Wednesday, August 25, 2010
[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 theySuch 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.
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.
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.