Archive for April, 2014

I got a sinking feeling watching Mad Men in its sixth season. A show I’ve loved from the beginning was starting to show signs of being the very thing its less-astute detractors accused it of–light melodrama, or worse yet, soap opera. The show had thrived more or less in its preceding years as an almost perfect satire, a tilling field for rich dramatic irony illuminating what we thought the past was, what the people of the past thought it was … and what it actually was. What we got for paying attention was two shows–the melodrama and the satire, the ability to watch the daily struggles of people at a certain time on one hand (and even love them) and yet also the ability to laugh at their unintended gaffes and overt racism and sexism, on the other–to see them as not us. To revel in the fact that we now know better what their biases, delusions, and their psychology were than they did. We loved them maybe because we saw them trapped in their time. It was a comedy of manners and etiquette where “danish” was plural, and you did not congratulate the bride but offered her “best wishes,” and where characters used etiquette as a form of monkey posturing. And at it’s best, it was a show in which a man could insult a woman’s intelligence and worth under the pretense that he was paying her respect. (Even by chasing her like a calf and tackling her!) Our understanding now of what women were actually going through and relishing the irony is the show’s real reward.

Or is it? I don’t know, because I don’t know where in the hell that Mad Men has gone. Instead of watching the two shows, I’m watching just one. An inferior one. A show in which the characters’ motivations and struggles are taken at face value. There are fewer double entendres. There is less moral ambiguity. Remember how we used to cheer Don Draper on, say when he was schooling a hippie on the value of hard work, even though we knew his conviction was self-serving and grounded in a delusion that hard work had paid off for everybody? Remember when Don convincingly made the case that Muhammad Ali was a showboating clown and we could feel swept up in Don’s charismatic argument before remembering that Muhammad Ali was actually a one-man revolution of strength, political clarity and style–as the ad men from the 60s were not.

Don’s belief in America–the one he worked for and invested himself in to pull himself out of the depredations of poverty–invests every object he sells, every pitch he declaims. We know now it was all fake, that the dream is recycled Jungian symbolism to be purged constantly in an era of dialectic. Values are brittle things.

Don even castrated his own belief system by straying constantly from his “perfect” marriage. The problem with the utopia Don created (and which is constantly being alluded to in the show) is that to thrive it must also constantly create new desire. “You invent want,” said one Beatnik to Don in the first season. Don could shrug that off. Don had to shrug that off, because he’s the biggest victim of his own sexual need. It has led him to hookers. Led him to abandon his family. Led him to drunk tanks. And meanwhile, his attempts to sell the perfect present make him doomed to let history pass him by. There is a reason that he’s the only one in Season 6 who didn’t have muttonchops on his cheeks. Don is really married to the ’50s ideal of America: We won the war. Every man can be a king of his castle, have a beautiful wife and kids in the suburbs. He loves the idea so much, he’s willing to go down with the ship if it turns out that ideal is dying.

The tension between what was American life back then and what the characters expect it to be has always been so taut on Mad Men that you could forgive the show for frequent lapses. Many episodes throughout its run have been less well-thought-out or paced than others. Some seasons (2 and 3 come to mind) seemed to meander, its characters shifting in their motivations as if new writers were constantly being brought in, getting a turn at the wheel of dad’s new car. (The tightest seasons, to me, are 1, 4 and 5.)

But never did I get the sinking feeling I did in Season 6. Never have I felt the writers kowtow so much to protect beloved characters by simply empathizing with their feelings. The show’s strength always stemmed from the fact that bad people were charming, and good people were whiny sore-losers you didn’t mind throwing under a bus. Perhaps the show, doomed as it was to sail into the present, simply can’t offer that tension anymore. The bad people are getting their comeuppance. The 70s are almost upon us. We can’t make jokes about Xerox copiers not existing yet.

So now we find Roger Sterling alone in a room of naked people, suffering the degradations of La Dolce Vita. An emotional cypher and smooth-talker has talked himself out of a family and obligations, and for that he is alone with a bunch of naked kids who don’t understand him and he has no place to sleep.

Let’s call that what it is: Petty moralizing.

I only have one episode of this new season (7) to go by, so I’ll have to do what I’ve wanted to do for a long time and vomit all over Season 6, because that’s where the petty moralizing started. It was probably a weakness with Mad Men in the first place that it never really dealt with race relations very well. It seemed to answer that by giving secretary Dawn a brief lunchtime conversation last season. Then it abandoned her. (Thanks for nothing, sez Dawn.) For similar reasons, the show’s treatment of Martin Luther King’s assassination seemed so anti-climactic, so much less than what it was supposed to be. The emotional temperature of that episode was colored yellow: All the characters made this historical event about their own petty problems and infighting, even if they were supposedly talking about MLK. Being helpless, they seemed to want to lash out at each other or turn to their own gardens. That’s an OK way to approach politics and anomie, I suppose, and yet for some reason I felt no emotional involvement in that episode. If the characters could sweep it under the rug, so could I. It was much more telling when they swept Lane Pryce’s death under the rug in Season 5. When you have just abruptly ejected a character you have come to love and you’re forced to watch everybody argue about things like who gets his office and pretend it didn’t happen, it hurts a lot more.

But last year seemed so much more to be about comeuppance, about paying the fiddler. About reckoning with your mistakes. Sorry, but that has never been what the show is about. If you want to see reckoning, read the Bible. So many times last season I felt like a ham-fisted writer was finally getting even with characters he didn’t like by  exposing, after six years, their hypocrisy. More observant people should have known, especially after this long, that the show is not really about facing your hypocrisy. If it were, it could have ended after Season 3 when Don was unmasked by his wife. Take Don’s affair with the neighbor last year. I was never into this relationship (a sweet Catholic girl doing bad things to indulge her sinful nature was kind of old hat to me, and didn’t reveal anything about Don in the least). I finally was forced to admit that this was really about the woman’s saintly husband–a selfless, zenlike doctor that Don really wanted to be in bed with (so to speak). But that didn’t mean I wasn’t appalled when Sally Draper found her father in flagrante delicto with the wife. The ambiguity in that scene was supposed to be that the affair had already ended, but let’s be honest–the soap opera discovery of dad’s infidelity was just too easy.

It capped off for me what the problem with the whole year was: Is Mad Men really more interesting because we’ve always known Don Draper will be caught with his pants down? Or is it interesting because it asks the question: What’s the price of getting away with it, if anything? The great art has always asked the latter question. Woody Allen asked it in “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Dostoevsky asked it in “Crime and Punishment.” David Chase asked it in “The Sopranos.” By having Sally Draper swoop in and stop daddy, we’re stuck with a dreary hypothetical imperative. Of course you wouldn’t cheat on your wife if your teenaged daughter could easily catch you. Also, don’t murder people. You might go to jail.

Another food-throwing moment was Don’s sexual reunion with his ex-wife. Here I’ll confess something nobody will like: I think Betty Draper’s story has been dead a long time, and that she should have disappeared at the end of the third season. Her story before that was all about living as somebody else’s doll, and being turned into a child. As soon as she assumed her own body and financial direction, her Feminine Mystique journey was over. You might argue with me, but you’d have to ask: if Mad Men’s producers weren’t thinking the same thing, why has Betty’s story been largely eclipsed by that of her daughter? There were times in seasons four and five I actually thought January Jones was a glorified extra. In fact, she’s had several soap opera story lines dumped on her–the weight problems, the cancer scare, the search for a missing daughter figure. All quickly raised and just as easily dispensed with. If anybody wants to get rid of Betty, I’d say Matthew Weiner does.

But no, last year, for reasons that seemed more drummed up by January Jones’ agent than any cogent storyline, heavy Betty Draper was in two seconds thinned down, blonded out, and thrown into bed with her ex, a man who just one episode before she’d found out abandoned his children while on a bender and left them vulnerable to a thief. There are lots of examples you can find in literature of exes sharing a bed, seeing life and each other with new eyes. There was never a good time to do this with Don and Betty Draper, least of all right after the home invasion. These two were living a life of mutual narcissism for so long, that after the divorce they projected the anger for their own foolishness onto each other. To me the only believable moments between these two now are the ones of unadulterated hatred. “I want him dead,” sounds like high school, but it’s not if your husband cheated and betrayed your ideals and your idea of yourself simply by being human, as you did to him. I could never believe in these two sharing a bed ever again, because despite their beauty, they have turned ugly to each other. Thinking divorced exes having a bittersweet tete-a-tete would be a nice storyline was misplaced enthusiasm, and to me highlights the fact that the whole season seemed too strange, wayward, spontaneous and adrift.

I felt the same way about the quickie merger between SCDP and the firm run by Don’s archrival Ted. Hey, you didn’t see that coming! Nor, after a while, did you care. Suddenly, there were just more people whose stories you weren’t interested in. Then there was an episode where everybody started hallucinating while taking a potent “vitamin shot.” I’m of the school that believes surreal drug fantasies are easier to write than you’d think, and this one was no exception. I didn’t come away from it thinking, “Gee, I learned something about Ken!” I came away thinking, “Well, that was sure weird.” Then we had Ted McGinley, patron saint of shark jumpers, show up to offer Don a foursome with his wife. That sure was weird, too! Forget shark jumping actors and focus instead on unexpected foursomes, a shark-jumping plot point all by itself.

And last, but not least, there was Peggy’s assault on her boyfriend Abe, who she accidentally stabbed with a harpoon when she was stalking a putative thief  (OK, I know it was something else besides a harpoon, but why look it up, really?). I’ve heard people defend this moment for revealing how bad Peggy and Abe were for each other, that their value systems were so out of whack only an impaling could bring the rift to the surface. I’ve heard it was just too funny that Abe broke up with her in the ambulance. But really, the stabbing was just a stupid accident. And accidents in fiction usually say more about a writers’ weaknesses than his or her characters’. The horror hurt the tone of the show (as it didn’t when the secretary ran over the guy’s foot with the lawnmower in Season 3). We’ve never gotten the sense that Peggy’s sublimated feelings about her relationship, vague as they were, were ever murderous. This moment suggested they were, mainly because the writers didn’t know. It’s something I felt several times last year. Finally, Matthew Weiner’s boast that he doesn’t know where the show is going seems to be something he shouldn’t boast about.

So what do we have this year? Peggy has a new boss who doesn’t value her ideas and is mistreated. OK. Who cares? I’ve seen that before, and it was more interesting when I liked her and liked her persecutor. Don is jobless and his wife is setting up a life elsewhere that he doesn’t fit into. He is literally on a conveyor belt, just floating. Maybe this could lead somewhere good, and there are interesting nuances to the acting here, but the pall of moralizing still casts a long shadow on this whole storyline, over any nuances one might want to see. (And Mad Men fans are very faithful in that respect.) When Don has been in desperate circumstances before, we’ve seen him pathetic and even violent. His contradictions–his ability to behave decently for the wrong reasons and his ability to pull astounding marital or business triumphs out of catlike, unethical behavior–were always on display and made for such good television. Now I am simply supposed to feel bad that he’s not the man he said he was and everything is a charade. Boo hoo.

Oh yeah, and then there was Joan’s story this week. She’s sometimes powerful for being a woman and sometimes not. I don’t know what the hell it added up to.

I think of how Roger Ebert once skewered the end of Woody Allen’s Manhattan by saying it wasn’t ironic enough that Woody’s character came crawling back to his teen lover after setting her adrift. All of a sudden he was sentimental. I feel this way about Don and Megan Draper: If Don is a prodigal and wants to fight his way into redemption, he’ll do it in ways that make us uncomfortable or should make us so. His victories and his belief systems should always be making us uncomfortable, especially when he wins. So the fact that he’s losing right now just makes it all so … trite. What I shudder to think is that the show was doomed to go this way all along. The past is ridiculous until it slowly moves into the present, at which point the need for talking about the past is no longer. I think of Wittgenstein’s belief in philosophy, concerned only with the things language can address, more or less talking itself out of existence, and wonder if Mad Men, now talking with this new, unwanted earnestness free of the hateful past, was always destined to fade away in similar fashion.

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