Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 4.6
"Cure for the Common..."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The next in our continuing multi-authored series of posts on the fourth season of Mad Men, posted prior to the publication of Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style and the 1960s by Duke University Press. This week’s guest blogger is Sandy Camargo, a Lecturer in English and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Media and Cinema Studies.]


Written by Sandy Camargo (English/Media & Cinema Studies)

While always metatextual, this week’s episode of Mad Men (Season 4, Episode 6, “Waldorf Stories”) made its metatextuality explicit in several ways. Broadcast on the very same evening that the show received its third consecutive Emmy for Best Drama Series, the narrative of this week’s episode centered on the ceremony of the Clio Awards for best TV commercial. As Don, Roger, Joan, and Pete celebrated their victory, the Emmys won by Mad Men were celebrated by AMC during two of the commercial breaks.

During the second commercial break, Breyers aired a faux-Mad Men commercial for their ice cream. The mise-en-scène of the commercial duplicated the décor and wardrobe of the show, and the script parodied the kind of off-the-top-of-the-head creativity that was parodied in the episode itself, through Don’s drunken attempts to come up with a new slogan for Life cereal, and Stan’s looking at the pictures in Playboy to liberate his creative “juices.” This commercial is part of a new deal with Unilever to use Mad Men imagery and narrative situations to market a range of their products.

Even the appearance of John Aniston, Jennifer’s father, as the emcee of the Clio awards offered a metatextual reference to the television genre most directly linked to advertising—the soap opera—since John Aniston played a villain on Days of Our Lives from 1987 until 2010.

In his classic 1974 study Television, Raymond Williams introduced the idea of flow as an important complication in the interpretation of television texts. As an Englishman unfamiliar with commercial TV, having grown up with the commercial-free BBC, Williams reported having quite a difficult time decoding the TV programs he watched in his hotel room during his first visit to the United States. The textual boundaries that we take for granted—between show and commercial, between commercial and promotional announcements for films and other TV shows, between the show and news bulletins—didn’t exist for Williams. Mad Men’s use of the metatextual references I’ve described complicates flow as Williams understood it, blurring the lines between elements that remain discrete in the majority of TV series.

Thinking of the show as a continuous text encouraged me to pay special attention to the “Previously on Mad Men” segment that starts every episode. Since the story world of the show is so rich and so much has happened to these characters I wanted to see which specific parts of the narrative thus far the writers had chosen to foreground this week. I was also curious to see how the format used, the motifs introduced, and the actions foregrounded in this segment might shape a reading of the “real” episode.

In this week’s “Previously” segment, we first see Don and the Advertising Age reporter who asked the “Who is Don Draper?” question that previous posts by Kaganovsky and Goodlad have seen as a kind of umbrella-idea, not only for this season but for the whole series. But the reporter this week reminds us of the earlier problems surrounding the campaign for Glo-Coat. We also are reminded about Pete’s rivalry with Ken; Don’s rivalry with Ted; the tension between Don and Betty over the children; Don chatting up Faye in the kitchen at SCDP; Roger saying that it was he who found Don and hired him; and, finally, Don explaining to Peggy why he is hard on her.

Each of these seven references to previous episodes ends with an unreturned conversational volley, an unanswered question or a comment un-commented-upon. This conversational gap is a typical device used in episodic TV to encourage viewers to keep watching, since they will want to hear the answer or the response, even if the action and reaction are interrupted by a commercial break. Moreover, the fact that the modality that directs viewer attention is sound rather than image embodies one of the tenets of classic TV criticism: that a key distinction between cinema and TV is the dominance of sound, since the visual habit that structures TV viewing is seen as the glance rather than the gaze of film.

Used in the “Previously” segment, of course, since these are fragments clipped from past episodes, and their conclusions will not recur in the current narrative, this conventional narrative tactic is deconstructed, drained of its critical force.

Don appears in five of the actions included in “Previously,” but only speaks in three, each time to a woman. When Betty scolds him for leaving the children with a sitter, whom both she and Don use as a scapegoat when Sally cuts her hair, Don fires back, “Because you’re so good with them?” (As a side note, Betty Draper was linked with Joan Crawford and Medea as “worst mothers ever” in this week’s Entertainment Weekly “Bullseye”—a continuing trend for the character’s popular reception.

The second time that Don speaks is to Faye, though the editors cut the conversation after she admits that she isn’t really married. Of course, this extract gives an inaccurate representation of their conversation by cutting it off at this point. Don’s being left apparently speechless by Faye’s revelation prepares us for his lack of success with her later in this week’s episode.

The third time Don speaks is to Peggy, from the Season 3 finale (“Shut the Door, Have A Seat”), which earned a writer’s Emmy on Sunday. He says he’s been too hard on her “only because I think I see you as an extension of myself.” In a way, it’s to this idea—of weak ego-boundaries in Don’s relations with women—that each of these vignettes refers.

We see this desire for connection with women throughout this week’s episode: Don’s holding hands with Joan at the awards ceremony and kissing her after the announcement that Glo-Coat has won; his moves on Faye and the jingle writer’s moves on him at the Pen and Pencil; his bedding Doris (which may not count because he used his “Dick” persona, to borrow the pun that Mad Men itself exploits). Despite the comment in the “Previously” segment that he sees Peggy as an extension of himself, his several conversations with Peggy are full of tension and largely unpleasant for both of them, perhaps because Peggy is continually desexualized, by herself and by the men she works with.

The only male with whom Don has a similar connection in this episode is Roger. While Mad Men has used flashbacks in the past, the flashbacks in this episode are unusual because they are Roger’s memories, not Don’s. Like the women that Don beds, Roger is anxious about being used and discarded. He feels the need to remind Don that he should be grateful to him. Indeed Don does owe Roger much for hiring him, though, as we have seen over four seasons, that debt has been repaid many times.

The narrative of this episode opens with Don and Peggy interviewing a candidate for an internship, Danny Siegel, a young poseur and cousin of Jane Sterling, foisted on them by Roger. Not only is the young man’s creativity limited to labeling all products “a cure for the common [chair, beer, etc.],” he is also a plagiarist, putting the ads created by other agencies into his portfolio. But Don is forced to hire Danny, not because he is related to Roger’s wife, but because Don has stolen his only idea and sold it to Life cereal as “a cure for the common breakfast.” Roger’s flashbacks of meeting Don and hiring him (and could Danny and Donny be any closer?) invite us not only to compare the dashing young Don to the awkward Danny, to the former’s advantage, but also to compare Roger as recruiter, to Don’s great disadvantage.

The flashbacks amplify our understanding of Roger in a more intimate way as well. According to Matthew Weiner, the character of Roger Sterling was originally conceived as “the office grown-up.” In this episode, however, Roger is explicitly called a child by Lane and spends a good part of the episode reliving his childhood.

While Roger’s hiring of Don seems to have come about as a result of Roger’s having had too much to drink before lunch, just as Don’s excessive drinking at the Clio awards and Peggy’s chiding lead to Don having to hire Danny, Roger sees it through because he responds to Don’s sincerity. Roger himself poignantly says that his one great talent, the ability that sums up his career, is finding men like Don. This is the kind of statement that men make when they are feeling their age and worry that life is passing them by and that their legacy is smaller than they had hoped. Bracketing Roger in the present with all that Roger was in the past, as represented in the flashbacks with Don and Joan, emphasizes this poignancy and might be a palliative to Roger’s distasteful behavior with the men from Honda in last week’s episode.

The images that I chose to accompany this post foreground the idea of reflection, of appearance and reality. Such images, where one can see the character and his or her reflection simultaneously, suggest a divided self. Some divisions in the self may be conscious: the character is consciously projecting a false front, as Don does, in the image we see here.

In the fur shop, Roger is reflected in the mirror, but not Don, suggesting that, at this moment, Don is behaving more authentically and sincerely, a nice contrast with the image in Don’s room later in the episode. Roger’s actually trying on the fur feminizes him, momentarily giving Don the upper hand, an idea that conforms to the conversational pattern in the “Previously” segment, in which Don only spoke to women.

Other mirror shots may represent a self in conflict between possible alternatives. The final mirror shot is thus the richest because both Joan and Roger are in it, and it’s anybody’s guess as to whose wishes and dreams are being projected in that mirror. This revisiting of their affair brackets Roger’s revisiting his chance meeting with Don: a time when his relationships with both of these people ratified Roger as the master of his universe. His making Don thank him before he gives Don back the Clio award that the boozing Don has carelessly left behind, and Joan’s holding hands with Don under the table at the awards ceremony both testify to the passage of that earlier time.

Joan is already holding hands with Roger when Don reaches down and takes her other hand, situating her as a contested prize. The shot under the table as Don makes his move suggests that this gesture is underhanded and, while not an attack on Roger, at least could be seen as ignoring him. Roger’s fixation on his childhood in dictating his memoir demonstrates Don’s famous point about the pain of remembering the past (Season 1, Episode 13, “The Wheel”). It’s painful, but only when it’s compared to the present.

To briefly return to the “Who is Don Draper?” motif: we do have privilege here. Unlike some others in his life, unless Don is still holding out on us, and he might be, we know who he is. The question isn’t who he is, but whether he can hold his fragmented self together. So, before we leave the hall of mirrors, there is a third possible decoding of such images. The use of the mirror in such compositions may be a visual representation of a character having a psychotic break. We see Don in the mirror after his two-day bender, of which he can remember very little. The use of the lighting cues to represent a transition from night to day leads us to think that the arm of the woman lying next to him belongs to the jingle writer he picked up at the Pen and Pencil. It is a shock to us, as it is to Don, that the woman is a waitress he has no recollection of having met. This moment of empathy, created by this narrative aporia, is a gesture toward encouraging us not to judge Don too harshly in this instance.


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JB Capino said...

I love your application of Williams' concept of televisual flow and your reading of the Sirkian mirror motif. Classic film and TV theory done well.

Lauren said...

Thanks Sandy for this great post; I enjoyed the analysis of flow and I'm glad you pointed me to the Dove ad since I habitually fast forward through the commercials and would not have caught it otherwise.

I never cease to think how different Mad Men's reception might be, even how different Mad Men might be, had it aired on Showtime or HBO instead of a commercial cable station. A whole level of metatextual commercialization would have been absent (until one stumbled into a Banana Republic). Unsurprisingly, I totally wish the commercials weren't there and if the DVDs were available right away I'd prefer to watch uninterrupted. But then it is interesting that because of the accident of its being an AMC show, Mad Men is so tantalizingly open to the ironization of its own form and content. A show about people who spend their lives getting others to buy products is sponsored by commercials that sell products by parodying the show in the act of exposing how advertising works.

As to episode itself, I thought it was especially artful; I enjoyed all the doublings and homologies. I was caught off guard by the first flashback because in contrast to previous flashbacks it was very lightly signaled--the producers seem to expect us to spot a wide lapel at 50 paces, warning us in a heartbeat that a flashback is in progress. Couldn't Roger get some hair dye for the occasion?

But then my having to go back and look at the scene again is how I ended up spotting Betty in the fur store and that was worth everything!

Thanks again!

Sandy said...

Lauren's mentioning the poster in the fur shop with Betty's picture is a reminder of all the things in this very rich episode that I couldn't discuss because of the structure I created of using the "Previously" segment as a template for an analysis of the whole. But it's another example of the way that the episode compares the past and the present.

Did Don use Betty because they were already married, or is his using her in an ad how they met? HIs tagline "Why wait for a man to buy you a fur coat?" is certainly ironic, considering that is what the women in the 1950s did, that's what Betty did, and Joan, too. Perhaps Peggy will buy herself a fur coat in a future episode.

I also couldn't deal with the other B&W element in the episode: Stan's KKK campaign ad, which he sees as his masterpiece, but which Peggy dismisses because no one ever saw it. I did feel that I neglected Peggy in my post--the "Previously" segment ends with her and the episode itself ends with her turning away from Don's doppelgänger to embrace Ken and welcome him back into the fold.

Unit for Criticism said...

It's how they met, something she tells the psychoanalyst, IIRC, or maybe Francine. He buys her the coat she models and thus begins their relationship.

One can't get to everything in 2000 words! LG

zina said...

Sandy, you make very interesting points about the flow of show and ads. To add something for your consideration: some TV critics have noted (maybe even complained) that MM does not do as good a job as other shows to calibrate its rhythm to the commercial breaks, maybe meaning that the creators just do each show as if there would be no breaks, and only thinking of how it will be seen on the DVD.

I am struck by how much this season is devoted to working and reworking themes and motifs:
- the missing piece (mentioned many times in this series of essays - the missing floor, Potemkinville, the missing ad in the Honda episode), and now the missing memories and missing time in the form of alcoholic blackouts;

- the male gaze, here reversed when Peggy, who had told Rizzo to stop staring at women who cannot stare back, stages a sort of stunt, and becomes the woman who is stared at and stares back.

I find this season more tightly constructed than the previous ones - but maybe it is just that I have become accustomed to its pace. One element that is present in almost all episodes is the reversal of earlier motifs by Peggy, while other characters and especially Don become more and more entrenched in their ways, and keep repeating the same patterns and the same affects.

Sandy said...

Zina's point about how the narrative structure of MAD MEN seems constructed as a continuous piece, with the DVDs in mind, got me thinking about the scene breakdown of the episode.
Without going into details, the one episode that doesn't conform to normal broadcast TV narrative structure is the third segment, where we see Don in his apartment, waking up with Doris and then falling apart. Of course, it's the anomalous nature of this segment that creates an empathetic experience of shock and disorientation for us.
So, bottom line, I think the writers of the show are trying to balance the demands of segmented TV narrative with the commercial-free experience afforded by DVD viewing.

Lauren said...

Sandy and Zina, I am sorry but I wrote a set of comments a few days ago which I had wanted to add to and instead I ended up losing them. I can't recapitulate right now but the gist was some further reflection on narrative tightness. I'm sure this will come up again soon!