This Week on Dear Television:
- “Mad Men Fantasies,” from Lili Loofbourow
- “Deep Cuts: Rachel in Furs,” from Phil Maciak
Mad Men Fantasies
By Lili Loofbourow
April 7, 2015
I SOMETIMES wish Mad Men and Game of Thrones could switch writers’ rooms for a week. I’d thrill to a Game of Thrones that had some of Mad Men’s subtlety and symbolism and cheer at a Mad Men with some of Game of Thrones’ decisive momentum. This isn’t a new comparison: Phil contrasted these shows two long seasons ago, when he covered the premiere of Mad Men’s fifth season.
In my fantasy, all the death looming thematically over Mad Men actually takes place. Mad Men would have its very own Red Wedding; there’d be a gas leak of some sort at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce CGC and Partners or whatever it’s called now, or Lois would come in with a renegade tractor, on purpose this time, or Joan would finally get her way. However it happened, everyone in the building would die.
Think of the riches that would remain! We’d be left with Michael Ginsberg. Helen Bishop. Carla! Freddy Rumsen. Betty and Henry Francis. Sally. Abe Drexler, Paul Kinsey, Mona. Midge Daniels, Sal Romano, Bobbie Barrett and Jimmy. Trudy Campbell! Francine! Hell, I’d even throw in Megan, Faye, and Glen. Maybe even Jane Sterling and Connie Hilton. I’m feeling generous. (Not Sylvia Rosen or Marigold or Duck or Beth, though — you gotta draw the line somewhere.)
The fact is, I love Mad Men’s satellites but have tired of its principals — and I advise you, if you’re a loving fan, to stop now and turn to the dozens of amazing essays analyzing the premiere that are circulating on your internet at this very moment. This is not that essay. When some of the best minds in media criticism (including Dear TV alum Anne Helen Petersen) have turned their talents on the last half-season of Mad Men, there’s room for the cranks like me — cranks who feel that this beautiful but flawed series often lacks focus, fails to cohere, and throws poetic spaghetti at the wall, much of which slips off, uncooked — to register our complaints.
I have several. The main one is this: the show has trained me not to care about what happens on it.
I realize that in this I’m departing from even our own Dear TV canon: Phil argued — in the piece I linked to above — that Mad Men is itself “an artificial document about artifice. As such, the show is looking for ways to encourage and reward our active spectatorship, our own acts of noticing.”
Speaking only for myself: I don’t feel rewarded. I feel punished.
Here’s why: Mad Men is a show allergic to transitions. Transitions are what I watch drama for. Whenever the “huge” thing happens on Mad Men — the moment we’ve been waiting for or the event we’re surprised by — the series goes stingy, retracts, and skips the aftermath. Seasons end on a cliffhanger and start again at some point in the future that pointedly ignores the appetite the finale created. Missing is what I, as a viewer, care most about: how the people I’ve watched and loved for so long are affected by whatever massive event I last witnessed. Mad Men hit its dramatic and narrative peak when Betty finally opened Don’s drawer. That was the last time it gave me everything I wanted, the last time it allowed itself the luxury of climax. It’s been withholding from me ever since.
Do I have examples? OH, I HAVE EXAMPLES.
Take the confrontation between Betty and Don. The season ended two episodes later, in December 1963 and restarted in November 1964 — eleven months later.
It skipped the phase I’ve been watching these two people for three years to finally witness — the honest raw stuff of rage and grief, the way Don’s American Man and Betty’s American Woman process the trauma and the dissolution of their ideals along with their marriage. Instead of exploring the most interesting and revealing moments of this extraordinarily repressed couple’s lives, Mad Men fast-forwarded to tell me that, nearly a year later, Don’s sleeping with women and feeling empty.
Or take Lane Pryce’s death. Lane, whom I loved, hung himself in the spring of 1967 — partly as a result of his confrontation with Don, who acted decisively and arguably showed Lane less mercy than he himself was shown when his own secrets came out. I wondered how Don would be affected by Lane’s death, whether he’d feel any responsibility for contributing to it. Would he miss him? Would Joan? What shape would his absence take? But the show starts up again in December of 1967, long enough later that everything’s been processed and more or less returned to normal. Why?
Or take Peggy’s promotion and her new life away from Don at CGC. It would have been immensely interesting to watch her transition to a new environment, to see how she deals with a new workplace compared to when she first arrived at Sterling Cooper. Instead, the first time we see her at her new job, which is no longer new, she’s been there several months. The interesting part, the transition, is over.
Or take Don showing Sally and Bobby to see the house where he grew up. What happens after Sally says “I love you”? What conversation did they have next? That’s the cliffhanger; that’s what I’m watching Season 7 (2.0) to see: who this new Don is, this Don who’s capable of dancing with Peggy and showing his children where he grew up and who he really is. Instead, we start the season, as Phil points out, resetting to Season 1, with Don playing around with ladies in fur coats and revisiting Rachel Katz, who’s died — another instance of withholding. She’s been gone all this time, and now she’s gone. Still. Again.
I could go on, but my point’s pretty simple: I feel toyed with, as a viewer, when these hugely interesting dramatic situations dissipate in favor of an aesthetic that privileges stasis over transition. Why effectively limit a drama with this much texture to the constraints of the sitcom, which is structurally forced to continually reset to a baseline the way Mad Men repeatedly chooses to? It’s clear that this is deliberate, that the writers find it formally interesting to continually return to the basics: depressed death-obsessed horndog Don, competent sexy Joan, greyhound Roger, workaholic Peggy. I just — as Dear TV’s resident crank — disagree.
It’s a testament to how good the show is at creating the rich world for which it’s rightly hailed that I want these questions answered as badly as I do. It’s a testament to how little its first remarkably tight three seasons share dramatically with its free-floating last four that I don’t think it’s interested in answering any of them.
To put it another way: I trust the visual artistry behind the camera implicitly — its aesthetics are impeccable and evocative — but, given that the decentering of Don Draper we all thought was coming never came — I don’t trust the plotting. The symbols are red herrings that lead nowhere. There are far too many loose threads at this point, and the show sticks, with the glutinous malaise of half-cooked spaghetti, to storylines that feel either tangential to the show’s core or really overdone. (Girls has this problem too.) I’m preemptively exhausted and bored by the prospect of an arc about Dow Chemical and Ken Cosgrove’s power struggle with Roger and Pete. I like Cosgrove fine, but if the rest of Season 7 turns out to be another power struggle between the fellas, well, we know how absolutely nowhere that story goes. (Remember when we were all excited about the developing rivalry between Ted and Don when they went for a ride in that plane? Remember when nothing much happened with that?)
If I’m horrifyingly honest, there’s nothing more I particularly want to know about Don, or Joan, or Roger, or Peggy, or Pete. They had potential to change, but they’ve stalled out, and that’s fine — people do. There’s a certain realism to that. But for several seasons now, despite the hunger with which we’ve overread every sign that they might be about to finally do something a little different, they haven’t. Our core characters haven’t had arcs; they’ve had lines.
I’ve been beating this drum for some time. Here’s what I wrote about Season 5:
[Mad Men] is less concerned with continuity and plot than in trafficking in symbols. “Who cares?” Bert Cooper said when Don’s big secret was revealed in the first season, and in retrospect, that may have been an important lesson for viewers: We’re not meant to put too much stock in the events of SCDP, or in history, or in the characters’ particular pasts. Instead we get thematic tides, constellations of events and objects at particular poetic moments; the show is more symphonic poem than novel. Nothing builds. “They’re just some pennies you pick up off the floor, stick in your pocket and you’re just going in a straight line to you-know-where,” Roger says, and if many critics have found that psychotherapeutic rhapsody of Roger’s useful as an expository map of the season’s concerns, so is his outburst. “I don’t feel anything,” he says, and we sympathize, as neither do we.
Again, that’s okay. There can be poetry in stasis. But here we are, a season and a half later, and Mad Men has played that particular card one too many times. It doesn’t feel dramatically true, either in Mad Men’s universe or outside it. The fact is — as anyone who knows anyone from the period in which Mad Men was set can attest — people do change. It’s remarkable how much they change and adapt, how much they’re affected and bent by their experiences and the times that change around them. I can accept that Bert and even Roger wouldn’t change much; they were old, established, set. But Don was way too young at the start of the series and, because of his specific circumstances, far too malleable not to have changed more than he has — especially given how fragile his conversion into the artificial construct of Don Draper proved to be.
Remember when Dick Whitman blew Don Draper up because he dropped his lighter, embarrassed that he’d wet himself? Dick Whitman wasn’t smooth. He was nervous, clumsy, graceless.
Maybe that’s the logical problem at the show’s heart: there’s an unarticulated tension between the first three seasons, when Don Draper is trapped trying to be Don Draper, and the last four, when Don Draper can’t stop being Don Draper. If Mad Men’s moral is that people don’t change, can’t change — if they’re forced to compulsively repeat — then someone who changed as much as Don Draper did, from a clumsy, weak-mouthed private to a smooth lady-killing ad exec, would not be able to stop changing. Were he a high-school math problem, we should be finding his derivative, not his slope. He’d remain a chameleon forever: his lonely moments would reveal his lack of confidence in his own façade. Instead (and in ways that strike me as inconsistent with his origin story) Don seems trapped in the suit he’s become. Don’s marriage to Megan took him nowhere different. His affair with Sylvia took him nowhere different. Rachel’s death won’t take him anywhere different either.
This episode was about death, as every analysis will intelligently observe; but so was all of last season, and the season before — he started it off reading the Inferno, remember? Remember when he met PFC Dinkins on his honeymoon and the thing about the lighter and how we all wondered what it meant? Remember the deafening symbolism of the heart surgeon? The man dying by the elevator? It all meant nothing. It portended nothing. Don’s just kind of a depressive, extraordinarily handsome dude who hit bottom and now he’s doing sort of okay.
Again, that’s fine, but if I’m not going to witness whatever psychological journey brought him back from the brink — back from that amazing shot where his sliding-glass door wouldn’t close — I’m not sure why I was supposed to care about him crashing and burning earlier.
I don’t care about the sad literary waitress or the red wine on the white rug (groan) or the repetition of the Megan Calvert moment that Phil so astutely noted. We’ve had all that before and repetition is simply not enough, because the repetition isn’t in the service of anything.
Here’s what I do care about — and what, in my fantasy universe, Mad Men would spend its last episodes dealing with in lieu of the Calverts and Averys and Cosgroves and Chaoughs. I care about Pete and Trudy; I care about how they’ve changed with respect to each other and how they’ll continue to change. I care deeply about Betty. I want to see her and Joan run into each other. I want to see her and Don bicker over how Sally dresses. I want Joan to remember Lane. I want Bobby to show Don exactly how abandoned he is — how Don is recreating his own childhood in the son he refuses to see or miss. I want Peggy and Abe to meet up again and I want her to feel something about that. I want Peggy and Stan Rizzo to have a major, surprisingly intense fight about the Beatles or LSD that turns them into a couple. I want Peggy to confide in Stan. I care about Sally. I want Peggy to visit Ginsburg. I want Roger and Joan scenes, and (I’m sorry to say this) but, for dramatic reasons, I want Roger to die. I want the illusion Mad Men offers that erasures are clean to rip the paper it’s written on a little. I want something to matter. Just one little chicken coming home to roost would make it all feel a little less unmoored, a little less pointless as a viewing experience.
Is that all there is?
Deep Cuts: Rachel in Furs
By Phil Maciak
April 6, 2015
SO, IT’S 1970, and Don Draper’s up to his old tricks again. And, by “old tricks,” I mean that he’s doing what Mad Men is always doing: reminding us almost-but-not-quite of things that happened before in the distant reaches of this series. Old tricks registering like the pain from an old wound, a twinge in the heart, letting us travel the way a child travels, etcetera etcetera etcetera. (See what I did there?) But, even for Matthew Weiner, these are some pretty deep cuts. Don’s flirting with models in fur coats. He’s telling Dick Whitman stories like they’re his. He’s chasing after Rachel Menken. This is first-season livin’, even earlier. If Don’s a palimpsest of himself, then “Severance” wants us to squint really hard and try to make out the very first scratches that have been written over again and again. “I’ve lived in New York a long time,” Don says. We know, man.
To some extent, this works as a kind of limbering-up exercise for this final stretch of episodes. This is a work of historical fiction after all, so we ought to try to remember where we started as we speculate about where we’ll end up. It’s also another way of reminding us that regression, relapse, and return are all different ways of dealing with unresolved memories. When Don starts fooling around again, he’s experimenting with ways to process the past. When that flight attendant splatters her wine on Don’s white carpet — my mind cut to Toshiro Mifune yanking his samurai sword out of an unworthy foe — it doesn’t look so much like an old wound as a new one, but then she gets down on the ground in her bra and panties, starts cleaning up, and all of a sudden we’re in 50 Shades of Megan Calvet. And, because traumatic re-enactments turn Don on, we also remember the temptress Don nailed, and then strangled, in exactly the same place on that carpet in his fever dream, hiding her body under the bed, fantasizing enough about his adulterous impulses to be repulsed by them. She reminded him of something else, so she had to be dominated and then stowed away. Don’s a little less self-conscious about all of that here, but it’s the same deal. This stewardess isn’t a spaceship, she’s a time machine!
But Rachel Menken, though! The sedimentary layers upon which that stewardess lay were just a thin crust compared to what props up Rachel Menken, Don’s oldest, most painful wound. Don’s gallery of women is a serious company, but as much as I longed to see Faye Miller or Bobbie Barrett, I knew it wouldn’t make sense for them to take a curtain call in season seven. They did their work, and then they get to leave. But I both hoped that Rachel Katz nee Menken might return and thought it would make a lot of sense. (For what it’s worth, Twitter owes me one dollar.) Bobbie Barrett was a dynamic mirror for Don’s issues with control, and her storyline helped hasten the dissolution of his marriage. And Dr. Faye was essentially a red herring, a manifestation of what Mad Men’s audience might imagine emotional growth to look like for Don. Seeing Don turn down Faye for his secretary betrayed the audience in the most delicious way, and it made the — short-lived — healthiness of Don and Megan’s relationship shocking as well as gratifying. In other words, Bobbie and Dr. Faye were extraordinarily well-realized — and terrifically performed — plot contrivances. They were Don’s exes; Rachel Menken was his lost love.
She haunted the series for some time, reappearing as Rachel Katz a few episodes into the second season, prompting Don to take her husband’s name as a pseudonym later on. That was the last mention of Rachel Menken, but, when Don was finally freed of Betty, he started over with a dark-eyed brunette who really sees him, and when that fizzled, he took up with another dark-eyed brunette who really sees him. Québécois, Catholic, Jew — Rachel Menken is Don’s type, her image is superimposed over every chance Don takes at love. Mad Men can’t forget her.
But how does she reappear this time? This show loves staging — almost literally — textbook examples of the male gaze. Joan teasing Roger in front of the one-way mirror in the first season, Megan gliding into the frame in the first episode of this long season like a slow-motion Rita Hayworth in Gilda. Weiner’s playing with the common criticism of the show that it’s reproducing structural misogyny at the same time that it’s ostensibly critiquing it. That’s not an unfair criticism, but if we want to even entertain the concept that this is a show about men looking at women in a way that’s even remotely critical, then these scenes serve as flashpoints. They let the camera be controlled by these men’s eyes so that those eyes can see something unexpected, jarring. The camera lingers on Joan’s ass so that what it will eventually see is Peggy Olson come to life in the background. The camera luxuriates in Megan’s stems — while “I’m a Man” plays on the soundtrack — to make it doubly significant when she won’t let Don drive. Mad Men might sometimes employ a gendered gaze off-hand, but when it mobilizes that kind of look so overtly, it’s because we’re supposed to notice.
This final stretch begins with just such a scene. An auburn-haired model in matching chinchilla coat wafts into frame, then we get a close-up of Don, looking older, Lee Marvin-esque, wearing perhaps the first colored shirt he’s ever seen. Sleeves rolled, cigarette perched on his coffee-cup, Don looks less like a debonaire genius than one of those sleazy douchebags from McCann. Don instructs the model to go to the mirror: “Look at yourself—do you like what you see?” We see an over-the-shoulder shot at the mirror, as we see her eyes go up and down over her own body. We then cut to a shot with Don standing in the background looking at her as she does this. This is the power relation, this is how it works. He has her walk over to the chair, throw her leg up, and the camera slides up and down her skin again. (This is, of course, one of the many reasons this episode is dedicated to the late Mike Nichols.)
It was easy, at first, to imagine that this was a scene about Betty. She and Don met on a shoot like this back when he was freshly graduated from hawking furs. Here, then, is old, leathery Don, auditioning new talent, nostalgic for the optimistic potential of that early bachelorhood. But then, we realize this isn’t for him. Don is constructing this vision for his co-workers and for the client. He’s stage-managing this demonstration of the male gaze. “You are the product,” Don once said, “You feeling something. That’s what sells.” This narrated peep-show is what that looks like in its crudest form. Don’s feeling something and selling it in the room. Once again, Betty is a useful body, a useful memory.
But this scene wasn’t set for Betty. This is not that wound. Fur, more than just a reference to Elizabeth Hofstadt, is Mad Men’s uniform of regret and longing. Roger gifted it to Joan in the “Waldorf Stories” flashback, and Beth Dawes appears to Pete in a dream sequence suspiciously like this Wilkinson’s advertisement. Instead, as we were all shocked to realize (although, again, I wasn’t even remotely shocked), this was a stage prepared for the resurrection of Rachel Menken. In Don’s dream, Ted opens the door: “This is another girl.” This is just another girl. This is an other girl. The camera starts at her feet, travels up her legs, over the hills and valleys of the fur, up to the glorious sharp features and bold lip of the heiress of the Menken Department Store dynasty. Don’s mouth is agape. Rachel floats over to the mirror without being told to lower the coat so that it looks like she’s naked underneath. It’s the same mirror shot from before but without Don’s direction. She turns to look at Don and says, “I’m supposed to tell you you missed your flight.” She turns to leave, and he catches her to say, “Rachel, you’re not just smooth, you’re Wilkinson smooth.”
Knowing in retrospect that Rachel’s dead, and that this fantasy carries somewhat the same status as Anna Draper’s ghostly reappearance in “The Suitcase,” the travel imagery is appropriate, and Rachel’s message seems more ominous. By folding Rachel into ad copy, Don’s insisting on her objectification, but the process works almost by rote here. And even that insistence is delivered so that it sounds like praise for her originality. She’s not just smooth, she is a highly-specific type of smooth that connotes the absolute best. And part of what makes her so singular is her resistance to Don. Her mirror play occurs without Don’s commands, without his intercession. Rachel enters the room on her own steam, admires her own body, stares into her own eyes, finds meaning without Don telling her how and when to do it. She is on display, but she is out of his control. She’s bearing meaning, but Don can barely figure out what that meaning is let alone impose it upon her.
In “Babylon,” one of the best episodes of the first season, Rachel tells Don about the dual meaning of utopia as “the good place” and “the place that cannot be.” She’s talking about Israel, but she’s also talking about the space Don occupied that season, longing for an impossibly coherent world to replace the one in which he lived. And this is where we find Don again, getting excited about Rachel Menken again, hoping for her to give order to his chaotic existence of meaningless sex and vulgar success. But Rachel Menken was not a cure for that then — at least not without some sacrifice — and she isn’t one now.
Rachel Menken, the person, existed outside of Don and in parallel with him — the “life not lived” in Kenny’s words. Her sister tells him, “She lived the life she wanted to live. She had everything.” Betty’s father Gene once told Don this about himself, but he didn’t believe it, or he didn’t care, or he thought he could do better. It’s not a coincidence that we get a glimpse of Ken’s dead eye for the first time this episode. “Severance” is an episode about men looking but not seeing, about the limits of their gaze. Interpellating Rachel back into his life seemed like an easy fix for Don, but some things — death, loss — cannot be looked upon so casually or rendered passive so easily. Rachel looks in the mirror without Don’s consent even if it’s for his pleasure, but when Don arrives at her apartment in real life, the mirrors are all shrouded. The waitress Don believes to be Rachel’s reincarnation tells him, “When people die, everything gets mixed up…When someone dies you just wanna make sense out of it, but you can’t.” But Don didn’t know Rachel was dead when he had visions of her, when he called upon her to make sense of death. We wanted Rachel to come back, but she is not who she is. Something else, something deeper is troubling Don Draper. Time travel isn’t easy even when it’s possible. You can’t see Rachel Menken again; she doesn’t exist anymore.
You wanna hear something spooky,