Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 7.7
"Let’s Have Another Piece of Pie"
Guest Writer: Lauren Goodlad

Monday, May 26, 2014

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

"Let’s Have Another Piece of Pie"

Written by: Lauren M. E. Goodlad (Illinois).

The term pastiche has become synonymous with postmodernism and the reign of signifiers detached from deeper reference or history. But as the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics reminds us, long before pastiche developed its postmodern connotation of using “recognizable ingredients” while offering “no new substance,” the word derived from the Italian for pasticcio “or a hodge-podge of pie containing both meat and pasta.” To say that “Waterloo,” Mad Men’s Season 7 "mid-season finale" is pastiche, is not to condemn a series that, back in 2010, I argued was anything but. For at that time the show—still embedded in the pre-counterculture milieu of the early 60s—turned on a masterful dialectics between historical events like the Kennedy assassination and our own turn-of-the millennium emergencies. Those early-60s stories (as I wrote last June), “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.” Yes, Mad Men has changed as it nears its final curtain; and as Caroline Levine wrote two weeks ago, many once-ardent viewers have wearied of its charms. Yet, I, for one, was happy enough last night to pull up a chair and join Roger in the spirit of Irving Berlin’s Depression-era ditty.  “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee,” I say, with a nice hodge-podge of meat and pasta on the side.

Of course, Mad Men has always sported a playful self-consciousness, even during episodes of stunning high seriousness. Almost inevitably, the show has begun paying tribute to its own greatest moments: last week by staging an homage to Season 4’s “The Suitcase”and this week, on the occasion of Bert’s death, by recalling us to Joan’s promptitude in Season 1 when she joined Bert in alerting clients to what then looked like Roger’s imminent demise (“The Long Weekend”).

Even more explicitly, Roger’s plan to become a McCann subsidiary and so to make everyone richer while thwarting Cutler’s scheme to ditch Don, harked back to Don’s Season 3 ploy to save the agency by starting anew. (It also made Cutler the ultimate Napoleon of this Waterloo story.) The threat back then was a British invasion at the hands of the downsizing raiders, Putnam, Powell & Lowe. Now, in a comparable instance of “the agency of the future” evoking our latter-day perils, Cutler is determined to trade creative juices for big data analysis. (In fact, the dystopian vision of turning advertising into a pure science has haunted the industry since the days when David Ogilvy and Rosser Reeves first put on their grey flannel suits: something Mad Men has meditated in episodes like Season 1’s “The Hobo Code.”)

In yet another familiar motif, recurring television footage from a world-historical event—in this instance Apollo 11’s July 29, 1969 “giant step for [a] man”—threads through the storylines of the show’s characters, inflecting Peggy’s pitch for Burger Chef and Sally’s ongoing coming-of-age. (Will Sally one day tell her daughter that a boy named Neil showed her the stars on the night Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, just as Betty once told us that a Jewish boy kissed her at a school fundraiser for Holocaust survivors?)

There was much else going on in “Waterloo” besides these multiple nods to Mad Men’s glory days, to suggest a newfound delight in postmodern composition—one that is not (or not immediately) reducible to the dour Jamesonian diagnosis of pastiche as “speech in [the] dead language” of late-capitalism. Witness, for example, the show’s reflection on its own serial delivery as Peggy tells the fast food execs that it wasn’t just technology that made the moon walk so special but, rather, the fact that “All of us were doing the same thing at the same time.” “We can still feel the pleasure of that connection,” she assures them. Last week, Don supported Peggy’s instinct to swap out the fantasy of a dad who brings Burger Chef to the family home for the more radical idea that fast food joints are a homely refuge from modern discord. If Mad Men drew the line at a marriage of convenience between Bob Benson and Joan, it made crystal clear that Pete, Don and Peggy were a bona fide family—in fact, the only family left intact in the wake of a retreating Megan, a lonely Peggy, and a Pete still more caught up in what he’s lost than in his new liaison with a real estate agent.

By merging the new campaign, “Family Supper at Burger Chef," with the tableaux of families all over the nation, driven to the tube by their collective hunger for connection, Mad Men once again had its cake and ate it too. “The dinner table is your battlefield and your prize,” Peggy told the burger execs, because the TV is only six feet away from the kitchen, droning disruptively of cold war adventures, distracting us from each other, and dividing Dad’s taste for Sinatra from Junior’s preference for the Stones. But as Mad Men’s camera took us from Betty’s living room, to Peggy and Don’s motel, Bert’s living room with his housekeeper, and even chez Roger and Mona (!), television was no longer the great despoiler. Not a spout for noxious news, noise, and niche marketing, the television we saw in “Waterloo,” though pictured in the form of a walk on the moon, was clearly an allegory for long form serial television itself. There it was in glorious mise en abyme: us sitting in the dark watching them sitting in the dark as Mad Men telegraphed the story of its own years-long gambit; those slow narrative installments, synchronized over time, embedding fictional characters in the existential space of day-to-day living that last week’s episode called “Living in the Not Knowing.” We know that space well because we live in it too.

Now, as I said at the start, I am not (or not strongly) resisting Mad Men’s postmodern turn but I do think it means that the show may never answer the questions Bruce Robbins posed in his opening blog on the Season 7 premiere. Bruce asked, would the moral redemption prophesied at the end of last season mean that the show would need to turn against "advertising itself"? And, if so, “Wouldn’t a rejection of all that professional success mean turning against the vice-ridden virtues by which viewers have been so charmed?” “In particular, what would a critique of the profession mean for the gradual emergence of women into the ranks of the professionally successful?” In “Waterloo,” these searching questions are banished by the same self-referential trick that turns “Family Supper at Burger Chef” into “Watching Season 7 of Mad Men.” That is, through the same postmodern device, the episode is less about Jim Cutler’s dumb idea to rid the agency of what Pete memorably calls “a very valuable piece of horse flesh” than it is about the hazards of bringing a landmark serial television show to the brink of its… “mid-season finale” (on this aberration I cannot do better than Sean O’Sullivan). “Every great ad tells a story,” we learn twice in this episode. But the message is not that Mad Men is a story about a great ad for Burger Chef; rather,Burger Chef is an ad for a great story called Mad Men.

To be sure, early in the episode we learn that Ted now occupies the position of the damaged existential subject and directly blames advertising: “I don’t want to die,” he assures his astonished colleagues, “I just don’t want to do this anymore.” Toward the end of the episode, Don tries to persuade Ted that it’s the business side of the job that is soul-destroying. Pitching to Ted harder than Peggy did to Burger Chef, Don assures his former partner that when all is said and done, straight up copywriting is as good as it gets: “You don’t want to see what happens when it’s really gone,” says the man who has spent the season occupying the office where Lane Pryce hanged himself. Feeling as we do that the work in question isn’t so much flacking for fast food as writing for television, we can almost believe in Don’s newfound Gospel of Work. We can certainly believe that a showrunner like Matthew Weiner is sometimes “tired of fighting”—fighting not only for maximum loot but also for screen time in a business in which every extra second of extra air time for Mercedes Benz, Burger King, and AMC promotions adds considerably more to the bottom line. Year after year, swimming in a pool of industry sharks who probably make “Benedict Joan” look like Mother Teresa and Jim Cutler look like a fresh-faced Michael Kuzak, who doubts that Weiner has days when he feels ready to cash out his shares and spend the rest of his life on an island in the South Atlantic Ocean?

Yet another way that Mad Men defers the Robbins question is by placing Peggy outside the maw of advertising—making her situation so riddled by sexism that we sympathize too much to worry if she is becoming another suit. At the end of last season with Don on the ropes, Peggy looked to be taking her mentor’s place, pantsuit and all. Instead it is Lou who has played the part of the Man in Season 7, while Peggy has struggled with a moribund love life and undermined confidence. Last week Pete—against the ironic backdrop of his own domestic dysfunction—persuaded Peggy to let Don do his magic. As a woman, Pete told her, she must stand for a maternal presence even though the only child in her life is her young neighbor Julio. This week, watching her hold up two outfits for Julio’s advice—a grey color that “men wear” and a stripey number that is “pretty” but may make her sweat—we know that there is no winning choice for Peggy. Chafing against a clueless stereotype of femininity, her only recourse is to suck it up.

The upside of this lapse of confidence on Peggy’s part is the return of Don as avuncular mentor. I must confess that I am a complete sucker for this aspect of the Draper persona. The genius of this character is that he is sometimes quite believably the professional woman’s friend: an icon of alpha male confidence that a woman like Peggy can simply summon before her as though he were the working gal’s answer to Barbara Eden in a bottle. It helps that the Don of Season 7 has so far been a recovering Lothario. Not since Neve Campbell propositioned him in the premiere have we sensed that infidelity is very much on his mind. (We can’t count the threesome with Megan’s friend in “The Runaways” since that was her idea). Indeed, so chaste has Don become that, in another homage to the past, this one parodic, Don’s daffy secretary takes matters in her own hands and offers herself as solace for his troubles. The scene takes us back to a rather more successful secretarial seduction in Season 4 when Megan persuaded her boss that she could be discreet. In that episode, alcohol played a role in prompting Don to take the risk (and be unfaithful to Faye Miller). But the Don of Season 7 has come back from his Elba with womanizing and heavy drinking seemingly a thing of the past.

Not only the heart of “The Suitcase,” but also of the entire 3-season arc that preceded it, Don’s bond with Peggy has always been one of the show’s most compelling setpieces. Far be it from me to spoil the fun. Ah, but, Mad Men, Mad Men are there no moonshot stories we wish to pitch before releasing Don and his friends from Purgatorio? Whether embodied by Don, Freddy Rumsen, Ted, Peggy or that Mad Man Behind the Curtain, Weiner himself, are we really ready to declare that The Writer For Our Times is some good-enough cross between Walter Benjamin’s “The Storyteller” and the crooner in a Hollywood musical? (Bert’s posthumous appearance in a song-and-dance number—a hodge-podge of meat and pasta if ever there was one—is the episode's biggest reveal: the final referent for “Waterloo” is not Napoleon, it’s Abba!) My point is not that the best things in life aren’t free. Nonetheless, in taking the occasion of a “giant step for mankind” for a clever pastiche about Mad Men’s own history, the show missed the opportunity to make JFK’s determination to get to the moon by the end of the 1960s meaningful for our times.

Yes, there were doubtless many back then who noted (like Neil and Sally) that the government’s quixotic Cold War extravaganza was costing billions of dollars sorely needed on E
arth. But what Mad Men did not pause to contemplate was how few people at the time rejected the possibility of fighting Communism, a War on Poverty, and exploring the final frontier all while expanding affordable higher education. For both better and worse—on behalf of many regrettable causes as well as good ones--these were times when Republicans like Richard Nixon (or Henry Francis) shared the basic liberal premise that the purpose of government is to do all the things that individuals cannot do and markets will not do. Missed, therefore, by Mad Men last night was the chance to refract the stifled aspirations of our own times. Frozen in a neoliberal austerity regime, we are assured that we can no longer shoot for the moon—not for renewable energy, affordable education, universal healthcare, or any other public good. Thus, the great story behind every ad today is not (or not only) our craving for lost connections; it's the never-ending neoliberal story that, give or take a few Middle East invasions, drone strikes, and ambitious surveillance programs, government’s job in the twenty-first century is to do the bidding of Job Creators.

When Don tells Sally she should not be so “cynical,” we sense he is right. But what kind of moon should we shoot for, daddy? Watching Mad Men last night, I longed for a crazy coot like Season 3’s Conrad Hilton to give us some glimmer of what the moon is for. What I got instead—Bert in a scene from the 1950s-meets-Mama Mia!—may well be the next best thing. But if “Waterloo” was not quite penned in the dead language of late capitalism, it was the vision of a show already convinced that the best thing to come from our turn-of-the-millennium is the advent of serial television.


Make A Comment


Paul Ewart said...

Great synopsis but am I the only one who finds Bert's song and dance routine sinister? Isn't the point that the moon is 'free' and thus a new frontier to be conquered by Objectivists? It's a Randian fantasy writ large prefigured by Bert's 'bravo!'; it is all his dreams come true.

Unit for Criticism said...

Hi Pewartstoat and welcome to Kritik. That's an interesting thought--and it would not have occurred to me. But hey why not? That's the thing about pastiche: it's always ironical and so you just don't know how far the irony goes...

Thanks for the great comment! LG

Jez B. said...

Nice. I am already thinking about the rest of the season and will read Kritik of course. Thank you. Jez

Anonymous said...

great commentary. one correction, pete is the one who makes the comment about don being, ''the valuable piece of horse flesh'', not roger.

MP said...

Thanks so much for that correction, Anonymous. I will fix it asap. Welcome to Kritik (if this is your first time posting with us).

Jez B. I look forward to your comments again next year! Thanks so much for joining us so regularly.

Anonymous said...

Great analysis with much to think about, but I don't think Bert's number had anything to do with the 1950's or ABBA. The song was from 1927 (pre-depression) but the routine came directly from the 1961 "How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying".

Anonymous said...

The last episode was terribly illogical, which discouraged me completely. 1) How come did Jim fire Don without consulting the partners? 2) Why Joan's vote weights as much as Pete's, who owns twice, and mainly Roger's and Bert's, the biggest shareholders? 3) Why Bert's vote expires when he dies? His shares have to go to someone, don't they? 4) The votation should not be suspended, until Bert's heir could vote? 5) How come Roger did not manifest earlier his indignation about the way Jim was persecuting Don? All these questions without proper answers turned Mad Men, IMHO, into a cheap novel, written for people who do not think. So very disappointing! Mathew Weiner underestimated our intelligence... :-(

MP said...

Thanks to both Anonymous commenters - if you reply again perhaps you can give yourself some kind of pseudonym as do many of our regular posters?

To the 9:48pm Anonymous: a bit of explanation. I wasn't being literal about Abba (though "Waterloo" is likely to prompt Abba faster than Napoleon for some of my generation!). The point about pastiche is partly that the time referents can be jumbled in just the way your comments suggest. That said, there was a 1956 movie called *The Best Things in Life are Free* and featuring the same title number, which you can find on Wikipedia or wherever--though Robert Morse was not in it. Up till quite recently (with Les Miserables) the musical comedy has been pretty much a dead letter in US cinema with the exception of *Mamma Mia!*. Putting that together with "Waterloo" my mind leapt to Abba. But the point wasn't--oh yes, it's clearly an intentional reference to Abba. Rather, the point was, now that *Mad Men* is leaping into song-and-dance numbers without any "realistic" explanation (in the past Don's visions have always had some reason such as a high fever to account for them), all bets are off in terms of the genre of this particular episode and perhaps for the season as well. For me, this episiode was clearly a pastiche in the sense of hodge-podge and the fact that the song has been recorded many, many times just makes the case for pastiche more conclusive (as I see it). Not sure if it will make as much sense to you.

Anonymous at 10:17pm: I agree that the plot points behind this episode were particularly implausible. I suppose we're supposed to believe that Jim's confidence in computerized analysis for TV commercials has completely obviated (in his mind) the need for a high-maintenance "creative" like Don. (Having been to many a faculty meeting in my day I will say that people do not always behave in the best interests of the organization 100% of the time! ;) ). You are no doubt right that a team of lawyers would need to be consulted to parse the terms of the contractual agreement before any coup like Jim's would be binding. Bert's death if anything should have created some kind of moratorium. But, again, (though without at all claiming that this episode was *Mad Men*'s finest hour which it clearly was not), the pastiche form asks us to look at this at the episode at a more symbolic level. The show is becoming more self-referential to the extent that it's increasingly become an allegory about making long form television itself and what that means to the social world in which we follow it as viewers.

Perhaps because I was blogging on it, "Waterloo" was more satisfying for me than you found it (I didn't feel my intelligence has been insulted as I occasionally have felt with episodes like Season 4's "Good News" which will always go down in my mind as the Worst Mad Men Episode Ever and which I got stuck blogging on a few years ago).

Thanks very much to you both for your comments!

Anonymous said...

Great post, Lauren! (I'm just getting caught up on episodes -- and Kritik -- after traveling). One thing that struck me about the Peggy story line in this episode was how winkingly the writers seemed to be having her channel Don: the dreamy fugue state of her pitch to Burger Chef, the kiss on top of Julio's head just as Don had kissed hers, even the desperate cry for alcohol in the Indiana motel room. I'm not quite sure what to do with this, other than suggest that it fits in with your comment about the show's self-referentiality and knowingness -- if there's one thing viewers have been debating about since the show's beginning, it's whether or not Peggy would "turn into" Don. Thanks again for a great post!

Dana P. said...

Lauren, I like -- and hadn't at all thought about -- the idea that their watching the moon walk is a mise-en-abyme of all of us being together watching the show itself. It fits the idea that this show is more and more about its show-ness (which I think becomes inevitable with a show that announces it's going off).

It could be interesting, then, to connect that postmodern concern to the more content-oriented concern of the later part of your blog about the image of women (and of Peggy in particular) in the series: a link between the postmodern (the show being about its showness) and the modern (the show as being about themes like gender and male redemption in the advertising world a la Bruce Robbins's question) could be that long-form serial TV was classically the soap opera, a woman's genre, but now with shows like The Sopranos (a man who cries at ducks) and everything after it (up to Mad Men), it's now nightime men-included TV that is long-form and serial. So a show about its own show-ness is also about the history of TV as seriality comes to be legitimated (because it's now about -- and for -- guys).

Corey Creekmur said...

I was out of the country when this episode aired, and have just caught up to it, and then this excellent commentary. On the final song: there has always been a clever allusion at work in the casting of Robert Morse -- best known for "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" -- as an advertising executive, but what the allusion never really employed until the finale of this episode is the work's status as a musical and Morse's reputation as a song and dance man. So the song is a kind of tribute to his career as much as a send-off for Bert Cooper. But I also saw it as a nod to the TV work of Dennis Potter, most obviously the pioneering PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, with its famous, jarring shifts from grim drama into musical numbers as utopian -- but often also troubling, pathetic -- fantasy. While MAD MEN isn't really in the Brechtian tradition of Potter, a line is being traced back to a notable moment in the history of "quality" television.

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MP said...

Hi Corey, Bizarrely (because I was not being auto-notified) I missed your comments until just now while fiddling around Kritik in anticipation of handing over to the Unit's new director. I just wanted to thank you publicly for those really interesting remarks. I was vaguely aware of the Robert Morse context as I did a bit on-the-fly research. But the Dennis Potter idea and reference are new to me and truly thought-provoking. More to think about in anticipation of the series' conclusion.

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Robin said...

Looking for blog on first episode of last part of season which aired a few days ago. Where are you? I need help getting my head around this first of the last episode!

MP said...

We are on public books!

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