This week on Dear Television:
- "Round and Round," from Jane Hu
- "A Clean Break," from Evan Kindley
Round and Round
By Jane Hu
April 15, 2015
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
— Joni Mitchell, “The Circle Game”
Here we go again.
At this point, almost every piece of writing on Mad Men appears to be in part meta-commentary about the seemingly endless and repetitive process of writing about Mad Men. Why do some cultural objects immediately receive so much critical attention, while others that are just as literary, textually rich, and self-reflexive simply do not? The amount of published essays on a show that hasn’t even finished airing yet is impressive, if not unexpected [1 2 3 4 5]. Bloggers and academics alike (or both) have glommed onto the show as a kind of ideal interpretive text — perfect even, especially when it appears to be imperfect. It’s the show we love to love, and love to forgive, with the auteur we love to hate. Sometimes it feels as though I could write a Mad Men recap in my sleep; that’s how well the show and its critics has taught me to watch it. Part of this education has meant learning to watch the show with deep suspicion ("nothing is what it seems!", "anyone can be a Mad Men critic!"). Sometimes the show moves so slowly, so conservatively, that those of us indelibly invested in its purported long game have little choice but to see this passivity as stuffed with significance. When it’s hard to see the point, anything might be meaningful. Mad Men has turned me into the most paranoid of viewers.
But sometimes holding a magnifying glass up to Mad Men feels like holding one up to oneself. Sunday night Twitter sometimes feels like a kind of cultural Rorschach test. Trying to write about the final season — “The End of an Era” — has felt a bit unnerving, partly because we know how little time there is left. Staying with this show to the bitter end has felt increasingly like a practice of devotion, and I’ve never felt the magnifying glass turned back on me more than during this last half-season. What was I, as a viewer, expecting? The wonder of the show lies in the fact that I still don’t know how to answer this.
“Is that all there is?” sang Peggy Lee at the end of last week’s episode, appropriately titled “Severance.” (Everything in Mad Men can be read as appropriate — or its opposite.) “Let’s break out the booze and have a ball if that’s all there is,” continues Lee, which is kind of an optimistic response to the startling pointlessness of life, unless you’re Don Draper, of course, who follows up this week with neither booze nor a ball, but with a return to familiar habits: a melancholy brunette with a relatively staggering back story and interiority that the show (not to mention Don) can hardly represent without lapsing into straight schlock. “Take me seriously!” Diana seems to demand throughout this week’s episode, which Evan explains is quite inappropriately titled “New Business.” Diana has arrived too late in the game, which is tantamount to saying she’s arrived too late in the show’s narrative. Don doesn’t know how to take her seriously in the way she wants, nor perhaps do we at this point.
The next two episodes are called “The Forecast” and “Time & Life,” which, like “New Business,” can be read as predominantly time-centric. I love the thought that, in the final march of Mad Men’s repetitive seriality — in which closure is prioritized more than ever — the show has given us a series of episode titles that suggest contradictory narrative trajectories, rather than a culminating one. Here, at the end of an era, time is neither a carousel nor a flat circle, but a blender.
Car scenes, with their intensely artificial and color-saturated back projections, are important in Mad Men, a show insistent in its refusal to move forward. (Remember Betty and Sally smoking together? Remember Sally telling Don she loves him?) In “New Business,” we get a car scene so emphatically focused on its heightened status as a car scene that we never even see what happens when Pete and Don arrive at their destination. That is to say, the destination doesn’t often matter in Mad Men. Moreover, we probably shouldn’t ignore that it’s not Don who’s driving here, though he doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with this set-up either (the scene begins and ends with Don being such a backseat driver).
Pete: Do you have to smoke in here?
Don: It’s taking my mind off your driving.
Don: Megan’s moving her things today.
Pete: I didn’t know that was still going on. They want to punish you and then you get mad. Then you want to punish them but you know it’s your fault.
Don: I’ve been through it before.
Pete: Jimminy Christmas. You think you’re going to begin your life again and do it right, but what if you never get past the beginning again?
Don: Watch the road.
Because we can’t see the road, we’ll have to trust Don on this one. But Pete is, of course, not exactly in the wrong here. “You think you’re going to begin your life again and do it right, but what if you never get past the beginning again?” is basically the thesis of Don’s life.
At the beginning of “New Business,” Don is babysitting for Betty and Henry, though he quickly departs when the parents come home. Before exciting, though, Don gives one lingering look back on the scene of domesticity — a scene so idyllic that it almost feels staged. It almost looks like Betty and Don’s old kitchen. It almost looks like an ad.
Don’s shoulder shadowing the frame of the shot reminds us not only of the show’s opening sequence — of a body more symbolic than real — but also of the missing fifth body in this picture: Sally. If edging Don out of scenes and spaces means that we must also lose Sally, then I’m certainly not okay with the direction of where this show is going.
But the closing shot of “New Business” might suggest otherwise.
If there is not enough space for Don at the start of the episode, there is now far too much by the end. Viewed together, the home is at once too full and too empty for Don and becomes, ironically, an uncomfortable limbo space in which he never really belongs. (When Megan calls Don at 9:45PM ET at the start of the episode, she doesn’t expect him to be home to pick up. Sick burn, Megan!) During the car scene, Don explains to Pete that he can’t go home to retrieve his golf clubs because “Megan’s moving her things today.” So, like Sally, he smokes in the car.
Come home Sally, even if just for a short ride.
I expected more,
A Clean Break
By Evan Kindley
April 14, 2015
SO FAR this season’s episode titles seem to be playing with finitude. “Severance” referred to Ken Cosgrove’s firing, of course, but also the idea that we’re about to cut off from these characters and this universe forever. This episode’s title — “New Business” — suggests hope for narrative renovation, but there’s also something pro forma about it: it’s what the person presiding over a meeting says once the old business is taken care of (which, on this show, it never really is). Don wants to turn a page, to move on to a new story, but we know he only has six hours left, and the question inevitably arises: is this really the time for something new? “You think you’re going to begin your life over and do it right,” Pete, reduced to playing Greek chorus in golf apparel this week, laments. “But what if you never get past the beginning again?”
Lili complained last week that Mad Men is “a show allergic to transitions.” She was talking about how the narrative constantly jumps forward into the future, skipping over crucial moments, leaving things unresolved. But it could just as easily be said that the show is addicted to transitions: how many times have we seen Don as we see him here, longing to change his life? The episode opened with Don making chocolate milkshakes for his sons (Sally’s away at boarding school), and provided us with our first glimpse of '70s Betty, along with the knowledge that she’s getting a masters’ degree in psychology. Here is some old business that Don has left unfinished — remember his bonding with Bobby over Planet of the Apes? — but he flees immediately upon the entrance of Henry, who has replaced him as patriarch. From there on out, he floats among old plots: his affair with Diana the waitress, who evokes ghosts of moody brunettes past; his long-forgotten power struggles with Pete and Roger; his lapsed dalliance with Sylvia Rosen, who he encounters in an elevator for the first time since season six; the detritus of his failed marriage to Megan.
What kind of show does Don want to be on? He appears to be tired of playing the genius ad man, is clearly unsuited to being an ordinary father and husband, and the casual playboy lifestyle we saw him indulging in last week doesn’t seem to sustain him (only stain his carpet). In the past, he’s been happiest, if that’s the word, in passionate affairs, but in this case Diana is resistant to being cast as Don’s leading lady. She’s got her own story, revealed to us piecemeal: a child who died, another she abandoned. He sees them as “in the same boat,” but compared to hers, his grief is pedestrian — “You’ve never had a worse day than me,” she tells him — and she’s unwilling to set her tragedy aside in order to become a player in his: “I don’t want to feel anything else. When I was with you I forgot about her. I don’t ever want to do that.”
Don’s plight is analogous to Mad Men’s itself: the show has so thoroughly established its autonomy, its independence from generic restraints, that we don’t really know what to expect from it, or of it, any more. The show has become shapeless, by the standards of prestige serial drama at least. Harry, after making an unsuccessful pass at Megan, tells Don that she should never have quit her soap opera, and maybe she never did: this episode felt pretty soapy, what with Roger and Marie Calvet rekindling their amour fou and the glamorous bisexual photographer Pima Ryan seducing Stan and trying to seduce Peggy and the progressive revelations of Diana’s family tragedy. As on a soap opera, there is periodic excitement, but no sense that there will be fundamental changes to the order of things. In the past Mad Men has avoided this sense of stasis by emphasizing the inevitability of historical change, but, Pima’s pantsuits aside, this was among the least time-stamped of Mad Men episodes. (Meredith’s confused reference to “the Manson Brothers” was about the size of it.) What we have instead is the awareness of a ticking clock, or an hourglass about to run out. Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.
Toward the end of “New Business,” Don cuts Megan a check for a million dollars, a gesture that recalls Kenny’s severance payment from last week’s episode. “I don’t want to fight any more,” he says. This may or may not signal the end of Megan’s presence on the show, and in Don’s life, but it’s a characteristic Draper move: he likes clean breaks, treating relationships like contracts. It’s money that allows Don to start his life over as many times as he pleases without having to be concerned with people’s emotions. (“That’s what the money is for,” as he reminded Peggy back in season four, in a different connection: never having to say you’re sorry.) It’s possible that, by giving away such a huge sum, he’s compromised this power, and the remaining five episodes will examine the consequences of that weakness. I do hope he faces some sort of obstacle in the remainder of this season: Don is at his most compelling when dealing with situations beyond his control, like the revelation of his true identity, or the threats from Cutler, Gleason & Chaough. Left to his own devices, he can be stultifying.
I can feel the tension of your need for my opinion,