Monday, April 14, 2014

Mad Men S7E1 - Time Zones


Before Mad Men became MAD MEN and premieres stretched over two hours, Matt Weiner used a season's first episode to answer a few questions, tee up the season, and set the table for what's to come. 

Having moved the calendar ahead a mere six weeks (if you're scoring at home, we pick up the story in January 1969), we learn that Peggy's run as Acting Creative Director was woefully short-lived. Her new supervisor is the avuncular Lou Avery, a pleasant, keep-the-trains-running-on-time leader lacking either Don or Ted's creative vision. Roger's in some sort of cuddle puddle with a clutch of hippies, but still lacking any real connection to his daughter Margaret, whose attempts at détente are met with a shrug of the shoulders. In the office, Ken Cosgrove now sits atop the Accounts Department, though his stress level is stratospheric and eye patch omnipresent. He also has a new account man, or should I say, woman, Joan Harris, who (it appears) avoided getting kicked off the diving board on Avon and is now working on a second account, Butler Shoes

And what about Don? Oh him. Tall, dark, and handsome, but with some "issues." Right. He's ghost writing copy for Freddy Rumsen to keep his creative chops sharp and trying to manage a bi-coastal relationship with Megan, a micro-mini skirted vision who seems to embody California at the cusp of the 70s. Of course, it is telling that the one thing Don buys to make himself feel more at home on the West Coast is a television - an instrument of his work and his isolation. A baying coyote could not interrupt the mellow vibe - Pete Campbell, side burns creeping ever further down his face has quickly made peace with his new environs and the West Coast office of SC&P is airy and bright. 

If anything stood out about "Time Zones," it was the juxtaposition of California and New York, a theme that has played out at various times [1] but with the former always being presented as sunny and forward looking and the latter gloomy and somewhat ominous. So while Don and Megan cruise around in a convertible, Joan is hustling to save an account while slipping on ice and snow, and Peggy is navigating the world of life after Ted (an awkward early morning run-in at the office does not help), without Don (recognizing the quality of his work, even if she does not know it is his) and the responsibilities of being a landlord (I guess brownstones in the UWS 80s are not as easy to sell in 1969 as they would in 2014). 

As for Don, he is in flux - neither here nor there. Six weeks since being unceremoniously dumped from SC&P, we don't see him with a drink [2], but having turned down someone who is catnip for him (a flawed brunette he meets on the red eye back to New York) and learning of his behind-the-scenes work on Accu-Tron, perhaps it is best to say he's a work in progress - honest enough with a stranger to tell her his wife knows he's a "terrible husband" but absorbing her story of her husband's death from "thirst" as a cautionary tale of his own battle with the bottle. His Park Avenue apartment is going to seed, the sliding glass doors malfunctioning and the decor more like his single man pad on 6th and Waverly [3] than the vibrant home where dozens celebrated his 40th birthday [4]. 

Meanwhile, the show's two other main protagonists, Peggy and Roger, are experiencing a similar anomie. While Roger just wants to sleep, staring blankly at the ceiling while two people young enough to be Margaret's siblings are curled up beside him, Peggy yearns for some company so deeply that she tries to get her brother-in-law to stay the night in her home instead of turning around and going to Brooklyn before returning to fix a repair the next morning. When he demurs and leaves, she falls in a heap, the weight of her dislocation overcoming her. 

And so it goes - for all its obsessive attention to detail, of getting the look and feel of the era right, Mad Men has always been about those quiet moments we all experience, the times when no one is looking or around, when we acutely feel the loneliness and doubt that can make the human condition so rife with anxiety and fear. That the point is driven home as the dark cloud of Nixon's presidency dawns is apt, but its message is universal and timeless. 

END NOTES

1. See, e.g., The Jet Set, (Season 2 Episode 11), The Mountain King (Season 2, Episode 12), The Good News, (Season 4, Episode 3), Tomorrowland (Season 4, Episode 13), A Tale of Two Cities, (Season 6, Episode 10). 

2. Freddy Rumsen's indirect reference to his own sabbatical (Six Month Leave, Season 3, Episode 8) suggests that Don might be leaning on his old copywriter for guidance and help. 

3. A dark and gloomy apartment where Don spends Season 4. 

4. A Little Kiss, Part II, Season 5, Episode 2. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Triumph of Kathleen Sebelius


Kathleen Sebelius resigned as Secretary of Health and Human Services last week. No sooner had this story been leaked than the Inside-the-Beltway pile-on commenced. "Sebelius Resigns After Troubles Over Health Site" blared the front page of The New York Times. "Sebelius Resigns After Flawed Roll-Out Of Health-Care Site" read The Washington Post, which accompanied this lede with a file photo of a grim looking Ms. Sebelius at one of the many Congressional hearings she testified at. Over at NPR, her tenure was described as having been marred by the "calamitous" roll-out of healthcare.gov. And these were the alleged bastions of "liberal" media. I won't even get into the characterizations or claims made by the myriad forms of conservative media that have done everything in their power to demonize and destroy the nation's effort at making health care available to more Americans. 

Of course, the Affordable Care Act was always about far more than a website; it was about, among other things, expanding access to Medicaid and CHIP, closing the so-called "donut hole" in Medicare D (something created back in 2005 when Republicans rammed through that massive piece of legislation), barring insurance companies from rejecting people with pre-existing conditions, allowing young adults to stay on their parents' health plans until the age of 26, offering free preventative care, providing greater oversight of billing and treatment of patients to encourage better, not more expensive, practices, and on and on. And this was done while Republicans in Congress, the conservative megaphone that is talk radio, and the seamier parts of the right wing blogosphere were doing everything in their power to convince people "Obamacare" was the second coming of the anti-Christ. In addition to the millions of Americans who now have access to coverage, the ACA has begun to slow the growth of health care spending, something that will accrue to the government's bottom line in the future (and something Republicans and the media claim to care about - their jihad against budget deficits only arises when a Democrat is in the White House). 

But even if one were to fixate on the roll-out of healthcare.gov, the hyperbolic headlines in the papers and the derision heaped on Ms. Sebelius on cable TV was well out of balance with the underlying story. While no one doubts the missteps in launching the website six months ago, the problem was fixed quickly. Indeed, in the past few months, the only stories one finds about the website had to do with how well it was working and how many people were accessing it to enroll in the individual market. Ultimately, the number of people who enrolled surpassed the estimates provided by the CBO before the flawed website launch last fall. 

Few in the media have experience implementing policy, much less the most complicated public policy in the last 50 years, so it is unsurprising that they reflexively reached for the "bungled website" trope to frame Ms. Sebelius's resignation; but when they lament cynicism in government and why young people may not think public service is a noble pursuit, they should look to the shabby treatment they accorded Ms. Sebelius for an answer. In the meantime, Kathleen Sebelius should leave Washington, D.C. with her head held high. She oversaw the implementation of a law that is already benefiting millions of people and will help millions more in the future - an accomplishment those who mock her could only dream of ever achieving.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Spring in Trenton

Today was by far the nicest day we've had in 2014. Under a clear blue sky and 70 degree temperatures, I headed down to the state capital, Trenton, to take some photos of the brilliant scenery. Enjoy!


















Girls Season Three


The just-concluded third season of Girls left its characters right where you would expect people in their mid-twenties to be – dangling in a cloud of uncertainty. But in this extended state of arrested development, the show found an important truth that people of that age learn, often the hard way – that no matter how solid and permanent things feel, they rarely are.

Hannah is provided a moment’s happiness, but not much more. The show picks up not long after the conclusion of season two as she and Adam are warmly ensconced in the blush of their romance; he, tending to her as she recovers from her OCD-related meltdown, she, rediscovering her writer’s voice and receiving hosannas from David, the editor of her e-book. But as in life, things rarely stay simple (or happy) for long. Adam’s sister (an excellent Gaby Hoffman) moves in and leaves a wave of destruction before Hannah kicks her out, David dies suddenly, leaving Hannah’s e-book in permanent suspension as the rights are not released by the publisher, Adam finally bears down and lands a prestigious role in a Broadway play, and when offered the steady income (if soul-deadening experience) of working in corporate America, Hannah implodes, not just storming out of her advertorial job, but napalming the bridge behind her.

If there is one constant throughout the show’s three seasons, it has been to constantly remind viewers, as Hannah did to Marnie late in season one, that Hannah hates herself; but the longer the show goes on and the older Hannah gets, the harder we cringe at her watching-a-car-crash-in-slow-motion behavior. Whether it’s indelicately milking David’s widow at his funeral for names of other publishers or spoiling Adam’s opening night performance by mentioning to him right before he goes on stage that she has been accepted into a graduate program in Iowa, the level of self-absorption Hannah displays borders on the sociopathic. That she gravitates back toward Elijah after their epic blow out in season two is unsurprising, he is just the type of callow poseur that feeds into Hannah’s insecurities, whereas Ray and Adam challenge her in ways she does not like – they sniff out her bullshit and call her on it; Elijah indulges it.

Not that the situation is much better for Marnie, Jessa, or Shoshana. Marnie, smarting over the loss of Charlie, finds an apartment (the payment for which surely can’t come from her brief stint atGrumpy’s or the faux-ssistant job she lands with Soojin toward the end of the season) and drifts into Ray’s arms after he rightly identifies her as a shallow person who uses people (fathom that). When he dumps her, she is crestfallen, even as she tried to give off an air of indifference, and then quickly swoons over Desi, Adam’s co-star and just the type of bearded hipster whose creative skills are enough to get work, but will never make him rich (or famous). When flirtation becomes connection, Desi’s girlfriend cuts Marnie off at the pass, leaving her the cold comfort of observing the couple squabbling immediately thereafter.

Jessa should just become an adjective that describes someone who flits in and out of danger and dumb situations without consequence. She is bounced from rehab, gets a job at a designer children’s clothing store, relapses (while stealing money from her employer), gets clean (overnight!) and ends the season as archivist to a wheelchair-bound artist who connives to get Jessa to assist in her suicide. Shoshana, on the other hand, sows some oats but slacks off academically, resulting in her not graduating with the rest of her class and also realizing (too late, as it turns out) that she wants to be with Ray.

This is all to say that these characters spend a lot of time screwing up, making decisions they regret, and some they don’t, and learning life lessons one-at-a-time. That Hannah acts pissy and too good for her fellow scribes churning out “advertorial” content at GQ is something you expect from a person who still believes in the purity of her craft, but her fear of being second fiddle in an artists’ relationship reflects her insecurity. Her dogged determination to stay true to her dream of being a writer is admirable, but her passive aggressive behavior toward Adam as he focuses on preparing for his Broadway debut and dismissive attitude toward Marnie’s unrequired dream of pop stardom affirms her venality, not her humanity.

Much of the season’s theme revolves around the unmooring that occurs to people as their paths diverge the further they get from college and struggle with the messy complications of adulthood. And there, Dunham’s voice shines. In Hannah’s interactions with Adam you can feel the effort each puts into making things right, healthy and supportive, but at the same time, it is impossible to hide the petty jealousies and insecurities that those with fragile egos busy themselves with. Mortality is also something the characters face for the first time, and the deaths of Hannah’s grandmother and her editor are both used to good effect in highlighting how disorienting and dislocating it is for people to first contemplate that finality.

Ultimately though, the repercussions of bad decision-making appear to redound only against Hannah. Marnie has drifted aimlessly but to little adverse consequence for some time now and Jessa seems to have a cosmic “get out of jail free” card. Even the comeuppance Shoshana experiences is minor in the big scheme of things – a summer course will secure her degree and her longing for Ray will pass as she matures and finds herself in the world. And perhaps that is what makes the show so maddening but also so apt. When you are nuzzled in the cocoon of upper middle class-dom that Girlstraffics in, there is a safety net to cushion your fall. Rarely do the consequences of bad choices leave a permanent mark. Hannah can press pause on adulthood and go to graduate school in Iowa; Marnie has the succor of her indulgent mother. Which is all to say that privilege buys you a certain protection against the impact of stepping on land mines, but as the women of Girls will learn, the older you get, the thinner that buffer becomes.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Death of Don Draper


Had HBO’s True Detective premiered last year, the sixth season of Mad Men would have aptly proven Rust Cohle’s observation that “time is a flat circle.”[1] Beneath the longer hairdos and shorter hemlines, the clouds of marijuana smoke and the unremitting sound of police sirens, lies a story now twice-told – of a man tortured by his past, struggling with his present, and looking at an uncertain future. But if Don Draper once was, to paraphrase Austin Powers, someone “men wanted to be and women wanted to be with,” age has only served to coarsen him, to erode his humanity and expose an ugly core.

As the season begins, we catch up with Don on a “business trip” to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, leafing through Dante’s Inferno, musing on going astray and finding himself alone in a dark wood.[2] But the reference is too cute by half. Don has been alone in that dark wood his whole life and a theme that would be repeated during the season occurs at the end of the premiere – mirroring. In the show’s very first episode, we do not discover that Don is married to Betty and carrying on an affair with Midge until the end of the episode.[3] Now, the image is reversed – Don and Megan appear to be happily married – lazing on the beach, getting high and having sex, and enjoying a luau, but at the end of the episode we discover that Don is having an affair right under Megan’s nose with their neighbor, Sylvia Rosen.

And it is Don’s affair with Sylvia, its dissolution in an ugly role play of domination and control, and its brief resurrection and discovery by Sally that animates much of the season’s storytelling. Sylvia is another in a line of brunettes[4] that have cycled through Don’s life, but with each succeeding liaison, their proximity to his “normal” life drew closer. Midge and Bobbi were New Yorkers and at a safe distance from Don’s home life in Ossining. Suzanne, Sally’s school teacher, was in the same town, heightening the risk of being caught, but Sylvia is one floor down in Don’s Park Avenue building, making the discovery of their tryst almost inevitable.[5]

If the recklessness of cavorting with a neighbor was not strong enough indication of the death spiral Don is in, the pitch he makes to management of the Sheraton Royal Hawaiian, with its allusions to shedding of skin and disappearing into a watery ever after, immediately brings to their minds images of suicide. Don misses the reference entirely, but when he asks Stan if he sees it too, Stan enthusiastically says yes, noting that is what makes the ad so cool.[6] Later, during an ill-fated trip to California and in a hashish-induced hallucination, we see Don face down in a pool, the spectral image of Private Dinkins, a man Don met in Hawaii (and now dead), observing that “death doesn’t make you whole, you should see what you look like.”[7]

Mix in Don’s stratospheric consumption of alcohol, never-explained (but omnipresent during the back half of the season) cough (the early stages of emphysema or lung cancer?), and the unremitting shame he feels in the wake of Sally’s discovery of him in flagrante delicto result in a painful denouement – first, of a soul baring pitch to Hershey’s executives that starts as a classic Norman Rockwell-esque portrait of a simpler time when young Don is rewarded for mowing the lawn with a chocolate bar but devolves into a searing confessional of the candy being his reward for picking the pockets of johns being serviced by the women in Uncle Mac’s brothel; then, after that flame out, his involuntary separation from the firm and decision to take his children to his childhood home, now rundown and shabby.[8]

The subtle-as-a-sledgehammer crash Don experiences in 1968 is overlaid against more mirroring to prior seasons. Like season three, season six offers flashbacks to his childhood, except now, instead of examining Don’s relationship with his father Archie,[9] the story picks up after his death and Don’s time being raised by his step-mother Abigail and his Uncle Mac, the proprietor of a whore house in hardscrabble Pennsylvania.[10] And in case the root of Don’s awful adult relationships with women is not obvious from learning of his deflowering by a hooker[11] or his voyeuristic witnessing of Mac’s sexual liaison with his step-mother,[12] it is left to Betty to drive the point home as the two are engaging in some post-coital pillow talk.[13] There, Don luxuriates in their physical closeness (who knew he was a cuddler?) and emotional intimacy, while poo-pooing the nexus between sex and love. Betty demurs, noting that most people connect the two and that Megan’s biggest mistake was realizing the worst way to get to Don is by loving him.[14]

Ultimately, the mirroring of season six reinforces Don’s long ago observation that people don’t change.[15] Don is a drunk who neither values personal nor professional relationships and makes his decisions with little regard for others. Where he could once fly by the seat of his pants, or, as Pete put it, “swing from vine to vine,” narrowly escaping danger, whether it was a pitch to a client or the discovery of his checkered past, little by little, the façade has been exposed. Betty no longer lives in the dark about who Don is, Megan quickly susses out his boredom, Peggy stands up to him and calls him out for his awful behavior, and now, Sally has seen him at his lowest point. Where once he confidently sold “nostalgia” in the clothing of cherry picked images of his own life with Betty and the kids,[16] Don cannot pull off the lie of an idyllic childhood of freshly cut grass and a trip to the corner drug store. Rash business decisions years ago that torpedoed accounts or rebooted the firm always worked out, but having merged companies in order to land General Motors, Don created a level of chaos he was unprepared for and could not deal with.

That Don is slowly losing his grasp is of a larger piece to the story being told in season six. From the omnipresent police sirens to the seismic cultural shocks that reverberated in the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Don can’t go to the movie theater without seeing the allegory of mankind’s destruction[17] projected on a screen and his once hip Rat Pack era look seems dated and square when he and Roger alight to California as “conquistadors” (Roger’s word) but return deflated – shopworn remnants of a time and place that have come and gone.[18] So it is unsurprising that Don seeks order and control, but it manifests itself in disturbing ways, be it the emasculation of Ted Chaough[19] or the humiliation of Sylvia in their hotel room tryst.[20]

The “falling man” motif in the show’s opening credits has been interpreted by some to suggest suicide, but I always thought it meant that just as Don was about to splatter to the ground, instead of becoming an inkspot on the sidewalk, he emerged, perfectly coiffed, cigarette in hand and ready to start anew. And that has largely been true – Don has been brought low at various times only to rise again with a new lease on life; however, in an era of “difficult men,”[21] Don’s fall is consistent with the likes of Tony Soprano and Walter White, two other “anti-heroes” whose larger than life personas encouraged viewer loyalty and devotion before reminding us that these were not good people. Indeed, if Tony’s fate is either to live his life constantly looking over his shoulder or having met an untimely demise in Holsten’s diner, and Walter lost everything in pursuit of caring for his family, one can only expect that Don’s fate is similarly bleak. Actions in a moral universe must have consequences, and no matter his protestations, the blizzard of apologies he has uttered for his indiscretions great and small, or the seductive vulnerability he has wielded when it suited his needs, if you live your life like there is no tomorrow,[22] one day the bill comes due.


[1]  The Secret Fate of Life, True Detective, Season 1, Episode 5.
[2]  The Doorway Part I, Season 6, Episode 1.
[3]  Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Season 1, Episode 1.
[4]  Don’s paramours are all brunettes.
[5]  A lesson Pete Campbell learned when he bedded one of his Cos Cob neighbors. To Have and To Hold, Season 6, Episode 4.
[6]  The Doorway Part II, Season 6, Episode 2.
[7]  A Tale of Two Cities, Season 6, Episode 10.
[8]  In Care Of, Season 6, Episode 13.
[9]  See, e.g., Out of Town, Season 3, Episode 1, Seven Twenty-Three, Season 3, Episode 7, Shut The Door. Have A Seat. Season 3, Episode 13.
[10]  Don refers to having been raised in coal country, “Illinois, by way of Pennsylvania” to Conrad Hilton. My Old Kentucky Home, Season 3, Episode 3.
[11]  In Care Of, Season 6, Episode 13.
[12]  The Collaborators, Season 6, Episode 3.
[13]  The couple’s one-off liaison while visiting Bobby at sleep away camp offers one of the season’s few grace notes; but even then, it’s tinged with melancholy. The Better Half, Season 6, Episode 9.
[14]  Ibid.
[15]  The Mountain King, Season 2, Episode 12.
[16]  The Wheel, Season 1, Episode 13.
[17]  Bobby’s reaction to the ending of Planet of the Apes is one of the season’s great lines. The Flood, Season 6, Episode 5.
[18]  A Tale Of Two Cities, Season 6, Episode 10.
[19]  Man With A Plan, Season 6, Episode 7.
[20]  Ibid.
[21]  Difficult Men, Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, Brett Martin.
[22]  Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, supra.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

March 4 - Sunset

The weather is still brutal here in New Jersey, but I could not resist the temptation to get out at sunset tonight and take some photos.

I started about 30 minutes before sunset near my office, where the cloud cover was amazing and the sun was playing hide and seek. 






By the time I got close to home, the sun was dipping below the horizon, creating a beautiful canvas of colors: 








The only bad picture is the one you don't take. Although it was chilly, today's session was well worth the effort. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

March 1 - Sunset

Yesterday's sunset was outstanding. I hope you enjoy these photos that captured just a slice of nature's beauty.











Saturday, March 1, 2014

What Ray Said


THIS (as they say on Twitter) with the possible exception of substituting Fiona Apple for Roxy Music:


"I want a girlfriend, Marnie, like a legitimate girlfriend. I want to have a relationship that’s deep, and sincere, and challenging, and scary. I want it to be real. I want to meet a girl that I have a lot in common with, and ask her out, and learn about her family at a park bench, in the middle of the night. And if things go well, maybe invite her back to my place and put on some Roxy Music.” - Ray Ploshansky (Girls, Season 3, Episode 8 - "Incidentals")

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Ice Storm

New Jersey got hit with a double shot of bad weather this week - heavy wet snow on Monday and an ice storm early this morning. Here are some photos from the neighborhood: