Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 4.13
"The Blue Pill"

Thursday, October 21, 2010

posted under , , , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[This second of two final entries in our multi-authored series of posts on the fourth season of Mad Men, prior to publishing MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style and the 1960s, is by Lilya Kaganovsky. The first post was written by co-editors Lauren Goodlad and Rob Rushing]


Written by Lilya Kaganovsky (Slavic/Comparative Literature)

In 2008, six years after The Wire first aired on HBO, Film Quarterly published a review of the complete fourth season on DVD, which described (in a positive way) the show’s fans as junkies and the show as a drug. Fans come to video stores, wrote J. M. Tyree, jonesing for a hit, desperate for another dose of a show that missed its audience only by finding it (much like Proust suggests a good novelist does) after the fact, when its five (really four and a half) seasons were nearly over:

There is a growing cult around The Wire, although many of its members do not subscribe to HBO, appearing instead like junkies at their local video rental stores months after the original broadcasts, and helping the show continue its extraordinary afterlife.

If Season 4 of Mad Men has been about anything, it has been about addiction. Cigarettes, alcohol, and sex appeared this season no longer bathed in the retrospective glow of nostalgia, but as vice, pure and simple, starting with Don’s masochistic sex with a prostitute in the first episode, and ending with Midge’s heroin addiction. As with so much television since the 1990s, and in the realist novel before that, smoking and drinking are used only to show weakness of character, a man (or woman) out of control. Pete, for example, who has been a much more upstanding citizen this season, doesn’t smoke and barely drinks, and the same goes for Henry Francis, as he holds his moral high ground against Betty’s fits of rage. “You need a drink? What are you, a wino? You need a drink?” he snarls during a memorable car ride home (“The Summer Man,” 4.8). No wonder Don vomits twice during this season: his very being is rejecting the thing he has become, while addiction itself is linked to cancer that eats away at you from the inside (another theme that begins with Anna Draper’s illness and ends with a possible anti-smoking campaign for the American Cancer Society).

But what, as Avital Ronell asks in Crack Wars, do we hold against the drug addict? What do we hold against the drug addict?

… that he cuts himself off from the world, in exile from reality, far from objective reality and the real like of the city and the community; that he escapes into a world of simulacrum and fiction. We disapprove of hallucinations. . . . We cannot abide the fact that his is a pleasure taken in an experience without truth.

Ex-stasis, going beyond/outside of yourself, the “high” of transgression. For pleasure to be what it is, says Ronell, it has to exceed a limit of what is altogether wholesome and healthy. Otherwise, “it’s something like contentedness, which can be shown to be in fact an abandonment of pleasure.”

Heroin is “like drinking 100 bottles of whiskey while someone licks your tits,” says Midge, poetically.

There has been some debate about what Mad Men has meant for its viewers. Its most vociferous critics have insisted that there’s something false about the show, that the emperor has no clothes, that Mad Men, like a variation of the Matrix, is a “world that has been pulled over our eyes to blind us from the truth.”

Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room… It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

Neo: What truth?

Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo… After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.

(“I want a third pill!” says Zizek about this particular form of forced choice. As an aside, we might note that the man dealing drugs here is called Morpheus, and that “truth” he is offering is a trip down the rabbit hole.)

Critics of the show cannot understand how others have become hooked, what keeps them coming back week after week asking for more. As one respondent to Jason Mittell’s post "On Disliking Mad Men" put it,

At first I was excited to see Mad Men. But my reaction was similar—a feeling of deep repulsion… I kept trying to sample it, hoping the drama/characters would “click.” When peers raved, I’d mutter something vaguely unenthusiastic, then have to listen to them “explain” that MM was really about the “crisis of masculinity” or some such.

Given “the horrendous peer pressure to love MM,” the same critic writes, we miss seeing the bad acting, the bad writing, the nonsensical characters with their inexplicable behavior. We are seduced by the set and costume design and so fail to notice that we are getting glamour without substance, surface without depth, simulacrum without truth. “Not only is it disingenuous,” she writes, “it’s repulsive.”

Season 4 of Mad Men ends with an inexplicable choice: in a moment of what can only be perceived as delusion or addiction, Don chooses Megan-the-secretary over Dr. Faye Miller. Surely he should know better by now! But the show, as we know, is not a Bildungsroman. Characters do not change or grow but, like addicts, repeat the same destructive acts because what they are addicted to is the fantasy itself. Faye offers Don a relationship “in the open.” She suggests that he can start trying to be a “person like the rest of us.” That he is a “type,” whose actions are known in advance. And Don even takes a step toward this new found “maturity” when he links his two names, Don and Dick, for Sally. And then he reverts, falls off the wagon, goes back for another hit. He proposes with another man’s ring, once again insisting on a fake identity over the real one. “I feel like myself when I’m with you,” Don tells Megan, “but—the way I always wanted to feel.”

Literature, cinema and television are about addiction. In order to be a good reader or a good viewer you have to allow yourself to be transported by the text, consumed by the fictions it offers. Children age 8, pediatric guidelines suggest, should have their TV viewing limited to an hour a day. Fiction offers us a way out of our daily lives, out of the monotony of existence, a way to move beyond the self. Ronell calls this “Narcossism”: our relation to ourselves structured and mediated by some form of addiction and urge. To get off any drug, she says, or anything that has been invested as an ideal object—something that you want to incorporate as part of you—precipitates a major narcissistic crisis.

Season 4 has been precisely about this narcissistic crisis. It’s been about trying to get off drugs—cigarettes, alcohol, heroin, bad sex, living a lie. It hasn’t been pleasant to watch. It’s been as if the show itself is trying to de-cathect its viewers by suddenly refusing to occupy that position of “ideal object,” as if the show itself is trying to resist “the horrendous peer pressure to love MM.” In essence, “Blowing Smoke” was the final episode of season 4, the episode where all the myths and fantasies of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” were seemingly rejected in favor of the “truth.” American Tobacco replaced by the American Cancer Society. Midge Daniels smoking pot replaced by Midge Daniels shooting up heroin.

But “Tomorrowland” is about something else. Let’s call it a “fresh start” because, like Don, we really only like the beginnings of things. There’s a wonderful episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“Normal Again” 6.17) in which Buffy is offered a choice similar to the one Morpheus offers Neo, that is, between taking the blue pill and waking up a slave to fantasy, or taking the red pill and seeing the “truth.” The choice offered Buffy in “Normal Again” is similar: go back to the fantasy world in which you are a superhero and all your friends have superpowers, or stay in the “real” world where your delusional fantasies are just that—a sign of addiction and mental illness. Neo chooses the red pill. (We disapprove of hallucinations, says Ronell. We cannot abide the fact that the addict’s pleasure is taken in an experience without truth.) Buffy chooses the blue.

>Because to choose “reality” over “fantasy” is to give up on your desire. It means settling for contentment over jouissance, for Dr. Faye Miller over Megan. For the moment, Mad Men has pulled back from that particular edge, where it’s been heading all season long. The final coup belongs not to Don but to Peggy who not only singlehandedly breaks SCDP’s losing streak by signing a new client, but delivers one of the best lines of the entire season: “Well, I learned a long time ago to not get all my satisfaction from this job,” Joan tells her, in a moment of female bonding over men and a cigarette. “That’s bullshit!” says Peggy, exhaling smoke.


Make A Comment


Lauren said...

I've had Velvet Underground's "Heroin" on my mind ever since the episode with Midge. I thought, since Jeremy posted the lyrics to Bob Dylan's song in other other thread, I'd put these here. They're from 1967 and so a little anachronistic. But I think they capture all the things that addiction does so very well--and not only to heroin.

I don't know just where I'm going
But I'm gonna try for the kingdom, if I can
'Cause it makes me feel like I'm a man
When I put a spike into my vein
And I'll tell ya, things aren't quite the same
When I'm rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus' son
And I guess that I just don't know
And I guess that I just don't know

I have made the big decision
I'm gonna try to nullify my life
'Cause when the blood begins to flow
When it shoots up the dropper's neck
When I'm closing in on death
And you can't help me now, you guys
And a
You can all go take a walk
And I guess that I just don't know
And I guess that I just don't know

I wish that I was born a thousand years ago
I wish that I'd sail the darkened seas
On a great big clipper ship
Going from this land here to that
In a sailor's suit and cap
Away from the big city
Where a man can not be free
Of all of the evils of this town
And of himself, and those around
Oh, and I guess that I just don't know
Oh, and I guess that I just don't know

Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, it's my wife and it's my life
Because a mainer to my vein
Leads to a center in my head
And then I'm better off and dead
Because when the smack begins to flow
I really don't care anymore
About all the Jim-Jim's in this town
And all the politicians makin' crazy sounds
And everybody puttin' everybody else down
And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds

'Cause when the smack begins to flow
Then I really don't care anymore
Ah, when the heroin is in my blood
And that blood is in my head
Then thank God that I'm as good as dead
Then thank your God that I'm not aware
And thank God that I just don't care
And I guess I just don't know
And I guess I just don't know

Mark said...

I agree that addiction is a powerful way of conceptualizing much in this show (yes, I am addicted, too), including the terrible repetitions that plague so many people. I can’t help but think of Nietzsche’s image of our existence as visited by a “demon” who reminds us cruelly of the fact that life continually repeats, “there will be nothing new in it.” And of Walter Benjamin’s description of time in modern life as a “terrifying phantasmagoria” that deceptively promises constant newness and progress, while in fact “the face of the world never alters.” Which is what makes modern time--until the radical transcendence of revolution--the time of “hell.” Don knows this. At least he embodies this.

And adding some lyrics to the earlier offerings lyrics, here are some (roughly translated) bits of a song, “Opium,” from the crisis-filled Russian 1990s (so formally even more anachronistic) by the Russian band Agatha Christie"

“Hell appeals to me….
Let’s get together tonight
And speak Chinese…
Let’s die happy tonight
Playing at decadence.
Kill me, kill yourself
It doesn’t change a thing
This myth has no end.

Sandy said...

Such rich posts and comments, it's hard to know where to start. One thing that occurred to me as I was watching Don's deciding to start over with Megan is the essential optimism that such a decision requires. Besides no longer using carbon paper and rotary telephones, perhaps our worldview has changed. Perhaps we have lost that feeling that better lives were possible and that we had an unlimited number of do-overs. In other words, perhaps we describe Don's decision as deluded because that's the way it appears to us now, from this perspective.

Lauren said...

I think you've put your finger on the 3rd pill, Sandy! ;)

zina said...

Great post. Yes: addiction vs health; fiction vs reality; simulacrum vs truth; surface vs. depth; jouissance vs contentment; desire vs banal satisfaction. However there is an irony at the heart not only of this season but of MM in general and of DD. The question is: what is he addicted to (beside alcohol and nicotine)? Why dangerous substance does Megan provide, rather than Faye?

One possible answer is that she allows him to be "Don Draper", who is only interesting because it covers Dick Whitman. "DD" is no Superman, he is ordinary: this is his point. The now famous spilled milkshake scene is one of trivial domesticity, and this is why Megan is so attractive. This is the irony here: the lamp-kicking great sex and lengthy chase are on Faye's side, on truth side. Yes, desire is preserved by addiction, but Don's desire is so utterly for the reasonable and the mundane. His desire is for contentment. Megan is someone he barely had the time to desire before he had her (or she had him). The first time he notices her is when her lawyer speaks about her. The lawyer's desire awakens his. His desire is for the expected, the norm, the type. He wants to be the type that does what "happens all the time" (per Joan), marry his secretary on the rebound after a bad divorce. His addiction is to cliché.

e said...

I'd reframe "cliche," Zina, as gender norms. Megan offers a life where the man/husband is never to be questioned. Faye told him to get his head out of the sand and embrace a more complex, challenging reality--she pressured him to do something he's avoided doing for decades. She acted as more than an equal--as someone who knows his life better than he does. Whereas Megan rejects his attempt to describe his past. "I've done things." "I don't care. I know who you are now." A bland and surely deceptive assurance that she'll accept whatever he wants and stay subordinate.

In this sense, gender norms work as the addictive drug. Which adds an interesting interpretation to the red/blue pill schema here. Norms as a seductive fantasy rather than an oppressive reality, as they are for everyone but Don. (And they are for Don, too--norms are as much of a problem for him as for Peggy or Betty, but he doesn't need to register them as such bc he clings to the fantasy that hetero mail white privilege affords.)