The girlfriend and I spent the last day or so watching reruns of season three and I realized something: there’s a distinct difference in the feeling of the show. In the first three seasons everything seems perfect at a moment’s glance. Only when you spend more than a minute scrutinizing just about anything do you realize it’s all an illusion. The Drapers aren’t the fabled perfect family of the 60s. Don isn’t the benevolent leader or ideal man with a perfect life. Bert Cooper isn’t the razor sharp titan of industry. And Sterling Cooper isn’t some kind of professional utopia.

Far from it. Sterling Cooper is full of horny clumsy businessmen. Betty and Don Draper are trying to convince themselves that they’re in a satisfying marriage. Betty also isn’t content being a housewife. Bert Cooper is an increasingly senile Asia obsessed businessman. Don is incredibly unfaithful and prone to crabby fits. Oh and he’s also hiding his real identity and somewhat of a homophobe. Roger Sterling thinks the solution to his dissatisfaction with life involves leaving his wife for a secretary(and in the process endangering Sterling Cooper). Conrad Hilton and Don Draper aren’t a perfect match. The list goes on but the first look doesn’t suggest any of that.

But in season 4 the illusion is lifted. It’s easy to see that nothing is perfect. Don Draper is clearly not the ace ad man —or father or husband or lover— that he comes off as. Betty is obviously a bad mother and housewife and quite possibly nuts. The office of Sterling Cooper Draper Price looks cramped and ugly and business isn’t as easy as it used to be. Just landing an account is a struggle.

The difference between season 4 and its predecessors, I think, is how Mad Men deals with the changing times of the 60s. Things are changing for the folks of Sterling Cooper but not in the way that perfectly captures everything that was going on in the 60s. Don isn’t becoming a hippie. Roger isn’t going back to war. Betty isn’t experimenting with drugs. Those things are all in the show but either a degree away or just not happening to these particular people because that’s not how it was for every single person in the 60s. It’s all there but only where it’s appropriate and makes sense.

—Daniel

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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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Mad Men’s Love Theme

August 2, 2010

Disclaimer: I have to wait a day before I see the latest episode so I’ve avoided reading any commentary about the show, even Ned’s which, I’m sure, is excellent. The following is my immediate raw reaction from seeing the episode about three minutes ago.

I must admit I didn’t like the season premiere, this one was much better. Now that the viewer is a bit more oriented it’s easier to pay attention to the parts of the show that are most interesting. For me that’s the theme of love this season. Unlike past seasons love and romance play a much bigger role in the show. To be clear, I’m not talking about sex. There was plenty more of that in the previous seasons. Rather, I’m talking about actual physical-emotional connections.

We know things are extremely bleak for Don these days because he’s sleeping with hookers, breaking his no-sex-with-coworkers rule, and failing to capitalize on romantic opportunities that cross his path. What I like most about this theme for Don is that he’s also experiencing a highly consistent truism that when you look for love you can’t find it, and when you don’t, you can. I don’t think I’ve seen anything more timeless than that in the entirety of the show. That implies another truth about love: even the best looking among us aren’t free from the agonies and loneliness of love.

The love theme affects other characters too. We didn’t see too much of Betty and Francis’s relationship —clearly imperfect à la last episode— but we did see a fair amount with Peggy, who is often the show’s greatest enigma (at least I think so). I can understand why she didn’t tell her boyfriend that she’s had sex before, she’s in denial that her affair with Pete and their child ever happened. Completely pretending it’s a fiction means leaving no air for that truth to breathe. But what’s really interesting to me is the fear she showed in this episode about being alone on New Year’s eve. “I don’t want to be alone on New Year’s” she said. That’s a common fear for just about everyone, especially the most lovesick amongst us. And the expected result is she does something she’s not ready for: sleep with her boyfriend.

Over all I found this episode to be a refreshing, if a bit high and mighty, exploration of a few major themes about love. The moral, as Freddy Rumsen eloquently put it, is that “it’s not a joke.”

—Daniel

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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So here we go again. In less than a week Mad Men season four begins and in anticipation of the premiere the show has been on my mind. My girlfriend and I (who, I should note, met because of Mad Men and thus hold it in a special place in our hearts) have been watching old episodes and through each of them I’ve found myself wondering how much longer the show can continue while being as good as it’s been. The brilliance of Mad Men, in my opinion, lies in the finite amount of stories that can be told about Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell, and the rest. The core story of the show is about emptiness despite everything that should make us excited and happy: a successful career, a beautiful family, respect, allure —all those things that an advertisement implies will come if you buy the product. But there are only so many stories you can tell with the same characters, even in the 1960s. The point eventually gets dull.

I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The best movies, books, and television shows stop after a while. The Sopranos comes to mind as a show that ended when it needed to. The Star Wars universe, on the other hand, didn’t and so episodes I, II, and III exist. If Mad Men is going to be regarded as one of the great t.v. shows, it’s going to have to end before the stories become stale. The question then is when is a good time to end? Mad Men‘s creator, Matthew Weiner, doesn’t think that time is near (warning, spoilers): Read the rest of this entry »

Season Finale

November 9, 2009

In consideration of the people who haven’t yet seen this very awesome episode of Mad Men, I’ll warn you that the post below has a bunch of spoilers. Don’t click further if you haven’t seen the episode yet and don’t want to know what happens…

Read the rest of this entry »

From Ta-Nehisi Coates Mad Men thread today Matt comments:

Although Don has his character flaws, I like that he occasionally shows a more noble side. He didn’t hold the knowledge of Sal’s gay affair against him. He seemed to scoff at Roger’s blackface performance. He didn’t discriminate against Peggy, but let her on the creative team. This might be due his self-centered libertarianism (“so long as it doesn’t affect me”) or he may actually be forward thinking and more ethical than we give him credit for. I tended to think the latter was true so I thought he would stand up for Sal.

The show conforms to certain patterns – Don continually getting any woman he wants, but it also surprises me. That was one instance. I remember another recent surprise – I thought that the grandfather would accuse Carla of stealing his money because she is black.

That would have been cliche so I’m glad it didn’t happen, but I have been hoping for more commentary on race relations, and I liked what I saw in this episode. It was heartbreaking to see Carla in the kitchen listening to (was it the news or MLK? or what?) and having to hear Betty say that the time isn’t now.

As for the confrontation with Sal and the “you people” line – I think he did mean gay people, but it also felt like he meant: you moral people who aren’t willing to compromise yourself for your career or for success or for ME, how dare you!

(additional emphasis mine). While I expect everyone will be talking about the superpowerful “You People” moment in yesterday’s episode (which our very own Jeremy adeptly analyzes) I’ve got to say that that bit between Betty and Carla was pretty damn powerful too. Remember that Nelson Rockefeller was, if you’ll excuse me here, the “Maverick” of the Republican primaries that year. He was very much against the homophobic and segregationist stances of the Republican Party that are still prevalent today under a thin veil were still prevalent in the 60s. We hear some of these Rockefeller supporters at Betty’s fundraiser talking about how segregation is such a bad thing. They mean it I think but they do it in a passive way.  I really don’t want to over emphasize how historically significant moments in this show are but I think that moment, and when Betty says ‘well, maybe it’s not time to end segregation’ deserves attention. One thing we’ve seen a lot of this season is a dramatic disconnect between whites and blacks. Our wealthy white main characters just don’t get blacks or race relations. They think they all think together and act together and that racism will just fade away. They’re against racism but just not enough to do much about it, but threaten the beauty of the community and Betty and the rest are storming city hall and flirting with politicians.

—Daniel

You People

October 12, 2009

Up until tonight’s episode, a political question mark hung over Don’s head.  He always sided with his fellow outsiders (promoting Peggy, not outing Sal), sure, but the undercurrent of a potential anti-civil rights backlash was always present.  Don is noticeably apolitical, both in the workplace and at home, but that certainly never meant he’d shy away from challenging the conventional social order.  He tended to see people for who they really are, so to speak, judging others based on their abilities rather than their ascriptive identities.

Still, I always thought Don could go either way; either side with the civil rights activists of the ’60s or buy in to the silent majority backlash; either side with the underdog, or belittle their fight for equality.

At first, Don represented the latter.  I mean, his mentorship of Peggy was unprecedented for the time.  He valued the opinions of African Americans (Season 1, Episode 1, Scene 1), a trait that seemed to rub off on Pete, of all people.  He looked past Sal’s homosexuality and infidelity, and even promoted him after catching him with another man.

But recently, Don has represented the former.  He essentially told Peggy to wait her turn and stop asking for so much after she requested a (arguably) deserved raise.  Then tonight–coincidentally National Coming Out Day–Don slipped in a disgusted “you people” quip while firing Sal.  “You people“? In this obvious disassociation and linguistic distancing, Don established the direction of his–up to this point unknown–future political leanings.

As Betty grows more and more independent and dissatisfied with her life, Don grows more and more resistant to change.  As social unrest builds throughout the country and minorities grow more and more dissatisfied with inequality, Don grows more and more agitated with his fellow outsiders, forgetting that he too is somewhat distinct from mainstream America.  Don’s conquest of Sally’s teacher–dismissing her progressive idealism–symbolically represents Don’s dismissal of fights for civil rights in general.

In Don, I see the awakening of the silent majority.

-Jeremy

Mad Men In 60 Seconds

October 2, 2009

Mad Men is one of those shows that isn’t made up of standalone episodes. Someone who sees a random episode may like the show but have no idea what’s going or where to start. But worry not, there’s a cure! Here’s Mad Men in 60 seconds.

—Daniel

I respect the overall thesis of this Amy Benfer Salon.com piece, that despite its efforts, Mad Men doesn’t adequately emphasize that the 60s weren’t so great. But I have to disagree with an early point in the piece in which she argues that Sterling Cooper is and continues to be an incredibly racist place, one that is as far back as can possibly be. That’s just not true though. I mean, S.C. isn’t at the forefront of racial progressiveness but as we saw in the episode “The Fog”, staffers are starting to see the monetary value of the African American market and that’s more than can be said for some people during that decade.

—Daniel