Thursday, November 19, 2009

"That's life. One minute, you're on top of the world. The next, some secretary is running over your foot with a lawn motor."

I was thinking that many of the characters in Mad Men are difficult to identify with. And this lead me to many other thoughts about the series. Pete Campbell is a good example. He is just too whiney to be very sympathetic. I feel sorry for his wife. She will spend her life assisting him in self-pity and constructing rationalizations; unless she catches him in too many rapacious adventures with other women. He’s sneaky and predatory. When his neighbor’s German au pair is afraid of being sent home because she has spilled wine on an expensive dress, he feels the obvious thing is for her to blame it on the kids. Her refusal to betray her charges, no doubt, causes him to think it will be easy to get away with forcing himself on her. All this and his father’s genteel and hidden poverty make him a perfect symbol of New York’s Dutch past. He often serves as an excellent plot complication. But his blubbering immaturity tries my patience.
Roger Sterling is easier to bear than Pete. He keeps the alcohol flowing and makes sure there is a parade of sexy women marching and crawling through the show. He’s basically a charming, drunken libertine. He is almost all id. He has some understanding of discipline and limits but he doesn’t apply them to himself. He uses them to keep his employees in line and producing. He adds a lot of entertainment value to the show. But I wouldn’t want anyone I care about to be too much like him Especially since he too often crosses the line from entertainment to cautionary tale. Like when he has a heart attack at an early age, is clueless about how to raise his daughter or cannot see where marriage to a young foolish girl will lead. If you look at Roger’s story divorced from the other subplots he is like a character from Shakespeare. He appears vaguely large and heroic until you look closer. And the relationship between his actions and their consequences is organic and inescapable. That is a lot of why I won’t stop watching the show: there is that ugly and beautiful stamp of reality on all of its major actions and turning points.
Salvatore Romano sadly is a prisoner of his times. He’s a dutiful son from a Catholic background so he feels properly guilty about his homosexual urges. And he has followed the proscribed path of marriage. I love Sal and enjoy watching his story but his central conflict is beyond my ken. I had a close friend slightly younger than Sal who was gay. (He was among the last to die of AIDS before current treatment modalities were fully developed.) My friend, Bill, told me many stories of unbridgeable difficulties he dealt with daily in a world that saw no need to make concessions to every current in society. I could feel some empathy with Bill’s struggles. But, because of the sexual component, I am not capable of anything approaching elemental and complete identification. And I think that without identifying at a basic level, Sal’s story will remain mainly sad and frustrating; though there is the fun of catching all of the incongruities that his contemporaries miss. And I would like to see more characters on TV who quote Balzac.
In the fourth episode of the third season Sal’s wife realizes the truth. She tries to seduce her husband with a flimsy new nightgown. When that gets her nothing she virtually begs for sex. But he is not going to give in. He plainly feels sympathy for her frustration. Then he quickly becomes wholly caught up in imitating Ann Margaret as he explains to her the commercial shoot he’s about to direct. As Sal prances and dances the opening number from ‘Bye, Bye Birdie’ her face reflects a mixture of surprise and recognition that grows to a silent crescendo. She has been exactly here many times before and yet is still surprised. He climbs into the bed and hugs her while we see the wheels moving in her head as she surveys the wreckage of her world.
Don Draper is as flawed as he is gifted. He is interesting because of his self-assurance, charm and keen insight into human motivation. I enjoy watching him go right to the heart of an ad. Not wanting to think about mice in a hotel ad is blindingly obvious; but I never would have thought of it. Don has little self-control when it comes to women, often having at least two in his life at a time. In this area he is almost Kennedyesque. Could it be he didn’t have enough nurturing as a child?
The strange status of Don’s true identity reverberates with meaning. He was at an outpost in the Korean War. There was only one other man there, an engineer who was the officer in charge. When the officer was killed Don ended up assuming his identity and tried to leave behind his own name and history as Dick Whitman. It is appropriate that an ad man should be so comfortable with so large a lie. It reminds me of the part of the weekly animated intro where the man in a suit falls past the windows of the skyscrapers towards the concrete: he works without a net. The ease with which Don abandons the fight against communism and then dedicates his life to accelerating the consumerism of America makes Don almost too typical of his generation.
He carries around a huge secret with him but it does not haunt him or appear to cause him any emotional discomfort. Don believes he can just will away his childhood, the events that made him who he is, with no consequences or complications. “. . . move on. This never happened. It will shock you how much this never happened,” is his advise to Peggy on how to deal with having her child taken away. Don doesn’t see any connection between his lie and the lack of intimacy in his marriage. His father-in-law says, “Who knows what he does, why he does it. I know more about the kid who fixes my car. . . He has no people. You can’t trust a person like that.” His wife cannot experience safety or security with a disloyal man working without a net.
The wider effect of Don’s lie is not as near as devastating as the effects on the larger world that started Oedipus on the chain of events that lead him to fuller self knowledge. A comparison between the two is interesting. Like Don Draper Oedipus did not begin the search willingly. Oedipus was the king of Thebes whose citizens were afflicted with a plague. He was told that the cause of the plague was the fact the killer of the previous king had never been not been brought to justice. This leads Oedipus to begin an investigation into the murder that reveals that the king who was killed was his father. Even more shocking is the revelation that Oedipus was the murderer and he had for years been married to his own mother. Thus, as Woody Allen says, was born the whole industry called psychology.
The beginnings of the truth about Don Draper being brought to light are much more pedestrian. We see his wife doing her laundry and then hear the key to his drawer of secrets clanging around the inside of the washing machine: a petty annoyance that leads to a drawer full of lies. But one also needs to take into account the chain of events that created in Betty Draper an overwhelming willingness to invade her husband’s privacy. She had a skewed relationship with her father that made it inevitable that she marry someone like Don. And the two of them together were doomed to end up at such a pass. Jean Cocteau wrote a play about Oedipus that he titled ‘The Infernal Machine.’ Cocteau maintained that once all the major plot and character elements were set in place and begun running, that, in a machine-like manner, only Sophocles’ ending could rationally come about. This applies well to Betty. She had a father that made her his favorite and he treated her as a beautiful little doll. With that background she was destined to marry a handsome, self-assured master of manipulative lies who was dazzled by her beauty and would do whatever it took to win her. They would both think they were in love. He would value her highly as long as she didn’t complicate life for him. But he, since he was on an impossible quest to have the relationship with a mother that was never there, would not deny himself any woman he wanted. He would never give her enough attention or a real sense of security or intimacy. And she would not understand his behavior and would therefore feel justified in unlocking his drawer of secrets: she truly thinks it might help her figure out her husband and her marriage. But, like Oedipus, if she had just understood the exact nature of her relationship with her father she would never have needed to open the drawer; given that much self knowledge she probably would have never have married Don.
There was no indication that Oedipus had any great desire to know more about himself. He was initially motivated to look closer in order to save Thebes from the plague. His investigation was then sustained and intensified by ego: he kept accusing others as well as frequently repeating the severe punishments he planned for the guilty party, all thickly laced with overblown self-righteousness. Oedipus’ self-satisfied sanctimoniousness is so disproportionate that his later fall gives an emotional balance to the play. A strong case could be made that Don Draper had a subconscious desire for his secret to be revealed. He kept the incriminating papers and photographs in the desk of his home study and then was not careful enough with the key to the drawer. Maybe he wanted to be divorced from Betty but could not initiate it himself.
Don undergoes no change when he reveals his secret to Betty. His attitude remains the same for a couple of episodes. We see no difference of note before the season finale. But in that final episode he begins to show a changed attitude. His circumstances have altered. For the first time other people can deny him what he wants. He cannot open up shop on his own and he knows it. For the first time he sees that he has to work with others in order to get what he wants. If he is going to work on his own terms he needs the active cooperation of many other people. And those people now have Don where they want him: he has to convince them that he realizes how much he needs them before they will join in with him. All along Don has been insulting and dismissive towards account executives. And in the final episode he convinces a couple of account executives that he now understands that what they do is essential to the business. He also must convince Peggy that his attitude toward her has changed and that he truly values her. Much of what he said to Peggy was what he would have had to say to Betty to keep his marriage together. That he does not say these things to his wife shows that the marriage is over for him.
In part two I plan to write about the major female characters, Betty, Joan and Peggy. I also plan an appreciation of The Wheel. And I want to write about how Mad Men compares to some of the great examples of episodic television, i. e., The Sopranos, Rome, Deadwood and The Wire.
I have had some help writing this. My brother. Mike, gave me feedback that kept me from some large mistakes and greatly improved the final product. Pundette also gave me valuable input that improved the final form. I thank both of them. I alone am responsible for the short comings that remain.

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