Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 6.1/2
"Lend Me Your Ears"
Guest Writer: Bruce Robbins

Monday, April 8, 2013

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The first in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 6 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MENMAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"Lend Me Your Ears"

Written by: Bruce Robbins (Columbia University)

The question that had been posed in the last frame of Season 5-- would Don return to his pursuit of Other Women?-- is answered only toward the end of "The Doorway" (Season 6, Episode 1/2) the 2-hour premier, which finds Don in bed with the Italian wife of his downstairs neighbor Dr Rosen. The Catholic paraphernalia that fill the frame as the camera pans left toward the bed makes the point that this sex involves betrayal, a betrayal in which more is betrayed than Don’s unconscious wife.  Perhaps this is why, to my eye at least, throughout the episode Don seems more nervous and burdened than usual.  Comments are made by co-workers on how fresh he does or doesn’t look, whether he appears to have benefitted from the Hawaiian vacation we see him enjoying, or half-enjoying, or pretending to enjoy, in the opening minutes.

The idea of an intensified betrayal is prepared by the episode’s mysterious opening: the camera looks up from the floor at the face we will later identify as Dr Rosen, who it turns out is resuscitating both the doorman and Mad Men itself after its long months of hibernation.  This is too ponderous to be experienced as a joke, and it’s also too grim.  Dr Rosen pops up

again in the elevator, that quintessential place of brief encounter for the series, and then in Don’s office, where he has the rare privilege of overhearing Don in creative mode.  There are signs of what may be a budding friendship between the two men, forged perhaps when they shared the near-death experience of the building’s doorman, "Jonesie," who collapses in front of them, thus giving Rosen the chance to show his medical skills.  When he visits Don’s office (the company has the Leica account, and Don has offered the doctor a free camera), Rosen refers to their two kinds of work as if medicine and advertising had much in common.  Don modestly rejects the suggestion, but the idea has been established of medical life-saving as a standard by which other sorts of work, like advertising, can be judged.  We discover that Don has been sleeping with Rosen’s wife only when the doctor is called away from a dinner party at Don and Megan’s to deal with a medical emergency late on a snowy New Year’s Eve--so late and so snowy that taxis will be unavailable and Rosen leaves for the hospital on skis dug up (with Don’s help) in the storage room.  From what we have seen, Rosen is a good man who saves lives and has kept his zaniness.  This is what Don is betraying.

While Don has been partying on New Year’s Eve (that is, reluctantly watching a carousel-worth of Hawaii vacation slides Megan insists on bringing out for the guests; we remember that carousel), Peggy has been working late.  The contrast is something less than a betrayal, but it is certainly pointed and central to the episode.  It also seems important that the problem that keeps Peggy and her creative team at the office on New Year’s Eve is, in a sense, the Vietnam War.  Now working for another firm, now in a position of authority (she tells her two subordinates to share her cold meatball hero--they’re not going home yet), she has had a supposed emergency dropped on her.  A Vietnam story has broken about GIs cutting off the ears of the Vietcong and making necklaces out of them, the late-night talk shows are joking about it, and one executive thinks this spells disaster for a planned Super Bowl ad for headphones that used Brutus’s monologue from Julius Caesar: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”  Peggy’s left-wing boyfriend, Abe, who is sweetly keeping her company as she works into the night, comments that at least the Vietnam War seems to be having some effect.  Peggy’s eventual solution may not hold up to full allegorical analysis, but it is suggestive: in a sequence of outtakes, a young male head, headphones on its ears, makes expressive face after expressive face, utterly without inhibition, as if knowing that these shots don’t count.  Grooving like this, you can’t possibly hear the news from Vietnam.

Is Mad Men a multiplot narrative in the strong sense, or is it really about Don Draper?  On the first page of the wonderful new book Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s, like yesterday’s season premiere another eagerly-awaited event, we are told that the show is “about Don Draper,” and that is certainly the idea one takes away every week from the credits.  In the credits Don is slowly falling as his world collapses around him.  The woman’s foot that gently rises to not quite meet him, timed either to break his fall or give him an extra kick on the way down, is another reason for invoking the old tragic model: a great but flawed individual, his flaw (his desire for women) neatly bound up in the source of his greatness (his understanding of desire).  Don has creatively fostered some desires that society had blocked.  Near the end of the last season, in the momorable "Commissions and Fees" (Season 5 Episode 11), Don asks Glen what he really wants, and next thing we know Glen is very illegally driving the Jaguar through the night. But the key questions for the series' future will be, alongside his own desire, Megan's ambition to succeed as an actor, which he has not exactly fostered. And Peggy's ambition, which he has both nurtured and undervalued. And whether, as the firm itself prospers, Don himself is finally losing his creative edge.

The case for the series as genuine multiplot narrative hangs on how rich it can make the plots of the women: Megan, Joan, Betty, and above all Peggy. As Alessandra Stanley pointed out in the New York Times, 
the men seem played out,
while the women are still full of surprises.) The men have definitely lost their mojo.  Peter Campbell never had any charm to begin with, so no audience tears will be shed as the world starts looking dark and empty to him.  Roger is charm itself-- indeed he seems to have taken over some of Don’s earlier charm duties on the show.  Both his ex-wives show up at his 91-year-old mother’s funeral, and the first, completely clear-eyed about him, still manages to make him feel loved.  The scenes of him with his shrink, useless as therapy, make for  television that’s both funny and about being funny.  (“I can’t laugh at everything you say,” the shrink tells him.)  But he too seems to have nothing much to do with himself other than try to make dates with twenty-somethings while staring hard and tediously into the end-of-life abyss.  When he cries over the shoeshine man’s box, it’s unclear whether he is crying more for his mother or for himself.  Neither option makes one very curious as to his next step in life.

Megan’s career on the other hand has taken off via television.  Joan’s baby and her status as full partner are full of narrative promise although she has only a minimal part in the season opener: we see her only as aesthetic spectacle, posing for a company photo on the internal staircase which underlines the fact that the office now occupies a prosperous duplex.  (Christina Hendricks also makes a dazzling appearance, hors texte, in a whisky commercial.)  Like other fascinating villains, Betty now faces the somewhat scary prospect of narrative redemption.  She takes an apparently unmotivated interest in Sandy, the 15-year-old violinist who smokes in the kitchen at night (like Don, she seems to have trouble sleeping), lies about herself (again like Don), and then disappears (yes, like Don again).  This interest leads Betty to track down the violin, if not Sandy herself, in a squat in the East Village that makes a refreshing visual and social contrast to the Rye mansion.  

Don’s encounter with the off-duty soldier in Hawaii and the feelings(unspecified but inviting conjecture) that go into his acceptance of a role in the soldier’s wedding and his acquisition of the soldier’s lighter connect him to with some of the realities of the time that one could easily escape on Madison Avenue--more those realities than the echo of his Korean-War past, though the echo is easier to hear.  Betty’s visit to the squat, and on an unselfish and caring mission, looks like it might mark a turning point for her. More of one at any rate than her sudden change in hair color.

But now, even more than in earlier seasons, it’s Peggy who matters most to the fate of the show.  Peggy stands in for women trying to make it in a man’s world on talent alone. (Joan, with whom she is paralleled, has all the professional competence anyone could possibly need, but she is not permitted to rise on that basis.) Thus Peggy’s sub-plot offers the single strongest claim the series can make for this to be a genuine multiple plot narrative, or a multiple plot narrative in the strongest sense--that is, the claim to a (rising?) story that’s as compelling as Don’s predicted fall.  The question that haunts this pairing of the two is where her creativity comes from if not, like Don’s, from an intimacy with anarchic desire.

One of the show’s strengths has always been its ability to dramatize creativity--to show it happening, to make it inspiring and even sexy without veiling it over and leaving it finally mysterious. In this episode both Don and Peggy have brilliant ideas, and both run into dumb clients. Peggy handles the client, while Don doesn’t. And it’s tempting to see her success as significant in a more than personal sense. In each case, the burst of creativity comes from their deepest feelings and their sense of their place in the world. Don, just off a Hawaii beach, imagines Hawaii as the “jumping off point” for a liberating disappearance. His ad will leave out the hotel entirely and instead show the clothing shed on the shore. It’s brilliant, and the clients seem terminally uncool, and yet the clients are fundamentally right when they see the ad as obscurely suicidal. What Don desires is to disappear. Meanwhile, Peggy’s creative leap on New Year’s Eve happens when she looks affectionately, even lovingly at her boyfriend as he bops to the beat in the headphones she has told him to put on. This is the best of the 60s, we are perhaps being told: love, the word we are here reminded the hippies have taken over and transformed, here translates into Peggy’s appreciation for her boyfriend’s zaniness. He’s like Dr Rosen on skis, that’s what she likes, and that liking makes her good at what she does. It may not be the future for the show, but it gives Peggy’s creativity a social substance and a story line of its own, thereby sustaining what the show has most needed to sustain.


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Lauren said...

A terrific post, Bruce: moving and synthetic even while written under the pressures of blogging at speed. I had a similar reaction to Abe and Peggy--the former seeming to anticipate Rob Reiner's character on All in the Family (whom I can only remember as "meathead").

Though it is true that the client utterly misses the genius of Don's "jumping off point" it's also true that the client is half right--which sets up the reference to James Mason at the end of _A Star is Born_ and therefore puts a declining Don in opposition to Megan's Judy Garland. But as Lilya pointed out in a conversation earlier today, a different way of reading it is to remember Don's rebirth in the Pacific at the end of season 2 - I think it's "The Mountain King." I guess we shall whether decline, rebirth or some cross between the two is what we will end up with.

Jeremy V. said...

sense. Also agreed that the men seem stagnant -- character elaboration without quite "development," because perhaps there is not much left to develop. So, Roger was a fussed over little prince who disappointed the women in his life starting with his own mother. Really?!

The big question for me: is there is anything in Don to develop or will it be endless cycles of identity crisis (the GI's lighter as mnemonic of his own character switch), followed by betrayal, desperate sex, and "cosmic" ad pitches to variously awed or stupefied clients. That is, has MM so artfully and convincingly created ruts for its key characters that it cannot plausibly release them into something genuinely new? If not, consistency may over time smother the drama.

Betty, by happy contrast, seems auspicious for the season. She upbraids the grungy hippies but does cook them goulash, and after the line about her hair color being "from a can" goes brunette, in a sweet-nod-to-the-counterculture gesture at a kind of authenticity. (And bless Henry for welcoming the 'Liz Taylor' look; it's the kindest he's ever been, and I love how the show has certain things "read" in multiple registers).

Last, I still wonder how much "history" (Vietnam, etc.) can remain the backdrop, absent presence, allusion fodder, place of fleeting journey (like Betty to St. Marks) or if it will rattle the walls a bit more.

Exciting season ahead, but I definitely feel the pressure already of a great thing struggling with how to stay at its own peak.

Jez B. said...

I just wanted to say hi and thanks for this very good essay on the show's new opener. I am glad you are all doing the blog again.

Dana P. said...

Building on Bruce's astute perceptions, I thought Don's passivity (he speaks only in voiceover [the Dante] until 10 minutes in or so) was indeed interesting. I thought it intriguing that the ending forces you to revise or revisit everything you've seen before (esp. all those scenes with the doctor who's being cuckolded). I was also struck by how the episode seemed to focus so much on interpersonal relationships that larger historical context really retreated into the background. Except for changes in clothes (on women) and facial hair (on men), there seemed to be little direct reference to the times.

Lauren said...

Jez B. welcome back!

Dana, I suppose there was the Vietnam references from the way the client feels that the war crimes have made "ears" unmentionable to Abe's being glad to see even this minimal interruption in business as usual and then the soldier getting married while on leave. Though it's true that these were not as strongly woven into the affect of the plot as in some past episodes.

Sean said...

Lots of nice stuff here! My tangential contribution is that Megan's new role as incipient soap starlet explicitly invokes the televisual category through which Mad Men is occasionally damned. (Exhibit A: the NYRB article that will not be named.) Series that don't have crime, or life in extremis, as their central narrative engine are always vulnerable to being about "only" things like adultery, pregnancy, emotion, the self, etc. Of course, the oddity of this problematic comparison is that no soap could contemplate being as contemplative as Mad Men; the drive to surprise, or to push someone down the stairs, must always be brought into contact with emotion or the self. I'll be curious to see how blatantly or vaguely, if at all, Megan's daytime storylines come into contact with our beloved nighttime serial.

Jez B. said...

so true sean. like there would ever be soap operas with Dante in them. Maybe this is pretension for some but not in my house.

John Branch said...

I learned of the Kritik blog via a reference in the front matter of Mad Men, Mad World and am glad to find the blog will be recounting episodes of the current MM season. Have no time for a substantive remark (am at work) but want to say, "Thanks for doing this."

Lauren said...

Thanks very much John for your kind words and for reading our book which I hope you like. We expect the post on last night's episode to go up later today.

Professor Fluet's Spring 2013 Course Blogs said...

lisa fluet said--
In thinking about the storyline for Peggy's creativity, culminating in the appreciation for her boyfriend's "zaniness" that leads to the solution for the headphone ad, I like the turn presented in this post, towards consideration of how the show's narrative might be moving away--somewhat--from the "desiring subject" model for creativity (Don's) to something like the "affectionate" subject model (Peggy--who is also reminiscent of the series' most affectionate subject, Anna Draper). The history of her creativity as a copywriter--and the products she works on, especially--is illuminating in this regard. She is "discovered," as she describes in a cringe-worthy drunken moment to Dawn, in a focus group for a lipstick ad, wherein she catches the attention, not of Don, but of Freddy Rumsen--someone else who manages to escape the office's insistent whorehouse-economy metaphor, as he's too old and habitually drunk to be either a "jon" or a "whore" in this economy, and, he's also affectionate towards Peggy (rather than lecherous). But Peggy captures his attention with the accurate observation that women choose 1-2 lipstick colors and stick to a few favorites--rather than availing themselves of a box of colors, since no woman wants to be just another color in the box. Peggy, in short, wants to "make her mark," but she wants to do so by rejecting the model for making one's mark that, for example, Joan lays out for her when she first begins working there ("go home, put a bag over your face, assess your strengths and weaknesses, be very honest..."). The products that Peggy works on--lipstick, the "minimizer" that actually comes with a special surprise, the "What did you bring me Daddy?" Mohawk airlines ad, the Samsonite ad, and especially the Glo-Coat ad--also attest, in different ways, to her affection--although her affection is never really directed towards the product. It is, instead, directed towards what we might call the unintentionally "proximate" consumer--not the woman buying Glo-Coat, in other words, but the child inconvenienced by it; not the daddy coming home on the flight, but the child waiting for him; not the woman seeking to "reduce" but the woman seeking the other, secret benefits of the minimizer; not the person who wants the strong suitcase, but the person, like Anna, who seems ready to go away forever. If advertising, as Don describes in the show's pilot, is about "happiness" and the desire to feel "okay," that desire for feelings of happy okay-ness is also tied rather directly to the consumer's pleasure in surrendering the capacity for appraisal or judgment of whatever product induces the feelings of happy okay-ness (Don makes this point about advertising, of course, in his "It's Toasted" pitch for Lucky Strike). A major point in Peggy's favor, then, in the storyline for her creativity, would seem to be that she has in some ways replaced "desire" with "affection," as Bruce suggested--and also, that she does not view her creative relationship with these products and with these imagined consumers as one in which the desire to feel "okay," through suspension of individual capacities for judgment and appraisal, is the objective. Instead, her affection for what we might call "the good," and the potential to retain a capacity for judgment (as her boyfriend so readily does, since he's inclined to judge everything, including Peggy, at all times) replaces Don's perpetually unsated desire for happiness, and the surrender of judgment to feeling okay that happiness invites. Thus if Peggy rarely seems "happy," or "okay," with her life, she nevertheless is hardly as complacent as her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend suggests...