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.

Reinvention on the telly-vision

Why did the premiere of “Mad Men” leave me feeling a bit distant from that wonderful show? Lots of small coincidences should have drawn me closer: The guys’ new offices are in the Time-Life Building, where I actually worked for a spell (albeit eons after the early ’60s); the subplot about Jantzen swimsuits involves a company not just from Portland, but also the one-time employer of my own personal father-in-law, who moved his daughter, et. al, west (from his own company in Rockefeller Center) to take the gig.

Coincidences, pointless to point out. Except for the subtle connection between my family’s own ongoing creation/reinvention (moving houses, jobs, identities, etc) and the show’s evocation of that process as a (the?) key to the ever-evolving American ideal.

So what’s missing? I guess I don’t quite connect with Draper’s post-marriage crisis, particularly when it comes to hookers and punishment. I can certainly trace the psychological through-line, I guess, but that feint toward sexual kink is an easy one to make on TV (it’s either that or the guns come out). And what I tend to value the most about “Mad Men” is its willingness to abandon all the easy TV feints.

Here’s another option: I missed something important, or need to regain my patience for the next big twist, which is surely around the corner. We’ll see.

The climax of “Friday Night Lights,” on the other hand, (I’m a week ahead, thanks to a new DVD box) feels exactly right: What gets resolved feels right; what’s left hanging feels even more haunting, and satisfying in its own way. To me this season was so much about family; how they work, how they don’t, and how the ones we create are often far more important than the ones we inherit.

Yes, it’s a tv show. Yes, some old-fashioned memes must be respected and adhered to. But “FNL” does it all so well, and with such respect for the gray areas in life and character (e.g., Coach Taylor will, in fact, contradict his character building lessons when the game is on the line), that it’s impossible to give them grief for their compromises.

So much of the pop culture is Snooki-fied to the point of poison and insult, these are two excpetions that don’t. Even when they don’t work, they really try. And that’s more than enough.

"Mad Men" Season Finale: Busy Being Born

In the end there’s always hope. And Greenwich Village.

So as we end this season of “Mad Men,” just weeks after the assasination of JFK and, by extension, the ceremonial end of the way it all used to be, the horizon has once again flown open.

But first, let’s take a listen to the “Mad Men” theme song. Have we ever talked about it? About how sleek and timeless it sounds, how that vaguely hip-hop rhythm, the fretful strings and heart-like pulse, describes an essence that has precisely nothing, and yet everything, about the show’s time and place? In all this talk about eras being evoked, about the verisimmilitude of this and the perfect evocation of that, it’s easy to forget that the first sound we hear each week in the sequence designed to propel us into “Mad Men”s imaginary world has no time-and-space trappings whatsoever. It just is, like the thrum of electricity in your nerves, the relentless need wired into your brain, the appetite for something more, something else, something beyond the here and now.

Consider this for a moment. The show’s about to begin.

Sterling, Cooper has collapsed into itself, only to be reborn. Betty left Don for the old-world life of Henry Francis and mid-century-style Republican gentry, while the Draper kids find themselves the very model of the modern chid: the products of a broken home. And while some old relationships shatter, Don emerges into his future with a brand new sense of what relationships mean, and why they’re so desperately important.

It hits him like a bolt from the blue. Like a kick in the head. From a horse.

And while the episode overflowed with plot and the interplay between character development and the churn of core mythology, the real story came straight from the series’ conceptual foundation: the philosophical bedrock of America and Americans, and “Mad Men””s (thus Matt Weiner’s) core belief of what propels his characters, and the real-world analogues who gather each week to watch the show, from here to there, from there to somewhere else, and on and on into the unimaginable future.

So everyone’s making a break. Betty from Don; Connie from Don, PP & L from Sterling, Cooper (and Lane Pryce), virtually every major player at Sterling, Cooper from the Frankensteinian beast they let the firm become. Meanwhile Don broke from his pretend father (Connie), then from his fake bond to Sterling, Cooper (his contract) and (most importantly) the example of his real father, Archie Whitman.

Archie, as we see in flashbacks, had no interest in human relationships. When his farmer’s co-op can’t land the right price for his wheat he tosses his neighbors out of his kitchen and vows to go it alone. Only, as the recollection unfolds, we see precisely where this leads him: to a drunken decision to sell his crop on his own, an impulsive decision to make a midnight ride to the market in Chicago and then, to the horror of his young son, a brutal death at the hooves of a spooked horse in the barn.

It’s a lightning bolt  that spooks the horse. And while literary types will never mistake the sound of God’s own voice, it takes Don three decades and a huge personal crisis to hear it for himself. And as his own adult life falls to ruin, he finally understands that his future can’t be predicated on midnight rides into the darkness. Significantly, he hears it in a chorus from Peggy, the child figure who has finally had enough of his emotional distance/cruelty, and from Roger, the older brother he has spent the last year finding reasons to hate: Don, they both tell him, has no respect for human relationships.

Finally, Don hears them. And his answer is as certain as it is paradoxical: the only way they can all find their individual futures is to destroy their bond — to leave Sterling, Cooper — and build it over again.

They have to steal their past in order to move into the future, but this process goes much more smoothly than expected and by the end of the hour they’re back on the launching pad: Perched in temporary digs in a hotel room, minus desks, phones or trappings of any sort, but eqiupped with the real tools of their trade: intelligence, imagination, the spirit to re-imagine, rebrand and re-launch. Sterling, Cooper 2.0.

After so many dark hours this season it’s both surprising and gratifying to see how warm and hopeful the show’s true essence seems to be. Beneath the chilly electronic thrum of that song the machine-like rhythm is the sound of a human heart. Relentless, driving and warm.