Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 6.5
"A Tense Experiment"
Guest Writer: Dana Polan

Monday, April 29, 2013

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The fourth 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 MEN, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"A Tense Experiment"

Written by: Dana Polan (New York University)


I keep thinking about some of the narrative curiosities of this season's two-part opener for Mad Men: an initial shot (a man seeming to pump at the body of someone off-screen while a woman screams) that only makes sense as we move later into the narrative (he, it transpires, was Arnold, a doctor who luckily came into the lobby with his wife Sylvia just after the doorman had collapsed in Don and Megan's presence and who was able to perform successful C.P.R.), but then final moments that make us realize that what we were seeing earlier has now, again, to be rethought in light of very consequential new information (it turns out that Don's been having an affair with Sylvia—although we're never sure when that started).

The Sixth Sense (1999)
In the pause/rewind world of TIVO and dvd, the season opener of Mad Men joins with other popular works of narrative visual fiction that might at first mislead us but that we can now go back over (and are encouraged by the works themselves to go back over) through technology-enhanced methods of close analysis (freeze that frame!) that let us check both on how we were tricked and on whether all the mysteries that we fell for were flawlessly set up: think of films like The Sixth Sense (does anyone other than the boy interact with Bruce Willis?) or Fight Club (is no one ever around when Ed Norton and Brad Pitt are in the frame together?) or Shutter Island (are the flashbacks really localized in Leonardo di Caprio's mind alone?).

In like fashion, at the end of "The Doorway," we might wonder if Don and Sylvia ever exchanged meaningful glances that we missed the first time around, if there were any hints here or there of what we would later realize had already been going on some time earlier.

Such works as these set up a tension then between the present-tense in which we watch them and a future that can challenge what we've been (already) seeing and turn it into a past-tense that we then have to rethink. We watch Don, Megan, the doctor and his wife a first time around but then later realize that whatever we thought we were watching needs revision.

Sandro Botticelli's illustration for Dante's Inferno (1481)
Of course, subsequent episodes in a serial narrative such as this could encourage even further revisions of what we think we know, what we think we've learned. But just as any one episode's ending can make us go back over what we've been seeing for the last hour or so (the season opener was two-hours long), another fixity of meaning comes when we move away from an ended episode and begin to think, after the fact, upon its trajectory. In this respect, even when they seem to be produced at the speed of light (kudos to my predecessors, Bruce, Lilya, and Rob, for getting such pithy and rich commentaries done so quickly!), the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory series of blogs on Mad Men still, necessarily, assumes a future stance, a critical distance put into play after an episode has terminated and from which it can be retrospectively analyzed. In the act of commentary, we benefit from hindsight, the time of reflection. But Mad Men's season opener reminds us that while there's retrospective meaning-making, there's also the meaning making we engage in while the work unfolds: it's not always a meaning-making that we get right. But, clearly, straying from the journey in that way (like Dante's own straying, quoted by Don from a copy of the Inferno given him by Sylvia, from the road he was on in the middle of his life) is key to how the work works in such a case and how it deliberately works on us.

Hence, then, an experiment in tense: I am not writing this blog after my assigned episode ends but while it unfolds (ok, to be honest, I'm doing it during the commercial breaks so there is still a degree of belatedness from the episode segments proper to commercials that follow on each segment). I want to write about what I know--or what I think I know --as the episode progresses and reflect on how that ongoing process of knowing went (that last, judgmental part will be written after). To be sure, I have some background from previous episodes to go on (but how helpful is that going to be in a series that often jumps to new situations and constantly revises acquired knowledge?), and I have a title for the episode to go on ("The Flood?" but, really, how useful is that?). I will watch and form hypotheses in the present, and then write them up on the fly as close as I can to the present-tense viewing. Here goes.

"It sounds very old world," declares one of the characters (Michael, a young Jewish copywriter) in "The Flood," referring to a blind date his father has set up for him even as he (the reluctant dater) boldly speaks to the woman he is out for the evening with in a way that signals his desire to move beyond the strictures and structures of the past into new territory (here, new sexual territory).

There's a lot of reference to pasts (for example, all the accounts the ad agencies, both Don's and Peggy's, used to have) but there's also a lot of suggestion that new worlds are being put into place (the episode opens, of course, with Peggy looking at a new apartment as her real estate agent tries to come to grips with new relations between the men and women she is arranging home or apartment ownership for). And, indeed, from its first segment on, "The Flood" seems in a way that at first develops gradually and then comes with the veritable force of a gunshot to be about conflicts of tense--the tensions between a pastness that still weighs the characters down and a fateful futurity that they are not fully equipped to deal with in all its ramifications.

Historicity always has been hovering in the background of Mad Men--particularly so in this season where we hear references to real-world events (the war in Viet Nam, for instance) as muted reports that come from televisions somewhere offscreen (and sometimes are talked over by characters in the foreground). But with "The Flood," with the death of Martin Luther King, history floods in, and every character has to come to grips in whatever way with absolutely new conditions. We watch as characters fumble and one by one reveal their best or their worst. Think, for instance, of those supposedly empathetic hugs by whites with African Americans--hugs that are more than awkward (especially since they are supposed to be about denying racism but need to turn each African American woman into a symbol or direct token of her race).

Or think of those endless machinations by this or that character to benefit from the tragedy in absolutely self-aggrandizing ways: for instance, Henry dreaming (with Betty) of a new political career or Peggy hoping (or being convinced by her real estate agent to hope) that new urban unrest will bring down the price of the apartment she wishes to buy. Mad Men is not merely a show that is watched in the present tense, like any other series, but it is also particularly and pointedly one in which the characters live in a present that often about self-interest and moment-to-moment improvisation to secure that self interest. This is not always a series about the larger picture or the longer view or the higher moral ground. (Ironically, though, we find that the characters we might have expected the worst from in such cases defeating our expectations: who might have imagined that Pete Campbell, for whatever reasons, would be the one to condemn profiteering from King's death?)

As we watch Mad Men in the present, across its seasons, we can have the sense that everything is being worked out at the moment, both by the characters--who often have to improvise to get by in the moment (often the great improviser, Don stumbles at this when early in "The Flood," he is taken aback by Sylvia's departure with Arnold for a weekend away and, losing his cool, flubs his lines)--and by the show itself which comes to us in bits and pieces that seem to hold out larger, significant resonances even as they slip away from us. At the same time, it's tempting to feel that there is a larger design to these fragments and to imagine there's a greater plan to the series: as we watch, we try to tap into the narrative design of the show and piece it all together (the "Next on Mad Men" previews are particularly adept at this fleeting promise of something more: there are seductive glimpses of a sense that flits away even as we cling to this or that fragment for deeper significance).

But if the characters are now confronting the momentous nature of a history they often have ignored (and sometimes continue to ignore, as when Betty tries to get her children to stop watching the breaking news on television), there is little suggestion that the characters of Mad Men necessarily will themselves evolve in consequential fashion. "The heavens are telling us to change" announces one character (Randall, an insurance executive who's come to Don's firm seemingly to throw business its way), but he's presented as a veritable nut case whose interpretation of the calamities of the moment are laughable to both characters in the show (Stan can't resist the stoner's chortle at the absurdity of it all) and to we spectators. Mad Men is a series that cannot acknowledge intentional agency in the service of consequential change as anything more than foolish (as Megan tells Don, he doesn't, in contrast to her sanctimoniously radical father, need Karl Marx because he's got booze: dreams of revolutionary upheaval and escapist inebriation all amount to the same thing).

Maybe, one might hope, there could indeed be meaningful change: towards the end of "The Flood," Don seems to have an epiphany that is precisely about the ways in which improvised, feigned performances of sentiment can turn into the real thing: seeing his son Bobby talk at the movies of sadness to a black janitor makes Don realize the pretending at fatherhood he's been acting at can turn into actual, even profound paternal feeling. But it as likely that none of this conversion to heartfelt sentiment will hold: not merely do characters in the show, Don especially, frequently forget their epiphanies and backslide into the very behavioral patterns they had promised to go beyond, but forgetfulness is also endemic to Mad Men itself as serial television, caught as it is between a progressive building up of knowledge and a scene to scene, episode to episode fragmentation that works for the moment but has no lasting power.

Planet of the Apes (1968)
It seems appropriate then that when Don decides to take son Bobby to the movies (even though what the boy's been watching at home is not the news, so worrisome to Betty, but McHale’s Navy), they end up seeing a time-travel narrative, Planet of the Apes (and then, in another complication of temporalities, decide to see it once again). In the moment of 1968, Planet is another narrative of future revision of past knowledge: at the finale, we, along with Chuck Heston, end up having to revise everything we thought about the world we had been living through (oh my god [or 'Jesus!' as Bobby says], we were on planet earth all along!; oh my god, Don's been having an affair with that doctor's wife all along!). As it unfolds, "The Flood" (and all of Mad Men perhaps) gives us definitive events that rewrite our times but it does so in uncertain ways.
April 4, 1968
Yes, we might know what happens in a real world on April 4th, 1968 and that then continued beyond that consequential date, but we don't still know how that will impact the narratives of this television show (is that Mad Men's own self-interestedness?: that it makes the assassination of Martin Luther King a question about the resolution of stories in its own fictional universe?).

One constant debate about Mad Men has had to do with the seeming ways in which it sets up perhaps a gap between the limited perspective of its characters, rooted in their moment of the late 1950s into the 1960s (didn't they know, for instance, that all that cigarette smoking was bad for one's health!), and our superior knowledge from the enlightened 2000s. But the unfolding presentness of Mad Men as we watch it moment to moment closes that gap and makes us into improvisers, too--searching for a sense of an ending that is not yet here and that we're not yet sure will ever come.

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18 comments:

Helena said...

Wonderful article. One of the joys of Mad Men is the way each season reworks what we thought we knew. Watching S1.1after the end of S5 I realised how much of the next five seasons was prefigured in the pilot. It was all there for the seeing but how could we know at first sight? As Steve Jobs said to the students on their graduation day, you can only join the dots of your life backwards. I wonder if our experience of analysing the show, of changing our understanding of characters through their present actions and flashbacks is like the way we examine our own life stories through current knowledge and sudden realisations?

Jez B. said...

These are interesting comments. I was noticing the style more since the last blog in this series and wonder about that. This episode was so focused on a major event. It was different and this post by Polan shows why.

Lauren said...

I am leaving a short post in haste to you thank you publicly, Dana, for this terrific post written in record breaking time. The experiment was a success! I think your method too brought out was was finest and most penetrating in an episode that, I must confess, did not sit well with me (or the friends with whom I watched). No doubt I'll say more about this when I'm not preparing for an evening seminar and for a busy day tomorrow.

But for now a point that also goes back to the premiere and backs up your sense that there is a lot of metacommentary being made on Mad Men about the show's high-end and narratively ambitious "quality" television form.

It struck me that the cross between pantomime and charades (IIRC) that Peggy's colleague has to perform in order to convey what the comedian said about Vietnam and ears (which had the effect of making the client pull the "Lend me your ears" ad campaign) offered a similar kind of vantage. That is, it seemed to be Mad Men reminding us that in the old broadcast days you needed your co-worker to give you a poor second-hand account of what the TV show you had missed (nowadays the comedian's routine would be available on youtube and/or DVR's and/or the topic of blogs etc. etc.)--thus enabling the kind of television that you are almost required to re-view in order to process.

Anyway thank you again (and thanks to Helena and Jez B for great comments to which I hope Dana and others respond).

Helena said...

Lauren, I had the same thought about the re-acting of the comedian's tv performance. The depth of enjoyment fans get from MM comes not only from the fact that we can rewatch but that we have to go back and rewatch to see all the things we missed first time. Without the online blogs the exerpeince of it would be so much the poorer. For me, there has never been a tv show that has held my interest and been so thought-provoking and I am clearly far from alone.

Last episode we saw Megan being given the next script for her character. Megan has both the surprise of what this means to her and some time to consider the implications for the character, her own career and her marriage. As Dana says, we watch the characters dealing with events a moment at a time but we know that in some office somewhere their lives are mapped out. I did wonder whether 'the heavens are telling us to change' was not only the threat of the cleansing flood but a subtle reference to the writing team who have complete control of this world.

Jeremy V said...

Dana's superb post articulated what has grown so irksome about the show, but with a restraint I can no longer muster. Indeed, "MM is a series that cannot acknowledge intentional agency in the service of consequential change as anything more than foolish"; interpersonal intrigue and individuals' failings cloud any "larger picture" or "longer view." This tack reached for me pitiful conceit as the death of Dr. King — a momentous event worthy of smart and brave representation — became another occasion for the characters to stew in their "me first" solipsism, beautifully iterated by Dana. Then, as now, people can react to political events and moral challenges in political ways, and from an ethical frame of reference. But we scarcely get an inkling of this.

The biggest repercussion felt by the Mad Men was escalating worry that the black rabble (note the movie Don and son saw), in a moment of fury, would sack white New York, maybe make it to the suburbs, and one day bury the goddamn statue of liberty. Concern for security and comfort, premised on an enduring white supremacy, trumped anger at the assassination and concern for deeper tears in the social fabric.

Fine, MLK is now universally lionized in US culture, and maybe the show was trying to reveal the unseemly and likely truth that at the time many whites may have been worried, first and foremost, about the threat of black anger to their world. But surely there are other dimensions to that moment, even potentially in the secluded world of the Mad Men, worth giving voice to. The show once set an extraordinarily high bar for itself. This season, to my eye, it is badly falling the chance to say something interesting (save some minor insights into consumer culture) or constructive about American society. The Wire, by painful contrast, was a sprawling social epic with layers of insight. Mad Men is descending into a highly knotted melodrama that fetishizes a kind of artful, if dreary, detachment. I refuse to believe that this is all the viewers are worthy of, that its detachment is somehow only a reflection of our own.

Anonymous said...

Don't overlook the obvious reading of Planet of the Apes: a racist fantasy of blacks taking over the planet, precisely what is feared in Mad Men in the rioting after MLK's assassination. It's an interesting use of the film, if only to provide a kind of reconstruction of the film's original context that lets a contemporary (21st century) viewer comprehend the film in a new light.

I would love it, though, if such an insightful and perspicuous observer as yourself, Mr. Polan, could answer a cruder, simpler question: how did the actress who plays Megan every get cast on a "real" TV show? She cannot act. I close my eyes and plug my ears when she's on screen. Can you explain her presence? She's atrocious!

Unit for Criticism said...

Anonymous, Welcome to Kritik--we're very happy for you to join the conversation though appreciate it if you would "sign" your posts with initials or some pseudonym of your choice. Thanks!

Lauren said...

Thanks y’all for these really incisive remarks.

Jeremy, I come at this from a somewhat different perspective since I think the high bar (as you put it) is much harder in the changing historical dynamic. We are no longer in a pre-60s 60s that our culture had forgotten and which could therefore speak to us as though it were some uncanny reflection of the present. We're now in the 60s that we never forgot, have known was coming, and waited for warily since this a 60s to which our present relation (as a culture) is ambivalent to say the least.

I am not offering excuses for what should be judged on its artistic merits (which for me did not hold up). I'm just suggesting that the challenge is different and I think much greater than the challenge of maintaining the quality of, say, The Sopranos or The Wire. These are not historical fictions in any sense and do not therefore face the task of sustaining interest in existing characters while moving into a knowable stream of events.

There were a couple of scenes that felt really off for me. E.g., Abe and Peggy with her implication that his self-interest as a journalist in being on the scene of breaking events is somehow as corrupt as her being caught up in the disappointment of having failed to make hay out of the crisis for a real estate deal. I don't mean that Peggy should be too pure to buy herself an apartment or to bargain: I mean that she should be honest enough with herself to know that whatever his personal stake in it, Abe's job serves the public interest in ways that hers simply does not. (Compare to Don's recognition in the premiere that he is not saving people's lives like the doctor friend he is cuckolding.)

In terms of structure, 6.5 was I think an entirely new thing for Mad Men. That is, world-historical events have generally come at the end of the season so that much time is spent building private stories to resonate with these big events (think of the Nixon/Kennedy election at the end of S1, the Cuban missile crisis in S2, and the Kennedy/Oswald assassinations in S3).

MLK's assassination, by contrast, comes relatively early and it's hard to see how the event will have any lasting impact on the characters we know--that it will be a pivot rather than an endpoint for the season. That's partly because we have not gotten any sense of what MLK meant to these characters. The outraged reaction of Pete (always politically progressive by MM standards despite his personal hypocrisy) and Don and Peggy's sympathy rang true enough but did not add anything to our understanding of them as characters; still less as characters in history. The last time we heard MLK IIRC he was on the radio saying "I have a dream" while Don was making a play for Sally's teacher in S3; i.e., we have known for a long time that he could be *that* crass, as well as something better. So this episode taught us nothing about these characters and still finds the season in a kind of limbo about its relation to the 60s counterculture. Perhaps that's why what Dana calls Don's epiphany did not work for me. I'd need to listen to it again but since when has Don not loved his children? Don may be a negligent father (and terrible husband) happy to delegate parenting to the women in his life, but the problem has never been his lack of loving feelings. If anything Don loves too much: he gets quixotic, splits himself, and lets down the people he loves by screwing up. It's a tragic dynamic but it's not the same thing as not feeling love. The man who pitched The Wheel knew what it was like to love his children; he didn’t need to learn that from Bobby's empathy for the "sad" janitor mourning MLK's death.

John Branch said...

I'm delighted that I learned of this blog via the Mad Men, Mad World book--and for that matter I'm glad I stumbled across that book, which I'm now reading.

One tangential note on ways in which present-day TV takes advantage of DVR-ing: AMC's The Walking Dead has taken to inserting a screen full of text in each episode, at the start of a commercial break, and displaying it for only a few seconds. A quick reader can get the gist of it, but the expectation is that an interested viewer will pause the DVR at that point to read it at leisure (or that a future viewer using a DVD or Blu-ray will pause that device). Yet another way of packing more into an episode than can be fully comprehended as it unfolds.

Lauren said...

Thanks John! Dana Polan is totally swamped so he will be reading but not offering immediate responses to the comments on his post. He asks me to write though that he is enjoying the conversation and hopes it continues!

Helena said...

The text of Don's epiphany has been posted on a couple of blogs because people found it both hard to hear and puzzling.

"I only ever wanted to be the man who loves children. But from the moment they’re born, that baby comes out and you act proud and excited, hand out cigars. But you don’t feel anything. Especially if you had a difficult childhood. You want to love them but you don’t. And the fact that you’re faking that feeling makes you wonder if your own father had the same problem. [Sigh.] Then one day they get older, and you see them do something and you feel that feeling that you were pretending to have. And it feels like your heart is going to explode."

I find it hard to buy. It you hadn't seen the rest of MM and only this episode it might make sense. But as you say, Don may be neglectful in many ways but there have been scenes where he seemed to be a loving father. The scene in S1.1 where we realise for the first time that is a father is one of many. So why did MW write it? I just don't think he makes the sort of mistakes that this seems to be. And what does that first line mean?

Lauren said...

Hi Helena, thanks for posting this!

It's always possible that MW didn't write since the episode was co-written; though I suspect that he did and he would have certainly approved it in either case. Perhaps using Bobby--whose relationship with Don has been less developed than Sally's (and who iirc has been played by 2 or maybe even 3 different actors)--was though to lend plausibility to the idea of Don as falling short of some ideal of a man who loves (his) children. Maybe it would make more sense in comparison to The Fog, the Season 3 episode about Betty's giving birth to Gene which is also an episode that deals with race (under sedation Betty images she is the murdered Medgar Evers if I am not misremembering) and features Don's interesting waiting room conversation with the younger expectant father. There are always ways to make a case for something being more plausible than it seems at first look.

Bottom line for me though: it didn't work and I suspect the writing of that scene came about because of the pressure to tie something as momentous as MLK's assassination to something meaningful and emotionally powerful in Don's life. The same pressure perhaps has found season so far more interested in revisiting the traumas of Don's childhood than the show has been for a while--the previous episode had the first flashback to Don's childhood story since S3.

We shall see....

John Branch said...

I don't have any trouble accepting the Don-and-Bobby scene. While I'm undecided on its intended meaning for us (the audience) if taken on its own, its meaning for Don seems clear enough when we consider it in light of Don's bedside confessional. His outing with Bobby sparked something in Don, which is expressed (also pretty clearly, if you ask me) in the "epiphany" that Helena quoted: it sparked a new, genuine fatherly feeling in him, and also some retrospection and introspection on his part.

The speech as a whole, I'd say, is one of those turns by which the show keeps us hopeful, however distantly, about Don's prospects for improvement (to use a rather clinical term). At the same time, it reminds us he has some justification for feeling and behaving as he usually does.

Regarding its first line, Helena, for me it amounts to saying "I wanted to be a good father," without putting it so directly and flatly.

Helena said...

Lauren : I was thinking of The Fog too. I'll try to watch it again and see what I see.

John Branch : so much of this episode is about communication : clear, confused, misunderstood and out of time. So when Don says, 'I only ever wanted to be the man who loves children' I just feel that it has to mean more than I wanted to be a good father. I don't know what it is though!

Lauren said...

John Branch it's the bedside confessional that seems off to me - not the scene with Bobby which was just fine.

Helena, you will be expert on the topic if you manage to find time rewatch the Fog.

Helena said...

Well, Lauren, I watched The Fog and, boy, is it relevant to The Flood, and how. There are two big themes : the birth of Gene and racial tensions.

While Betty is in labor, Don talks with Dennis Hobart, in the waiting room. Dennis is a first time father-to-be. Dennis had an image in his mind of the perfect birth, congratulations and throwing a ball with his son. The reality is much more stressful and the waiting is also boring. He worries that his wife will die and he won’t be able to love the baby. Don tries to be comforting saying, ‘our worst fears lie in anticipation’ to which Dennis says, ‘are you so sure about that?’. He tells Dennis that a nurse told him to remember that ‘your wife is in a boat and you are on the shore’. He also says he doesn’t throw a ball with Bobby often enough.

Dennis is a prison guard in uniform and talks about his job saying he bets Don has nightmares he’ll end up in Sing-Sing. I do, says Don. He also talks about the inmates. He says he realizes the ‘animals’ were all babies once and they probably blame their mothers and fathers for their problems. To which Don says, ‘that’s a bullshit excuse’.

Don looks conflicted through this whole exchange, but Dennis says to Don, ‘you’re an honest guy, believe me, I’m an expert’. He wants to tell God, but tells Don instead that he, Dennis, sees this as a fresh start, he is going to be a better man and demands of Don, ‘tell me you heard me’. But when Dennis later passes Don in the hall way as he pushes his wife and new baby out to the car, Dennis blanks Don.

In her drug-induced dream Betty sees her dead parents and her mother is comforting a black man who is bleeding from his head. She says, ‘you see what happens to people who speak up?’

Pete tries to talk to Hollis in the elevator about tvs. Hollis is clearly anxious and worried that he will get into trouble. Pete says, ‘do you think I’m a bigot?’ He just wants an honest conversation about tvs. Hollis says he doesn’t’ watch tv, ‘we’ve got bigger problems to worry about than tv’. Pete looks at him and says, ‘you don’t watch baseball? I don’t believe you’. And they both acknowledge each other as, perhaps closer to being equals.

Later, Pete pitches the negro market to Admiral with ‘integrated’ ads for black and white people in magazines like Ebony. Admiral questions that that’s legal. Pete almost confused says, ‘of course it’s legal’.

Later Pete gets a ‘flogging’ from Lane, Roger and Bert because Admiral are so angry about being pitched as a ‘colored tv company’. Pete says, ‘but they are! It seems illogical to me that they’d reject an opportunity to make more money’. Roger says, ‘I’m going to have to pretend I had you killed’. Lane thinks it would be ok for SC to pursue the black market saying, ‘I’ve just moved here, I’m a stranger in a strange land, but I can tell you there is definitely something going on’.

In a sweet kitchen scene Don makes a snack with Sally and reassures her that everything’s going to be fine. He says, ‘I thought you were going to be a boy … not all surprises are bad’.

Helena said...

And as Pete walks in to see his bosses, Roger says, 'Well, if it isn't Martin Luther King!'.

The episode is set in June 1963.

Lauren said...

Thanks Helena! That is all really interesting. I am traveling now with a tight schedule and so cannot say more but wanted you to know I had seen this and enjoyed your expert recap.

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