Don Draper self-destructs but who cares?
Mad Men, 2013, 2014
By Peter Hulm
As an addict of The Bold and the Beautiful, as much for its schlock and outrageous plotting (i.e. for its qualities rather than quality), I can understand Mad Men's slide down the chute of soapiness while still remaining fascinating (rather than exciting) to watch.
Season six gives us an office space closer to the glorious opening titles by Imaginary Forces. We are told they are deliberately reminiscent of Saul Bass's work for Alfred Hitchcock. It reminded me that John Hamm is as close as we get these days to Cary Grant or James Stewart, but with a coldness and calculation these two impeccably groomed stars never showed in Hitchcock's films.
In season six, California rears its head even higher as the Land of Oz, the only place of dreams. Significantly, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) describes Los Angeles as irremediably deceptive -- "Detroit with palm trees".
But then he thinks of heading off to "California" (the real place but also clearly fantasy land) himself. He even shows himself ready to sabotage his alter ego, opposite number and straight-arrow good twin (Kevin Rahm) to take the California opportunity of a new life (while the good twin wants to reclaim his old one in the land of dreams). In a typical move, Don then backs out of the move after his soap-opera wife (Jessica Paré) has already given up her TV job in New York.
Reality beats fiction
Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) moved close to centre-stage but he still cannot outperform Don Draper in outrageousness. He is even given a scene designed to show a sympathetic side we didn't need to see, except by the standard soap-opera rules of making attractive characters unsympathetic and vice versa for the sake of dramatic interest. Seeing his estranged wife watch him tenderly while he caresses his sleeping son certainly doesn't tell us anything about his character we need to know (it's so brief) and moves away from the fascination of his unrelenting creepiness.
Look at Kartheiser's off-screen biography -- a vegetarian who has renounced having children and only recently bought a car and sells or gives away most of his possessions. There's a real 1968 character inspired by hippie culture who would be much more interesting to bring into the advertising world: how would that throw our assumptions for a loop?
Draper's one-night hook-up with remarried ex-wife Betty (January Jones) must count as one of the most stomach-churning developments in a soap: I couldn't help but ask 'How could he ever think something good can come from this?' (as I am sure Matt Weiner meant us to). Thank goodness it proved brief, I thought, when Betty ignored him next morning at breakfast, using him as she always has while maintaing her front of irreproachable respectability. She is Matt Weiner's most incisive creation, the middle-class monster mom-child of the Sixties.
Meanwhile, in the advertising world...
Elsewhere on the advertising front, we learn more than we want about the evanescent world of the account executive. A lot more napping on the office couch and drinks on all occasions. Plucky Joan (Christina Hendricks) lands an account by ignoring the agency rules that just by chance work against women fronting accounts: a beautiful example of the unconscious sexism rife in business at that time. After years of exploitation, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) finally described Don as a "monster" to his face, but she has known that all along.
Meanwhile, teen disillusion with Dad only gives daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) a chance to be exactly the brat we expect at a boarding school. These must be the least interesting teenagers since Hope and Liam came onto The Bold and the Beautiful. Did anyone look more like Carrie before the blood and gore? We get a reminder that 1968 was the year of Rosemary's Baby (the film). But did parents really suspect their children came from the devil? Sally might yet show us.
Megan, Don Draper's young soap opera wife, slipped back into nothingness, unable to affect the plot, after showing signs of disruptive power in series five.
We get a lot of flashbacks to Don Draper's childhood without making us much wiser. And what about that scene underlining Peggy's dousing herself with Chanel No. 5, followed by a bout of lovemaking with Rahm's character, who then returns to his wife for a snuggle in bed? No mention of the expensive perfume on him. Could it simply be product placement? Wikipedia, as always a reliable guide to the most ephemeral parts of our lives, details many of the results in Mad Men of the new rules for U.S. television allowing (i.e. encouraging) such unannounced and unacknowledged advertising.
As I noted earlier, the subsidiary characters have become the most interesting over time, this season Bob Benson (James Wolk), the ambiguous new hire, whose biography in many ways echoes Don's but whose character is closer to a (maybe) benevolent Uriah Heep's.
Matt Weiner's declaration that he wants to write scenes where viewers' expectations are completely frustrated seems in series six to have led the Mad managers to duck out of almost all the chances offered by such an approach. For example, someone could have ended up in Schenectady writing PR for an electric company instead of California. Think of Kurt Vonnegut, a quintessential Sixties writer. Were advertising men in the U.S. really ignorant of the pressures in American society? See the work of best-selling 1960s sociologists or the influence of William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer. My memory of advertising of the time was as a desperate, consolatory attempt to reaffirm values that many of the young no longer believed in. They knew what fears they were appealing to. So did Richard Nixon when he hired an advertising team to shape his Presidential campaign. But we hear nothing of the euphoria around Marshall McLuhan, whose Understanding Media appeared in 1964.
Weiner's team is meticulous about the surface look, but the plotting excludes much that was most interesting about the era, without any recognition that advertising values were under siege. Nixon was the deliberately divisive politician of the time, whose victory in the election cemented the split between the establishment and the discontented.
Unless Don Draper jumps out of the window at the start of season seven, promised as Mad Men's last, this will be the most disappointing decline and fall in television history -- of the series, not the character. We need to know that Don's extinction will not stop the world from turning. British critics have been less laudatory of the series, sometimes treating it as America's self-indulgence in the feeling that 'we are not like that any more' even when we are. Bill McKibben is the U.S. cultural critic who written most extensively about this characteristic of television (in The Age of Missing Information, 1992).
For me the most original scenes of season six were those where a self-proclaimed "grandma Ida" walks into the Draper apartment when only the children are home and starts rummaging through cupboards, then handles the daughter's call to police as a joke and charms the son into telling where Don Draper keeps his valuables (episode 8). Her genial criminality blows a wind of alternate reality into the fantasy the children are living. Scary and unexpected.
In fact, that whole episode counts among my favourites of the whole series: 'The Crash' is the one where a doctor injects everyone in the office with an 'energy serum' to keep them active enough to work 72 hours straight on the Chevy account. One executive does a dance with a cane, others race through the office. Don flashes back to his past, becomes obsessive about an old ad for oatmeal featuring a woman who looks like his lover ("Because you know what he needs"). Suddenly a day has gone and he hasn't noticed.
A hippie woman appears in his office and later listens to Don's heart with a stethoscope but hears nothing. "It's broken," she reports. Don misunderstands her. "You can hear that?" he wonders. He then calls a meeting to insist that the oatmeal ad is what they need for Chevvy.
The creative team throw X-Acto knives at an apple drawing over Stan's head and hit him in the arm. Stan, the wouldbe hippie, tries to seduce Peggy with the revelation that a cousin was killed in the Navy. Peggy later sees another worker watching him having sex with the hippie woman, who turns out to be the daughter of an office executive who has just died.
Definitely the high point of season six, if not for the series because it depends so much on previously established characters.
Don smokes for us
Why, then, did season six seem such a dud despite its addictiveness? While bringing in Vietnam draft dodging, the death of Martin Luther King (much more cleverly incorporated than the draftee story), the Chicago police violence outside the Democratic Convention and the assassination of Robert Kennedy, too much of the programmes included scenes whose summary on the official website, I swear, was: "Don smokes a cigarette on the balcony."
TB&TB would never be so crassly introspective. Its stars would have to look worried (Brook), puzzled (Ridge), conflicted (Liam), obsessive (Steffie) or perplexed (Thomas) for interminable seconds. We'd never be asked to guess what Don might be thinking .
What's with all this smoking and drinking, anyway? Is smoking, as Vonnegut said, just "a classy way of committing suicide?" U.S. News and World Report has a thoughtful article from former Obama staffer Ari Ratner. Weiner points out it is realistic for the Sixties. Academics might prefer to consider it as part of the postmodern turn in television, like canned laughter, separating the producer of the signifier (pleasure signified by the artifical laughter) from the pleasure we are supposed to feel (the signified: see Henry Krips, Fetish: an Erotics of Culture, 1999:154).
We know all the dangers now from smoking and heavy drinking. Don & Co. do all those bad things for us on screen. We no longer want, as we once did, to be like Humphrey Bogart when we saw him drinking in the smoke from a cigarette. But we can't help admiring Don and the others for taking the risks for us, especially when television reassures us they won't have to pay the price for such behaviour. The signifier and the signified live completely separated.
For the rest of us, bring on Peyton Place. In Mad Men this season even the interviews are more boring.
Coda on series 7
Mad Men looked in definite need of some mad men, and a new plot line. The characters fulfilled our most boring expectations of them.
My favourite commentary articles:
Note many of these authors disagree with my views on the series.
Marthew Brandon Wolfson, Salon, 27 April 2014.
Ari Ratner, U.S. News and World Report, 28 June 2013
The Guardian blog
Meredith Blake, L.A. Times, 24 June 2o13