Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 5.1/2
"Things Aren't Perfect"
Guest Writer: Lilya Kaganovsky

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

[The first in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 5 of AMC's Mad Men, prior to the publication of MAD MENMAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing

"Things Aren't Perfect"

Written by Lilya Kaganovsky (Slavic/Comparative Literature/Media & Cinema Studies)

Mad Men is growing old. I don’t mean that as a criticism;I mean that the show, without being a Bildungsroman (since no one ever grows wiser here, only older), is fundamentally about what it means to be an adult. Don has turned forty. Sally’s voice has dropped an octave. Joan has had a baby. Pete lives in the suburbs. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has entered a period of “stability” (“stable,” as Pete tells us, is that “step backwards between successful and failing”).

Even the ads for Miller 64 aired during the premiere point us to a certain demographic: “brewed for the better you.” The ad opens with an alarm clock about to turn to 6:30am and a picture of someone’s five-year old daughter on the nightstand. We are then treated to a daily routine of working out (“We run a mile before breakfast” goes the song), eating healthy (“I had a salad for lunch”), and the promise, that after a day of “balance” to have a Miller 64 with dinner because, “I’ve worked off my paunch.” Like the Heinz baked beans campaign pitched by Peggy in this episode, which imagines a “bean ballet” set to classical music and strikes the clients as old-fashioned, the Miller 64 ad is not targeted at the young “college” crowd, but at the many Mad Men viewers who, like Don, are turning forty. (“When you’re forty, how old will I be?” Don asks his son Bobby. “You'll be dead,” replies Bobby.) For his fortieth birthday, Harry gives Don a cane and Megan calls him an old man. As Betty tells Don in the Season 4 finale line repeated in the teaser that preceded Season 5’s two-hour premiere, “Things aren’t perfect.”

Season 5 opens with a picket line. Initial close ups of white police officers and passersby are quickly replaced by medium shots of black women and men carrying signs demanding work. This is the Civil Rights Movement, but it is also Occupy Wall Street, with these protests meant to reflect not only on our past, but also on our most recent historical moment. Our next series of shots takes us inside an office, which we immediately recognize as the part of an ad agency, even though we don’t know any of the four men working there: we suspect (and we will be proved wrong) that we are looking at the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce “creative” team — their obvious youth speaking to the next generation of Mad Men. Instead, the agency is Y&R: Young & Rubicam and, living up to their agency’s name, they react to the protests with an appropriate degree of childishness: annoyed by the noise coming from the street, they decide to “cool off” the protesters by first pouring and then throwing bags of ice water out the window. (There is an entire discourse of paper bags, barf bags, and body bags that runs through the episode.)

The opening sequence speaks to a series of changes that have taken places since we last saw our favorite characters seven months earlier (seven months by the show’s clock, seventeen months by ours). Trudy and Joan have both had their babies and each is looking a little worse for wear. As Pete Campbell puts it in his inimitable way, “there was a time when she wouldn’t leave the house in a robe.” Pete of course is speaking about Trudy, but his comment carries over to our first glimpse of Joan (preceded by a baby’s bottom and a hand applying diaper rash cream), still wearing a robe and pajamas in the middle of the afternoon. As her mother sarcastically notes, “You know you’re not exactly at your fighting weight.” (Joan begs to differ.)

Pete, meanwhile, has switched places with Don. An over-the-shoulder shot of Pete on the train is meant to remind us of our first glimpses of Don in Season 1: Pete has replaced Don on the commuter train moving between the city and its suburbs. While Don and Megan have moved into a gorgeous modern flat with a visible Manhattan skyline and audible traffic, Pete and Trudy have bought a house in the suburbs, and the shock of seeing their home for the first time is quite profound: nothing remains of the young modern couple with their well-appointed flat on the upper (upper) East side. Instead, Pete walks into what we first take to be the Drapers’ old kitchen, with the same kitchen cabinets and old-fashioned wallpaper. (To be clear, it is actually a different set, and we see a clear shot of a galley kitchen with a double sink on the right and a double stove on the left, as Pete despondently eats dry cereal out of a box — Trudy, it seems, has not yet mastered Betty’s homemaking skills.) The dingy-patterned wall paper, linoleum floor, and dark wood kitchen cabinets with their wrought-iron hinges no longer speak to the sense of bourgeois stability we first got from the Drapers’ home, before the cracks began to show. What might have passed for proper suburban upper-middle-class style five years earlier, now, in 1966, looks unbelievably shabby and depressing.

Style-wise, Season 5 does not disappoint: 1966 looks great, maybe even better than 1960 — skirts are shorter, heels are flatter, hair is longer. The colors, open space, and interior design that we first glimpsed in Palm Springs (Season 2, Episode 11, “The Jet Set”) are now part of the new Drapers’ new Manhattan home, and while we might miss Betty and her fainting couch, we know that Don has once again made the right move (“Marry early and often,” Ken Cosgrove’s wife jokes, looking at the plumper Jane Sterling.) But we also note those who are being left behind — not just Roger, who has no clients, no meetings, and has to share a secretary with Don, or Bert Cooper who waits patiently in the conference room for a meeting that’s taking place in the hallway, or Lane, who tries to seduce a young woman over the phone — but also Joan, Trudy, Jane, and even Peggy, whose clothes all speak to women aging out of the desirable twenty-something demographic. (We have yet to see Betty, of course, but I imagine that she, like Grace Kelly in Rear Window, always knows how to wear proper clothes.)

Mad Men has always been concerned with age because, unlike so much television, it is not a show about being young (it stars a leading man, for example, who even in his twenties always looked “mature”). And while we tend to associate the 1960s profoundly with youth, Mad Men wants us to see what it would have been like to live through it as adults — the “college kids” “sitting in” are not our focus. Instead, we are placed firmly inside the corporate world of bourgeois white conformism. As the Heinz client points out, speaking metaphorically for an entire generation, “beans” are not good by themselves, they are really better in a group.

Indeed, the Heinz baked beans ad campaign is one of the places we see this concern with age manifest itself. Peggy’s attempt to elevate the baked beans to the “art of supper” with new micro-photography and humor backfires, but the point is well taken: the desire to take something of humble origins to new heights. The clients wonder about the “message” — what will the viewer take away from the ad? Peggy’s claim is that it puts beans on your mind and shows you have a sense of humor, because beans are portrayed as far more important than they are. “Did you ever see beans up close?” asks the client, “They’re slimy… they look better in a group… beans is the war, the Depression, bomb shelters. We have to erase that.” “They have to be cool,” he continues, “I want kids in college… they have a hot plate, they’re sitting in… maybe it’s someone with a picket sign saying, 'We want beans!'”

A similar age gap manifests itself in Megan’s misguided desire to throw Don a surprise birthday party — she imagines that everyone loves birthdays (and surprises), while Don, as he puts it, hates to be the center of attention. That is of course not quite true: what Don hates is being the butt of a joke, which is precisely what he becomes. The title of the episode, “A Little Kiss,” is a translation of the French song Megan sings at Don’s surprise party, and it is of course not the first time that the show gives us a performance that reminds us that we are watching a spectacle. (Previous memorable sequences included Roger in blackface singing “My Old Kentucky Home,” Pete and Trudy dancing the Charleston, and Joan performing her own French song “C’est magnifique” while playing an accordion [“My Old Kentucky Home,” Season 3, Episode 3]). Megan’s “Zou bisou bisou” routine recalls Brigitte Bardot’s famous over-the-top dance in the 1956 …And God Created Woman — and while Megan is not as curvy or brilliantly seductive as BeBe (earlier, she admits to being a bad actress), the dance is excessive in the same way, breaking the bourgeois codes of propriety by turning on all the men in the room, except for Don. As is typical for Mad Men, the dance is then performed again and again as a kind of comic/traumatic repetition: first by Roger, then by Harry, then by Lane.

Don’s concern over being the butt of a joke (“You’re wondering what they’re laughing about. It’s not you,” Roger tells him; but a few scenes later, admits that he is in fact making fun of him). On some level, Don understands that his impulsive marriage to a woman nearly half his age makes him both comical and clichéd. His defense mechanism is to exercise total control over the woman he’s married, making sure that he is still our man: he demands that Megan open her blouse in his office, assumes that his own work schedule always takes priority (even when it seems he has nothing to do), and uses a fair amount of force to subdue his sex-kitten-turned-pouty-teenager. (As Don famously says to Ken in “The Hobo Code,” “you’ll realize in your private life that at a certain point seduction is over, and force is actually being requested.” [Season 1, Episode 8])

This concern over being the butt of a joke leads us back to the prank with which the episode started—the ad execs throwing water bombs out the Y& R office window. Y & R’s childish prank becomes a sign of their immaturity and bigotry, yet, in this episode, it is also an interesting device because it accomplishes, in a subtle way, a crossing of a racial divide that brings the problem of race “home,” or in this case, from the street into the office. To rub salt in their competitor’s wounds, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce puts an ad in the Times claiming to be “An equal opportunity employer. Our windows don’t open. We are committed to proving that Madison Avenue isn’t all wet.” Rather than Y & R, however, Joan becomes the ad’s first victim, assuming that it is meant as an advertisement for her own position. Reassured by Lane that she is as needed as ever, she tries to put into words her feeling of isolation: while Lane assures her that “Nothing’s happened,” she reminds him that, “Something always happens. Things are different. Someone tells a joke and you don’t know what they’re talking about.” “There’ve been no jokes, not without you,” Lane says. “Not even at my expense?” Joan asks.

The “equal opportunity” ad is of course a joke precisely at her expense, as a series of humiliations precede the revelation of truth. While Joan initially suspects that the ad is not real, she nevertheless brings the baby to the office to see for herself — and her first set of encounters, from difficulties opening the door, to a receptionist who has never heard of her, to learning that her job is being handled by two other secretaries — leads her to a tearful breakdown in Lane’s office. (As Mary Jacobus has long ago argued, a joke is almost always at woman’s expense.Indeed, as the episode draws to a close, SCDP is in fact in the process of hiring a new girl — and the imaginary threat of replacement is made real.)

But while Joan may be the joke’s first victim, she is not its only one. Because by the time the episode is over, the joke has played out to its logical conclusion: stepping out the elevator, Don and Megan find that the SCDP lobby is full of job seekers, black men and women who have answered the want ad. While SCDP thought it was addressing itself to its competition, it was really hailing a very different group — unconsciously, it was speaking to the group that we see picketing outside the Madison Avenue offices. For the first time ever, I think, Mad Men has a message, and it is about the fact that the outside world is about to be brought inside.

The letter, Lacan says, always arrives at its destination.


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Jez B. said...

Nice. But are you sure she's a bad actress? I don't know about her.

Caroline Levine said...

Great post, Lilya! Beautifully conceptualized and persuasive!

Lauren said...

Thanks, Lilya for getting us started on such a high note. I must ask you publicly, though of course you need not answer. I had this funny intuition--wrong of course!--that you might take up the dirt on the white carpet. (Shades of the dirt that came up in "The Missing Piece"your great post from last time. Was it a temptation? Another surreal "piece" that stood out was that board (for playing cards I guess) unfolded from brown paper on the train to Greenwich. One of those small details that is either some arcane factoid from the past or just from someone's dream (or both). Must say apropos of nothing that Pete's plaid blazer made me laugh out loud: worth at least ten lines of dialogue.

lilya said...

You know, the dirt on the white carpet was bothering me, but I couldn't take it anywhere. (Maybe Megan cleaning in her lacy undies was just too distracting?) I was just reading on the Tom & Lorenzo blog that each episode is a puzzle, and once you find the right piece, things fall into place. I didn't quite have that "aha" moment this time--maybe because 90 min is a long format... That plaid blazer, though, is awesome. Like Peggy's frumpy yellow dress it's the exact opposite of Megan's LBD and fishnets.

Anonymous said...

bravo, Professor, for the keen perspective on a situation in the 'mad world.'
What about Lane's 'molestation' of the Dolores's photograph? would appreciate if someone could clarify the uncomfortable reference to Nabokov (if at all)???
p.s: Megan's cleaning in a black pair reminds me of Dolce Vita...those teeth and a heavy eyeliner as well

Lauren said...

Anonymous, thanks so much for joining our discussion--great question. Can you please give yourself a name or a number so that we do not end with several different Anonymouses. Some people (like Jez B.) choose a moniker and stick with it. We'd be delighted for you to.

Lilya: I'm not sure about the dirt itself but what Don says when she says they'll need to replace the white carpet was interesting, I thought. He says something like he's shot white carpets on the job and you always need 3 or 4 of them to get the shot right. She says: why didn't you tell me. He says, he wanted to give her what she wanted (what he always said to Betty even though he could never give her the thing she most wanted (or thought she did) which was his fidelity. So So it is kind of like these fantasies of marriage. You want "it" to be perfect--to stay perfect--but behind that illusion is the needing to have 3 or 4 of the same thing just for one fleeting moment of perfection (also what advertising does).

But the dirt... not sure.

Peggy's frumpy yellow dress: oy!

lilya said...

Excellent call on the Nabokov ref.! and Lane, the aged foreigner with the sexy accent. That could lead us off into the whole discourse on the nature of desire (as Roger says, they're all great--meaning, girls--until they want something, which goes with that whole white carpet discussion...)

The Megan/Sophia Loren look is completely intentional; in fact, Sophia sang "Zou bisou bisou" in The Millionairess a few years earlier.

Lorraine said...

I interpreted the dirt on the white carpet as what happens in Don's internal world (as in his apt.) when he let's people in. The mess that's created can't be cleaned up. In fact, the carpet must be replaced - just like with his marriage and first identity. The only resolution for Don is to throw away the old and replace with the new.

Lauren said...

Thanks for that insight on the dirt, Lorraine. That is so right that Don does not let people in - he is one big locked up desk drawer of a character even if Megan knows he has two birthdays.

I wanted to say too, to Jez B., welcome back from last time!

Jez B. said...

Thanks. :)

Mrs. Harris said...

Thank you for your answer pertaining my suspicion of Nabokovian presence...

best wishes, the former anonymous.

p.s: indeed, the mad men's world is no longer homogeneously white as Don's carpet: we see now different "intruders" of different backgrounds: an Italian (apparently, in "a construction business"), ladies filling out applications in a foie as a crew from the Help's set... etc

Lauren said...

Thanks very much Mrs. Harris and welcome.

brb said...

Very insightful.

and thanks for validating me on the kitchen thing. I wondered for a few good seconds, "What the hell is Campbell doing in Don's house?"

Also, was I the only one getting extremely uncomfortable when the newly lascivious Lane swooped in next to Joan on that Sofa? Gahhh

I'm glad Lacan and desire were both mentioned. I think a lot in this episode pointed to the impossibility of fully consummated desire. There is a lot of fantasy and desire that relies on lack. I'm thinking of Lane and the Delores that never materializes, Roger's toast about what he "can't have," and most of all Crane's fantasies about Megan that go up in smoke when the real women arrives.

In fact, a constant theme of this show has been the problem of how to love another with authenticity, rather than loving an artifice, or one's own ego in the form of projected fantasy. And I suppose that's the political dilemma of the 60s that the show is starting to treat more explicitly. What do you do with the other that suddenly says Here I am, like the black men who suddenly appear in SCDP?

lilya said...

so another direction to go with this is "white" : the episode seems to be speaking about the impossibility of maintaining a certain kind of whiteness or monochrome: the 60s are all about "color" in various ways, as the dresses and the ties and the plaid jackets show.

I also like the fact that Don's new secretary is named Dawn: it makes for a kind of brilliant sameness within difference structure, which goes back to brb's point about what to do with the "other" when they can no longer be ignored or incorporated but have to be recognized (in a Hegelian sense)

now Lane... I'm thinking we're going to get more of him this season. He's got some kind of debt that's unpaid that the show is clearly going to make use of...

Cecily said...

I know folks have already moved on to episode 2 and beyond but did want to mention that in a Fresh Air interview, the creator of the show Matthew Weiner insisted that he thinks Megan is a exemplar of feminine independence, that through her sexy vacuuming for instance, she exerts control over Don and is able to pull off both roles of seductress and faithful married woman. Weiner argued that men who hold powerful public roles such as Don want to be sexually controlled and that Megan wields such control. I haven't seen the new season, so can't intercede myself, but thought it was interesting how Lilya understands Megan to be controlled by Don, not controlling him and wonder if in fact the episode is rehashing old stereotypes (women's power being private rather than public for instance) rather than reformulating them. (incidentally Terry Gross questioned Weiner on this point as well)

Lauren said...

Interesting, Cecily. I always try to stay far away from showrunner/actor commentary until at least the season is over (in spite of co-editing a book on Mad Men I have watched almost none of the DVD commentary--though by now I've read more than my share of what other viewers think and the odd recommended piece by a castmember or Weiner.)

My own thought is that Megan is clearly not Betty and Don doesn't want her to be. Clearly their going to work together represents in his mind and hers no doubt a different kind of relationship and one (as I think I said in a comment on Rob's post) that blurs the private/public divide that structured Mr. & Mrs. Draper 1.0. Certainly there is no follow-up as yet on the Singing Nun childcare provider that was highlighted as part of what made Don fall in love with her: her relations thus far with his kids were not breathtaking and in the pilot she handles Joan's baby with the same kind of "no way" attitude as the rest of the women who pass the poor tike around (very different from her spontaneous warmth toward Sally in S4). What this actually portends will doubtless play out but I wouldn't go so far as to call her "independent." Is she more independent than Betty was? Absolutely. Is she an "exemplar of feminine independence" of a kind we would want to hold up today? I don't see any sign of that so far but, then, that would be a rather tall order. It seems to be that Joan is moving faster in that direction though what exactly will happen with her and Roger remains to be seen.

After last night it seems as though Megan is frustrated by Don's past and aware that infidelity is not impossible (she's especially annoyed at the evidence of the extra-marital affairs he had as distinct from his divorcee days). When she says that they could be hanging out where her "exes" would be in evidence that's on the one hand an intimation that she has had a (sexual) past--even a professional past of a kind though she appears to have not gotten far past struggling actress before heading into office work. In all of these ways she's different than Betty (though even she had a modeling career that as we learned in "Shoot," one of my all-time favorite episodes, Don was not about to let her resurrect). But on the other hand part of what Megan's comment about their not being in the part of town where she'd find her ex-boyfriends is that she is now on Don's turf. He likes the idea of his sexy wife around the office in this new kind of marriage (almost as though she can occupy both roles of the wife at home and the office romance). But she is still dependent on him in most ways: ever-controlling about $$$ (something that was noticeable in the Betty days) he specifically tells her not to "spend money" on stuff like surprise parties.

lilya said...

on the subject of feminism, I just posted a link to the latest Tom & Lorenzo post on episode 3/4 (Mystery Date--see Dana Polan's post) about MM being the most feminist show on TV. I totally agree--but, it's not always obvious the ways that it is, since there's so much sexism & misogyny that is spoken or performed *in* the show, that it's hard to separate it out from the politics *of* the show. So (in my defense), when I said that Don wants to control Megan, I was speaking on the level of character/plot. When Matt Weiner says Megan controls Don, he's speaking about the bigger picture, the actual dynamics rather than the ones perceived by the characters. Anyway, Cecily, how is it you're not watching???

Lauren said...

This is interesting Lilya. I'm not exactly sure what Weiner meant not having listened to/read the interview so maybe I'm missing something. But do you think that Megan controls Don? That's not my impression. He's in love and he's sexually attracted to her but I don't think that means she controls him. If MW was talking about the sexy cleaning up scene and saying that it's proof of her controlling him my thought would be: really? What was interesting about that to me is was how much she needed to feel in control by making sure that Don wanted her: restoring what works well for both of them in their marriage. She had said (to Peggy) that everyone would go home from her party and have sex (knowing in her mind that her plan was to turn everyone on, or try, with her kissy number). But as you wrote, Don was the only man not turned on. He fell asleep on her. That was his controlling her: you make me unhappy and I fall asleep. (So don't spend [my] money on things like that any more.) Now I certainly agree that he came home to make up and I don't think he minded a bit restoring that happy equilibrium in which she turns him on and he responds. (We know all about Don's kinky sides and know he's a switch and we also know that Megan totally took the lead on their first fling.) But I don't see what seems to be going on between them sexually as her controlling him or, for that matter, him controlling her. Like many couples they exert a lot of kinds of control over each other in sexual terms. It takes two to tango. This is certainly a lot more sophisticated than anything Betty was able to sustain. But bottom line he is in charge of their lives in a material sense and I suspect he will eventually show that explicitly. As an actress and possibly manipulative and having a few secrets of her own (for all we know--I certainly got that impression in S4) she may end up with upper hand in ways that are not yet apparent. But how does she control Don in the bigger picture? I don't see that all--unless perhaps MW is gesturing toward something we don't yet know (one reason I try not to listen! I like one step at a time). I'm curious what you see that I'm missing.

Cecily said...

Lilya--not watching because I don't have a TV and my internet is slow and can't handle streaming (which probably shouldn't be admitted in public but did want to respond), but I am certainly motivated to pick up this next season when I can--all kinds of good food for thought here on the blog.
Lauren--as for the Fresh Air interview, it's been a few weeks now since I listened to it (while cooking dinner nonetheless) so I don't well remember what Weiner said, basically what I said above, that Megan controsl Don when seducing him, though regardless of his exact words, the writer's intentions, as you say, shouldn't limit our understanding of a show, and certainly not one as complex as Mad Men.

Lauren said...

Cecily - hence the pleasure of working primarily areas where the writers seldom get the chance to talk back ;)

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