Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 7.6
"Living in the Not Knowing"
Guest Writer: Sean O'Sullivan

Monday, May 19, 2014

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

"Living in the Not Knowing"

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

The first notably long scene in this episode (running close to three minutes) shows Peggy running through a prospective version of a commercial for Burger Chef—a client that occupies the slightly awkward intersection of low class and national exposure. (It’s the opposite of Jaguar.) There is a lot to consider here, but I’ll spotlight three elements. First, there is the question we have had to live with from the very beginning of the show: namely, is this ad any good? Don will later tell Peggy that their job requires “living in the not knowing”—an inevitable uncertainty about whether any latest idea has intrinsic value, or if it will always be defined by some horrid combination of opinion, guesswork, and business imperatives.
Living in the not knowing, of course, is a defining aspect of watching a serial, even one that is approaching the end of its run. I’ll say more about that later, but for the moment I want to think about our quandary about knowing, or not knowing, whether “It’s toasted,” or Don and Peggy’s dueling Heinz ketchup billboards, or any of the other putatively brilliant ideas we’ve seen, are good only because other people within this fictional world seem to think they are. The core anxiety about the twentieth-century loss of fixed cultural values (inherited, in part from Mad Men’s parent enterprise, The Sopranos) affects every aspect of this environment. The Chevrolet XP campaign—which, we learn later, is apparently good enough to get SC&P to the threshold of Buick—has been entirely invisible. Our last sense of it came last season in that hotel bar in Detroit, when Don mentioned a sea of expectant faces, but no glimpses of the product itself, as the initial launch. Where is the thing itself? Later in the episode, Peggy will have an apparent epiphany about what to do with Burger Chef. Her first exclamation is, “That’s it!” Then she immediately modifies the discovery: “That’s more what it is.” We want yes or no, but we can only make do with more and less—a warning of a kind to those looking for satisfaction or resolution in this final season.

A second element has to do with the form of Peggy’s presentation here—namely, two large cardboard rectangles, each featuring six images. If you squint a little and think allegorically, this looks a little like the last “season” we’re getting of Mad Men: something broken into two parts, each part composed of six or seven pieces, with a narrative possibly flowing through the two big pieces. We can imagine this as a version of the whiteboard of writers’ rooms, with a season broken down into episode-sections. The story that Peggy tells here is a clean one of problem (“Mom” needs to feed the kids) and solution (Burger Chef, and the restoration of “family happiness,” in Lou Avery’s words). But what of the divided story of Mad Men’s last “year”? The 30-second pitch that AMC gives us at the end of the episode is not “Next on Mad Men” (despite the prominent tag line) but in fact “previously on Mad Men,” as already-viewed snippets, rapid editing, charged dialogue, and agitated music suggest that the following episode is going to be the conclusion to a teleological season from a very different show. (Boardwalk Empire?) We are told that the next episode is the “mid-season finale.” What the hell is a mid-season finale? It’s a device invented by the economic imperatives of a channel that pulled off the same dubious maneuver with Breaking Bad. It’s a fake destination point, as artificial in its way as the family in Peggy’s ad, an instance of the client dictating copy, of the corporation shaping art. That’s the fact of television, of course; but its display here, like the conversations throughout the episode about whether the Burger Chef ad is good for its authors or good for its paymasters, spotlights the fact that the old shop with which we’re so familiar is prey to the whims of a calculating multinational entity, a big humming computer. Who decided that the last season of Mad Men should be broken into two parts? Why, Jim Cutler did. Will the first part be a problem, and the second a solution—resembling not just Peggy’s ad, but all conventional scripts arranged to meet Hollywood formula? That’s a threat that this episode will itself seem to enact.

The third element has to do with who is in this room: namely, Peggy, Don, Pete, Harry Crane, and Lou Avery. The first four characters were introduced to us within the first ten minutes of the pilot; our sense of Mad Men in the seventh season rests heavily on the characters and interconnections we’ve known all along. Now, Harry has always been a bit of an outlier in the group. But if we entertain the idea of a character having agency (rather than being a victim of authorial whim), then we might go along with Don’s admittedly self-serving claim at the end of the episode, that Harry has been “very loyal”; he hasn’t abandoned us in the ways that Midge Daniels, Sal Romano, and Paul Kinsey did. Harry’s translation into partner—in the episode’s bracketing conference room scene—seems legitimate on a serial level as well. If he’s going to last, perhaps implausibly, as long as he has, we simply have to accept the fact that he has a stake in what Mad Men, deep down, is; like it or not, Mad Men is “more what it is” with Harry Crane than without him.

Peggy, Don, and Pete will have their big moment in the final scene. But what about the fifth character here—Lou Avery? His presence, in contrast with the four stalwarts, underscores not just a central challenge of late seasons but a recurring examination in this episode particularly: namely, the jostling and juxtaposition of people we’ve just met with people we’ve known a long time. How much can/should we invest in despising Lou Avery, who clearly exists to be despised? Peggy condescendingly refers here to Don’s contributions to the work on Burger Chef as “instrumental”—a term that could connote central importance or mere utility. How instrumental is Lou Avery to Mad Men? Until now, he has been a delightfully one-dimensional figure of sarcasm and obstruction. But in “The Strategy” he is much more like a gruff but well-meaning uncle, giving Peggy more than one look of approval and generally getting along with all and sundry. If Lou were important, if he were going to get a few seasons to “develop,” then such a shift might indicate that we need to live with him a bit longer to get a sense of his value—just as we have had to live longer with Pete Campbell, in particular, to move beyond his initial status as a one-dimensional figure of sarcasm and obstruction. But Lou, as a late-season character, is inevitably on a short-term contract. Does he matter—yes or no? The answer, as always, is more or less.

The two principal non-fast food storylines in “The Strategy” hinge on two latecomers to the populace of Mad Men, two immigrants whose uncertain value or impact put their own kinds of pressure on living in the not knowing. Who is Bonnie Whiteside? Is there anything more to her than the faintest sketch of character—“Mom,” “Jimmy,” “Katie”—that circulate in later versions of the Burger Chef ad? Until this point, and perhaps through this point, she has seemed simply the distillation of two primal delights: sex and real estate. She is a body, and she is free-market capitalism. Is that a character? She does the kind of thing, in this episode, that a character is reputed to do—namely, have an arc. She arrives in New York as California Woman, exhibiting her tan for Don and the rest of Pete’s colleagues; she is forced to cool her heels when Pete is waylaid by marital rancor and jealousy in Cos Cob; and she is angry to discover that she does not like Pete “in New York,” demonstrating that she is just learning the characters of the world we know. (“Then you don’t like me,” replies Pete, reflecting his typical obtuseness about nuance and context.) Has anything really happened to her? Has she changed? Perhaps more to the point, have she and Pete broken up by the end of the episode? (I say no; my wife says yes.) Would it matter if they have broken up? Does her run on Mad Men amount to another version of problem/solution—or perhaps solution/problem, a remedy for Pete’s adjustment to the West Coast followed by the rupture of that remedy?

Bob Benson gives us a very different instance of the late-season addition. He was a vague, comic figure throughout Season 6, only gradually working his way closer to the center of the show, culminating in the revelation that he was a Dick Whitman-like fraud. But he’s existed merely as exposition in this season, metonymically connected to “Detroit,” and best remembered on the Web as one of Mad Men’s favorite GIFs. Suddenly, in “The Strategy,” he’s front and center, rescued from the kind of exile that has overtaken poor Ted Chaough, alone on his desk on a perpetual conference call. My guess is that we all feel the loss of Ted—as Peggy originally saw him, as the optimistic and turtlenecked antidote to Don’s alcoholic misery.
But did we miss Bob Benson, other than as comic relief? Now, he’s not only back, but he’s definitional to the episode. His sexual identity becomes a plot point! He’s the first to learn Chevy’s plan to dump SC&P! He proposes to Joan! The sequence between Bob and Bill Hartley, the GM executive whom he bails out of jail for sexual misconduct, spotlights the potential peculiarity of Bob’s role. The likes of Hartley are legion in serial drama: the one-off character who exists to reveal a secret about a recurring, central part of the show. But when Bob himself works as a kind of cameo, what is the relative consequence of Hartley’s instrumentality?**

That unexpected marriage proposal operates as the middle event in a three-scene sequence that looks like the heart of the episode—a cluster nearly twelve minutes in length that begins with Peggy and Don first sitting down to re-think Burger Chef, moves to the high drama of Joan’s apartment, and concludes with That Dance and That Kiss. Bob’s suggestion that Joan serve as his beard in a rise to GM stardom stuns her, perhaps most pointedly in his last, surrendering remark: “I’m just being realistic.” Joan says that she wants love, and that she would “rather die hoping than make some arrangement.” Joan may have the smartest, no-nonsense business head in the office; but she apparently thinks she’s living in an opera, or at least a soap opera. Realism and romance, the plausible and the fanciful, have been the twin forces of Mad Men from its beginning—an apparently scrupulous commitment to showing how things are/were intertwined with “creative hijinks” (Jim Cutler’s phrase of a few weeks back) like Don’s secret family in Westchester—secret to us throughout the pilot—and Don’s secret past in the sticks.
As the show reaches its stopping point (and its mid! season! finale!), the tricky interplay between those core narrative strategies gets ever more focused on the stopping points of the show’s characters. Will we get a realistic or romantic cessation for Joan and the rest of the partners in the industrial project that is Mad Men?

It’s hard to imagine that it can ever get more romantic than in the longest scene of the episode, wherein Don and especially Peggy seem to crack the conundrum of Burger Chef (however temporarily), and where Sinatra’s “My Way” provokes him to tender, and her to accept, an invitation to bring their bodies together and sway.
Who ever thought that Mad Men would give us such a lurid piece of fan service? “The Suitcase” is one of the most beloved episodes, if not the most beloved, in the show’s run—the two-hander between Don and Peggy in his office on the night that Anna Draper died. Here we are once again in Don’s office—or, rather, we are in the office that late-character Lou Avery is renting, the office that seems destined to become Peggy’s. The power of “The Suitcase” (see also Michael Berube's post) was its melancholy, its affirmation that Mad Men was about the relationship between these two characters. The scene here gives us something much sweeter, a reconciliation that goes out, like a song dedication on an oldies station, to those who were there way back when--1960/2007. The central couple of the show asserted their longevity in the conversation that precedes their act of nostalgic entitlement—at one point, each of them says, about some date or past behavior, “I don’t remember.” Late characters don’t get to say lines like that; it’s the privilege of the core members of the show, those who make it more what it is—and of course it’s also the privilege of the viewers, who have been around long enough to forget. Take that, Bonnie Whiteside.

The end is near, Old Blue Eyes tells us. And we get what looks exactly like a final curtain, the camera tracking back to show us the couple in long shot—the image echoed mysteriously in a mirror that seems to have been installed for just this purpose, perhaps by director Phil Abraham. Meanwhile, the music switches from a distance—part of the overheard lived world of the show—to a place loud and present, metamorphosed into soundtrack. Followed, swooningly, by a dissolve. This fake-closure seems dangled in front of us by the show’s makers—perhaps a parody of fan service, or maybe just an alternative version (a flash-sideways) of what this show might be, indeed how the series might end, under a different aesthetic administration. But we will get a second ending, subsequent to a montage of Bonnie and Megan heading back to the Coast, and the plot revelations about Chevrolet and Buick. Doubles and multiples of conclusion have been a recurrent technique of Mad Men, although typically at the ends of seasons. The two versions of Don’s homecoming at Thanksgiving in the first year, accompanied by Bob Dylan’s “Don’ Think Twice, It’s All Right”; the strains of “You Only Live Twice” in the fifth year, as Don walked from the make-believe of a film set to a barely-believable bar; Judy Collins’ “Both Sides Now” as an accompaniment to Don revealing his double identity to his children, last year. It seems curious to get it here, as almost a parodic, internal version of “next”—or more likely “much later”—on Mad Men.

Arguably, the actual ending of the episode is even more romantic. For the second week in a row, we are treated to a mĂ©nage-a-trois. Last time, it was a late 60s fantasy of Southern California seduction, as “Amy from Delaware” (a late-season avatar if ever there was one) visited the Draper marital bed. Now, it’s the three characters on which the show has arguably always been pitched. Two of them are parents of a child neither has ever seen; the familial relation of the third (Don) to these other two has never seemed more uncertain. But it’s a contained uncertainty—not an instability produced by new personnel from the outside.

The scene begins with what seems, at least to me, another installment of the self-conscious reflections on what this show has been, and what it can still become in the little time we have left. “Now we have nothing,” Pete announces, ventriloquizing the likes of Caroline Levine, “only weeks away.” This is the dead end of Burger Chef as the dead end of Mad Men. Don and Peggy, however, will have none of this. Don told Peggy earlier that his solution to artistic crisis is to “start at the beginning again, see if I end up at the same place.” The episode began at one kind of Burger Chef, and it ends at another. That first one—with Peggy and John Mathis desperately buttonholing customers in the anonymous Midwest—was Burger Chef as abject realism: a bedraggled mother, kids whose names (whose specificity) are of no interest to anyone, “convenience” rather than desire the operative term. In culinary terms, it’s the “arrangement” for which Joan would not settle—not the “love” that advertising absorbs as its currency, a word (Don told Rachel Menken in the pilot) invented by guys like him to sell nylons. Or, in this case, to sell fast food. Don tells Peggy, in the first ending of the episode, that her latest version of Burger Chef—in effect, the version she lived in the first scene of the episode—is “too sad for an ad.” And, apparently, too sad to conclude this episode of Mad Men.

Because what we get, in the second valedictory camera track-back of the episode, is a portrait of Pete, Peggy, and Don in as romantic a version of dispensable Americana as the show can muster. Don’s final scrutable gesture is to point affectionately toward Pete’s chin, showing him where he needs to clean off some condiment. Since when does Don Draper care that Pete Campbell has condiment on his chin? This is the “family happiness” incarnation of the show, and its principals, sealed behind the glass/screen of a simulacrum of communal delight. Will Mad Men really opt for romance at the end? Is that really more “what it is”? Is the cost of fractious relationships with late characters a suffocating, sentimental relationship with early ones? Bonnie Whiteside’s earlier, irritated rejoinder, in the hotel room, to Pete’s attempts to make nice may encode a possible warning to the creator of this show, as he makes his final moves. Matthew Weiner, you’re not going to fuck your way out of this.


**The third visitor to New York, along with Bonnie and Bob, is Megan Draper, one of the least beloved members in the category of “late” characters. Is she indeed “late”? Not perhaps by a purely mathematical accounting. But she followed Bobbie Barrett, and Suzanne Farrell, and Faye Miller. What makes her something other than a variation on a theme? We are perhaps no more sick of her than we would have been of Bobbie or Suzanne or Faye. But she may always seem to be an interloper, as far as strict constructionists are concerned—always a symptom of post-classical Mad Men.








8 comments

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8 comments:

Rahma Sofiane said...

I really like the way you showed how self reflective the show is. It's a really good analysis. I noticed a lot of doors being shut in this episode by the way. It's basically telling us : "The end is near! "
You make some very good points about all of the characters especially Bob. There is something about him that makes us care even if we expected him to be one of those characters that nobody cares about.
I don't know if the show is going towards romance. I don't think anything can ever happen between Don and Peggy. At least I hope not. Don and Megan are clearly going to divorce. Pete is not really with Bonnie and things are way too messed up with Trudy for him to come bak.
Some last minute things can happen though, I can see Stan with Peggy for example (I can dream can't I ? :P )
What's for sure though is like you said : "Matthew Weiner, you’re not going to fuck your way out of this."

Lauren said...

This is a really great analysis, Sean--and it reads even better on a second go!

I think this was one of the best episodes of the current season - note quite as strong as the premiere but perhaps the best since that one. You brought all of the really nice interconnections between the construction of an ad strategy, a serial strategy (and for that matter the strategy of writing an individual episode).

I think Rahma is right that Bob Benson is an interest character. He's much less of a stock character than Bonnie Whiteside or Stan. Although he can sometimes seem cypherish those absences make him creepier and more interesting rather than less so.

I actually wish that Joan had accepted BB's proposal. She seems so ahead of her time and outside the box in so many ways--the "arrangement" as she called it might suit her. Although I certainly accept her belief in true love as credible I can imagine a marriage of convenience between Bob and Joan providing one of the most functional and loving familial relationships the show has as yet seen. In fact it's almost odd that the show wants to make the point that co-workers are a kind of family (the point of the closing frame) without admitting the possibility that Joan, Bob and Kevin as a Detroit/New York based trio might have been a pretty good familial network for all concerned.

Anyway, thanks again for these wonderfully rich observations.

Sean O'Sullivan said...

Thanks for your comments, Rahma. I should clarify that I meant "romance" in the Hawthorne sense--that is, art that represents the imagination or subjective perception, rather than the world as it seems to be. So, both endings of the episode, and Joan's perhaps unfulfillable desires, seem to push in that direction; we may get something very different next time.

Lauren: don't you mess with Stan! Although he too seemed to have been corrupted by the mood of the episode. "I'm in New York, and I'm in love." Meh. Interesting that Bob seems less "stock" to you than Bonnie; consider that he was essentially a joke for most of last season. And this year, he's been off in his own, unfilmed show in Detroit--the Daenerys Targaryen of Mad Men. Who knows what/who Bonnie might become? Not that I'm holding my breath.

Lauren said...

Sean, to be more precise, it's not so much that Bob is less stock than Bonnie (though arguably he is) as that there is clearly a drama in his very stock-i-ness. That is, his stock character is that of the "mysterious (closeted) guy" and here the use of that stock character has been (with mixed success) elevated to a kind of art form. Here fwiw is what I wrote about it last season on Kritik:

"Caring for others is not much on the mind of Manny’s friend Bob Benson, though he has taken great care to rid himself of Pete, the keeper of his secret, who now will set off for LA as a (not-so-gay) divorcĂ©. Bob still retains the air of his enigmatic beginnings: was he a corporate spy, we had wondered? Or just an empty suit with a penchant for sucking up? Did he know Manolo was a gold-digger? Whatever else he may be, we know that Bob is a gay man more at ease in the closet than Sal Romano ever was—but with a contrived identity that clearly doubles him with Don (just like his alliterative, tri-syllabic name). Bob’s providing a handy Best Guy Friend for Joan may, perhaps, be a sincere form of care—which would make him the ultimate example of what Mad World contributor Alex Doty called the type of the “helper homosexual.” But what “In Care Of” makes entirely clear is that Bob’s stunt in Detroit—as he manipulates Pete into exposing himself as the one man in Motor City who cannot drive a stick—is the kind of maneuver we’ve seen Don pull off many times."

So in light of that I don't mean that Bob had a lot of character development this season (to the contrary I thought we'd never see him again!). But I was amused to find him used as a catalyst again. He is that cipher who works the way some enzymes do in chemistry: he gets things happening. Whereas Bonnie (by contrast), though a fun stock character and as you say in your great post, basically a walking-talking capitalist avatar (like the Barbie doll she very clearly resembles), does not tend to set plots in motion in the same way. She is used to set a certain tone or texture for a particular plotpine; but Bob sometimes steers things off the precipice.

Are you saying you are ready to devote a book chapter to Stan as the Man? If so, one last tidbit from last year's Kritik chatter. At the start of season 5 Stan was wearing the identical suede jacket as Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy. Take THAT Bonnie Whiteside! ;)

Sean O'Sullivan said...

Lauren: Still hoping for an Olson/Rizzo/Ginsberg spinoff set in the 70s. Three's Company?

Lauren said...

You know, I never saw Three's Company. In fact, dislike of the upbeat sitcom is probably why I became a non-TV watching Victorianist for so many years. That said, an Olson/Rizzo/Ginsberg cop show set in the 70s would suit me just fine... I can almost see it too.

Jez B. said...

Thanks for this post. I am hoping for a good mid season finale tonight. Jez

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