Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 5.9
Guest Writer: Carl Lehnen

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

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


Written by Carl Lehnen (Graduate School of Library and Information Science)

In earlier seasons, we were told that the appeal of Mad Men lay in the vicarious thrill of watching others guiltlessly enjoy all of the pleasures—alcohol, cigarettes, and adultery—that the mores of our more enlightened and careful age denied us. Perhaps this is the kind of pleasure that Don has in mind when, attempting to recapture the old creative spark, he brainstorms a pitch for Sno Ball. His lurching free association, which recalls--even if it cannot match--last season’s cringe-worthy “Cure for the common breakfast,” leads him from “a snowball’s chance in hell” to the well-worn theme of forbidden pleasure: “Refreshing for the damned. Sno Ball is the sin that gets you into hell... sinfully delicious.” But even he recognizes the tiredness of the conceit, or at least the inappropriateness of such a theme for a children’s soft drink.

This episode asks us to think about pleasure in a different way—as something that must be carefully measured out, not consumed all at once.

The last time we saw Betty, she was relishing the second half of Sally’s ice cream sundae—a scene that, as Rob Rushing noted, underlined her immaturity and self-absorption. In this episode, however, Betty has joined Weight Watchers, and in the first scene we see her weighing cubes of cheese on a scale so that she won’t overrun her daily allotment of calories, and then sitting down to a meal that combines them with burnt toast and half a grapefruit.

This effort of self-discipline represents just one of the kinds of control that characters attempt to retake in this episode. Often it involves older characters who have watched their power get chipped away by upstarts: Bert and Roger try to get some business going without Pete’s involvement in order to prove that they still have a purpose at SCDP; Don sabotages Ginsberg’s superior Sno Ball pitch in order to prove that he can still be creative; and Betty shows that she still has plenty of secrets with the power to upset the new Draper household.

Early in this episode, Roger explains to Bert that competitive fishing isn’t about “man vs. fish,” but about “man vs. man… the weighing, the measuring” (although he does allow that he doesn’t “respect anything that rewards you for silence”). There is certainly plenty of weighing and measuring going on here. Betty weighs her food before weighing herself, then measures herself against Megan; Don measures himself against the new copywriter Ginsberg; and Bert and Roger’s plot to win an account with Manischewitz is yet another amusing skirmish in their ongoing feud with Pete Campbell. (According to at least one source, 1965 was the year when kosher foods such as Hebrew National hot dogs and Levy’s rye bread began to be marketed to gentile audiences).

In another scene, Megan helps her actress friend practice for a guest role on Dark Shadows, the 1960s supernatural soap opera. In this winking allusion, the episode makes a timely comment about its own soapiness while also distinguishing itself from the competition. (Perhaps unconvincingly, a spokesperson for Mad Men claimed on Monday that the opening of the film the previous Friday “was truly just a coincidence.”) We watch Megan’s friend play the part of a jealous lover (“What could that miserable schoolmarm offer him that I can’t? I’ll kill myself, I will!”), but Megan can’t help laughing (“Who is this woman? … She’s insane. She needs a drink.”), and in this episode most of the confrontations between rivals will take place in silence or through intermediaries.

Even from their compromised positions, the more senior characters generally show that they still have what it takes (if not to win, then at least to make a dent in the other guy)—but at a considerable cost to themselves. Roger does successfully win the account, but only by reaching, as so often this season, into his own wallet (“This is the most expensive dinner in history,” he tells Jane), and at the dinner itself he is romantically upstaged by the handsome young Manischewitz fils. Even Don, who takes the most direct route by simply leaving Ginsberg’s work in the cab and making a naked assertion of office seniority, seems very far from the creative exhilaration of pitching to Kodak or Lucky Strike. And Betty, in one of her most sympathetic and complicated appearances in years, is forced to confront the limitations of her own power and pleasure.

In his earlier post, Rushing asked what future Betty has in this show. Although “part of the essential iconography of Mad Men,” she has generally been peripheral to its office intrigues, and since her divorce from Don she has had little do except behave badly within her own sphere. Here, though, her plot line comments on the others without becoming a mere echo of them.

In keeping with the show’s increasingly urban focus and its representation of the suburbs as a kind of exile, Betty and Henry find themselves ill at ease in the city. When Betty lets herself wander around Don and Megan’s apartment with an appraising eye, she self-consciously checks her appearance in a mirror and clumsily bumps into a lamp, as if she is literally too large for their chic apartment. When she walks to the window to check out the view, she is surprised by the sight of Megan getting dressed across the patio. As the new Mrs. Draper, Megan is the object of highly ambivalent feelings on Betty’s part. She is young, beautiful, and enjoys the love that Betty wanted but which Don was unable or unwilling to give her. She represents a kind of previous self for Betty, but also a mirror image. She has what Betty wants, but she also occupies a position that Betty notably gave up. And even though we can see the pain it causes Betty to be reminded of her insecurities, the fact that she continues to look suggests a kind of pleasure. (And why exactly is that whale smiling like some kind of aquatic Saint Teresa?)

When we see Betty again, she is compensating for her surreptitious glimpse of Megan by surreptitiously filling up her mouth with Reddi-Whip, a pleasure that is emphatically substitutive, and, although tempting, far from irresistible. That this scene comes immediately after Don’s “sinfully delicious” line only underlines its emptiness. (In “Lady Lazarus,” Don unconvincingly explains that Cool Whip is not “fake whipped cream,” but a “nondairy whipped topping” that “comes frozen.” Don and Megan then act out a proposed commercial in which they play a happy couple, with Megan urging the dessert on her husband, an exchange that itself recalls the incident in “Faraway Places” in which Don and Megan fight over orange sherbet-as-symbol-of-faked-pleasure.)

Betty struggles in this episode to assert control over her body and her emotions. She uses Weight Watchers as a kind of group-therapy-lite where she can share highly abridged stories and receive support. In another scene of eating, she catches Henry sneaking a pork chop, but instead of getting angry or upset, as the Betty of last season might have done, she helps him and listens sympathetically to his story of political miscalculation. Henry worries that he’s “bet on the wrong horse” and “jumped ship for nothing,” a concern that we could imagine Betty sharing: did she make the right decision to leave Don for Henry? But she reaffirms her commitment, telling him that “I’m here to help you, as you’re here to help me.” Betty is self-aware and generous here, but studiedly, as if it’s a new behavior she’s learned about in class but never really tried out before.

That she slips up again when she comes across Don’s genuinely sweet note to Megan is understandable, since it represents exactly the kind of honest love that he withheld from her. Setting her jaw against her own misgivings, she plants just the seed that she knows will feed Sally’s pre-adolescent resentment and enrage Don. (“I don’t know why Megan didn’t tell you,” she says after eating a celery stick.)

These plots to undermine rivals often have a way of temporarily empowering the younger characters that are enlisted to do the work of their elders: Sally gets to confront Megan with her new secret, Jane gets the promise of a new life in a new apartment, and Ginsberg prematurely declaims “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” The quotation of Shelley’s poem is especially apropos, both to the episode and to the series in general (I’m thinking especially of debates about Mad Men’s representation of the 1960s), since it presents history as a sublime ruin rather than as progress or the endurance of any particular human creation.

Of these, Sally’s story is perhaps the most interesting. At the beginning of the episode, we see Megan teaching her to fake tears to get what she wants. Megan might have thought she was teaching Sally useful skills of manipulation, but Sally has learned from more seasoned operators, and painfully one-ups her with accusations of betrayal. When she realizes how her mother was trying to use her, Sally turns it back on Betty, knowing that the most effective way to hurt her is to pretend that nothing is wrong. Sally probably thinks that she is merely doing her best to hold her own ground against the deception and turpitude of the old, but her behavior says just as much about the ignorant ruthlessness of the young.

When, as so often in this show, characters find their victories turn out to be hollow, what is the solution? In the final Thanksgiving scene, Betty says “I’m thankful I have everything I want, and no one has anything better.” Can we hear this as a step down the path of maturity, an attempt to give up desiring what she can’t have by focusing on Weight Watchers’ brand of self-improvement? Or is it an Ozymandias-like display of false pride, a retreat into infantile self-absorption no better than Bobby’s appreciation for having two really big houses? In this case, the look on Betty’s face as she tastes her pathetically measured out turkey dinner says more than I can: the ecstasy of tasting a deferred pleasure and despair at its limitedness, followed by something like acceptance.


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Lauren said...

What a great use of Ozymandias, Carl. I love the connection to history as sublime ruin; very insightful and, as you say, a different way of thinking about the much-touted historicism line.

For myself, I am wondering what this train of gothic references and motifs bodes (here Dark Shadows). Along with Dana I don't like to find myself investing too much time in the "what will happen mode" but I it seems at least half the episodes and perhaps more have had some kind of noir-ish gothic content. Mwaaaaah.


Lily said...

And what about all the scenes with the Draper's sliding glass door to the patio as a forboding backdrop (drop?!) It is in the background as Megan teaches Sally to fake cry, Betty sees Megan getting dressed by looking through that door, and how about the episode's final image of Don, warned to keep the patio door closed, crouched down peering through the door into the toxic smog outside. Someone suggested the scene of Megan staring off into the distance from the patio in the first episode was foreshadowing. I can't get that image out of my mind now and sense that the sliding glass door is not just a door! The patio seems to represent some tragedy to come and this episode repeats that over and over.

Carl Lehnen said...

Yes, I've been intrigued by all the gothic and surreal notes this season. And you're right, Lily, that the toxic smog seems to go along with that (although initially I just thought about it in relation to Megan wanting to keep out Betty's "poison"). There's so much more change in this season than I would have anticipated on the basis of how stalled history seemed in the first three, but it seems like that change is often figured as death--from Bobby's guess in the first episode that by the time he's 40 that Don "will be dead" to Betty's cancer scare to the empty elevator shaft. But maybe we're not supposed to take this too literally, and instead heed "Tomorrow Never Knows"--i.e., "it is not dying."

John M said...

Loads of interesting stuff going on in this episode, I thought. It all felt rather diffuse for a while, but I'm inching towards a sense of thematic unity: there was the repeated devil motif, not just in Don's ad, but in little signs in the Weight Watchers meetings, where it was also part of images of sweets. I liked the Weight Watchers lady saying it's not all about food and, indeed, Don and Betty did both give in to temptations of other sorts.

As you suggest, Carl, Betty's vicious Anna Draper ploy rather belies her new touchy-feely Weight Watchers wisdom. I see critique here of this, the proto-me-generation attitude that ascribes virtue to things like positive affirmation and self-actualisation. 'It was hard and I owe myself a pat on the back', says Betty piously, sentimentally, to applause.

Don, meanwhile, has a choice to make in the cab and literally goes with the devil in choosing his own concept and burying Mike's. As with Betty, it's not the devil that made him do it, it's intense anxiety.

As I said on the Guardian blog, if you wanted to you could find each of the seven deadly sins being played out somewhere in this episode. Could be just a typical MM week, but the selfishness or self-centredness that underpins each of those sins does seem particularly to the fore here and Roger spells it out in his argument with Peggy in a statement of radical, atomised individualism: we're all just out for ourselves including you.

Another poster on the Guardian points out that Mike's early Sno-Ball noodling is another literary reference: to Animal Farm, where Snowball is the Trotskyish pig whose idealism is progressively watered down until he's drummed out of the community completely, leaving an entirely corrupted version of revolution to triumph. So Sno-Ball manages to take us from revolutionary, communitarian idealism, via Hitler, to the devil, who eventually wins. No wonder, perhaps, that Don, despite the air-con going full-blast, feels blazing hot in the apartment at the end.

John M said...

And further to the above, Megan seems to be the counterfoil to all this selfishness. Sally goes all Angry Betty in reprimanding her for withholding the Anna Draper information and Megan's defiance takes the form of reasserting their bonds: 'I am your friend.' Earlier, when her friend was up in the apartment (reciting lines that seemed to express something very like Betty's inner turmoil), she seems seriously sobered by her friend's anger at the unfairness of her having a swanky uptown digs. As he friend leaves, she's standing right in the middle of the apartment looking lost and rather alienated by her unearned wealth, once more confronted with the sense, first articulated by her father two episodes back, that it is bad for her 'soul'. (and if we want to see how bad, we only have to look a few blocks to Jane Sterling/Siegel, lounging in petulant sloth in the apartment Roger bought for her).

zina said...

Earlier this season, Lauren in one of her posts stated that the main issue for MM now is what to do with their main protagonist, DD. I think that she was right, and that the show has not yet been truly convincing in dealing with the question. Ceding the main spot to Megan for more than half the season was not a satisfactory answer (witty internet users have nicknamed that part of MM the Megan Hour, the Megan Tyler Moore Show, or - my favorite - Megadon).

Now that Megan is away from SCDP and spending her spare time babysitting Don's children (sorry, following her dream of becoming an actress), the show had to go back to what is happening to Don, and his jealousy toward younger competitors, in times that are a-changing. One can only hope that other elements of the show, such as Peggy's growing dissatisfaction with the way she is treated in the agency, Michael's talent, Pete's competitiveness, or SCDP's problems in finding big clients, will be developed before the end of the season, and not be buried under avalanches of parallelisms and echoes of other episodes.

Sure, the plot has been advanced, or rather viewers have been teased, before what I still expect to be a sudden upheaval (will Megan die? will Don propose to Dawn? why not? will Peggy and/or Ken and/or Michael leave the agency?).

I am not sure that any resolution will be any more satisfactory than last year's proposal to Megan, which was at the same time over-foreshadowed and under-plotted.

I understand why a previous reviewer had written that Betty did not belong to the show because she is not linked to the workplace. The problem is that MM has now the task to even reconnect Don himself to the workplace, so really Betty is just a bit more afar from it than Don. Her return in fact was very much welcome, mainly because she is the only character in ages (except for Pete) that we have seen breathing on their own - savoring food, taking stock of the world around them , trying to come, or not, to terms with their dissatisfaction with life and the world, and not simply answering what will become more and more bthe diktats of society : to "grow up", to "learn" and just be happy already.

Without Betty, and Pete, and to some extent Peggy, the angtsy energy of the MM of yore would have been completely lost, because the writers have decided to smother DD under Megadon.

John M\ said...

zina, I think Megan's fascinating. She represents a sort of muffled crisis for Don, a person with whom he wants to settle into a secure future, but who, herself, is too young and hungry and, in some ordinary respects, confused to be ready for this kind of security. At the same time, she's obviously an avatar for the new, very different generation of young people who are coming to the fore, the ones who think they can have it all, in contrast to Don's line last episode: 'I grew up in the thirties. My dream was of indoor plumbing.'

I don't know if this is you -- it doesn't sound as if it is -- but a lot of the anti-Megan feeling I've seen around seems to be sort of small-C conservative, with maybe a subliminal hint of the big-C version too. People liked the old office and the old dynamic and, in particular, they liked the old alpha-Don who never seemed to put a foot wrong. The new office is a jarring maze and seems fraught with chaos. Nothing is stable and the old guard feel hugely threatened. It's unsettling. I sometimes used to wonder in the old Sterling-Cooper days how much of the appeal of the show, however much it was also great, challenging drama and critique, was nostalgia for a sort of seemingly simpler, highly attractive 50s-ish world -- one where you always knew how to dress and no one worried about smoking and drinking and sexism. A lot of the anti-series 5 comments now suggest this nostalgic yearning: It's not like the old days. But how could it be, given the changing world it's depicting?

Jez B. said...

This just wasn't a good episode. It was an okay episode. I don't read that many blogs on MM but when you are watching a show a week at a time it varies in quality.

John M said...

Jez B, I couldn't agree less. I loved this episode.

John M said...

What I meant to say above is, 'It's unsettling and it feels as if some of the unsettled audience are shooting the messengers.'

Carl Lehnen said...

Lots of really interesting comments here.

Zina makes some great points about the plotting of the show. I liked this episode (mainly because it made me do what I thought was impossible: care about Betty again), and I think you're right that in terms of the larger movement of the season there's a lot that hasn't been resolved, but the old guard fighting back seems important, especially Don's relationship to Ginsberg.

And I was interested to hear the back and forth on Megan, since I haven't kept up with the conversation in the greater blogosphere on this season. It seems that there's a certain tension that John touches on: part of the appeal of MM is knowing that the world the characters inhabit is endangered, but TV shows often sell consistency, the ability to return week after week to the same world, and if they change too much they risk alienating part of their audience.

As for myself, I've always been more interested in the show's women, so I don't mind Don getting marginalized somewhat. And although I'm rooting for the social world of the show to keep changing (even or especially if it means more disruption), I'll also be interested to see how this change gets "managed." For instance, it's curious to see how much the show is working to make us identify with the old guard, and (leaving aside Pete for the moment, who occupies kind of an intermediate position anyway), many of the characters pushing for change are closely linked to Don, even when they challenge him: Megan, who shares his last name; Dawn, who shares his first; and Ginsberg, who, despite last episode's dust-up, seems to idolize him (or used to, anyway).

John M said...

Hi Carl. Yes, I think the comparison with other TV shows -- sit-coms in particular perhaps -- is entirely apposite.

MM, far more even than other recent quality drama serials, is about change, and the characters have arcs. Weiner has said, echoing JB Priestley, that a large part of his intent is to show that 'actions have consequences'. Don is only with Megan because Betty kicked him out after discovering his secret. Megan, and whatever weakening of Don is attendant to her, is an indirect consequence of his defining tragic act.

On a slightly separate note, as much as the younger generation are being presented as disruptors of an old conservative order, I think there's a clear sense that this is not an unambiguous good. More a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire, perhaps. Betty's sharp swerving between sentimental ego-stroking and fierce revanchism is one clear indicator. Perhaps Roger's sentimentalisation of his acid trip and his attempt to use it against Jane is another -- and, as I say, his valediction of the Hobbesian state of nature -- every man for himself in the war of all against all -- is probably the key. The coming me-generation -- arguably leading to Reagan -- is not so much a betrayal of 60s idealism as its demonic unintended consequence, the weird offspring of libertarian anarchism, mysticism, drug culture and therapy, with actual revolutionary politics neatly sidelined: an echo of the process described by Orwell in Animal Farm, which Ginsberg's unconscious seems to have channelled in his brainstorming.

l'insouciant said...

Interested to see that a whole tradition of image interpretation is still living.
Arguably, It's less and less so in film studies in general and maybe we need television popular series in order to keep it living.
After reading your interesting piece, I was also wondering if we could talk about the pleasure of watching popular TV series as controlled by a predetermined frame of interpretation or by theoretical thinking ?
What do you think ?

Lauren said...

Sorry that this excellent question caught everybody at a busy time. I hope you can ask it again later in the series. Welcome to Kritik!