Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 7.1
"Terminally Uncool, Unfunny, Lame"
Guest Writer: Bruce Robbins

Monday, April 14, 2014

[The first in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 7 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]

"Terminally Uncool, Unfunny, Lame"

Written by: Bruce Robbins (Columbia)

The opening credits have been predicting Don Draper’s fall at the beginning of every episode since Mad Men began airing. Last year, at the end of season six, it looked like the moment of professional collapse had finally come. But it also looked like Don’s breakdown in front of the Hershey brass and the indefinite time-out decided for him by his partners might be balanced by some sort of moral redemption. The breakdown itself comes in the form of compulsive and disinterested truth-telling, and the final sequence of last year’s final episode involved more of the truth: Don showing his children the brothel where he was raised.

As the new season premiered last night, many viewers must have been asking themselves how this impulse would or wouldn’t take over and work itself out as the show draws to a close. To put this in a series of questions: what might moral redemption look like, if that’s what’s coming? Would it mean turning against advertising itself? When Don says (during the meeting where he self-reveals and self-destructs, but also earlier) that Hershey’s chocolate doesn’t need advertising, he is echoing a theme that the show has already raised and that may be its most fundamental link with the political vision of “the Sixties”: is the work these advertisers do worth doing at all? Is it good for us? If the answer is no, then what? We find ourselves lost in a dark forest of contradictions. Wouldn’t a rejection of all that professional success mean turning against the vice-ridden virtues by which viewers have been so charmed--turning against what got us so involved in the show to begin with? Are we ready for that? 

In particular, what would a critique of the profession mean for the gradual emergence of women into the ranks of the professionally successful? After all, that emergence has become the show’s single most emotionally compelling line of development as, season by season, the men seemed to get more and more exhausted, empty, and self-repeating. Could Don redeem himself morally without undercutting the rising trajectory of Peggy and Joan? And if their success, too, is going to be undercut, will we get the familiar and distorted logic that associates women’s achievement at work with failure and desolation in private life? I’m not sure I can survive any more of that moral.

In the first episode of the final season, Don’s redemption retreats into the background. The hypothesis may hover, but it’s certainly not the narrative focus. If there is an active agent of that redemption, that agent would not be Don himself but rather Don’s replacement, Lou. More important than the casual racism and sexism of Lou’s banter is the fact that he seems terminally uncool, unfunny, lame. When he shoots Peggy down, it’s all blustering male chauvinist authority of a sort that makes you realize time really has gone by; he suddenly sounds like he comes from another decade. “I dunno, Peggy, I guess I’m immune to your charms.” He cannot see how good Peggy is! He thinks she is using her feminine wiles to get ahead! This situation clearly cannot last. As Alessandra Stanley has noted, among others, Don’s saving virtue thus far has been his ability to see virtue and potential in women he wasn’t making any effort to sleep with, especially Peggy and Joan. That’s among the many things his replacement is incapable of doing. Lou is there to make us want Don back.

It’s worth noting that Lou the replacement thinks in terms of professional vanity. He thinks Peggy should be pleased that one of her suggestions has been adopted. He does not think in terms of the actual value of the work. Which underlines how reliably Peggy herself does think in terms of the value of the work, even at the expense of her vanity or sense of self-worth. As if to make sure we’ve got the point, this logic is repeated in the parallel sequence involving Joan, Ken, and the Butler Footwear account. Ken, getting no charisma at all from his eye-patch, tells Joan he won’t take the scheduled meeting with Butler Footwear because he occupies too elevated a place in the firm to meet with someone so low on the Butler totem pole. His vanity is offended, and he acts accordingly. Joan, whose vanity has actually had a lot more to put up with, ignores slights to it and instead steps in to try to save the account. This means having to put up (like Peggy) with another dose of sexism. She shrugs off the personal conduct of Butler’s rep, who wants to talk only with a male counterpart, and instead goes off to do some extra homework, supplementing her lack of business-school credentials and discovering that instead of trading on her sex appeal, she can trade her own knowledge for someone else’s. And it seems to be working.

It’s the women who are acting in the firm’s self-interest rather than nursing their wounded pride. “I don’t care what you think,” Lou tells Peggy. Characteristically reluctant to put her own feelings first, Peggy later concludes, “Nobody cares about anything.” But it’s not true. It’s the men now running things who seem not to care about the quality of the work. The women do care.

So the women need Don back. Or do they? Are their competence and commitment so prominently displayed merely in order to make everyone forget our shared, cross-gender problem with the meaning of the work itself?

We discover at the end of the episode that Don is not yet completely out of the game. He has had Freddy fronting for him, and what Peggy rightly sees as the better idea for Accutron--the spiel directed into our eyes in the first sequence, as if we viewers had become the listening but invisible Peggy--really came from Don. It’s another meeting of the minds between Peggy and Don, though Peggy, not knowing and perhaps not caring where it comes from, in fact improves on Don’s idea. It’s also an indirect and bizarre reference to the McCarthy period, which was still ripping up all too many lives fifteen years after Senator McCarthy’s personal fall from grace. But what could it mean to identify Don with the blacklisted leftists who could only work in television if someone else pretended to be the source of their scripts? Don is no leftist. Just listen: there is Jon Hamm doing a voice-over while his body appears at the wheel of a Lincoln during the commercial break. One wonders whether the show can go any further than it has in questioning the social significance of the industry with which it is so tightly entangled. 

Inspired by Lauren Goodlad’s use of Fredric Jameson last year, I speculate that the show’s most significant political commitments might not express themselves in its direct allusions to the Sixties, but rather lie buried (note to surface readers: not too deep) in its form. In this episode, the radical 60s are represented by Roger’s experiments in sexual freedom, which teeter on the brink of satire: “anyone’s welcome in this bed,” his new girlfriend tells him apropos of the unclothed male body on the other side of her. A bit more cleverly, the possibility of living differently is also represented by Freddy’s “ummm” in the first sequence, a syllable which is drawn out so as to sound like the “om” of “om madne padne om.” Politically speaking, there’s not much to work with here. Utopian desires seem as silly as getting a tan in LA or as the Shangri-La of the film “Lost Horizon,” a late-night television option on which Don and Megan decide to pass. When the rather more pertinent phrase “empty lives” is pronounced by none other than Richard Nixon, the show seems to be falling over itself in its generosity to other, non-radical voices. 

At the more formal level, on the other hand, we have the viewer’s response (I don’t know the precise name for it) to Roger’s extraordinary and charming persistence in his being. His daughter, whose phone call has awakened him from an orgy to arrange a brunch, takes the occasion of the brunch to say she has forgiven him. Unmoved, he asks whether she wants him to say he’s sorry. His daughter indicates that that’s not what she wants. Does anyone want it? Is there any desire out there for Roger to do anything other than continue to be someone who will keep of good cheer and ready wit no matter what and will never, ever apologize? But if that is his charm and that’s how we want him to be, then do we really want a moral redemption? 

As far as Don is concerned, the same principle applies: do we want him to stop womanizing? (His children do not appear in the episode.) Things with Megan in LA have been tense and tentative. “I don’t know why I feel nervous,” Megan says. Still, the sexual part of the reunion seems to go well when they finally get to it. Then there is the flirtation (with Neve Campbell!) on the red-eye back from LA to NY. Will Don allow his “I have to go to work” to stand? The harsh morning light that falls on his face as he raises the window shade is not nearly as harsh as what the sexy widow next to him has said, before she fell asleep with her head on his shoulder, about her husband. When Don asks how he died, she says “he was thirsty.” She says she was told by the doctor that that her thirsty husband would be dead in a year. That all of them would be. It sounds a lot like a prophecy. Of course we know the show will be. But we can’t help be curious about the charming crowd of drinkers we have come to know.

The Freddy/Don Accutron watch idea says that this timepiece is really a conversation piece. The same could be said of Mad Men itself-- it’s another bit of reflexivity with which we can credit Weiner’s television masterpiece. Weiner told an interviewer that what he wanted for the show was the generating of “water cooler moments”-- moments when, in the midst of work, even people who don’t watch a lot of television would realize that in order to keep up their conversational relations with their co-workers, they would just have to see the next episode. There is a certain fascination in the thought that this water cooler moment-producing show is at its deepest level a show about the value of work and social relations in the workplace.


Make A Comment


Lauren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lauren said...

A wonderfully thought-provoking piece on a premiere that seems to me to have laid a lot of groundwork, all very carefully woven in the ways you bring out, Bruce. I so totally agree that we don't want Peggy to fall into the cliche of the career woman who sacrifices all (like Joan Crawford's character in *The Best of Everything*). Joan somehow evades the trap and even her failures often draw me closer to her character. We like Roger's flaneurie as his character has never suggested that there was anything deeper at stake. I also appreciated your thinking through the political aspects of Don's taking on a front (and seemingly rising to peak form through this guise).

And as Caroline said on facebook, the idea of Mad Men as itself time piece/conversation piece is so spot on.

Two questions and an additional observation. Question 1: do you think that Peggy improved upon Don's idea? I may not have watched closely enough to spot your precise reference. My own sense (prior to knowing that Freddy was ventriloquizing Don) was that Freddy's tagline was better as it was: "I'ts not a time piece, it's a conversation piece." Nice rhythm and unmistakable wordplay. Peggy's version loses the pun.

Question 2. And here I exhibit my one-track mind. The question about the broken vessel. Is it the golden bowl?

Observation: loved the use of music in this episode. Just by accident we had a few friends over earlier in the evening and we were listening to Stevie Winwood and so heard the Spencer Davis number.

Thanks again for this great start!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post and glad the series is back, thanks. Jez

Bruce Robbins said...

I would have to go back over the sequence where Peggy comments on Freddy's idea, and I can't right now. My first impression--maybe just pro-peggy prejudice--is that she simplified in the right direction. "Its more elegant." But I could be wrong.

Yes, the broken vessel could well be the golden bowl! Time will tell…


Prof. G. Jay said...

Terrific analysis.
If I remember correctly, the Nixon clip is from the beginning of the second inaugural address, in 1972. Reading back through that, it seems a defining context for the episode and the season. The peace being sought for the post-1960s of America, and Vietnam, will be elusive; Nixon will not preside over this new era, but instead be driven from office in disgrace. As Don sits on the balcony in despair at show's end, out in the cold, he seems to be a forecast of Nixon's sorry end. Will Don share Nixon's fate, and thus not achieve redemption? He seems more and more out of tune with the times, his modish 50s outfits a jarring contrast to the hip clothing now so gorgeously on display in the show. And, speaking of clothes, what are we to say about the alarming rise in the hemlines, which my wife noted with a combination of startled memory and comic enjoyment? As you and Lauren note, the role and fate of the women in the show constitute it's most interesting theme, and the detail of their skirts seems to speak to the double burden of sexual appeal and fashionable career success they struggle to negotiate (or, in the case of Megan's astounding blue outfit at the airport, exploit--Don's startled gaze at her speaks volumes about his feeling of being lost in a Shangri La he wants to escape).

Robin said...

Ahh, that balcony! I'll admit that every time Don goes out there I wonder if this is the time he will fall. And he does, metaphorically anyway. And symbolic images of doors again. How about the balcony door being stuck open letting the cold air (of his addiction/dispair?) in to his meeting with Freddie who is staying sober in spite of his worry that the sausage sandwich will make him think of beer. And the unexpected and therefor slightly ominous knock at the door when the Don's "expensive gift" of a gigantic TV invades Megan's "back to nature" canyon retreat bringing with it lame Shangra-La but also the war, riots, men on the moon, Woodstock, ...the future .

Lauren said...

Great comments Professor and Robin and welcome to Kritik.

One small correction: I'm pretty sure it's Nixon's first inaugural address, meaning that it is January 1969.

Here's the full text of that speech:

Jez (I assume this is Jez B.) welcome back to Kritik!

Prof. G. Jay said...

Lauren, thanks for the correction on the Nixon date. For more on Don and Nixon, see the column in the Washington Post:

Lauren said...


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

Lisa said:
Just in reference to the above question:

"Accutron. It's not a timepiece. It's a conversation piece." The "Don" version, as performed by Freddie Rumsen.

"Accutron. It's time for a conversation." Peggy's altered version, or, as Freddie later suggests, the one she pees on to make her own--because when Freddie Rumsen is in the room, mention of urination can never be far behind.

This was probably my favorite opener to a new season ever. Yet in spite of the fact that I am usually a de facto member of Team Peggy, I think the Don version actually sounds better, particularly with Freddie's delivery. I wonder if that really is the point, though: aren't both versions combining to form another riff on Don's "change the conversation" mantra--one that Peggy has been prone to stealing and utilizing in the past? In the imagined boardroom of the watch ad, voices are engaged in conversation, but they're muffled and fall before the "Is that Swiss?" conversation-opener that the time piece creates. Whereas Don had formerly suggested, via the NYTimes ad refusing to pitch ads for tobacco, and a previous ad, that "if you don't like what people are talking about, change the conversation," now it seems like nobody's actually even having a conversation in the first place, until the ad happens: there's no such thing as conversation, in other words, until the watch creates the opportunity for one. So, in a sense, Peggy taps into that as well, with her revision.

I think the "conversation" motif also returns to "The Suitcase" episode (still my favorite), the first and only time in which the topic of "having conversations" comes up between Don and Peggy. In that episode, having conversations (in the office, the diner, the bar) becomes the way to fill up and kill time so Don doesn't have to call California and find out that Anna Draper has died. It's also the conversation that reveals that Don's "visit" to Peggy after she gives birth wasn't actually a wishful dream she had, but did in fact happen; and, it recalls the "move forward" advice he gives her then, still the most bracing antidote that the show's writing has come up with against the insistent "Don's whorehouse past still MATTERS and must be DEALT WITH!" storyline that dominated last season. Conversation kills time, and moves things incrementally forward, whether the talkers want it to or not.

Lauren said...

Awesome comments Lisa. I really liked this opener too (though nothing will ever take the place of Season 2's "For Those Who Think Young" in my personal hierarchy of MM premieres). It's worth noting too that (IIRC) Peggy changes her mind and likes the original pitch best herself. Your take on what happens in between is great!

John Branch said...

Rather disastrously, I missed the season-opening episode and so have skipped the later ones until I figure out how to catch up—no DVR here. But I do have an opinion on the proposed Accutron taglines.

"Accutron. It's not a timepiece. It's a conversation piece" is simpler and more direct than Peggy's revision, and it would work in the absence of any graphics. You could hardly fail to realize that this is an assertion about a watch, just as "It's not TV. It's HBO" lets you know pretty well what's being talked about even if you've somehow never heard of that cable channel.

That the show can invite us to consider the relative merits of such fine points seems to me proof of something central and double-edged about advertising, though I'm not sure how to say it: perhaps just that we're fascinated by its basilisk-like lure despite knowing its intent. (I don't think the basilisk is the proper image but can't recall what is.)

Incidentally, the subject of the Accutron watch makes me more eager to see the episode, as I own an Accutron, passed down from my father.