Los Angeles Review of Books

This week on Dear Television:

  • “Space Station Getzinger,” from Phillip Maciak
     

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Space Station Getzinger
By Phillip Maciak
April 20, 2015

Dear television,

JENNIFER GETZINGER is in the BUILDING! The nature of a short last season for a show with this much creative power behind and in front of the camera is that sometimes victory laps are going to come early. It’s already possible we’ve seen the last of Ken and Megan, and now, it seems, we have to say goodbye to Jennifer Getzinger, Mad Men’s greatest director. With “The Forecast,” her total’s up to nine episodes, but what episodes! “The New Girl,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “A Little Kiss,” “THE SUITCASE.” Weiner hands Getzinger the ball when this show needs to make something happen, and it always always works. Her métier — which happens, also, to be the show’s métier — is the close-quarters, soul-baring, one-on-one exchange. As we saw on ample display this episode, Mad Men characters love to say things that resonate on multiple frequencies. Every line on this show is a double entendre, and one of the things that I’ve always loved — though I know it sets some on edge — is the brazen flamboyance with which this is true. But that’s what makes these close exchanges so striking. This is a show on which everybody’s speaking in euphemisms, but these small set-pieces force them to be direct. What are we really talking about? What are you trying to say? What does all of this mean?

Whether it’s the budding romances of Betty and Henry and Don and Conrad Hilton set behind and in front of the bar at Roger’s country club, Peggy and Bobbie Barrett locked down in Peggy’s apartment not saying things to each other, or the spectacular revelation of Don and Megan’s angry sexual chemistry all over the new white carpet, Getzinger has a hand with these two-handers. This woman shot Don telling a recovering Peggy how to start over and Don telling Peggy, “That’s what the money’s for.”  I don’t think it’s too much to say that if these scenes represent something of Mad Men’s truth, then Jennifer Getzinger has produced the visual aesthetic of that truth. There’s an invisibility to her camera here — nothing fancy — but Getzinger brings a kind of romantic exaggeration to the basic grammar of the filmic conversation. For these episodes, we can always expect a full exploration of the way that two people can occupy the same frame. Working within the constraint of the basic head-on two-shot, she exaggerates distances between figures and then closes them, sometimes with iconic, self-consciously meaningful, almost painterly images of physical touch:

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Or…

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Or…

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Or…

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The auteur of inappropriate touching! These are moments of transgression — we know that because they begin as moments of rigid, charged formal separation. But they’re also moments of profound truth. These are real relationships, not formal ones. They have meaning for these people. They are expressive of a truth that is not itself expressed through the structural relationships of these characters. Child and adult, married woman and stranger, boss and employee, stage performer and spectator. (This last pair is framed differently to emphasize that particular formal relationship — it’s not about space between so much as the height differential produced by the stage.) These are secret touches that come to seem almost inevitable but that cannot be so at their beginning. They close gaps to show us that those gaps didn’t exist in the first place. This is something like Mad Men’s visual theory of true love, its giveaway that Matthew Weiner believes there are things that unite these characters beyond artifice or lust or convenience. We see these magnets attracting so that we know that the force drawing them together is real. There is order to this chaos, even if it’s only expressed in the wee small hours or in the most intimate exchanges. Jennifer Getzinger’s camera is what truth looks like on Mad Men.

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Getzinger’s return and farewell brings us to what seems like our running topic this season. For the first two episodes, we’ve been marveling at/grousing about the way the final season can’t seem to stop thinking about the fact that it’s the final season. The primary mechanism for this, as we’ve all noticed, is the call-back. Not just the return of old characters, but the reproduction of old scenes, the echoing of old conversations. I called it a palimpsest, but that’s a kind of dreamy intellectual way of describing it. Sometimes it feels like a valediction — seeing Jennifer Getzinger shoot Don and Peggy discussing the meaning of life in his office one last time — and sometimes it feels like traumatic re-enactment. Mad Men’s tracing its steps to see where it’s been and where it might be going.

But it would be wrong to think this is new, that this technique is an innovation specifically for dealing with the performance anxiety surrounding the last episodes. As Lili pointed out, this show is always circling back to the beginning when it thinks it’s moving forward, and that means that not only do we have to see the echoes of old events in the new, but we have to see characters see that for themselves. This show is about repetition masked as forward progress and about people slowly realizing that their future looks an awful lot like their past. Joan’s #TreatYoSelf odyssey into sexy Bruce Greenwood, for instance, looks like Joan’s resolution of the problem Bob Benson brought up when he proposed their sham marriage. And maybe it is. But it’s not substantially different from solutions that she’s entertained and rejected in the past. A witty, foxy, selfish, wealthy older man wants to use his largesse to create a life for Joan and her son Kevin. Does that sound like anybody else we know? Even if this does give Joan a new lease on life — or even a lease on a new apartment — it looks an awful lot like Roger Sterling.

Likewise, Peggy wants to be the first female creative director of SC&P. She will be, but that’s not Don’s future, it’s hers. The agency is cold and unfeeling, just like the universe, and its narrative arc is not limited to those of its individual employees. The world doesn’t grow in one direction, it dies and is reborn over and over. Bert Cooper was on this show for so long as a reminder, not of death but of irrelevance. Don’s having so much trouble figuring out what’s next for the agency because he’s asking the question the wrong way. “We know where we’ve been, we know where we are,” he says, and that’s true, but it shouldn’t be in first-person. He can’t tell where he’s going because he isn’t going anywhere. He’s achieved what he will achieve at SC&P — he’s no longer a metonym for the agency. The future is other people. Isn’t that sad? Isn’t that beautiful? Take off your shoes.

So nothing’s new under the sun now, and it wasn’t new in 1960. Mad Men repeats itself, ok we get it. So is there a virtue in this? I’m going to play Weiner’s Advocate here and suggest that Mad Men’s preoccupation with its own ending, stretched out now over three of seven final episodes, is actually a fairly interesting and audacious concept for a final season. Back when LARB was just a Tumblr — you’ve come a long way, baby — I wrote about how narrative is the essential subject of Mad Men. Everything that happens on this show is about the tension between content and form, story and plot, the happening and the telling. So, to that extent, Mad Men is, and has always been, a show about itself.

Why is that bothering us now, all of a sudden? I think Lili’s critique of the show two weeks ago is a perfect reading of the series. I empathize with the fatigue she feels when, for instance, we have to wait three whole episodes before encountering the show’s best character — do I even need to name her…

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And I can understand her frustration at the show’s compulsive need to cut away from actual events, actual happenings, to obscure massive paradigm shifts with winky ellipses. But I do not share that frustration. For me, the insecure/audacious beauty of this show has always been its willingness not to show at all — the show parodies this when we see Guy McKendrick’s foot mutilated by witnessing the blood spray on a row of white-shirted onlookers — to articulate its offscreen space. Mad Men describes absence the way NASA can describe a distant black hole by what’s visible in its wake. This is maybe a way of arguing for the beauty and meaning of the mundane (has any show ever attracted more writing about mise-en-scène?), and it’s maybe a way of arguing for what history looks like for the people living in it. Mad Men likes showing how a wedding gets ruined by the Kennedy assassination, not what it was like to be there at the scene of history. I understand how that might be exciting at the world-historical level but maddening at the basic level of plot and exposition, but I admire the commitment.

In any case, all of this seems to be ramping up now, and the absent center is the finale itself. David Chase solved the problem of an ending by not having one. Matthew Weiner is solving that problem by over-sharing about it. The dialogue in this episode is loaded like a baked potato. Meredith essentially repeats the thesis of these episodes when she lists SC&P’s hopes and dreams: “More money, bigger accounts, more awards, international business, and a space station?” In addition to echoing the show’s constant obsession with space imagery as the signifier of both progress and death, this is a statement of the problem. What the hell is next? A space station? Don’s real estate agent tells him, “The emptiness is a problem.” Don tries to sell it with, “A little glamour, a little hope.” He says there’s “less to actually do but more to think about.” Richard yells at Joan, “This is not how I saw things! I have a plan which is no plans!” There are even digs at critics: “Why don’t you just write down all your dreams so I can shit on them?”; “You don’t have any character, you’re just handsome.” And Peggy, for the love of Pete, brings it all home: “I want to create something of lasting value.”

It’s barely even subtext; each of these lines is an expression of the anxiety surrounding ending a long-running television program. Plans, the future, the way we imagine these things, the way we imagine our contributions, what time we have left — Mad Men might be the first television program of the Third Golden Age of serial television to be about the Third Golden Age of serial television. This is, admittedly, annoying. Unlike Peggy, we came here to talk about the meaning of life. Does it cheapen this show’s virtuosity that it all can boil down to Matthew Weiner’s phallic narcissism? Then again, why shouldn’t this show be obsessed with itself? We’re obsessed with it. There’s something kind of extraordinary about a series choosing to modulate its statement in this way. If we’ve learned anything over the past 15 years, it’s that TV isn’t just TV, it’s, well, it’s something better. Or, rather, TV is not the garbage medium it’s so often described to be. And that’s not about a progress narrative of TV production, it’s about what these complex series have done to the public perception of TV as an art form. It’s not that TV has become art, it’s that it always was and we see it that way now. So Mad Men’s self-referentiality becomes almost essayistic here. I’m talking about theses and articulations and historiography. This show is describing itself to us, and it’s saying things about art and commerce and memory and evolution and style and gender and race and money. But it’s doing so by not saying those things. It’s giving us stark spaces charged with meaning. Maybe it’s our job to messily collapse them, maybe it’s not, but the mess seems to be the point. Everything’s a little about trash and a little about the meaning of life. What will this show look like when it’s over? What will we look like when it’s over? What about after?

You can’t go to the pyramids, you can’t go anywhere,

Phil.

P.S. Apropos of nothing, Hot Glen is this show’s weirdest innovation since Fat Betty.

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