Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 6.13
"The Only Unpardonable Sin"
Guest Writer: Lauren Goodlad

Monday, June 24, 2013

[The twelfth in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 6 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MEN, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"The Only Unpardonable Sin"

Written by: Lauren Goodlad English/Unit for Criticism)

The literal referent of “In Care Of” is a letter received from the District Attorney of the County of New York addressed to Miss Sally Beth Draper, “c/o Mr. Donald F. Draper.” But in a more a figurative sense, the motif of care—and of care of another—runs throughout this final episode of Mad Men’s Season 6. As the season concludes, the only care Pete exhibits for his mother’s passing is his getting his fair share of her furniture, having determined that an all-expense paid private eye to “bring [his] mother’s killer to justice” was not worth the cost. (This and the black comedy in which the scene between Pete and the SS Sunset Princess was played, left us little time to contemplate the apparent treachery of Manny—a/k/a “Marcus Constantine”—who seduces Pete’s mother while she is in his care, marries her for the money he believes she has, and then throws her over the side of a ship into shark-infested waters.)

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) divorcé. 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.

But was there ever a worse time to ask “What would Don Draper do?” The answer, of course, is both yes and no. Less the finale of a single season than a turning point after 77 hours of serial television, for Don, we might say, “In Care Of” marks the best of times and the worst of times. Dante scholars can debate where precisely he was throughout most of this season in the trajectory marked out by the premiere’s opening reference to Inferno: “Midway in our life’s journey/I went astray from the straight road/And woke to find myself in a dark wood.” What is clear by the end of “In Care Of,” is that Don may soon be leaving Hell and heading for Purgatorio. For Dick Whitman has, at long last, heeded the words he heard from an itinerant preacher thrown out from the whorehouse many moons ago: “The only unpardonable sin is to believe God cannot forgive you.”

Don seeks forgiveness early on from Betty when he tells her, “I’m sorry,” as though admitting to himself that he is more to blame for Sally’s troubles than even her mother could guess. Later, he hopes that Megan will forgive his discarding the plan for a new start in California. (It is an idea he shamelessly steals from Stan who is the first of several characters in this episode to hanker for the dream of a simpler life in a sunnier “frontier,” as though LA were once again Mad Men’s vision of Paradiso). Yet, during most of the episode it is not so much the wish for forgiveness which motivates Don but, rather, a desire to care: for Sally, for Betty (whom he once again addresses as “Birdie,” his old term of endearment), for Ted (whose marriage he helps save at the risk of losing his own), and—at a professional level—for all the young boys (and, by extension, everyone) who don’t need an ad man to tell them what a Hershey bar is.

This marks an extraordinary moment for Mad Men: a reversal within the show’s generic core which switches the valences of its representation (an idea inspired partly by Fredric Jameson’s recent Valences of the Dialectic). It as though advertising—hitherto the very emblem of free-wheeling global capital and the reign of the commodity fetish—has become the medium of a redemption that goes all the way down. When Don meets a minister who tells him that Jesus can offer you “freedom from pain in this life,” he punches him out and ends up sleeping it off in the drunk tank. It is only later—while making his pitch to Hershey—that SC&P’s boardroom becomes Don’s confessional as he takes his first major step away from unpardonable sin and toward forgiveness.

At the level of character, this is the first time Don has done anything significant not for the sake of some instrumental end—another advertising coup, the stroking of his ego, the gratification of the flesh, or the indulgence of some quixotic whim—but in the hopes of becoming a more caring person; the kind of man who might truly take “care of” his troubled daughter. To be sure, we have seen Don feign the high moral ground (e.g., pretending to withdraw from cigarette advertising on grounds of public well-being when, in reality, the agency had been fired). And we have seen Don’s often delusive knack for believing himself to be better than the surrounding sordidness; persuading himself, for example, that the break with Jaguar in "The Flood" was a noble act. Of course, Don does have a certain noble streak, a vein of tenderness, a dash of the chivalrous and heroic. The problem with Don has never been that he lacks the makings of the good but, rather, that, as Betty says of Sally, “the good is not beating the bad.”

This inability to grow, to learn from experience and become a better man, has not only been the condition of Don’s character but, even more fundamentally, the condition of his story world. As Dana Polan wrote in his post on “The Flood,”Mad Men is a series that cannot acknowledge intentional agency in the service of consequential change as anything more than foolish.” In generic terms, Mad Men has thus been a species of naturalistic realism, comparable to novels such as Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (on which the 1951 movie A Place in the Sun was based)—all narratives of betrayal which culminate in the death of an anti-hero. According to the influential Hungarian literary critic Georg Lukács, naturalistic fiction is a sign of a society’s political decline in its depicting “human values” captive to the implacable rule of “the commodity structure of capitalism.” It is the kind of world in which, as April says in Richard Yates’s proto-Mad Menesque tragedy, Revolutionary Road, “No one forgets the truth; they just get better at lying.”

Here, then, is the generic rupture signaled by “In Care Of”: an episode in which the same philanderer who, two episodes ago, was not above telling his daughter that he was “comforting” the neighbor in whose bed she had found him cavorting, miraculously gets better at telling the truth. Thanksgiving indeed! Less a desperate adulterer like Flaubert’s Emma, or a pitiless social climber like Dreiser’s Clyde, Don, for once, ends this episode in something like the position of George Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda. A young woman who did not push her loathsome husband off the side of a boat (as Manolo did Dot and as Clyde did his pregnant girlfriend), Gwendolen ends the novel chastened and suffering, but seemingly ready to atone. She is not the “harlot” that her suggestive name and mercenary marriage had led us to anticipate.

Though there is no telling if Don will sustain his new-found role as penitent, it is worth emphasizing just how thoroughly this turn toward redemption has turned Mad Men’s symbolic universe upside down. Consider Roger, for example. For most of this season, he has played the part of Don’s comic foil: a dapper middle-aged man of means who embraces the 60s counterculture like a flâneur in a double-breasted sports jacket. Roger is, of course, no hero but his ability to adapt himself to the times suggests a resilience that few would have anticipated at the end of Season 4 when he looked to be just another worn-out ad man who got the trophy marriage he deserved.

But “In Care Of” turns out to reject flâneurie in favor of a message that has been imperceptibly gaining ground throughout this season. As Duck Phillips warned Pete in “The Better Half,” a man who cannot manage his family “can’t manage anything.” A man’s family is “the wellspring” of his “confidence”; without them, he “fills the room with desperation.” At the time, many viewers may have seen these lines as so much patriarchal claptrap ginned up to sell Pete a job in Wichita—by a man, no less, who in Season 2 lacked the self-control to manage Chauncey, the family dog. But Duck, it would seem, has truly found God, at least in the idiom of this soul-centered episode. It is ironic but not self-canceling that he enunciates the truth Don must learn even as he earns a commission for delivering Don’s replacement when the partners of SC&P vote to put this alcoholic on temporary leave (aligning him with the abject Freddy Rumsen of “Six Months Leave”).

This switching of the valences turns Roger back into a “forlorn” victim of his own narcissism—a man who lacks the good will or good sense to mend fences with his daughter Margaret by investing in her husband’s company. “What do I have to do,” she asks him, foreshadowing the embittered daughter whom Sally may one day become, “to get on the list of girls you give money to?” Roger ends the episode in care of Joan, but it is care with limits. “I’m inviting you into Kevin’s life, not mine,” she says firmly, showing herself to be one of the few characters unchanged by the episode's reversals. Joan, that is, begins and ends this season as a woman who can live down her "harlotry." We do not judge Joan, (as Peggy seems ready to do), for her willingness to sleep with clients in order to break down the door of this men’s club. The reason we do not judge her, of course, is that she never denies what she's doing.

To be sure, Joan is one of the partners who tries Don behind his back, finding him guilty of violating the one unpardonable sin of the business world: Do Not Forget that Making Money is the Only Thing That Matters. This bottom-line ethos was made crystal clear in last week’s episode for Ted, a character who periodically looks beyond the laws of profit and loss for his moral compass. In “The Quality of Mercy,” to my mind the season’s most outstanding episode, Ted is crushed to find himself out-maneuvered when Don pays him back for the former’s smoldering romance with Peggy. Though Don’s trumping of the Chaough-controlled Ocean Spray with the Draper-controlled Sunkist violated the truce he had sworn to in “Favors,” what’s important, as Jim Cutler readily affirmed, is landing the bigger account. In the same episode we saw Pete inferring a similar lesson from his experience in Season 1: businessmen like Bert don’t care if their execs have fictitious identities so long as they are good at their jobs.

In the new space of the boardroom-as-confessional, Don does not act to out-compete his male rivals, for the sake of a Clio, for a bigger bottom line, or even to get that "electric jolt" he spoke of in "The Doorway" from some new female object of desire. “I was an orphan; I grew a whorehouse,” he says and, in doing so, puts to rest the ad world’s long-churning desire for an answer to the “Who is Don Draper?” question. But Don’s act is not only tendered on behalf of the truth of his sordid past. It is also an act on behalf of a purer relation to the object than advertising—the core task of which is to stoke the fetishization of commodities—could ever permit. The Hershey bars he ate as a kid when a sympathetic hooker cut him in on the cash he stole from her johns were “the only sweet thing in my life.” That is all. If Marx himself made a guest appearance on Mad Men the message would not be more clear.

But are there no losers as Mad Men switches the valence from a fallen naturalism to a world in which, contra Dana’s dictum, “intentional agency in the service of consequential change” may, as yet, have its day? The answer, I fear is Peggy Olson: and not only because she has lost her chance with Ted. Indeed, from a girl talk perspective the real question should be why Peggy wants Ted so badly in the first place, a man whose most powerful erotic urge is clearly invested in Don, as Nick Mirzoeff was the first to observe on this blog. Witness how lying in Peggy’s arms after months of ostensible yearning, his first thought is of a Christmas trip to Hawaii: exactly the trip that Don took with Megan in the season premiere.

Blogging last April on the wonderful Season 5 episode, “Far Away Places,” I noted that Peggy still seemed to be the show’s one open channel to the rising counterculture of the late 1960s. Season 6 has disabused that prediction insofar as it was the departed Abe (and, to a lesser degree, Ginsberg) who took us closest to the country’s political heart. Central to this change was an antiwar movement that by 1968, as Todd Gitlin writes in The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, had become a mainstream concern. Protests were not simply enacted by the likes of students and radicals like Abe but also by middle-class women like Sylvia Rosen, unwilling to lose their sons in a misguided Cold War adventure. Hence, it is not just that Peggy is nowhere even close to the frontlines of this (or any other) social movement.  She is also strangely out of step with the political mood of her generation (however good she looks in a mini-skirt!). 
As Bruce Robbins noted in his post on the premiere, the war comes up through a client’s last-minute rejection of an ad campaign that reminds him of an atrocity involving US soldiers cutting off the ears of the Vietcong. The client, like many real-life people in 1968, is shocked by this terrible window on a war sold to the American people as an anti-Communist cake walk. “This was a horrible thing” he tries to tell Peggy. Yes it was, she replies, with a patient professionalism, before insisting that he has forgotten what is really at stake: “It’s about making a great ad.” It is a single-mindedness from which Peggy has rarely seemed to budge this season.  Can anyone thus be surprised that in the one of the funniest episodes, Abe breaks up with Peggy because the bizarre accident of her stabbing him enables him to reach a grim aperçu: “Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment,” he tells her. “I'm sorry, but you'll always be the enemy.”

Though Peggy has had her share of great lines and deeds—putting Don and Ted in their places, for example, and helping out Joan in a moment of sisterhood—what is, by now, all too clear is that she has taken Don’s place. That is to say, she has grown habituated to a style of power-seeking that she learned from her male mentors. I do not mean that Peggy lacks a woman's perspective. But is anyone surprised to find her taking over Don’s office as she once did Freddy Rumsen’s--and even wearing the pants? From this view, Peggy’s interest in Ted is telling: both the consummation of the affair she never had with Don (on which she alternately prides herself and feels rejected) and a sign that her world has contracted to the narrow milieu of advertising. We do not quite imagine that Peggy joined the famous construction worker bloc in voting for Nixon. But we can no longer expect her to provide that live conduit to the world of 1968 that the series needs.

And if not Peggy then who will provide it? The truth is that Mad Men is no longer the kind of historical fiction it once was. The story of Don’s turn to redemption is compelling. But it had nothing to do with 1968: it could have happened in 1955, or 1975, or in 2015. What made Mad Men not only a splendid instance of realist narrative on television but in some ways a landmark in American cultural history was the historical dialectics built into the narrative arcs of its early seasons. The Kennedy win of Season 1, the Cuban missile crisis of Season 2, and the Kennedy-Oswald assassinations of Season 3 were not simply historical events that characters watched on a television set. They were events that resonated with and illumined the crises these characters were feeling. And so, as we shared their embeddedness in their world-historical times, the show made us more alert to our own historicity. These early-60s characters, in inflecting our imaginary with the “history” we had forgotten to remember as such, added something quite distinct to what we could take for the history of our present. 

As Caroline Levine and I wrote at the end of the last seasonSeason 5 triumphed because it took a risk in building a new character—Megan Draper—in order to make palpable Don’s experience of a new and exciting kind of marriage.  Though of a smaller bore than in the early seasons, “The Phantom” was a demonstrable historical coup as well: it used the motif of the Bond man to dramatize the point that with Megan’s exit from advertising into the dream of artistic autonomy, Don would fall back into the pleasures and perils of the male privilege he embodies like nobody else.  By contrast, this season’s historical events were disconnected from the narrative at large.  The tragic death of Martin Luther King, which took place mid-season, taught us nothing that we didn’t already know about Don, Megan, Peggy, and Ginsberg.  Likewise, the Chicago riots neither resonated with nor lit up some hitherto unseen pocket of any character’s social or psychological narrative.  Thus, despite the great effort of Mad Men’s always savvy writers to inject a more ramifying revolutionary thematic through the Dickens motif of "A Tale of Two Cities," the episode was, at its best, a kind of historical pastiche.
My point is not that devotees of this show have stopped caring about the the richly wrought characters we know so well; still less that these characters' stories have stopped being interesting. Indeed, I am willing to appreciate, be moved by—perhaps even to believe—the gambit of Don Draper trying to save his soul (or at least help his daughter). But when I look at this family looking up into the unseen space of Don’s past as they stand before a whorehouse that no longer exists in what Bobby calls “a bad neighborhood,” it is clear to me that they are actually looking at the future.

Is it too late to hope that the unseen story we discern on their faces can take its cue from that little boy on the porch—who is, to be sure, one of Don’s many doubles? Since Mad Men clearly intends to extend its status as historical fiction, is it not time for a character whose story we can understand through these “Days of Hope, Days of Rage”?

It seems to me more than worth the risk. For it just possible that the most unpardonable sin for the creators of Mad Men is the belief that history will forgive you.


Make A Comment


Sean said...

Love the idea of Don as Gwendolen Harleth. Perhaps your disappointment with Mad Men's shifting fictional status echoes the disappointments long generated by Daniel Deronda--that it is a narrative in two minds about what it wants to be. (Both sides now.) Of course, I've long thought of Mad Men as our Middlemarch, so I have Eliot on the brain.

A splendid finale, Lauren--with a beautifully provocative last paragraph.

fab said...

yeah Lauren: having lived through it all 1968 was the most turbulent year in American history between Pearl Harbor and September 11. Where is this reflected in MM? How can long you keep interested in a glorified 1950s soap opera? Next season i might switch over and watch the directly competing Falling Skies. I have always preferred SCIFI to Soaps.Go Hawks! Beat Bruins!

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Deanna Kreisel said...

What a thought-provoking analysis! I also loved the parallel to Gwendolen Harleth, and wonder if perhaps the Gwendolen-function wasn't divided between Don and Peggy in this episode. Don was definitely chastened and ready to atone, but Peggy represented the stubborn narcissistic residue that retorts "How nice to have a decision!" -- something Gwendolen also feels was denied her, both in her marriage and on the boat. Maybe Peggy's historical role is to embody a nightmarish version of cultural feminism just over the horizon? ("I choose my choice!") Great post -- so much to think about!

Alice Eaton said...

You forgot Don's comment in the bar: (this is not verbatim) "Nixon won. Now everything is the way Jesus wants." And "It looks like Jesus had a bad year." DON is providing the historical context, and we are now in Nixon's first term, in the era when the electorate voted in a guy who opposed radicalism. There's still Stonewall, Woodstock and a lot of rock and roll deaths to come. We'll see what they do with them in Season 7--through the prism of a critique of advertising culture.

Zina said...

Peggy is the loser? I am not sure about that. She still has a job, contrary to Don. And she is not on the brink of delirium tremens.

fab said...

NYT:"Yet Season 6 couldn't resist the less exalted approach of soap opera...." As i was saying. Falling Skies here I come! Beam me up Scottie!
Way to go Hawks!

Anon said...

In your "Ted...Don... the latter" sentence, you don't mean "the latter." You mean Ted. In that series, "the latter" refers to Don so the sentence doesn't make sense "Don pays Don back." Just FWIW (not judging, but people who want to will, so I don't want you to fall victim to them). Otherwise, good stuff!

Jeremy V. said...

Breathlessly far-ranging and brilliant post, Lauren, which weaves together so many threads! You treat Don with the literary and psychic complexity he now deserves. You give Peggy her comeuppance as an historical underachiever. And Roger, in your apt telling, proves both resilient and enduringly relevant.

We all wonder how fleeting or fulsome Don's reckoning will be; how deep does the "I'm the son of of a whore, and proud for being me" confessional go? I am reminded, by the final scene, alas, of Gandolfini (RIP) in he Soprano's, whose mawkish communion (for anthony's ostensible sake) with his humble Newark home and roots (similar shots of Victorian decay) proved a contrivance of ersatz homage -- just more fodder for a self-serving rags to (illicit) riches mythology. How will Don manage or deploy his newly embraced storyline? It may not the basis for Hershey ads, but I can't believe it won't somehow be "used" by him, as everyone and thing in his life.

Your most resonant line of the entire season is that Don's curse and saving grace is that he "loves too much," and too recklessly. I still can't tell if you are an uncanny student of character or just still in love with the man (as are we all).

Sandy said...

Wonderful post, Lauren. Your writing is like jazz: riffing and return.

I, too, was struck by Peggy's role in this season's arc. Throughout she has had whatever idealism she had knocked out of her by rats of one form or another. The image of her in Don's chair, backlit, reduces her to a visual shadow of the character we had hoped she might become.

On the minimal impact of history on the characters: It's November after the assassinations of the spring and summer and the following riots. I'd suggest that people of Don's class weren't changed by what they were living through. If they had been, Nixon should have lost. In other words, perhaps we shouldn't feel that the writers were letting us down. Perhaps we should feel a sense of lost opportunity that is analogous to the way that people who'd demonstrated against the war no doubt felt. There's still Stonewall and Altamont to come, as noted.

MP said...

Thank you so much for these excellent comments which I very much appreciate. I cannot answer them all right now but I promise to do so later today or tomorrow.

So for now. Sean, thanks so much and thanks to you again for your reflection on the mid-season "doldrums" which I will remember. I am looking forward to being able to post the article about the sonnet sequence so please let me know when available. I'm glad you liked the Gwendolen Harleth reference. Mad Men as Middlemarch, wow. Do you mean in terms of the kind of realism (as I did) or more the near historical fiction. (I have thought in classroom terms that MM does give a good sense of how far away the the Reform Bill era might have felt to 1870s readers so I suspect that is at least part of what you mean.

Anonymous, please don't apologize: correct my incorrect syntax as often as you wish; I need all the help I can get since this year there was no one to help me to edit (my co-editors are out of town).

Zina: I didn't mean the thing about Peggy "losing" in the sense that I think you took me as meaning it. Yes, clearly Peggy is in better shape in various ways as she takes Don's place. But because MM concluded in a less naturalist and more "idealist" mode of realism, Peggy's actions now bear greater scrutiny. To use a very crude analogy Tom and Daisy Buchanan are much better off than Jay Gatsby at the end of the Great Gatsby. But Nick Carraway doesn't like them at all. Without going so far as to suggest that Peggy has reached "rich, careless" people territory, she seems to me (and some other commenters) to be have lost sympathetic qualities that she used to have in abundance. And with Don and the Mad World seemingly taking a turn toward moral possibility, that puts us in a position to scrutinize her actions more severely than we might (and I do think this was intentional throughout the season though that is something I know is a matter of opinion).

I would add to that I don't think Don has lost his job as such. I'm more concerned about his DTs at any rate than his viability in advertising. He still is DD. He's a partner and still takes a share of their profits as such--or they have to get him to agree to buy them out. Or so I assume absent MM becoming some kind of drama about litigation (perhaps something we could use to offset all those police procedurals!)

It would be nice for all concerned if the new Don agreed to use his dryout period to resume the "love leave" with Megan in So Cal. But I'm not holding my breath ;).

More later and thanks again.

Jez B. said...

This was an excellent post Lauren. As always it made me want to watch again so I can process it all. I haven't read most of the books you are talking about. (I read Bovary in school and saw the Place in the Sun but the book.) How would you say the other books are for someone who used to reading books more recently? Thanks again for this.

Zina said...

Thanks for your answer Lauren. i agree that the triangulated retionship between Don, Ted and Peggy was weird, but it was weird on the guys' part as much as hers.

On the political question, it seems to me that there is a projection going on as far as the show's commitment to expressing sympathy with the counterculture. The counterculture has consistently been shown in MM as a pose, a fraud, as filthy and druggy (remember Midge, Paul, the pretentious director in S4, the hippies encountered by Betty, not to mention the parasitical,, self righteous and unglamorous Abe). I cannot see how Peggy might have lost any idealism that the show has never possessed.

MP said...

Deanna, I just wanted to get back to you. I had meant to reply to it the first time I wrote but somehow lost a sentence: what I'd said was, I really like that idea of Peggy reflecting a split of some kind. With MM one always wonders, how much the obvious economies of scale (not least in terms of time) militate toward a centering on the office. And yet with relatively little ado P was shown to have a real social life with a variety of friends (how she met Abe). She is older now to be sure and has much more professional responsibility and was also settled down with Abe. Yet while it's believable and perhaps also practical, it also feels like a regression. Someone who started out wanting an affair with her boss, and then had Pete, and for a while Duck, now is interested in a married man at the office. Realistic enough but a regression of sorts that I guess you could see in terms of a split.

Jez B. I promise to get back to you on the books even if there are no further new comments. Please check back soon.

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

Alice Easton, you wrote, "You forgot Don's comment in the bar: (this is not verbatim) "Nixon won. Now everything is the way Jesus wants." And "It looks like Jesus had a bad year." DON is providing the historical context, and we are now in Nixon's first term, in the era when the electorate voted in a guy who opposed radicalism. There's still Stonewall, Woodstock and a lot of rock and roll deaths to come. We'll see what they do with them in Season 7--through the prism of a critique of advertising culture."

Yes, I agree with you there but I don't really see Don's remark at the bar as in itself an indication or feat of historical resonance. It's a historical fact and it works well enough as a retort to the minister; historically speaking, depending on how you look at it it may mean the sixties qua sixties (by which I mean the counterrevolutionary 60s) are over as such. (Matt Weiner said something comparable in the NYT - that "in theory" you could say that Nixon's election signaled the end of that. We'll see next season what he means in practice.)

But in either case, none of this changes (for me anyway) my basic point which is that history functioned as backdrop in this particular season: not as a structure through which to weave the dilemmas of characters or to give us a sense of living in moving history is part of makes modern life what it is. Don's character was not hanging his hat either on counterrevolution or Nixonian reaction. So it's not as though we can in any way tie his pull toward redemption as having to do with Nixon or, say, the non-success of those who pushed for McCarthy. Similarly with Peggy - she appears to have gotten more conservative in the sense that her world has contracted. But we don't imagine that as the result of her being burnt out from some 60s-era movement she identified with and which disappointed her.

Sandy, thanks so much for your kind words. I hope my response to Alice makes sense for you as well. I'm not saying there is no basis on which to imagine connection between the characters arcs and what we saw highlighted in history. I'm only saying that IMO at least that connection was not vital--was decidedly under-developed. Things would have been different perhaps if there was some tighter knitting say between the Tale of Two cities episode (Chicago riots) and the episode that followed (Favors) which turned on Mitchell Rosen's draft. For that to work it would have been helpful too if the antiwar movement had retained more significance from , say, the premiere's "Lend me Your Ears" campaign, through the TOTC episode so that we recognized mounting antiwar sentiment as a factor in various characters' sense of anxiety and demoralization; this would have been more like the lifeworld of earlier seasons.

Instead the war doesn't really come up; the assassinations are treated almost as though they were isolated events; in Favors Don says the war is wrong and we know it's plausible for him to believe so esp at a time when something like half the American people believing that and wanted it over asap if not immediately. In the premiere we get a Dow campaign but no later sense of how protests against napalm were actually quite effective in publicizing the horrors of this war against a civilian population; I don't think the season every mentions in any way the Tet offensive (which occurs shortly after the Christmas/New Year premiere) and gave a real sense of American casualities and vulnerability. Does that all make sense?

I will come back again for one last reply to Zina's latest and Jeremy. Thanks again everyone for your generous and very thoughtful replies.

MP said...

Oh and Jez B. the books. I read An American Tragedy a long time ago, but I remember it well. It is long and relentless so I would not suggest it for a summer read. I would definitely go for Revolutionary Road if you've not read it--its's unforgettable--and then start with Sister Carrie for Dreiser. If that goes well, proceed to An American Tragedy and enjoy. As to George Eliot, I wouldn't start with Daniel Deronda, her last novel, much though I love it. I think I would start with Middlemarch is well worth it's length and then come back and tell us more about Sean O'Sullivan's Mad Men and Middlemarch scenarios!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations to the author. This was a truly helpful take on the episode and in fact the season.

MP said...

Thanks Anonymous and welcome to Kritik!

Jez B. said...

Thanks Lauren I have checked out Revolution Road and it's already great. Will you and your group do the blog again for the last season?

MP said...

Zina, you are probably long done checking this blog but your comments were too interesting for me to let pass so I hope you see this reply at some point.

You wrote: "i agree that the triangulated retionship between Don, Ted and Peggy was weird, but it was weird on the guys' part as much as hers."

Oh totally, the guys were weird; but I think previous seasons we were given reason to believe that she had at least the potential to be better than the guys; to see through their pissing contests and just avoid them--go elsewhere. I do feel she has lost some of that in so visibly occupying the position Don had when we first met him back in season 1.

"On the political question, it seems to me that there is a projection going on as far as the show's commitment to expressing sympathy with the counterculture."

I'm not sure whose projection you mean. To be clear as to my own thoughts: I am sympathetic to the counterculture and would like for the show to be more sympathetic with it than it has been. This lack of sympathy with the counterculture (though it does not actually surprise me) is a reason why the show has lost its historicity--more on this below.

"The counterculture has consistently been shown in MM as a pose, a fraud, as filthy and druggy (remember Midge, Paul, the pretentious director in S4, the hippies encountered by Betty, not to mention the parasitical,, self righteous and unglamorous Abe)."

I think you are right though (IIRC) you actually thought Abe was cute back in S4 when I was complaining that he was a stock character. He grew on me a lot this season because some of the things he had to say did not strike me as self-righteous; struck me as positively interesting (like his attachment to the house).

But I think you are absolutely right that the show had no enduring investment whatsoever in taking his "side" of the political question or portraying it as being self-evidently the higher moral ground.

But, as I started to say above, the problem with this isn't so much (or isn't only) that MM doesn't have a strong "pro" investment in the counterculture. The problem is that it the writers don't seem to realize how a cynical attitude toward the counterculture in 1968 means something very different than Don's being able to out-talk Midge's beatnik playwright boyfriend in Season 1. The reason has to do with our own placement. MM reawakened cultural awareness of the early 60s. This was prophetic in the 2000s. The show turns out to have very little to say about the later 60s. This is not prophetic. The show thus becomes historical pastiche which, in terms of genre, is a dime a dozen. (That doesn't mean that it's not still a much smarter show that 99.5% of what's on the TV. It's just not aesthetically innovative in the way it once was. And it even ends up being somewhat flat-footed about straightforward historical contexts: for example, the writers did not seem to have any sense of what was at stake in, for example, the Chicago riots (which were judged at the time by a federal agency to have been *police riots*).

"I cannot see how Peggy might have lost any idealism that the show has never possessed."

Perhaps but I don't think these things need to be connected. Peggy was clearly less cynical than other characters when the the show opened without that relative honesty and openness to difference having anything to do with the counterculture. Even in S1 and S2 there were always characters who were more sympathetic than others. She was one of them. Now much less so.

Anyway... we may just disagree which is also fine!

Jez: Will we do a Season 7 blog series? I don't know!

But this is a good moment for me to say that there will be a few posts on Top of the Lake, The Killing, and Breaking Bad in the next few months. So I hope you will take part in the comments.

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