Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 7.5
Guest Writer: Caroline Levine

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The fifth in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 7 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MENMAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]


Written by: Caroline Levine (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

“The Runaways” was an episode that returned us again and again to questions of loyalty, and I found myself wondering whether the show might be referring in some way to the precarious loyalty of its audiences. Ratings have dipped over time. Lots of viewers have been willing to let Mad Men go, and if my acquaintance is anything to go by, many who have stuck with it are more disappointed than satisfied, their commitment to watching now brittle and strained.

Of course, the series’ slow pace has always been hard on those who are afraid of commitment. Critic Logan Hill says, “It’s a show that has always been built for the obsessive fan, and hasn’t really cared very much for the casual fan… It’s been kind of cocky about that.” Casual—like the worker who lounges on the sofa or like the boyfriend who would rather go back to jail than stick with the mother of his child. If Mad Men has always sought a loyal, committed relationship with us rather than a sequence of one-night stands, its characters’ stories, dominated break-ups and firings, haven’t given us great models.

Should we be more loyal? Should “guys like us” stick together, as Harry Crane says, because “we go back a long way”? Should we try to do our best to make sure that Mad Men is “still important,” even though we are really having trouble figuring out exactly how to do so? Certainly loyalty feels like a troubling value coming from a Philip Morris executive, who moralizes that his company “won’t turn on his friends as easily” as Don does. It’s tough to be inspired by those who stick to their friends precisely so that they can go on killing them.

Mad Men teaches us a lot more about falling out of love than about building loyalty. But then what, exactly, has happened to the relationship between the show and its audiences? Perhaps these days we are more likely to dally with Game of Thrones, to be excited by True Detective or Top of the Lake. But what was it that attracted us to Mad Men in the first place, and what’s turning us off or splitting us up now?

There were once many kinds of attraction. Some who loved the first seasons fell for the early sixties style, and dwelled happily on the elegant clothes and sleek furniture. The late sixties is now quite deliberately betraying that style. Don looks awkward in his sports shirt compared to Megan’s sexy dance partner, and beautiful Stephanie clearly needs a bath. The couch that used to be an object of desire is now in the wrong spot and too heavy to move.

Another group who loved Mad Men in its youth were drawn to its richness as historical fiction. From casual racism to littering to drugged childbirth, Mad Men invited us to imagine a time just long enough ago to feel distant, just close enough to feel familiar. Matthew Weiner is famously obsessed with historically authentic detail, and the show has always raised interesting, troubling questions about his glossy, glamorous version of an old boy past. These days, the show offers up a world that feels less gorgeous and less exclusive, and yet not ever radically disruptive enough. It’s a hodge podge of approaches to life—West Coast as well as East, hippie commune emerging out of suburban elite, behatted executives alongside beards and miniskirts—that won’t let us settle into a single, smooth vision of the past (nostalgic or critical as the case may be).

Some early viewers were just there for the plot. It started out a really good one: we were drawn into the precariousness of a life built on secrets. Would exposure of Don’s past unsettle his career, with his talent for seducing us with appearances? Would plotting blue-blooded Pete take down Don, the social impostor? That plot is distant, now. We’ve had some good dramatic tension since that has been organized around the success or failure of the company, and yet those moments too feel far away in this season. The narrative is not just slow but motiveless. Don seems to be sinking slowly, or is he rising again? Joan has climbed to the top and seems secure there. Peggy remains single. Roger sits perched pretty well in his own complacency. There’s no suspense here, no readiness for sudden crisis or revelation.

For many audiences, the series once did really well when it came to complex and richly rounded characters. Especially the white women who were trying to figure out how to live satisfying lives: Peggy, Joan, Betty, and Sally. Pete was also fascinating in his aspiration to succeed, and amoral Roger was disturbingly charming. All of them have receded into minorness now. The number of characters has expanded, but most are forgettable. Who is that Cutler, again? Who are the many boy creatives who laugh at Lou?

The show holds on, wrongly I think, to a loyalty to Don as its central character. Megan’s a frustrating figure, I believe, in part because she too keeps up her hungry adoration for Don. She holds him too much at the center, just as the show does. In “Runaways,” she’s first warm to Stephanie, and then suddenly jealous when Stephanie blurts that she knows all of Don’s secrets. Megan drives Stephanie away, despite her promise to hold on to her for Don. Megan then tries to make herself important to Don by making him feel important, at the center of a sexy threesome: will sharing him with Amy, whom he has continually tried to reject and dismiss, put Megan back at the center? Structurally, this seems like a strategy that can’t possibly work. It’s as though Mad Men both did and did not get its own message that it’s impossible to try to organize a meaningful life around a debonair professional ad man.

If the series has turned off audiences by failing to deliver up some of its earlier pleasures—pleasures of style, historical detail, suspenseful plot, and complex character—one place where it continues strong is in the complex interweaving of its themes. Advertising brings together seduction and work, social climbing and courtship, nostalgia and strategy. There are rich resonances in every episode.

In “Runaways,” for example, Lou’s absurd dream of a wholesome Saturday cartoon that upholds values of patriotism and loyalty finds intriguing echoes in both Megan and Betty, “who can take anything but an order.” Betty rebels against Henry’s authority, paradoxically, when she holds on to her right to speak up in favor of traditional authority and against youthful rebellion. “Leave the thinking to me,” Henry orders. This command never works in Mad Men, where women always refuse this particular model of loyalty. As Betty says simply, “I can think all by myself.” Meanwhile, the computer, which poor paranoid Michael is not entirely wrong to see as coming for all of us, hums away where the writers and artists used to work, literally taking the place of human thought.

Mad Men plants echoes in its smallest details. Two characters in this episode passingly exclaim that Megan’s apartment is “out of sight,” at once offering up a little pieces of sixties lingo and hinting at the distance between what is on view—Stephanie’s “obvious” pregnancy, exposed in a public phone booth—and what is protected from prying eyes. Betty and Stephanie both refuse to eat outside, asserting their will by remaining, each in her own way, out of sight.

This thematic interweaving is a very literary pleasure. As a literary critic myself, I was trained to notice such patternings, and I love to feel their richness, and to unravel the connections. Other television often fails at this, even when it does well on other grounds. And for this viewer, it is enough to keep me coming back to Mad Men.

I can’t imagine that simple loyalty—just “going back a long way"—will work for audiences in part because Mad Men simply doesn’t teach us loyalty as a value. It goes so far as to mock its characters’ demands for loyalty, and its plot thrives precisely where loyalty fails. Perhaps the show knows it needs to woo us in some other way. It’s no accident that Don spells “strategy” carefully in “Runaways” and concludes the episode with a surprising new strategy for the cigarette business. But then again, as Lou says, it may be too late for that now.


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Killeacle said...

as i said last season, MM has degenerated into a Soap Opera. I'm looking forward to the new season of Falling Skies. Beam me up from AMC, Scottie!


Unknown said...

"It will shock you, how much this never happened."

I remain someone who can't stop watching this show, although as Caroline suggests, one symptom of long-term critical watching of Mad Men would be that viewers frequently find themselves questioning the nature of their commitment, trying to recall what sparked that initial loyalty. I was never drawn to the show's style per se; it's pretty to watch, I especially love Don's and Joan's wardrobes, etc., but none of that really could maintain long-term interest. And the show's alleged nostalgic pull means little to me, personally; I don't feel any special longing for the early seasons' portrayal of the white-collar, man-in-the-grey-flannel suit era of Daddy-is-one-man-in-the-city, another-man-in-the-suburbs. I can attest to the fact that you could be born as late as the mid-1970s, and still witness plenty of Don Draper's and Pete Campbell's (and Roger Sterling's) style of hetero-white-collar-dad Bunburyism in your childhood. In short, there's nothing that seems especially "retro" to me about much of this show; and the moments of hyper-meticulous historical detail often seem, paradoxically, intentionally inauthentic, stylized, and forced --as if the writers want to underscore the fact that they are telling a story about a historical decade through its LEAST representative set of subjects. And in fact, what I find compelling about this series, from its inception to the present, is the bracingly anti-nostalgic stance shared by Don and Peggy. If Don has handed down anything to Peggy via mentorship, it is this: the capacity to "move forward," as he tells her to do in the maternity ward. Don may be more than willing to use the concept of nostalgia to pitch an ad for the Kodak carousel, but as his pitch and subsequent moments at home alone suggest, he's not nostalgic. He's an observer in a world of professional men who ARE capable of nostalgia (like Harry Crane), but he's attesting to, and professionally promulgating the experience of, a feeling that, like happiness, he does not really share or trust. He--like Peggy--is a witness to other people's authenticity: their viable happiness, their felt nostalgia. And, this is not necessarily a bad thing; only a character incapable of feeling nostalgia can be unimpressed by the littleness of the things that "happen" to us all individually, and can register the necessary "shock" in the face of that littleness. Moreover, to the extent that Mad Men is historical in its approach, I would say that it is historical in depicting the 1960s as the era that gave rise to a usefully anti-nostalgic American subject.

MP said...

Without at all dissenting from all the smart things Lisa just said I am in agreement in Caroline that the show has changed a great deal since it's first three (some would say four) seasons. Although Killeacle may have hit the nail on the head, for me personally the problem isn't soap opera (which is to say melodrama) so much as over-ambitiousness and thus lack of focus. There are just too many characters involved in plotlines that don't sync up in the way they did in earlier seasons.

I think Caroline is exactly right that the show is loyal to Don even though it's increasingly difficult to put him at the center of a late-60s narrative while it has simultaneously remained loyal (in a way) to characters to whom it no longer has time to do justice: not only Roger, Joan, Pete, Sally, and Betty but also increasingly Peggy. Megan behaves mysteriously in this fashion: we don't really understand her motivations for wanting to build Don up in this way when the last time we visited their marriage she was ready to call it quits. Henry now treats Betty imperiously: something he hitherto has not done. It feels contrived: are we being set up for a rapprochement between Don and Betty?

Audiences built an investment in these characters when their characterization aligned beautifully with the show's New York advertising agency mise-en-scene and its relation to the period more generally. Now it is just doing too many things at once though occasionally doing them very well and for just the reason Caroline pinpoints: the devotion to writerly grace notes including using ad campaigns and other intra-diegetic media to contextualize, inflect, and comment upon each episodes major plot points can still be effective. But lack of coherent plotlines and the lurching character developments (Ginsberg was always eccentric but now he's psychotic?) reduce the impact of that writerliness.

This season *2001* seems to offer a major narrative inspiration; according to my husband the scene in which Ginsberg sees but cannot hear the conversation between Lou and Cutler rifs off a scene from *2001*. There may be much more to dig out of that (I haven't seen 2001 in more than a dog's age) but I can't say I long to devote the extra time to finding out because my investment in the narrative of this season so far doesn't incite my curiosity about what these references might do to enrich my viewing pleasure. In Caroline's terms, I have become more of a casual viewer of the show (even though I am of course deeply loyal to it as the editor of Kritik and the co-editor of a book on the show's first four seasons).

I was impressed by the show's premiere so I am still hoping that there may be more viewing pleasure in store for us loyalists without our having to do a lot of extra credit homework to glean some of the richness. Unfortunately, it may take us till next year when the S7 finale airs to find out what that payoff may be.

That said, next week is Episode 6 and once again we have Sean O'Sullivan blogging on a sixth episode (complete with his theory that sixth episodes are often pivotal for a 13-episode season.

I'm deeply grateful to Caroline for getting us started in a discussion not only of this episode and this season thus far, but also of the show's progression as we near the halfway point in the show's last of 7 seasons.

Unknown said...

I found Megan's behavior in this episode somewhat implausible as well--although her proposed 3-way recalls Betty's observation that loving Don is the worst way to know and be close to him. In a sense, planning the 3-way as loving act continues with the "worst" ways of knowing him. In contrast, women who develop a resistance to Don's charisma (Peggy; Joan, who has had an amazing transformation from her Jaguar-ride/bar-date with him not so long ago; Betty) or those who are largely unmoved by his charisma from the get-go (Dawn), remain the figures poised to envision a work-space that might be able to create a third way beholden to neither "creative genius" Don, nor to the "scary," mechanical genius of the giant office computer. Or, to echo my previous comment, these women know that they have little to feel nostalgic about, concerning the history of the workplace they are a part of, yet they are convincingly skeptical about "innovative" additions like a computer as well. "Moving forward" is the best way to get to a place where one can be "shocked" at "how much" Sterling Cooper's history "never happened," in terms of long-term consequences for their lives. This anti-nostalgic stance is one that I'd position as usefully opposed to Roger's--author of "Sterling's Gold," and a man obsessed, particularly in the midst of all his ostensibly counter-cultural drug experiments, with memoir.

Megan's erratic behavior, moreover, might also be attributable to the "soap opera" turn things are taking, as per an earlier post. That is, I don't think this show is becoming a soap opera, but Megan definitely seems to be living in one. As I've never been a Megan fan, I love how her behavior is reflecting the predictions of her bitchy (but accurate) mother and Marxist-leaning father: that is, that she has the "artistic temperament" without actually being "an artist"--at least, she's not an employed artist, and the bohemian parties she's throwing are now starting to look like stage-sets for her performance art (zou bisou bisou; dancing; menage a trois).

Sean said...

This is a show whose pilot ended with one of the soapiest moves of all time! Melodrama has always been at the heart of the show.

Jez B. said...

I agree that the show has been a soap opera all along but I also agree that it isn't the same and there is too much going on at once and too little of some great characters from early seasons.

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