Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 4.13
"Groundhog Day"

Monday, October 18, 2010

posted under , , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[This first of two final entries in our multi-authored series of posts on the fourth season of Mad Men, was posted prior to the publication of MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style and the 1960s (Duke University Press), is co-written by Lauren Goodlad and Rob Rushing, The second entry, a follow-up from Lilya Kaganovsky, appears next.]


Written by Lauren M. E. Goodlad (Unit for Criticism/English) and Robert A. Rushing (Unit for Criticism/Italian/Comparative Literature)

In the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a narcissistic weatherman with an itch for his producer Rita, played by the fetching Andie McDowell. In the words of Wikipedia, “during a hated assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day,” Connors “finds himself repeating the same day over and over again. After indulging in hedonism and numerous suicide attempts, he begins to reexamine his life and priorities.” In the end, a wholly reformed Connors wins Rita’s love, breaking the cycle of repetition. Fans of the film will remember that Connors’ entrapment in the events of a single day, with his own moral agency the only variable that changes, is signaled by an alarm clock on his nightstand waking him each morning to the same tune: “I Got You Babe,” the 1965 pop hit by Sonny and Cher. When the new-model Connors wakes up to find Rita beside him, he knows that Tomorrowland has finally come.

And Don Draper?

Season 4 of Mad Men vividly poses the question of whether Don can make the kind of change which made Groundhog Day “a tale of self-improvement” which emphasizes “that the only satisfaction in life comes from turning outward and concerning oneself with others rather than concentrating solely on one's own wants and desires.” When we first find Don in the season premiere (“Public Relations”), he is so devastated by the ruin of his marriage and family that he has temporarily lost his mojo—his inspired knack for selling.

The art of selling (and the practice of salesmanship as art) has always been the core of Don’s character, whether he is selling fur coats, Lucky Strikes, and the Kodak carousel, or—that most crucial of all commodities—Donald F. Draper. Season 4 sees Don descend into alcoholism, a sad caricature of his former self, before finally steadying himself through the symbolism of journal-writing and swimming (4.8, “The Summer Man”). The episode is remarkable for its introduction of voice-over, enabling Don to narrate parts of his story like a latter-day Jane Eyre. When he passes the chance to bed Faye Miller on their first date, telling her “That’s as far as I can go right now,” he signals the potential for a new kind of Don: Reader, I am different now.

But, while Mad Men has always been a neo-realist narrative (adapting the forms of nineteenth-century serial fiction to television), it has never been a classic Bildungsroman in which the narrative arc coincides with the protagonist’s moral growth. Indeed, Don’s morality has always been the subject of debate since he is both an anti-hero (the “handsome two-bit gangster” Faye describes in “The Summer Man”), and a character with an almost Nietzschean potential to creatively transcend his hollow milieu. The show’s genius is to convince us that while Don is a fraud by every measure we can imagine—a liar, a seducer, even a coward at times—he is also better than the world that made him. We must believe in Don’s nobler instincts and thrill to his moments of transcendence even while knowing that if he ever sustained them, he would no longer be Don—and we would no longer be watching Mad Men.

Marriage to Faye would mean a Don who has outgrown the fantasy of replacing the mother he never knew—quite literally a whore—with the “beautiful and kind” “angel” he describes to Betty after he torpedoes her modeling career in Season 1 (Episode 8 “Shoot”). It is a fantasy of wedlock that creates the need for a fantasy of escape as Don repeatedly splits himself between the man who provides for the angel in his house, and the man who craves stronger femininities like those of the bohemian Midge, the professional Rachel, and the ballsy Bobbie Barrett.

One of the most moral characters ever depicted on Mad Men, Season 4’s Dr. Miller holds out the prospect of monogamous romance—Ah, love let us be true to one another!—along with a turn from the gendered separation of spheres which doomed the Draper marriage, as it does most unions that find a man telling his wife, “It’s my job to give you what you want” (“Shoot”). Miller’s professional gift is to know what people desire even before they know it themselves (she is the first person to cast Don as a “type,” and predicts that he will remarry within a year). If on one level this makes her just another player, her efforts to separate the intimacies of private life from the instrumental relations of a “stupid office” strike us as sincere.

The conflation of love and work has come up before in Caroline Levine’s post on Episode 11 (“Chinese Wall”), and it reaches a kind of apotheosis when Don diverges from the path of health, openness, and growth which Faye has represented throughout this season. In “Tomorrowland” Ken Cosgrove becomes the surprising exemplar of a principled refusal to use his father-in-law to win a new client: “I’m not Pete,” he insists, adding that his wife “Cynthia is my life, my actual life.” Later, Ken and Peggy express the distinction between work and love with their gleeful but unerotic embrace when they land a new account.

Don’s engagement to his secretary Megan, is explicitly marked as repetitious first by Roger Sterling (“See, Don? This is the way to behave,” Roger says, implicitly referring to his own marriage to a young secretary), and later by Joan (“It happens all the time” and “he’s smiling like a fool, like he’s the first man who ever married his secretary”). Ironically and recursively, in last year’s third episode (“My Old Kentucky Home”) it was Don who was calling Roger a fool.

Don’s following in Roger’s footsteps has been a recurring theme throughout the season. It is the central narrative twist of the sixth episode, “Waldorf Stories” (in which Don’s hiring of Danny Siegel after drinking too much parallels Roger’s hiring of the young Don). And it persists in Don’s taking to journal-writing while Roger composes his risible memoir, Sterling’s Gold. Most poignant of all, when Don first climbs on top of Megan in “Chinese Wall,” the camera cuts to the loveless Sterling home—anticipating the tomorrow that Season 5 may yield.

Though Don—as ever gaga in California—may believe that his impromptu proposal is heaven-sent by Anna Draper, it seems all too clear that Megan is not the “right woman,” like Rita in Groundhog Day, who can liberate him from the cycle of repetition. Indeed, every episode of Mad Men begins with precisely this narrative: in the iconic credit sequence the world dissolves and collapses, and Don falls, only to find himself miraculously reconstituted with a cigarette in one hand and—one assumes—a drink in the other. Like his son Bobby who wants to visit Tomorrowland (a Disney exhibit that opened in July 1955), Don does not seek the tomorrows of what Ken calls “actual life.” He seeks the fantastic, non-existent tomorrows conjured up by theme park planners and ad execs like himself. As always with Mad Men’s depiction of California as magic kingdom, Tomorrowland is not a realistic future, with all of its promise and menace, but an infantile withdrawal from the present.

Whereas the season ends with Betty ready to admit that the future augured in last year’s haunting "Shahdaroba" sequence has not turned out to be “perfect,” it leaves Don, who “only likes the beginnings of things” at the very crest of fantasmatic bliss. More keen to sell himself on marriage than to sell to clients, Don upstages Peggy’s professional coup with the kind of engagement he once called “foolish.” In the brilliant seventh episode, “The Suitcase,” Don and Peggy sealed their platonic bond and mutual dedication to work over an ad for Samsonite. But Don now believes that he can have it all. The secretary who caught his eye at the end of “Hands and Knees” and craftily seduced him in “Chinese Walls,” is now not only Maria von Trapp (a better version of Betty’s maternal angel), but also Peggy to boot (she has “the same spark as you,” Don tells his incredulous protegĂ©).

On some level, of course, Don understands that Tomorrowland is an illusion, but without ever being consciously aware of it. Early in the episode, he makes his pitch to the American Cancer Society, and they ask him why he boldly (and unilaterally!) withdrew the firm from cigarette advertising. He tells them, “I knew what I needed to do to move forward.” But in fact Don knows exactly how to not move forward, both personally and professionally, precisely because this is what advertisers understand best. Advertising, we have been told repeatedly this season, is what negotiates between our desire and our conscience, allowing us to gratify ourselves and salve our consciences at the same time. It mediates, as Faye says, what people want to do, and what they think they ought to do.

Hence, cigarette advertisers know just how to snare a teenage market, though Don’s explanation applies at least as much to himself as it does to teenage smokers: cigarette advertisers offer “a two-pronged attack, promising adulthood and rebellion. But teenagers are sentimental as well.” He suggests a campaign showing children and parents together, while making it clear that the parents—thanks to their smoking—are “not long for this world.” The chairwoman objects: “But [teenagers] hate their parents!” She has realized that an appeal to the future, to avoiding a tomorrow without parents, is fruitless—it’s all conscience, without the gratifying desire. Don reassures her: “They won’t be thinking about their parents. They’ll be thinking about themselves—that’s what they do. They’re mourning for their childhood, more than they’re anticipating their future.”

In other words, we can sell people self-pity and narcissistic self-interest under the guise of altruistic love. That’s a product Don himself—just like his cigarette habit—can’t give up. The “tomorrow” that Don wants to sell to potential smokers is a fantasy, not in the sense that it doesn’t exist, but precisely in the Disney sense: a gratifying playground of self-interest and escapism. In this way Don’s New York Times gambit in last week’s “Blowing Smoke,” is not so much deconstruction as reconstruction of the show’s famous pilot, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

Don's teenage rube is, of course, Don himself, even if he doesn’t recognize it. And this lack of recognition may be why he is doomed to repeat, like Phil Connors, an endless cycle of “hedonism” and, figuratively at least, “suicide attempts.” Mad Men has always used its advertising campaigns as a way of speaking about larger thematic concerns, as well as a way of talking about what’s happening inside its characters. At its very best, the show portrayed Don as simultaneously completely manipulative and completely sincere, talking about himself and the product, but also –in a more self-referential vein—about the viewer and the show, all at once.

But lately, Mad Men has reached beyond the realism that made its early seasons so novelistic. This may be inevitable for a show so wholly cathected to a narrative of secret identity which has already been thrice revealed (by Pete in Season 1; by Anna, retrospectively, in Season 2; and in the kind of denouement that makes the serial form so engrossing, by Betty in the last season). By now Don’s secret has exhausted itself and Season 4 has found the show’s inventive writers experimenting with different forms. The Mad Men of this season is more formally eclectic, more melodramatic (the panic attack that leads to Don’s confession), and more self-referential (the playful feint in last week’s episode which makes us think Don is returning to journal writing when he is pulling off the kind of stunt which worked in “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”). Yet, for all its experiments, the season has not been more attentive to people of color: one hopes that the regrettable departure of Carla may find next year’s season including the show’s first principal African-American character.

Season 4 has also seen the show’s foray into meta-textual references (as Sandy Camargo noticed about the allusion to Mad Men’s own Emmy nominations in “Waldorf Stories.”) This is the same kind of reference that we find in the music chosen for the credit sequence of this season’s finale. As Don lies in bed, turning uneasily to look at his nightstand, the tune we hear, of course, is “I Got You Babe.” To be sure, the song is just the sort of kitschy sentimentalism that expresses what we think about Don’s marriage, and, though he is not young, impoverished, or long-haired, it is from 1965. But, like Don’s telling glance at the nightstand, the song surely points to Phil Connors’ “wake-up call,” both literal and metaphoric, in Groundhog Day.

Don will have to repeat this story, evidently, unless and until he finally gets it right.


Make A Comment


zina said...

This is a wonderful recap, so insightful and elegant. I have to say that this finale was one of the most depressing hours of TV I remember seeing. Don's foolish grin, his complete self-delusion - even Betty now seems more self aware than he is. It maybe telling that only now can they have their first civilized, quite touching conversation since the divorce in the kitchen.

I completely agree with the parallels between Don and Roger during the season - but this episode also offers parallels between Don and Betty, including their thoughtless cruelty, to Faye and Carla respectively.

The best scene is the post announcement conversation between Peggy and Joan. I believe it is the first time this season that Joan has a real laugh. They brought the show and the viewers back to earth after the sentimental escapist high of Don's engagement. I felt that without knowing it I have been waiting for a long time to see them display complicity and mutual understanding.

I like that Peggy finishes her astonishing season on a high note, not only by bringing the agency its first account since the loss of Lucky Strike, but also by ending the conversation with Joan with a laugh and a triumphant "Bullshit!". They were aware of not being yet taken seriously as women despite their hard work, but they were not bitter humorless bitches.

Stacey said...

Thank you, Lauren, for the excellent analysis and for the Groundhog reference: how DID you remember that?

And in response to Zina:

Peggy: pregnant season 1, makes one decision--not to keep "it".

Joan: pregnant season 4, makes another--to keep "it" and keep it secret.

They share a lot, and that "bullshit" recognizes a mutual understanding that goes beyond their roles as senior women in the firm.

Fabulous scene, rich for discussion!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, my wife and kids refused to believe my explanation of "I Got You Babe" as a Groundhog Day reference, now I have some evidence to back it up.

Jez B. said...

My comment was lost somehow. I wanted to thank both authors for a great blog. (The whole series was very good and interesting). I didn't catch Groundhog day though it seems to work.

Stacey said...

Yes, so sorry, thank you ROB and Lauren.

Sandy said...

Wonderful post, Lauren and Rob. I found the episode at once moving and mocking. I wish it had ended with the shot of the empty Draper kitchen with the whiskey bottle (standing in for Don) and the yellow bathroom glass (standing in for Betty), instead of in the dark with poor Megan asleep on Don's chest in his nasty Greenwich Village apartment. It seemed to me, too, that, instead of looking at the nightstand (necessary to the conceit about GROUNDHOG DAY), Don was actually looking out the window, and, of course, all he sees is the wall of the adjacent building rather than the wide-open future he might hope for.

Maybe Henry and Faye, the adults in the room, will get together now?

MP said...

I am really crushed for time but wanted to say thanks (on behalf of myself and Rob) for the kind words.

Zina, I entirely agree about the best and scene and suspect this material will come up in the final post by Lilya. I'm sorry the episode was depressing for you; I'm still trying to get over the fact that there two episodes set in California and I got both of them! (At least you loved the Jet Set--though I realize this is quite different.) I hope you find other posts on Kritik of interest since I will be sorry not to chat you with you in a comment box!

Stacey, the Groundhog Day connection hit me as soon as I heard Sonny & Cher. Not too long ago my 7-year-old son saw the movie for the first time (and thought it very goofy); one of the many benefits of young kids is that you get to re-watch old movies from their fresh perspective.

Perhaps more later...

Jeremy V. said...

Lauren & Rob, Great post.

The repetitions in the finale seemed to return to revisit something I tried to capture in my chapter for the book: the Don syndrome that is about a compulsion to repeat. While writing it, I had the image of the ocean waves as master metaphor. Now we have "babe, I got you babe," and the whole, elliptical, groundhog day reference you nailed. Fine, so the show wants to testify - repeatedly - to the impossibility, for its lead man, of change . . . . in the 60s. Not interested. At least not that interested. I mean, yes, entertained, I get the point about sprawling unhappiness, too much redemption falsifies things, but the show is stuck in the theme of stuckness. That was the sopranos, so we now have extratextual, meta-stuckness as well -- the repetition of repetition, by now with too little variation or change to justify itself.

A kind of (frustrated) female wish fulfillment may be at play here too: will some woman of substance and true style be able to turn a cad into someone, well, better? Ah, the promise of Faye (you fell for her, pretty hard). Nope, evidently not -- he'll ever go for the lithe but dippy secretary who is so undemanding that she allows him to "feel like himself," is good with his kids, and is so professionally/structurally subordinate that she in no sense threatens his status, power, dominance, etc. This is the new version of the hot and naive wife; indeed, Don 2.0.

Men suck, as ever. . .. ricki lake feminism (kick him to the curb, girl! but they so rarely do).

But maybe men don't always suck. A lot of men, just round now, are doing some significant things for the sake of social justice, and some at least are awakening to issues of gender equity and fairness. And some men seek brains, confidence, beauty, and nurturance in that order (sons of grossgrove), tho are always happy to have all four.

We'll see re season five, but I hold fast to the point I made in my chapter: the show is addicted to its own cynicism and thus misses immense opportunities to do/say something more.

Jeremy V. said...

A follow up to my last post...

In terms of decency and redemption, another "period" song has been ringing in my ears since episode last, Dylan's 1964 (5?) "All I Really Want to Do." It is one of the most eloquent expressions of Platonic love in the deepest sense -- disinterested interest, the embrace of the other that preserves that otherness and does not implicate the other in any agenda or end.

It may be so pure that it's an inaccessible ideal. I don't think it really defines "true romance" -- I tend to agree with freud re all the insane projections and transference. But it is a beautiful interpersonal ethics -- one articulated AT THE TIME, which is in the field of possibility, if just as aspiration.

Could MM give us any glimpse of it? (and look at Joan carrying "roger's" baby and passing it off as her husband's; more deception -- et tu Joan?)

(And how different from "i got you babe")

"All I Really Want To Do"

I ain't lookin' to compete with you
Beat or cheat or mistreat you
Simplify you, classify you
Deny, defy or crucify you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

No, and I ain't lookin' to fight with you
Frighten you or tighten you
Drag you down or drain you down
Chain you down or bring you down
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

I ain't lookin' to block you up
Shock or knock or lock you up
Analyze you, categorize you
Finalize you or advertise you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

I don't want to straight-face you
Race or chase you, track or trace you
Or disgrace you or displace you
Or define you or confine you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

I don't want to meet your kin
Make you spin or do you in
Or select you or dissect you
Or inspect you or reject you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

I don't want to fake you out
Take or shake or forsake you out
I ain't lookin' for you to feel like me
See like me or be like me
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

zina said...

I agree about the cynicism of the show only to some extent. This is why Peggy this season was so important. There was the dark repetitive world of Don, but then there was Peggy's world of growing confidence and exuberance, of downtown parties and sexy radicals. She has been, like never before, the counterpoint to Don's compulsion. She is the one moving forward, while his "moving forward" turns out to be nothing but running in circles (until the Feds catch him, I presume). Peggy this season more than ever is the true leading lady of MM.

zina said...

Also, the relationship between Don and Peggy may be the closest to a deeply ethical one, and a Platonic one of course, that developed mightily this season. I think that since the beginning of MM it is their relationship that is at the heart of the show, and also is its heart and soul (I think it might even be argued that Peggy is the true hero of MM). In fact, it may well be because of Peggy that some viewers tend to root for Don and to expect him to become a better man (and keep being disappointed). If he has not been since early on the champion and the mentor of the secretary turned copywriter, we could not believe that there is actually some good amid all the badness. She believes in him (and was disappointed by his "engagement"), so the viewers believe to some extent in him.

And in 1964, Peggy went to see Bob Dylan at Carnegie Hall...

MP said...

I agree with both of you, Jeremy and Zina, because I think you are both right. The problem as I see it is that the character of Don--founded on a compulsion to repeat (which as Lilya notes, mirrors our own "addiction" to the show)--has very little to say to the later 1960s. The show was seismic in reintroducing our own confused 21st-c. era to an early 1960s that most people didn't realize ever existed--which became a wonderful metaphor for our own _post_-60s political paralysis. But now that the show is getting close to the epicenter of the radical 60s its continued investment in Don's stasis and repetition begins to seem cynical or reactionary. (At a purely stylistic level, take a look at the Sonny & Cher you tube to see how very different even a commercial pop act like them comes across from anything you've seen in Mad Men lately--including at Peggy's parties).

When Don trumped Roy (Midge's bohemian boyfriend) back in Season 1 it felt right to hear Don answer back to Roy's naive political superiority ("How do you sleep at night?") with the cool cynicism of bourgeois self-invention ("On a bed of money"). What was clear was that both were involved in a male pissing contest anyway--there wasn't much politics at stake for either. But that was set in 1960.

It makes sense for Don to shut out Dylan, the British invasion, and so forth. He's got plenty of sex and drugs without the rock and roll--and he's got Frank Sinatra to boot.

Yes, Peggy can provide the window on that other world. But what is the substance of that world so far? Are there really any sexy radicals? Do you mean Abe or Joyce or the walk-on Carolyn Jones model from the finale? (The slight nod to the real-life Addams Family was was the hippest thing about that scene.)

Abe's criticism of advertising a few episodes back could have been a real dialogue but what could it possibly mean to us when we knew and know nothing about him? He certainly has no special visual charisma (imagine if they'd cast someone who looks like the young Mick Jagger to play Abe instead of yet another nebbish-type).

I go back to my comments in first post in the series. The show seems ambivalent precisely about showing us the sexuality of the radical 60s because of its investment in Don's sex appeal. He is their rock star and they are careful about making him seem too much the has-been; the heartthrob of yesteryear; a man way past his prime.

They give us a strung-out Midge before showing us anything like the Velvet Underground (see the brilliant lyrics to the 1967 "Heroin" which go so well with Lilya's post).

Maybe this is the challenge they've saved for next season. But I wouldn't be surprised if by Season 5 is 1969.

zina said...

I actually would be very surprised if S5 begins much further in the future, if only because the show has invested so much in Sally's character, and the 10 year old actress, though very Method (as she delightfully said in an interview) cannot pull off playing a 15 year old just yet.

It seemed to me that this season the show has considerably toned down Don's sex-appeal, what with his sloppy drunkenness, barfing fits, slapping hookers, bad fighting style against Duck, and engagement goofy demeanor.

Of course corporate America was not the epicenter of the 60's revolutions, and older people did not change their wardrobes to emulate pop stars. However I do hope and expect to see more of the social changes through Peggy's character and her friends.

I think that Abe is sexy! And he quickly learned to change his aggressive approach to Peggy, which in itself is a big and welcome change as far as male attitude in the show. Joyce is cute, and I like her style and how she shows up at the agency like she owns the place.

In sum, Don is stuck, but the show is not necessarily. The story of Peggy is not repetitive, and is positive without being fantastical. Maybe the idea is not so much to have a new icon of masculinity, but to present a brand new style of femininity, which might have failed for Faye in her dealings with Don, but is as of now giving plenty of joy and pleasure to Peggy.

MP said...

zina, I think that's a good point about Sally. (And I don't take my speculations very seriously as you might guess.)

I entirely agree the show took risks with Don's sex-appeal this season (and I think even alienated some male viewers in doing so--he was just too abject for a certain kind of male viewer). And I couldn't agree more that Peggy is not repetitive, the show need not follow Don in "stuck"ness, and PO has the potential to (and sometimes does) present a brand new style of femininity. And, yes, I'd just as soon have that new style of femininity emphasized as see a new icon of masculinity for which I feel no special need.

I guess the reason I see the Peggy of this season as more latent than actualized is that she got relatively little screen time (apart from "The Suitcase" which I loved but which was fundamentally about sealing the bond with Don), and the people and plots surrounding her were too often short-changed. It's true she often had great lines (like the great "bullshit" line of the finale), but not really a narrative arc of her own (as I had hoped would emerge after "The Rejects" and again after "The Suitcase."

I know we disagree about the extent of the latter difficulties because it's come up before. But when you think hard about it there could be so much more. Because there's actually a deep tension between the style of femininity she embodies so far (with its emphasis on Don as professional role model) and the kind of attitudes that are going to come up in 60s counterculture.

Ah well: be certain that if Abe returns next season in his role as Counterculturalist in Chief, I will look out for the twinkle in his eye (or wherever) which you observe and keep an open mind about his character. Joyce has potential too, I agree; I just wish she'd stop showing up as a device to introduce models for Harry Crane to fawn over or by of way of setting up surprise trysts for her hetero friends. Yes, yes, I know. She is Peggy's friend. Somehow my friends don't do these things... (Maybe I have the wrong friends.)

Apropos of nothing: Bob Dylan played in Urbana last night but apparently played his classic 60s stuff in a swing style.

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