Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 5.13
"You've Come a Long Way, Baby"
Guest Writers: Lauren M.E. Goodlad and Caroline Levine

Monday, June 11, 2012

Leo Burnett’s 1968 ad for Virginia Slims    
[The twelfth 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 MEN, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing. Kritik welcomes anonymous comments so long as commentators choose an identification such as initials or a number. We also welcome you to check out our series of posts on Season 4 of Mad Men which begins here and ends here.]

"You've Come a Long Way, Baby"

Guest Writers: Lauren M. E. Goodlad (English/Unit for Criticism) and Caroline Levine (Wisconsin)

In a plangent moment from Season 5’s finale, “The Phantom,” Pete Campbell tells his story to a lover who believes she is talking to a stranger. It is the second time this season that Pete’s life has become the subject of fiction: in “Signal 30” (5.5) he was the inspiration for Ken’s transition from science fiction to a bleak narrative of suburban despair. It is all the more fascinating, then, that the opportunity to tell his own tale finds Pete describing himself as the would-be hero of a rather different genre, the Bildungsroman. That is, when Beth asks why Pete’s “friend” had an affair, he replies: “Well…he needed to let off some steam, he needed adventure….he needed to feel that he knew something, that all this aging was worth something because he knew things young people didn’t know yet.”

This gesture toward Bildung is important to Mad Men’s viewers for at least two reasons. According to Franco Moretti, the Bildungsroman—usually translated as the “novel of development”—is modernity’s archetypal narrative form. That is to say, while the actual conditions of modernity entail never-ending transformation subject to the demands of technological and economic change, youth’s destiny (as in the classic examples of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister or Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet), is to mature. The function of the Bildungsroman, therefore, is to reconcile youthful desire to social demands and--in so doing--to portray modernity’s ceaseless change through the guise of a human story of meaningful growth and compromise. The function of the Bildungsroman, in other words, is to make men like Pete believe that “all this aging is worth something.”

For the very same reason, Mad Men has generally resisted this formal compromise: the show has been a Bildungsroman without the Bildung,” or as Lilya Kaganovsky wrote in her post on this season’s premiere, a series in which “nobody grows wiser,” “only older.” That has especially been the case for Don who, while never quite young, has managed to trump the ephemerality of youth through seemingly boundless self-invention. At the end of Season 4, when Don impulsively proposed to a young woman he hardly knew, he seemed more than ever to be rejecting maturity (Faye Miller) in favor of a fantasy of self-creation.

But Season 5 has had more than a few surprises.

The season has in many ways seen Mad Men itself mature from Don Draper’s story into a thicker multiplot narrative: the story, for example, of Joan’s move into single motherhood, Peggy’s into unmarried cohabitation, Roger’s into turning on and tuning in, and Betty’s into group self-help. We will return to these mid-60s narratives but the point for now is that Don’s shift from Nietzschean Ubermensch to part of an ensemble cast has enabled him to mature like the hero of a Bildungsroman.

From the start, we could see that Don’s marriage to Megan was not the reprise of his first marriage which last season’s finale had seemed to augur. Whereas Megan the Secretary had won Don with her blend of seductress and Maria von Trapp, the Megan of Season 5 is a career woman whose mother scolds her for refusing to bear children. The season began with the intriguing premise of a marriage that obviated the need for an office romance as the new Mrs. Draper chose advertising (and the occasional workplace quickie) over childrearing in suburbia. But even as Megan’s “Zou bisous” number both embarrassed and enchanted her man, it made clear that performance was her true métier. Don’s growth has thus taken multiple forms: wrestling with fantasy demons in “Mystery Date”; passing up real-life prostitutes in “Signal 30”; learning to enjoy Megan as more than his personal sidekick and good luck charm; and, in one of the most powerful episodes of the season, accepting Megan’s decision to leave advertising for “her dream.”

Less compromise than bitter pill, Don has struggled with his wife’s craving for the life of the artist. On the one hand it means that she wants more than the material fulfillment he provides, or the children he would readily father (after his fashion). But even worse, Megan’s decision wounds Don’s self-esteem in making advertising something very much less than one’s “dream.” (Though he has never romanticized advertising neither has he ever loved a woman who put herself above it—even Rachel, Don’s beloved in Season 1, was content with the business world.) Careful to spare Megan the full brunt of his anger, Don has vented his feelings at Peggy, his true comrade in arms and a woman who knows that plenty of people would “kill” for a job in advertising.

Don’s “novel of development” has thus been put to the test. In last week’s episode, he repeated past mistakes, ignoring Lane’s cry for help. Now, (in yet another episode that finds him hallucinating under the effects of fever), Don “sees” the abandoned brother who hanged himself in a New York hotel room. In Season 1 he tried to buy off Adam with “5G,” the store of cash he kept in his drawer for such dreadful emergencies. In “The Phantom” it is Lane’s wife whom Don hopes to appease and his offer this time is upped to 50G. But Rebecca, still tragically unaware that Lane had struggled to support their lifestyle, blames Don for stoking her husband’s lust and ambition. She believes that Dolores (whose photo Lane kept in his wallet), was a real mistress and not a fantasy lover whom Lane never met.

When Don meets Peggy at the movies, it signals the real growth this season has entailed: the “little girl” who was once his protégé has learned Don’s lessons so well she can stand (and stand taller) without him. “That’s what happens when you help someone,” Don says ruefully, “They succeed and move on.” His words pinpoint the little tragedy behind every coming-of-age (reminding us that Don’s daughter Sally will also move on to her own stories soon).

There are ironies here, to be sure. Peggy’s work on a cigarette account that, in real life, culminated in Leo Burnett’s famous 1968 campaign –“You’ve come a long way”--points to a commodified illusion of feminist liberation which sells short the real thing. Framed by advertising's core task of wresting human feeling from desire for products, Peggy’s Bildungsroman is a compromise indeed, not to mention a likely way to get cancer. But like Joan’s comparable ascent to power, success comes differently to this generation of women than to the white middle-class Dons, Petes, and Harries whose lesser struggles afford them the sad luxury of deeper yearning. Yes, Don’s youthful dream was “indoor plumbing” but that was (quite literally) another life. The Don who has outgrown the need to hide his past from his wife knows that advertising sells desire for what does not actually exist—like the spotless white carpet he spoke of in “A Little Kiss.” As creative director, Don has spent his life freeze-framing images of joy like the family photos he used to pitch the Kodak carousel. What Marie says to Don about her daughter (who has been drowning her sorrows in drink) cannot be lost on Don: “This is what happens when you have the artistic temperament but you are not an artist."

“The Phantom” turns out to reveal that this season, above all, has been Megan’s Bildungsroman--though not in the “happily ever after” way of Elizabeth Bennet. Her passion for acting finds Megan trapped in the bind so hauntingly captured in the James Bond theme that closes this season: “This dream is for you, so pay the price.” As we learned two weeks ago, that price is the readiness to throw your soul into the bargain of selling your labor. It is the price Joan paid to earn her seat at the table of a firm now enjoying its best quarter yet; it is the price Megan knows is at stake after yet another audition under ogling male eyes.

Will Megan succeed, mature—come of age? Her struggle for independence looks at times like the classic Bildung plot. But she ends season 5 with an ironic version of a happy fairytale ending. Don, the rich and powerful king, falls in love with the poor neglected Beauty on film and gives her what she longs for. The coveted commercial role grants Megan her wish, but its fulfillment comes at a double cost: a reliance on a husband to make her dreams come true, and a return to the sordid world of advertising, the very world she had abandoned for the autonomy and integrity of art.

Megan's desire to become the "European type" for Butler shoes takes us back to Season 1's “Shoot” (1.9), in which Betty longs to revive her modeling career in a spot for Coca Cola. As Don knows, the choice of Betty for the ad is part of another agency’s gambit to lure him. Thus, in an ironic foreshadowing, the young Don does not suffer his wife's wish for a life outside marriage. When Betty is fired from the Coke shoot without knowing why, she tries to console herself with household chores -- with results that we all remember. As yet, Megan has needed no similar recourse: but she has only begun to feel that sex “is the only thing [she is] good for.” And unlike Betty, she has not (yet) felt the sting of a husband’s infidelity.

As Don looks at Megan on celluloid and loves her more than the flesh-and-blood wife who has rejected his art, we perceive a return to the Kodak carousel—an image of love far more perfect than anything life has to offer. For the moment at least, Megan has literally become Betty: a woman at a “shoot” controlled by Don. It is perhaps no wonder that the episode ends with an Emily look-alike propositioning Don--as though Emily herself were exacting revenge. We will soon enough find out if “Don doesn’t do that.” After all, you only live twice.

As it turns out, ironic fairytale endings are not only for women. Pete has been begging Trudy for an apartment in the city and his wish also comes true. It is his eagerness for erotic adventure that prompted his desire for an apartment in the first place, but it is the end of the affair with Beth that grants him his desire. Pete comforts himself by blaming Howard, whom he casts as the Beast in his own Beauty story: “He wants to control you. He’s a monster!” he cries, conveniently disregarding the fact that Beth herself willingly chooses electroshock treatment. If Megan’s neat ending takes as much away from her dreams as it grants them, Pete’s preference for the fairytale is a way of comforting himself with a sense of his own strength and virtue. Men can be handsome princes come to save women from wicked fates, or they can be cruel beasts. And Pete, of course, likes to think of himself as the handsome and virtuous hero.

Roger, too, has been pursuing some magical wishes. Marie’s dalliance with him has given Roger a sense that she is adventurous enough to keep him company while he takes another dose of LSD. But she is no fairy godmother. “Please don’t ask me to take care of you,” she says. She repeats this refusal to Don, who is angry with her for not taking better care of Megan. “She’s married to you—that’s your job,” Marie tells him calmly.

Here, in fact, is the real lesson of both the fairytale and the classic Bildungsroman. Both center on the desire for social ascent. But what or who makes it possible for someone to rise? We might think of Balzac’s Rastignac, the social climber who charms and seduces his way into high society, or about Bronte’s Jane Eyre, whose quick mind and self-reliance help her shift from penniless, rejected orphan to comfortable wife and mother. In granting wealth and status to their protagonists, these novels are not so far from fairytales like Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. Critics have often distinguished the Bildungsroman from the fairytale in arguing that the novel celebrates a consummately modern individualism, understanding the protagonist as using her own wits and independence to climb the social ladder, while the fairytale points to magic and mediation. Literary critic Bruce Robbins has recently argued, however, that even the most isolated heroes of the Bildungsroman don’t do it all on their own. They rely on benefactors of some kind—wise mentors, rich uncles, and even well-connected husbands—to facilitate their rise. For Robbins, the Bildungsroman actually points to the impossibility of a genuinely independent rise, and so suggests a political lesson not unlike the argument recently made famous by Elizabeth Warren:

You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.

On some level, Mad Men knows this and has always known it. Don’s rise has depended on Dick Whitman’s “death”; Pete’s on family connections; Joan’s on men’s desire; Megan’s on Don’s intercession. Even Peggy, now the forbidding boss of young male copywriters, has relied on Don’s mentorship (“Just knocking out the cobwebs. Someone told me this works.”). When Rebecca Pryce reproaches Don--“You had no right to fill a man like that with ambition” she says—-she makes clear that even the desire to rise is itself a social, collective fact—-something that advertisers know all too well. In so many of these examples, Don, the self-made man who has had crucial help from others, plays a part in the Bildung of those coming along behind him. In some sense, after all, he has always been part of an ensemble plot.

But mostly Mad Men foregrounds disconnection and separation, and the season finale remorselessly hammers this home. The women seek independence. The men feel alone. Characters long for connection, but don’t know how to make that work. How can Megan connect to Don across his resentment, and Don across Megan’s urge for autonomy? “You can’t even kiss me?” Megan asks, appalled at their distance. “Don’t go, don’t leave me,” Don begs the hallucination of his dead brother. Joan marks the spot on the carpet where the two floors of the firm will connect, but for now they remain separate. “Mind your own business for once,” she admonishes Harry Crane in the elevator, itself a container that both separates and connects. After shock treatment it is Beth who seeks connection with Pete, but now they are strangers exchanging pleasantries. “Please, please keep me company,” she asks politely. “Nice to meet you,” Pete says as he leaves.

The whole season ends with the question, “Are you alone?” It is a real question. An urgent question. It is a question about how one succeeds and makes money, and a question about intimacy and care. It is a question of economics and of love. It is a question of genre. It is also a question of politics. And it is here that Mad Men does not deliver on its promise. The season opened with a civil rights march, hinting at a kind of collectivity that it left completely unexplored. What civil rights teaches us is that we are never alone. We belong to groups separated by racial privilege and exclusion. Those who are excluded by race can rise if they band together, demanding rights and access denied to them. Far from a fairytale, this was exactly what was happening on the streets in 1966-67. But Mad Men keeps to ironic fairytales and Bildungsromane. It has yet to find a genre to tell the political story that is begging to be told. But it should. Because politically speaking, you are never alone. You've come a long way baby. But don't kid yourself that you can do it alone.


Make A Comment


Anonymous said...

lisa fluet said:
I really like your points about mentorship as a central theme for the entire series, belying the kinds of self-reliance that Don Draper would seem to stand for--and, even, that he himself believes he stands for. The best example of this, I think, to continue with your bildungsroman theme, would be the "Nixon vs. Kennedy" episode from the first season. Don likens himself to Nixon (someone else prone to fantasies about lonely, self-reliant effort) yet comes to be likened to Kennedy by viewers, in that both he and Kennedy (in this episode, at least) represent men enabled by other people--and chance, and good looks--to get to the positions they hold. In addition, I think the no-one-is-actually-"alone"-in-their-advancement theme plays out well in that early episode. Cooper, in by far his best moment of the series, makes his "Who cares?" comment regarding Draper's past, and thereby suggests that part of enabling others' advancement in the series, it seems, involves allowing the "enabled" person to treat the past as unimportant--as something no one can be bothered to "care" about. That no one need "care" about the advancing subject's past is presented as a paradoxically comforting thing--and Anna, someone who like Cooper treats Don/Dick's secret as no big deal, supports this enabling vision as well. Don's intervention with Peggy over her pregnancy, and his suggestion that she simply move on, is trickier, but it also follows this enabling-the-advancing-subject-by-showing-them the-way-to-a-clean-slate theme. It's an intriguing contrast to Wilson's "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit," which was such a model for Don in the first season, and in which the corporation makes a point of intrusively "caring" about the young executive's past.

On a side note, in this final episode Megan managed to steal a role from a female friend who, by rights, had it first, and was sincerely seeking her assistance. Peggy would never be such a horrid colleague to a fellow career woman. Stay classy, Megan.

Eleanor said...

I love your ending admonishment! It's clear how much the series's genre impasses and innovations are based on the characters' upper-middle-class status ... the focus on the single, suffering individual is what makes it "art." Sometimes it seems like the characters aren't progressing at all -- at the end of the show, are we right back where we started with Don's leering eye? in a Bond movie with replaceable Bond girls? This is perhaps satisfyingly grim and cynical, but it threatens to turn Don into an archetype, immortal like James Bond, and would therefore turn the show's master genre of "historical realism" into something cheesier, like a James Bond story. So I'm glad you point out that Don has also been changing, in the slow, incremental, one-and-a-half-steps-back way that is this show's trademark.

Yet the Bildungsroman is also, like the Bond story, a compromised genre: we wouldn't be satisfied with a simple "happy ending" of mature adjustment to the status quo. It would feel like we were being sold a bill of goods, like in Megan's fairytale commercial. The idea of the happy ending has been tainted by its appropriation by commercials. Because commercials are a lie, art tries to tell the truth. But does this mean that art is trapped in the position of having to represent the opposite of the commercial world, and therefore must represent the characters' dissatisfaction to keep the viewers satisfied? In fact, the melancholy nostalgia of the characters' varying solitudes, in the last few minutes, is intensely lyrical and sad.

This is why the novel is (supposedly) a "bourgeois" genre: it works best when it focuses on the individual, but it can't reproduce social or collective history as convincingly. (Unless it focuses on a weak protagonist, as Lukacs argues about "Waverley.") If the producers went all social realist on the genre -- crazy to imagine it! -- and depicted a more progressive view of history, it would feel like bad art.

This balance -- between the beauties of nostalgia, which keeps the genre intact, and the reality of political transformation, which might be artistically quite banal -- will be a serious challenge for the writers at the end of the series. It's so much harder to write a convincing historical realist narrative than to write history itself.

Eleanor again said...

Maybe the problem is that Don is too fascinating a protagonist. The wily survivor, sexually mysterious: of course any show that focuses on him is going to be a bourgeois tragedy.

What if the hero were Paul Kinsey instead? But his engagement with the civil rights movement just makes him a trendy poseur, and when he shows up in the Hare Krishnas it's clear that his propensity for joining is just comic relief. The show can't depict political engagement as anything other than self-interested delusion ... though I think the story of someone self-interested who does good anyway can be made just as ironically artful. Poor Paul!

Jez B. said...

An excellent recap. Thank you to both. And the series has been great as well. Will you do it next year if there is another?

Ted said...

Really like these reflections on genre. I bet the show ends up becoming something close to a Lukacsian historical novel. Lukacs' paradigm of the form, of course, is Walter Scott, and it's actually an interesting question to ask about Scott -- whether his novels are or aren't Bildungsromane.

I also think Scott is kind of an apt model because of the way the show is reconceiving a period, the 60s, where we already know how to tell a very familiar liberatory/progressive narrative. The decision to approach this decade through the lens of the late 50s has always been a key element of the show's appeal, and I think that's almost inevitably going to lead Mad Men toward an ambivalence about historical change a bit like Scott's.

zina said...

Interesting take on the whole arc of the story. I would say that Peggy is the one who has grown, and gone through her own Bildung; she has been mentored, sure, but she finally left the nest on her own. When Don meets her at the movies, she assumes the iconic posture of the Mad Man -- arm extended on the chair, a cigarette in her hand. They are equals, and he finally recognizes it.

OTOH, Megan's first job makes her even more dependent on Don. She is the subject of a worried conversation between her mother and her husband; the child among adults.

Don fell for her in Disneyland. Now she plays a Disney princess in a commercial. Don can now see the fantasy being created in a studio. He has tried to believe in fairytales the whole season (he has found the perfect wife: Maria Von Trapp with an S&M fetish, arm candy and job partner). But now he can't delude himself anymore, and Megan is pursuing her own happy ending, although she is now content to be just another pawn in the advertising machine.

The ending is ambiguous enough to give MW all freedom to pursue the story as he wants to in S6. Maybe Don has learned, maybe he has not. Maybe Don and Megan will still be together, maybe they won't.

BTW at the bar, he is not accosted by Emily. It is another character and another actress -- although clearly chosen on purpose to look like Megan's friend and confuse viewers, although I am not certain to understand the point. Maybe just a little formalism run amok.

Lauren said...

Thanks everyone (on behalf of myself and Caroline) for these really great comments. I am crunched with a deadline right now and need to catch up after a day of blogging but wanted to say that I'm reading and enjoy comments will comment in greater detail later in the week. Zina, that is so interesting about the non-Emily, Emily. For now I will leave the post as is though it will be easy to amend the sentence in question and I appreciate your telling us. I actually "loved" the idea that it was Emily: a truly nasty Mad Men- esque thing for a character to do. Maybe for that reason I didn't see things re Megan/Emily from Lisa's point of view exactly. That is, I found Emily's asking Megan when Megan herself is a "European type" to be kind of creepy. In an earlier draft of the blog which needed be trimmed down we quoted from their dialogue: Emily says she will be Megan's "eternal slave" and (as I'm sure everyone remembers) says, "I'd ask who I need to sleep with but you wouldn't like it." Which was such a casual rejoinder to the full-bore drama of Joan's "indecent proposal." You never get to cover everything you would like to in these things or you'd end up with something as long as a Mad Men episode.

Anyway, thanks again and I look forward to reading more and reply when I can catch up. (I will answer you to Jez B. We are actually hoping to do a different series so let me know if you have suggestions!)

Mike said...

Something I noticed about Season 5 was the gradual slide to isolation for pretty much everyone. In the first episode, the gang was all there, seemingly happy, all smiles as Megan belted out "Zou Bisou Bisou."

Then, long after the song has ended and all "The Phantom" chasing for this season is over: Joan is in the process of divorce (last we heard); Lane is dead, leaving his wife a bitter widow; Roger is flying high on LSD, divorced (again) and alone; Pete escapes through his headphones, alone; Peggy, while enjoying the perks of her new job, still finds herself alone in a hotel room where the only signs of life are a pair of amorous, shaggy dogs. But hey, at least they have each other.

When Don was asked, "Are you alone?" my guess is he was probably thinking, "Who isn't?"

John M said...

Brilliant brilliant commentary, but I can't agree with your ending. The solitude on show is the social atomisation of capitalism, not just a byproduct, but endemic to its method. The sixties was a success in terms of civil rights and we do see this in MM, but it was a failure in counteracting this more fundamental issue.

Love that Elizabeth Warren quote. But the fact that she needs to say it shows us where we are. Lots this season has been about iniquitous practices going on today. Lane's borrowing against 'projections' foreshadowed mark-to-market accounting, which writes up projections as profits and was so key to Enron's undoing (with attendant executive suicide) and the practice of firms profiting from insurance policies on their employee's lives is one that has since significantly ratchetted up (as documented by Michael Moore, I think).

Lauren said...

A few replies by way of responding to JohnM: thanks for kind words. I both agree with the gist of your comments and think you may possibly misunderstood the ending. First, a potential difference: I’m not sure that we _do_ see success of civil rights on MM. We’re occasionally reminded that it’s taking place but apart from passing remarks like Topaz’s racist quip about “black coffee” there is hardly any perspective on civil rights: and nothing at all sustained in the way that white women’s increasing access to the well-paid business class has developed in fascinating ways.

Like you, I tend to regard MM as about today: but at its very best (e.g., use of the Cuban Missile crisis in S2) it uses something from the past both to illuminate its historically embedded characters and to express a collective feeling or experience that speaks to us now. Various Kritik posts and comments have said (as does our book) that this was much easier to pull off before the 60s counter-revolution when the early sixties provided the perfect metaphor for our post-60s neoliberal world. But like Ted (above) I also agree that MM is historical fiction; i.e., it needs to engage the later 60s as it has brilliantly done with white middle-class feminism. So, yes, Lane’s accounting scam nicely aligns with the financial crisis just like the civil rights protestors in the premiere (as Lilya said) recall us to Occupy today (despite some key differences in both cases). On the other hand, it need not be overlooked that in the 60s social democracy was still an excepted norm. And I don’t actually think the show has overlooked it. S4 ushered in some “Great Society” programs IIRC and other than the Randian Cooper, few seem to object. Though the point is never made explicitly, Don and Roger are paying much higher taxes on their wealth—and without a murmer.
Elizabeth W wouldn’t have needed to make her point to Richard Nixon, a Republican president who was more “liberal” than most Democrats today. This doesn’t change until the Reagan-Thatcher revolution (though neoliberalism can be traced further back to be sure); and nowadays Reagan seen as a liberal!

Re genre. Perhaps Caroline and I, in order to take the argument about the Bildungromane and the fairytale to its logical conclusion, came across as insistent on MM needing to find new forms in order to give more voice to some of the people who are organizing during this period for more justice and equality. Speaking for myself (not sure how Caroline might answer) MM doesn’t need to become The Wire (a show that never had a central main character). I am attached to most of MM’s main characters and happy to see their storylines move on through history. That said: A novel like Ellison’s The Invisible Man is a kind of Bildungsroman (with shock treatment no less) written in 1952; so in a different way is Malcom X’s autobiography. So no formal break is needed (though of course if were attempted that might be great). I understand MM doesn’t want to invent an Af Am ad guy before any significant number of real-life examples existed. But what is to stop the show from fleshing out the life of a secretary like Dawn to the extent that it does, say, Harry or in the past Sal? That story could turn out to be as compelling as, say, Pete’s which got lots of attention this season. Matt Wr himself might not have this story in him and of course he does what he does spectacularly well. But does anyone doubt that there are writers, perhaps ones already working on the show, who have the ability to make a working-cl woman of color’s story compelling?

Lauren said...

Mike: “When Don was asked, "Are you alone?" my guess is he was probably thinking, "Who isn't?"”
Well, maybe he eventually got round to thinking that? ;)

Eleanor: re James Bond. Two references in one! The instrumental he and Peggy hear at the theater (my dad tells me) is the Casino Royale them. That much Bond cannot be a throwaway. I’m not sure if our colleague Jim has been watching but I sure hope so!

John M said...

Thanks for the long reply, Lauren. Wary of misreading, I've gone back and re-read your closing and find, sorry, I still object.

The question of whether MM could have more black characters has come up before. I can't see how they could without it feeling like tokenism. Whether Weiner has it in him or not, it's a different story and one that, like so much of the sixties, is scorched with pain and difficulty in its moment and highly ambiguous in its legacy. Not that it didn't vitally need to happen, but it can be convincingly argued (and is, brilliantly, in Rick Perlstein's book Nixonland, which I've just finished) that one of its unintended byproducts was the modern, liberalality-bereft, ultra-conservative Republican Party -- in that racist opposition to the Dem South Repub. MM makes oblique reference to this in Henry Francis' successive liberal Repub employers (Rockefeller and then Lyndsay, who'd gone Dem by '72). By the way, I can't let the Nixon liberal saw go completely unchallenged. A lot of his more Keynesian initiatives were undertaken out of nothing but pure Machiavellian pragmatism and he lied about them later. (The same double-standards still operate, vis Newt Gingrich's record on federal spending in Knotts County (very high) and, more recently, Romney's state healthcare programme.) Nixon, learning from Reagan's gubernatorial success in California, was also the first Repub to harness the great frothing tide of sometimes murderous loathing and resentment that was the backlash to both civil rights and the hippie movement, as well as ushering in the Republican party's now almost defining taste for no-holds-barred dirty tricks. Lee Atwater and Karl Rove got their starts under Nixon. [more]

John M said...

Sheesh. That should, I hope obviously, be 'liberality-bereft'.

But your point is apt and well-made: who can envisage an America with either a New Deal or a Great Society now? We seem, somehow, in the aftermath of the great 60s liberation, to be less liberated (unless we're captains of industry like, well, Roger).

I feel one of the main points of MM has been to resist romanticisation of the 60s at all costs. Weiner said at the outset that he chose 1960 as his starting point because that was the beginning of everything we know today and it was, but what changed exactly? With regard to Bildungsroman, what I like about your argument is the way it suggests subversion of the structure. In screenwriting terms, it's as if the characters' arcs, Don's most especially, turn out discombobulatingly to be circles. His walk into the darkness this episode was gutting because he seemed to be back where he'd started, but, having ventured into self-development and found it a dead-end, with even less hope, even more alone, however gilded the solitude.

It would be obscene to write off civil rights and feminism by suggesting that the 60s was such a circle and nothing more. But, to the extent that the show does touch on those movements, it also alludes to an issue that was an acknowledged problem within them at the time: what are people being freed to do? The same dirty business as the rich white guys; and it's a problem that's never been satisfactorily solved.

The story of MM, I think, in a large measure is the story of how that dirty business continued, mostly untroubled (though certain Bert Cooperish types were worried enough to start developing some very effective mechanisms of control, vis Louis Lapham's classic historical essay Tentacles of Rage). Everyone doesn't need to be a Randian fanatic for that to happen. Part of the point is that most people aren't very political, but, pace Marx, 'they are doing it, but they do not know they are doing it.' In other words, to paraphrase Emile, it's not just wrong because it's unfairly inequable but because, in the loneliness and the Hobbesian horror it engenders in the likes of Don, it's appallingly bad for everyone's soul.

Sorry to go on so. So my point, at the end of all this, is that MM makes the case for something else, something more collective, less solitary, far more cogently by showing unstintingly how pernicious all this is, not by dealing in figures of transcendent inspiration (not even, ultimately, Megan).

John M said...

Sorry, and another correction to my first post: 'racist opposition to the Dem South Repub' should be 'racist opposition to the Dem's Civil Rights legislation turned the South Repub.' Can't imagine how that happened (the massive typo, not the history). Sorry.

Caroline said...

Such rich and interesting comments! I find Eleanor's thoughts on the happy ending really revelatory, and love Zina's reading of Megan. Thanks, everyone. I have lots of respect for your Lukacsian argument, John M, and am glad to hear your thoughts, but I disagree strongly. I do not see why an attention to capitalism and an attention to racism can't coexist. Neither fully determines the other, though both are operative in terrible ways in our world. I used to defend Mad Men against accusations of racism, since it seemed to me that it was exploring a closed world on the brink of collapse. The show seemed always to be suggesting that it was civil rights and feminism that cracked that world open, and Mad Men does such a fantastic job of exploring the subtle and complex obstacles and opportunities facing white women. So Mad Men gives us rich, fully rounded white women who experience all the subtleties of sexism, the appeal of satisfying work, and the difficulties and possibilities of connecting to other women, but it gives us only a few token black characters who are almost completely silent: Hollis, Carla, and now Dawn, who holds the very position once occupied by Peggy and then Megan but who, unlike them, has no plot whatsoever and ridiculously few lines. Does it matter that she doesn't speak? Of course! That's what happens systematically to black women. I don't find this trivial; nor does it seem to me to be just about climbing the social ladder under late capitalism. It's about race, and race structures experience in US society in ways that most white people don't understand at all--and which Mad Men won't do anything to change (much to my disappointment, since I thought it was headed exactly there). The second problem is to assume that because capitalism works against collective action, then collective action isn't important or doesn't matter. Civil rights didn't do everything, but it was an extraordinary success against substantial odds. The Madison and Occupy protests have entirely transformed my take on capitalist isolation. I experienced first hand the astonishing, transformative experience of taking over a public space with large groups of others. I'd never understood the magic of this before (I'm just a few years too young to have taken part in the 60s social movements) in part because I'd never seen that experience represented. By keeping civil rights marchers on the margins and focusing on capitalist anomie, Mad Men teaches us that we're alone. But we are not in fact alone, and we certainly don't have to be. Or to put this another way: you suggest that it would be wrong to "write off" civil rights and feminism. But how exactly does one write *in* civil rights?

John M said...

Hello Caroline and thanks, likewise, for your long reply.

It feels like there's a lot at stake here! And there are a number of different strands to it, some of which may be danger of getting tangled and some of which we haven't touched on at all.

One of the latter is, I guess I feel there's always something a little unseemly in critical backseat driving, telling the author to go here and there, be sure not to miss such and such etc. etc. Or I want to think I feel that, but here it's all muddied up by the fact that I don't agree with the directions, so I'm not sure.

I've been at Occupy too -- in London, which is where I live. I went on the first day and a few more times early on and was excited and hopeful. Later I went back and didn't like it. I could probably say a lot more on that score, but to try to stick to the topic, I would make the point that, as good as it might feel, it's small, just as, relative to the whole of America, the 60s protests and carnivals were small too (and provocative of far more revulsion on Main St. than is commonly realised). My MM point here would be that, as much as it's in an NYC bubble, it's also showing us that other 60s America, which was the majority (I'm not going to use the loaded phrase 'silent majority'), the one that stayed 'normal', didn't protest or collectivise etc.

OK, switching tack slightly, I want to retort to your call for a black storyline by saying, you know what else MM is dismally failing to show us from that era? The story of what was going on in Central America. I mean, it's appalling the way MM is writing out of history the vitally important power struggles that were going on there at the time. OK, this sarcasm, for that is what it is, might be a little unfair given that Harlem is on the doorstep and Honduras isn't, but it's in the nature of the bubble that MM depicts that both are other and easily kept from consciousness, even when they bob up in the office via a client like United Fruit or an accidental want ad. Having chosen that milieu, I simply don't see how MM could possibly give more attention to these others without being trite. I don't find the actual issue of or stories around race in America trivial, but as I say, I just don't think that's the story here.

God, I wish I could be more pithy about this. And I wish I'd read Lukacs, so I could know what was Lukacsian about my argument. [more]

Anonymous said...

@ Johnm lukacs came up in "Ted's" comment near the top. The chapter on Walter Scott's romances about England becoming Britain are about historical consciousness. Lukacs calls this realism though Scott is not usually thought of as a realist.

John M said...

I wish I could be more pithy, but it feels, as I say, like there's a lot at stake. I mean there might not be materially, but the question, as much as I'd like it to be a relatively dry theoretical one, seems bigger, touching as it does on questions of how to protest and how to create change. And it keeps getting away from me, but maybe I do need to say more about Occupy.

First, I don't understand this point: 'to assume that because capitalism works against collective action, then collective action isn't important or doesn't matter.' Who is assuming that (in this discussion)?

However, I'm skeptical about Occupy because it's too anarchistic and I don't like anarchism because it's too close to libertarianism, as some of the 60s communards discovered in the early 90s when they met right-wing libertarians and realised they were basically on the same page. And I don't like any of that because ultimately, also as those commune residents discovered, it creates an unregulated environment in which the strong dominate the weak and no one can stop them and we're back to the Hobbesian state of nature and no social contract. And I don't think it's any accident that it's Roger, the captain of industry hedonist who, this season, propounded that state of nature as credo ('Everybody's just out for themselves!'), who's getting into acid in MM and, ultimately, doing it alone.

The point is about the unintended consequences of the carnival and the very great difficulty attendant to figuring out what will work if the carnival does not. To be honest, I'm sort of disappointed too by the way the show has gone. I've been saying all season that I saw Ken and Megan as figures who, by their artistry, pointed to Don's hypothesised 'other way out of here' (even as I felt I was being pollyannaish and naively 19th Century in my faith in the redemptive power of art and wondered when someone might pull me up on it). But Ken found his state of nature teeth last episode and Megan sold out in this one and the status quo was restored. This isn't telling us how alone we are in order to reinforce that aloneness or denigrate collective action, it's just acutely diagnosing the acuteness of the symptom.

It's surprising to me to see a show as absolutely concerned with morality as Mad Men being moralised at and even more surprising to find myself wanting to deliver, to two such astute critics, the old trope: 'ultimately, the show offers no easy solutions.' Surely this is what good literature almost invariably does, shows us the the difficulty clear-eyed without adding a rousing imprecation to 'take heart, my good fellows, for the band is playing, the banners are flying and the people are on the march!' (especially when they're not, not really).

John M said...

Thanks, Anonymous.

Lauren said...

My 2 cents here JohnM also in the hopes of being pithy (and also thanks to you for taking time to explain; much appreciated).

1) tokenism. Nah. Was Sal a gay token in S1? Is Peggy a girl copywriter token? 2) You are exactly right about the dilemma: the naturalistic treatment of how capitalism atomizes people finds them “growing” in circles if not just bottoming out (Lane). But, as you note, you wouldn’t do that to feminism or civil rights movements, historical movements which were achieved socially by pushing against this individualizing effect. (And not just through protests but through “assemblages” of citizen, institutional, cultural, community, action. MM’s limited representation of the issue actually perpetuates this mistaken impression that black people lives at this time were all protest and lousy jobs). Answer for MM to the problem of atomizing effect versus real-life feminist successes: the trajectory of (some) women looks different than the men’s. “You pays your price and you takes your choice” to adopt the old cockney saying. But MM has not (yet) done this for people of color.

Like Caroline, I have defended MM on race esp. in SS1-2 (my essay in our book is partly about this). Hollis and Carla didn’t have last names or lines but they often had powerful onscreen effects. But we are now approaching the end of the decade. MM could go a number of ways. Maybe the life of someone like Dawn has its own kind of naturalist despair haunting it. Or perhaps it’s more optimistic: perhaps because of something she is taking part in that entails the wish to take history into her hands in a way that Don never did, Betty would consider revolting, and Pete didn’t need to (though ironically he is often the most liberal of the bunch). Something like Megan's dream but involving a social justice movement: it too might perhaps be a "phantom."

On Nixon, I agree entirely. That’s what I meant by “liberal” in quotation marks. (If you’re going to hang out with academics you’ve got to look for those scare quotes :)

Book recommendation: have you read the Thos. Frank book on advertising linked to in the post above? The Conquest of Cool. It’s a great read even if he exaggerates his case. Also, one of our contributors, Michael Szalay also has a new book out on 60s cultural politics that you might enjoy.

Central America: I think you see the weakness of that argument. MM knows it is writing an American-centric world and is very reflexive about that: viz. plotlines such as Hilton Hotels. It isn't reflexive about its short shrift on race, or not consistently. Sometimes when it tries to be it’s hamfisted (chocolate bunny-yuck).

The premiere looked to be a departure: beautifully structured around the irony of an inadvertent move into racial politics (to piss off another ad agency). Loved it. Would like to see more.

Backseat driving? Of course, don't get me started ;)

Maybe not so pithy but what else is new!

John M said...

Hi Lauren. Not pithy, maybe, but speedy as ever.

I can, at least, pithily refute your refutation of the tokenism issue: there are gays and women in the office, ergo, there were gay and female characters. There was no gender and gender-preference barrier the way there was a colour barrier.

Sorry, I thought you meant Nixon was a liberal by the standards of the modern Republican party.

I'm not giving an inch on the rock-solid tensile strength of my Central America argument.
In case it wasn't clear, I wasn't seriously suggesting MM should deal with Central America. I meant it's stuck, necessarily in its overwhelmingly white milieu and it was too much to ask it to look beyond that. But, OK, on race, MM has an issue of some sort, I'll grant, something to do with it being about a decade of great change and this being one of the biggest changes and it not getting a look in. It does have a distorting effect, as I think you're suggesting. Still, there's time for Don, sorry, Dawn's story to emerge. Some attention is clearly being given to her character with those china animal figurines on her desk. MM plays a lot of long games after all.

But I said we were in danger of getting in a tangle and I think it may have happened, slightly. Do we want to see more of black America to give a clearer picture of the era in general or as an antidote to the sense of isolation created by processes of capitalist exchange?

Thanks for the book recommendations.

Anonymous said...

lisa fluet said:

I really like the turn the discussion has taken, towards putting the concepts of race, and capitalism's effects, into a conversation with Mad Men. In regards to Dawn, as the latest in a series of secretaries to Don Draper, I find it notable that she, along with Peggy and Miss Blankenship, shares in the positioning that might be described as, "NOT sexually attractive to Don in any way." That is, Peggy is "cute as hell"--a protege, seduced into the career rather than into the bedroom, but also someone he's not afraid to offend or belittle (e.g.,shouting at her about what he considers her opportunistic nature, throwing money in her face). Miss Blankenship is (was) old; and Dawn is categorized as racially different in ways that make her as noticeable to Don, sexually-speaking, as Carla his former maid. So, the, "cute" female, the elderly female, and the racially-identified female all occupy a space that is--in SOME, provisional ways--defended from the kinds of trafficking in "other women" that SCDP has more recently indulged in, most conspicuously via Joan, but also in different ways via Megan as well. If, as Caroline points out, SCDP represents a world on the brink of collapse, it makes sense that the vanguard representing what might endure, in terms of women in the white-collar workplace,beyond such a collapse is composed of the cute, the old, and Dawn. I remain fascinated by the way that Peggy grows frumpier with each season, in contrast to Megan's fashion-forward sense of style; Peggy's fashion (and hair) choices get her closer and closer to Miss Blankenship, even as she moves further and further away from the secretary's desk; and, Dawn, while always smartly dressed, shares in Peggy's (and Miss Blanksenship's) need to tone sexuality and femininity way down (in contrast to the Joan example). This "strange bedfellows" alliance between the cute, the old, and the racially-identified woman seems like a way to talk about how the show's narrative wants to approach both race, and the possibility of a defensible position for women in the white-collar office.

John M said...

After getting all that off my chest, finally got 'round to reading the other comments, which are indeed full of gems. Zina, love your point about Don meeting Megan in Disneyland and her ending up a Disney character. Does rather seem to suggest closure.

And Eleanor's points about the bourgeois novel and the focus on individual suffering being what makes 'art' give me something to contend with. But now it's bedtime.

Helena said...

Fascinating analysis and comments. At the start of this season Trudy says to Pete, ‘Dissatisfaction is a symptom of ambition. It’s the coal that fuels the fire.’ Throughout the previous four seasons of Mad Men the audience has been wondering and increasingly frustrated about the treatment of black American characters. The season started with the demonstration outside Young & Rubicam and that led a lot of us to think that we would see real change inside SCDP, then Dawn arrived and then, nothing more. I think Weiner is making us wait and the dissatisfaction felt is a sign of people’s ambition for the show and Weiner’s manipulation of our involvement with it. We are both inside and outside the show: drawn into its world but not of it; watching as time travellers from the future through its many doors and windows. We know what’s happening and what will happen outside SCDP’s walls so we think we know what should be happening inside them but it's Weiner’s world and we are as much at his mercy as the characters are themselves.

Caroline said...

John M, dude, I'm sorry, but what you're doing seems to me to be reproducing exactly the logic of racism. Argument #1: We can't represent black people in rich and rounded ways because then we'd have to represent everything else too. Since we can't represent everything, let's just stick to white people, even in a show that mentions race all the time, calls our attention to civil rights, and worries about inequality in the workplace. Argument #2: In a white-dominated world, people don't see the complex lives of black people, so any attempt to do so on tv would be misleading. Argument #3: It doesn't make sense to ask powerful and influential makers of tv shows, watched by millions of people, to represent any particularly interesting or complex black people because then instead of the usual stereotypes we'd have interesting or complex black characters, and that would be tokenism.

Lauren said...

Wow, Lisa, those are amazing thoughts on the secretarial motif. I am reminded of something else I commented on earlier in the season: do you remember when Peggy quipped to Roger to the effect that he might be asking her out when he came in looking for help on the Mani account only to have him make a remark to the effect of "Are you kidding"? I wonder though if it's her clothes so much as her being a "woman of substance"; someone who wants to be taken seriously as a colleague (though not in Joan's way of pulling that off).

Helena, I think you are right about Weiner world and I do think these clamoring voices from the viewer world will be heeded eventually though only time will tell. I am more convinced than ever after taking part in this discussion that something along the lines of a rounding out of a character such as Dawn (though it needn't be her of course) would be interesting in so many ways. Apart from early scenes of Peggy's home and a few pads in the Village we've hardly ever seen the interior space of someone who was not loaded with bucks. So this could be an aesthetic as well as opportunity for the show as well as an important racial and political one.

JohnM. "I can, at least, pithily refute your refutation of the tokenism issue: there are gays and women in the office, ergo, there were gay and female characters."

Correct. But now there is an African-American woman in the office and she has had almost no dialogue between the one encounter with Peggy. (Though I love your observation about her desk and your use of the Dawn/Don pun which had seemed to me like an overture of more to come...)

"I'll grant, something to do with it being about a decade of great change and this being one of the biggest changes and it not getting a look in. It does have a distorting effect, as I think you're suggesting."

Yes, that's what we meant.

Zina, Helena, JohnM. and others (even if you are generally not a regular commenter on this blog): Any suggestions for another series that might be worth organizing a blog series around?

Caroline: the interesting thing about #2 is that bears repeating (since we both were early defenders) is for a while it really was powerful (TaNesi Coates argued this very cogently in the Atlantic a few years back). The timing and the altered mise-en-scene of the show with its focus on women's change just makes what was once disturbingly powerful now egregious without any clear artistic benefit.

Lauren said...

I'm going to repeat this comment in case anyone is skimming:

Zina, Helena, JohnM. and others (even if you are generally not a regular commenter on this blog): Any suggestions for another series that might be worth organizing a blog series around?

John M said...

Caroline, I hope you're apology is meant, because I'm duly stung and if I said anything with equal bite to provoke your accusation, I get the point and apologise in kind. But I still think what I think, except to the extent that, in response to Lauren, I already had moved on and am going to a little more.

Argument #1 is not my argument because my argument isn't as general as that. I'm not saying no stories of American blacks in the 60s or at any other time should ever be told. I think they should and, if there's any way I can say this without appearing to protest too much, I'd love to see 50s or 60s black American life depicted in particular. I'm saying that to do it in a show set in a milieu that was overwhelmingly white is an incredibly tough ask at best, would probably require a lot of shoehorning and would likely preclude discussion of a lot of equally valid material of the kind the show is better suited to and is handling incredibly well.

Argument #2 is not my argument either. I'm appalled to have it ascribed to me. You seem to me to have muddled up my view on the MM world with the world in general. Again, I'm not opposed to any shows at all that handle this kind of subject matter. I'm sorry, but I think that should be perfectly obvious from everything I've written. But I hope this won't turn into a fight. As I've said, there seems to be a lot at stake here and I think the matter is complex, but I think, hope, that in the midst of all that, we're both, maybe all, at least in agreement about what's at stake, which is, I think, equal rights and social justice and literature's relation to that.

Argument #3 ditto.

The argument really has morphed now, from the original question of whether MM should be showing us the socio-political flipside of late capitalist social atomisation to the question of whether it is racist by omission. [more]

John M said...

All that said, having slept on it, I did wonder if there might have been an opportunity missed to get further into this territory some time back: have SCDP finally pick up on Pete's suggestion of targeting black consumers, resulting in meetings with the editors and publishers of Ebony, research trips to Watts via Hollywood and Detroit via GM and, who knows, focus groups erupting in undreamt of (by whites) fury, rather as happened in Fritz Perls' attempts to apply gestalt psychotherapy to race relations at the time. But now I'm the one doing the backseat driving.

And that said, I find myself thinking of all the references to racial tension there have actually been -- the characters we've mentioned, but also Kinsey's Mississippi Burning excursion, Cooper's silky, faux rational denigration of civil rights, Pete's indignant 'Lassie stays at the Waldorf and they can't' line, Abe's anger, transferred to Peggy, over the client (name I can't recall) who won't hire blacks -- and it seems to me, as it has all along, that the writers have been struggling valiantly to get at the issue in every way they can without putting up a neon sign reading 'Rest assured, we are fully cognizant of this vitally important matter.'

Finally, to reiterate my point, answering Lauren, about distortion, Perlstein's book is, in a large measure, about how the racist backlash against civil rights was absolutely central to creating the ultra-conservatism of America today. And if you buy that analysis, which I do, then, yes, in a show about the transformations wrought by the 60s, to be unable to depict that does have a distorting effect. So that's the shift in my position: it does seem MM has a problem. It's seemed that way since the start. But I think the writers have known it and have done what they could. It still mostly feels too much to ask that MM not have this problem because it's so fundamental to its subject area, which in so many other ways is perfect -- among other things, for (morally) examining questions of power and society. But still, as I say, they've surprised us before and they may yet find a way to not even have this problem.

John M said...

Lauren, 'fraid these days I don't watch anything else, though I'm told Breaking Bad is very good and keep meaning to get 'round to it.

Regarding Dawn's lack of lines, the whole thing feels like a sort of meta allusion to the thorny question of tokenism. She came in only via the most elaborate of plot manoeuverings and when she did speak, it was, in part, to firmly put the kibosh on the idea that she was going to be the black Peggy, saying she was happy being a secretary and didn't want to be a copywriter. As far as she's concerned, she's just another minor character in the office and that's how she's been treated -- so far. But there are two seasons left to go.

And I've said a little more about this question of distortion above.

John M said...

Sorry, a tiny bit more. The serious point behind me bringing up Central Amnerica was that the characters' general lack of awareness of the political significance of both their work and their place in society and the world is so totally key to MM's method and message. The difficulty at the nub of this is that it also means that MM is mostly poor at raising the viewers' awareness of the same issues, whether near at hand or far away. We hear that United Fruit was a client, but unless we know or are very diligent about looking it up, we won't find out that the company was sponsoring anti-democratic coups in Central America. And Hollis tells Pete he and his people has bigger problems than thinking about what brand of TV to buy, but we don't get to see what those problems are.

I've always seen this as a fair trade. MM assumes a certain level of awareness or a certain curiosity about its references and its subject, which it handles brilliantly, is to put it a little awkwardly, the political instrumentation of the apolitical.

I really am going to shut up now.

Lauren said...

Jez B. I'm sorry I left your name out inadvertently when your post was the one that reminded me I wanted to ask this question! In more direct reply, I'm not sure if there will be an S6 series. It depends when it airs and whether there is broad interest in doing it among our contributors, and what else the Unit for Criticism is doing at that time.

JohnM. I am a couple of seasons behind Breaking Bad as I prefer watching on DVD. It is a good show though lacking the range of interesting female characters that MM has. We'd actually prefer something we can hop onto pretty early too. We had one suggestion for The Hour, so I watched it and (despite hoping not to follow up with a second "period" show) really enjoyed it with one exception--I will not say what since it might be a spoiler for those not expecting discussion of it in this cranny of the blogosphere. However, I do not hear news of its continuing as yet.

John M said...

Lauren, I think I read in the Guardian that it will continue. It seemed a pale shadow of MM to me. Agree a non-period show would be preferable.

Anonymous said...

Lisa F, again: Just wanted to add, a propos of nothing, that I absolutely LOVE the shout out to Elizabeth Warren. She did a listening-tour stop at a house in my neighborhood in Boston; I'm pretty sure I pledged my undying loyalty, but that amazing speech was still in its early stages then (Jamaica Plain, summer, 2011). Way to make the welfare state visible, EW!

Lauren said...

Thanks Lisa! All credit for that idea belongs to Caroline.

JohnM. I was actually pretty impressed with the Hour. Particularly loved Bel, her friend the journalist (name escapes me), and the female journalist who always wore trousers. But, yes, non-period would be best...

zina said...

Hi Lauren, it would be lovely to be able to conduct such interesting conversations of other shows. I am open to suggestions, although I don't watch that much TV, and I certainly have never experienced for any them the level of involvement I have for MM. But I might be convinced to try with another one.

Caroline said...

I appreciate such a high level of engagement, everyone, and I'm really genuinely sorry to have stung you, John M. I didn't mean to reduce your arguments. I wanted to bring out the implicit logic that had driven my own earlier defenses of MM, and I guess I'm partly annoyed at myself. Where I disagree most strongly with defenders of MM's treatment of race is around Dawn. I think it would be so easy to make her a rich and complex character--like Peggy in the first season. Why not give us the agency's restricted world from her perspective, even if only occasionally? She's there, after all, not literally excluded anymore, but right in the office. And we know secretaries matter. We could see her have ambitions, fears, struggles, alienation, anger--anything at all. How would she interact with Joan? With Don, her homonymic other? What is her experience of her invisibility? I see no artistic challenge at all--she can fit right into the slot already occupied by Peggy and Megan. So again, my apologies for stinging. But I stand by my conviction that MM has no excuse for continuing its marginalization of black characters.

Jez B. said...

Thanks for apology but really no reason. I will definitely join discussion of a different show and I hope you do these blogs for the next two Mad Men seasons also.

Lauren said...

zina, johnm and jez b thanks for your support of and suggestions for a blog series that isn't on MM. One of the difficulties of finding a successor I think is that while there are many good shows, none I know of is moving in the way that the very best ones are and that MM always is at its best. And I think it's the fact that the show is moving that makes people so keen to discuss it with others. Being emotionally moved in this way is not easily achieved; and it also takes investment on the part of the viewer or reader. In any case, we'll keep thinking it over and please email me if a suggestion arises.

On the subject of atomization and what Elizabeth W. now needs to explain as though it were an entirely new idea; this Collins column from the NYT is well worth a look.

Helena said...

I just wanted to say how very much I’ve enjoyed this site and how much I’ve learned both this and last MM season. I’m a science graduate so, because of the way the system works in the UK, I haven’t studied English literature since I was 16 and that’s a while ago. So thank you all. It is very hard to think of another tv series that could stand up to this sort of analysis. My devotion to Mad Men is due, in part, to its depth and continuing revelation. I will watch season 5 again now and I know for sure that I will see things that I didn’t notice the first time or that now have added layers of meaning. For some reason I can’t remember I watched S1.1 in the middle of this series and it’s amazing to see how much of it was directly relevant to season 5. It’s an astonishing achievement, to me, to create characters who develop and intertwine with social and personal themes and stay faithful to who they were at the start.

Aaron Sorkin’s new show The Newsroom is out soon and that could be a possible blog subject. It seems to have some similarities with The Hour. I found The Hour disappointing. It looked good and had some good performances but the storyline went down a mystery route that wasn’t what I was hoping for.

Lauren said...

Thanks Helena for those very kind words. This response is especially for you and Zina since it returns to something she said earlier; that, like you, she had never been so caught up in a show’s narrative arc. That was true for me to (my own surprised interest in a television series was the subject of the first thing I wrote on MM back in 2009.)

I entirely agree that S5 quite deliberately revisited terrain from S1: in the post there was only time for the nods to “Shoot” and the Kodak carousel but we could have said much more. I also wish we’d found time to point out that Joan was quite right about Megan—that she was the “kind of girl” Don marries. That is to say, the season arcs themselves have that reflexive dimension in addition to the inter-season reflexivity. (I thought that Season 4 was comparatively weak: it had its share of great writing but was much less certain of what it was doing formally and therefore was less rich overall than its predecessors and also the most recent season.)

There are of course great books one can (and should!) read but outside of classrooms they seldom offer the opportunity to take part in conversations like this one—this is the brilliance of the serial form (one of the things I love about Victorian literature though I’m 150 years too young to have taken part in the initial conversations).

For me only _The Wire_ matches the qualities you name (even though it’s a very different formal enterprise as previous comments make clear). Though much less successful in creating strong female characters, its particular brilliance is creating expanded social worlds as it pushes further out into the life a city (which is itself a metaphor for almost any US city and, to some degree, for any metropolitan city). But there are other shows I’d suggest. The Canadian show _Intelligence_ is only two seasons long (it was canceled) but it is wonderful on the backstabbing world of a bureaucracy: the female lead is trying to hold steady in the male-dominated world of intelligence (the Canadian equivalent of the CIA or MI5) with only her informants in the world of prostitution and drug dealing to rely upon! The highlight of _Breaking Bad_ for me is the younger sidekick, Jesse: the wonderful performance of this character takes you by surprise because for a while you are so focused on Walter’s story. I really enjoyed all three seasons of _Brotherhood_ (a Showtime show) which superficially looks like _the Sopranos_ but really isn’t. Both brothers are well acted (one is the British actor Jason Isaacs) and their mother is the fabulous Irish actor Fionnula Flanagan.

Re the Hour [SPOILER ALERT TO THOSE WHO CARE]; the mystery thing didn’t bother so much since I appreciated the show’s effort to oscillate between film noir and realism. What I was engaged by was Bel as a female character at the center of a period drama. What disappointed me though was the affair with Hector: oh please, why would she bother?! Initially I thought she was just returning his flirtation because she knew he needed that to boost his confidence. I liked the way Hector was _not_ Don Draper. Well, it all just went downhill for me after the affair becae its focus but it left me some hopes for post-affair S2!

Thanks again, Helena and everyone. I do hope that whatever we do in Fall will be of interest. Many thanks for your readership and excellent comments which have taught me a great deal.

Helena said...

I agree with you about Bel in The Hour, needless to say. I was more interested in Anna Chancellor’s character Lix and she felt like a much more believable journalist. Some quick Googling tells me that season 2 will be on BBC America this year and won’t have an espionage storyline. I haven’t heard of either Intelligence (not shown in the UK as far as I can see) or Brotherhood which was shown on a cable channel I don’t have. They both look worth watching.

A new BBC/HBO drama series is Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. That might be a good candidate – but a period piece again. Ditto Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing on the Edge about a black jazz band in London in the 1930s. Both coming this year, I think.

Thank you again and I'll make a note to check this site in Fall and see what you decide!

Anonymous said...

I haven’t been able to find time to finish reading the comments and write out my thoughts yet in full, but I very much like this post. It seems to me to be very difficult to write about the show in the middle of the season. (Commenters on Slate are continually finding it impossible to predict the direction things will go next, for example.) So the post on the season-finale must offer an opportunity to wrap things up. The idea that the show is presenting us with an ironically disillusioned view of fairy tales, and that it’s somehow failing to be the Bildungsroman it really wants to be, are fascinating.

I did want to add something on the theme of the theater and on politics. I’ve been thinking of musical comedies in relation to Mad Men since Megan sang (I thought at first) “Dites-moi pourquoi la vie est belle” to Don’s children at the end of the previous season, and the fairy tale theme seems to tie into that. I think Beauty and the Beast was the first of the big fairy-tale based Broadway musicals (and it’s almost a reinterpretation of South Pacific, too). And Joan’s story was almost a twisted version of The Little Mermaid, in which she gains her voice instead of losing it.

But—although it’s very easy to see political themes in musicals, especially the musicals of the classical era, like South Pacific, or Show Boat--and although their plots very often explicitly involved race—these fairy-tale musicals ignore race, and class, pretty much completely. There are races--species—but they don’t map well onto race as we understand it. (If Tolkien had written The Little Mermaid we would probably have all sorts of backstory on the history of waterwitches and their social relations with the merpersons and the humans.) I’m not always sure what they’re doing, if they’re doing anything more than signaling the mere difference between youth and adulthood, but they are certainly not demonstrating the difficulties presented by the wish for interracial harmony.

I was wondering if Mad Men is failing to present both the kind of politics we expect to see (in a novel) when these themes are used, as well as the kind of emotional growth we expect to see (in a novel) because it’s using theatrical conventions. I’m thinking of the way the transition from fairy-tale fulfillment to aftermath is presented (or actually not presented onstage directly) in Into the Woods, where the transition is marked simply by the intermission.

I’m not watching anything else regularly right now, but I liked Deadwood. I thought the story had a strong focus on the female characters especially at the beginning, but it did get strange at the end of the final season.

Lauren said...

Thanks Helena. Ford is one of my favorite authors actually so I will certainly add that to our list of great suggestions along with the others you and others have mentioned so far. All of the shows I mentioned btw are well past their years of broadcast and ought to be easy to find on DVD, digital download. Showtime's website IIRC has several episodes of Brotherhood that you can stream.

Very interesting thoughts Bianca. I actually really like writing on mid-season episodes: what's fun I think is to focus on what you already know and you've learned, on how the episode works qua episode. You can't do the latter at any level of detail when you're writing about the whole season. So I'm seldom tempted to offer guesses as to the next plotline usually feeling there's so much else I'd rather do. Dana Polan's post on "Mystery Date" was actually on this point so you might enjoy reading that one if you've no already done so.

Lauren said...

PS, meant to add that I too enjoyed Deadwood, esp. in first season.

Anonymous said...

lisa fluet said:
I wish I had more coherent suggestions to add regarding the possibilities for another blog series--"The Wire" and "Mad Men" have been my favorite tv-narratives of all time, actually with TW edging out MM a bit, but they make it hard to imagine other ways of doing a blog like this that would have comparable critical strength. One thing re: the (bad) New Yorker review of "The Newsroom": Emily Nussbaum gives a kind of thumbs-up to the just-completed Lena Dunham series "Girls" on HBO, and in spite of the fact that Dunham is getting flak for her all-white cast, and I too was initially kinda annoyed by the show's whole upper-middle-class traumatized-20-something-girl-thing, the fact is that the series is really smartly-written, and comic in terms of how Dunham especially uses her less-than-perfect body visually (she's very relatable that way!) It made me think about how to approach the topic of women and contemporary comedy--maybe via "Girls," "Veep," and the (sadly) now-cancelled Sarah Silverman show.

Lauren said...

I read that review as well, Lisa. "Girls" is definitely another suggestion we've had more than once. I haven't seen any of it since I don't actually subscribe to HBO but if you really think it could work I can probably purchase the season digitally. Thanks again!

Juanita's Journal said...
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Juanita's Journal said...
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Juanita's Journal said...

I'm going to be ugly, brutal and frank. I suspect that deep down, Matthew Weiner is either incapable of creating fully fleshed minority characters or simply prefer to explore the issues of gender, instead of race.

When I think of other white television writers/creators who managed to do create interesting minority characters and explore the issues of both race and gender - J. Michael Straczynski, Terence Winter, Paul Attanasio, David Simon, Lynn Marie Latham and Bernard Lechowick, and even Joss Whedon in "ANGEL THE SERIES" - I'm appalled at Weiner's unwillingness to do the above and present fully rounded minority characters after five seasons of "MAD MEN". I'm tired of hearing excuses for him, because as far as I'm concerned, he doesn't have any excuses.

Lauren said...

Greetings,Juanita's Journal. I think our conversation is about wrapped up right now but I wanted to thank you for your very interesting comment and welcome you to Kritik.

jennymotts said...

Please continue these posts for Season 6. They are keep me going between episodes!