Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 5.5
“Furtive Realism and a Sock in the Jaw”
Guest Writer: Eleanor Courtemanche

Monday, April 16, 2012

[The fourth in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 5 of AMC's Mad Men,  posted 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]

“Furtive Realism and a Sock in the Jaw”

Written by Eleanor Courtemanche (English)

From a writerly point of view, Mad Men Season 5 Episode 5 (“Signal 30”) ends with a pleasing moment of self-referentiality. We see account executive Ken Cosgrove in bed engaged in an illicit nighttime activity—not whoremongering, like his colleagues, but writing stories. It turns out that Ken, who seems so bland on the surface, has a secret life as the science fiction and fantasy writer Ben Hargrove, specializing in robots and distant planets. After he’s confronted by Roger Sterling, who’d prefer his employees to spend all their imaginative energies on their day job, Ken promises to quit. In the dark of night, though, he starts scribbling in a new genre—suburban realism—with the tougher new pen name of Dave Algonquin. And what he’s writing is a recap of the episode we’ve just seen, with a thinly-disguised Pete Campbell spiraling into bourgeois despair in a series of self-destructive acts that, in this episode, culminate in his being literally flattened by the poncey Brit Lane Pryce. After admiring Ken’s speed at being the first to blog this episode, the viewer must ask: is there any part of Mad Men that we couldn’t imagine as being written by Ken Cosgrove?

Mad Men was famously inspired by both Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique and Richard Yates’s 1962 Revolutionary Road, as well as the heroic adman George Lois, who has a new book out with the crusty-sounding title Damn Good Advice. When Ken narrativizes Pete’s “soul-sick” anomie, the episode recalls not just Yates but other chroniclers of suburban male adultery like John Updike. This episode marginalizes the women’s perspective, leaving them to guess the men’s intentions (Is Ken trying to get a new job? thinks Peggy when she spots him at lunch. What phrase of clichéd submission will turn Pete on? wonders the call girl at Roger's friend's "party") or literally expelling them from the boardroom so the men can fight. Peggy and Joan have to eavesdrop outside the window, though they miss none of the gory details. (The one female triumph is Trudy’s: she finally gets Don and Megan to come for dinner – though she doesn’t notice that they’ve forgotten Cynthia’s name, and doesn’t find out -- or not yet -- that Pete has visited a prostitute.)

The other narratives that hover in the margins of Mad Men, though, are the ones that no one at the time could have read: the perspectives of the baby-boomers not yet writing or making movies. Since the 1990s, verité stories of boomer disillusionment like the 1983 movie The Big Chill have given way to celebrations of the ‘60s as a decade of playful liberation, as in 1998’s simplistic Pleasantville, in which the repressive world of the black-and-white ‘50s gives way to the technicolor ‘60s, and in the 2007 queer dance musical Hairspray. It’s these narratives that Mad Men wants to brush against the grain, focusing instead on the less-dramatic moments of a generation unfortunate enough to be just on the wrong side of a progressive historical narrative—like ours, one might say. From this perspective, the young look less like a heroic revolutionary vanguard (with the exception of Peggy’s boyfriend, the lefty journalist Abe Drexler), and more like terrifying and misdirected puppies.

The narrative of Mad Men has been famously slow during most of the first four seasons, like a patrician lady at lunch. But the audience has been waiting anxiously for the cultural speed-up we know is coming. This season, the series’s genre play has increased in complexity, from the “sexy dance” of Episode 1 ["A Little Kiss"] to the gothic stalking terrors and fractured fairy tales of Episode 4 ["Mystery Date"], and the sci-fi, suburban realism, and desperate farce of "Signal 30". 

Our knowledge of history distances us from the characters’ ignorance, but suddenly losing our feel for the show’s genre (wait: did Don really kill Andrea, or was it just a dream?) brings us closer to their disorientation. For me, nothing symbolizes the ambivalence and dread of historical change more than the trash seen blowing around the street: first in Episode 2 ["A Little Kiss"], when Lane gets out of a taxi, and then in this episode, when Don and Pete take a cab home from the brothel. The intermittent nighttime terrors of last season, when Joan and Roger were mugged (Season 4, Episode 9: “The Beautiful Girls”), are now tarnishing the daytime streets as well. In his preference for Manhattan over suburbia, Don is reversing a historical narrative of white flight that will pull the business class increasingly away from the urban downtown.

The attempt to combine historical truth with an entertaining narrative is one of the basic problems of the realist genre, which creates pleasure by transforming the chaotic disorder of everyday life into some kind of meaningful shape. AMC’s other advertising show, The Pitch, can serve as an example of failed realism: it’s almost unwatchable because it shows dull but real copywriters mouthing bad clichés about winning. Mad Men’s first episode of this season was also criticized, ironically, for being too realistic: Will Wilkinson argues that the fact that Young & Rubicam admen really did throw water balloons at protestors is no excuse to insert such a simplistic anecdote into the story. He claims that the writers have a greater responsibility to bring us satisfyingly complicated art than to represent mere history. Thus seeing Ken turn Pete into a suburban anti-hero is extra rewarding for the viewer because we’re let into the secret of how this genre combines real details with artifice: the nom de plume of “Dave Algonquin,” Campbell’s transformation into “Coe.” And we remember where Ken got those details: Trudy and Pete’s dinner party in Connecticut.

In an advertisement, you can assume that every detail has been chosen to create a particular effect, and is meant either to be read consciously or registered by the “lizard brain.” (See Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders for a 1950s analysis of “'depth approach' to marketing” to consumers’ irrational desires.) In historical novels and TV shows, on the other hand, you have to accept that a couple of details are random—“Things seem so random all of a sudden,” complains the high-school girl in Pete’s driver’s-ed class. Some details are just there for textural verisimilitude, or meant to be admired as commodity fetishes, like Roger’s white lounge chair or Megan’s color-blocked dress. As viewers, we’re never certain which details will be significant to the narrative. Ken’s story is our reward for paying attention to the show’s most apparently trivial moments: in this case, the Campbells’ small talk about their new home in the (really-existing) town of Cos Cob.

This scene begins, hilariously, with Pete boasting about his vast new stereo set. “It’s a beautiful piece of furniture,” he says, “It’s seven feet long. Wilt Chamberlain could lie down in there.” “Why would he want to do that?” replies Ken, showing a relative immunity to the cult of bigness for its own sake. The pointlessness of the stereo’s size reveals its function as a status indicator, but may remind us uneasily that today’s cult of tiny tech is equally status-driven. This use of apparently random details to illuminate character metonymically (that is, revealing character through nearby objects like clothes or furniture) goes back to 19th century realist writers like Dickens, who famously parodied upward mobility with the Veneering family in his 1865 Our Mutual Friend. (For a historicist analysis of metonymic objects in Victorian fiction, see Elaine Freedgood’s The Ideas in Things.) The Veneerings specialize in grotesque dinner parties at which no one really knows anyone else, and they end, ominously, bankrupted by their faith in social and financial surfaces.

“For, in the Veneering establishment, from the hall-chairs with the new coat of arms, to the grand pianoforte with the new action, and upstairs again to the new fire-escape, all things were in a state of high varnish and polish. And what was observable in the furniture, was observable in the Veneerings—the surface smelt a little too much of the workshop and was a trifle stickey.” (Our Mutual Friend, Chapter 2) 

Ken accurately reads Pete’s veneer of pride in his too-big stereo as a testament to his inner emptiness and frustration. He then reassembles trivial details from Trudy’s story about the historical origins of the town’s funny name (“So the Coe family claims it was them—Coe’s Cob—which became, through Yankee arrogance, Cos Cob”) and takes his pen name from Pete’s throwaway comment -- undercut with self-loathing at his commuter status, that the name Cos Cob sounds “like the Algonquin word for briefcase.” Ken’s adoption of the name “Algonquin” links him not only to the New England milieu of Updike’s and Yates’s adultery stories, but also to the famous Algonquin Round Table of Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley: reflecting, perhaps, his dreams of a more glamorous literary lifestyle. The details that would appear random to a casual reader of Cosgrove’s story (including the buried pun on his own real name) are revealed to the Mad Men viewer as pleasurably meaningful, just a little harder to access than the obvious allegory of a name like “Veneering.”

We must be justified, then, in our over-reading of every other detail in the show, such as the bad plaid sport coat Don wears to the party. Does this coat mean he’ll be unable to resist the tide of dubious fashion we know is coming, or that he’s willing to submit himself to Megan’s control? It’s likely to mean something: or perhaps, in accordance with the demands of realism, it’s just “random.” (In last week’s Mad Men blog, Dana Polan discussed the number of apparently significant narrative moments that turned out to lead nowhere, like Betty’s cancer test and Lane’s flirtation with Delores.) Does the explosion of the faucet at the end of the dinner party allude to the perpetually interrupted dinner party of Luis Buñuel’s 1972 film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie? Does it symbolize the return of the repressed energies of hidden secrets, magnify Pete’s sexual humiliation, and give Don an excuse to take off his shirt, mitigating the uncoolness of his ridiculous coat and lobster bib in a later scene? (Yes.)

Conspiracy is the most paranoid, hyperreal, and overdetermined, and therefore one of the most satisfying kinds of narrative—just as in an advertisement, every detail turns out to be significant. In his advice about dinner with the Jaguar executive, Roger advises Lane to massage his client’s ego by sharing personal problems: “and then, you’re in a conspiracy. The basis of a quote-friendship.” (More insider knowledge: John Slattery, who plays Roger, is the director of what he calls this “little gem” of an episode: see this interview in The Atlantic.) While we enjoy knowing the inside scoop about Ken’s story, though, the rest of the episode constantly punctures the characters’ attempts to preserve a core of mystery in their lives. Roger’s attempt to initiate Lane into the mysteries of seducing a client ends badly, with Lane spilling too many personal details about his dreary marriage. Ken’s secret life as a writer of robot stories is outed by his wife at the dinner party, leading to his reprimand by Roger. Pete and Roger attempt to woo the Jaguar executive Edwin Baker in more traditional fashion, by taking him to a brothel, but their plan is exposed, farcically, when Baker’s wife discovers chewing gum on her husband’s “pubics,” and they lose the account. Even Don’s attempt to veil the boardroom fight is inadequate: the curtain is translucent, and the girls outside hear everything.

The episode’s action climax, of course, is the fight between Lane and Pete. The episode’s title, “Signal 30,” refers to the grotesque driver’s ed film shown in Pete’s class, leading us to expect either some kind of random violent event (like the sniper at the University of Texas), or a moment when Pete engages in some twisted act of violence (such as assaulting the high-school girl, perhaps – an act we know he’s capable of). Personally, I was hoping to find that the title “Signal 30” referred to a science fiction story from the '60s, like Ken’s story “The Punishment of X-4,” in which an oppressed robot worker removes a single bolt from a bridge, destroying it. Like Dickens's Veneerings, “The Punishment of X-4” is a bit too openly allegorical for this generally moody and furtive series.

But when the fight comes, it’s surprisingly funny, and much less sinister than the driver’s ed movie. Lane blames Pete for the “gory details” of the chewing-gum-fuelled collapse of the Jaguar account, calls him a “grimy little pimp,” and challenges him to a duel by fisticuffs. The other partners decline to intervene: in fact, Lane should really be fighting Roger, who took the client to the brothel. But Pete is carried forward by the inexorable narrative of his swinishness, and when the older Lane decks him across the jaw, the rest of the office approves. Poetic justice has been served, though Pete slinks off, like a future super-villain, to confess miserably to Don that “I’ve got nothing.” Ken may be exaggerating by comparing Pete’s despair, in his story, to Beethoven’s love of beauty, but in ennobling the sordid and trivial—as well as puncturing and mocking it—he steps closer to being Mad Men’s hidden narrator.


Make A Comment


Lauren said...

I have many things to say on this wonderful post, Eleanor, but for now kudos to the combination of your great writing and the sharp eye of our editorial assistant Amanda who does our screen captures for capturing the sublime moment of Don's plaid jacket. Can we call it Portrait of the Creative Director as a Middle-Aged Husband? I had thought Pete's plaid number in the premiere could not be beat but this was so much better. Is it my imagination or is the jacket sized for someone significantly shorter, shorter-armed and thinner?

A sign that Megan is secretly dating a salesman at a clothing store? ;)

zina said...

Great post. Pete is such an interesting character, it is great to see him at the center of this episode, which, as you show, brings us back to the roots of a series fascinated with the ennui of the upper middle class.

Don's nerve-wracking jacket is however the true star of the show. How the mighty have fallen...

Anonymous said...

I am so happy to have found an intelligent discussion of Mad Men!

Lauren said...

Dear Anonymous, Welcome to Kritik and thanks so much for joining us. If you continue to leave comments--and we hope that you do--please give yourself some kind of name. This can be your initials or a made up name of any kind. This way we do not end up with comments from a number of "Anonymous" participants--a way of personalizing the discussion. (It's also easy to do - click the button for Name/URL and add whatever moniker you like) LG

fab said...

I dont know what others thought, but i felt the most poignant comment was by Pete after the fight where he said, to paraphrase: " I thought we were all friends here?" Friends? on MM? They are all sharks. Pete should know that. He's the biggest shark of them all. is there anyone on MM who would qualify as "friends"? how could Pete possibly think that anyone was "friends" let alone his "friend"? Or is Pete just appealing for some sympathy from the MM, not one of whom intervened to save him from being beaten up by Lane?

Sandy said...

Great post, so full of elegance and lovingly observed details. While most MM episodes are about defining masculinity, this one seemed particularly focused on it, undermining Pete's masculinity at every step! Only Don (despite the awful jacket) and Ken and his noms come out OK. Interesting that both Don and Lane were put in positions of having their sexuality questioned as well.

lilya said...

You know, to defend that jacket, it is very of the moment. Just because it's ugly doesn't mean it's not right. Now what I really want to know more about is those curtains in Trudy's living room. What happened to the modernist couple with the painted walls? How is this development to be explained? The homes on the show are so radically different this season that they are almost becoming characters on their own.

Eleanor, great post. The detritus of realism is a nice way of thinking about the episode (and show as a whole--which small element in the background is going to unpack the conceit of this particular episode? for this one of course, the small element was the very large HiFi, Pete's very own version of Betty's fainting couch.)

Lauren said...

But it doesn't fit!--the jacket I mean. I don't know--we need Jim or Rob here but isn't a jacket supposed to be longer than that?

(Not trying to destroy Kritik's reputation for intelligent commentary single-handledly here!)

Eleanor said...

I have to give props to Maureen Ryan, who made sense of the otherwise obscure political chat in the boardroom before the fight: they're talking about Nixon, and Pete is like Nixon. This character has had so many chances to grow, and he hasn't taken any of them. But this show doesn't have room for villains; all the scapegraces are also charming, and we ultimately forgive them. Are we headed towards sympathy for Nixon?

Jez B. said...

True that they are not a friendly group FAB.

Rob Rushing said...

The jacket looks right to me; part of the typically 1960s look was not only a slim silhouette, but also a slightly shorter coat length, sleeve length, and length of pants (with no "break" or a soft break where the hem hits the shoes). This actually makes you look like you're slightly taller and thinner. As far as the ultra-loud pattern and colors, that was kind of a preppie, New England thing as I understand it—super conservative at work, but Bermuda shorts and loud, loud colors when on vacation. I also think it's meant to show Megan's influence on Don, her insistence on putting him at the center of attention. And perhaps it's a tiny visual anticipation of the coming 1970s.

Lauren said...

Hey Rob, I cede to you entirely on male stylistic correctness of course. But I persist in thinking (perhaps you agree) that audience response to this jacket, so emphatically associated with Megan's influence, was predictable and deliberate.

In a sense it's an interesting footnote to the recurrent contrasts we've discussed. Pete is the new Don: a restless, unhappy, philandering commuter (albeit without Don's charm and his often sympathetic personal code of ethics). Partly this has been done through living space. On the one side Don's cool Manhattan (upper east side?) pad and Pete's Draperian digs on the other side of the Hudson. Also the Francis home: a blend of Addams Family, Psycho house and Xanadu!

In this episode Pete feels admonished by Don for his "whoremongering" (as Eleanor put it), and Don does indeed advise him to value what he has, implying that he'd have been faithful to Betty if she had been to him what Megan now is. (This may seem more surprising than it is: Don never liked to go out with the boys for sex. The night out with Lane in S4 was very different in tone and situation.) Meanwhile, Megan has become less like the cross of seductress/Maria von Trapp in "Tomorrowland" and more like Faye: a woman who doesn't want babies and who tells her husband to do his own dirty work in begging off invitations from friends like Trudy. (In this episode Don can't say no to either woman.)

But then there's that jacket! In the premiere it was Pete wearing a plaid jacket: yes, a sign of changing fashion but one that stood out in a more risible way than, say, Harry's turning in his bowtie for natty hipster duds. Now maybe if Megan had bought those clothes for Don to wear he'd have looked just as self-conscious and she'd have been shown to be less attentive to what one wears in the "country" in 1966. But maybe it's also a sign that this stylistic cathexis that has so far accumulated in Don's New Life is not all that it seems.

This may be taking Eleanor's invitation to read metonyms too strongly. But I think I'm zina on this one nevertheless!

John M. said...

Great piece, as ever on here (I am, as they say, a long-term reader, first time poster), but I can't help feeling there's a bit more conspiracy-theory-style code-cracking to be done. A previous Kritik blog, on the episode when Pete's child was born, showed how it carried the theme of work taking over life. I think something similar is being riffed on here, but with, as you say, greater realism and, concomitantly, greater pain.

My esteemed colleague Nevada over on the Guardian blog points out the current of pornography in the episode: Don refers to it at the dinner with Edwin and looks like a fantasy porn man as he whips off his shirt to fix a suggestively spraying tap at Pete's. Extrapolating: the (real) Signal 30 film from the first scene refers, in onscreen text just before the cut, to its 'bad' actors and, immediately following, Lane is asked by his wife to pretend to have a good time at the pub ('Then pretend I shall', he responds, with usefully ambiguous syntax). As with a porn actor, she'll know he's faking, but doesn't care. This cues up the failure of his performance with Edwin and, thence, the brothel trip, where Roger refers to the prostitutes as sorority sisters and Pete forces his 'date' to go through a series of fantasy roles until she gets the right one -- though it's still not very convincing.

John M. said...

(cont'd) A lot of this is about what you have to do to get on at work and the suggestion is made, in particular in Roger's chillingly nasty speech to Ken demanding he give up his extracurricular writing, that this can really involve a kind of obliteration of self. But it also seems clear that the role-playing allegedly in the service of work can, in some tricky double-coding, be a cloak behind which to hide more complicated motives. Both Roger and Pete claim they had sex with the prostitutes in the line of duty ('Work work work,' says Roger, and Pete: 'I can't believe I need to explain that I was doing my job!'). Ostensibly this suggests both saw nothing wrong with essentially being whores themselves. But the fact that Don doesn't follow suit give the lie to the claim and Pete's scene with the prostitute, in which his tyrannical behaviour finally elicits the desired bluff, 'You're my king', reveals his real objective: power -- specifically, the kind of power that revels in being able to elicit a performance, forcing the other to hide the problematic reality of his or her own desire. The fact that the performance is unconvincing is part of the point: it makes the coerced hiding of self, the power that can bring this about, explicit.

Something similarly venal seems to lurk behind the demand that Ken drop his literary ambitions in the service of work, especially if we believe his theory that Pete's behind it. Both Roger and Pete are frustrated authors, though both were driven by vanity, not Ken's genuine fascination. Pete, in particular, when he wrote his own short story, did it only to compete with Ken. But in Ken's case, the demanded role-play (account man - 'a day job and a night job' in Roger's Mephistolean formulation: we own you body and soul) forces a reverse deception: he adopts noms de plume not in order to deny himself, but to be his real self. This also makes him the mirror opposite of the pseudonymous Don, whose dictum 'Find a job and be the person you have to be to do that job,' haunts this episode.

Ken says, in what turns out to be another untruth, to Peggy (seems he now can't even trust the person with whom he has a pact), that he's giving up his writing because, 'I'm through with all that fantasy stuff.' It seems few others here in ad land's gilded cage, are willing to make the same renunciation. And maybe that's the ultimate point about porn here, it's parallelism to advertising, 'all that fantasy stuff', the lie you don't believe, but that somehow still seduces. Don makes the link explicit in saying he wants to present the Jaguar as pornography.

A couple of stray observations: Nevada also points out that Don's hideous jacket is in the colours of the opening credits. And in the fight scene, it's Don who draws the curtains. Yea, for he is the _Draper_.

Unit for Criticism said...

Welcome to Kritik John M. and thanks very much for the interesting comments. The previous post you're referring to (about work/life differences) is Caroline Levine's from our Season 4 series. Levine will be blogging for us again in the next few weeks.

Jez B. said...

Well John M. so what do you think of Lane Pryce?? Is he the real thing? To me the scenes with match were funny. But I don't read the guardian or know what they say about this now important character.

Anonymous said...

Interesting ideas on pornography. bobby is the one with line about picking a job and becoming the person who does. but you are correct that it applies to Don of course.

Lauren said...

Anonymous, thank you very much for joining us. You are most welcome to comment on the discussion. Will you please give yourself some kind of identity (a number, a made-up name, initials) so that we can identify you? Otherwise we can never tell which of our many anonymous commentators we are speaking to. Once, again welcome to Kritik.

John M said...

testing 1, 2, 3.

John M said...

Sorry about that. Had some trouble posting before and wanted to make sure it would work.

Hi Jez B. When the Brits first showed up, Lane's bosses were reviled on the Guardian blog BTL as anal-sadistic upper-class stereotypes, but no one has ever made this complaint about Lane specifically and he's generally well liked. He's definitely of his time and not this one, but, as far as one can tell, not a caricature.

There was relief that the game was referred to as football, not soccer.

Anonymous, thanks for the clarification on the provenance of that quote.

Jez B. said...

TYVM John M - that sounds right to me (I am no expert but Lane does seem both authentic and likeable--for this crowd anyway). Yeah, and football, definitely--that I know, though I never saw Arsenal.

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