Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Repression: 1, Personal Growth: 0

By Alex Ricciuti
Faye Miller was right. Early this season she said to Don, "Don't worry. You'll be married within a year. Oh, I'm sorry, people don't like to think of themselves as a type." But I'm sure Joan wouldn't hesitate in calling Don a walking cliche. In that conversation in her office with Peggy, it was Peggy who looked shocked even after Don's seemingly heartfelt, sibling-like chat with her. Peggy would have expected a little more from Don. Joan has the wisdom to know that expecting a little more from certain people always comes to nothing in the end.

So the entire season was an elaborate construction of a cliche. Not a cinematic or literary cliche, mind you. A midcentury one based on the very real phenomenon where businessmen, and they were all men, were so dependent on a secretary in that pre-iPhone/e-mail era that out of that intimacy there inevitably evolved many a romance that left countless sets of wives and children behind in the suburbs.

But still, wasn't that one of the creepiest, most regressive moments ever on Mad Men when Don told Megan that he was in love with her and gave her the same engagement ring the original Don Draper gave to Anna?

I'm not entirely buying this kind of romantic impulsiveness from Don. It feels a little contrived to me. Don reading fateful signs in all the events that led him and Megan together sounded like a joke. Yes, if my bitchy ex-wife hadn't fired our oppressed African-American maid, we would never have discovered this heavenly love of ours! It was more than a little out of character for Don.

And earlier in the episode, when Don was given the ring, the question of Anna arose again which for me still needs some resolving. Why would Anna want Dick Whitman to have that? We still haven't received a good explanation for Anna's taking to Dick Whitman so readily and developing such a deep and unique bond with him. After all, how could she be so understanding of a man who took her dead husband's identity? Was the original Donald Draper a massive jerk? Hopefully, the question won't be left at that with the death of Anna and more will be told in future flashbacks. But I don't expect so.

What is Don looking for in Megan? Is she the mother he never had — as opposed to the more sisterly, more earthly, less erotic Faye? Or is it just that she's good with his kids and Faye isn't and he needs to maintain a connection to his children in order to hold onto his humanity? Or does he resent Faye because he told her his big secret in a moment of weakness? Or is he running away from her suggestion he take his modest attempt at reflection and self-discovery up a notch and go see a shrink? It's probably all those things wrapped up in one large ball of repression that made him glow like a hapless teenager who knows nothing of the world and ask his secretary to marry him.

This season was all about Don's teetering on that cliff of self-awareness. We've seen this before but this time it really became the theme of the entire season. And the game is always the same — because people may be theoretically capable of change, just like any healthy adult could be running a marathon within a year if they applied themselves, but in reality change and personal growth is a highly unlikely thing to happen. This was also a common theme on The Sopranos. But here we have a man, Dick Whitman, running away from himself in very explicit terms only to be forever trapped by that denial.

After a life that was defined by material circumstances — the sculpted blonde wife, the adorable children, the house in the suburbs, the career, etc. — a social ideal that Dick Whitman tried to meet, after that life was over, then what?

There was a faint attempt to recover some part of himself that was real. He consciously tried to cut down on the booze. But all he really seems to have learned is that he feels good when he's at work, where he can shine, and is lost anywhere else. And it was in that dilemma that he found a new kinship with Peggy — who is like Don in that her personal life is a collection of failures and disappointments and a major secret or two. The only place she feels happy, exhilarated even, is at the offices of SCDP.

But Peggy and work and anti-smoking ads in the New York Times and meetings at the American Cancer Society were not enough. If Betty was the picture-perfect wife to give him social stature, then Megan meets a more pathological, profound need in Don. She is an angelic, maternal, though highly sexualized goddess. If you see it as Don going from trying to please others to filling a need in himself, well, maybe then, that's progress.

And now to the math.

Greg may not be the most promising surgeon around but he is a doctor and he's shown on occasion his sensitivity to the threat of Joan's previous sexual experiences (by means of raping her in Don Draper's office). Do you think Joan will get away with carrying Roger's child to term by simply fudging the math as Roger suggested?

"Greg dying is not a solution to this," she told Roger on the eve of her aborted termination. And that's something fans of the show keep alluding to. My own interpretation of Greg's service in Vietnam is the tragedy of how many young men will be left limbless and paralyzed because Greg is a hack surgeon who couldn't cut it in the civilian realm of the profession. Yes, Greg's sad fate is that he ends up being Ron Kovic's doctor.

And one more thing...Aren't you getting tired of cable drama closing episodes with the "ironic" choice of a pop tune? Showrunners be warned, this is getting lame. I believe you can trace it back to that Sopranos episode ending on an emasculating note for Tony while the Eurythmics' "I Saved the World Today" playing it out.

But signing off the season with Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe?" I'm just old enough to remember their variety show which always ended with them doing that number. Mr. Weiner, that was a freaking bad choice. It made me cringe at first and then it just became laughably bad. Weiner could have come over to my house and slam a frying pan over my head screaming, "This not an emotionally and spiritually sound Don Draper falling in love with Megan. He's found another crutch to lean on instead of the booze. He's repressing again. Dick Whitman never happened.” That would have been more artful.

Pretentiousness: 1, Subtlety: 0

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While I think Mad Men has a tendency to be too on the nose, I agree with several of the other writers who think that the choice of "I Got You Babe" now is more associated with Groundhog Day than Sonny and Cher (who did break up eventually anyway) and sort of implies, especially combined with the shot of Don lying in bed, that he's reliving the same things over and over until he gets them right. As for The Sopranos episode you reference, that actually is one of the best examples of using a song as a punchline. It was the great episode where Tony decided he was going to have to take out Richie, but his sister Janice beat him to it after he hit her and then turned to him for help. It also had Carmela pissed because Tony tried to make her feel guilty over the attempted suicide of his ex-goomah. So, once he vaguely tells Carmela that Richie and Janice have broken up and Carmela says that she and Ro are going on a trip or she might kill herself, we're left with Tony on the couch with those lyrics "Hey hey I saved the world today/Everybody's happy now/the bad things gone away." It was a funny choice and happened to be a Eurythmics song I'd never heard before. I actually tracked it down after the episode I loved it so much. Sometimes music can be the perfect touch.

As for the Mad Men finale itself, aside from the twists, I was sort of disappointed compared to many of the great episodes they'd produced this season.
Oh, yes, I had forgotten about Groundhog's Day. But that fact only makes the choice of the song even more dumb. Referencing a Bill Murray film? Mad Men is much more serious a show than that and ending the season with a joke like that, with this huge nudge and wink to the audience...well, I just found it rather silly.

Also, yes, I found the episode to be one of the weakest of the season. "The Suitcase" being the best one - something I'm sure most fans will agree with.

And I think the show needs to show more of and be more daring with Dick Whitman's past. In the first season Don's brother shows up and then promptly commits suicide. I think that was a mistake on the part of the writers. Or they should have more figures from Dick's past emerging. I think doing something like that would jar the show out this simplistic theme about denial vs. change and self-knowledge. They milked that for too long on the Sopranos too.

And if you're looking for meditations on the ability of people to grow vs. misanthropic cynicism watch House - they make it a lot more fun.

Alex Ricciuti
I agree. The Suitcase was the season's best hour.
One, I hated Season 4's portrayal of Betty Francis. What the hell happened? Why did Matt Weiner decided to turn Betty from a complex character into a one-note Mommie Dearest? And what is even more IRRITATING is that very few people have noticed or complained about this. Instead, they accept it, because Betty doesn't live up to their ideal of 21st century motherhood. Why couldn't Weiner explain the reason behind Betty's bizarre behavior?

Two, I WOULD HAVE FIRED CARLA. I liked her. And I'm sorry that she's "oppressed". But she had no business letting that kid into the house, after Betty had told her not to. She got what she deserved. However, you can complain about how Weiner got rid of her. Which is just as well. Carla was a one-note character - one of the "noble Negro" cliche. Weiner's handling of African-Americans or any other minorities have been pretty piss-poor throughout the series' run, so far.

Three, Joan DID NOT abort the baby she had conceived with Roger. She decided to keep it and pass it off as Greg's. Which is pretty stupid of her in my book. Has Joan really forgotten how violent Greg can be? Then again, Joan proved in late Season 3 that she could be pretty violent, when she smashed a vase against his head.

Why are you surprised that Don had proposed to Megan? Why are you surprised that he hasn't changed a bit? Every time the show hints that Don might actually change - and this hint usually comes around the end of the season - Don eventually proves that he is still the lying, stick-in-the-mud douche bag that he has been since the beginning of the series. And Peggy remains the same idiot trying to win Don's respect and love, because he gave her a chance to become a copywriter. I love Peggy, but her devotion to Don - despite her moments of anger or resentment toward him - is becoming a joke to me.
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