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David Weisblatt Shortly before its first season, “Mad Men” creator, Matthew Weiner described his new series as “science fiction”— set in the past. Despite the implied contradictions, it is a fairly straight forward claim; perhaps deceptively so. Though it is true both may act as cautionary tales, Weiner knows "Mad Men" does something science fiction can't. Because when we replace Mars with Madison Avenue, we get a chance, not only, to contemplate where we're going, but how we got here. While Don Draper and the rest of SCDP may believe it has been through the all-American pursuit of happiness, we intuitively know happiness is not an easy thing to define. As Draper says in "The Color Blue" (S03/E10) "People may see
things differently but they don't really want to." Though season five may have opened with its characters relatively content, to quote Roger Sterling, "It wore off."
This fits in neatly with one of "Mad Men's" dominant themes this past season: "Not knowing when something is good”. It began before its first episode even aired: not in the controversial "falling man" ads (which we will address later) but in the one seen here.
Through a glass darkly/ Don, in rare moment of self reflection
In the photo, Draper stares at his own reflection in a department store window. The image is mysterious and alienating; but what may be more interesting is what appears behind him. A close look above his hat reveals a sign that reads simply "S Nicholas". While this may seem inconsequential at first, it relates directly to something Weiner said in an interview earlier this year. When asked whether this past season suggested there’s a trade-off between happiness and success, this is what he said:
"Right, (Don says) happiness is the moment before you need more happiness. That is not a healthy way to think. I know he sold the hell out of it and the
audience was distracted by Jon Hamm’s incredible delivery and the great directing in that episode. But the words he’s saying are strange."
Are they? The reason "S Nicholas" is important here, is not because it's the name of a fictional department store, but who S Nicholas was; St. Nicholas.
Life saver/ St. Nicholas patron saint of sailors Long before being transformed into Santa Claus, Nicholas was the patron saint of New York City...and sailors. The miracle he is most associated with is known as "The Multiplication of The Wheat". According to Wikipedia: "During a great famine that the Bishop of Myra experienced, a ship was is in
the port at anchor, which was loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Constantinople. He invited the sailors to unload a part of the wheat to help in time of need. The sailors at first disliked the request, because the wheat had to be weighed accurately and delivered to the Emperor. Only when Nicholas promised them that they would not take any damage for their consideration, the sailors agreed. When they arrived later in the capital, they made a surprising find: the weight of the load had not changed, although the wheat removed in Myra was enough for two full years and could even be used for sowing."
Not only does this story resound in the world of Sterling, Cooper, Draper & Pryce, it could serve as a metaphor for post-war America as a whole. When Roger Sterling quipped “... it's sacrilege to say this, but Pearl Harbor was an act of genius. The only thing they didn't plan for was success", he obviously didn't understand the irony of his words.
So, while Peggy may believe Don doesn't "know when something is good", the problem more likely, is he has "too much of a good thing". But then again, it may be the word "good" itself that is the problem. This reading of "Mad Men" suggests a post-war America squandering its blessings by associating happiness ("good") with power (also "good"); materialistic or otherwise . But, of course, power too is open for interpretation; although "Mad Men" ( at this point) appears to be taking a particularly Focauldian approach (be it an early one) in equating it with domination and control. In "AntiOedipus", the French thinker writes:
“The strategic adversary is fascism... the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”
It's hard not to empathize with Peggy in this regard. Despite her truly Pegasuslike ascent ; as a woman in 1967, she still ends the season on the ground floor of a motel (watching from her window as one dog mounts another) . Don, on the other hand, may be driven more by a fear of the "exact opposite" : the realization control can not exist without chaos. It only takes an ill timed elevator, as we saw, to expose him to the nothingness beneath his feet.
Schrodinger's Elevator/ Don stares down the abyss
The implications of gravity's pull are on full display in season one's "5G" (S01/E05). The episode is literally one of ups and downs; people get drunk and wake up hung over, horse shoe trophies turn from u's to n's; and the 5g's that jerk Don back with the arrival of his brother, are resisted with 5g's worth of cash. But, eventually, the most important thing the episode teaches us is, that in the world of "Mad Men", the only way you can really defy it is with a noose around your neck (and even then it's the gravity of the situation that does you in).
Weiner & Co. have never relied on one literary or dramatic device to drive "Mad Men's" narrative forward. In a single episode a viewer can be taken from the Acropolis to the Globe; from the Uncanny Valley of Hitchcock & Freud to the never-ever land of Derrida's ghosts. But there is one story line that has been playing itself out repeatedly; given even more urgency by the writers this past season. It is based in the Greek myth of Phaethon (literally, "The Shining", something I'll come back to) and like much mythology it is a cautionary tale of ego and hubris. Perhaps the most famous version of it is told by Ovid in "Metamorphoses". According to Wikipedia:
Phaethon seeks assurance that his mother, Clymenē, is telling the truth that his father is the sun god Helios (as her husband is Merops, a mortal king). When Phaethon obtains his father's promise to drive the sun chariot as proof, he fails to control it and the Earth is in danger of burning up (in most versions it does burn up) when Phaethon is killed by a thunderbolt from Zeus to prevent further disaster.
Crash & Burn/ Phaethon loses control of the sun Like much folklore, the story not only equates the power of the sun with the father, but the father with God. A less violent version of it is played out at the end of "Commissions & Fees" (S05/E12). Glen Bishop, in a moment of self pity, asks Don why "Everything good turns to crap?" Don, in the role of the good father, asks him 'if there were anything in the world' Glen could do right now, what would it be? The episode ends with Glen behind the wheel of Don's car.
Drive/ Don & Glen move forward
While this version of the story may not end in a blazing crash and burn, the one being enacted by Pete Campbell continues to do damage. Although he may have not opted out like Adam and Lane (at least not yet) Pet does experience the effects of gravity in a meaningful way. Clearly "over his skis", He has not even yet learned to drive when he first sets his sights on Jaguar. He soon finds out, however, that business at that "high a level" can make you a little weak at the knees.
Over his skis/ Pete Campbell doing business at a "very high level"
Falling hard for another man's wife he asks her to follow him to sunny California (which, like Don, he says always makes him feel better) but when, in "The Phantom" (S05/E13), she opts instead to go through with electric shock treatment for her depression, he is literally zapped from her memory; struck down by Zeus like young Dick Whitman's father all those years ago. Landing that same episode on a commuter train with the woman's husband, he is struck down again. He returns home to his wife who believes he's been in a crash.
Projecting/ A battered & bruised Pete Campbell in driver's ed.
Don's turn comes in "Commissions & Fees". After an exchange in a barber shop in which he experiences, what Nietzsche called, "the pangs of undeserved praise", he cleanses his conscience by taking a meeting with Dow Chemical.
"Free Credit" / Don gets religion in this dissolve from "Commissions & Fees"
In his pitch he makes the Faustian promise that the napalm they profit from won't hinder him from increasing their market share (that's right he literally sells the hell out of it) ; of course he assures them the opposite. And if Greek tragedy teaches us anything, it's that the sins of the father are, more often than not, paid for by the son.
Selling the 'hell' out of napalm/ Don pitches Dow Chemical
Its employees may at times seem directionless, but Sterling, Cooper, Draper & Pryce is on the rise. In fact, the money is piling up so fast, they've had to acquire the floor above them just to keep pace. This is the same floor, we learn, that once housed a parachute company. According to Harry Crane
they moved to Washington to be closer to the cemetery. But what at first
comes off as an ironic aside is, in fact, something more.
Up The Building Without A Chute/ The caption reads "A catastrophe that should have never happened"
In speaking about his "Sopranos" days with Wesleyan University, Weiner expressed his reverence for show creator David Chase's preference for subtext. He tells the article's author he prefers dialogue to hint at underlying tension not expose it: “I don’t like people talking about the real subject because people never do.” With this in mind, Crane's observation makes for an ominous one. We know the Time-Life building is still standing, and the 37th and 38th floors have never experienced any physical trauma. But we've also seen the show's opening credits and understand their implications. We also know Weiner has denied the image was meant to offend a nation still reeling from the 9/11 attacks. It is interesting to note, however, that he has never denied their connection. That's because he knows, whether implied or otherwise, he can't. As television historian Gary Edgerton notes:
Mad Men’s perspective is resolutely post-9/11. This vantage point is not just chronological; it is psychic and visceral. On the surface, Mad Men’s mise-enscene and iconography may appear nostalgic, but it comes with an attitude towards the past that exposes the workaday sexism, racism, adultery, homophobia, and anti-semitism of the era
He continues, moving on to Richard Drew's "Falling Man" photograph:
The terrible, quiet serenity of that image provides a disturbing template for Mad Men’s animated black silhouette, capturing the full intensity and unease of our time. As the protagonist lands smoothly on his chair, his perspective is ours as we look over his shoulder. He may strike a confident pose with a cigarette dangling from his fingers, but situated as we are behind him, we know better.
There is an argument to be made Weiner is fully conscious of "Mad Men's" 9/11 subtext, as the image below may or may not suggest. Whatever the case may be, "Mad Men" is in no way attempting to trivialize these events. More importantly, the attacks are just a part of a much larger picture.
Writing On The Wall?/ A screen capture bears an eerie resemblance to 9/11 attacks
Like all tragedy, Weiner has said more than once his show is about consequences. As I mentioned in an earlier post, for the Greeks those consequences could extend not only to a play's characters , but possibly their children or their children's children. This is what is commonly referred to as the "family curse." But this idea is not relegated to the Greeks. A more
modern twist , that suits both our purposes, is Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall Of The House Of Usher".
The legend opens with the unnamed narrator arriving at the (decaying) house of his friend, Roderick Usher, having received a letter from him in a distant part of the country complaining of an illness and asking for his help. deathlike trances. Roderick later informs the narrator that his sister has died and insists that she be entombed..Over the next week both Roderick and the narrator find themselves becoming increasingly agitated for no apparent reason. We later learn his sister was in fact alive when she was entombed and that Roderick Usher knew (it). The bedroom door is blown open to reveal Madeline standing there. She falls on her brother, and both land on the floor as corpses. The narrator then flees the house, and, as he does so, notices a flash of light causing him to look back upon the House of Usher, in time to watch it break in two.
More than a hundred years after the story was first published, science fiction writer L. Sprague de Camp made the coomonly accepted argument that, although it is never explicitly stated, it is inferred that the family suffered from a history of incest. Writing about their eventual fall he states, "Roderick Usher, his sister Madeline, and the house all shared one common soul".
It is revealed
that Roderick's twin sister, Madeline, is also ill and falls into cataleptic,
In this sense, horror fans may recognize similarities with Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining." Perhaps more a meditation on the nature of evil than a classic ghost story, Kubrick's Overlook hotel is no doubt haunted. What exactly possesses the building, and in what manner, has been a source of much of debate. The film's dialogue hints at a Native American burial ground, while the score of another scene makes chilling allusions to the Holocaust. It is more than likely both were implied, and the hotel, not unlike the House of Usher, is a living embodiment of man's inhumanity to man.
There Will Be Blood/Ever feel like you're being watched?
This past season, more than any other, there has been a sense that the offices of SCDP are too alive. Again, metaphorically. I am not suggesting "Mad Men" is a horror film; at least not in the typical sense.
An early reference to the building being something more than just a physical structure comes in "The Grown Ups" (S03/E12). Now better known as "the Kennedy assassination episode", the story begins, innocently enough with a
discussion about the temperature. After first complaining about how cold it is inside, Peggy later complains about the heat. Paul Kinsey's response, even if not memorable, is important. "Ask the building for heat", he says, "you get heat."
Going Down?/ Don on the edge In season five, although SCDP relocated to the "Time-Life" building, "their souls" have followed. Not only has the parachute company abandoned them, the elevators themselves (as seen in the above photo) are getting in on the act. The most telling scene is Lane being unable to start his Jaguar. If he wanted to kill himself, it was going to be on the 37th floor. In this Easter-centric episode; the office demanded sacrifice.
A Dream Deferred/Lane envisions the futue
Here's Matthew Weiner describing an "actual" ghost in season four's "The Suitcase" (S04/E07):
This is the way that it happens, because we’re somehow connected to each other. I always say, “OK, it’s a ghost. Fine, you think it’s something extraordinary. What about AM radio? That’s extraordinary. Cell phones are extraordinary. A connection to another human being should not be seen as extraordinary.”
Out Of The Past/ Anna moves on in "The Suitcase"
Weiner's statement is something I want to come back to, but let's go back to Lane for a moment. Weiner described his suicide as a "high level" joke. This may sound callous until you remember "high level" is also the way Pete Campbell describes his business dealings with Herb Rennet. Rennet, head of Jaguar's dealer association, is the man who demands to sleep with Joan, in return for his business.
So, what do these two things have in common? Superficially, perhaps, nothing. But this brings us back to what Weiner said about subtext. I would argue this "higher level" is a the mythic/spiritual realm.
French thinker Rene' Girard, best known for his theory of mimetic desire, is also discussed for his radicalized concept of the scapegoat. The essence of Girard's thinking is as follows:
1. We learn to desire by imitating the desire of others
2. It is not merely that we desire the same things, we imitate the desire. 3. This desire leads to rivalry which inevitably leads to violence. 4. This violence ends in the lynching (symbolic or otherwise) of the scapegoat.
For Girard, a Christian, the ultimate scapegoat is Christ. For "Mad Men" it is Lane Pryce. Think of his career since coming to SCDP. What he desires, more than anything, is to be an American. He does this through imitation; the Mets pendant, the Statue of Liberty, the Playboy Bunny. It reaches its pinnacle in his foged imitation of Don. But he is caught. His "sacrifice" brings about stability (the money, not unlike Christopher's death at the hands of Tony in "The Sopranos", another Weiner penned episode) but it also comes with the inherent guilt.
Cutting The Cord/ Pete completes his Oedipal cycle
I mentioned earlier that Weiner once described "Mad Men" as science fiction set in the past. Let's take a closer look at the "science" part of that. Roger describes Lane's suicide note with an interesting choice of words: boilerplate. Let's take that literally. A liquid reaches its boiling point through an increase in temperature. As the temperature increases, the kinetic energy increases which causes increasing molecular motion (vibrations and molecules slipping past each other). Eventually the molecular motion becomes so intense that the forces of attraction between the molecules are disrupted to the point where they break free of the liquid and become a gas. The energy is changed, but not destroyed.
Lane Change/Gone but not forgotten We'll talk more about the importance of this in just a moment, but let's first head back to "The Grown Ups" for an example of how this device has been used before. The Kennedy assassination is now thought by many to be the spark that ignited the social unrest of the 60's. As I mentioned earlier, the initital conflict of the episode takes place not between characters but temperatures. First the building is too hot, then too cold. If you were a meteorologist you would know when two fronts like this collide the likely result is a tornado. A very strong argument could be made this country has
still not recovered from the shock of his death. I think of "Once in a Lifetime" by the Talking Heads: "And now the twister comes, here comes the twister."
In the season five premiere Lane shouts "I will always be here." He will. He is not dead, he has merely changed forms. But an investigation into the heat his death has already given off isn't promising for the future of the firm. Yes, they are "rising", but at what cost? There is more money, but that means there is also a greater space to fill.
When Joan marks the spot where the staircase Lane's life insurance has bought them will go, it appears to us not only as a memorial of his sacrifice, but also as an eery reproduction of the annotation a chess player makes when he traps his opponent. We know Joan and Don feel guilty. But to what lengths will they go to repress to it? In the scene where Joan tells Don about Lane's life insurance money we find another interesting choice of words : what are we to do with this profit? Is it really too farfetched to think the word Weiner really intended was prophet?
At The Crossroads/Joan mark a new beginning
And let's remember that Joan too was sacrificed. Weiner has gone on record supporting her decision. He has not done the same for Pete and Herb. That's because this "high level" offering was of the Faustian kind.
For Dante, the Devil had more in common with Phaethon, than the Satan of today. Caught up in his own beauty, power, and pride, he attempts to usurp God’s throne:
“I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit on the mount of assembly on the heights of Zaphon; I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High."
But this was not to be. Instead he is portrayed as just another victim of Hell; trapped, not in fire, but ice -- and mindlessly feeding.
Just Your Average Frozen Little Devil/Nicholson chills out in "The Shining"
We know, though, these sacrifices too are representative of something much larger. It is the cigarettes they sold despite the cancer. It is the Jaguar, the hummer, the luxury gas guzzlers that still guide our foreign policy. It is the bombs dropped and the lives lost. Yes, 9/11 is a part of this. Global Warming and the great recession are too.
Roger sterling says it's every man for himself. Matthew Weiner clearly disagrees. And in the end that may be what "Mad Men" is about: a subtle reminder that we're all in this together, and the price we pay when we act like we're not.
For Don Draper and company that reminder will not be so subtle.
The heat is
rising and the "madness" is spreading (note the expanding "family" and uses of words like brother and sister in "The Phantom."). 1968 is just around the corner. So is James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan, Chicago and Watts. Manson and Altamont are not far behind.
In 1882 history's most famous "Mad Man" proclaimed "God Is dead". Another now says the parachutes are gone. The elevator goes up, the sun shines down, and gravity waits.
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