This Week on Dear Television:
- “Not Safe for Work: Mad Men‘s Art of Cursing,” from Phil Maciak
- “The Fourth Wall Rises,” from Lili Loofbourow
Not Safe for Work: Mad Men‘s Art of Cursing
By Phillip Maciak
April 28, 2015
My grade school principal said that we shouldn’t curse because cursing is an unoriginal use of language.
MEANWHILE, Lili has found something new under the sun — and I agree with her! We’re on different sides of the tracks, she and I, about this show of ours, but I think we fundamentally agree that there was something really new and vital about the moment between Peggy and Stan. It built out of years of back-story and upon the sedimentary layers of a friendship and in relation to a thick seam of frustrated sexuality between the two of them, but it wasn’t like any other moment. Peggy’s only other confession of this sort happens when she tells Pete about their child at the end of season two, and that moment, even at the level of blocking, is totally different. It’s about false equality, about misperceptions in power balance, and it’s structured around a head-on two-shot that emphasizes this artificiality and formality. Pete confesses that he loves Peggy and says, about Trudy, “She doesn’t know me, but you do, and I know you.” Peggy then proceeds to burst his bubble, to tell him about the pregnancy and the adoption and to say that she could have had him. The choice, in other words, only seemed like his, just like this shot is a visual representation of heroic mansplaining but is actually a visual representation of Pete teetering on an emotional cliff, about to get pushed off.
This was obviously a kind of traumatic marker for the series, and so it’s only natural that it’s haunted Peggy, but it’s been one of the less flamboyantly kept secrets of Mad Men. In other words, it’s something we’re only occasionally reminded of, and its absence — not its constant conspicuous recurrence — is the thing that fans of the show will notice. This scene between Peggy and Stan is a counter-point to that original scene. Peggy and Stan are blocked in a two-shot, but slouched, less formal, and facing each other from different chairs. This is earned, not constructed, intimacy and equality. Stan says, “You don’t know lots of things about lots of people, that’s the point.” And Peggy replies, “No it’s not.” Pete and Peggy share a couch, but not much else; Peggy and Stan share something much more substantial.
So, by “nothing like that original scene,” I mean that it’s a total inversion of and reference to that original scene. PSYCH! This isn’t to dampen Lili’s point, though. You gave voice to a particular anxiety I share when you wrote, “everything my paragraph will faux-humbly claim to have ‘noticed’ was actually underlined in bold italic and smeared with hot pink highlighter while wearing Pete Campbell’s golf pants. None of its cleverness is mine.” This is a brilliant articulation of the sinking feeling we all get when we feel like we’re on the world’s most aesthetically accomplished scavenger hunt rather than writing original criticism. It’s like the novel after theory: we’re always a little worried that once we pick the right decoder ring, clicking our settings to post-structuralism, the whole megillah just turns into an intellectual exercise.
But even when things are intellectual exercises — and this show often is one — there’s room to transcend that status. We can feel. This scene is new not because it’s composed of never-before-seen elements but because it feels that way. And the way we feel about this show is important. That its newness is constructed within the narrative economy of sameness that buttresses this show should not alter our feeling about it. Lili, if your complaint — and my great joy — is that this show keeps re-enacting scenes, then this is a scene that pointedly escapes that loop. Mad Men likes to re-use. Here, it’s chosen to recycle. Stan says the opposite thing about intimacy. The two bodies are staged in opposite ways. It’s the same component parts, but, instead of emphasizing repetition, it emphasizes difference.
The (sexist) fallacy of this particular wing of the anti-heroic age is that we watch because we’re fascinated by Tony Soprano and Don Draper. The meaty masculine center. But Tony doesn’t change, neither does Don. (Walter White occupies a different wing, of course.) Maybe your TV-mind wants you to think you’re attracted to a show because of its central dudeliness, its gravy-soaked gravitas, but the real change, the real action is forced to the margins. Peggy and Sally and Joan and Betty have always been the dynamic engine of Mad Men, the same way Carmela and Dr. Melfi and Adriana could be on The Sopranos. This scene is interesting because Peggy is different in it. Because it is possible for her to be different in it. It can’t be the same scene because Peggy isn’t the same person.
So we’ve got two proposals then: 1. Peggy is a different person; 2. Peggy is different. One implies that she’s become a different person because she’s grown, she’s changed, she’s matured, she’s compromised, etc. This is all true. In a very fundamental way, Peggy has grown while Don has stagnated. Don’s is the illusion of growth; her’s is its actuality. But there’s also something to the second claim. We’ll call that The Doctrine of Peggy Exceptionalism. What’s the difference between Peggy and everybody else in this episode? Don and Joan and Pete and Ted and Roger have to go to McCann. They have four-year contracts, they sold their souls. They wanted to keep their company, and they bought that item at the cost of their freedom. This is a classic Monkey’s Paw scenario: be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.
They’re cursed! They’re always going to marry the same people, service the same accounts but bigger, get screwed by three-hundred year old beefs, circle the drain at McCann. Same as it ever was. You don’t have to be Baby Einstein to realize that what Jim Hobart has described as advertising heaven is actually advertising hell. And, to that end, I’m choosing to believe that it’s no coincidence Jared Harris (the late Lane Pryce) directed this episode from the bowels of that hell itself. Lane was the first casualty of their original sin, that initial rebellion that they thought would keep them from the clutches of McCann. But he hung himself for a car, and nobody even thought to toast him this episode. Don cursed his friends to get rid of Lou Avery, but Lou was going to be riding Scout’s Honor all the way to Tokyo within a year anyway. Who’s going to toast Don for that?
Peggy, on the other hand, can leave. She doesn’t have to go to McCann. (Neither does Stan, for that matter.) Her head-hunter is adamant that she do it, but he’s also adamant about how marketable she is, how mobile. Peggy laments her inability to live, “just like a man does,” and this is a real thing, but it also masks the fact that all the other men on this show are trapped in a way she’s not. She gave up her baby. She left the agency once already. She breaks the chain. She doesn’t even go to that meeting at the end of the episode. In an office where every message is delivered in person with an all-hands-on-deck announcement, a closed-drapes conference, or simply one person barging into somebody else’s office and fixing themselves a drink, Peggy skips the meeting in favor of the only interoffice phone call in Sterling Cooper history.
Axiom: cursing may not be original, but it feels great.
So, Peggy’s not cursed, but she curses. I love the way Mad Men curses. Sometimes I watch the show for cursing the way you can watch a show imagining some tertiary character is actually its protagonist. Maybe one reason I like this series so much is the sheer satisfaction it seems to take in this simple act. As far as I can recall, the first instance of anybody dropping an f-bomb on the show is Ginsberg in season five’s “Lady Lazarus.” It’s one of my favorite scenes: Ken and Stan are playing Don a record sent to them by Chevalier Blanc. It’s supposed to sound like The Beatles, and Ken is dancing in a lurpy, dad-like manner as Don and Ginsberg stare incredulously. Don thinks it’s actually The Beatles; Ginsberg thinks it’s so not The Beatles that it’s offensive. “Turn it off,” he says, “It’s stabbing me in the fucking heart.” Don turns to him and says, “Why are you cursing?” It’s a peak moment of Weird Ginsberg, but it’s also one of the show’s great sly acknowledgments of cultural and generational drift. Don Draper’s workplace suddenly becomes a place where people curse freely. Don can’t even tell what’s not authentic about the music he’s hearing, but that inauthenticity is literally painful to Ginsberg. The f-word is the harbinger of a particular doom for Don Draper.
When these episodes air, AMC simply cuts the sound of the voice when characters say the f-word. It’s jarring and elegant at the same time. It elides the word but draws our attention to it. In such an immersive show, it’s rare to be thrown out of the world and pulled back in with such force. The same thing happens in “The Doorway,” the first episode of the sixth season but to different effect. Here’s Peggy’s first trip to the swear jar. She’s at CGC, finally in charge, and she sets the tone. She can be exasperated, she can be mean to underlings, she can curse like a sailor. After a comedian on The Tonight Show makes an off-color joke about Vietnam that makes a client want to pull their ads, Peggy mutters ruefully, “Fucking Tonight Show.” There’s a punk rock defiance to this utterance, especially in contrast to square Bert Peterson at the other end of the table.
It’s about anger, it’s about expressing a kind of institutional claustrophobia, it’s about, to some extent or another, being an individual. Moreover, it’s about feeling in control. Why are you cursing? Because you can, because it’s a choice, a defining excess. The f-word is a part of her feminist practice. Peggy doesn’t have to swear but she does as if to advertise the fact that she can do whatever the fuck she wants.
The next time we hear that suggestive absence is at the end of the sixth season. Don returns to the apartment he shares with Megan to tell her that they can’t move to LA after all. But Megan’s already quit her job and packed her bags. Don blames the agency, but Megan, betrayed, replies, “Fuck the agency.”
This one represents an even more radical break. This is the beginning of the actual end for Don and Megan. This declaration is the one that ends with a million dollar check. It’s about a choice, a definition against, a refusal to let someone else dictate speech and act both.
Then there’s this week. After Peggy accuses a child-actor’s mother of abandonment for leaving her child at the Sterling Cooper office, the woman leaves, Peggy plops down on the couch and says, “Fuck her.” To some extent or another, it’s like the others, a linguistic expression of difference and resistance. It’s a swaddling blanket. But it’s also, to some extent, self-directed. Abandonment is her curse, her original sin, and here it doesn’t necessarily emphasize difference so much as it reveals a kinship. Peggy is, in some way, like that woman. This is the crux of her conversation with Stan later. They made different choices, but they aren’t fundamentally separate. To judge her is to judge oneself is to judge every woman working at that agency or anywhere else. Fuck her? Fuck me.
The characters who curse on Mad Men, however they do it, are those destined to escape the cycles and curses that bind the named partners. They are the sources of novelty and of hope as much as they are sometimes destined to be tragedies. The spectacle of “Zou Bisou Bisou” was unlike anything that had occurred on this show before, it was a foreign organ, and the show spent an excruciating two seasons rejecting all that it represented. And when it arrived, it felt great, it felt weird, it felt new. Ginsberg’s nipple was the same, a wholly new event in this diegetic world. It felt gross and weird and terrifying, but what an episode, what a thrill. Peggy has always been other in this way. She has always been this show’s locus of deep sadness and real hope. She’s broken the bonds that hold her to other people and the patterns that hold her in place. She has chosen, most of the time, not to feel that her freedom was purchased at too high a price, that anyone can or should have the power to judge her for that. Why is she cursing? Because it’s better than being cursed.
How the hell did that turn into that?
The Fourth Wall Rises
By Lili Loofbourow
April 27, 2015
I COULDN’T WORK OUT whether that painting in Pete’s office was of sailboats sinking or sailing. Still can’t, but I was pretty clearly one of the rats scurrying off early. This episode persuaded me to stay on board. Last we spoke, I lamented the extent to which Mad Men, like Lucille Bluth, gets off on being withholding, and listed some things I wished we could see this season: “I care about Pete and Trudy,” I said. “I care about how they’ve changed with respect to each other and how they’ll continue to change.” “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 wanted chickens to come home to roost, Dear Television, and to my amazement, they have. Hello, tiny chicken with your stapled finger! Hello, Peggy and Stan! WELCOME, FRIENDS!
But before digging in to all that deliciousness, standard Mad Men protocol demands I devote at least a paragraph to dutifully noting the ways the show is — as Jane so perfectly put it — subtweeting us.
I’m channeling Peggy, saying “I can’t do any work.”
Here’s the thing. I am going to write that paragraph, but here, in the innocent pre-paragraph epoch, I’d like to note that writing it — at this late date — feels unpardonably narcissistic. If I write that paragraph well, it should slyly signal that I was indeed clever enough to see what the show put there for me to see. Oh, Dear Television, it is a shameless misrepresentation: everything my paragraph will faux-humbly claim to have “noticed” was actually underlined in bold italic and smeared with hot pink highlighter while wearing Pete Campbell’s golf pants. None of its cleverness is mine.
But we will get through that paragraph together, friends. Everything’s going to be fine. And then we’ll work our way through the different layers of meta-addresses this episode cycled through, culminating in the gloriously un-meta gift of SOME PLOT THANK GOD WE’VE GOT SOME PLOT.
Hi ho. Okay.
This episode was rife with references to sadness about the show’s imminent death. That sadness filters points of view attributable not just to the audience and Matt Weiner — the latter’s concerns about legacy dominated the last couple of episodes — but to the cast and crew as well. “Don’t be a baby,” says Joan to John Slattery. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” NO YOU WON’T, CHRISTINA HENDRICKS. These are the half-farewells and “little goodbyes,” we’re meant to see through; the dissolution of the SCP offices and their eviction from the Time-Life Building (GET IT?) mirrors the dissolution of the Mad Men set. If McCann prevails, SCP won’t move to California (Where Television is Made); instead of making television, they’ll be making money. This is of course the case for the Mad Men writers, directors, cast and crew — who will do well from royalties, and look forward to exactly the kind of dull but successful afterlife our characters try to embrace when they discover they’ve “won.”
It wouldn’t be Mad Men without the routine paean to repetition: Roger saying “we’ve done this before” (sigh-glug), getting another round and announcing “this is my last one” (wrong, hoho!), and three different men saying “sorry to keep you waiting” (mm-hmm). There’s even an Easter egg for viewers like me who’ve been irritated by the way Mad Men’s been going: “I’m sick about the way this was handled. It made the whole thing look very capricious. I assure you it wasn’t. We’re rolling out the red carpet. We’re very excited about this.” (BLESS YOU, WRITERS. TRULY.) On the flip side, there’s Ken Cosgrove, perhaps voicing the writers’ sentiments toward those who wanted Don to grow or change: “I’ve toyed with you long enough: No. Sorry about that.”
(Check yourself for cuts from the debris from that shattered fourth wall.)
(Yes, that was technically two paragraphs, but this is a show about broken promises.)
One step away from the tired story of our viewership, there are some more vibrant meta-jokes for the actors that more artistically bolster the scenes in which they appear: “I’m giving you my permission to play with all these great toys,” says Peggy to the children (whose casting call unwisely stipulated that they not be actors). “Do what you would do if we weren’t watching,” she says. “Really? That’s what you would do?” Peggy’s a terrible director. Her strategy for producing authenticity here indexes just how much she’s lost track of how real people behave. It’s been so long since she’s played, and this episode gives us a brilliant and beautiful exploration of why: her brief experiment with fun had dire, life-changing consequences. (Play is dangerous for women — look at what happened to that little girl when she played with the stapler.) And there’s poor little Tammy Campbell, whose failure to produce much besides a neck and moustache when she was asked to draw a man reflects the show’s commitment to masculine registers of blankness, the actors’ obligation to imaginatively populate ciphers, and the fact that Tammy herself isn’t much besides a framed photo on Pete’s desk. This is a shadow being asked to conjure a shadow, and that failure is unexpectedly awesome: against all odds, it produces a weird WASP-y version of the Hatfields & McCoys. (“The king ordered it!” Pete yells indignantly, defending the Campbells against the scurrilous accusations by the Macdonalds.) Then there are references to the costs of the show, of a set, of funding the imaginary: “We don’t exist,” Roger says. “Our rent is too high.”
Let’s move another step away from the meta-hijinks to the loud winks that feel less obnoxious because (in my opinion) they’re actually funny: DON PULLS THE DRAPES. Don DRAPER. Pulls the drapes. And Joan says “If we’re trying to keep the office calm, closing those curtains is a bad idea.” So he pulls them open again (like a good boy). No more concealments, Don. This is where the show gets exciting for me: Don no longer controls how and whether he’s seen. Don won’t change, but the world around him will, and when Don tries to flip the script on the McCann fellas, standing up and inviting them to sit, his classic power move falters. No, they will not let him finish. No, he will not change the conversation. Instead, the presentation gets snatched away and regurgitated to him in a Draper-adjacent conjuration of consumerist bliss. “I shouldn’t have to sell you on this. You are dying and going to advertising heaven. Buick. Ortho pharmaceutical. Nabisco. Coca-Cola.”
As Draper’s out-Drapered by his very own St. Peter, told what his dreams should be and how they’ll come true, Peggy confronts her own version of advertising heaven. It’s equally lackluster: “You go to McCann, and by 1973 you’ll be looking at 4 times the salary.” Getting the same thing multiplied four times fails to excite Peggy’s imagination (just as four seasons of the same thing perhaps failed to excite mine — I will always ship the first three). Joan’s riches fail to excite her imagination too — she won’t get to keep Avon. They won’t respect her. Everyone’s going to advertising heaven but the afterlife they’ve won is so goddamn depressing that the champagne they’re supposed to pop morphs into beer as they glumly toast the fallen world they’re about to leave behind.
It’s a thrill to watch them fail upward and panic. Up until now, our characters have largely functioned as moody superheroes, anemic and depressive until crisis strikes hard enough that they’re forced to respond. When they can be bothered to try, they generally win. It’s just that they mostly can’t be bothered.
But this flavor palette is so much richer! Confusion is always more interesting than anomie. The show is finally putting its repetitiveness to use, and it’s magical, terrific, gratifying. When our principals make yet another announcement to yet another gathering of staff, the presentation fails utterly — it’s an anticlimax, a champagne-less contrast to the sense of occasion such announcements have produced in the past. Joan wasn’t able to quell the rumor mill, Roger wasn’t able to charm, and Don wasn’t able to fascinate. When Harry says, “it’s good news,” not even he believes it, and the murmurs only get louder. When Roger says “we didn’t do this!” no one cares — the group has lost whatever investment in him they had. And when Don says, “Hold on. This is the beginning of something, not the end,” everyone walks away talking over him.
That was wonderful. It was funny. It was great. But it was nothing compared to that scene between Stan and Peggy, which was — oh, Dear Television — so blessedly about nothing but itself.
When Mad Men embraces its own originality and crafts a moment that isn’t self-referential — oh, it’s exquisite then. That scene was perfectly directed and acted and written. Stan’s eyes. The way they stumbled on the conversation. It was an actual scene that wasn’t winking, and it was stunningly affecting in consequence. “He’s with a family. Somewhere. I don’t know, but it’s not because I don’t care. I don’t know because you’re not supposed to know, or you can’t go on with your life.” (The music in the scene is so crazily romantic, and it’s impossible to tell if it’s diegetic or not.) “Sorry, I didn’t know that,” says Stan.
“Well, you don’t know lots of things about lots of people. That’s the point.”
“No it’s not.”
AND … CURTAIN. (I MEAN DRAPE.)
Just kidding. But the show could have ended there — I get goosebumpy watching bits of that shattered fourth wall rise up again. Fortunately, the show does goes on, because while up until now, I would’ve said Mad Men’s greatest line was “NOT GREAT, BOB,” this episode introduced a clear new contender:
Stay on the phone, will you?