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Reliving the American lie

Mad Men, series 7 part 1, AMC

By Peter Hulm

In recent episodes, Mad Men has come off as if should have been named Peyton Plaza/Peyton Boulevard with New York office life and Hollywood's movie folk substituting for scandalous small-town America.

But every so often — through Matthew Weiner's ever-sharp scenewriting — it bursts into unexpected life that leaps out from the screen directly into your mind.

Surely by now your skin crawls each time you hear Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) or Lou Avery (Allan Havey).

Betty Francis (ex Draper) (January Jones) must be the world's least favourite Mom. And Sally (Kiernan Shipka) the least appealing teenager.

We keep hoping Roger Sterling (John Slattery) will do something right, and Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) do something to justify his big office at the advertising agency.

Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), we pray, will somehow finally get recognition as the smartest person around the place.

Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm), we equally desperately wish, will not implode before our eyes.

Poor Peggy, poor Don

Poor Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). She's turning sour and sourer with each episode — and there's nothing we can do about it or improve her taste in men.

As for Don Draper (Jon Hamm), we no longer know whether to believe he is trying to be good even when we know he is (Season 7 Episode 7: Waterloo): we are as conflicted as he is.

Mad Men (2007-15) will surely go down in U.S. television history for some of the most edgy portraits of American business life. Movies such asNetwork (1976) and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), no matter how ambitious, couldn't have the long reach of a television series. In Mad Men season after season showed us the corrupting influence of capitalist treatment of human beings as purely limited resources.

Inverting the soap opera

The soap-opera format is essential for Weiner's strategy to work. Greg Metcalf has described the episodes as a series of Zen koans (2012:117) rather than broadly shaped narratives (see his analysis).

Weiner said early on that his plan was to frustrate audience expectations in every scene. So what we see is a challenge for each character to step outside their prescribed role, and turn down the opportunity.

It's a tribute to the writing/direction/acting by the small team that it took several series before many of us gave up on the villains and heroes — and that Series 7 had us hoping again that the characters would change themselves as well as their lives.

The air is brown

Too bad. But Series 7 also displayed the dreamworlds of California and New York in their true colours. On the West coast, we learned, the air was brown, and even the most resilient acting hopefuls (Jessica Paré as Megan Draper) end up slightly crazy with despair.

New York, for the newly successful, can mean a dingy apartment in a bad neighbourhood, or an even worse one in Greenwich Village despite its glamorous reputation.

Greg Metcalf has noted Weiner's "very unusual" writing style for U.S. network television, where the audience always knows what is going on.

"The characters on Mad Men only occasionally explain what they are feeling, and generally don’t do it very well," he observes. "Thematically, this reinforces the mood of everyone’s lives being constricted and guarded, or sends the message that the characters are unable to articulate what is wanting in their lives" (ibid).

Dangerous fantasies

What Men Men offers, beyond a metropolitan Peyton Place, is a devastating critique of advertising: both in the images it sells that bear no relation to the frustrations of its characters and the fantasies it tells about American life.

Season 6 and 7 finally brought home some of the truths of the cigarettes and drinks advertising life-style: Don sinks into near-alcoholism, while Betty eats herself into grumpy middle-age, though so far no-one has paid the price of their cigarette-smoking.

Weiner's skill is to focus his social critique on Draper, the adman living this contradiction and prospering from it: the fake childhood he invented for Hershey in season 6 (In Care Of) brought together for viewers a devastating scene of our eagerness to be deceived even by a lie: "Chocolate is the currency of affection".

Why we are loving it

Season 7 epidsode 6 offered an equally powerful image of bitter truth. Peggy, Don and Pete (all three failures at maintaining any stable family relationship) sat down together at the Burger Chef restaurant and heard lonely Peggy tell them she planned to film the "Family Supper at Burger Chef" advertisement in this place.

The camera pulled back and we saw the clean, brightly lit place with its contented, active diners thronging to the tables in an unreal image that we knew was staged for its "authenticity", at the same time as we registered (surely) that this was a fast-food joint denying it sells junk meals to people who are in a hurry and usually alone or anxious to get away from it as soon as possible (as we saw the previous scenes).

And, of course, the advertising slogan is terrible, reflecting the characters' yearnings rather than a saleable message.

Escape from television

We heard a better slogan earlier: "Every table here is the family table". It is just as easy to come up with something similar: perhaps "Your home away from home."

But that would go against the message Peggy wants to put across: "No laundry, no telephone, no TV"(!) at a time when she admits that no meal table is far from the television set. It was already too late.

Mad Men teaches us how to look at advertisements in a critical way: consider the McDonald's slogans and the Burger King sales pitches, motor vehicles and chocolate bars on television. An audience that has seen Mad Men can never view such advertisements as innocent celebrations of a quality product.

For that alone it is worth the price of admission.

Back to the future

Another late development is also giving the series unexpected depth in its closing stages.

Weiner has observed that he spends a great deal of effort to reproduce accurately elements of his 1960s boyhood. Throughout the series we have alo seen an obtrusive boy of about 10 who observes the grownup world with indifference. Early in the series we had Betty's confidant, Glen, played by Marten Holden Weiner), Matthew's son. In the later series we have Peggy's neighbour Julio (Jacob Guenther).

They play no part in the mad world, and offer no specific comment on it. But they float in and out with their demands and uninteresing personalities, unattached and as impervious as any of Ada Leverson's realistic children.

Combining them with bratty Sally (Kiernan Shipka) and selfish Margaret/Marigold (Elizabeth Ellen Rice), we see a new generation growing up and despising or judging their parents in the world of the late 1960s.

Margaret/Marigold joins a commune and refuses all her parents' blandishments to return home to her four-year-old, pointing out to John Slattery when he tries to pull the parent card that he neglected her without compunction when she was a kid.

Love is not all you need

Sally may be a spoiled élite school child but she, too, shows herself readier than her father to stare his situation in the face and ask why he doesn't do the obvious thing.

She even manages to tell him she loves him, which is more than she can bring herself to do to her mother, whom she so resembles.

The new world is yawning before the adults of Mad Men, in which family suppers are torture and it's better to eat at Burger Chef where the kids have to behave.

But that's the truth that dare not speak its name in the world of 1960s advertising.

Sources

Greg Metcalf. 2012. The DVD novel: how the way we watch television changed the television we watch. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger. ISBN: 9780313385810.

< a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/24/mad-men-season-6_n_3473171.html" title="Huffpost" target="_blank">Matthew Weiner on Mad Men Season Six.