Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 5.10
"One, Two, Three"
Guest Writer: Caroline Levine

Monday, May 21, 2012

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

"One, Two, Three"

Written by Caroline Levine (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

This season, Mad Men has been insisting on the importance of theatrical performance. We started with a flourish, with Megan’s captivating rendition of “Zou bisou bisou.” Since then we have seen Don and Megan rehearse a loving scene intended for Cool Whip, and give a winning performance as a wholesome married couple for Heinz Beans. We have seen Roger beg Jane to act the part of the wife for Manischewitz, and Joan pretend to be married to Don to take a spin in a Jaguar. We have also watched a few dismal performances. When Peggy takes Megan’s place in the Cool Whip lab, the scene turns into an embarrassing failure. In Howard Johnson’s, Megan acts the loving wife so sarcastically, so bitterly, that Don leaves her stranded, hundreds of miles from home. But whether they go well or badly, all of these moments show men and women struggling to present convincing scenes of happily married life to others. Advertising, Mad Men suggests, depends on the successful theater of marriage.

But just as the advertising business needs actors to carry off the illusion of husbands and wives, a real marriage is faltering over the decision to split acting from advertising. With Megan, performance suddenly goes its own way — and gets a divorce from the firm. Brilliantly, “Christmas Waltz” shows how theater and advertising are each capable of swallowing up the other to their own ends. Megan and Don watch an experimental theater scene in which a consumer describes being in thrall to advertising: “I like to have a can of beer in my hand as I watch the beer ads,” he explains. But one night, nausea overtakes him, and moving from channel to channel offers no relief. The scene provokes Don’s anger, and he lashes out at Megan: “Let me tell you, people buy things because it makes them feel better” (a sentiment he’s expressed before). As if to convince himself of his own words, he tries out the most expensive car in the Jaguar showroom, pulling off an excellent matinee performance as husband, opposite the always show-stopping Joan.

What is it, exactly, that links marriage, advertising, and theater? One could certainly point to the sham at the heart of all three, but this fascinating episode suggests a more subtle answer. All three depend on taking parts played by others. That is, they require not only illusion but also replicability — the fact that someone else can always play your role. This is certainly true of marriage. Mad Men has shown Jane and Megan becoming second wives, slotting themselves into positions once inhabited by others. And “Christmas Waltz” sees Joan considering a sequence of men for the vacant position of husband. In the same day, she rejects a proposition from Roger, gets divorce papers from Greg, plays wife to Don, is invited to share the front seat of the car with the leering Jaguar salesman in place of her ersatz husband, and ends the evening in a bar looking out for a new man. What is marriage, Mad Men asks, but a pair of positions, husband and wife, that can be refilled as soon as they are empty?

The ad agency, like marriage, is structured according to a logic of substitutions. In the firm’s hierarchy, individuals move into new spots when others are fired or promoted. For many episodes, Pete has wanted to replace Roger as the firm’s best account man, while Megan followed a path analogous to Peggy’s, moving from secretary to copywriter. In the episodes that immediately precede “Christmas Waltz,” the anxiety of substitution in both the home and the workplace has become acute. Just as weight-watching Betty is faced with her svelte replacement in Megan, and Peggy’s mother warns her that Abe is only using her for practice, Don worries enough about being replaced by Ginsberg that he deliberately abandons the younger man’s pitch.

Advertising itself depends on a kind of mass substitutability. Ads try to produce and channel the desires of huge crowds of consumers — whole demographics. They thus seek out those experiences that are least singular, finding or creating likeness among us. And yet, as the actor in the experimental theater production suggests, a culture that prizes individuation will resist this homogenizing power. Mad Men has often shown us that advertising works best when it appeals to experience that feels private and intimate, such as romantic love or nostalgia, while recognizing that these are themselves mass-produced. The ad campaigns in Mad Men, at once soothing consumers with a sense of their own uniqueness and inviting them to imitate the desire of others, explore the longing for singularity in a world of consumer interchangeability.

When it comes to repetition, the most intriguing element of “Christmas Waltz” might just be Harry Crane. Something happens to Harry when he starts repeating the chants intoned by the Hare Krishna group and privately whispered in his ear by the attractive Mother Lakshmi. It is in chanting repetitive words with others, we learn, that he becomes one with others and others to himself. This isn’t a deeply transformative experience — Harry is never tempted to join the Krishna movement — but his experience shows how powerful sheer repetition can be. Later, Lakshmi visits him in his office to seduce him. She wants him to dissuade Paul from pursuing a career writing for television. Harry is confused: why has she had sex with him for Paul’s sake? Isn’t the substitution of him for Paul a violation rather than an expression of loyalty? Lakshmi explains that neither man is valuable for his own sake; interchangeably, both are needed for their service to Krishna. Paul is “our best recruiter — he can really close,” she explains, bringing religious conversion near to advertising. Both, we might say, are modes of persuasion that feel as if they work by way of the singular soul while in fact merging us into a largely indistinguishable mass.

In a scene that seems to secure the logic of repetition and replacement, Lane Pryce forges Don’s signature. The signature, as Jacques Derrida famously showed, both signals our singularity and must, by necessity, be replicable. (Unless we sign the same way more than once, we have no recognizable signature; at the same time, the signature is the guarantee of our uniqueness.) When Lane writes Don’s name, his act repeating a signature itself repeated many times, we might remember that that the “original” was itself taken from someone else, Dick Whitman adopting the name of Don Draper. Near the end of “Christmas Waltz,” Harry sends Paul off to Los Angeles with $500, presumably in the form of a check inscribed with a signature that both is and is not his own.

Terrifyingly, this episode of Mad Men implies a world where we endlessly repeat the roles and actions of others, fitting ourselves into vacant slots and worrying about being replaced, at any moment, by another. Each character, each act, is haunted by the constant threat of substitution. Every repetition suggests an ongoing pattern, like the third beat of the waltz named in the title of this episode: if there is a one, there is going to be a two and a three. Husband, wife, second wife; signature, repetition, forgery; chant, whisper, chant. In this context, Megan’s new choice of career seems more disturbing than ever. Acting lays bare the logic that drives everything else: the fear and the knowledge that every one of us moves through existing roles and scripts that write our very most intimate experiences into being.


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Eleanor said...

So elegant: one two three! What a convincing reading! For the viewer, the feeling of ritual closure & constant reinscription is only increased by the fact that we know (or think we know) how the "story of the '60s" played out. Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse" was an even more tragic rehearsal of what it feels like to be an actor: with every new role, your previous identity gets (literally) erased. But we don't need a flash-forward into an apocalyptic future (like "Dollhouse" did) to imagine how this series will end; we just remember the closed-off apocalyptic past of the 1970s.

On the other hand, we don't actually know how each story will turn out: will we ever get over seeing Paul Kinsey as a Hare Krishna? I like it when this show works against the ritualized feel of its vision of the '60s -- which is hypnotic, it's lovely, but it can lull you into passivity.

Helena said...

Absolutely fascinating thoughts. Thank you. Over on the Guardian's discussion we have been tracking the substitutions all season and this episode took it to a new level. Of course, at the start of every episode the falling man of the title sequence replaces himself. And wasn't it Don who pointed out a season or so ago what we all know is the most important word in advertising: new.

zina said...

Thank you for this brilliant take. Marriage (and adultery), performance, advertising: the three cornerstones of the show are constantly at stake, and interacting, sometimes in a quasi sadistic way (like when long ago Betty suddenly, and in the midst of a dinner party, understood that what she has prepared for her husband and his business partners was just another performance plotted among everyone involved, (to sell beer) but her - the housewife is always the last to know).

All three are still at play: Megan gets Don to attend a countercultural anti-consumerist play (American Hurrah), that bores him out of his skull, and offends him as an ad man. That harkens back to his mistress Midge, and her avant-garde director lover,attending a play in the Village, and having this exchange : director says: "Mediocrity was born on Broadway"; Don : "But it is conceived right here".

The following day, Don and Joan at Jaguar merrily pretend to be a couple. Later, Don gallantly takes Joan, who was just served with divorce papers, to a bar, where they have a wistful, flirty, boozy exchange. It is a great scene, which however underlines how much these two are beautiful dinosaurs, in their fashion, their musical tastes (not the psychedelic Beatles, but Doris Day), their references (Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, Ali Khan). You almost expect them to end in a hotel room, like in the old wild days of Bobbie Barrett (who is explicitly referenced).

Back to 1966, and to real life, Don has a fight with Ms Draper #2, with theatrical flourishes, tantrums, that might just compensate for the fact that as of now, her dream of acting has basically turned her into a housewife - you know, that role that middle and upper class women had such a hard time escaping. Shades of Betty in Megan waiting, and waiting, at the dinner table, with a glass of wine, for a neglectful and drunken husband to come back home. mtetin

Lauren said...

Just popping in to join the chorus of praise for this v. insightful post. Thanks Caroline!

Zina, I thought of you when I heard the reference to Bobbie Barrett and I'm not even sure why ;)

It is interesting how much Don enjoyed a good spar with Roy (Midge's director friend) and how many classic lines came out of that exchange as opposed to this much more vulnerable Don. I don't know much about "America Hurrah" and am not even sure which of the three plays it was they saw (TV perhaps?). But it was interesting to see Don so unable to speak back to it; he has never actually believed in advertising but only believed that in a world where everything is advertising you might as well be the guy who does it better than anyone else. Now he seems truly wounded by Megan's leaving copywriting to be an actress. This hardly seems like the worst blow ever struck against advertising! It's not like she left it to English professor ;) Seriously though: is Don just feeling oversensitive and rejected as he did over the orange sherbet that went over so poorly? Or is there more to this "dream" which, in the mouth of Megan's father, took on the guise of some kind of leftwing alternative?

zina said...

Hi Lauren,

I'll take it as a compliment ...

Jez B. said...

Not much to add here but I thought this was a good episode and good post as the others have said. Cheers.

John M said...

Similarly finding myself with very little to say, but I liked this episode too and wanted to say: good writeup.

John M said...

But then, re-reading your ending, I think of Picasso's, 'Art is a lie that helps us see the truth more clearly,' though I doubt he meant: that helps us see clearly how we're always lying.

There was a strong suggestion last episode that Megan's acting was, in fact, the most honest thing going on in this milieu, specifically in the scene of her teaching Sally how to cry. In an episode in which everyone else, particularly Don and Betty, seemed locked up in their egotism and anxiety, Sally and Megan were sitting on mats cross-legged like practitioners of Zen and Megan's instructions sounded like they were for contemplating difficult reality: 'Just keep your eyes open and think of something that makes you sad.'

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