Please kill me: Life, rebirth and death in “Mad Men”

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There are two Don Drapers in this painting and the one we see front and center is not what you’d call shocked to see his doppleganger. He’s annoyed. If only because he knows exactly what this other him is after, and he wants no part of it. To the Draper we k now, DD-2 is yesterday’s news. A pain in the ass. And yet he keeps coming back; the bad penny our Draper can’t ever kill off for good.

Right there in visual shorthand we can see the essence of the entire series: Birth, death, rebirth, reinvention, devolution, death, subsequent rebirth and on and on. The show’s central action — life and work in an advertising agency at the height of America’s modern era — plays out the theme in flashy, often hilarious metaphor. Products are invented, branded, then intertwined with the world’s shared subconscious. Only to be redesigned, rebranded and reinserted into the culture to do precisely the same thing as always, only for different reasons. Cigarettes that were once a sturdy symbol of American tradition awake one day as devil-may-care rebels. The utilitarian slide projector becomes a carousel jingling merrily through childhood, youth, love and family.

Meanwhile, the show’s central characters careen through the same renovations, only freighted with pesky existential quandaries. Who are we, really? What made us this way? Can we ever change? Does the past always determine the future, or can we determine our own identities and fates?

As Americans we believe wholeheartedly in both the possibility and redemptive power of personal reinvention. A cowboy can become a lawyer, and vice-versa. The daughter of junk-peddling, Yiddish-speaking immigrant Jews in Newark, NJ can reemerge in Santa Barbara, Calif. with a PhD in English literature, a prep school accent and a wee button nose. Or, as per “Mad Men,” a tragically  mistreated midwestern foot solider  named Dick Whitman can pull the dog tags off of a dead Lt. Don Draper and resurrect them both as a feverishly ambitious and naturally brilliant ad man in New York City.

As the series’ sixth season opened markers for the coming action clattered in all directions. Vacationing in Hawaii Draper met a vision of his younger self and accidentally traded their identical lighters. Roger Sterling, the feckless/unflappable  inheritor of the old Sterling, Cooper firm feels increasingly out of place in its new SCDP incarnation, then loses his mother and goes quickly berserk. “This is my funeral!” he howls minutes into her memorial service, by way of kicking all of his guests out of his mother’s palatially old-world apartment. For all his experimentation with LSD and psychotherapy, Roger exists entirely in the old world of inherited glory and power. He remains dry-eyed for his mother, but when his shoeshine man turns up dead the site of the man’s shine kit triggers a flood of tears.

Elsewhere, Draper’s ex Betty chases after her daughter’s runaway friend, a violin prodigy who sells her instrument to escape to the hippier climes of California. Unable to follow, the strawberry blonde Betty heads to the hairdresser and comes home with licorice black hair.

Even more tellingly, the doorman at the building where Draper lives with his new wife has only just survived a near-fatal heart attack; an event Don witnessed, much to his horror. Only now Jonesy is back at work, seemingly the same as always. Only Draper is convinced that he saw the man fade to black, briefly, in mid-infarction. Jonesy doesn’t want to talk about it, but a thoroughly lit Draper insists he tell all: What’d you see when you were dead? What was there? Jonesy grimaces. “I guess there was a light.” Just back from a dreamy vacation in Hawaii Draper persists. “Was it like hot, tropical sunshine? Did you hear the ocean?” Jonesy won’t say, but when Draper presents a new ad concept to his clients at the Hawaiian resort where he’d vacationed the picture shows a businessman’s abandoned suit, shirt and shoes, his footsteps vanishing into the sea: “The Stepping Off Point,” reads the copy. The clients, sensing the suicidal implications of the image, aren’t pleased.


Mad about “Mad Men”: Critics gone wild


The writer Rob Sheffield, writing in the April 11 issue of Rolling Stone (posted online today) reviews the new season of AMC’s hypnotic drama “Mad Men” in terms so wildly enthusiastic the piece becomes its own tribute to itself. “One thing is for sure: “Mad Men” is the greatest TV drama of all time, and it’s not even close.”

That’s biting off a lot, but wait because we’re still not quite done: “It has no competition.”

The earth shakes, the stars tremble, the dog goes yipping for the basement.

Or at least that’s the idea. There’s not a lot else in the review, mostly reflections on things that have already happened on earlier seasons (for this we can perhaps blame “MM” creator Matthew Weiner, who all but threatens critics with bodily catastrophe if they reveal crucial plot points, which to his way of thinking is basically ALL plot points). The point of the piece, then, is less about critical analysis than it is about image and power. And not “Mad Men”‘s, either.

Which in a weird way makes it all about “Mad Men,” or at least “Mad Men”‘s core themes: identity; self-invention; the distance between image and reality. By reducing aesthetics to a kind of single-elimination tournament with clearly defined contests that separate winners from losers the author grants himself not just expertise over the realm, but also mastery. And guess what — it works! AMC’s full page ad for “Mad Men” in today’s New York Times includes the show’s name, its network, the time and date of the season premiere and one critical notice: “THE GREATEST TV DRAMA OF ALL TIME” — Rolling Stone.

The review that promotes the show becomes an essential part of the show’s self-promotion, which in turn promotes the magazine, whose elevated image lends more power/authority to its writers and critics, whose careers ascend accordingly, and. . .everyone gets a trophy.

I’m not trying to twit Sheffield, or even Rolling Stone, both of whom/which are just as capable of producing terrific stories, reviews, photo captions and all the rest. But as the age of multi-platform media saturation lurches onward “Mad Men”‘s gimlet vision of America’s fungible sense of reality is reflected back on itself. Five decades later everything is still up for grabs, only, somehow, more so. The product defines itself to appeal to viewers who define themselves by becoming associated with the product.

The best part of Sheffield’s piece comes at the start, with his description of Don Draper watching a steamy Robert Mitchum film noir in which one character whispers to another: “Are you alone?” The question hangs over Draper’s head because it so clearly defines the ache that haunts and propels him through his tangled existence. Solitude will fuck you up. Make as many friends as you can and hang on tight.

"Mad Men" thoughts – Glen knows which way the wind blows

Last week’s puzzlement/frustration with the direction of “Mad Men”‘s 4th season gave way this week to the more familiar feelings of intrigue and admiration. No surprise, in retrospect, that this pivot toward the youth rebellion, the age of Aquarius, the wanting of the world and the wanting of it NOW, would be puzzling. Imagine how those slick old boys felt in 1964. “Get Sally some Beatles 45’s,” Draper instructed his secretary on her way out to purchase his family’s XMAS presents. Next year comes pot, then lysergic for ’66, and by ’68 she’ll want a revolution – we all want to change the world.

Except for Draper and co, masters of the old world. Or they were, though by the mid-60s they’re only just hanging on. The old antics – booze, quick sex with willing subordinates, the cheerful subordination to the heirs of old-world tobacco fiefdoms – are fast losing their potency.

But they keep on trying. The increasingly sad, desperate D. Draper has lost his appeal, and he knows it. Roger, with his new op-art office (check out that hellish mod painting he has) feels lost in his white-on-white surroundings. Given his white hair he feels like he doesn’t even exist in there. I believe that’s what my old English teacher would call metaphorical, old-world bastard that he was.

And more. The women still put out, albeit with decreasing enthusiasm and a growing sense of what-the-hell? Peggy not only looks better than ever, but has not a whit of patience with the old-world-even-when-dry-and-urine-free Freddy Rumson, and his dusty old ideas about marriage as every young woman’s holiest grail. Lee Garner, Jr., the old-skool tobacco heir and controller of 71 percent of the plantation, is batshit crazy, whipping poor Roger with a Santa suit and acting like every other spoiled royal, commanding his subjects, in the absence of bread, to eat real and metaphorical cake.

Back in Ossining the real visionary is the creepy, but eerily prescient neighbor boy Glen. Who has a youthful thing for Sally Draper, and is thus eager to share his insights into adult relationships (corrupt and wrong), and domestic order (he’s agin it). All of 10, maybe, Glen is the nascent revolution, personified. How does he show his affection for Sally? He trashes the family kitchen and leaves handcrafted goods on Sally’s pillow.

“Kids did this,” Henry grumbled when he saw the destruction in the kitchen (of the family home he helped detonate in his own way. Damn straight. I wonder what they’ll do next?

I think Glen knows. I think Glen will be in the middle of it. And when he and Sally get to San Francisco (and you just know they will), they’ll both be wearing flowers in their hair.

"Mad Men" episode 12: The Warmth of the Sun

Even the weather went berserk.

We’re talking about the ambient temperatures inside the literal offices of Sterling, Cooper — where it’s freezing cold one day, and blazing hot the next — but as metaphorical gives go, this barely discussed element cast a long shadow across the hour. Because if you can’t count on stability in your office environment. . . .if all the promises that the building staff always know what to do, everything will be fine. . . if you have to wear gloves at your desk one day, and then glisten with tropical heat the next, can you count on anything making sense?

But onward. To Pete’s awkward meeting with Lane, who breaks the news that he has lost the race to be head of accounts (because while Pete makes clients feel they’re needs are being met, while Cosgrove makes them feel like they haven’t any needs, whatever that means) then congratulates him on taking the news so well.

The world is hurtling through space. Margaret Sterling, her wedding a day away, is infuriated to be lunched, gifted, and advised by her dad’s extremely young 2nd wife, Jane. Margaret bursts into tears and threatens to cancel her wedding, prompting Mona to call Roger, who orders Jane to back the hell off. Jane, in her role as the mature step-mom, locks herself into the bathroom.

Meanwhile, President Kennedy is headed to a pre-campaign visit to Dallas.

Duck, cover and follow the jump. . . .Oh yes. It’s November 21, 1963. Then it’s the next day, the 22nd, and give or take the office temps, such a normal morning at Sterling, Cooper. Pete feels sorry for himself. Peggy scampers off to entertain Duck in a nearby hotel. Don complains bitterly because Lane won’t let him hire a new art dept chief to take Sal’s place. “Bert still has a say in this,” he grumbles, storming out of the Brit’s HQ to take it up directly with Cooper. And not even guessing that the Brits are keeping costs low specifically to enhance their bottom line in hopes of dumping the firm on whichever buyer will enhance THEIR bottom line.

Then there’s a newsflash from Dallas. And you know what that means.

Confusion. Grief. Tears. Everywhere. The adults rendered into children. Peggy’s housemate has her friends over to write notes to Jackie (the Manhattan working girl’s life revealed as elementary school). Margaret Sterling’s wedding thrown to chaos. Hardly anyone shows, so the rigidly detailed seating plan seems absurd. “Everyone grab your plate and sit wherever you want!” Roger proclaims. Meanwhile: No waiters, and also no cake.

Then there’s Don and Betty Draper. Their world’s chief illusion fell to ashes last week. And so they’re careening through empty space, too.

Don is a shadow of himself – sad-eyed, cowed, yearning. Betty, the blonde puppet wife to end all blonde puppet wives, is done with that role. Turns out her husband didn’t really exist in the first place. She’s lost, but also infuriated. And desperate to have her world restored. Henry must be the man of her dreams – he’s even more of an established, establishment man than Don. He could ride with Rockefeller all the way into the White House. Betty won’t be the next Jackie, but she’d be awfully close. And he’s already proposing marriage.

Only, what does the future hold for moderate, east coast Republicans?

The future, it seems, is entirely up for grabs. And maybe, just maybe, a shock like this will move it in an interesting direction. Don’s already rousing himself to tend young Gene in the middle of the night. When Carla rushes in and hears from Betty that the president is, in fact, dead, she bursts into tears, grabs a cigarette from her employer and sits next to her to watch and cry.

There’s been a change in the weather. The times have changed. Next week brings the climax of “Mad Men’s third season. And after that, the part of the ’60s that isn’t a holdover from the ’50s.

"Mad Men" episode 10: Going Down in History

My literal achilles – the right one, for anyone keeping score – has been screwed up for like half a dozen years. Credit 29 years of compulsive running; more directly, a bone spur in the right ankle, which rubs; and its owner’s unwillingness to face facts; get the thing fixed; etc.

And so, as Homer asserted, we all have a fatal weakness. I have several, actually. Don Draper and friends, too. But before we talk about the Mad Men, let’s talk about the principal mad man – the show’s creator, chief exec, genius and I’d be willing to wager any damn thing, its chief weirdo/tormentor of staff/ruiner of backstage persons’ lives. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Matt Weiner.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the guy’s work. I’ve met him several times, in the course of media coverage in L.A., and have been repeatedly charmed by his warmth, kindness, openness, humanity and his ability/willingness to seemingly recognize me, ask after my well-being with what seems to be real sincerity, and seem like a truly wonderful, great guy.

To meet him as a reporter/writer/critic, to talk plot points and writing, is to sort of love the guy. He’s smart and nice and obviously a bit of a screwball. Plus also a significant part of latter-day “Sopranos” episodes, and the creator of “Mad Men.”

Would i want to work for him? Hell to the yeah! And would I almost certainly come to regret that decision, in spades? Oh, my god, yes.

We’re getting to the show, I swear. But first let’s shuffle through the memory cards and recall the many times Weiner referred publicly to “Mad Men” as “my show.” He has a huge staff, as all tv shows, must, and several acclaimed writers. Some of whom started as MH’s literal assistants, fetching coffee and the like, only to be cultivated into real writers and then real Emmy nominees/winners/etc. And yet whatever they’ve done, acccording the lovely MW, is in service of HIS show.

His characters. His stories. His world.

And he has a point. He invented “Mad Men.” He almost certainly steers every significant aspect of its unfolding story. And so all props to MW. Or most props, anyway. But the fact is, the staffers write and write, they come up with dialogue and beats and moments and invest their own creativity/brilliance/words/ideas into the mix. And yet, our good friend Matt continues with: MY show.

Which reminds me of the custodian/sage Paul stumbles upon in the middle of the night at Sterling, Cooper: A fellow named Achilles. Who you may remember as Homer’s vision of human weakness.

Follow the jump for actual “Mad Men” deconstruction. . .

Now let me draw your attention to the latest backstage dramas in “Mad Men,” a/k/a the recent (ongoing?) diaspora of assistants-turned-writers-turned-Emmy-noms/winners. They’re leaving the show in (mini) droves these days. And not saying why, for now. But you can sense what might be going on in Matt’s self-described world of me.

So back to the show. Where in episode 10 our main man Don Draper was engaging in monkey-business-as-usual with Miss Farrell; bonding with her eplieptic little brother in his quest to build himself a new life/existence somewhere beyond the shadow of his neurological problems; driving the creative staff of Sterling, Cooper to greater glories; and being roundly celebrated for the same, without knowing that his (increasingly unappealing wife, Betsy) has secretly discovered (tho she only kind of gets) his secret past.

Meanwhile, the past and/or ingrained flaws, is/are catching up with almost everyone: With Paul, who gets too drunk to write down his midnight brainstorm regarding the Western Union account (talk about the past!); with Roger, whose aging mom conufses his new wife with his daughter, and is astonished to hear that ex-wife Mona knows that he’s married someone else; with Bert, who isn’t eager to celebrate his firm’s 40th anniversary, given what it says about his own age and mortality; and with both Don and Betty, who separately/secretly have reasons to panic when a mystery caller hangs up on Sally without saying a word; and most obviously for Don Draper himself, who revels in the acclaim lorded upon him (by a seriously play-acting Roger Sterling, his former BFF-turned-target of his disaffection) for the many heroics of his pretend life.

Ah, Western Union. Have you ever been so metaphorical? “You can’t frame a phone call,” Don declares, simultaneously coming up with a perfect ad slogan for a 19th century product while also foreshadowing the world of trouble about to open upon himself. “The faintest ink is better than the best memory,” Paul had said, by way of woe-turned-unwitting-inspiration.

Our man Matt Weiner got plenty of ink from the New York Times Magazine last year, just before “Mad Men”‘s second season opened. The cover story about him described a briliant, yet neurotic and sometimes impossible to be around writer/producer who, it seemed, was actively driving his family and employees bonkers. At a TV industry affair a week or two later I asked him how he felt about the profile. Still in the thrall of his charm and intelligence I expected him to wax at least partly chagrined – to say something about it being part of the story, not the whole thing; that the writer had done a fine job, but maybe didn’t have space to include the part where he’s loving and supportive and kind to children, pets and employees. Instead, he sort of shrugged, and smiled. “I asked my wife what she thought,” he said of the quietly scathing profile. “And she said, ‘Well, that’s you!”

Not written in faint ink, either.