Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 6.7
"The Pause That Refreshes"
Guest Writer: Sean O'Sullivan

Monday, May 13, 2013

posted under , , , , , , , by Unit for Criticism

[The sixth 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]

"The Pause That Refreshes"

Written by: Sean O'Sullivan (Ohio State University)

We have reached the doldrums. By this I do not mean some unexpected state of plot lethargy or ennui, since “Man with a Plan,” the seventh episode of Season 6, is full of hustle and bustle, and since 1968 is one of the least drowsy years in American history. Rather, I mean something structural, constitutional. I mean the seventh episode of what I have called the “sonnet season”*—that is, the 13-episode uninterrupted narrative unit inaugurated by The Sopranos in 1999, which has served as the template for much of the most prominent television of the 21st century.

The sonnet season has transformed not just how television is made but how television is discussed. It is a season that is more compact, more distinct than the typical network sprawl of 20-plus installments (or 39, in the case of a 1960s show like the fictional Grin and Barrett conceived in Mad Men’s second season). But it is a season that has more space for development and alteration than the six or eight hours of the British televisual tradition, where the beginning and the end are in such proximate conversation as to allow no room for a real middle.

In the middle of such a season, at the juncture of the seventh episode, we are potentially neither here nor there; far enough from the beginning to feel launched, far enough from the end to feel the tidal pull of conclusion. We are—to cite the Oxford English Dictionary’s most targeted definition of “doldrums”—-in “the region of calms and light baffling winds near the equator, where the trade winds meet and neutralize each other.” The terms and directions of the season have been put in motion, but we do not yet understand, or need to understand, the eventual place where we will land. Or, to use Ted Chaough’s description of air travel: it is where we are once we have leveled off, having navigated the clouds of turbulent ascent. It’s our chance to take in the wonder of God’s televisual majesty.

A seventh episode can emphasize its position as showstopper. See, for example, “The Suitcase,” everyone's favorite melodramatic two-hander. The midpoint of Mad Men’s fourth season operated explicitly as a break, a chance both to deploy a significant plot change—-the death of the original Mrs. Draper—-and to focus as intimately as the series ever has into the emotional particulars of the show's central relationship—-Don and Peggy. “The Suitcase” to some degree exists independently of its season's trade winds. Watching it, we may have sensed that everything had changed, suddenly—for Don and Peggy, for the show, for us. And yet in many ways nothing changed in the subsequent weeks, an illusory epiphany of the kind that featured so prominently in Mad Men’s ancestor series, The Sopranos. That simultaneous position of significant weight and significant weightlessness may perhaps be the privilege of an episode at the center of things.

We get a version of that intimacy here in the Don and Sylvia story, in a room that they temporarily agree to seal off from the rest of the world. But their story has always been an opaque one for us, since their middle was our beginning, our introduction to her in the Season 6 premiere, “The Doorway” (covered in this series by Bruce Robbins) an instance of in medias res. With the exception of Midge Daniels at the very beginning of the series, we had been there at the start of every one of Don’s extramarital dalliances. His relationship with Sylvia, like the sixth season more generally, has made the relative position of beginning and middle harder to map out.

“The Suitcase” was the fruit of an intimacy gleaned slowly, week after week; its story was, to a large degree, the story of two people shedding their guardedness, their roles, and enacting some possible version of their true selves. By contrast, Don and Sylvia indulge in elaborate make-believe, in artifice rather than exposure. In this way, “Man with a Plan” is almost the obverse of “The Suitcase”; if the final word of the earlier episode was “open”—a gesture toward doorways that also inaugurated this season—the corresponding threshold, or more precisely elevator, would appear here to be “closed.” Don wants to linger in the middle, in the suspension of space marked by room 503 of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Sylvia, a narrative traditionalist, finally insists on going home, in that most ancient of narrative drives, a journey that may take her toward episode 13 of this season, or somewhere completely outside our orbit.

Not every seventh episode can, or should, be “The Suitcase.” In some ways, the series’ first seventh may represent the most archetypal illustration of the possibilities of the middle. You may or may not recall “Red in the Face,” from Mad Men’s inaugural campaign. Sandwiched between the series-defining “Babylon” and the back story explosion of “The Hobo Code,” “Red in the Face” is a sardonic sketch of marital and workplace tension, featuring Pete's saga of the Chip ‘n’ Dip and Don making Roger walk up 22 flights after an oyster-swollen lunch, in revenge for flirting with Betty. It ends with a barf and a smirk, and it is less tethered to the large serial movements of the season than the preceding or succeeding episodes. If “The Suitcase” is the seventh episode as deep burrowing, “Red in the Face” is the seventh episode as lateral move; it is the kind of episode we get if we think of the 13-episode season less as a novel and more as a collection of short stories, in the manner of Winesburg, Ohio (a copy of which sits in Dick Whitman’s tent in Korea). It is Mad Men as anthology show, as an array of simultaneous options in a narrative universe, rather than a necessarily sequential logic of cause and effect.

There is too much going on in “Man with a Plan” to be as light on its feet as Season 1’s “Red in the Face.” But we do get a compressed version of the earlier episode’s investment in alpha men as sex and alcohol performers. The improvised flirtation that Roger directs toward Betty in the Draper kitchen coagulates here into the domination ritual that Don concocts for Sylvia. More directly similar is Don’s attempt to dominate Ted by out-drinking him. Don’s most prominent man-with-a-plan gambit in season one was that well-designed revenge in “Red in the Face”: bribing the elevator operator (an occupation that Don must assume for himself at the start of this week’s episode) to pretend that the lift is out of service. Here, all he needs is a bottle of Canadian Club and a new business partner who doesn’t want to get left behind. Unlike that earlier episode, Don emerges from these games as vanquished, or at least chastised, rather than merrily triumphant. “Move forward,” Peggy admonishes him, anticipating Sylvia’s demand that they leave the doldrums.

One thing that both episodes clearly share is a moment of throwing up. Indeed, prominent scenes of vomiting—-or preparation for the same—-occur in no fewer than four of Mad Men’s seventh episodes. This may be coincidental; but I choose to think of the phenomenon as a self-conscious recognition that seventh episodes may be necessary emetics, places to purge before we binge on the second half of the season.** In this instance we get Joan’s dry heaves, whose primary purpose appears to be to bring Bob Benson from recurrent, inscrutable background to something like front and center. I have thought of him throughout this season as something like the man in the macintosh in Ulysses-—the most minor of characters, who pops up here and there with no ostensible purpose or consequence, beyond the purpose of inscribing minorness as an interest of the narrative. Unless we are being aggressively misled, the prognosis for Joan’s ovarian cyst certainly seems better than the one for Frank Gleason’s pancreatic cancer. Why is this minor excursion here at all? This seems a deliberate design to move the storyline of Bob Benson—-prominently wearing a macintosh here—-from the edge to the center, mirroring to some degree the collision of peripheral and dominant characters in the chaotic hallways of the still-unnamed agency that Don and Ted created in Detroit.

There is no escaping the clash of beginning, middle, and end throughout the episode. It’s the first day of school, Ted tells Peggy, and we catch Bert Cooper in the middle of an announcement about the merger, but with no ending scripted yet. (Not to worry; they’ve got a lot of writers out there.) “Were in the middle of a merger,” Pete exclaims to his brother, even as his mother appears to be nearing her end. It’s worth recalling that the seventh episode of the third season, “Seven Twenty Three,” also marked a new business arrangement; at the behest of Conrad Hilton, Don Draper finally signed a contract with Sterling Cooper. We all remember how well that turned out. So the middle-as-beginning inversion is hardly a new one—as forecast by the very beginning of the season, where we found ourselves in a dark wood, in the middle of our life’s journey. The Inferno proved foundational for the season in more ways than one: Dante’s invented verse of terza rima is the most serial of poetic schemes, since each three-line segment explicitly triggers its successor. The aba bcb cdc ded structure, where the middle rhyme in one triad always becomes the beginning and end rhymes of the next triad, inscribes an interdependence of origin, center, and conclusion. (The rich relationships between epic and serial are the least examined branches in narrative genealogy.)

Perhaps my favorite scene in “Man with a Plan” has less to do, ostensibly, with matters of form; but it’s certainly about issues of limitations, and about the sense of closure that we think we can sniff in a seventh episode. It’s the hospital conversation between Ted Chaough and Frank Gleason—-the second of three hospitals in the episode, following Joan’s encounter with Nurse Finnegan (more James Joyce?) and preceding Bobby Kennedy’s transportation to the Good Samaritan in Los Angeles. This scene may be Mad Men at its best. Here’s one character who until recently has existed more or less in the zone of caricature, as the prankster and provocateur rather than the complicated nemesis; and another character whose existence did not even register until last week, a character whose beginning for us is an end for him. We dip into a relationship that has clearly evolved for decades; these are characters that have existed, in their own drama, outside the selective focalization of Sterling Cooper and its successors. Mixed with the soapiness of introducing a character on what appears to be his deathbed, we also get a prominent maneuver of the realist tradition—-the sudden immersion in a world that exists independently of us, of what we think we need to know. We get banter between two men that is the froth of many days, weeks, years of association, the reminder of what was and the speculation about what might be. There may be a whiff of Tony Soprano’s vigil for the cancer-stricken Jackie Aprile, in the early days of that series, when a sidekick in a crime family suddenly had to become a protagonist. Ted Chaough may not have been a sidekick within the world of CGC, but he has certainly been a sidekick in the world of Mad Men. As Alex Woloch has argued, major characters in realist fiction always exist dynamically with minor characters, creating space for themselves at the expense of others who threaten to take their place. For Ted to become important to the narrative with which we’re familiar, Gleason’s minorness must be recorded, and then his character jettisoned. There are only so many chairs to go around.

*Kritik will soon be providing access to this piece on the Unit for Criticism's webpage.

** For those scoring at home, those four episodes are “Red in the Face,” “The Gold Violin,” “The Suitcase,” and “Man with a Plan.” And Sally Draper certainly felt like throwing up when she saw what she saw at the codfish ball.


Make A Comment


lilya said...

Super post, Sean, really loved it.

To add to the list of minor characters existing just long enough to make room for major ones, Roger's firing of Burt Peterson, for the second time, is pure bliss.

So, now, where WAS Dawn?

Lauren said...

What Lilya said! I so agree that a) this is a great post (thanks Sean!) and also that b) this was an episode with many blissful moments. But the absence of Dawn in an episode in which we'd expect to see her in the melee of clashing office doyennes was inexplicable--not least b/c Peggy even refers to her excellence (no doubt comparing her to Lois's and even her own loose lips on comparable occasions). I know that MM faces pressure to cut screen time for lots of commercials but the complete absence of Dawn in scenes where other secretaries are getting lines is so strange: I doubt that the actor who plays her is getting 25k per appearance!

OTOH, yes, many good things including what I thought was a strong conclusion to the Don/Sylvia affair with its many Don/Arnold doublings. We've long known that Don's kinky side swings both ways but I found this particular "dom" need to keep his mistress locked up in a hotel room without even a book to distract her was a really interesting way of developing the major peeing contests taking place in the Agency Formerly Known as SCDP.

A couple of stray thoughts.

Nick, you and other observers of the queering of Don/Ted last week must have loved the reference to the client who wants their first "lovechild," no? And does anyone else love Harry Hamlin's performance in this new role (speaking of great work with minor characters).

Peggy lovers: you know I have never been one to overestimate Peggy and in this season in particular she has seemed to me to show the less admirable qualities of her advancing advertising diva persona (especially vis-a-vis Abe). While I did think she got one of the best lines of the episode when she told Don to "Move forward!," I also thought that her assumption that Don had cooked up the merger to get her back--with all its harking back to "The Suitcase" and to the great line in S3's finale that Don would spend his life trying to hire her--seemed a little gaga. Granted, the irony in last week's episode of her finding Don was her boss again just when she'd decided that Ted was a cross between Mr. Rogers and Carey Grant was great. But wasn't it a bit egotistical--delusional even--for her to make that accusation under the circumstances?

Sean said...

I complete agree about the false Dawn (sorry). To pick up on Lauren's budgetary speculation, it is worth noting that a fair number of regulars and semi-regulars were absent: Ken, Trudy, Arnold (implausibly silent, even offscreen, during Sylvia's opening-scene tirade), and everyone in the Francis household. So the diegetic costs of the merger may have had AMC parallels as well, what with all the new bodies floating around. Still, it would have been easy enough to hide Dawn's absence. Instead, the episode twice made an issue of her unattended desk, underlining that absence as a difficulty. I thought about this, realized I had nothing useful to say, and decided to pass. The vertigo of semi-live posting!

Another angle I really wanted to address, but again couldn't find a perspective worth including, was the Gilligan's Island-Last Picture Show axis. Surely Cybill Sheperd is a Ginger; but where do we go from there? I know the movie was 1971, rather than 1968. But Matthew Weiner likely knew Peter Bogdanovich from his work as the irritating Elliot Kupferberg on The Sopranos; so I figured the movie was in play, as much as the book.

I would SO watch a Stan-Ginsburg spinoff show.

Sean said...

Ack! "I completely agree." And "Ginsberg." At least my initial post was well-edited...

Rob Rushing said...

Random thoughts:

To notice that four out of the six seventh episodes have vomiting in them—this alone is an act of genius. The rest is also great.

Speaking of Don and Ted, the "lovechild" makes me quite sure that this is not an accident.

I'm kind of convinced that Bob will turn out to be a mass murderer, or some sort of obsessive stalker. He's become this sort of kernel of non-meaning, always present, never turning into anything meaningful, always remaining enigmatic. Does he actually have a real job, or is he like Milton in Office Space, collecting a paycheck by accident while planning how he'll burn down the building?

Zina said...

Re queering Ted and Don : Ted told his dying friend that Don was thinking about him more than he thought about work. At the same time that Don was supposedly all about sex with Sylvia. Not really, we know that.

Also, both Sylvia and Peggy talk to and treat Don like a child (move forward, ie grow up). As an alpha male, Don is just a child. This might the most feminist episode on MM

Lauren said...

Sean, that allusion to Gilligan's Island/Last Picture Show went by too quickly for me to track and I was too focused on the delightful premise of Ted's needing to free associate from his couch, as though Don were his shrink while at the same time relying upon his abstruse formula (reminding me of Peggy's fetish candy in last season's Heinz pitch) as a fount of would-be great advertising.

Zina, I both know what you mean and don't entirely accept it in that I think this episode was (like most MM episodes) quite troubling for the women even as the precarity of male power was exposed. There is a strange and disturbing alignment (which I know Sean was aware of because of our email exchanges over screen captures) between Pete's mother trapped in his apt. and Sylvia trapped in the hotel room. Although Sylvia can take care of herself by extricating herself from an extra-marital affair that his run its course, is she really able to deal with the fact that Arnold's career will probably control her life course whether it means moving to Minnesota or something equally irrelevant to her circumstances? We really don't know because like many interesting women with whom Don has affairs we will probably not see her again after this season (perhaps even after this episode unless perhaps Megan finds out). Sylvia shows us that in this particular fantasy arrangement it is ultimately Don who must say "please" and then not got his way; but I don't think we leave Sylvia with the sense that she is enjoys anything like an equal share in her marriage or has any other strong conviction other than that the affair as grown shameful even to her.

Peggy, as I said above, struck me as overreaching when she accused Don of dreaming up this situation to get her back. I do think their relationship is exceptional (in our book we call it a "dialectic" at one point) but I think at bottom that by now she is more hung up on her baggage with him (as many young people of both sexes are with their first professional mentor) than he with her. That may of course change once they are together again but I somehow feel that Don and Peggy, after the apotheosis of "The Suitcase" and her separation in Season 5 are on different tracks (comparable perhaps to the way that Roger and Joan seemed to have called it quits).

So despite Peggy's great line, I think the feminist kudos went to Joan who sensed that Bob was sucking up to her because he feared for his job and he knows she has actual power in the firm and then used it to do him a good turn even while knowing that he may not have been sincere. It's easy to write off alpha men as children and I'm entirely convinced that George W. Bush, for example, was the biggest baby of all. But or all that I never got to save his job--if you know what I mean.

Helena said...

Another Ted/Don scene - Don comes with a bottle of whiskey as an olive branch (reference to The Flood and Don as the dove of peace is pretty hilarious):

D : May I? (indicating the sofa)

T : Is this going to be Detroit again? You’re going to lie down on the couch while I pace?

D : I’ll lie down after we have our next one.

After The Flood and the merger I was wondering what the ark of SCDP/CGC was going to be like and how everyone would cope, who would get thrown over-board or jump, and who would survive. The animals may have gone in two by two but only in a story would they all walk out again.

Jez B. said...

Really good episode. And excellent blog and comments!

Lauren said...

Nice, Helena! Glad you're enjoying Jez B...