Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 4.5
"Trouble Down There"

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism


[Our multi-authored series of posts on Mad Men season 4 prior to the publication of  MAD MEN, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press)   continues this week with guest writing by Jeremy Varon, co-editor of the journal, The Sixties.]

"TROUBLE DOWN THERE"

Written by Jeremy Varon (The New School for Social Research)

Mad Men, in its weightier engagements, has always been for me about three things: capitalism, history, and race. The great puzzle and fun of the latest installment, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” (Season 4, Episode 5), is in understanding how these three are arrayed.

Shortly into the episode, Roger Sterling peruses a newspaper headline about trouble Down South, prompting the following exchange:

Roger: This Selma thing is not going away. You still don’t think they
need a civil rights law?
Bert: They got what they wanted. Why aren’t they happy?
Peter: Because, Lassie stays at the Waldorf, and they can’t.
Don (entering): Please tell me I missed everything.
Such dreck is standard for the Mad Men. They repeatedly react with insensitivity or indifference to the epic civil rights struggle taking place both off screen and off their moral radar. They have, in short, an otherness problem, defined by their lack of curiosity about the experiences of those outside their privileged milieu. The urgent issue of racial inequality is the aspect of the Sixties, and of history more generally, that neither the show nor its characters has yet embraced.

Their racial clubbishness is underscored with special force — and to surprising effect — in the current episode. It features the Mad Men’s greatest foray yet into otherness.

In the selfsame scene, the generals of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce,
sans Roger, are quickly worked into lathers of excitement at the challenge of landing Japan’s Honda corporation as a client. Doing so requires a crash course in cultural difference across a divide of custom and race, lest their dealings with the Japanese get hopelessly lost in translation.


Pete, coached by the Sinophile Bert Cooper, learns the finer points of gift-giving etiquette. Don quickly graduates from “research” at a Benihana restaurant to discerning, through study of The Chrysthanthemum and the Sword, a wartime anthropological guide to the enemy's culture, how to use fabled Japanese notions of honor to outsmart his Madison Avenue competitor Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough (CGC).

It’s worth considering that the Mad Men learn perhaps more in two weeks about the culture of these foreign “guests” than they have learned about American blacks in their lifetimes. When in Season 3, Episode 5 Pete Campbell becomes interested in pitching “the Negro market” as a strategy to Admiral television, his idea of a focus group is to accost the elevator operator Hollis, presumably the only African American in reach, with awkward questions about his television set. The Mad Men’s sudden passion for understanding Japanese culture reinforces a sense of their myopia, as well as the racial hierarchies that, in America (then and now), separate White and Black by the widest gulf.

Wrapped in this dispiriting lesson, however, is a trenchant fable about capitalism as a universal language that ultimately honors one value alone: profit. The instigator of this message, by convoluted means, is Roger Sterling. A veteran of the pacific theatre in World War Two, Roger makes an ass of himself, denouncing the Japanese entourage with bad Yankee humor and talk of “Jap crap.” It is easy to read his behavior simply as a function of jingoism, stodginess, or (as Pete smartly charges) his desperate desire not to lose clout within the firm, as point man for its biggest, eminently American client, Lucky Strike.

But let’s not dismiss the possibility that there’s a peculiar nobility to his crudeness. His one moment of sacrifice — of service to a cause greater than his inherited privilege and personal pleasure — was his combat in World War Two. The pacific theatre, as John Dower’s harrowing
War Without Mercy documents, was a site of “total war.” The United States and Japan fought one another in a stance of mutual, racialized contempt. The result was a ferocity of violence greater even than in Europe. We get in the episode a glimpse of what Roger suffered.

Given all this, I felt a certain pathos in his “pledge” to his brothers in arms “not to do business” with the Japanese. But in this sense, if not yet in terms of interracial America, the times are a-changing.

Superficially, the healing power of time itself makes Roger’s pledge both unfair and untenable. “They are not the same people,” Pete Campell protests. But the seduction of commerce is the greater salve, overriding questions of value. “Since when is forgiveness more important than loyalty?,” Roger pleads to Joan.

But Roger’s formula is off. America did not “forgive” the Japanese as a precondition for doing business after the war. Rather, through a structural mechanism by which ideology
follows practice, forgiveness was entailed by the very act of doing business, of mutual enrichment.

Likewise, differences in corporate culture are ultimately cosmetic in a global game of commerce in which winning is the paramount goal. It matters not a whit that the Japanese played all the advertising firms, inciting the competition under false pretenses. (They never intended to move the lucrative motorcycle account, but merely sought a good lead to handle their emerging auto division.) Or that Don gamed the Japanese in his contrived appeal to honor. Or even that the Japanese broke their own purported code. They each got what they wanted. The rival firm CGC may have been dusted, and perhaps destroyed, but someone has to lose. The only “rule” is predation. And this, all sides understand, without any translation.


***

There are, however, different kinds of otherness — ones which the Mad World begins to let in. Here I mean the other within, the self that is a mystery to the self. Perhaps above all, the characters suffer the tragic flaw of a lack of self-knowledge, by which they cannot define their wants and passions. Most every character is at least a little in love with someone they are not with, but unable to confront that fact. Some are captive to their compulsions (Don, often), others to the prejudices of their social class (Betty, lately).

And they lack not just self-awareness but any reliable language even for probing their inner life and empathetically engaging one another. This is the constriction that begins to loosen on the show, signaling a revolution in subjectivity that also ranks among the Sixties’ signal transformations.

Faye Miller, the research consultant to SCDP, is the unlikely harbinger of this change. Ostensibly making a science of human emotion, her work functions as an incitement to discourse about the self, in all its tender and even sloppy fragility. We get an inkling of this when, in the last episode, her focus group for Ponds skin cream veers towards an incipient consciousness raising session, with the women sharing about the fickleness of men and the tyranny of the beauty myth. It is sealed in this episode with her precious encounter with Don in the office kitchen.

The scene has the trappings of a seduction. Don discovers her barefoot, adding a hint of sexual allure. She accepts and enjoys a glass of sake. Led by his effortless flirtation, she admits to being single, despite her deceptive “wedding ring” worn to ward off come ons. But the conversation turns when Don hears the kinds of things that even men reveal in her focus groups.

“Why does everybody need to talk about everything?” he asks. “I don’t know,” she answers, “but they do [and] when they’re done, they feel better.” The two then perfectly enact her observation. Don, in an unprecedented moment of vulnerability, confesses the difficulty he is having with his children. And she, in a gesture equally rare on the show, offers words of simple sympathy, without angle or judgment. The conversation ends, she puts on her spiky pumps like a lover after a tryst, and yes, Don feels good. Call it the new intimacy.

A version of this scene immediately follows in Betty’s dialogue with the school psychiatrist, set to see Betty’s troubled daughter Sally. Sally, in an uncomfortably sexual appeal to her distant father’s affections, had cut her hair short. An ill-timed masturbation followed. “Dr. Edna,” as she insists being called, senses the immense stress in Betty’s life, and offers her compassionate ear for Betty’s own troubles. Gone is the creepily detached male therapist from Season 1, surveying a supine Betty while in virtual cahoots with her husband. Gone is the Big Nurse hellion who manhandled her during childbirth (Season 3, Episode 5, "The Fog").

The healing and helping professionals are growing a heart, as the characters — and the culture — begin learning the heart’s language. The confessional mode, as Foucault warns, may have its own hazards. But it’s a risk, for this crew, well worth taking.

***

Some of the youngest hearts in the Mad World, like the homes, are broken. In its most powerful moment, the episode concludes with the dark saga of Sally. Long ago, Sally began to freak out, reacting as pure symptom to the corruptions of the Draper household. Don and Betty’s divorce only intensifies her inarticulate revolt. She stands in for all the children — of any generation, really — wounded by profoundly irresponsible parents and the miasma of blurred boundaries, sexual tension, and flimsy loyalties suffusing their homes.

Throughout, the children’s hurt has functioned as something of the show’s moral compass, condemning what is most condemnable in its lead characters’ behavior and reminding us that someone always pays a price. (As verification of the damage courted by the Mad Men’s specific milieu, consider this sad post responding to a USA Today story extolling the rollicking world of vintage ad exec Jerry Della Femina: “My dad was an art director on Madison Avenue in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, so I grew up with this crap. Totally blew up my family. . . There was lots of pain after these parties.” And that hurt, deep in the children’s inner life, is the ultimate form of otherness in the adult characters’ midst — the inscrutable realm beyond the reach of their sensitivities and understanding.

As the episode closes, Sally is in the waiting room of Dr. Edna, accompanied by the family’s African American housekeeper Carla (another “other”). To a backdrop of ethereal music, Dr. Edna invites Sally into her office. Sally’s parents cannot possibly know the emotional universe she will describe inside that room. And neither can we, the viewer, who have experienced Sally’s world only through the eyes of her parents and our own adult perspective. We are left, in the final frame, to stare at the door and wonder.

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18 comments:

Unit for Criticism said...

Dear Contestants: We wish you the very best of luck in your efforts to win a walk-on role on your favorite TV show. However, this series of posts on Kritik is devoted to discussing Mad Men: you are most welcome to join us but please don't ask us simply to vote for you. Thank you.

fab. said...

With all due respect, i find nothing reassuring about the Shrink. She should have told Betty that there was nothing abnormal about masturbation for a girl entering puberty but that obviously there were problems for Sally resulting from the divorce and that she would treat her on those grounds. Instead of doing that, the Shrink signed Betty up as a client too and signed up Sally for four sessions per week. The Shrink went for as much cash as she could get. And if Don is willing and able to pay for it all, why not milk Don for all he is worth? The Shrink is just as mercenary as everyone else in MM. Indeed, i would argue that there is a direct conflict of interest and a breach of professional ethics for the Shrink to treat both Sally and Betty at the same time as patients.So i have little empathy for the Shrink. Remember not that long ago Shrinks listed homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder. And i guess back in those days Shrinks listed masturbation as a psychiatric disorder? today Shrinks just give you a Pill a la Soma, then send you home with the same Bill. plus ca change....Brave New World Order indeed.

Rob Rushing said...

@Unit: I gather someone spammed the blog post asking for a vote in the Banana Republic walk-on competition, and that their comment has been since deleted? Without the original comment now, it appears somewhat cryptic! But we must be doing well if we're getting spam…

@fab: I can't help but note that you begin with "all due respect," but then refer to "Dr. Edna" with the principal term of disrespect for her profession, "shrink." But you raise the interesting and important question of historicizing the profession of psychotherapy and its attitudes toward masturbation. I can't find a hard date on when masturbation was no longer listed as a disorder (I'd be surprised if it still was in 1965, since Kinsey had shown in the 50s that over 90% of men practiced it, and a majority of women), but in 1965 I think it's unlikely Dr. Edna would have thought there was anything wrong with it per se—masturbating in front of another child might be another story, even today, however. For what it's worth, I believe that the number of sessions per week was normal at that time, and I think there's a different way of understanding Dr. Edna's desire to get Betty into therapy—she clearly needs it as much or more than Sally.

Rob Rushing said...

As far as the original post and episode, I had two thoughts. The first is that I think Varon makes a really superb point here that deserves repeating: Mad Men features extensive but highly problematic engagements with external others (race, class, sexual orientation, gender…), but its true strength is its often uncanny and compelling revelation of an internal other.

Maybe I can segue from that into my other point, which has to do with Don, CGC and the Japanese. We've been watching Don re-emerge in recent episodes from his nadir (drunken heap in the hallway, sleeping with Allison) towards a position of mastery; in this episode, he really showcases his ability to control and manipulate, but he gets there through a curious negativity (that internal other). In order to win, he resigns. In order to produce the best ad campaign, he produces nothing (a Potemkin commercial, to go back the discourse of empty façades from a few episodes back). This, of course, is what Don is best at: reinventing himself, generating a new Don after the old one has vanished. But surely it isn't an accident that this is so tightly linked to Japan. Roger makes a bitter joke about kamikaze pilots, and Don turns out to have an unexpected affinity for suicide, if only symbolic. The East is figured here, as ever, as a kind of inscrutable negativity, but one in which the West finds its identity ("help me, Honda, help help me, Honda!"). In other words, the external other (often treated in the most stereotypical ways) and the internal other (nuanced, uncanny) are typically linked in the show, in ways that are both problematic and potentially productive. And, as Varon points out, none of them make sense outside of capitalist imperatives (although they are not ultimately reducible to those imperatives).

Unit for Criticism said...

@Rob, Sorry to have not been more explicit. There are a couple of comments of this kind on previous posts in this series and though our policy is always to remove spam as soon as we spot it, we decided not to treat this as spam since it is a kind of artifact of audience participation (broadly defined!). So we decided on this approach instead, knowing that anyone posting these comments might not notice the first comment but thinking it just possible. In any case, the Banana Republic competition may be over soon!

Lauren said...

To me there is something unheimlich about the “stunt” (to quote Lane) that took place in this episode and this undoubtedly ties to the increasingly explicit Potemkinish quality of the ad agency enterprise. The way this comes across for me is the sense of Don’s growing alienation from his own uber-guises. In the season premier he was simply reluctant to occupy the position of Don Draper and had to force himself to do something that in the past he has done w/ ease.

At the end of S3 we had, in effect, two different finales: one in which he all but melted away and the other which saw a triumphal return in the formation of SDCP (a negative renewal, as Rob says). But it’s clear that the Don of this season is wholly alienated from his mojo. He can tap into it, but, to borrow the relation Peggy articulates between her vagina and her boyfriend, he is renting his mojo rather than owning it.

I have mixed feelings about the use of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. It’s hard to believe the writers weren’t aware of the controversiality of the book—and I am no expert on the subject. But my guess is that what they wanted to invoke is the book’s contrast b/w a guilt culture and a shame culture. Don’s gambit works by confronting the Honda execs w/ the threat of shame. But he himself is dealing with the slower burn of guilt. Although I’m not sure that the writers are attempting it in fully realist terms (rather than in a more symbolic way), it would appear that he is developing some active cross between a conscience and a superego. And though I’m not expecting this to result in the “better man” that the show always teases us with, I’m interested to see where it will go.

This connects to Jeremy’s focus on the conversation between Faye and Don. Jeremy, you say that Don feels better: and perhaps he does. But his reflex is to ask her out again: does she have a fake dinner to go with that fake husband? He is guessing that she has a Potemkin sex life and is offering to deliver the real goods. This is the first time since Rachel (I don’t count Suzanne because she wasn’t developed to the same extent) that we have seen this kind of prolonged pursuit take place. As with Rachel, he is at some level interested in Dr. Faye Miller and not just in a physical relationship (compare to the evident non-interest in Bethany who is filling the role of Potemkin girlfriend). With Rachel there was also this element of discovering the pleasures of verbal intimacy. But Rachel knew he was married whereas Faye knows he is single, predicts he will soon remarry, and, at least for now, is not interested in the vacancy. The way she turned on her heel the moment he asked her to dinner was wonderfully emphatic. She clearly has real doubts about the functionality of that superego and for the moment at least she is the “expert.” So I am intrigued.

And just in passing: Sally's choice of Ilya Kuryakin was so great! Another mystery man. Your discussion of Sally and children, Jeremy, was great. Thanks for it and the rest as well!

fab said...

in response to Rob, my "due respect" was intended toward the author of the comment, not the Shrink. Sure Betty needs it too. But it is a clearcut conflict of interest and breach of professional ethics for Shrink Edna to give it to her as well as to Sally. This is not a case of family therapy. And 4 days a week for Sally? The Shrink is just as mercenary as everyone else on MM. so on those grounds i respectfully disagree with the author's take on the Shrink.

fab said...

by the way, one other point and then i have to go. but just before this episode i saw a promo on AMC interviewing Hamm where, to paraphrase, he says that yes, Don has done some bad things, but that after all he is "a self-made man." so that gives us some insight into the way Hamm is playing Don. Maybe this is a commentary that so many "self-made men" in America are phonies and they know it? the problem becomes how successful they are at pulling it off in front of everyone else like Don--except for their intimates, who know better, like Betty?

FWS said...

This episode marked the second time in which Sally has watched a news report about a man being burned to death. While I don't think it connects too neatly to her later masturbation in front of the tv (that would seem more Glen's style, frankly), I do find it interesting to note the psychic trauma or shock, however detached or indirect, experienced by both daughter and mother; Betty, witnessing the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald on live tv, spoke for millions by simply shouting, "What is going on?!" Her own masturbatory use of the washing machine had initially struck me as ripe for erotic Betty (!) Friedan fan fiction, but now both she and Sally have shown a sexual reappropriation of these two paragons of mid-century domestic technology, the washing machine and the television. There is perhaps some comfort in Sally's self-pleasuring to an actual human image, however pixelated and encased in plastic and fantasy. Indeed, Don defeats CGC with The Commercial The Wasn't - what could more perfectly encapsulate the essence of television (and high capitalism) than an elaborately plotted advertising narrative that doesn't actually exist?

On that note, I will admit to googling "Dr. Lyle Evans," whose name was thrown out with such vehemence by Roger; Pete and Joan's ignorance of his identity and significance is seemingly a sign of the generational divide and perhaps even something of which they ought to be ashamed. He doesn't exist. Well played, show.

The last instance of the uncanny I noticed, however, was entirely inadvertent, though shockingly prescient: Roger's racism, bitterness, and misplaced patriotic loyalty could easily fit in amongst the anti-"WTC mosque" rhetoric.

Sandy said...

Maybe I watched the episode too fast, but I thought Dr. Edna was a school psychologist. Wouldn't that mean that her services were free? I'm sure like most of you, I cringe when I see Betty with the poor kids. In my film classes, after talking about polyvalence and the effect of context, I ask them, "What do children always, always, always represent?" Of course the immediate answer is "innocence." It's easy to list demon-children films to get them to think beyond the Hallmark cards answer, which is "the future." Poor Sally, poor us.

Jez B. said...

@Sandy. Doc Edna recommended by school but not a "school psychologist" iirc.

zina said...

Peggy steals the episode with the short splendid scene in the white studio, with the red Honda, in her black and red dress : the colors of Mad Men. She drives in circles, filling the time when the ad is NOT being made. Her performance here is that of the seductive decoy of advertising.

Betty smiling faintly while looking at the dollhouse: shades of Ibsen. This touch was maybe a glimmer of hope of liberation somewhere down the line for sad, angry, betrayed Betty.

Lauren said...

Zina, really like thse comments (as usual). Am looking forward to more of Peggy than she's been given so far though it's true this was an ebullient moment. She seems to stand for an outside to the general malaise and decadence even when we get just pungent glimpse--like this one.

Betty's betrayal: Don to be sure but also a (socially conditioned) self-betrayal, no? Will she ever stop idealizing life inside a dollhouse and positively seize reality/mature adulthood?

zina said...

Lauren, I saw the visual quote of Ibsen's Doll's House as maybe the first hint/foreshadowing of a possible evolution of the character toward liberation and then adulthood. Nora at the end of the play has not yet become an adult, but has become aware that she has been kept a child by her father, and then by her husband, rendering any authentic relationships and life impossible for her. She understands that her first duty to herself is to become an adult. We will see how far down that road Betty will go...
BTW, Ibsen is explicitly quoted earlier in MM, when Joan comments that Peggy's ad reads like the stage directions for an Ibsen play.

Lauren said...

Go, Joan! These literary references are always fun: informally I count 2 references to the same Balzac quotation, Mark Twain (read by Lane in a "when in Rome" spirit), and of course Lawrence. I may have missed more.

More substantively: is the drawing of Betty's character capable of evolution toward liberation and adulthood? As with Don's incipient ethical compass, I think not (at least not so far).

These are characters whose circumstances feel to them beyond their control--even when the circumstances in question (a false identity, a second marriage) are made _by_ them.

It is a naturalist universe that permits only fleeting acts of transcendence (for Betty an example might be when she shoots the neighbor's pigeons). There is always the possibility of "bildung" but hardly ever anything but a glance what it might look like and how it might occur (the telling glance at the dollhouse). I think that is hardwired into the form of the show and it's v. often what I find most interesting about it.

Jeremy V. said...

Hi all, it's great to see such robust discussion.

Some points, in turn: perhaps I (and others) see Dr. Edna in too kind a light — she may be more fodder for an anti-psychiatry critique — but I'm inclined to giver her the benefit of the doubt. I don't think she judges Sally's masturbation as pathological; rather, she gathers that Sally has had a tough time in the Draper household and needs help. She quickly queries Betty about HER mom's attitude toward masturbation, and likely fears that Betty will impose a similar, stifling strictness. Key for me was her saying to Betty that it must feel terrible to think you messed your children up (it must!). Again, empathy/sympathy emerges in a new way on the show, voiced also by Faye saying to Don how hard the separation from his kids must be.

Lauren, I agree, things with Don and Faye are complex; their "intimacy" is sexualized, but it is NOT sex. So yes, Don feels good, but it is not identical to the satisfaction of conquest or, well . . . My sense is that he had the flicker of a new feeling that he could not quite place.

Rob, very astute, the following: "In other words, the external other (often treated in the most stereotypical ways) and the internal other (nuanced, uncanny) are typically linked in the show, in ways that are both problematic and potentially productive" That is, I think, a key mechanism of the show that you well expressed.

As to mojo, it's interesting. Don, in ending 1, seems wasted, hollowed out by the conclusion of S3. But he refuses to go quietly after the M n A; he declares, in ending 2, "I want to build something!" And that something, I assume, is a business. So part of his revival seems to connected to a very male, American entrepeneurial spirit, with all the Don Jedi twists. The show now risks devolving a bit into the thrill of men being all business-y and manly, slaying rivals, experiencing esprit-de-corps, etc. (This was why Alessandra Stanley grooved on the first installments of S4). But I hope there is more for Don than a renewed commitment to his vocation and the thrill of competition. That would be far too flat.

OK, yes, he has ample powers of mastery, and you seem to think that the current mastery is of a less exciting sort. Alas, I wonder what would happen if he took on an extremely difficult challenge. In my essay for the volume I joked that we don't want to see him become Werner Erhart, the founder of EST. But part of me WOULD love to see, as a thought experiment, if he could apply his talents to bigger puzzles -- the puzzle of existence, happiness (for real), and the heady like.

We'll see. . .

Lauren said...

"OK, yes, he has ample powers of mastery, and you seem to think that the current mastery is of a less exciting sort.

Jeremy, great comments. I think this is directed to me. I don't mean less exciting; more like less inspiring (and for reasons that you pinpoint above).

4.1 was really deft because alienation from the mojo took the form of having to perform a mojo one doesn't really feel one can own. This time round there was, as your comments also suggest a more pro forma Alpha-male persona contriving a trick that echoes the one at the end of S3 (Lane will fire them so that they are free to go off on their own).

To me Don's mojo was never Alpha-male mojo (though I think some viewers might see it that way). Don can almost always rise to the occasion of Alpha Male when circumstances require it but often when he does so he seems weak, or self-deluding, or self-conscious. He is not Gordon Gecko and Mad Men is not Oliver Stone's Wall Street. So at the end of the day when Don pulls off an alpha stunt it's just a further sign of his alienation from that other mojo--call it Nietzschean mojo--that represents the character at its most resonant and powerful.

Enjoyed your further elaboration of Faye/Don.

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