Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 4.3
"Bad News"

Monday, August 9, 2010

[The third in our multi-authored series of posts on Mad Men season 4, published before the publication of MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style and the 1960s (Duke University Press).]


Written by Lauren M. E. Goodlad (Director, Unit for Criticism/English)

There is a scene in the 1956 movie, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, in which three men, one of whom is Thomas Rath (Gregory Peck), walk into a business meeting wearing nearly identical gray business suits. The film is referenced in Season 2 of Mad Men (Episode 9, “Six Month Leave”) when Jimmy Barrett spots Don and says, “Well, if it isn’t the man in the gray flannel suit.” Furious at Jimmy for telling Betty about his affair with Bobbie Barrett, Don answers the comedian with a punch in the face.

Despite some interesting parallels, Don’s story is very different from Rath’s. Although Rath is, like Don, a suburban commuter with a wartime secret, the threat he faces is the mass-marketed conformity of postwar America. This has never been a serious problem for Don who, from the start, has been something of a rock star: his well-tailored suits a mark of masculine panache, not corporate subordination. Then too, Rath saves his soul and his marriage by telling the truth about his past, and putting family before professional ambition. Needless to say this is not Don’s story. Indeed, Season 4 of Mad Men has, so far, been the tale of a man who loses everything after telling the truth.

As Don says to Anna Draper in Episode 3 (“The Good News”), the minute Betty “saw who I really was she never wanted to look at me again.” Eventually Anna says, “I know everything about you. And I still love you.” These lines arrive at an interesting point in the narrative. For while Season 4 opened with the perennial question, “Who is Don Draper?,” the truth is that we viewers, like Anna, know everything there is to know about Don. And we have continued to watch him—if not quite to love him. But it is getting harder: and, quite frankly, Episode 3 was not good news.

I do not mean simply that the news is not good for Don, though it clearly is not. For years we have watched him in the long free fall depicted in the opening credits. In the last two weeks we have seen him hit bottom. As a married man, with a beautiful wife and family to anchor him, Don was a figure of dizzying disencumbrance: a Madison Avenue flâneur. As a divorcé living alone in Greenwich Village, he is drinking too much and relying on a small army of obliging women, from his housekeeper Celia, call girl Candace, and secretary Allison, to Phoebe, the young nurse who lives down the hall.

Now, by Episode 3, you might say (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde) that he is lying in the gutter, but not looking at the stars.

Of course, Don’s decline makes perfect narrative sense. The first two episodes are artistically compelling, no matter how disturbing (at times) to watch. In last week’s episode, as my colleague Rob Rushing wrote in his splendid post on Mad Men’s love affair with color, the storyline of a not-so-merry Christmas in 1964 is shot through with jolts of gorgeous design.

Rob’s thoughts on the tension between self-conscious aestheticism and realist narration—the object of which, as Henry James famously pronounced, is to “compete with life”—may prompt us to think about the various devices through which dramas like Mad Men invent televisual forms to do the work of omniscient narration. Through such conventions, serial television approximates the complexity of novels like James’s Portrait of a Lady (1881), or my own favorite Mad Men precursor, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), both of which, much like today’s “quality television,” appeared serially before being published in volumes, like a boxed set of DVDs.

In Episode 2, Don’s one-night-stand with his secretary, a sad violation of his own professional ethic, is interrupted by the scene of Sally looking out her suburban window before she gets into bed. Is she still thinking of the Santa Claus whom she knows will not be home for Christmas this year (as in the letter Allison read to Don at the office)? Sally’s palpable loss inflects her father’s slide into alcoholic self-pity. Don has always been a selfish bastard and self-deceiver, but he has also had a perverse integrity that accounts for the many almost Nietzschean moments in which he transcends the surrounding void. And he has often been a tender father.

Sally’s interpolation into the scene on the couch does not exonerate Don. But, like the work of a realist narrator, it puts the viewer in mind of the emotional situation subtending this sorry affair. Given Don’s capacity to push the past behind him, Allison and Sally will doubtless suffer longer for his misdeeds than he does. But he does suffer and—what is far more important—the confluence of these different notes of suffering “competes with life.”

The best episodes of Mad Men are like this: synchronic units embedded in a diachronic storyline. Through the magic of seriality, the richly layered “chapters” that compose each season, thematically unified by narrative care, stand alone artistically, even while contributing another piece to the puzzle. Typically each episode concludes with a song, chosen for periodicity as well as explanatory power.

Thus, Season 3, Episode 7 (“Seven Twenty Three”) closes with “Sixteen Tons,” including the classic line, “I owe my soul to the company store.” The song reflects on a storyline that finds Don forced to sign a contract with Sterling Cooper against his will. In the same episode, the besotted Don hallucinates an encounter with his dead father Archie, a flinty farmer who tells him a hillbilly joke and mocks his son’s upper-middle-class profession: “Look at your hands. They’re as soft as a woman’s. What do you do? What do you make? You grow bullshit.”

Another such episode is Season 2, Episode 12 (“The Mountain King”) which introduces Anna as the one person in Don’s life whom he trusts well enough to ask for advice. With Anna’s encouragement Don decides to return to Betty (from whom he has been estranged since she learned of the affair with Bobbie Barrett). The song this time, another country and western number called “Cup of Loneliness,” raises the possibility of redemption “from sin.”

We have not seen Anna since the “The Mountain King.” So when Don returns to her in the current episode, the title “Good News”—a literal translation of the Old English gospel—reminds us how elusive redemption has been for this pilgrim who grows bullshit for a living.

“Good News” ostensibly looks to Anna to facilitate another turning point in Don’s life. But her words of encouragement for the man she calls Dick—“I’m so damned proud of you”—are hopelessly out of touch. Under her nose he betrays her trust, trying to hit on her niece Stephanie whom he has known as a girl. Where Anna’s grasp on Don’s meditation in an emergency was strong in “The Mountain King,” this time around it’s her older sister who pins him down, rebuking this Dick for not keeping his pants on, and reminding him that he is powerless to save Anna from cancer.

Elsewhere in the episode “good news” takes the form of a “magnificent year” for the fledgling ad agency. And for Joan, the good news is that the two “procedures” she has undergone in the past should not prevent her from becoming pregnant. In an oddly ironic moment, her usually loathsome husband shows a competence we have not yet seen, regaling Joan with a hillbilly joke while tending her injured finger. (It is the same kind of joke Archie Whitman tells Don while mocking his woman’s hands—connecting Don and Dr. Harris for the first time since the latter raped his future wife in Don’s office.)

With the visit to Anna over, Don cancels his trip to Acapulco and spends New Years’ Eve on an airplane, drinking. When he returns to the office—always the place Don goes to collect himself—he finds Lane Pryce who has just learned that his wife has left him.

I suspect some viewers enjoyed the ratpack-meets-Bill-and-Ted adventures that follow. Don and Lane get drunk at the movies and Lane shouts Japanese-sounding nonsense. Don and Lane drink some more at a restaurant and, with Don’s offer to find him a “lady friend” for the evening, Lane abandons his reserve, leaps up from his chair, and slaps “a big, Texas belt buckle” across his groin—the huge steak he lacks the appetite to eat. Later at a nightclub, a young stand-up comic mocks the pair—calling them “George and Martha”—until the arrival of their hired dates elicits a correction: “I guess I was wrong; you’re not queers, you're rich.”

As I have written before of Don, “Though superficially a ‘man’s man,’ he does not long for intimacy with other men.” He has only rarely taken part in male bonding rituals—and never at the office where he maintains fastidious distance from high jinks of any kind (recall his absence during the lawn mower debacle in the sublime Season 3 episode, “Guy Walks into an Ad Agency”). But just as he erred last week in prevailing upon a female employee for sexual gratification, so this week he ignored his advice to the departed Sal Romano: “Limit Your Exposure” (Season 3, Episode 1, “Out of Town”).

My point is not that Don should not make mistakes (when has he ever failed to make them?). Neither do I object to Don's having sex with prostitutes, and certainly not to his liking to be smacked around. Who would begrudge Don Draper the chance to indulge in erotic forms of contrition? Nor is the issue that Don and Lane should not console one another in their loneliness: we have seen Don and Roger in their cups like this before.

No, the bad news for me is the egregious artistic weakness of this episode as it follows these antics (yes, egregious, the word that Lane’s ex-secretary does not understand). “Good News” does not “compete with life” because, if truth be told, I do not believe it. Almost everything about this episode felt wrong to me: as though a script for Mad Men had been shopped out to the winner of a Banana Republic competition.

Consider the pathetic attempt to seduce Anna’s niece on her mother’s driveway because she is so “beautiful and young.” The Don of the past exerted more self-control; and unlike the credible one-night-stand with Allison, no circumstances were offered to explain such pure lechery. Yes, Don is broken, but he has not been body snatched. Why would he risk hurting Anna or driving a wedge between them for something so fleeting?

Even the music was off kilter: why bring “Old Cape Cod” to mind in an episode shot in Southern California? Better still, why conclude this episode with a television soundtrack instead of the usual period song? In fact, a good choice was already on hand in “The House of the Rising Sun,” briefly heard at the nightclub and admired by Janine—even though she doesn’t go to Barnard.

Although Bob Dylan recorded this song in 1961 it was the Newcastle rock group, the Animals, whose supremely soulful version of this ballad of a “poor boy” with “a gamblin’ man” father went to number one in 1964:

Oh mother tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun.

It may seem like a quibble but the underuse of this song seems to me to perpetuate Mad Men's tin-eared relation to rock and roll, a subject it has noticeably--not to say egregiously--marginalized. It is as though the show--even as it ages Don, and presents him in the most abject light--is afraid to show us what a real rock star looked like in 1964: the kind who might appeal to Janine and Stephanie. In one of several scenes that fall flat for me, Don and Stephanie spar about politics and he tells her she can combat the "pollution" of advertising if she "stops buying things." The problem is, I don't believe either of them: not him when he tells her that she is in charge; not her when she tells him that she might stop buying.

No, just this once it is me who stopped buying.

I have been watching this show with such unadulterated pleasure, I have become a kind of Conrad Hilton: tetchy and demanding.

Did you hear that Mr. Weiner? When I say I want the moon, I expect the moon.


Make A Comment


Dana Polan said...

Hey Lauren,
A great post with lots of good ideas in it.  In Season 2 (I think it was) going to LA and meeting up with Anna was a chance for Don to imagine getting away from his new life.  Now with Anna dying that escape seems to be definitively closing on him.  The trick cut where we see Don drinking on the plane and imagine he's going on to Acapulco only to then discover he's headed back to NY seems to me a real sign of new avenues being closed off.  I think I liked the Lane scenes a bit more than you did because they connected up for me to this no-exit closing in of the narrative:  LA is no longer an option for Don and all that's left is to bond superficially with a colleague.  His world is getting smaller (even as the show hints that the world is opening up for many other people in the expansive 60s).

So, a very provocative post.  Thanks for it.

--Dana Polan

Jez B. said...

Well, LG. Can any show really give you the moon all of the time? Okay the LA parts were slow. UFOs and all that didn't seem to really go anywhere. But NYC scenes were pretty funny.

I do like those episodes you analysed though so thanks. Nicely remembered hillbilly jokes connection. And you're probably right that the music didn't work as well as it usually does.

You might like reading this from another blogger who actually thought this was "the show's first truly bad episode"

MP said...

Dana, thanks very much. I think your interpretation of what is going on in terms of the shrinking of Don's world is entirely right. And I suspect that if the Cali scenes had worked better for me I'd have been in a position to appreciate the NY ones more. I do certainly appreciate Lane who I find v. interesting. He is not simply a stock "uptight, mean Brit" (which interestingly enough there's an example of in a character called Ogden in Man in the Gray Flannel Suit).

Jez B., thanks to you too and welcome to Kritik. Actually a colleague had sent me a link to the New Republic's blog but thank you for posting it. You're right; you can't always expect the moon (or the stars). But I guess when something engages you (as the first two episodes of this season strongly engaged me) your expectations can rise to Hiltonian levels. I do find it interesting that the NR's blogger (Matt Zoller Steitz) also seems not to have loved "The Jet Set"--a Season 2 episode set in California which I also found strangely unmoving (though it was nominated for an Emmy). I certainly wouldn't have chosen to write about "Good News" but it was the luck of the draw. Although I lived on the West Coast for several years (in Seattle) I don't think I understand well what So. Calif. means to some in their cultural imaginary. It has never stood out as a golden elsewhere to me in relation to NY (I grew up in NY and always think of myself as New Yorker despite living in Seattle and now Illinois). But Dana is certainly right that Anna's expected death marks the closing off of a path.

There is of course Paris ;)

Anonymous said...

"And the only time he's satisfied is when he's on a drug"

lilya said...

To me this episode was about seeing the “truth” and the arrival, fast and furious, of the Sixties as we know them: sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll: “Gentlemen, welcome to 1965!” says Joanie, presiding over the new conference table. If these look awkward, it's because we are seeing them through the eyes of the previous generation that is—literally—dying off. I think Anna knows perfectly well that she is dying; and I think she does everything in her power to set up Dick Whitman with her niece, because she recognizes that it’s time for him to move on. She knows the “truth” about him and part of that truth is his ability to reinvent himself. There's a distinct “Japanese” theme (between Godzilla and the “House of the Rising Sun”) and Don passes up both the wacky hijinx of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the sentimental romance of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (with Catherine Deneuve!) in favor of watching a monster stomp out civilization, while everyone else in the theater is otherwise occupied. Don and Lane don't stay in the nightclub to hear The Animals because they are “George and Martha”—square, old, and out of place. The difference in day and night in this episode is superb, in particular, when we watch the sun come up in the “West” (i.e. through Anna’s window). More to the point, though, this episode builds on last week’s, which was so much about age and youth: the campaign for Ponds cold cream; the children’s secrets from the adults; “the boyfriend” calling Peggy old fashioned; Peggy calling Freddy old fashioned; Lee Garner Jr. joking that Roger is either “Father Christmas” or “Father Time”; Roger’s repeated references to his very white hair… The “Old Cape Cod” song in this episode goes to that same theme of age and youth that’s all over this season (on this and the free speech movement in Berkeley, see also:
And let’s not forget that the “Old Fashioned” is Don’s favorite drink.

Rob Rushing said...

On character: Not only did I like this episode, but I also felt like Don as a character actually pulled back a bit here from the total despair of the drunken collapse in his apartment hallway sans keys of last time. I'm not sure he was ever reaching for the stars, but his well-meaning defense of Anna (for whom he wants specialists, informed consent) is paired with the slight rehabilitation of Joan's "rapey husband," as my wife likes to say.

On quality: You're certainly not the only one to see this a poorly-written episode (the New Republic calls it "the show's first all-out flop"), but I don't agree. For instance, let's take the apparent throw-away humor of Lane's meaty belt buckle. First off, the belt buckle of inedible meat is a brilliant parody of everything that’s wrong with capitalist consumption and its facilitators, the ad men—in fact, the entire dinner is a comment on advertising, even quoting Dr. Miller’s words on advertising from last week, when Don asks—“is it what you want, or what people expect?” Lane knows perfectly well that SCDP's function, especially in America, is to produce a literally obscene (hence the groin) excess that people pay for but don’t consume. And if the episode's title gestures towards the gospel, perhaps we might have to read its egregiousness etymologically, as well, as Don and Lane separate themselves from the flock. But perhaps that's Bruce's territory!

On music: The episode also marks the turn for Don away from European highbrow cinema toward B-movie pop culture aimed more at teen tastes, but as you note, it fails to do the same for music. Personally, I think we need to look hard at this episode to see if perhaps the musical choices are more meaningful than you think; perhaps your rhetorical question "Why Cape Cod…?" has an answer. It may have nothing to do with lyrical content: the version we hear, by Patti Page, was already old-fashioned at this point, having been released in 1957, almost eight years before; Page is also seen as one of the few traditional pop artists to survive the transition into rock 'n' roll. Likewise, Don's tastes are about to become old-fashioned (and not by accident is the Old Fashioned his favorite drink, and literally old-fashioned by the early 1960s—it's a 19th-century cocktail), a theme sounded last week by Peggy and Freddy. Perhaps he, too, is being positioned as a "surviving relic"—Page is still alive and touring today, unlike The Animals.

MP said...

Yikes, one of you at a time! Seriously, thanks very much Lilya and Rob. Lilya: I know that Don is old-fashioned. 1965 may well hit him like a ton of bricks. All the more reason for Mad Men not to warp its representation of the later 60s almost as though it's torn between showing his awareness of age and preserving his special cachet (on which the show of course has ridden very high). Don is a very charismatic character but the shelf life of his charisma is beginning to show. Will he be able to reinvent himself in some form—to his satisfaction and/or that of the times? That’s the real answer to the “Who is Don Draper" question. It’s a real challenge for the show’s writers and one I think they can live up to brilliantly. But this time they didn’t, IMO.

I don’t think of the 60s as a time when Berkeley co-eds were dying to have sex with the 40-year-old ad men friends of their dying aunt. Stephanie’s rejection of Don was one of the more credible things in the episode though not handled in an especially interesting way. I don’t buy that Anna tried to set it up: if that were so why caution him about how to dance with her, and why not simply invite her to sleep over? Were they supposed to have sex in his car on her mother’s driveway? I’m not suggesting that it’s impossible to imagine Don having a consensual affair with a 19-year-old student. Men his age do it every day with young women who want to. I simply found this dramatization of that scenario unconvincing and out of character given the contexts.

Women like Midge, Rachel, and Bobbie Barrett (no spring chicken) were really interesting partners for D. b/c they embodied strengths not typical in the conventional early 60s woman. Suzanne was a less successful character. Do some men going through a tough time jump at any under-25 woman that moves? Sure. But MM will have to work harder to make that an interesting prospect for me--and I doubt they'll want to stay with such a cliche. (I personally found the flight attendant in 3.1 and even Joy of “The Jet Set” more interesting and unconvincing than Stephanie.)
I have no problem with Don’s not having stayed to hear “The House of the Rising Sun” (which was being performed in Bob Dylan-style not Animals-style). Yes, Don is “old-fashioned”—the comedian doesn’t even spot them for Madison Avenue; he thinks they’re from Wall Street and how bad is that? My point isn’t that Don should be rocking out to the Animals. But the country was. For a show so tuned into to synchronous musical complements to have invoked this landmark song but in a 3-year-old form was odd. Then to have concluded with no period music at all: that just seemed perplexing to me. Old Cape Cod is less of a problem. Yes, of course, it’s played precisely because it’s a moldy oldie. I get it. It did seem weird though to have Don dreaming about Cape Cod where he's never been when the man lives 4 hours away from Cape Cod and is in LA. (Where was it that Betty used to take the kids on vacation every summer? Not Cape Cod but not far away I’ll wager.) Small point? Yes, but MM usually nails the small stuff without breaking a sweat.
Rob—more later maybe, but for now. Eric Burdon still tours Here is his website including his latest Twitter update.

MP said...

Anonymous: thanks v. much for posting an apropos line from "House of the Rising Sun." (As the moderator in these parts as well as the poster du jour let me welcome you and ask that you please "sign" your posts in some fashion in the future. Initials or a moniker of some sort are just fine.)

Rob: I didn't think of Lane's Tex belt-buckle as throw-away humor and I'm sure you're reading of it is exactly right. I just didn't enjoy it (I did enjoy the comedy club though--by far the best scene involving Don in the entire episode).

I agree on Dr. Rape and Joan: that was the best scene in the episode, for me.

I'm not sure what in my post gave the impression that I don't recognize that Don is getting older and as beginning to seem/be old-fashioned. My intention was quite the contrary. As I said above, all the more reason for the times to be a-changin...

I think the Patti Page song is beautiful, btw, and it really stuck with me. My query about it was purely about place, not about time, and certainly not about musical quality.

Re the usual closing number: Had they played Old Cape Cod (for the sake of deliberate anachronism) or some other 1964 or 1965 song in place of "The House of the Rising Sun" you would not have heard a murmur from me on this subject, I swear it. That said, I do think it's time that the British invasion come in some form other than the metaphorical one (Lane's ex-employers) and Don's quick allusion to Beatles 45s for Sally's Xmas present. The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan in Feb '64. I'm sure it will happen soon enough on MM: Ferry Cross the Mersey is a nice dance number that any 40-something might dance to while slurping down his old fashioned. And won't I be smiling if the next episode gives us the Animals doing their '65 hit "We Gotta Get out of this Place." The line "Now my girl you're so young and pretty" might just fit Don's mood if not his rhythm ;)

BTW, another poster (Jez B.) posted the New Republic link earlier. I'm curious to see what that writer meant about the bad-dancing extras!

Lauren said...

Actually I want to correct myself on one point above. "Tobacco Road" (a few lyrics from which I posted in the comments section on Lilya's post below) is not only a rockin' but a rockin' British invasion song--which I hadn't known until I just checked a minute ago. So there is one good reason to have not wished to feature a second "invasion" tune at the conclusion of this more elegiac episode; and possibly even a reason for associating "House of the Rising Sun" with Bob Dylan's version rather than Animals (who actually recorded a later and different version of Tobacco Rd.)

FWS said...

Don's fumbled pass at Stephanie seemed less the product of weak writing than a continuation of his self-degradation this season, first with having to pay for sex (and for slapping!), and then sleeping with his secretary, crossing what had appeared to be a personal and professional line - dallying with the secretary pool hadn't been his style before. Without the patina of wholesomeness and conformity leant by marriage, Don's new social identity as a divorced man in the mid-60s is one that, to the youthquakers you all discuss above, would seem older - and perhaps sad(der). To Bethany Van Nuys, his being divorced almost seemed to make him an object of pity! (Though I am pleased to see that this pattern, however tenuous, of him striking out with blondes is holding steady for the time being.)

Related to this humbling or handicapping of Don via the absence of a "better half," the show once again drew attention to an injured leg. Don was clearly uncomfortable seeing the neighborhood boy with polio at Sally's birthday party in season one, perhaps unwilling or unable to pity the child. Last season, Guy never got to *walk out* of an advertising agency after one of those typical drunk-secretary-on-a-tractor incidents in which one's foot is maimed - a seemingly minor injury, relatively speaking, but one that apparently ends a career. And this season began with Advertising Age's reporter nearly tripping over his own prosthetic foot, before tripping Don and SCDP up with an unflattering article. Anna's broken leg, however, not only revealed her terminal cancer, it is the first time that such a handicap, however synechdochically, touches Don. Momento morbid?

Did anyone else hear Lane's awkward, brash steak belt buckle bit, which segued to the laughter in the comedy club in perhaps the most merciful editing I've seen on tv, as a hilariously bad Lee Garner, Jr. impersonation? I rather hoped his private and oh so British judgments of their most precious client were slipping through.

MP said...

Great thoughts on limbs, FWS. As to your question. I did notice (and enjoy) the editing and like your description of it as "merciful."

Had not thought of it as an L. Garner Jr impersonation. He would be from the Carolinas rather than Texas, no, though we know he likes that Marlboro man-kinda guy to be sure.

FWS said...

Ah, you're right, he's not Texan. Somehow I'd been hoping Lee would end up shot by Jock Ewing in an alternate television universe.

Sandy said...

This post and the comments are fascinating. I had a couple of ideas that I wanted to share. First, "Old Cape Cod" seemed to me to evoke the Kennedys and the end of Camelot, which seems an apt image for this episode, which marks the end of California as the single place where Don could be himself and still be loved.

Second, I could see SCDP fragmenting into oldies and youngies. Don might imagine that he can be the fulcrum between them, the glue that might keep the agency functioning, but I don't think he really can. (Cf. Peggy and Freddy)

On the Stephanie thing: it is clumsy as narrative, but it was important that someone young reject him.

This note is not as elaborated as I wanted to make it, but the first and longer version went away and I've had to redo it.

zina said...

Hi Lauren,

I agree that this episode was not on the level of the first two, but I did not find it that bad. Yes some moments were overstated, and you identified them, such as the discussion with Stephanie, and the buckle/steak incident. However, I think that this brashness itself is integral to the thematic development. Some viewers are waiting for the Sixties to truly begin on the show, and yourself suggested that much in relation to the music. I would say that the style of overstatement is the Sixties. The same way that the coarseness of the language (How are your balls, asked Don's lawyer in Episode One - which annoyed old-fashioned Don), and the flashiness of the new office, point to a new expression that is "vulgar", and that is part of the new pop culture of the Sixties. Somebody pointed to the choice of the Japanese monster movie over old Hollywood or foreign art movies: I think it goes in the same direction.

Even the discussion with Stephanie, in its lack of subtlety, points to the new political discourse, and the new political soundbites that people were producing and adopting.

On Don awkward pass at Stephanie, it is another example of the disintegration of his persona, his neediness, his desperation. The Don of old did not hit on women: women hit on him - that's what made him such a dangerous Don Juan. The Don of old did not enjoy boys nights out (remember when he rejected one of the Double-sided Aluminum twins in S1), the new one might need them to alleviate his loneliness.

BTW, when Anna tells him to be good when Don and Stephanie go dancing, it could be understood as meaning the exact opposite, especially seeing how relaxed she seemed - she did not look at all like a chaperon guarding her niece's virtue. She seemed to be putting out in the open the possibility of something between them. It could be the use of a time honored rhetorical tool.

Then, I loved the Jet Set, so...

One little remark on the keys: last episode, Don lost his keys. This time, when he is back to the office, he does not use them because the door was open.

The key motif goes way back: In the last episode of S3, when he and Roger left the old office after stealing the files, Don was going to close the door and Roger told him not to bother. In the first episode of S2, a locksmith was working on Don's office door. And of course, losing his drawer keys led to him being exposed as a fraud to Betty.

I just read your article in the Chronicle that you linked to, and I find it brilliant.

MP said...

Sandy, I hate when that happens! Perhaps draft a longer post on a word file? I like your theory on Cape Cod. And I agree with you that at some point Don needed to be rejected by someone Stephanie’s age; just wish it had happened differently.

Zina, you are oh-so-right that Don used to be the hit-upon not the hitter: at least in terms of casual flings. (Different for those longer-term idealizations he developed for Rachel and Suzanne which in both cases found him showing up at their doors in the middle of the night.) And yes, I do remember the twins: one of my favorite episodes; and I remember how Peggy used almost the same line to reject a guy who was giving _her_ the hard sell at Paul Kinsey’s party.

As to the later 60s and whether they were vulgar; I don’t claim to be an expert (though my mom used to stack up 45s to put me to sleep when I was little girl and they were all British invasion tunes so there’s my Animals secret).

Since you read the Chronicle piece (and thanks for your kind words) you can probably sense that I have a real investment in this character's integrity--which I'm just realizing. The character has really been moving to me: which doesn't mean that Don hasn't often been weak and contemptible. It makes sense that he will drink and do regrettable things when he is this far down, but I don’t see him hitting on Anna’s niece when he’s more or less sober (though of course we differ on where Anna stood on that—I assume she didn’t look at them dancing because she trusted Dick, I just don’t see her setting it up). But to take a point we might we might agree upon: even the way the Don of this episode talked to Anna’s sister about the cancer struck me as awkward and clichéd. It made me feel embarrassment for the character—and interestingly enough that’s why I didn’t like “The Jet Set.” I felt like the jet-setters were condescending and pretentious and could not see what someone like Don would find appealing about their company (fling with Joy aside). I am curious what you _did_ like.

As to the new political discourse and soundbites. I dunno; I think that side of the 60s has too much aura for me, for me to want to see it played on Mad Men as glib banter between a mid-life crisis dude in lech mode and a college student using politics to tease him. Then again, to make matters even more tricky, I don’t see MM as fundamentally about authentic capture of the 60s, early or late. It’s a fantasy of the past for us and it gets it right in just enough ways to make us really believe it; but its our emergency we’re meditating in. So again, it will be a real challenge for the writers to handle the coming of "those" 60s and the impact of them on this living chronotope of a character. I certainly don't want Don to become a hippy--or Alan Alda. But I don't want him to become a pathetic parody of himself either. That said, I actually have a lot of confidence in these writers even though I whinged about this episode.

Thanks very much; I appreciate your spot-on insights and look forward to your thoughts on future episodes.

Rob Rushing said...

Just re-watched, and two things: one, perhaps all the broken legs, mangled feet, prosthetic legs, and polio prone children that we see are nothing more than a sign of the diffuse presence of a swollen-footed Oedipus stalking through our show, and two, the music we hear in the closing credits (a light and fluffy Brazilian-inspired light-jazz samba) is the same as the music we hear as Don arrives in California and we see him driving south on the PCH. In short, the end of the episode is using that music to tie the dawn of 1965 (drugs, abortion, youth, counter culture) to the West Coast rather than to the New England of "Cape Cod." Perhaps SCDP or its future version is going to move to Los Angeles, precisely as media, television, and much of advertising moves to LA?

brb said...

Great post and tremendous comments.

I'll just add my amen to those who expressed frustrations. A lot of the writing was indeed sub-par, like this exchange that would make a soap opera writer wince:

Joan: You're going to Vietnam!!
Rapey Dr: You don't know that!!!

a lighter touch is not too much to ask here. The same goes for the scene in which Don's sexual advance awkwardly (and soap-opera-ly) shifts to "She has cancer!".

It seems to me that the show necessarily slows down and suffers whenever we have the extended Dick Whitman exposition. All the subtlety of the "self-made man" trope goes completely out the window.

zina said...

Lauren: thanks for your answer. What I enjoyed about the Jet Set was its sheer weirdness and dreamlike quality. Yes Don was a fish out of water, but I see it as the point of the episode.

The many women (Bethany, the nurse, Faye, Stephanie) who have rejected him since the beginning of S4 reiterate the trauma of Betty dumping him.

About the conversation with the sister, he adopts the Don Draper persona, and fails - again. He goes back to NY, his "lady-friend", and his whiskey - with the difference that he seeks out a companion for the first time.

I actually admire the nerve of the writers in destroying so utterly his cool, one of the appealing aspects of the character and of the show. I think that it has disturbed some viewers.

I guess that Don spoke for the viewers when he said to Lane : I can't take any more bad news.

MP said...

I love this conversation, btw. Thanks so much for these comments.

BRB: yes, exactly right: Dick Whitman expositionally tricky and sometimes downright clunky. But the Archie Whitman hallucination is wonderful, no?

Zina, I can see the appeal of the dreamlike quality of Jet Set; as the New Republic's blogger said, the episode did the work of the surreal coma episode in the Sopranos. Anyway, I made my peace with The Jet Set (and may well do so with Good News as well--I certainly hope so.)

But I do see some things differently, Z. The conversation with the sister: that wasn't Don Draper. Just a guy out his depth in a fairly unappealing way. Of course, as Rob points out, the desire to help Anna was totally natural. But the swaggering I'll-take-care-of this-now because-she means-a-lot-to-me didn't feel like Don Draper to me. And the scene really belonged to the sister with her great "You're just the man with the checkbook," and the "decent thing" is for you to get lost lines.

You are totally right though that the writers were brave to give the scene to a cranky mom whom we've never seen before and probably never will again.

Another small difference I see Faye's "no" like Rachel's. It's not a rejection: it's a "just how easy do you think this is going to be"?

Bethany in the cab was brilliant.

I'm not so sure about the nurse; I have this notion that she may be more like a bohemian Peggy in Don's life than a girlfriend. (But what do I know?)

Rob, very interesting. I am all for Greek tragedy. But you do know that if SCDP moves to California that you need a new co-editor, don't you? ;)

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Jeff Berger said...

Whenever Don goes to California it reminds me of that episode of Laverne & Shirley where Bob the inn-keeper wakes up to find that the whole show was a dream and he is actually still married to Gidget, played to wise-beyond-her-years perfection by Suzanne Pleshette.

The lasting image I took from 'The Mountain King' was that final page of 'The Sound and the Fury' on which Don scribbled Anna's address and ripped insensitively from Dr. Melfi's copy of Esquire.

Don is the bastard Compson child come to the big city, who takes everything seriously and with an almost religious fervor sells his school-of-psychoanalytical-hard-knocks version of the American Dream to the housewives he both worships and becomes bored with. Faye Miller thinks she has him pegged but it turns out her degree can't compete with the two years he strung together in night school developing his own death wish. She thinks that his Glo-Coat ad (the shadow hanging over season four and its master image) is all about childhood, but she doesn't know that it is all about women. Not women as they are, but who, through a subliminally Stepfordesque transformation, become what Don Draper, wild west boy-at-heart, wants them to be, needs them to be. The woman in his Glo-Coat ad is not merely the pardoness, but the Lily Langtry in the picture on the saloon mirror. She embodies both sexual tension and divine compassion. She is Anna Draper. With Betty's body.

So, Don goes back to California, for more forgiveness and counsel. But he can't flee his own demons. In this new Brian Wilson-invented California he must adapt and achieve enlightenment every second. He must first grasp the change in female consciousness not only brought about by housewives on LSD but coeds on weed and Remedios Varo paintings. His particular 'politics of egoism' faces the same challange as did those of Joyce: how to communicate 'with' women rather than try to remake them in one's own intellectual image. He is smart enough to know that Molly Bloom is always out there, mocking him. He also knows that the key to winning in the marketplace is knowing which versions of themselves women will buy today, as soon as they see the ad on television, or in this new California, hear it on the radio while cruising Modesto with Haskell Wexler neon illuminating the horizon.

What he is about to find out is that Brian Wilson is the new (albeit psychically tormented, child-like, sequestered, tragic) Lord and that Jim Morrison is the new creature. He returns to New York, defeated, confused, but enough in denial to continue business as usual, because this city is, for now at least, still his domain.

MP said...

Thanks Jeff for that very thoughtful comment and welcome to Kritik. Your further reflections on the budding rock world of California in the 60s tempt me to post this YouTube which I ended up watching while I was poking around looking for an image of the Animals: it is Eric Burdon and War performing "Spill the Wine" (at a time when Burdon himself had moved to Cali and was definitely in Morrison mode). What's really cool about watching this is the so palpable difference between the rock persona of the early British invasion and this completely different style of masculine performance c. 1969--miles away from Don Draper's "rockstar" way of sporting the gray flannel suit (though as my colleague Rob has observed, Don wears much less gray on the show than in the publicity stills).

Anyway, enjoy this.

As to the Compsons--that is v. interesting and I wouldn't have ever made that connection (though The Sound and the Fury was once a favorite book). I guess I always think of Quentin Compson as so caught up in love of his sister and so much the decayed Southern aristocrat (so to speak) that Don would not have put me in mind of him. But I can definitely see what you're spotting there. (Or perhaps you meant some other Compson--I may well have missed a Compson or two in the several Faulkner novels I've never read.)

Jeff Berger said...

I was thinking more of the kind of Compson Faulkner never managed to get out from behind the sticky wallpaper. Quentin, is, of course, the most Draper-like of the bunch, even if suicide isn't much Don's thing. Hell, he barely flinched when Sally cut her hair, after dying it pink, and straightening it out.

And let us not forget, that there are monsters other than Gamera nibbling at the edges of the show. Updike's 'The Centaur' comes to mind. These are the real agons of influence that Mad Men contends with. And yes, as Lauren points out, the long-haired leaping gnome is fading into view, and Sally will have a front row seat, when War comes to Ossining on its Tony Bennet cover tour in 1971.

But Weiner has more or less announced that he means business, with the Cheever and Faulkner nods. He is rehashing the American novel for a fourth rate network (those no-shows at HBO really flubbed this one), and people are tuning in like it's Kubrick staging the moon landing.

One of the keys to the show's pacing (i.e. ability to sustain multiple seasons without eating the Zeitgeist alive), is to have Don disparage the counter-culture at every turn. After all, this is the ad man's game: to dilute whatever unconditional love that exists within popular culture to a marketable advantage over his competitors, buying timeslots of the American mind in exchange for a mock-evangelical wink of goodwill.

Draper's secret is that he only delivers the message to those who are ready to hear it. He is the changing face of advertising and he gets away with it because he is sincere. He's not going to crash his Honda motorcycle while listening to the basement tapes and he's not going to fake death in a Paris bathtub to become President of Bank of America. But he will witness a death at Altamont and a b & w movie about bible salesmen driving through the snow in Webster, MA.

He may have seen 'The Umbrellas of Cherbourg', but he, or the show, may not quite make it to 'Peau D'âne'.

MP said...

That's a good point Jeff though I suspect you'll agree that there's a real difference between the disparaging of the counter-culture in those S1 episodes with Midge's bohemian friends and the more implicit disparaging you get in "Good News" (which is a bit more like fish-out-of-waterness than disparagement per se). I do think such difference is entirely appropriate in terms of the change in the character as well as the times. I just don't think it came across that well (this time round).

"Long-haired leaping gnome" is such a great line in that song. And did you catch the Hall of the Mountain Kings?

Tanya Lees said...

One thing to point out in the discussion of Don's move on Stephanie is that Don/Dick is actually a 33 year old man posing as a 40 year old, and that at Stephanie's age he rejected the chance to remain a 20 something kid, fixing hotrods in the California sunshine, to take on, prematurely, the role of ad man+husband+father.

In that light, a lot of Don's more "dick-ish" moves (in all senses of the world) have an elements of the child saying "I'm bored with this game", and, echoing the Glo-coat ad "let me out".

Part of Don's "tragedy" is that he traded in his youth for the prizes and freedoms offered to adults in the culture of the 1950s, only, in 1965, to have the world turn upside down and offer status to the teenager.

Betty's pathology is that she has never grown up, Don's that he grew up to fast

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