Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Romney-ification Of Hillary Clinton

The latest media hullabaloo is, to quote Chuck Todd's "First Read" today, the "Romney-ification of Bill and Hillary Clinton." Through weeks of assiduous work, the media has done a rather elegant (if completely underhanded) two-step: Step One: Turn the Clinton Global Initiative, a charitable organization that has literally helped millions of people around the world, into some sort of unsavory slush fund where sketchy characters and foreign countries with bad human rights records dumped millions of dollars in exchange for entree into the Clintons' world. Step Two: Question the wealth accumulated by the former President and his wife because it was done through such unsavory ways as receiving money to give speeches (something so de rigueur among the elite class in Washington, there are agents who do nothing but book these engagements) and receiving book royalties. 

In other words, those sneaky, underhanded Clintons had the temerity to earn a living after they left the White House with millions of dollars in debt because of lawyers they had to pay fighting off an eight-year smear campaign by Republicans that was aided and abetted by a compliant Beltway media that never embraced them (David Broder famously noted that Bill Clinton "broke" Washington). That Hillary Clinton served as a Senator for eight years and Secretary of State for four years and that her husband left behind a $236 billion budget surplus and peace and prosperity are really of no moment because you know, they made money and some people donated to their charity who are not Boy Scouts. 

And now that the narrative has locked in the CGI as something nefarious, the knives are out because the Clintons have amassed a fortune. Ergo, the Clintons are the Romneys, because rich, or something. And while at the most general level it is true, both families are rich, both the manner in which they became that way, and more importantly, what they did with their money and what they believe in, is nowhere to be found in most media reporting. Mitt Romney accumulated his wealth buying distressed companies, outsourcing their work, stripping the valuable parts and taking the profits. His public service consisted of a single term as governor of Massachusetts and a year or so as the head of an Olympic Committee, where he did things like manufacture pins representing our country in China and deny free admission to 9/11 victims and their families. 

The Clintons on the other hand, have, in one way or the other, committed themselves to public service since the late 1970s. Hillary Clinton was an early champion of causes that are now so mainstream it is hard to believe they were ever controversial - supporting children's health care, equal pay for women, and the need for communities to help raise children. Her husband broke a 12 year run of Republican governance, did all the things the GOP claims it will do but never does - reduce the size of government, expand the economy, reduce the deficit and make government work more efficiently - before leaving office to start a foundation that has raised billions of dollars to help people in need. He has also become a sort of unofficial humanitarian ambassador when natural disasters strike and has a personal popularity among all Americans above 60%. 

But the media is expert at solidifying false narratives. So Hillary's public service is now turned on its head. After all, she hasn't driven a car in decades and has lived in a Secret Service cocoon, how could this woman possibly understand the needs of "ordinary" Americans? If this all seems oddly familiar, you are not experiencing déjà vu. The same hit job was done on John Kerry in 2004 because he married a wealthy widower (recall those windsailing photos and comments about Kerry being "vaguely French") and Al Gore, because he had the foresight to be an early investor in Silicon Valley tech companies and serve on the board of Apple Computers. For some reason, Democrats that amass great wealth offend the Beltway media even if those politicians have career-long records of supporting progressive ideas. 


Of course, after what are now months of negative reporting about Hillary, the media turns around and reports that voters do not find her honest or trustworthy, which should not be surprising considering all the media has done for the past few months is write stories about how untrustworthy and untruthful she is. It is lowest common denominator QED that also turned an earnest environmentalist like Al Gore into a phony and George W. Bush, a twice-failed businessman who got everything in life from his last name, into an everyman who the media would rather have a beer with. That this type of swift-boating has crossed the line from partisan hacks to supposedly neutral journalists is pathetic and, undoubtedly, one of the reasons people have such a dim view of reporters. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Don Draper, A Coke Ad, and the End of Mad Men

The credits had not finished rolling on Mad Men's series finale, Person-to-Person, before the analysis of the show's final moments began to be dissected. Had Don achieved nirvana in Northern California? What was the meaning of that Coke ad? Were we supposed to assume Don created it or that it was simply a paean to the power of advertising? Was the finale good/bad/ambiguous? 

Writing my weekly recap the next morning, I was not entirely sure what to make of things. On the one hand, having Don achieve a zen-like acceptance of himself after jettisoning his entire life, going on a 3,000 mile hobo journey, confessing his sins to one of the few people (if not the only person) in his life whose opinion he valued, and then breaking down in a teary puddle when a stranger named Leonard summarized his entire miserable life in a succinct three minute monologue would have opened a potentially new chapter for Don with an optimistic grace note that was also of a piece with the cultural trends of the early 1970s that were inward (and eastern) looking after the tumult of the 1960s. 

On the other hand, if Don's enlightenment was used in service of creating an advertisement that trafficked in that sensibility to sell soda, it would be incredibly cynical and also entirely consistent with a show that started its run with its main character telling a woman he was attempting to seduce that love was manufactured to sell nylons and was never afraid to manipulate his own life story in the service of selling consumer products. [1]

The ambiguity lingered until Wednesday, when show runner Matthew Weiner was interviewed and essentially confirmed that yes, the bell-ringing-smile-on-Don's-face-Coke-ad connection was intentional. He said, "In the abstract, I did think, why not end this show with the greatest commercial ever made? In terms of what it means to people and everything, I am not ambiguity for ambiguity's sake. But it was nice to have your cake and eat it too, in terms of what is advertising, who is Don and what is that thing?" 

Weiner went on to lament people who viewed the ending with a jaundiced eye, saying "I did hear rumblings of people talking about the ad being corny. It's a little bit disturbing to me, that cynicism. I'm not saying advertising's not corny, but I'm saying that the people who find that ad corny, they're probably experiencing a lot of life that way, and they're missing out on something. Five years before that, black people and white people couldn't even be in an ad together! And the idea that someone in an enlightened state might have created something that's very pure — yeah, there's soda in there with a good feeling, but that ad to me is the best ad ever made, and it comes from a very good place ... That ad in particular is so much of its time, so beautiful and, I don't think, as — I don't know what the word is — villainous as the snark of today."

After reading Weiner's comments, my initial reaction was, "Did he watch his own show?" Seriously. What was the point of curling Don in the fetal position after Peggy called him a monster, or shedding tears in California while telling Anna he had "ruined" his family, or Sally walking in on him in flagrante delicto with the neighbor lady, or his secretary hurling an object at him after they slept together and he blew her off, or being minimized as a "man, in a room, with a checkbook" when he offered to help Anna, or Betty telling him she preferred their children live with her brother than him because he was such a bad father, [2] or any of the myriad other awful instances of Don's bad behavior and the aforementioned hobo jag if all that did was lead him to a place where he could imbibe the cultural zeitgeist and turn it into an ad for soda? I could not think of a more cynical way to end the show than to essentially turn it into a Rust Cohle-ian proof of concept that "time is a flat circle." [3] 

And don't get me wrong, I like the cynical solution because advertising is cynical and the show was cynical - people were consistently horrible to each other, they lied, cheated, and stole, so why are we asked, after 92 episodes, to suddenly put on the rose colored glasses? As Don reminded us over and over again, advertising is premised on selling happiness, of letting people know that things are ok even if the world is going to shit. Whether it is Burger Chef drowning out the noise of Vietnam or Dow Chemical selling Joe Willie Namath as American as apple pie while the Notre Dame fight song plays, it seems impossible to put a smiley face on the idea that that the key takeaway from Don nuking his whole life and landing in a Northern California commune was how to build a better TV ad.

If all of that wandering just put Don right back where he started, what was the point of having him shed his entire existence - his job, his apartment, and one million of his hard earned dollars - not to mention the soul baring he did to Peggy or the bonding he did with Leonard, if all that bought him was the ability to distill his ability to make his wants our wants in the form of an ad that manipulated the universal desire for peace on earth in service of selling sugar water?

At the same time, it was totally consistent with who Don is as a person. As the critic Heather Havrilesky long ago observed, if you scratch an inch below Don's surface, all you get is more surface. Redemptive Don was someone we knew well - be it telling Birdie he hadn't been "respectful" towards her (the delicate way of saying he'd dipped his quill in many New York City ink wells), coming out of Anna's death with a new attitude on life, being a (mostly) good husband during the honeymoon period with Megan, or clawing his way back into SC&P after his Hershey meltdown, [4] Don was rarely as convincing as when he had bounced back from yet another rock bottom, but those attempts at turning a new leaf were never availing, so why wouldn't we, as viewers, be skeptical about the idea that this time would be different? 

Jon Hamm offered his own take, observing that "When we find Don in that place, and this stranger relates this story of not being heard or seen or understood or appreciated, the resonance for Don was total in that moment. There was a void staring at him. We see him in an incredibly vulnerable place, surrounded by strangers, and he reaches out to the only person he can at that moment, and it’s this stranger. My take is that, the next day, he wakes up in this beautiful place, and has this serene moment of understanding, and realizes who he is. And who he is, is an advertising man. And so, this thing comes to him. There’s a way to see it in a completely cynical way, and say, “Wow, that’s awful.” But I think that for Don, it represents some kind of understanding and comfort in this incredibly unquiet, uncomfortable life that he has led."

This is as reasonable an explanation as any other, except for the history of the entire series and Don's total and unremitting belief that people don't change [5] and nothing from slugging a tee totaling bible thumper to admitting his own lies and deceits to Dr. Faye Miller, Peggy, Megan, or the guys at the VFW had ever changed that. [6] Indeed, the entire end of the series was about Don giving up his life and all its trappings, but if Matt Weiner and Jon Hamm want us to believe Don is/was redeemed and that led to nothing more than the creation of an iconic commercial and not, say, becoming a better person, that strikes me as totally cynical. 

END NOTES

1. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Season 1, Episode 1. The two most obvious examples of Don manufacturing a fictional version of his actual life are the Kodak "Carousel" pitch, where he used slides of him with his wife and children to tell a story of nostalgic longing and love even as he was a philandering husband and largely absentee parent, and the Hershey pitch, which started off as a totally fake story of Don being allowed to pick out a candy of his choice at the corner store by his old man after mowing the lawn but collapsed into a searing admission of his true association with the candy bar - as a treat for picking the pockets of the johns on the whorehouse where he was raised. The Wheel, Season 1, Episode 13, In Care Of, Season 6, Episode 13. 

2. The Quality of Mercy, Season 6, Episode 12, The Mountain King, Season 2, Episode 12, Favors, Season 6, Episode 11, The Rejected, Season 4, Episode 4, The Good News, Season 4, Episode 3, Person-to-Person, Season 7, Episode 14. 

3. True Detective, The Secret Fate of All Life, Season 1, Episode 5.

4. Meditations in an Emergency, Season 2, Episode 13, The Summer Man, Season 4, Episode 8, see e.g., A Little Kiss Parts I & II, Season 5, Episodes 1 and 2, see, e.g., The Strategy, Season 7, Episode 6, Waterloo, Season 7, Episode 7. 

5. The Mountain King, supra.


6. In Care Of, supra, Hands and Knees, Season 4, Episode 10, Person-To-Person, Season 7, Episode 14, A Little Kiss, supra, The Milk and Honey Route, Season 7, Episode 13. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men S7E14 - Person To Person

"It's like no one cares that I'm gone." - Leonard

For a show that was built on its slavish devotion to documenting, in excruciatingly precise detail, the look, feel, and energy of the 1960s, it was fitting that Mad Men ended with Don Draper doing what so many who became disillusioned with the protests, marches, and be-ins of that era did - he found serenity and peace in a far away place and in what was a then-nascent movement toward spiritual enlightenment through eastern religions. 

To get there, Don Draper had to finally come clean about himself. Whereas the first "half" of this final season was about Don reclaiming his throne atop the world of advertising, the second "half" swiftly stripped away all that Don had so assiduously, if haphazardly, built up. There was little joy to be found in the rotating cast of characters coming in and out of the Draper bedroom, the extreme wealth Don accumulated literally sat in a checking account waiting to be signed over to a woman he rushed into marriage with during one of his prior attempts at reinvention, and the family he had created with his first wife was doing just fine without him, thank-you-very-much. Even the world where he asserted unquestioned dominance turned out to be a cruel joke. Having accurately predicted years ago that he wanted to avoid becoming a "cog" in the McCann wheel, [1] Don discovered there was literally a roomful of "Don Drapers" at his new firm, that he was no longer a unique snowflake.

So perhaps it was fitting that Stephanie, as a sort of proxy for her Aunt Anna, directed Don to their spiritual getaway. To Stephanie, Don is "Dick Whitman," not "Don Draper" the suave Madison Avenue executive, but, one assumes, someone who both cared very deeply about her aunt but was also a remote figure. However, when faced with the bad decisions she made, Don cannot sell her on the same pitch he gave Peggy in the wake of Peggy's unwanted pregnancy. [2] Indeed, instead of welcoming Don's observation that by moving on, she could put her past behind her, Stephanie twisted a similar knife that her mother did when Don learned of Anna's cancer diagnosis. Here, instead of diminishing Don as a "man in a room with a checkbook," Stephanie dismissed him by telling him they were not even family. 

And with that, and Stephanie's disinterest in the last worldly possession Don owned - Anna's engagement ring - Don literally had nothing. His rich man's hobo jag had come to an ignoble end. The material possessions gone, his value as a creative director unneeded, his first ex-wife, with little time left, had cruelly, but not unfairly made a decision as to who should raise their children, and deep down, Don knew it was the right call, his parental absenteeism having begun long before the ink was dry on their Reno divorce. So it was left to him to make one last person-to-person call to Anna's successor as "the only person in the world who truly knows me," Peggy Olson. [3] And in that call was the confessional that people in recovery need to make - an honest accounting of their failings and mistakes and to have the person listening to do so without judgment.

Peggy may have thought Don's admissions were those of a man about to end his life, and as we would learn, they were, in a way. Don seemed to be washing away the last remnants of his prior life, but in the moment, Peggy had more on her plate than she knew what to do with. She immediately called Stan to tell him of Don's perilous state, but instead of setting off alarm bells, the conversation turned into a confessional of its own, of Stan's love for Peggy and her love for him. As an offhand way of giving viewers a glimpse into her and the other main characters' futures, it was a surprisingly sanguine ending. Roger not only does right by his illegitimate child, but finds in Marie the kind of loving, but volatile partner who will keep him feeling youthful and challenged. Pete and Trudy are spirited triumphantly onto a Lear Jet and into a new life in Kansas, and Joan starts a new phase of her life as a businesswoman but without a partner in her life. 

While these "endings" are by definition amorphous - Pete could tire of Wichita, Roger and Marie's kinetic energy could curdle, Peggy might grow frustrated at Stan's ascot collection and the beard hair in the sink, and Joan's business could fail spectacularly - the fact that Weiner gave so many of his characters anything approaching a "happy ending" surely came as at least a small surprise after so many years of tumult and struggle. However, at least one character's ending is foretold - Betty stoically puffs away at her cigarettes even as lung cancer is killing her while Sally adopts the role of surrogate parent to her and her two younger brothers. 

The show's final images are particularly open to interpretation. Having his own frustrations and fears articulated by someone else - that no one would notice he was gone and that he never knew what to do with someone else's love anyway, Don collapses in a communal laying bear of emotions. The show ends as so many other episodes did - on Don Draper. But unlike so many other prior endings, where Don was forlorn, pensive, or hurt, as the meditative ohm passes his lips, we see something for the first time - a contented smile. And were the show have "faded to black," the implicit conclusion would have been clear - Don Draper 3.0 would be a quintessentially 1970s creation - of the monied class turning inward for happiness, but the use of that iconic Coca-Cola ad to end the show was a sly wink. When he spoke with Peggy from the commune, she asked Don when he was coming back so he could work on that most recognizable brand's advertising work. So was Don in deep cover, consuming the ethos of this self-awareness movement to simply turn it on its head to sell soda pop, or was his re-invention legitimate, a new leaf turned without the baggage of his prior life? Like so many things about this enigmatic character, the answer will forever remain a mystery.

*A personal note: Thank you to those who have frequented my blog to read my weekly recaps. I hope you have enjoyed the show as much as I did.  


END NOTES

1. Shut the Door, Have a Seat, Season 3, Episode 13.   
2. The New Girl, Season 2, Episode 5. 
3. The Good News, Season 4, Episode 3.

4. The Suitcase, Season 4, Episode 7. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mad Men S7E13 - The Milk and Honey Route

"We've been looking for you." - Unnamed police officer, The Milk & Honey Route

Don Draper is now officially a hobo. Having left his job, moved out of his penthouse apartment, paid off his second ex-wife, and thought his first one (and their kids) no longer needed him around, Don set off on a walkabout that landed him in the heart of what was once the Dust Bowl and ground zero for the privation of the Great Depression that defined his childhood. That he would hand the keys to the one possession he still owned (a two-door Cadillac Coupe de Ville) to a con man who almost made Don's visit to Oklahoma far longer than he would have wanted, was of a piece with Don's comfort around people who are running from something. [1]

But that is all simply after action reporting. When your dreams are haunted by the fear that you will one be discovered as someone you are not, can you truly live? Well into 1970 and twenty years after his deceit, [2] that the man born Dick Whitman still has nightmares about having his true identity exposed is its own personal hell. Of course, Don has had close calls before. Whether it was his half-brother Adam showing up unannounced in New York City, [3] Pete's attempt at blackmailing Don into making him Head of Accounts, [4] or Don's demand that SCDP drop North American Aviation as a client for fear that a background check will reveal his lie, [5] like a fugitive who has evaded arrest, Don must always keep an eye out for danger. 

In fact, it was not his habitual philandering that caused Betty to demand a divorce, but rather, her discovery of his alternate life - of the manufactured person "Don Draper" was versus the man who grew up dirt poor in "coal country, Pennsylvania, by way of Ohio." [6]  The one person other than Betty that he ever shared his secret with, Dr. Faye Miller, encouraged him to both confront the trauma this dual life was creating for him and to investigate whether he could seek some sort of pardon for his actions. [7] Don's reaction to these suggestions was to run directly into the arms of a woman he hardly knew and away from the kind and nurturing woman who was trying to help him. So it was understandable that Don Draper had reservations about attending an American Legion fundraiser where other veterans might be present, not just because of Don's sense of inadequacy in their presence, [8] but the infinitesimal risk that someone who knew his true identity may call him out. 

A small river of booze and war stories had to flow, including one shared by another veteran of it-was-him-or-me life and death struggle, before Don could get to the simple truth he had been hiding for so long. "I killed my CO." A simple declarative sentence that was as basic as it could be misleading. To a casual listener, it would suggest cold-blooded murder. That he had waited twenty years to unburden himself felt like both a great relief and an odd way to describe the circumstances that attended his departure from Korea. Even then, he omitted the fact that he stole his Lieutenant's identity, but the deed was nevertheless done. That the veterans shrugged it off with a "you did what you had to do to get home" indifference and a triumphant singing of "Over There" must have been as much a surprise to Don as being awoken hours later by the same crew accusing him of theft. 

Had Don been in New York instead of on a rich man's walkabout, he might have learned that his first wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Death has an odd way of providing an after-the-fact slant on a person's life. Were we to have known that Betty had only seven years to live when she met Henry [9] or delivered baby Gene, [10] the scope of her life would have looked much different. But Sally had it wrong about her mother (a constant theme between these two, who never seemed to accept or understand one another even though they shared a stubborn streak). Betty was not treating her death as a tragedy, but rather with nobility. Betty would not let Sally feel at sea as she did when her own mother passed away. Her detailed explanation of the "arrangements" she wanted were practical, while lacing her farewell letter to her daughter with a humanity Betty was not able to show very often.  

On the other hand, the burden placed on young Sally's shoulders could not be greater. The panoply of adult issues presented to her before she is even old enough to drive is truly alarming. While divorce may seem run-of-the-mill in today's day and age, Sally was exposed to it in another time when such action was far less common. Were that not enough, she saw her step-mother's mother fellating one of her father's co-workers, [11] walked in on her own father having sex with another woman, [12] and is now being handed the awful news of her mother's impending death. 

Betty's cancer diagnosis is another period at the ends of a sentence when it comes to the show itself. As destinies are revealed, all the other options start to fall away. Viewers who want the finality of knowing what happens to the characters they have so assiduously followed for so long are left to ponder how these fates square with their own preferred outcomes. That it is implied Betty's untimely demise may have been due to cigarette smoking is ironic considering the central place that activity has played since the show's inception, but the idea that a person would die from complications associated with that activity are not particularly revelatory to us in 2015. 

Pete seems to confirm that Joan has ridden off into whatever sunset awaits her and her ascot wearing suitor Richard as he prowls the halls of McCann attempting to fend off the professional advances of Duck Phillips. But the idea that this "sour little boy" [13] could somehow find a redemptive streak as a family man in Wichita, Kansas would come as a massive surprise to anyone who has followed the litany of bad behavior and petulance that has been Pete's calling card since the day we met him. [14] 

Of course, the advertising profession is built on spinning a story that pulls at heart strings, whether it is true love or nostalgia for one's past, so it is unsurprising that Pete wants to place rose-colored glasses on his life with Trudy while conveniently forgetting everything from the fact that he swapped a chip 'n' dip wedding present for a rifle, [15] told her father that he did not love the man's daughter, [16] and had a pied-à-terre cum shag pad in New York. These indiscretions, both great and small, are easy to forget when you are approaching middle age and uncertain of your future, but it is particularly curious to see a man who wanted to be in New York City if nuclear holocaust was upon us [17] willing to pull up roots for the middle-of-nowhere Kansas. It is left to Trudy to at first splash cold water on the idea of their reunion, after all, her memory is far longer and the failings in their marriage for more his responsibility than hers, but ultimately, she buys into his tale of a second chance, after all, they say second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience. 

And while the Campbells have been hinting at reconciliation and a second chance for some time now, the question that remains unanswered is what Don will do with his third act. Will Betty's cancer diagnosis lead him back to New York where he will take responsibility for the three children she is going to leave behind? Continue his hobo ways, a lone Sears shopping bag containing all his world possessions until he reaches Long Beach, kicking himself that he sold the Craftsman cottage Anna lived in when she passed away? [18] Perhaps there was a hint in Don's treatment of Andy, the grifter who tried to frame Don for the $500 theft. Instead of punching Andy out, Don admonishes the young man to get his life straight, to not have his first foot in the adult world a false one that he would forever be running from. Don likes collecting wayward souls and trying to direct them to a future that does not include the mistakes he has made, but he seems incapable of following his own advice. It will be fascinating to see what he does when confronted with the need to be a father to children he has disappointed over and over, to "do the work" as Freddy admonished him to do [19] or take the lure of a modern day riding of the rails to reinvent himself once again, and in yet another guise.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 



END NOTES

1. In Season 3, Don picks up a couple who claim to be eloping to Niagra Falls. It turns out they are grifters who drug and rob him. Seven Twenty-Three, Season 3, Episode 7. Don also gives money to Suzanne Farrell's brother, an epileptic, and agrees to not drop him off at the VA Hospital where Suzanne arranged for him to get a job. The Color Blue, Season 3, Episode 10. And let us not get into the backstory of Diana, the Sad Waitress. See generally, Severance, Season 7, Episode 8, New Business, Season 7, Episode 9. 
2. Betty's letter to Sally is dated October 3, 1970. Don's reference to fighting he saw around the Yalu River in Korea would peg his service as sometime during 1950. 
3. Apartment 5G, Season 1, Episode 5. 
4. The Wheel, Season 1, Episode 13. 
5. Hands and Knees, Season 4, Episode 10.
6. Don's characterization of his youth is found in My Old Kentucky Home, Season 3, Episode 3. Betty's divorce demand occurs in The Gypsy and the Hobo, Season 3, Episode 11. 
7.  See, fn. 5. 
8. In Maidenform, Don and Betty attend a country club event on the 4th of July where veterans are asked to stand and be applauded. Don is reluctant to do so and looks forlorn as young Sally claps furiously for him. Maidenform, Season 2, Episode 6. 
9. My Old Kentucky Home, supra. 
10. The Fog, Season 3, Episode 5. 
11. At The Codfish Ball, Season 5, Episode 7.
12. Favors, Season 6, Episode 11. 
13. Ibid
14. While Pete's transgressions could take up their own blog post, if not a small book, a few of his "greatest hits" suffice. He affirmatively told Don he wanted Don's job in the show's very first episode. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Season 1, Episode 1, he sexually assaulted his neighbor's au pair, Souvenir, Season 3, Episode 8, told his ex-wife that he saw her father in a whore house, For Immediate Release, Season 6, Episode 6, slept with one of the Cos Cob housewives, The Collaborators, Season 6, Episode 3, and floated the idea of having Joan sleep with Herb Rennet to secure Jaguar, The Other Woman, Season 5, Episode 11. He also found a way to make becoming a millionaire sound like a struggle. Severance, supra. 
15. Red In The Face, Season 1, Episode 7. 
16. The Mountain King, Season 2, Episode 12. 
17. Meditations In An Emergency, Season 2, Episode 13. 
18. Tomorrowland, Season 4, Episode 13. 

19. The Monolith, Season 7, Episode 4. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Gotcha

“Welcome to the NFL.” – Mike Allen, Politico Playbook, May 6, 2015

Posted for this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is an article by This Town author Mark Leibovich criticizing politicians for tarring negative questions posed to them as “gotcha” pieces as a way to minimize their relevance. Leibovich cherry picks some examples to bolster his point –John McCain’s dismissive attitude toward the media after Sarah Palin could not identify any newspapers or magazines that informed her thinking, George W. Bush failing to identify several world leaders during the 2000 campaign, and Scott Walker being asked if he would attend a wedding of two gay people.

To this, Mike Allen, the daily chronicler of all things Washington through his “Teen Beat on the Potomac” reader Playbook huffed: “We feel the same way about whining about ‘process stories.’ Getting elected is a process. Governing is a process. Welcome to the NFL.” In other words, put your big boy (and girl) pants on and quit complaining because we in the media can/will ask whatever we want, no matter how insipid or trivial, ignore stories we do not think relevant, highlight stories we think are important (even if the American people do not care about them) because we are infallible and cannot be questioned.

The Bush example is particularly instructive. It is widely agreed that the press took it easy on Bush in 2000 while picking apart Al Gore on everything from his taste in clothing to his non-verbal gestures (sighing/shaking his head) during the two candidates’ debates. Meanwhile, Bush largely got a pass on questions about his tax cut plan (which Gore accurately predicted would liquidate the budget surplus he and President Clinton had created), his so-called “compassionate conservatism” and his lack of any foreign policy experience (you know, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney were going to babysit him – adults were in charge, no worries, people!) because he seemed like a regular guy you could have a beer with. Gore, laden with policy proposals and a less than charismatic style, was portrayed as a classic goodie two-shoes, “stiff” and a “beta” male. Whose fault was that?  

On the other hand, Leibovich doth protest too much about a candidate’s ability to talk past the media in today’s social media environment. While Mitt Romney was one of the most inaccessible Presidential candidates in recent memory, no amount of YouTube channels or tweets (which were allegedly vetted by more than 20 people) could save him when the dreaded “47 percent” video was released. Similarly, the New York Times has driven weeks of coverage of the Clinton Foundation by giving a partisan author the paper’s imprimatur even though the book’s claims have been widely debunked.

The rise of candidate fact checkers can just as easily be seen as a response to the media’s abdication of its role as neutral arbiter. Too much of what passes for journalism these days is simply allowing both sides to present their arguments without refereeing what is true or false. If you do not believe me, just ask John Kerry how many reporters came to his defense when he was “swift boated” during the 2004 Presidential election. Not only was the media more than willing to repeat bogus claims against Kerry, he was criticized for (wait for it), not pushing back harder against those falsehoods.

This is not to say that questions about charitable donations or a candidate’s position on same-sex marriage are not relevant, it is that they should be reported in context. Not every mole hill is a mountain and using up media oxygen on whether Hillary tipped at Chipotle or Rand Paul got Ray-Ban’s permission to sell their sunglasses on his campaign website are just the type of ephemera that make people roll their eyes at journalists. Whether Scott Walker would attend the marriage of two homosexuals matters far less than whether he thinks civil rights protections should be extended to the LGBTQ community or how his actions against unions in Wisconsin would impact labor rights were he elected President. I am far more interested in knowing what Hillary Clinton will do to improve education and employment opportunities than if she threw her spare change into a tip jar.

So, if Mark Leibovich and Mike Allen want politicians to, for lack of a better term, grow a pair, perhaps they should too.


You can read Leibovich's article here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/10/magazine/crying-gotcha.html?_r=1

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Monday, May 4, 2015

Mad Men S7E12 - Lost Horizon

Mergers and acquisitions can be tricky. On the one hand there are the perks, the executive dining room, sophisticated market research, and enough resources that smaller competitors can be bought simply for the business they will bring in. On the other hand, the tradeoffs are enormous. Account management suddenly has additional layers of oversight, the singular genius that once made you unique is now just one in a room full of other talented people, and if you are not important enough in the new hierarchy, it is entirely possible you may not even have an office. Assuming your position is not eliminated due to redundancy, the worst case scenario is that you are the victim of the dreaded "bad fit," with no allies to speak on your behalf or protect you from the predations of your new corporate masters. 

And so, as a snapshot of the messy ramifications of early 1970s M&A, the third-to-last Mad Men episode Lost Horizon accomplished its mission but will inevitably be questioned for how the show's endgame appears to be unfolding. For the most part, last night's show focused on the lecherous behavior of McCann executives toward Joan Holloway and her swift downfall when she attempted to address the problem. It was a particularly sad denouement for Joan. Having reimagined herself from office manager to account executive, the big boys at McCann could not give a whit about the effort she had put forth with long held SC&P accounts like Butler Shoes, Topaz Pantyhose, and Avon if those accounts did not come with deference to their authority or her willingness to sleep with them. 

In fact, Joan's removal was largely bloodless. Sure, her new man bucked her up with a pep talk informed by his background in business, and she did not shrink at Jim Hobart's threats of litigation, but in the end, all the name dropping - the ACLU, Betty Friedan, the EEOC and exposés of working conditions at other companies - got her 50 cents on the dollar for her remaining equity stake and, to add insult to injury, her own son's father convincing her to take the deal. In the big scheme of McCann's finances, a $250,000 payoff will not be missed and the speed with which they snuffed out her years of hard work and effort were truly depressing. 

Life did not appear to be much better for Peggy Olson. A woman who Ted Chaough once reminded was not even 30 years old and was the copy chief at one of the 25 largest ad agencies in the world [1] now does not even rate high enough on the org chart to be provided an office when McCann's acquisition of SC&P is completed. But perhaps owing to her Norwegian heritage [2], she stubbornly refuses to work out of the steno pool while her office is readied, instead, lingering in the old SC&P offices with one of the copywriters who was let go in the acquisition. 

It is left to Roger, himself dodging the inevitable transition, to give her the confidence to make the leap over to her new job, but not before Peggy rightly calls Roger out for his failings as a leader. Roger tends to lean on self-pity as a defense mechanism, but what he perceived as his effort to keep the agency together, Peggy saw as a crass sell-out. While he bemoans the floor he will be working on as a senior citizen's home, he, like Don and Joan, have a tin ear to how his "first world problems" sound to someone who has not accumulated his level of wealth.

Roger spent a lot of time this episode cleaning up messes and the funereal riffs he was playing on the organ we never knew existed in the SC&P offices suggested his own trip to "you know where" [3] was close at hand. But the scenes between Roger and Peggy acted as a numbing agent for both (booze tends to have that effect) - for her to swagger into McCann in dark shades, Cooper's weird octopus ravaging woman painting under her arm and for Roger to act as Jim Hobart's hatchet man, dispensing with Joan in the time it took to smoke a cigarette.

Meanwhile, Don played the role of a bird who will not be caged. Jim Hobart is happy to require Don to undergo the petty indignity of saying he is "Don Draper, creative director, McCann Erickson," but Jim should have learned through his decade-long hunt for Don's talent that Don is not one to "bend the knee" (to borrow from another show many obsess over), regardless of how jewel encrusted the door knobs are or how easily he can make problems disappear with money. 

Don assesses situations quickly and is not afraid to simply walk away when they do not suit him [4]. In the McCann executive dining room, he is simply one of a group of creative directors, all of whom likely carry the same ego and sense of self and, as he discovers, probably heard the same line about their role at the agency as elevating its quality. While Ted is feeling groovy with his quality boxed lunch and pays rapt attention to the demographics of a midwestern male beer drinker who McCann will try to sell on drinking what we now know as "LITE" beer, Don's wanderlust kicks in. Next thing you know, he is hallucinating Bert Cooper riding shotgun in his Cadillac and halfway to Racine, Wisconsin in a disturbing attempt to track down Diana the Sad Waitress.

That Don would be halfway between New York and California by the episode's end is unsurprising. A man whose adult life has been defined by reinvention and several aborted attempts at a third act is unswayed by the typical levers of pressure that society places on people who have achieved a certain station in life. Don grew up dirt poor and has made a habit of giving away his wealth, whether in small increments [5] or enormous chunks [6]. His bond to his children is tenuous at best and without a house to call a home or an agency that requires his singular talent, there is nothing stopping Don from tossing it all aside and starting anew. 

But as Don's possible ride off into the sunset, sunglasses hugging his handsome mug, cigarette in hand, a warming wind blowing through the window of his Cadillac, I would expect most of the ink for Lost Horizon will be spilled by other recappers about the larger issues at play in Joan's dismissal from McCann and the complicated issues of sexual harassment through the lens of the show and a time that seems both antiquated and revolting. Joan has had to endure offensive behavior that was sophomoric and ham-handed [7] and explicitly exchanged sexual favors for what she thought was financial security. [8] But when Joan made the pivot from office manager to junior partner and account executive, she probably held out hope that the days of having to put up with this type of behavior were over. Her unceremonious departure would indicate she was sorely mistaken. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy


END NOTES

1. For Immediate Release, Season 6, Episode 6.
2. The Arrangements, Season 3, Episode 4. 
3. The Doorway Part I, Season 6, Episode 1. 
4. Christmas Comes But Once A Year, Season 4, Episode 2. Don walks out of a survey being given by Dr. Faye Miller. Back in Season 2, having blown up his marriage, Don is ready to leave everything behind during a trip to California. The Jet Set/The Mountain King, Season 2, Episodes 11 and 12. 
5. Don gives Midge a $2,500 bonus he receives during Season 1. The Hobo Code, Season 1, Episode 8. 
6. Megan receives a $1 million divorce settlement. New Business, Season 7, Episode 9. 
7. Joey, a part-time copywriter in Season 4, ends up getting fired after drawing a pornographic image of Joan and Lane. The Summer Man, Season 4, Episode 8.  

8. The Other Woman, Season 5, Episode 11. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Mad Men S7E11 - Time And Life

It has been said that you can never be too rich or too thin and that those who would tell you otherwise have never been poor or fat. Money can solve many problems, but as what appear to be charter members of the "most unhappy millionaires club," Roger, Don, Joan, Pete, and Ted discover that money does not hold all the answers either. 

After beginning the show's final "half" season mining the seemingly bottomless pit of Don's despair, of closing the loop on the (second) Draper marriage, Glen Bishop's whereabouts, and the demise of Rachel Menken, Time & Life was an episode about a story now thrice told. The set-up was familiar to any long-time viewer of the show. Just as SC&P was about to be absorbed into McCann (so much for independent subsidiaries), our intrepid group (which now includes Ted, but not Jim Cutler, who, Roger confirms, took the money and ran) tried to pull another stunt where they snatch their freedom away from the impending "tragedy" of working in a corporate monolith with such blue clip clients as Buick, Nabisco, and Coca-Cola

If this all seems like so much deja vu it is not. The same Scooby squad that alit from Sterling Cooper in 1963 to avoid McCann's clutches [1] ran into their arms six years later to avoid having the firm broken apart [2]. In the balance, a merger between SCDP and CGC occurred to secure Chevrolet. [3] The only difference is that the shotgun marriage Roger brokered in 1969 left the team with millions in profit, but with the misguided belief that they would be left to do their work, shielded by the conflicts that would have McCann giving up millions if they ever folded SC&P under the corporate banner. 

But as they say, history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. While SCDP successfully launched, the merger it swung to land a major car account ended with two partners deceased and the firm itself torn apart by its partners. This caper falls flat, not just because the newly ensconced head of advertising (some guy named Ken Cosgrove) at Dow Chemical tells Roger and Pete to fuck off, or that Pete thinks he's saved the day by securing trusty old Seacor Laxatives, but because McCann bigwig Jim Hobart tells the group the their attempt to cherry pick conflicted clients to maintain a small outpost in California was a waste of time. It turns out the initial post-acquisition freedom he offered them was simply a tryout to make sure he was getting what he paid for. Once done, the SC&P team would be brought in house and offered the largest accounts in the world - acknowledgement of the group's excellence and skill.  

But even as their professional walls are crumbling, Roger, Joan, and Ted are all able to find succor in the arms of loved ones. Ted, decades before Facebook exists, manages to reconnect with an old flame after his own marriage dissolved in the California heat (another plot line closed). Joan has the gallant Richard swooping in on the red eye from California to comfort her. Roger has Marie Calvet, recently separated from her Canadian husband. Indeed, the writers offered a subtle wink to long-time viewers. As the wake for SC&P broke up, it was left to Roger and Don to close down the bar. Here, as they did years ago after bidding Freddy Rumsen "fare thee well" [4] there is much discussion about love and loss, but instead of Don telling Roger about moving forward in life, Roger needs no lesson. He has (for now) found happiness, leaving Don scrambling back to the dumpy apartment building where he left Diana, only to find she has disappeared without a trace. 

Even Pete has the opportunity for a small grace note. When he and Trudy's daughter Tammy is denied entry into an elite school, he pops the schoolmaster in the mouth after the man speaks ill of the Campbell family name. Later, at their former marital home in Cos Cob, he tries to lift Trudy's spirits about her own plight, which, for now, has to do with fending off married men in the suburbs but later, she fears, will involve being alone and unappealing. While it is hard to believe these are the seeds for marital reconciliation, at least Pete was able to feel like he had a connection with someone and for a reason he thought important. Not so for Don. His after hours messaging service may still offer temporary comfort, he is a man without a home and no long-term plan. 

Meanwhile, a click below on the corporate food chain, Peggy and Stan struggle to cast a child to act in one of their advertisements. Here, we see a continuation of a conversation these two "work spouses" have been having for some time now - about the workplace and a woman's role in it and careers and love and all of the things that we fill the intimate space in our lives with those we care about and cherish. Once upon a time, as Peggy made her way at CGC, she and Stan would talk late at night as each toiled in their respective offices, [5] but now, their conversations are more pointed and direct. Stan's observation that Peggy does not like kids hits a little too close to home and in the middle of an extended back and forth about what sacrifices a woman needs to make in the workplace of the 1960s/70s, that having children would have precluded Peggy from attaining the position she has secured, she reveals to Stan the fact that she gave away a child, but even in that confidence, she slightly pulls her punch - not revealing that Pete is the father [6]. 

Every point Peggy made hit home and in that scene, you felt the weight of her choices, of the frustrations she inevitably feels that sometimes leave her crumpled on the floor in tears [7] and at other times, lashing out at underlings [8]. That Peggy Olson has succeeded without an Ivy League degree is acknowledged by the headhunter she hires to help her find other jobs as the reality of the pending McCann move sinks in, but that does not give her a free pass to pay her corporate dues, as he counsels her to suck it up for a few years at McCann before moving on to other opportunities lest she take a less prominent position for less pay elsewhere. 

But Peggy has long been on the outside looking in at what others have. Whether it was observing long ago how much material wealth Don had accumulated [9] or spitting venom at Ted about the luxury he had of making choices [10] when he broke off their affair (and broke her heart), Peggy is constantly chasing both career and personal happiness but rarely finding either one. Working with children simply underscores the weight of the decision she made to give up her child long ago and dismissing Joan's complaints about the workplace is just a reminder that for all of Peggy's talent, she is still just an employee without the "fuck you" money that would allow her to tell off people who bother her. 

In the end, her kindred spirit is that enigmatic man in the corner office. While Roger, Joan, Ted, and possibly Pete are at least able to have some happiness in their personal lives, neither Peggy or Don seem to have such luck. If the show's climatic ending was teed up by last night's episode - that the clock is ticking on Don in two ways - with SC&P's pending absorption into McCann and his need to move out of the Park Avenue penthouse he has called home, both things conveniently occurring at the "end of the month" (based on Don's tan suit, one can assume it is a summer month) the references to California were perhaps not coincidental. Ted is right, Don has always had a special fondness for California. Whether it is because he associates it with his life after the war, when he was making due selling used cars and the foundation of his relationship with Anna Draper was built [11], or the visits he made to escape the mess he inevitably left behind in New York [12], and the beginning of his relationship with Megan, [13] the idealized version of California holds great appeal to Don; however, the reality of it was polluted by his failed attempt at a bicoastal marriage to Megan, who walked off with one million of his dollars. 

Of course, this is of a piece with the rest of Don's life. He likes "the beginnings of things" [14] but rarely has the patience (or interest) in sticking around to see things to the end. For a man who has made a lifetime out of reinvention, Don's final Houdini act should be interesting.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy  


END NOTES

1. Shut The Door, Have A Seat, Season 3, Episode 13. 
2. Waterloo, Season 7, Episode 7.
3. For Immediate Release, Season 6, Episode 6. 
4. Six Month Leave, Season 2, Episode 9. 
5. The Collaborators, Season 6, Episode 3. 
6. Meditations In An Emergency, Season 2, Episode 13. It is also worth noting that Peggy infers she gave her son up for adoption; however, the last we heard or saw of him, he was being raised by Peggy's sister. Three Sundays, Season 2, Episode 4. 
7. Time Zones, Season 7, Episode 1. 
8. A Day's Work, Season 7, Episode 2. 
9. The Fog, Season 3, Episode 5. 
10. In Care Of, Season 6, Episode 13. 
11. The Gold Violin, Season 2, Episode 7.
12. The Mountain King, Season 2, Episode 12, The Good News, Season 4, Episode 3. 
13. Tomorrowland, Season 4, Episode 13. 

14. ibid.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Book Review - America's Bitter Pill

More than three hundred pages into Steven Brill's deeply sourced and wonderfully written book America's Bitter Pill, about the passage and implementation of the Affordable Care Act, he elliptically touches on the central frustration many of us who believe in universal health care as a right and not a privilege had about the ACA. As the countdown to the launch of healthcare.gov draws near, the bureaucrats and government officials note the irony of the avalanche of criticism and scare tactics utilized by Republicans against a law that was based on an idea hatched at the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation and implemented in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney. After all, the simpler fix, converting our entire health care system into a single payer model instead of maintaining the bifurcated system where some people receive "government health care" (the elderly, disabled, poor, and military/veterans) while the rest of us are left to the predations of the private market, was never more than a pipe dream. Instead, a Democratic President and Democratic Congress passed a Republican health care proposal and then got the shit kicked out of them by those same Republicans for doing it. 

Brill manages to balance the tick-tock of how the ACA was passed into law with the real world consequences of the inequities of our health care system. The book is itself a longer form meditation on a piece Brill did for TIME that focused on the vagaries of cost in our system - that obscure hospital administrators called "charge masters" can bill one amount for say, a CT scan if you are insured by Medicare, but an entirely different amount if you have private insurance or none at all. Other, even less savory elements of the pre-ACA world, of debt collectors who harass people after costly treatment is rendered but goes unpaid and consultants who literally require a credit card payment before you are treated in an emergency room, reinforced the predatory conduct against people at their most vulnerable. 

Brill's story introduces us to some unsung heroes, people like Liz Fowler, a senior staffer for Senator Max Baucus, who works tirelessly to get the ACA passed only to see her name dragged through the mud when she eventually leaves government to take a lucrative job at Johnson and Johnson; and other, less heroic profiles of people like Jeanne Lambrew and Nancy-Ann DeParle, senior staffers at HHS and the White House who seem more interested in winning bureaucratic turf fights than focusing on the nitty gritty of implementing the myriad regulations, rules, and yes, the website, that would form the backbone of the ACA. 

Along the way, Brill debunks a few Republican (and media) talking points - to wit, he reports that President Obama had eight one-on-one meetings with Senator Olympia Snowe in the lead-up to Senate votes on the ACA (media myth - Obama needs to reach out to Republicans more) and that more than 140 Republican amendments were ultimately included in the final bill (GOP talking point - the ACA was negotiated in private and "rammed through" Congress). He also levels fair criticism at the Obama team for its sometimes tin ear to the politics of the ACA  - not emphasizing the low cost of many plans after subsidies were included - and the poor management of the healthcare.gov website. On the other hand, Brill highlights the largely below-the-radar screen effort in blood red Kentucky to launch kynect, the state-run health care exchange and to gladly accept the Medicaid expansion offered under the ACA that, combined, allowed the state to significantly reduce the number of its uninsured and save the state hundreds of millions of dollars in the long run. 

Indeed, it is one of the central paradoxes of not just Brill's book, but the overall Republican reaction to the ACA, as to why an initiative that largely relied on the private sector for its success and would save states billions in health care costs was so widely reviled. Then-Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota issued an executive order prohibiting any state agency from working with the federal government on the ACA and when Brill called one of Senator Ted Cruz's offices in Texas asking for information about the ACA, the staffer who took his call bluntly told Brill no assistance was forthcoming and he should contact HHS directly. These are just the one-off examples. The years-long litigation that resulted in the Supreme Court's ruling that upheld the ACA and follow-along lawsuits about contraception coverage and whether subsidies are available to those who got their coverage via the federal exchange instead of a state-run exchange are just so much clogging of the system and draining of resources that would have otherwise been dedicated to implementation of the law. The question of why so many were so opposed to people having access to health coverage is left largely unanswered. 

Brill also points out that the health care industry, in the main, has significantly profited from the Affordable Care Act. Health stocks have gone through the roof since the ACA was enacted and because lobbyists aggressively fought for tweaks in the law and the subsequent HHS regulations, their bottom lines have been largely protected with the added benefit of having millions of new customers who must now purchase insurance or face a tax penalty. Indeed, the sacrifice of cost controls at the altar of expanding coverage is the most significant flaw Brill identifies in the ACA. 

That costs, and estimates of future costs, have gone down more than the initial CBO estimate is simply a happy coincidence. On the other hand, he points to the hue and cry over a small tax on medical device makers as one of the great inequities of the ACA debate. That industry's profit margins are particularly high, yet the modest tax levied on those devices is inevitably raised as a target for repeal. The pharmaceutical industry, which already received protection from cost controls when Medicare Part D was passed, successfully protected its members (and their profits) by agreeing to offset some costs under the ACA while receiving gifts like extended patent protection for biologic products. 

It is these back room deal and lobbying efforts that Brill points to as eroding the value of the ACA. Another example is the so-called Medicare "doc fix," which was kept out of the ACA for fear it would negatively impact the law's overall impact on the budget (Democrats were fixated on getting the CBO to "score" the ACA as saving the government money at best or revenue neutral at worst) but passed without much fanfare just a few weeks ago while adding at least $141 billion to the long-term deficit. Was this idea horrible five years ago and suddenly great in 2015? Of course not. The only difference was in which party controlled Congress. Rest assured that had Democrats attempted to slip the "doc fix" into the ACA, Republicans would have howled in anger. Now that they are in control, Republicans can blithely add this bill to the government's credit card and not fear any political reprisal. 

Of course, the dirty little secret of the Affordable Care Act is that with all its complexity, the lockstep Republican opposition, and some of its stumbles, the law has been an enormous success, you just would never know it because the media only took the time to report on its missteps, not its triumphs. Perhaps no clearer example of this is the healthcare.gov website. While there is no question the development and roll-out were done poorly, the problems were entirely resolved within a few weeks. Indeed, the heroic work of a team of coders Brill discusses would be worthy of its own book. The only difference is that while the media provided wall-to-wall coverage of the failings, they largely shrugged their shoulders once the problem was fixed and millions of people successfully accessed the site to get covered. 

And that is truly too bad, because the story of the ACA's success deserves to be told. To Brill's credit, he does attempt to highlight some of the real world consequences for people like Tommy and Viola Brown, a Kentucky couple in their early 60s who live in a county that went for Romney over Obama 2:1 and who had a litany of illnesses (she is a diabetic, he had an untreated broken neck and 2 bouts with cancer!) and could not afford health insurance before the ACA, get it under the Medicaid expansion - a literal life saver. On the other end of the spectrum, Brill mentions Sean and Stephanie Recchi, small business owners who are struggling because of the cost of treating Sean's cancer, but skeptical that Obamacare can help them (spoiler alert - it does) because of all the negative things they heard about the law on TV.

Where Brill falls short is in the final section of the book, where he proposes to turn over the entire health care industry to oligopolies of hospitals cum insurance companies. The idea would make health care single payer to a large degree, except the payee would be a government approved oligopoly restrained (to some degree) by regulations like profit margin (limited to 8% annually) and strict billing oversight. Brill points to places like New York and Pittsburgh as cities where what he proposes is, to a certain degree, already happening, but it is unclear if his model would play as well in Peoria or other, more rural parts of the country that do not have ready access to world-leading medical care facilities. Why not just go single payer? Medicare is a low-overhead (3%, as compared to 25-30% in the private sector) insurance product that is able to significantly bargain down the exorbitant prices charged in the health care system and is incredibly popular. Plus, we already pay into it through our paychecks and would streamline what is a too complicated system. 

It is not surprising that the advocates of the law had difficulty "selling" it to the public - the primary beneficiaries of the ACA, those around the poverty line, and the random assortment of part-time workers, employees at companies where health care was not offered, and those denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions, are not a vocal or powerful voting bloc. They have no lobbyists trolling the halls of Congress to insert language into legislation that will save them millions in taxes or secure their financial bottom lines, but they are our fellow Americans and did not deserve to experience financial ruin or a preventable death because our health care system is ridiculous. 


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Monday, April 20, 2015

Mad Men S7E10 - The Forecast

"It can be greeted with terror or joy, a tantrum that says 'I want it the way it was,' or a dance that says, 'Look, something new!'" - Don Draper, on "the future." Love Among The Ruins (S3E2)  

For someone who has become a millionaire several times over by selling aspiration to the masses, when Don Draper is handed what you would think is a paint-by-numbers assignment by Roger Sterling to write a speech articulating his view for the future of the company, Don hits a dry well. Ted's big hope is to land a pharmaceutical account and Peggy aspires to Don's seat as Creative Director (a point that has him sit up a little higher in his chair with pride), but when he glibly dismisses Peggy's desire to leave behind something of value, she writes the entire conversation off as one of his sour moods, a bait and switch where she exposes herself and he pockets that information without reciprocating.

The Forecast, the tenth episode of Mad Men's seventh season, differs from the prior two episodes, which had an ethereal, almost dream-like aspect to them. Don's fast, but odd "relationship" with Diana (the Sad Waitress) could have easily led to Internet speculation that this whole half-season occurred as a hallucination, or a vision Don has just as he is about to leave this Earth. But in The Forecast Don's feet are more firmly placed on the ground if his heart and soul are not entirely there. 

In keeping with his theme of reinvention, a million dollar check will not suffice to reboot Don Draper 3.0 (or is it 4.0? At this point, most of us have lost count), he must also unload the penthouse apartment he and Megan moved into when they married. Of course, he can't be bothered with details like having the carpets cleaned or staging the massive family room with anything but the deck furniture. For someone in advertising, he is more than happy to critique the poor sales job of his real estate agent, but his half-assed effort to sell his apartment is on par with the just-enough time he spent with his sons blending milkshakes, sticking around just long enough for other people to finish the job. 

When it comes to things Don does care about, he is a little more assertive. His attempt to mentor Mathis ends poorly, with the young man misreading the room both in apologizing for an outburst to a client and in confronting Don for the failure. On his way out the door after being fired, Mathis kicks Don in the shins, dismissing an old war story about Don resuscitating himself before Lucky Strike as nothing so much as revisionist history, his presence with the closeted executive Lee Garner a product of his looks, not his acumen. It is not surprising that Don is not well-suited to mentorship. Like a great athlete who is easily frustrated by coaching lesser talent, the fairy dust Don sprinkles on clients can only be appreciated by wunderkinds like Peggy, not run-of-the-mill types like Mathis.

That Mathis is even given any airtime is of a piece with the rest of the half-season's motif of providing what seems like a disproportionate amount of time to bit players and long ago characters. This week, Glen Bishop reappears to let pen-pal Sally know he's shipping off to Vietnam, but it is only when he returns to the Francis mansion once she's gone that he discloses to Betty that his enlistment is a way to cover up his flunking out from school and, in the balance, getting the respect of his step-father. It is a sad little storyline. When Glen notes that Betty looks the same, he accidentally stumbles on a larger truth. What he probably meant as an offhanded compliment is literally true. If you last saw Betty Draper in Ossining in 1963 and then ran into her as Betty Francis in Rye in 1970, it would appear as if time stood still. Her future, which she pins on returning to school, may or may not occur, but an entire decade has passed her by. 

Meanwhile, Lou Avery is still around (who knew?) darkening the sunshine of SC&P's West Coast office while Joan meets a mystery man during a visit to the company's left coast outpost. Richard is a wealthy, older man with a recent divorce under his belt and his children have been raised and are on their own. Joan shades the truth during their brief tryst assuming she will never see him again, but when he pursues her to New York, she comes clean, which does not sit well with him (his wide lapels didn't sit well with me, but that's another story). Ultimately, Richard expresses interest in being in Joan's life, even with a child (and a live-in mother, not to mention a groovy babysitter) in tow. 

But like Diana, Richard's introduction is a bit of a head scratcher. I mean, if Joan wanted to shack up with a rich older man who was going to pay lip service to his willingness to be in a small child's life, the boy's actual father is working down the hall from her. And as viewers, what are we to make of the steady stream of new plot lines even as the sands in the show's hourglass continue to dwindle? If this entire half-season is a sort of coda for the show, with Waterloo its actual ending - of the partners getting filthy rich and the entire crew falling under the McCann banner - that is fine so far as it goes, but I would have hoped for either a more concentrated story line (Pete has barely been present this season even though he is one of the "core four" from the firm) or something completely out of the box, like an entire half-season of flash forwards to random years that closed each character's loop. 

Ultimately, for a guy who, when we met him, told Rachel Menken that love was something created by guys like him to sell nylons, as Don has aged, the future does not look like something to be greeted with hope and excitement. While Don is temporarily uplifted by Sally's friends, who have a powwow over Chinese food about their hopes and dreams, she has one "fast" friend, who clumsily flirts with Don and embarrasses Sally. Sally lashes out at Don as she boards a Greyhound bus, thinking he was tempted by her seventeen-year old friend, but she misread the situation. It is no matter, it is understandable that Sally wants to get as far away from her parents as possible. She has seen and heard them do awful things and has not received what anyone would consider strong parenting. If she had any doubt, Don's tepid wave as she boards the bus and the fact he does not even stick around to watch it pull out of the terminal pretty much confirms her entire critique. 

Meanwhile, the episode ends on another forlorn image of Don. The penthouse apartment he was so eager to dump has been sold and he has thirty days to clear out and figure our what his future holds. Given that time and the place he is in his life, is not a comforting thought.


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