to differentiate Bob’s origin story from Don’s. Viewers get the impression that Bob’s trajectory has been more erratic—rather than stealing an identity and plowing through life behind it, he’s had to be a chameleon, and had to bail on jobs many times.

    "The Quality of Mercy" played at time like a treat for those of us who have monitored Bob closely during season six, especially in moments when James Wolk was allowed to let Bob’s mask slip. And yet the aftertaste is somewhat bitter. Perhaps Mad Men has more in store for Bob, but Michael Ginsberg was poised to become a major player last season, and he has since been reduced to the most vocal member of the peanut gallery. I’m not so cynical as to wonder if Bob is only around to invite viewers to ask why Bob is around, or to wonder if Bob’s West Virginian past was only introduced so viewers might ask why his West Virginian past was introduced. But as we’ve noted before, in this season, questions of minutiae and intentionality in the Mad Men writer’s room sometimes threaten to become more interesting than whatever Don is up to. Erinrose, Sean, do you have working theories on where Bob goes from here? (In time, perhaps they’ll all be correct.)

    I’m not suggesting Bob has had no impact on the level of plot, mind you. He seems to have at least prompted a change in Pete Campbell. After getting the scoop from Duck, Pete decides not to force Bob out. He’s tired of the maneuvering a conflict with someone like Bob requires; perhaps the alien qualities surrounding Bob, the many unknowns, also make him apprehensive. If Pete’s choice makes sense, however, it’s also very different than the choices he made during his marriage-threatening blowup with Trudy earlier in the season, the moment when he spitefully outed Trudy’s father as a brothel patron. Is this progress?

    Speaking of spite! Over in the SC&P conference room, Don forces Ted to both deny Peggy credit for her Rosemary’s Baby parody ad and trade on the name of Frank Gleason. Peggy’s words afterward, “You’re a monster,” resembles Rachel Menken’s rejection of Don in season one: “You’re a coward.” In both cases, the speaker believes she’s seen the worst of Don. The difference is, this time, the rest of us saw it coming. What do you think: is the grenade Don tossed to Ted less galling for its predictability? Is this scene simply galling on multiple levels?

     

    You can stop now,

    Greg

     

  6. Blergatorio, Mad Men Episode 11, Post 2

    Erinrose, Sean,

    Give Mad Men credit: even if Don Draper’s decline this season plays as too familiar, the specifics of this decline are still a challenge to predict. Viewers had no cause to expect Don’s near-death experience at a California pool party. Even Sally’s discovery of Don’s infidelities—inevitable, at some point—had little prelude. If each season follows an arc, the unpredictable helps give these arcs their shape. Which is all to say that “how do you think these secrets might play out?” is a really tough question.

    I’m tempted to imagine a season six finale in which Don and Megan scream and shout over the revelation of Don’s deceits—partially because, as affecting as Sally’s discovery was in the moment, my lingering impression of the scene is that of a pencil checking off a box, and what else would come next on the form? But Mad Men is a wily show when it comes to secrets. Sometimes, characters simply live with them. Take Don’s life as Dick Whitman. Pete Campbell used this information to force a confrontation in season one; in season three, it was one of many factors that led to Don and Betty’s divorce. Even so, the show’s writers and viewers now regard Don’s secret past not as something that threatens to erode his present but as something he simply endures. (Don does a good enough job of eroding the present  on his own, and as Emily Nussbaum has noted, his life as Dick Whitman also serves as a kind of overdetermined explanation for his shitty behavior.)

    Something has to give between Don and Megan. And it would be a strange storytelling choice to let Sally find her father and Sylvia Rosen getting intimate and then not use Sally’s new knowledge as a catalyst. But with that said, and at the risk of drafting Mad Men fan fiction, I’d be interested to have a window into Sally’s life as she continues to live with this information—to learn about the big and small ways Sally’s changed perception of her father colors the rest of her adolescence.

    Erinrose, you say you’ve never cared less about Don than you do right now, and I agree, although that’s no fault of Jon Hamm’s. I found his rush to find Sally vicariously terrifying. The quality of Hamm’s performance has always been part of Don’s appeal, and moments like this—when he has the chance to act his ass off—are maybe the only thing keeping me invested in the character. As much as we’ve dumped on Mad Men’s handing of Don, though, I don’t know if we’ve fully acknowledged that the show is failing in interesting ways.

    Don is often described as an antihero, but the label only fits so well. Conventional wisdom says that the brightest lights of contemporary TV captivate us in part because their antihero leads are such active characters: Walter White steals methylamine from a train; Jimmy McNulty invents a serial killer to generate overtime pay. (Whereas the investigators on CSI begin work once someone finds a body; the doctors on ER begin work once a car crash victim rolls in.) Mad Men is a curiosity even by these terms. Don actively pursues women who are not his wife, yes, but his larger goals are more opaque. (Perhaps Don has the most in common with Tony Soprano, another alpha male without impulse control who butts heads with his colleagues and who’s largely trying stay afloat.) Don can’t fully articulate what he wants and chases happiness blindly.

    Mad Men is bigger than the hero/antihero framework, but considering the show in these terms reminds us that it’s amazing Mad Men has been so good for so long. Perhaps season six’s biggest problem is that it imposes Don’s condition on us viewers. The promise of change has vanished. Now we’re all Don Draper, craving a satisfaction that lasts and settling for it moment by moment. “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”

     

    Misc.:

    - Give Mad Men credit for this too: we spent a lot of time these last couple months pondering Bob Benson’s secret. In “Favors,” he outs himself to Pete (which was heartbreaking!), and he’s only marginally less fascinating. As a lonely-hearted people pleaser, and as a person who balances sincerity and calculation, he remains a standout character.

    - How great was the scene between Peggy, Pete, and Ted? I will answer that for you—it was so great. Mad Men shines, always, when characters get very drunk together.

    - Peggy has rats and so she gets a cat. In her current situation, SC&P’s star copywriter superficially resembles the leads of 1,834 different romantic comedies; she’s sharp and desirable but can’t manage professional success and romantic success too. Then again, in 1968, this was no doubt pretty damn difficult for a woman. Peggy’s circumstances in season six feel earned, basically, with an earnestness of intent behind them.

     

    Do not be more specific,

    Greg

     

  7. Your Own Hemingway Story, Mad Men Episode 11, Post 1

    Hi you two,

    If Mad Men’s previous few episodes have felt otherworldly, then “Favors” certainly pulls us back to earth. Back in Dante’s purgatorio, we’re now witness to the minutiae of everyday angst and uncertainty. Pete, frustrated with his demented mother and dwindling corporate significance, throws an empty Raisin Bran box at the kitchen cabinets. Peggy watches television alone, fearful of the half-dead rat that remains under the couch because no boyfriend will dispose of it. Ted’s wife tells him that he’s been an absent father. Don flounders in the apartment lobby, unsure of where to go or how to find his daughter. Sylvia and Arnold’s son is 1-A. Jim Cutler sits alone in the conference room. No war ghosts or drug trips or flashbacks or comical gore (save the trail of rat blood); this is the stuff of stone cold reality.

    So the episode—while certainly not devoid of its usual symbolic slathering—refrains from moments of absurdism. This aesthetic space makes room for several scenes of painful discovery. Peggy, for instance, tells Pete (in one of the most tender moments of the season) about his mother’s sexual delusions. “I don’t even want to think about her brushing her teeth,” Pete says in disgust before they share a hearty laugh. (He is, of course, not the only one in “Favors” who recoils at the thought of a parent’s sexuality.) Later, when his mother calls him “sour” and “unloveable,” Pete must confront the pain and loneliness that come with his mother’s illness—not to mention his own inadequacies.

    Like Pete, Sally is saddled with the burden of truth. Sally’s friend Julie suggests that Sally “sneak down and kiss” Mitchell after their run-in earlier that day. The girls are unaware that Sally’s father regularly sneaks down and kisses Mitchell’s mother, a truth that Sally will soon confront. Sally’s own maturation—her dress, her attitude, her interest in boys—is in step with a growing understanding of her father and his flaws. And when she walks in on Don and Sylvia while attempting to retrieve the forced-hand love letter, she not only crosses fully into the realm of adulthood but also breaks a seal that had, up until this point, remained intact: someone is finally witness to Don’s infidelities. (I’m both relieved and nonplussed by the scene: relieved because I’ve waited/waded through five seasons and countless affairs, and nonplussed because I’ve never cared less about Don than I do now. I hope—but do not expect—that the last two episodes will reinvigorate Don’s dimensionality. Though perhaps my desires are misguided.)

    Sally is not the only one who straddles a line between two roles. A few weeks ago, we made note of the many doppelgangers and foils that populate Season Six. In “Favors,” we now watch as these characters attempt to understand their amorphous roles. At the beginning of the episode, Peggy shares a few intimate gazes with Ted over a boozy business dinner, but then Ted returns to the table several minutes later to find Peggy and Pete deep in the laughter of a joke to which he is not privy. The nature of Peggy’s relationship with Ted remains unclear, and Ted is uncertain of Peggy’s relationship with Pete. Bob, infinitely hopeful, wonders out loud if his unbridled care-taking might make way for feelings of love and does not understand the role that Pete sees him playing (goofy and sometimes helpful office drone) up until this point. A pubescent and conniving Julie calls Megan ‘Mrs. Draper’ because Megan “hates it.” Megan, who later asks that Julie call her by her first name, dislikes this proper title as it connotes a role (Don’s wife) with which she’s uncomfortable. And naturally, Pete’s mother is confused about her relationship with Manolo and the role that he plays in her life. Roles are murky and the truths that surface from the murk further underscore just how misguided these characters are in their attempted affections.

    Many truths are still buried. Pete has not yet told others about his knee-brush with Bob Benson, and Sally has not yet outed her father for his affair. As we know, Megan doesn’t tell Sylvia and Arnold about Mitchell’s visit, but they learn of it later that day; if the pattern continues, the truth will reveal itself soon enough. Greg, how do you think these secrets might play out?

    My main worry is an extension of my apathy for Don and, thus, a reiteration of what Sean put so aptly last week: “The problem comes when the minutiae start to feel as important to the storytelling as the characters themselves, if not more so.” Despite the fact that “Favors” focuses largely on characters’ truths and these ambiguities in truths, the episode still feels irrevocably symbol-driven. Funny thing is… we’re all too weary of doors to even talk about them.

    Please tell me you don’t pity me,

    Erinrose

     

  8. Look at the Harlequins! Mad Men Episode 10, Post 2

    Dudes,

    I’m tempted to read many parts of this season as a sort of Joycean retrofitting—as Ulysses was to The Odyssey, season six is to Inferno. I haven’t been keeping track of what circle of hell we would be in by this episode (LA is apparently near the frozen lake at the center) but if Don is anything like the fictionalized Dante, then his journey into hell will eventually bring him out the other side, changed. As a result, I couldn’t help but think of Don’s near-drowning scene as a sort of rebirth. Pure symbolism: he watches his own body lying face down in the pool and then wakes up, soaked in water, back in his own body. But like you, Greg, I have started to see Mad Men as a show depicting endless circuits. I imagine Don will repeat the past—being reborn and then descending again, ad infinitum.

    image

    What did you guys make of the visitations during Don’s hash “trip”? Because this scene is told from his point of view, I think it’s fairly obvious that these ghosts, like those of the great gothic horror stories, are meant to reflect on the person who conjures them. I’m not sure what to make of the Megan bit, but the armless PFC Dinkins is clearly speaking Don’s own thoughts and fears back to him—”Dying doesn’t make you whole. You should see what you look like.” Don, as earlier in the season, is obsessed with his own death as an exit strategy, though he is still worried it won’t be any better than the death-in-life he is currently leading.

    The theme of death is visited throughout this week’s Mad Men during a number of moments in which the old obsess over the young, the young riot and die at the hands of the old, and the old begin to act like children. The sixth season has seen its characters hit one personal crisis after another about the headlong rush toward death, each person like Kenny Cosgrove in a speeding Chevy with a gun to his head. We could make the argument that this is the essential fact of life and so worth the time Mad Men has spent in meditation, but can the show sustain our interest as it doddles on, ending perhaps a season or two late?

    Meanwhile, the chemistry between Joan and Peggy makes their interactions the greatest joys of this episode. As you mentioned, Greg, their sparring was truly something to behold, and I agree that Joan should be seen as an existential hero on par with the great enigma Don Draper, though I think she more closely resembles Don’s unfortunate reflection, Pete Campbell. I see both as playing zero-sum games in their careers, as neither can gain something without losing something else. Don’s existential crisis is of a different stripe—he has everything and, paradoxically, it all means nothing to him. He spends his time just going through the motions, staring out of windows, thinking about Hawaii as a jumping-off point.

    It seems to me that Bob can also be read productively through the lens of his professional aspirations. Watching him spin to the how-to record in his office, I got the impression he is mounting a brute-force attack on success (following a path similar to The Secret). This jibes with his behavior so far this season, as he is always offering people that damned coffee, he tried to pay for Pete’s sex, he lied to Kenny (or Pete) about his dad being dead (or alive), he helps Joan to the hospital, he chides Ginsburg for talking back to Jim Cutler. He is another analog of Don, a painfully earnest young man doing what it takes to succeed. The odd thing is that, in spite of his considerable charm, it doesn’t seem to be working for him (I cringed but laughed when Cutler yelled at him). This lends credence to my pet theory that Don’s professional life the Platonic ideal of the charmed professional life, an idea that has some dark implications for the possibility of happiness within the Mad Men universe.

    If you’ll forgive me, I want to finish by talking about those pesky Mad Men theories that have popped up lately. Most notably, some have speculated that Megan is going to meet the same bloody end as Sharon Tate, a conclusion they’ve drawn from one particular choice made by costume designer Janie Bryant, a few narrative details, and a promotional poster where Don is holding some woman’s hand. Bob Benson, that wonderfully blank human being, has been pegged by the internet as a government spy, or Don Draper himself, or the falling man in the credits, or maybe someone’s illegitimate kid.

    It is to Mad Men’s credit that it supports even this type of reading. As you two discussed on one of my bye weeks, the series has become incredibly dense with symbols and themes. And I’ve recently become aware of how adroit the designers are at packing significance into the most mundane details—nightgowns, t-shirts, doors, the colors of the glass in Pete’s apartment. That the creative team behind Mad Men has managed to construct such a rich and deep storytelling universe is something to be celebrated, for sure, as it lends a certain feeling of bottomless depth to the narrative.

    The problem comes when the minutiae start to feel as important to the storytelling as the characters themselves, if not more so. Mad Men this season has been so uninterested in developing Don—ostensibly its primary character and focus—that long stretches of narrative are filled with nothing but magnificently thematic and perfectly designed stasis. My theory about these theories is that the show has made it much less fun to talk about Don’s total lack of development than whether Megan is going to die by season’s end or whether Bob Benson’s initials present a hidden clue to his identity.

    Greg, I think your mention of Nabokov a few weeks ago is apt. He was a writer that understood the value of a good symbol or omen (his books were full of both) but also abhorred purely symbolic readings (this is the root, I think, of his beef with Freud). He used symbols to add complexity the characters, to fill out their mythologies and, when the stories were told in the first-person, to expose the logic of their self-mythologizing. Mad Men at its best might have pleased Nabokov—heavy with symbolism, but thoroughly in the service of characterization rather than untethered from it. In last season, perhaps Mad Men's best to date, It wasn't Pete's purchase of Chekhov's shotgun in the first act that led to the death, it was Lane's Jaguar.

    You gotta be in the right place all the time,

    Sean

     

  9. The Manhattan Projects, Mad Men Episode 10, Post 1

    Hi guys!

    For those viewers, and I’m one of them, who have been wondering whether or not Don Draper has an arc any longer, “A Tale of Two Cities” insists that he can at least flail around in new ways. While last week’s episode found Don once again sleeping with Betty, if only for one night, the former Mr. and Mrs. Draper’s shared indiscretion led to a moment of rare transparency. They were a couple of terrible people cheating on their spouses, yes, but their conversation afterward is still an achievement in the context of Don and Betty’s checkered romantic histories. “A Tale of Two Cities” begins with an exchange between Don and Megan that suggests knowingness without transparency. The two voice troubling subtexts through playful sarcasms:

    "I made the biggest mistake of my life."

    "I hate actresses."

    The charge for Don and Megan comes from knowing that these things could be true; the charge for viewers comes from knowing that the lines are truer than either partner would openly admit.

    Later, via telephone, and after Don eases Megan’s fears about the ‘68 DNC riots by reminding her she can’t vote, Megan recommends that he go swimming. The next day, Don almost goes to a far better rest than he has ever gone to inside a pool. He returns from California with a cold. Don’s usual means of rejuvenation are failing him, basically. Sean, what do you think these developments portend? They play like signposts on the road to collapse—but then, Don collapsed two weeks ago.

    Back in Manhattan, Michael Ginsberg quotes the Bhagavad Gita by way of Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Ginsberg might have lost his faculties for a moment, but his guilt is contained inside his ego—he identifies as a foot soldier for commerce while overstating the size of his footprint.

    The idea of Robert Oppenheimer is perhaps more helpful in considering Joan Harris. Advancement and destruction tend to come in pairs for Joan, to the point that neither she nor we can fully separate the two. Last season, after sleeping with Herb from Jaguar, she simultaneously raised her profile at the firm and damaged her credibility. In “A Tale of Two Cities,” she (possibly) lands the Avon account but invites scrutiny from Ted and alienates Pete, a colleague with whom she’s worked remarkably well this season. (We’ll see how much longer Pete remains the only person at SC&P who’s never broken a promise to her.)

    A character like Joan is not often discussed as an existential hero, the way Don might be—probably because Joan’s struggles throughout Mad Men have to do with expectations or doubts put upon her because of her body, her occupation, and “existential hero” has a sticky sort of implicit gendered-ness about it. But, as with Don, I think the label ultimately works. (Unlike Sisyphus, though, I don’t think we imagine Joan happy.) The major events in Joan’s life play out like zero-sum games, nothing gained without something lost.

     

     Misc.:

    - Cool Medium Writer’s Workshop: The circuit, in fiction, is best implied, not depicted over and over. Discuss this notion as it relates to Don Draper and the sixth season of Mad Men.

    - Cutler schemes! Mad Men's writers have finally put this creep in play.

    - Roger saves Don! Had John Slattery and company dramatized this moment, it probably would have looked ridiculous, but I was a little touched by the sight of Roger post-rescue, in soaking-wet shirtsleeves, reviving his old buddy.

    - There’s likewise something very sweet and satisfying about watching Peggy and Joan work together. But watching them spar is still twice as engaging. “That’s always been impossible, because that would require respect for me or what I do.” OOF.

    - Ginsberg asks Bob Benson if he’s a homosexual, which is sort of incredible, timing-wise, given the way online speculation about Bob has bloomed in the last week or two. Bob replies with … a dodge?

    - Where’s Trudy this week? I dunno, probably celebrating Dan Harmon’s return to Community! Impossible dreams do come true!

     

    There’s an extra nipple here when you come back—

    Greg

     

  10. Maidenforms, Mad Men Episode 9, Post 2

    Sean, Greg,

    Perhaps our discomfort with the New Betty stems, in part, from Weiner’s desire to maximize our exposure to many iterations of the doppelganger—a desire that feels in step with Greg’s mention of Mad Men as controlled, symbolist television. New Betty is, as Sean said, a means to understanding Don’s vulnerabilities and stagnation. We’re not privy to Betty’s natural transformation because it’s not crucial to Don’s unraveling; she is just one of several symbolic doublings. In fact, Weiner extends this doubling to the seasons themselves: Betty’s blonde bob and pinched chiffon waist are straight from Season Two, but her attitude—again, as Sean mentioned—is altogether foreign. (At this point, though, I will counter myself in saying that within the New Betty, the Old Betty echos. She does, after all, ask questions that smack of residual insecurity: “What did you think when you saw me?” and “Can you believe I’ve had three children?”, for instance. In this way, the New Betty rings true to me, Sean. She’s poised and insightful, but still in need of approval.) It’s important, by the way, that Betty is slim again. Her cool laughs over breakfast with the husband work only if chiming from the body of a woman whom Don remembers and thus longs for. This lethal combination is what, as Sean says, out-Drapers him.

    Betty’s body is just one of several nods to Season Two. You’ll recall, for instance, the black and white Maidenform campaign that asks its consumer: “Are you a Jackie or a Marilyn?” Now in Season Six, we watch an unhappy, dark haired Betty and a floundering, blonde wigged Megan—both dabbling in uncomfortable versions of themselves (or vague versions of each other, if we’re to look through Don’s eyes). But by the end of “The Better Half,” Megan and Betty have returned to their original hairdos and confront Don with surprising candor. “That poor girl,” Betty says to Don after their fling. “She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.” Later, in child-like cotton briefs and a tee shirt (a point of nostalgia, in and of itself), Megan underscores Betty’s insight: “I keep trying to make things the way they used to be, but I don’t know how.” So like Season Two’s campaign, our characters should think to ask themselves and one another: Are you a Megan or a Betty? Or a Corinne or a Colette? Or a Don or a Ted? Are you a Henry Francis or another silver haired bathroom seducer? Are you a girlfriend or “the enemy”? Which Bobby are you? Bobby One or Bobby Five?* Or maybe one of Father Abraham’s seven sons? Do you prefer butter or margarine?

    So many identities, so many choices. It’s logical—at least with regard to Don and Peggy—to assume that these choices play on past and future selves. Is Don ready to confront the realities of his relationship with Megan or will he return to the comfort of his philandering (and this time, with the woman whom he used to cheat on)? Is Peggy enamored of Ted’s “strength” and sincerity or is this attraction really just a lingering attachment to her old boss (and Ted’s obvious foil)? “You’re the same person sometimes,” she tells Don like they’re back in the old Sterling Cooper office. Peggy is caught between the old and the new, but the old and the new are hard to tell apart. At any rate, the past is a great seducer, and Don and Peggy find themselves entranced by the people who once stifled, maddened, and defined them. They, but of course!, long for the status quo ante bellum. (Pulling back for a second—I’m not put off by this episode’s heavy-handedness. I think my tolerance comes from my continued appreciation for the absurd—and symbolist TV, as it turns out. Don, Betty, and Bobby’s rendition of “Father Abraham” is so ridiculous a retooling of their once-nuclear family that it feels at home along side the speed induced thrills of the previous episode.)

    Meanwhile, Bob Benson shows some leg in the best shorts I’ve ever seen. Though I take offense to your comment, Sean, that “Pete, the most apparently selfish and unlikeable of the people around the office, does not appear to be friend material” (because Pete is the most loveable character of all), I do agree that Bob’s attraction is more weighted than his desire for camaraderie. Is it gauche to guess that the nurse Manolo Cologne is Bob’s ex-lover? I’m sure this has been said elsewhere, but I’m too afraid to look.

    Miscellaneous:

    -Pete and Joan make for odd confidants. Their one-on-one screen time is, at once, natural and stilted. What do you two think of this pairing?

    -Of course Peggy stabs Abe after he’s been stabbed by a neighborhood boy; she’s just deepening the wound that Abe receives from his decision to live on the West side. “I said I was sorry,” she says in the ambulance. Sorry, Abe, but not sorry.

    -I wonder, at this point, whether Roger’s paternal identity will uncover itself now that Lincoln Logs have changed hands.

    Is he Spanish from Spain?

    Erinrose

    *This reference to Bobby’s innumerable child actors is one of Weiner’s funniest jokes of the season.