Speaking of baffling Mad Men criticism, it looks like the Atlantic is trying to corner the market. Exhibit B: Sady Doyle’s new blog post, that begins, inauspiciously, by dismissing discussion of the show’s narrative and character development as “pointless” because the show is, ” famous for a look and a mood, not a story,” and doesn’t really rebound from there.

Here’s the takeaway, regarding the show’s treatment of misogyny:

To be fair, Mad Men doesn’t hesitate to show the ugly side of these attitudes; they’re not glamorized in quite the same way as, say, drinking Scotch five times a day. But the show also affords viewers an illusion of moral superiority. We’re encouraged to shake our heads at these men and their outdated attitudes, but by presenting discrimination as a shocking feature of a past era, Mad Men lets us imagine that it’s just one more of those things that We Don’t Do Any More.

(Aside #1: I’d seriously contest Doyle’s claim that the show “glamorizes” heavy drinking. Don Draper’s drunkenness this season is a big part of what’s made him so pathetic. And don’t get me started on Freddy Rumsen before he hopped on the wagon.)

And here’s some of the evidence (emphasis mine):

But something about the show’s Grand Guignol presentation of discrimination and contempt for women makes it feel unfamiliar: Our own lives, after all, are nowhere near this dramatic. And the fact that it’s all being undergone by people in funny, old-fashioned outfits makes it feel comfortably distant.

I don’t really know what to say to this. Essentially Doyle seems to be criticizing Mad Men for being a work of fiction. Which is pretty much inarguable, so, er, guilty?

I can’t comment on how accurately Mad Men captures the experience of being victimized by sexism, since I’m obviously speaking from a position of privilege. But it seems to me that the purpose of fiction is not the same as documentary; a successful drama does not capture unedited real life, but a fully realized aesthetic vision that should be judged more by its fidelity to the spark of life than to the mundane details of life itself. Otherwise, why even bother with narrative art?

As for Doyle’s larger point: Any good period piece is as much about the time in which it is made (not to mention the timeless human concerns all good fiction must address) as the time in which it is set. I have no doubt that some members of Mad Men’s audience walk away feeling smug and secure in their belief that we have virtually eliminated misogyny in the modern world. But Doyle’s going to have to show more work than she does here to convince me that this is a flaw in the show itself rather than a flaw in interpretation. The casual harassment, coercion and rape that occur on the show are certainly things that can and do happen today, or else the show would not be anywhere near as vital and relevant as a piece of social commentary.

Sure, some of the audience will undoubtedly miss the point. That’s the risk with good art. It doesn’t hold your hand and force a lesson down your throat, because good art is more concerned with questions than answers. Freezing the frame at a moment of patriarchy in action and having Jon Hamm appear onscreen, Rod Serling-style, to say, “And the same thing is going on in America TO THIS VERY DAY,” would sap those scenes of their visceral impact, let alone any of their aesthetic qualities. Besides: It wouldn’t be very realistic, would it?

(Aside #2: For those keeping score at home, yes, writers for the Atlantic have now accused Mad Men of failing to be a totally accurate representation of real life; and also of failing to turn its characters into Brechtian archetypes. Confusing!)

Crossposted at my home blog.

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The new season of Mad Men has brought with it a flood of new pop criticism and commentary, but most of it has been fairly shallow, even execrable. A series of particularly lame attempts from the Atlantic, the National Review and Katie Roiphe at the New York Times left Dara and me scratching our heads. Why was it all so bad?

Here’s our attempt at an answer.

Dara: So, first things first. Are we in basic agreement that criticism of Mad Men needs to move beyond the question of whether or not the early 1960s sucked?

Ned: Good god yes. Although I’d say the problem is a little broader than that: it’s more that pretty much any political reading of Mad Men, whether it is specific to the decade or not, ends up being a dull culture war retread. Take that article you shared with me from the Atlantic, for example. You coined (or at least I think you did) the great term “anti-aesthetic representationalism” to describe that piece, so I was wondering if you might want to talk a bit about what that means.

Dara: It was actually “anti-aesthetic presentism,” but I’d be interested to see why you went for representationalism instead.

I’ve actually concluded that the critics who are obsessed with discussing Mad Men for its politics are doing so with really good intentions. They’re trying to answer the question of “Why do we, collectively, enjoy this show so much? What does it say about us?” which is the end of cultural criticism (or one of them). But it’s the end for a reason–that’s supposed to come after you’ve actually watched the thing, and related to the characters, and thought about their choices, and do all the things you’re supposed to do with drama. Not assuming that it’s some sort of medieval morality play and that, for instance, Betty is a stand-in for the Feminine Mystique, and any choices she makes that Friedan couldn’t have predicted are wrong.

So for me it comes down to letting the characters be individuals–which is why your use of “representation” is so interesting! Explain?

Ned: Slip of the tongue. Although I think it had a lot to do with all of this discussion about what characters represent. The “medieval morality play” sensibility is a good way of putting it, because it seems like a lot of these articles are predicated on the notion that these characters are Brechtian stand-ins for different ideologies and worldviews.

And sure, some of them function like that to an extent–I’m thinking of Bert Cooper’s Randianism specifically–but it doesn’t exhaust who they are. That’s simply not how interesting literary characters tend to work.

Dara: And even Cooper lets go of the Randianism when it suits him–manipulating Don to sign a contract at the end of Season Two, for example, right?

Ned: Right, exactly.

Dara: But yes. I think you’re absolutely right about Brecht. The irony is that Weiner’s so public about Mad Men being about immersing the viewer in a different world–about as far from Brecht as you can get. Which is how you have, for example, Jon Hamm coming off as really curt and flippant in that TIME interview when he dismissed criticism of the show’s exploration of race and gender.

Ned: I haven’t read that. What was the gist?

Dara: He basically said “Look, we’re not making a documentary of the 60s, this is an exploration of these particular people’s lives”

Ned: Exactly! Yes! And I think the National Review column is particularly egregious about this. The author concedes that some of Don’s philosophical contradictions could be part of his character development, but then immediately dismisses that idea, because she has a thesis to pursue, dammit.

Dara: YES. The notion that Don is The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is just idiotic. Don was weird to everyone else on the show from the first episode!

Though to their credit, I’m beginning to see a little more recognition among the critics that Don and Betty, at least, are actually just strange people.

But I’d like to see that with the rest of the cast as well. You mentioned Bert. I think Joan is a really great example–she’s a very strong woman who for much of the show has been happy, but the critics haven’t focused on that because she uses sex in a way that Ought to be degrading

Ned: True. Although it has been equally frustrating to watch this realization dawn on them four seasons and many years of academic English schooling too late. That was what irked me more about the Atlantic piece more than anything else.

“Betty is hardly an epitome of 1960s feminism.” Wow, you think so?

Dara: The critics seem about as unwilling to let Betty deserve her unhappiness as to let Joan deserve her happiness. It’s good to talk about how characters’ choices are constricted–but you should still take the choices they make seriously.

Ned: Right.

Dara: I know my take on this tends to be focused on the women, maybe because of the blogs I read, and Don is sort of an easy target. What about the rest of the cast?

Ned: Well there’s not a whole lot written about the rest of the cast, sadly. I suppose Pete, Roger and Peggy aren’t as instantly iconic as the Drapers.

Dara: Well, Roger tends to be a stand-in for the “THEY DID NAUGHTY THINGS AND DIDN’T GET JUDGED” subvariety of criticism. The Roiphe strain, if you will

Ned: Ah, true. Can we talk about the Roiphe article for a bit?

It’s basically a sequel to her famous “Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace don’t have enough hot sweaty dicking in their books” article from awhile back. I suppose I can’t fault her for consistency, but it’s an oddly blinkered view through which to tackle literature. In the case of Mad Men, her conclusions are staggeringly banal.

Maybe I’m being unfair here, but I wasn’t able to glean any insight beyond, “People watch Mad Men because they enjoy escapist fantasies about drinking too much and having affairs without consequences.” Which is really weird because, 1) look at what happens to Don this season, and 2) that’s kind of like saying, “People watch Star Trek because they like spaceships and menacing aliens.” I mean, yes. But also, no shit.

Dara: Exactly! Roiphe’s Mad Men is not a show I’d want to watch more than three episodes of. Not with the sound on, at least.

Ned: That show actually exists, though it’s not called “Roiphe’s Mad Men.” I believe the name is Desperate Housewives.

Dara: Thank heavens Desperate Housewives hasn’t captured the imagination of fashion designers. I prefer a nation of would-be Christina Hendrickses to a nation of would-be Eva Longorias.

Ned: Amen.

But back to literary criticism. As much as I’d love to talk more about Christina Hendricks.

I think the common thread running through all of these articles is how remarkably facile their conclusions are, which I blame on two things: One is the standard complaint about the sorry state of mainstream pop culture criticism and the laziness of the people who practice it for major publications.

Dara: Well, you nailed it at the beginning–it’s just another front in the culture wars. There’s no admission that pop culture might not be colored in red and blue

Ned: But the other has to do with Mad Men itself, and it’s not so much a complaint as the show’s greatest strength.

The characters really are truly deeply shaded and almost opaque. You’ve got to do a lot of work to get an impression of these people that can’t be totally upended in a few episodes.

That’s what makes it, in my view, literature.

Of course, doing that work is significantly harder than just roughly mapping the characters onto your understanding of these political archetypes

Dara: This ought to be such a rewarding show for criticism–it should take a few blog posts to understand why Peggy is dating this twerp she’s dating, or whether Don has really hit rock bottom or if he actually has a plan

Ned: Yeah. Which is why I suppose for the good stuff we’ll have to wait until either this season or the whole series ends and someone publishes a book.

Dara: Or we could write real blog posts about it for the rest of the season and hope it catches on.

Ned: Sounds like a plan.

Even though both season three and the season four premiere ended on surprisingly upbeat notes, this is already starting to look like the darkest season of Mad Men yet. Some fans might be disappointed at the dour turn after the first beaming moments of SCDP’s existence, but I’m not; it feels true to life, and true to the tone of the show. This has always been a show that puts considerable emphasis on internal struggles–as herr doctor puts it in this episode, the conflict between what you want and what’s expected of you–and this year, Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan, Betty and the rest are learning the hard way that those are the struggles you can never run away from. Start a shiny new business and a shiny new marriage, but it won’t make a bit of difference; you’ll still have to live with who you are and what you’re like.

As it turns out, none of the people I mentioned above seem to be particularly happy with what they’re like, and so they try as hard as they can to avoid being alone with that person. Roger finds companionship at the bottom of a bottle, and Peggy finds it in a squeaky little shitbird who thinks sex is owed to him because he gave her cookies, and because of, y’know, Sweden.*

As for Don, well, he splits the difference by getting hammered at every available opportunity and then making flailing passes at every attractive woman in sight. It’s no longer irresistible or charming;  just sad and desperate. As we saw tonight, the specific woman barely matters to him. He just can’t stand the thought of spending yet another night alone.

But there’s not a whole lot you can do to put off the inevitably confrontation with yourself that won’t make things worse. Roger is clearly headed for a crash later in the season, but in the meantime we got to witness the presumably less dramatic consequences of Peggy and Don’s efforts: Peggy finds herself in a profoundly unsatisfying relationship based, at least in part, in lies, and Don ends up treating his secretary’s feelings like a hit-and-run case. Not only does he show his worst side in his treatment of her, but, if the preview for next week’s episode is any indication, there are sure to be repercussions down the road.

Incidentally, the hilariously awkward Christmas party in last night’s episode provided a nice echo to the theme I’ve been discussing. As individual SCDP members struggle to hold their lives together by anesthetizing themselves in dubious ways, SCDP as a whole puts together a big, stagey Sweet Sixteen for the head of their one big client, the thoroughly reprehensible Lee Garner Jr. Eventually the company is going to need to deal with the fact that they can’t survive on Lucky Strike’s patronage alone, but for now they’re throwing away any semblance of dignity just to stay afloat. Normally Roger has the best line of the night, but I have to give it up Lane Pryce, who sums up the situation brilliantly after Lee receives his Christmas gift from SCDP.

Lee Garner Jr: Aw, you guys didn’t have to do that!

Lane Pryce: Yes we did.

*Seriously, how aggravating was that guy? He almost makes Pete look like a grown-up.

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There’s a lot to unpack in last night’s Mad Men episode, but the one really heavy bit of foreshadowing that stuck out the most was all of the apocalyptic allusions scattered throughout. There was Betty’s father, John McCain, greeting Don with a cheery, “How’s Babylon?” and having his granddaughter read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to him. Then remember what he says right when they finish reading? “All hell’s gonna break loose.”

Then there’s Kinsey reciting the final stanza of “The Hollow Men”:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

I don’t think I need to draw you a picture here. There’s a brief exchange between Don and Roger about the poor fortunes of the Republican Party around that time, and of course we know what they only suspect: that neither Rockefeller nor Goldwater will be president. After Kennedy’s assassination, LBJ will win the next election in a landslide. And as the face of American government changes forever, so will American culture: Peggy’s experimentation with reefer is just one sign that the times are, indeed, a-changing.

Which brings us back to the apocalyptic, almost Biblical undertones running through this episode. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is, I’d suggest, the key to this entire episode. Roger’s party is repulsive in its excess, and not all that different thematically from the orgiastic celebrations of an ancient empire in decline. But that’s the best and brightest at Sterling-Cooper for you: fiddling while Peggy burns one.

Love Among the Ruins

August 25, 2009

I’ll admit, the second episode of season three left me a little cold. Some of that has to do with how Mad Men seasons are structured: there’s a lot of stuff being dropped on us right now, and it’s hard to tell what the significance is going to be of a lot of it later on. But a lot of it certainly doesn’t feel very significant.

Examples A and B: Peggy’s one night stand, and Roger’s feud with his ex-wife and daughter over whether or not he can bring his new wife to his daughter’s wedding. The one night stand subplot, I can see how that could potentially end up being important later; the guy said he hangs around Madison Avenue a lot, and he’s getting a degree in engineering, so maybe he’s somehow connected to the demolition and reconstruction of Penn Station?

If that’s the case, it will probably play better on DVD. But the whole inter-Sterling family strife subplot … eh. I’m not sure I want to see that crop up in further episodes. We weren’t really made to feel Roger’s pain in those scenes, and it just generally felt like a narrative dead end.

So, sadly, the whole “where are they going to stick Betty’s dad” thing ended up being the most compelling part of the episode. That wasn’t a bad subplot to watch, per se; it just wasn’t enough to sustain an episode on its own. I did like Betty’s slimy brother, and it’ll be interesting to see how having her father around will affect other aspects of Don’s home life. But the best exchanges in the episode both happened back at the increasingly neglected Sterling-Cooper offices: first, when Don and Peggy argue over the campaign for Patio soda, and again when Don’s new English overlord informs him that they’re dropping the Penn Station account.

Don’s California trip aside, the most interesting stuff on the show has always happened within the confines of Sterling-Cooper, with all of its palace intrigue and internal power struggles. This episode strayed pretty far from that, but hopefully we’ll be getting back to it soon.

Missing Duck

August 18, 2009


One unanswered question left over from season two: whatever happened to Duck Phillips, Don Draper’s occasional business nemesis? We know as of the end of last season that he’s off the wagon, but is he still at Sterling Cooper? I hope so–he was a great character and a great foil for Don. It’d be a shame to see him disappear from the show for good.

Out of Town

August 17, 2009

Last night’s episode didn’t exactly get off the new season with a bang; it was mostly just getting the pieces in order so that the writers can ratchet up the tension later. But that being said, there were a few interesting character moments, especially from Don and Pete. And it’ll be interesting to see how their new English overlords handle running the company as things progress.

So as Daniel mentioned, Don’s sexual-conquest-of-the-week was a blonde this time around. Seems to me this shows he’s found some level of comfort, or at least complacency, leading his double (triple!) life. He thinks nothing of adopting the role of Bill, played by Don, played by Dick, conducts his adultery in a businesslike manner, and even invents a pretty good line of bullshit about investigating Jimmy Hoffa. In other words, he’s enjoying the deceit tremendously, at least until he gets back to his family and remembers who it is he’s betraying.

But back to the blonde hair; I think the more or less submissive blonde girl (versus the strong, independent brunette) represents a certain set of lifestyle preferences for Don, and he’s settled, at least temporarily, into that set of preferences. Too bad for him that reminders of his fake persona–such as the opening flashback in which we discover that he’s not just a bastard in the figurative sense–keep creeping back into the edges of his consciousness.

Maybe those reminders are why he goes so easy on Sal. I’m sure a lot of viewers recognized that significant look in Don’s eyes when he told Sal that the tagline for their new ad campaign was going to be, “Limit Your Exposure.” It was also a piece of advice from one impostor to another: keep your personal tastes on the DL, and we won’t have any problems.

Meanwhile, back at home office, we got to see Pete Campbell at his most delightfully insufferable. Did anyone else think it was hilarious how he started brown-nosing his new Brit boss before he even knew why he had been called into a meeting? If that takes first place in the “Pete Campbell Makes an Ass Out of Himself” awards for this week, a good runner-up is his outburst at Ken Cosgrove after he discovers they’re competing for the accounts throne.

The funny thing about Pete is that he’s not really all that more venal than most of the other folks at Sterling Cooper; he’s just a hell of a lot worse at hiding it. Both of the aforementioned incidents drove home that Pete’s naked ambition will, time and time again, end up being more of a hindrance to his career than a help. If there’s one lesson we’ve learned from Don Draper’s business dealings, it’s that a successful businessman goes to war without ever formally declaring it, and Pete just threw the declaration right in Cosgrove’s smug, Atlantic-published face. More than any of the other running subplots introduced in this episode, I’m excited to see where the Campbell-Cosgrove rivalry goes over the course of the season.