Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 4.12
"Gearing Up/Winding Down"

Monday, October 11, 2010

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism
[The latest in our multi-authored series of posts on the fourth season of Mad Men, was posted prior to publishing MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style and the 1960s (Duke University Press), is by Dana Polan, professor of Cinema Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.]


Written by Dana Polan (Cinema Studies, New York University)

When the Larry Sanders Show went off the air, Carole King’s lament “Will you still love me tomorrow?” played over its final image. When The Sopranos ended its run, the musical group Journey did the musical deed by commanding “Don’t Stop” as the image famously went to black. These were moments of finality but rendered ironic by lyrics that spoke of the possibility (albeit fraught) of something after. In contrast, as Mad Men prepares for a season-to-season hiatus, its second-to-last episode of the its fourth season, “Blowing Smoke,” needs to promise real continuation, if not continuity, and its end-credit song is thus about an offer (albeit a pleading one) of abiding confidence, of faith, and of future potential in which both partners in the relationship have their role to play: “Trust in me in all you do. Have the faith I have in you. Love will see us through if only you trust in me” (and then an expression of doubt which is also an exhortation for the future: “Why won’t you trust in me?”).

Even more perhaps than a season finale, the penultimate episode of a serial television show has a complicated narrative burden. It must sow seeds for episodes way in the future (and this is even more complicated in the case of Mad Men where new seasons begin not where the narrative moment of the previous ones left off but at some later period in the future – which may or not coincide with the number of months the show has been off the air). But the second-to-last episode must also feed into the finale itself which has to wrap some things up, perhaps offer a few cataclysmic surprises (a death is always possible), and also dangle out some cliffhangers that will keep spectators trusting in the show over the long winter of televisual absence. The second-to-last episode then is about immediate story pressures but also long-term ones, and it engages in a complex narrative game.

To take just one example (perhaps a minor one—but who knows?), there might seem to be a conflict brewing with the triangle Faye-Don-Megan (figured in several shots in “Blowing Smoke” where Megan as secretary is shown between or behind the other two). Will it become an explicit battle next week? Will it just simmer below the surface? Will Megan likely be there a season from now (the length of time it will take to make new episodes, the length of time within the narrative universe of the show where it might be unlikely that Megan would be kept around that long)?

Where, in the show’s fictional world, clients keep wondering what Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s status will be in six months, we might take such a question at meta-level and see it as a comment on the continuing serial itself: how does it keep going and keep interest going? What will it be like a season from now? Will anyone keep faith with it through its long hiatus? How can it get anyone now to trust what it promises to be then? The faith that the end-credits song speaks of is not only about Don and the people around him, but about Mad Men itself and a confidence in its ongoing storytelling abilities which it promises to display and asks us to endorse.

The complex relation to several futures – immediate and long-term – contributes to multiple forms of temporality in “Blowing Smoke” as a penultimate episode. Above all, it would seem, the primary thing to avoid – both for the ad agency within the show but also for the show itself which must keep its customers (the viewers) from turning away (what the cable industry calls “churn”) – is too much of the same old, same old – what SCDP’s consultant describes as the risk of being “perceived as stagnant. . . or, worse, as decaying.” Through the episode runs a motif of repetition and of a spinning around in space (the Heinz man tells Don that “food is cyclical”; Pete declares that advertising opportunities “come in streaks”). At the extreme lies the existential dread of a samenesss that goes till the ends of time: as Sally puts it, “When I think about forever I get upset.”

Sally’s image for endless entrapment in repetition is the Land O’Lakes butter image of a woman holding a box that pictures a woman holding a box that pictures a woman . . . . and on into an infinitesimal void (and her description of this creeps creepy Glen out to no end). This is a spatial rendition of nothingness (and it’s perhaps also another form of meta-commentary: the show Mad Men enacts the same issues of survival as does the ad agency within its narrative universe; the show is a box around a fictional box) but serial television, as its very name implies, also confronts repetition as a temporal question: how to deal with the risk of formulaic sameness from episode to episode?

Of course, a more episodic form of television embraces repetition wholeheartedly: think, for instance, of I Love Lucy, where for many sessions, one after the other, Lucy tries to get onto Ricky’s show, is defeated, and is returned to domesticity only to start out again, either not having learned her lesson or, as rebellious female, not wanting to learn it.

To be sure, Mad Men has a bit of this: most strikingly, the end of Season Three was all about starting over as many of the most important Sterling Cooper workers regrouped to begin a new agency (with a number of fans wondering when/if they might bring Sal Romano back!). This narrative move again was one within the universe of the show but one that also had its meta-dimension: it was about a serial narrative going back to some of its generative roots and rebooting the story as it were. That the consequences – demonstrated over the course of this fourth season – went in narrative directions that the characters didn’t welcome (i.e., the new firm’s endless battles to survive) doesn’t take away from the sheer gambit of the reboot itself, both as narrative conceit and as tactic of the series itself.

But as Don tells Peggy toward the end of “Blowing Smoke,” when she suggests renaming the agency and rebooting yet again, “We can’t start over.” Repetition can only go so far and, against it, the episode holds out the possibility of radical initiative, of dramatic and new actions that re-constellate the given terms of the narrative and throw it all up for grabs. This is what Don claims to be doing when he rips all the previous pages out of his notebook to start writing a new message, this time a public one, that he sends off to the New York Times to shakes things up fundamentally.

This disruption of the status quo is also what Don is asking for the others around him to trust in, this is also what this season is asking for trust in as it winds down: believe, they are asking, that we can deliver on the promise of freshness, believe that change can happen. (As Megan enthuses to Don about the letter’s effect, “It feels different around here.”) Don’s description in his letter of the burdensome sameness of the product he was shilling could also be a comment on the repetitiveness of cyclical, episodic television itself: like the cigarette, formulaic television is a “product [that] never improves” and that its makers perhaps “knew . . . wasn’t good for us” but “couldn’t stop” making.

And Don’s letter is not the only promise of things being shaken up in “Blowing Smoke.” In a series that takes us incessantly from the work world to realms of private play and domesticity (as Caroline Levine nicely put it in her blog for last week’s episode: “the series distinguishes love from business as insistently as it brings the two together,” creating what she terms a “troubling logic” that “grows only more tangled and complex as the episode unfolds”), “Blowing Smoke” is particularly insistent on making formal connections between the various spaces of life for these characters (for instance, the opening scene of Don’s meeting with the Heinz man ends with dialogue from the next scene – Betty’s calling Bobby and Sally to the table – playing over it). Thus, the bombshell of Don’s letter is followed quickly by the promise/threat of Betty and Henry moving their family elsewhere. This is another potential reboot, both for the characters and for the show (just as, to return to an earlier example, I Love Lucy tried to reinvigorate a formula that was beginning to seem tired by moving the family to Hollywood and then to suburban Connecticut). How will Sally deal with this? What new narrative possibilities for the series will it generate?

“This is the age of taking action,” the voiceover for a Viagra ad shown during one of “Blowing Smoke”’s commercial breaks asserts, and one of the advertising history factoids during another break explains that the new directions in 1960s advertising are summed up by the term “Creative Revolution.” The Sixties, we might have imagined, is the name for a revolutionary rebooting of all cultural and social givens. But for all the dramatic shake-up that Don’s New York Times letter and Betty’s household announcement portend, we shouldn’t necessarily see the taking of action for disruptive ends as a positive virtue in Mad Men. (In passing, we might remember that “revolution” etymologically both implies radical change and cyclical repetition, the turn of the wheel back to where it already was.)

Despite the shrieks of joy with which Sally, two episodes ago, greeted the chance to see the Beatles – and despite the bigger fact that the ad men seem to be losing out in history by being on the wrong side of the 1960s (as Don said in Season 1, “Dick Nixon is me”), Mad Men does not always see the move into the new decade as a liberation, an opportunity, a chance to open up in new realms of possibility. (Don pointedly had his crisis of identity in a prior decade and the 1960s seem to be closing in on him rather than giving him new chances.)

Thus if in the first season, bohemian Midge might have seemed to offer a new style of hipness so unlike the seemingly cool but really uptight world of the suited sophisticates from Madison Avenue, her re-appearance in “Blowing Smoke” in Season Four confirms just how much of a dead-end the bohemian lifestyle would turn out to be for so many burned-out denizens of 1960s lifestyle. (And in any case, her world was shown to be sanctimonious and silly from the start, so one should never have expected much in the way of revolution there anyway.) Midge offers to prostitute herself (and is encouraged in that by her ersatz husband) in an episode that pointedly began by suggesting that Madison Avenue work is itself a form of pimping (the Heinz man says to the desperate pitches of an over-eager Don, “I bet I could get a date with your mother right now”) and thereby implies a connection between these two worlds of selling-out by selling out one’s self. Likewise, Midge’s heroin addiction is in its own way a form of non-progressing cyclicity (you shoot up only to have to do it again), not some revolutionary strike for the future, and it bears comparison as an unbreakable, filthy habit to Don’s incessant smoking as he writes his supposedly virtuous missive about the dangers of cigarettes.

This, then, is the show’s own rejoinder to the proclamation in the Viagra ad that one needs to take action. Blowing smoke as he writes his screed, Don is setting out to shake things up but his actions are hypocritical and stand for no consistent or heartfelt ethical position (about the closest he comes to being a nice guy is helping out Pete with a loan to the company and apologizing to Faye when he realizes his letter got her fired). Likewise, Betty’s declaration that it is the right time to move the family is clearly not about what is good but about her working out her own complicated relation to both her daughter and to Glen himself (as we see, when she and Sally spar over who knows the kid better).

Even Faye – who seems to strike a blow for a liberation into honesty and authenticity by taking her termination as a cigarette researcher as an opportunity to bring her relationship with Don into the open – is treated as no more virtuous for doing that: she is shown to be pointedly catty in treating Megan as nothing but Don’s office “girl” and she both puts off Peggy’s call for feminine solidarity and confesses that she (Faye) is in fact not a role model who doesn’t have to play at games of insincerity.

So this is where Mad Men seems to be leaving us as it gears up for the future (the future that is the 1960s for its characters; the future that is the show’s run on television through its seasons): it asks for us to keep the faith with its world of faithlessness, it asks us to see the entrapments and dead ends that its characters confront as sources of new and open narrative possibility. In this, it is both a series unlike others and yet one that is so eminently representative of what television watching is all about today.


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Jez B. said...

So maybe Sal can come back as part of the new SCDP strategy to do a no-cigarettes makeover!

Rob Rushing said...

I completely agree here with this fine reading of the show, a reading that traces out the thematic of a static, pointless repetition, both within the show (the Land O'Lakes mise-en-abyme, Midge's heroin) as well as at the level of its own enunciation, a modernist allegory for its own "television showness." But, as you point out, Don's anti-smoking polemic is just "blowing smoke," a way of moving forward without really changing anything. They'd already lost their cigarette revenue, and they're all still smoking. On some level, I have to read this as a commentary not only about the hypocrisy of the "changes" the characters are making, but also about the show itself. The end of last season was exhilarating, but was essentially a way of destroying everything only in order to have exactly the same thing as before—but with sleeker office space. Much of this season has felt like blowing smoke to me: changes that mean ultimately very little. It has been masterfully done, and not without some brilliant moments and even episode, but has felt like "churn" (like churning Land O'Lakes butter?), a repetitive circularity. Perhaps we're blowing smoke rings.

Lauren said...

Thank you Dana for this perceptive post. I especially appreciate the attention to the task of this episode as part of a narrative arc, highly conscious of the need to move us toward some conclusion while keeping the future open. By contrast, some of the episodes have been very thematically tight but rather mysterious in relation to any diachronic movement.

What I’m noticing especially—this something like what Rob expresses above but possibly more approving—is how very self-referential this episode was. I may get the chance to say more about this next week depending on where we end up but, as I have said before, Mad Men’s preeminent mode in the first three seasons has been deliberately realist--character-driven but attentive to structure in the way the best realist narratives are. And it has above all been committed to the seriality of its form. Although a few episodes have sustained that mode, several—and above all this one, I think—have been much more about the show’s self-knowing attention to its own devices and fictiveness. In addition to those repetitions already noticed by Dana and Rob there is that interesting feint where we think we are going back to “The Summer Man” (Don writing in a journal, voice-over, swimming, the potential for self-improvement) and then we get the trick of it all being about the kind of ploy that allowed the show to reboot in the second of Season 3’s two finales or in “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” earlier this season.

Nellcote said...

"it asks for us to keep the faith with its world of faithlessness, it asks us to see the entrapments and dead ends that its characters confront as sources of new and open narrative possibility."

How very Charles Dickens of them.

Anna said...

This is very stimulating and makes me want to revisit some other series', and some other penultimate episodes. When cancellation is undecided, I get the feeling that the narrative burden these episodes bear is that much greater.

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