Sunday, August 1, 2010

Mad Men: Season Four, Episode Two

As is usually true of these essays on each episode, spoilers abound of various Mad Men related things, and all quotations are paraphrased to the best of my memory.

Mad Men’s idea of a deeper meaning usually shines through in each episode and usually has a relatively clumsy execution as well as a well-done execution. Usually the former takes the form of an overly-deep exchange of line readings whereas perhaps the latter is a well-set tableau of silence; in this episode it was the opposite. The direction in intercutting Sally Draper looking out the window (always a bad move to feature a character looking out the window for deepness’s sake) with post-coital Don Draper was pretty clumsily done.

The sequence did demonstrate, however, that Don’s Still Got It, or at least part of It, where It is defined (in part) as: his remarkable ability to convince women to have sex with him. It is also defined as his remarkable ability at being successful at his job, and in this Draper has not regained It at all, though characters are very convinced he should have It.

Let’s take that last sentence as a perfect introduction to the well-done meaning of the episode that strikes directly at what the show is (mostly? often?) about: something about individuality and social convention. To wit: it’s the office Christmas party and Draper is trying to spirit his way home in yet another existential funk. The previous day, he’d blown off a presentation from scientific consultant types on what we want…because their tests asked him about his father, obviously a sensitive subject given his Gatsby-esque reinvention. So: the comely part of the presentation (the, ah, frumpled part is an old grandfather who’s convinced that the enactment of Medicare will lead to the destruction of private property, which at least is a reminder that right-wing craziness has not been confined to our present decade) has slipped into the office with uncertain motives. “Have you come in to fight or to flirt?” Draper asks, as confused as the audience (again, he doesn’t have it); to which she responds that the purpose is strictly professional: she wants to know how Draper comes up with it—his ads, apparently, are motivated by the same purpose she has: to address the tension between what we want and what’s expected of us.

Draper thinks about it and of course comes to the conclusion that she’s right, leading him—of course—to invite her to dinner. As noted previously, he doesn’t have it and is rejected.

“Don’t worry,” she says, “You’ll be married within the year.”

Draper is confused.

“Oh, I forgot: everyone pretends they aren’t a type.”

Ah, so there. While the scene fairly crackles with the obvious addition of meaning—the signposts are there, obviously—it’s done in such a way that there are more than a few issues to consider; whereas, say, the intercutting of Sally Draper looking out the window with Don Draper in post-coital relaxation with his secretary is supposed to impress upon us that Don Draper, indeed, is a jerk (which is not a bad thing to remind us from time to time: Hamm as Draper is so charismatic, and the writing gives him so many opportunities to be clever, that it’s easy to forget that, in essence, Draper is a jerk.).

The issues are, as indicated earlier, the deeper themes of the show: for one, the idea of ad man as auteur of a sort. More than an auteur, really: some sort of therapist, almost—as is reflected by that odd recruiting pitch Don gave Peggy at the end of Season Three whose exact lines I cannot understand or find on the internet, but basically come down to “we understand how to soothe people’s hurt,” only in vaguely gnomic language. Peggy is also given to the adwriter as auteur theory, though she focuses more on the pure experience of using a product, using as vivid an image as possible to describe the product in a way that’s generally free of cliché…it’s not far off the mark to suggest that Don and Peggy would make good writers.

It would not, however, be particularly interesting to have a show about that pair being writers because artists are at least morally neutral. Ads are considerably more dubious, as is revealed by the whole line about the tension between what we want and what’s expected of us. Neither might be the appropriate answer (and might well be the appropriate answer about some of more extreme ideas coming out of the sixties.) Modernity is coming to Mad Men--well, modernity has always been coming, but Peggy’s slightly oily boyfriend is using the whole modern-girls-have-sex (particularly if they’re from Sweden—he read it in a magazine article, which is perfect writing from the writing staff), and, classically, assumes Peggy is: a virgin and old-fashioned, which indicates, respectively, that he’s ignorant (in the sense of not knowing) and clueless. Old-fashioned ladies rarely work in ad agencies, as Joan has found out throughout the series.

Contrast the grumpy old men to Peggy’s oily boyfriend, and you see what happens when modernity collides with that whole tension (what you want, what society wants): well, you get a very selective embrace. Modernity doesn’t care how you embrace it, it only cares about itself—modernity keeps on rolling. Somehow I suspect modernity will roll over both groups, as heedless as anything else. (Related question: is Don Draper modern? He is intrigued by modernity, I think, but ultimately I suspect he’s not. Which, by the way, is yet another thing that makes the show so very interesting. A worse version of the same show would’ve made Draper ultra-modern. For this reason, it’s good that the show is scheduled to end before the 1970s: the paranoia of that era and Don Draper won’t mix well.)

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