Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 6.12
"Baby Blue"
Guest Writer: Jeremy Varon

Monday, June 17, 2013

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The eleventh 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]

"Baby Blue"*

Written by: Jeremy Varon (The New School)

In a rare and, perhaps, unique bookending of an episode by near-identical images, “Quality of Mercy,” the penultimate episode of Season 6, begins and ends with Don curled up in the fetal position. The first, besotted pose (in the children’s room in his apartment, no less) is prompted by his visceral shame at Sally’s recent sight of him bedding his neighbor’s wife and sense of the cascade of disasters that could follow. Alcohol, as for countless drunks, is a powerful tool for Don, used by him to humiliate rivals (Ted Chough melting on the margarine campaign), loosen the loins of desiring women (Betty and the bottle before their cabin tryst), and craft his suave persona as a man of both mystery and mastery. But it also can be his one true companion in moments like these of exquisite misery, whose promise is a certain numbness by day (now begun with a furtive nip) and oblivion by night: the desperate salve for those times when one can’t cope with the mess made of one’s life and wishes to have never been born.

In the episode’s closing, Peggy’s admonition that he is a “monster” (a reprise of Sally’s stinging line the he makes her “sick”) for what she perceives as a betrayal of her and Ted lands him curled on the couch. No doorways or passages or choice-points connoting possibilities for threshold crossing and transition. Instead, a defeated image of total inertia seeking the repose of the womb, before the trauma of birth and fall from grace.

In between, we see Don, in a moment of surprising compliance during Peggy and Ted’s mock baby aspirin pitch, playing the part of the wailing infant. The ad playfully reverses the chilling plotline of the contemporary film Rosemary’s Baby, which depicts the birth of a modern-day devil. In the face of a conspiracy of well-meaning codgers, the baby in the ad has a white-light experience, at last comforted by a “beautiful, radiant young mother” a la Jesus’s Mary. (In the film, a creepy coven descends on the little hellion.) The Christianizing logic is re-enforced by the ad’s closing line: “You don’t need anyone’s help but St Joseph’s.” The namesake of a famous aspirin brand for children, St Joseph is of course Mary’s husband.

But the genealogical and psychic truth of Don aligns him with the film, not the ad, ingeniously reversing the reversal and suggesting another, still more damning image of him: that he, like Rosemary’s baby, is hell spawn, born of a whore unavailable to comfort him and raised in the peculiar coven of a brothel mixing desire, libido, profit, and sin. Put otherwise, his unnatural birth is a tainted, not an immaculate one, sealing his damnation at his pre-natal origin and the inescapability of the curse of his very existence.

This intensely dark episode (whose signal moment of “comic” relief is Kent Cosgrove getting shot on a hunting trip, Dick Cheney style) is a poignant follow-up to its precursor (in which Sally walks in on the scene of Don “comforting Mrs. Rosen”). Its chief virtue is to directly engage, and not avoid, the implications of Sally’s hideous, taboo-smashing revelation for Don’s well-being and perhaps his mortal soul.

Things had been looking up for Don, in fact or at least in interpretation. A prior post in this series by Todd McGowan argued that the ways in which Don haphazardly confronts his trauma can be generative of ethical action. As proof: his mental and emotional revisiting of his sexual initiation by a prostitute (and the beating he took), amidst his tormented moping over an ended affair, spurred him to denounce the corporate whoring of his ad agency for auto accounts. Last week’s post by Corey Creekmur, exploring the ambiguities and burdens of favors, asked whether the right thing is diminished by being done for the wrong reason and questioned the possibility of the purity of any intention or conduct.

“The Quality of Mercy,” by contrast, suggests that Don is neither reducible to nor redeemable as simply a creature of a capacious, even all-encompassing moral gray zone. Just as Sally, we learn, does not believe his shaky lie of having merely comforted a friend, and Don cannot glibly move on unencumbered by self-loathing, so we should not be seduced by a rendering of Don as some everyman, defined by a necessary admixture (albeit hyperbolic) of good and bad, right and wrong living. Rather, we see again a familiar image of him as a man (now cast as anti-Christ) who resists, or refuses, or is incapable of grace. Of course, Don is neither pure evil nor simply good-and-evil; if only one, and not both, he would have grown uninteresting long ago as either an object of easy disavowal or comfortable identification. Yoking our gaze back toward evil, the episode thus reanimates the central, characterological tension of the entire show sacrificed in much of the current season as Don slithered too effortlessly through his continued perfidy, at too low a cost.

Trained on images of birth, repetition, and outright regression — and unencumbered by strained or inventive references to “the times” — “Quality of Mercy,” despite the ironic citation from Portia’s speech in The Merchant of Venice which the title entails, thus felt like a return to the show’s origins or essence, with Don and his agony once more at the ineluctable center. Each subplot was tightly organized around Don’s epic swoon, whether Sally’s desperate bid for escape to boarding school, or Bob Benson’s emergence as a Don doppelganger, whose evident dark side puts Don’s in relief with the additive of a queer spin. As a Mad Men devotee and professional historian of the 1960s, I find myself appropriately fascinated and repulsed by this Don Draper optic. That is, since I am often critical of the show’s engagement with history, this return to a resonant Don-centrism gave me great comfort (whatever the episode’s wrenching particulars).

For example, who could not love the way that Don’s jealousy, after running into Ted and Peggy at the movies, leads him to break the promise he had made for a ceasefire. Don looked surprised when Ted called him out as a belligerent; but the two shook hands man to man. The look on Ted’s face when Jim Cutler coolly dismisses collegiality in favor of the bigger deal—Sunkist versus Ocean Spray—harked back to Pete’s crestfallen mien back in Season 1 when Bert Cooper told him that Don’s private secrets were nobody’s business but his own. That is what Pete means when he tells Duck that he has seen this kind of subterfuge before.

Likewise, who would not marvel at Don’s savvy in undermining Peggy’s chance for a Clio and a new romance in a single stroke? Monster, indeed! That there is more than a grain of truth in Don’s reply—Ted’s “not that virtuous,” he tells her, “He’s just in love with you”—does not make his demonic coup de maître any less jaw-dropping. And who could possibly complain that Don’s comeuppance from Sally—her refusal to see him and her exit to boarding school—arrives in an episode that aired on Father’s Day?

But the episode was also, alas, a stark reminder of Mad Men’s own persisting curse: that to remain true to its characters and logic it must perpetually restage resistance to change, regressive fantasies of impossible return, enduring capture by trauma, moral dissolution, and the unavailability of redemption (even as the characters occasionally experience salutary triumphs and modest versions of inner growth). In this capacity, and even as it revives its signature dynamics, it risks attrition of interest by both excess of the familiar and aggressive ante-upping — of being the dramatic cousin of Curb Your Enthusiasm (and now Veep) whose characters perpetually bumble into cringe-worthy, comic scenarios of escalating absurdity and narrowing plausibility, losing the humor along the way.

In “Quality of Mercy” Mad Men saved itself by getting back to basics with an exquisitely arrayed psychological and moral disaster. But a point may come when we are so inured to the wreckage that it no longer incites the horror, pity, and simple curiosity it once did. As that point threatens approach we might ask if Mad Men can show a new kind of mercy to then save itself from itself.

*The editors of Mad Men, Mad World and contributor Jeremy Varon want to take this opportunity to congratulate Phil Abraham, the director of this episode (and of "The Better Half") as well as a co-contributor to the volume.


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M. Keith Booker said...

Linking Don's role as a baby in the ad enactment scene to his bookended fetal positions is an excellent move. In fact, that whole enactment scene strikes me as more significant than it first appears, as each of the characters performs a role that is in some way related to the identity that they sometimes perform in the rest of the show. Joan as Jewish mother to the rest of the often-childish characters at SC&P is particularly amusing. Meanwhile, is she the episode's Shylock? Lots of other characters certainly owe her ...

Eleanor said...

I appreciate this post's forthright confrontation with the question of evil. The irrelevance of moral and religious questions to the ad world & the world of Don's sex life is part of this show's lovely and withholding surface, but it also means it can't solve any of Don's existential problems. Don doesn't need a therapist or even Mommy: he needs a priest, penance, and repentance. If - hypothetically! - he were able to save himself with some kind of repentance (going all the way through the 9th Circle of Hell & emerging out the other side), what would that look like? Would he need to become Dick Whitman again? Give all his money back? Let the women in his life scourge him with a cat-o'-nine tails? Lose an eye and an arm, like Mr. Rochester? I think the structure of this narrative demands some kind of moral resolution - even though it seemed to be set up in a totally different genre world of perpetual ambiguity.

Don seems so despairing and self-destructive at the end of the show that you wonder whether he'll indulge any of his passing fantasies of putting an end to it all. But I can't believe the creators would kill off 2 partners of the same ad agency the same way. Not even Megan's soap opera could pull that off.

Jez B. said...

Excellent blog. I did not realize about the Merchant of Venice. Of course, I noticed Rosemary's Baby though I've never seen it. I don't think Eleanor that he will kill himself.

Jeremy V. said...

All excellent comments, in turn.

Eleanor, like you, I have wondered what redemption or repentance for Don would or even could look like, right down to him re-inhabiting Dick Whitman and being "just another guy," flawed but decent. But Dick is far less the "true" him any longer than Don Draper. I don't know what communion with self means for a man of relentless, performative artifice. It would be fascinating just to see the show try to get Don to get right with whatever plagues him and the plague he has cast on others. And agreed, Jez B., he won't kill himself -- too easy (let alone unsatisfying) an out, much like Tony Soprano getting whacked would have been. Will the show ever try to stage a new kind of moral resolution for a man congenitally resistant to the prospect (and would that even work)?

My guess is that the last episode will leave him hanging even more precariously, but next episode he'll manage to shrug this off, and cycle will play itself out again, in the tantalizing context of the "me decade."

zina said...

Excellent post, that neatly sums up the problems of MM's eternal return.

I found this episode to be the best of the season. It highlights through Bob Benson's reveal one dominant trope of the season: replication, reiteration, repetition. Twins, too, mostly evil. The future is the past. It even shows in tiny details such as the use for minor characters of names we heard before: Ida the burglar, like Ida Blankenship; Carla, the unseen person mentioned in the school, like Carla the housekeeper. Whether that reflects the possibility that MM has nowhere to go except the very skilled and handsome repetition of itself remains to be seen. This is what keeps me watching, rather than the evolution of the characters, especially the central character.

Helena said...

I've thought before that Don's salvation lies in becoming Dick Whitman again. Whitman Whiteman, the cleaner of his two personas? But who is Dick now, how could the two be separated after all this time and all that's happened? Perhaps it's not so much a separation as an integration, the two becoming one with, one would hope, the better parts of both surviving to create a whole that is both bearable to be and be with.

fab said...

To paraphrase a comment made by the late, great Saul Alinsky: People are always doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, and there is nothng wrong with that.

Lauren said...

Greetings everyone. Jeremy, thanks for this great post and thanks to all for the comments. A few replies.

Keith: There is something very interesting about that enactment for the ad; almost a little "play within a play" Hamlet-style (in an episode that takes its title from Shakespeare). Fun to ponder.

Eleanor and Jez B.: hasn't it already been decided that Don falls from the top of a building into the ninth circle of hell in Season 7 Episode 13. And you can be sure we'll be blogging on it! There have been so many intimations of suicide that you almost get the impression that someone is going to be gone. But perhaps Ken's being nearly killed by Chevy for the second time (!) along with Abe's near death will satisfy the show's death wish.

zina, I agree that this was a standout episode and probably the best so far (though I also very much liked the premiere). The episode was written by the same writers (Andre and Maria Jacquemetton) who wrote the brilliant "Babylon" episode in Season 1.

It's funny that you mentioned the Carla citation; when I heard that I did a doubletake - I truly expected Carla to walk out and find Sally--as though she had found new work in a boarding school.

Helena: now you have me thinking again about that white carpet that always gets dirty from the beginning of Season 5. I do think you're right too that Don is more Dick than ever, this particular season. But for the name he might as well be Dick Whitman...or nearly. He certainly has looked that way with his pressed against the door to hear Sylvia's voice or lie to Sally.

fab, thanks for the reference!

Lauren said...

PS meant to say, Glen has really grown up, hasn't he?!

Helena said...

Lauren : the play within a play. There have been little scenes like this before: the hair spray ad that turned out to look like JFK's assassination, the suitcase ad with Joe Namath and then 'just taste it', and others. But, as I remember, for all those someone else in the show was watching, was the audience. I think this was the first time there was no observer, except us. Just wondering if that makes a difference?

Don as a baby also feels like a reference to all the flash-backs we've been shown including 'memories' of his own conception and birth which aren't possible. The white light of the baby ad could be the white light of death or the light a baby sees when it's born and the mother's loving radiant face. So here we have Peggy miraculously transforming from crazy little old lady to the mother Don never had and has been searching for. It's got to be a turning point, no?

Lauren said...

Yes, that is very true, Helena. The mini-advertising performances are very suggestive and do a lot of work in providing a kind of meta-commentary on what is otherwise primarily realist narrative (in its televisual form--with the camera operating as a kind of distanced omniscient narrator). I also really like Don's own Clio award-winning ad in the premiere of Season 4 which (as Lilya noted in her blog on that episode) is a figure for Don (the little cowboy locked up by his mother). I absolutely agree that Don's baby role in this episode ties into the season's many flashbacks: it's both retrospection and (as Jeremy noted) regression.

Not sure if it makes a difference that there is no other audience. Don is in a sense the audience albeit one who is brought into the performance. He is both observer and performer in much the way that he is in the iconic moment in the credits in which he transforms from a falling man to a man watching something: both like and unlike the viewer of Mad Men.

Jeremy V. said...

Hey all, fascinating riffing re "wither Don" and MM's meta moments. To open another thread, "history" was absent in this episode, save in the Nixon "law and order" commercial, which seemed to function a little differently than other TV bursts in the show. Most often, the external "reality" (mediated via tv) functions as some kind of prompt or inducement for some situational or emotional shift in the Mad World. But here the "chaos and disorder" referred to in the Nixon ad seems a fairly transparent reflection of that in Don's life; the Mad World is the referent, the ad is the metaphor, crudely put. But the ad, so conjoined with Don, does raise the question of the status of the Father/the Law in his life and psyche (as Nixon is constructed as the law and order saviors/punishing father to put down mass oedipal revolt and racial insurgency). We have, in episode last, Peggy as Mother (Mary), St. Joseph only very elliptically as a fuzzy father. So where is "the father" and "the law" for Don, literally, psychically, symbolically?

Lauren said...

I hope a Lacanian in the wings will soon reply Jeremy though I have it on good authority that my two co-editors, who certainly know their Lacan, are beyond the reach Mad Men discussion for the time being (though closer to Paridiso than Inferno in any case anyone gets any ideas about where they might be...)

Rob Rushing said...

I only just caught up last night, but, before addressing the father, let me just say two things.

The first is that I actually don't find the moral reading of Mad Men particularly compelling—an ethical reading, yes, but moral no, and that's why I don't quite buy the idea that Don is presented as an anti-Christ because he plays the role of a baby in an parody of Rosemary's Baby. To begin with, the ad in which Don participates reverses the entire scenario of the book and film: the father is Saint Joseph, the mother is clearly Mary as played by Peggy, an idea she's brought out in an ad before, and the crowd of neighbors is well-intentioned, not evil. Moreover, Don's actual background is a social and economic stigma, but not a moral one, and is not in any event comparable to the family in Rosemary's Baby where the identificatory lure for the audience was that Mia Farrow is a completely normal and likeable middle-class mother and homemaker with middle class aspirations. In a Christian world-view, Don's humble, even repellent, origins make him more savable, not doomed (Magdalene)—not to mention the entire American bootstraps/redemption/self-reinvention narrative that the whole apparatus of advertising depends on.

The second thing that I wanted to say was about the show's central problem of repetition. The paragraph about that here may be the single best written and most important insight about Mad Men to appear on Kritik. The show's daring gesture was to tell a story that works profoundly against that advertising narrative of self-reinvention and redemption, the story of a man who can't change (and indeed, most of us can't change, either, or at least not in the easy and implausible ways advertising suggests). I was going to quote the entirety of that paragraph here, but this comment is going long already. I have to admire the show's commitment to Don's fraught, churning stasis, but it is more than risking "attrition of interest" at this point; some viewers walked away from this season for precisely this reason. Perhaps we can only stare into the void for so long.

Finally, about the father. Zizek delineates two fathers, the stern/kindly father of prohibition and the "anal father" of perverse enjoyment. They've always been two sides of the same person, of course; Roger Sterling played both for Sally at the codfish ball, for example. Todd McGowan, in The End of Dissatisfaction, has argued that American society has led the West in a move away from the stern patriarch as the dominant figure of the father and toward enjoyment, a move that begins after WWII, and becomes visible in the 1960s and 70s. Don is here, as always, not quite part of the new world; he grew up in an era where his father should have been a patriarch, but he is instead tormented by his father's appearances as a lewd and lecherous debauché, clutching his moonshine and telling dirty jokes. The shame of the missing patriarchal father becomes key, of course, in Don's Hershey pitch in the next episode, but it determines his whole existence, obviously, and the show is pretty resolute about depicting all of the fathers as weak failures who can't live up to this impossible ideal—including the irony of presenting Nixon in this light, when it was already apparent to everyone, with his sweaty, nervous, jowl-shaking fits of rage, that he was not the masterful figure that he would have liked to be perceived as. In other words, part of the crisis that Mad Men is chronicling is precisely the loss of this stern father of prohibition, and Don suffers it with particular acuteness because of his personal circumstances and his generation, raised to believe in the patriarch, but watching it vanish in a culture—fed by advertising—that demands we enjoy. This is just another form of the impossible Freudian imperative: you must be like the father, you cannot be like the father.