This Week on Dear Television:
- "The Hangover," from Lili Loofbourow
- "Plane in Vain," from Phillip Maciak
By Lili Loofbourow
April 18, 2014
THE BRAVE NEW WORLD of Mad Men is teetotaling. Joan’s having Cokes with a boy in a bar (he’s going to go kiss his kids goodnight). Peggy’s yelling about coffee, Ted’s having plain toast, and Freddy and Don have packed lunches with Orange Crush. The professor wants information from Joan, not sex. Don says no to Neve Campbell. The only one partying hard is Roger, and even he seems tired. Megan gets drunk, it’s true, but she seems to have done so on purpose so she doesn’t have to sleep with Don. Our characters have lost their appetites, their hedonism and — most crucially — their secrets. There’s nothing in Freddy’s brown paper bag but sandwiches:
That hurts, because the show can never be as dirty and glamorous as it was before Don’s background was an open secret. Given the soap opera logic on which our viewing habits were built (remember the thrill of Don’s locked drawer?), this is all kind of disappointing. The nuclear secret is out, and it turns out it wasn’t nuclear. Nobody fainted at the revelation, no one’s opinion of Don really changed. Don was asked to leave because of his recklessness, not his desertion, or his identity theft. There was no comeuppance. SC&P was an unworthy audience for his performance of American Manhood, and his tragic secret, in the end, had no stakes.
So what happens when the central secret driving your soap opera detonates and it’s a dud? Everyone gets a little depressed. They feel kind of old. Maybe they stop drinking. Or, if they’re Don, they make up more secrets: he “has to work.”
It’s not clear how this new, coffee-and-toast SC&P fits into Mad Men’s larger narrative, especially since Jim Cutler had everyone on speed not that long ago, but it’s interesting to think about what the disappearing alcohol is doing to the show’s disappearing space. I cheered for Phil’s case that the show has gotten bossier (or stagier) in its visual direction, but I disagree with his sense that “spaces have been increasingly fetishized as the series has evolved.” To me, there will never be a more fetishized space than the Betty-Don Draper house and the rows of tables and typewriters and pale blue doors of the original Sterling Cooper. I think space has gotten messier and more chaotic, more difficult, as it’s crept closer and closer to the present. But it’s a productive disagreement, I think.
I remarked last season that the office aesthetic was getting more cluttered and colorful, less and less compatible with Cooper’s minimalist sensibility and Don’s razor-straight part. That effect seems more pronounced now. The way the opening scene is shot even reflects the basic competition between Peggy’s aesthetic and Don’s. We start with Freddy Rumson in his Draper costume, neatly and minimally framed:
This shot reminds me of those puzzles where you’re supposed to count the number of rectangles in the figure. The plaid of her suit, the furniture, the knick-knacks all insist on perpendicularity, but we’re seeing them from a skewed perspective. There’s an emphasis on 90-degree angles that just won’t square. That seems right for Peggy’s predicament. Her authority is brittle artifice in this episode; she’s being forced to angle for stuff she should be able to demand straight on. She’s back to having to manipulate her boss. She’s a victim of Lou’s perspective and she’s not framed right.
And then — we’re still in the same room, remember — we get Peggy’s view of her office, which even has a Peggy costume hanging on the door (which of course is another kind of Don costume):
The only time she gets proper right angles is when she sees Ted through the glass after turning off the lights. Hold onto this image, because it connects to our final shot of Don.
Joan’s lost a lot of visual gravitas too, and our first glimpse of her is also through misbehaving right angles:
Both Joan’s infallibility and Peggy’s competence are being questioned in contexts where those questions seem passé. The gender dynamics both Joan and Peggy face are so insane that it’s hard to know how to read any of this. I have some ideas I’ll get to at the end, but first I want to point out the stuff that puzzled me. I think we’re supposed to hate Lou for his gross dismissal of Peggy, but I couldn’t help notice the surprising fact that he lets Dawn call him “Lou.” I was shocked by how Ken spoke to Joan, a partner. Is his insistence that there’s a hierarchy a way to infantilize her? Or is it supposed to read as a recognition of her ability? Or is it supposed to be a bitter pill — a tiny bit of legitimate power delivered through contempt?
It’s a weird scene. I think it’s probably the latter, but what’s more interesting to me is that the camera — which has always aligned itself with Don and the male gaze — has lost some respect for Joan and vice versa. In the old days, no one would ever have spoken to Joan the way Ken does here, nor would Joan have addressed the head of accounts with this kind of familiarity. Joan: “Do you need someone to hand you a hanky?” Ken, missing an eye, hurling an earring: “Stay out of my office!”
This isn’t the sexually charged atmosphere of Sterling Cooper. The male gaze lost an eye somewhere along the way and its depth perception sucks now. It reads things wrong, including Megan’s incredibly sexy walk up to Don at the airport, which suggests a smoldering sexual passion that doesn’t remotely materalize.
Whatever’s going on with Peggy and Joan and their relations with the gents of SC&P and their clients, there is something interesting happening: let’s call it a mutual lack of awe. In place of innuendo and sex as currency there’s an environment of squabbling siblings.
This might be read as regression, but I think it might be a kind of progress. Last season we were treated to the spectacle of Roger and Don acting like babies while they were in LA with Harry, while teenagers Peggy and Joan conspired together after Joan nabbed Avon. The point then seemed to me to be how basically fatherless — and therefore rudderless — Mad Men has become. No Bert.
But I think it may have been doing more, namely, expanding the show’s intermittent project of weaning us off the Don Draper POV. In that sense, again, it’s a step forward. This is what happens when you wake up from Don’s American Dream. This is what it looks like when an ad agency — absent Draper’s booze-fueled, desperately poetic vision of family and aspiration, which lent a redemptive and even visionary dimension to the advertising business — is revealed to be just an ad agency. The revelation here is that there was never a transcendent aspect to Don’s work: an excellent ad is just an excellent ad, and while that might be better than a mediocre ad, it will never be poetry, or revelation, or a reason to live.
The show’s own aesthetic seems to match these lowered artistic horizons (against which Peggy, for one, is ineffectually rebelling). This season premiere was less ambitious and way less visually experimental than Season 6’s Vacation in Hawaii, with its elevator fakeouts and allusions to Dante, but it’s touching on some of the same themes: utopia, the place you never get to. It’s just doing it in a way less literary way.
No books this time. No Ginsberg, no Dante. No art. Just plain old exposition on a brand-new, slightly too swanky, insufficiently-subtle TV set. Don, the perennial image-crafter, gets the image his younger wife is going for entirely wrong. The TV set he buys looks like Lou’s, for crying out loud.
This is the TL;DR version of Mad Men, the Mad Men of good-enough, of faded ambitions and compromised criteria that fails to distinguish between great and mediocre work. The degraded Mad Men where Freddy Rumsen can do the Draper pitch. Remember what an achievement Don’s impersonation of American masculinity was, how remarkable it used to be that Dick could pass for Don? Now Don can pass for Freddy and no one even cares enough to spot the deception. So much for exceptionalism. The Accutron pitch becomes awfully sad when we read it as Don’s: the “you” in the ad is assured he doesn’t have to worry about being interesting because his watch is interesting. It’s the ultimate Draper paean to surface — presented by a surface that isn’t his.
“TL;DR Mad Men” runs on repetition and acronyms. There’s Betty Draper 2.0, a realtor. There’s Sylvia 2.0, with a dead husband this time. There’s a Don-in-LA sketch, which always prominently features gorgeous cars and women. That this time the woman happens to be his wife barely matters — she’s no less strange to him, and he leaves no less disappointed. He experiences real intimacy, as ever, with a woman who isn’t his wife. These are familiar rhythms and we nod along, saying oh yeah, I know this one. Even the casting amounts to a kind of shorthand: Phil observed that Wiener’s habit of recruiting ‘90s icons — Lindsey Weir, Rory Gilmore and now, Julia Salinger — is a shortcut, a way to evoke immediate intimacy in an audience that knows those faces well. I think that’s a brilliant reading, and I think it does a couple of other things too: seeing Rory Gilmore as a married lady made me feel old, but that was nothing compared to seeing Lindsey Weir as middle-aged and Neve Campbell as a widow. It’s a clever way to make us age with Don, experience his belatedness.
Now, this kind of shorthand can be a massive letdown to the attentive viewer of a detail-oriented show. These might be understood as concessions to formula that Mad Men would never brook. Our identification with Don Draper, after all, isn’t just because the camera shares his point of view; it’s that we came of age as overly-attentive viewers — Don to the alien American Dream he seeks to impersonate, we to the story of how he does it. Neither narrative quite merited the level of scrutiny it received, and we might be embarrassed to discover formula lurking behind the thing whose uniqueness and exceptionalism we’ve insisted on.
On the other hand, the show might be saying something about addiction, repetition, compulsion, habit. The camera is drifting from Don; frames are off. There isn’t a guiding vision. So what do we do? We build a new frame for the same thing, hoping this time around, we’ll be standing in the right place, see it in the right light.
That’s what Don does. Let’s look at Don looking at himself. Easy to do, because our perspective coincides with his. We’re in an airplane bathroom, and the first thing we see is the sink:
The claustrophobia of this shot is INSANE but so is its symmetry and commitment to clean lines. Don isn’t done framing and stage-setting yet, not by a mile.
(Just for fun, compare that to our first shot of Roger.)
In Don-vision (the one-eyed camera with bad depth perception, remember), Megan is all slow-mo glamor, almost as hypnotic as Suzanne skipping around the maypole in her white dress.
But when Don steps into the shot with Megan — when we don’t share his perspective anymore — things go sideways: Megan is nervous, flustered, kind of weird, and the shot devolves into a receding set of right angles that won’t close into a proper frame:
The weird frames multiply: Megan will drive because she “can’t move the seat.” This breaks the frame. Megan’s house is the opposite of their former home: it’s cluttered, utterly lacking in clean lines:
It’s a funny echo to that Season 1 scene. Don’s on the other side of the looking glass now, trying to control his image in reverse. He brings Megan a square TV framed in a giant rectangle if only so that her next guest will ask — as Don asked Midge — who it’s from. And Megan can’t throw it out. It’s too big, for one thing. For another, you can’t even toss a cigarette out the window here, let alone a TV — they can figure out where fires start.
There are other ghosts at work here too. When Megan goes into the kitchen, upset about the TV, I was instantly reminded of this moment:
I don’t think there’s a great deal to be made of this echo, and that’s the point: the repetitions are becoming meaningless in a way that perhaps resembles the repetitiveness of addiction, compulsion, failure. How many women could stand in approximately that kitchen looking at Don in approximately that way?
Phil’s point about how Mad Men is tapping on the fourth wall more and more is right, I think, and Don’s inability to close the glass doors is an explicit nod both to that point and to how the frames that constituted his world aren’t in his control anymore. He’s not in the room, and he can’t change the conversation. Sex isn’t the framing device it once was, either at SC&P or — interestingly — in Don’s life, and neither is alcohol, despite its pride of place in front of Don’s TV. Instead there’s the uncertainty that comes of broken categories. Pete warned Trudy last season that she was going to go to bed and realize “you don’t know anything for sure,” but one thing is for sure: on this less raucous, less boozy, less sexy version of Madison Avenue, the men are asking women things and none of them are sexual. “What do I do?” the Butler guy asks Joan. “No, I’m asking you. What do I do?” The professor asks Joan for information about fee-based accounts vs. commission. Roger asks his daughter what it’s really all about. Julio asks Peggy to fix his toilet. Compare our first glimpse of Peggy above — and how she firmly shuts the drapes on Ted — with our final scene with Don, caught in a million open frames of his own making.
They’re going to resist that black-and-white thing,
Plane in Vain
By Phillip Maciak
April 14, 2014
OH, GOODNESS, here we go again.
Is it just me, or has Mad Men become a little stagier in its old age? Someone on Twitter yesterday said that he thought Mad Men’s images had become less complex and cinematic as the years have rolled on. I don’t necessarily agree — all of AMC’s shows are pretty aspirationally “cinematic,” and Mad Men especially has always been great at layered images, no less so last season than at the beginning. That said, I do agree that the show’s aesthetic has changed slightly, even evolved in a way that might make its images seem shallower, more nakedly intentional. In the first season, a lot of attention was paid in the press to the set design of the series. Beyond period detail, many noticed the fact that low ceilings were often visible in the shot — an uncommon technique that lent a constant pressurized claustrophobia to every frame. The space of the office, in other words, was always a big part of Mad Men’s visual composition, but it strikes me that spaces have been increasingly fetishized as the series has evolved.
Since the break from Sterling Cooper at the end of the third season, we’ve had the clean, compact, maze-like SCDP (now SC&P) offices, the heavenward ascent of the second-floor, Pete’s old office with the obstructive pillar in the middle of it, his long-sought-after swing-pad in Manhattan, Peggy and Abe’s gentrification suite, Don and Megan’s blindingly white high-rise apartment, and Betty and Henry’s Addams Family manse. Mad Men’s spaces have exponentially increased in number as the series has gone on, in part because of the natural expansion of its narrative world, but also because spaces are important to this show. As symbols, as aesthetic objects, as stages.
Every space to which we are introduced on Mad Men becomes both a potential bearer of meaning and a platform for a particular type of performance. Megan dropped “Zou Bisou Bisou” at a birthday party that doubled as a house-warming party, she later introduced us to their rough role-play while cleaning its be-cheesed white carpeting, Pete performed his bachelor-ish independence in the dank quarters of his pied-a-terre, and this season has begun accordingly, giving us guided tours of new spaces, updates on old spaces, and introductions to the performances that constitute them.
Most notably, last night, we saw Megan’s knotty pine, coyote-bait perch in the Hills, where she performs the grim façade of a viable sexual relationship with scratchy-faced, bicoastal monogonaut Don. We had a pastrami and cole slaw sammy at Pete’s favorite fake Brooklyn diner in LA, where California pastrami plays the role of New York pastrami (and California bagels are unconvincing in their roles). And we enter the questionably carpeted domicile of SC&P West, where Pete — quite genuinely, if ostentatiously — performs his newfound happiness. Don’t get too excited, she turns it on for everyone. Mad Men is like the television equivalent of a doll’s house — also, sometimes, A Doll’s House. Every room means something, every object and arrangement is invested, they are each a site of puppet theater.
The space that resonates most to me, though, is the space of the airplane. (Perhaps this is because I’ve been commuting aerially every other week for the past nine months and have a kind of rueful respect for the interior design of the Southwest 737.) Airplanes have circled Mad Men for six seasons now. We’ve seen Don’s face repeatedly meeting with the, once liberating, California sun or Betty en route to her Reno divorce. Pete’s dad dies in a plane crash in Jamaica Bay. Last season, Ted Choaugh gives Don a rough chop into submission by taking him through some routine turbulence in a tiny private jet. And the advertisements for this new season have all placed our favorite characters in the terminals, curbside pick-up areas, and aisle seats of an airport. Travel and escape are themes of the show, but the airplane itself is a kind of sacred space, as representative of death as it is of re-birth. But it hasn’t yet been a space to be explored materially like the others.
So it’s not insignificant that the big, emotionally-freighted set-piece of “Time Zones” occurs at 30,000 feet in TWA first-class. Here, we behold the un-practiced performance of a tired, confused faker. Don takes his window seat, and plopping down beside him is none other than a smoky, sultry, recently-widowed Neve Campbell. WILD THINGS! This is the third season in a row that Matthew Weiner has stunt-cast a former 1990s icon as a romantic foil for Don and revealed her in the premiere. (We miss you, Rory Gilmore and Lindsay Weir.) Nobody gets poisoned at their wedding on Mad Men, but the show is not without its small jolts and jabs, and the tingle of recognition we — those of us in this particular age demographic — get from seeing a vanished face from our youth is a fairly canny effect. Beyond the fact that this woman is Don’s type, he recognizes something in this woman, and it’s difficult to get an audience to sense that chemistry for an unknown or even blandly recognizable actress. The easy intimacy Don has with Campbell’s character has to play as real to us, and playing off of the easy intimacy we might already have with the actress is a nifty trick.
What transpires, though, is less about the former star of Party of Five than it is about the space of the airplane on a red eye. Tight quarters, nighttime, brushed shoulders, the curve of the fuselage pushing people together, the air literally re-pressurized — this is one of few spaces where we have to act like this type of exaggerated and immediate intimacy is normal. The camera even makes sure to keep the seam of the wall in constant view. This is the setting of Don and Lee Cabot’s (that’s her name) brief relationship, as well as a type of catch-up/referendum on Don at the beginning of season seven. He’s tempted, he knows how to both give and receive this type of invitation, but he’s not biting. “I have to work,” he tells Lee and Megan both. It’s hard to tell whether this is a principled pass or an admission of impotence. Won’t he or can’t he? As we noted last season, getting caught by Sally — speaking of which, WHERE IS SALLY? — was a step too far for Don. It’s not unreasonable to think that this whole adultery thing has been soiled, not by guilt, but by compromise. Don gets off on secrecy as much as he’s crushed by it, so perhaps he turns down this tempting offer because he simply is unable to accept it.
In any case, the airplane is a charged space in which to have this tete-a-tete. Matthew Weiner loves to play coy about his imagery, but he didn’t have the promotional shots for this season at an airfield for no reason. Pursuant to the above-mentioned twitter exchange, it strikes me that, if anything has changed on Mad Men, it’s been that the images seem more planted of late, more directly addressed to the audience. Last season, we saw all of the death-related imagery only to find out that nobody dies. This year, it looks like airplanes and Richard Nixon. (Though, again, we talked a lot about Nixon last year.) Is someone going to die in a plane crash? Is travel going to kill the company and Don’s marriage? Is somebody finally going to fly out of a window? Guessing at these things is pointless, and looking at images as if they’re full of clues or hints is a silly way to think about film and television, even if they’re actually full of clues or hints. This series is not a puzzle to be solved, and I can feel the frustration for viewers who recognize, rightly, that the show’s creator is deliberately challenging them in this way.
What’s worth thinking about, to me, is the fact that the show has begun to address us at all. It’s not postmodern, but it is certainly invested in puzzling its audience. And, along with that, we find this creeping staginess. Lines sound declaimed for our benefit, a few scenes this episode ended as if pausing for laughs or sighs — Joan’s scenes especially — and Freddy Rumsen begins the episode by literally pitching to us. It’s Mad Men’s style that, even when we see the TV talking to us, we don’t always know what it’s talking about, but the slight porousness of the fourth wall here is starting to make an impression on us. Weiner has suggested that he wants the show to bring its characters to a place where they become recognizable to viewers, that there might be a time, before the end, where we see the point at which our contemporary world meets their world. Don’s Carousel never worked as the time machine he meant it to be, but maybe the airplane will. We’re 45 years removed from these events, but are not the curves and cushions of the jet cabin recognizable to us still? Maybe this space of easy, inexplicable intimacy, fast forward movement, and the illusion of stillness is the space where we finally meet Don. Or maybe it’s just a dream on the red eye.
Coleslaw right on the sandwich,
Lili Loofbourow is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley working on Milton and 17th-century theories of eating and reading. She tweets at @millicentsomer, blogs at Excremental Virtue, and writes TV criticism over at Dear Television along with Jane Hu, Phillip Maciak, and Evan Kindley. You can sometimes find her at The Awl, The Hairpin, and The New Inquiry.
Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in Slate, The New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
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