Monday, April 28, 2014

Mad Men S7E3 - Field Trip

For all of the "B" stories and revolving characters, putting Elizabeth Moss on the cover of New York magazine and claiming Mad Men is actually all about her, turning Roger Sterling's apartment into a rich, white man's version of the original cover of Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, watching the awkward march of Pete's Campbell's hairline or Ken Cosgrove's eye patch, Don Draper was, is, and always will be the center of Matt Weiner's fictional universe. If you needed a reminder of this simple fact, the seventh season's third episode, "Field Trip" provided a very clear reminder.

In an hour that saw Don's marriage dissolve and his first steps back to professional acceptance, it was impossible not to feel an electric charge when the camera toggled between Don as you rarely see him - apprehensive and nervous - juxtaposed against his confident stride as he walked through the door of Sterling Cooper & Partners for the first time in months. But the fear that swagger masked quickly bubbled to the surface when Don realized that no one knew he was returning and treated him dismissively. He could bark out orders for coffee to Dawn or ask to be brought up to speed on accounts, but the whispers and awkward comments spoke for themselves. The partners were conflicted about what to do, Roger's passionate defense of Don notwithstanding. So they did what people in companies do - they split the difference. Firing Don would be financial (not to mention creative) suicide, but the partners thought they could pen in Don's loose cannon antics with a list of demands: to report to Lou (good luck with that), to abstain from drinking in most situations (ditto), to take Lane's office (creepy!), and to never be alone with clients (as if Don likes people). Instead of saying "fuck you" and storming out, Don uttered a simple "ok."

Roger had it right, Don is a genius, at least when it comes to advertising, and much of what has been built at the Time-Life Center is because of his ability, so perhaps it was not hard for him to accept these demands. Or perhaps he knows, from long experience, that discretion is the better part of valor, and there is nothing wrong with living to fight another day. You see, Don has leveraged one particular skill during the time we have known him; like many people who do not cope well with confrontation and like to avoid conflict, he is a master of the tactical retreat. He's always gaming out his situation to see if he can fight a battle on more favorable ground. For years, he had the chit of working without a contract in case he wanted to leave on a moment's notice. [1] Then, because of his singular talent, he was able to establish a new agency when it looked like he would become a cog in the wheel at McCann. [2] He swapped Jaguar for Chevy and merged with CGC, [3] brought Dow Chemical into the fold [4] and all the while avoided ever having to face the music for his past, his demons, or his decisions.

It is understandable why people would not want Don back in the office. He is, as Reggie Jackson would famously call himself, "the straw that stirs the drink." The agency's mood, energy and vibe revolve around him. I will fix this, he told Joan after Jaguar was lost, to which she retorted that just once she would like to hear we. [5] But in exchange for his singular talent, everyone got to stand on his shoulders and bask in the glory of his achievements. In his absence, competent functionaries like Lou Avery and Jim Cutler keep the trains running on time but without any panache or sense of direction. There's no place in a buttoned up office for Roger Sterling, whose casual sexuality, inappropriate language and mordant sense of humor are lost on the Lou Averys of the world, but are appreciated by a guy like Don. Conveniently, Roger's advocacy for Don both helped him re-establish his own place in the partnership hierarchy, but also gave Don the kudos Roger long begrudged him. [6] Peggy, Stan, Ginzo and the rest of creative may shudder at Don's imperiousness, but they never questioned his talent. Now, they still get yelled at, it's just by someone with no vision or interest in their work.

So it is not surprising that Don is willing to accept the humiliations heaped on him by his fellow partners. He's even able to accept the piling on he experiences - Joan speaking of him as if he's some annoying appendage who was offered the dignified out of quitting instead of being fired [7], Peggy gratuitously twisting the knife by telling Don he hasn't been missed, or Jim Cutler expressing revulsion at Don's mere presence. But, as they said on The Wire, "you come at the king, you best not miss." Wrapping a bunch of conditions to Don's employment may offer some false sense of security to those who "this" is working for like Joan, or nursing grudges, like Peggy, who blames Don for Ted's exile, or even Lou, who is tepidly described as "adequate" by Jim, but the idiosyncrasies and demands of the gifted and talented are always excused because their contributions cannot be replaced.

Of course, Don's professional acumen masks deep trouble at home. In the episode's least surprising event, his marriage to Megan finally appears to have ended after he reveals his surprise visit was done at the behest of her casting agent and oh yeah, by the way, Don's been out of work for months. That Don continued to lie to Megan is no shock, but what he missed with Megan just like he did with Sally is that they both know him now - it's not that his lies have gotten worse, it's that the people in his life who used to give him the benefit of the doubt no longer fall for his bullshit. Sally rightly called him out last week and this week it's Megan's turn - coolly noting the lack of sound on the other end of the phone line when they speak, the fact Don is never home when she calls and the presence of a new "girl" on his line at work - she knows him, she was that girl once, and even though Don's not cheating, he's lying. No amount of practiced sincerity can make things better. Don has made the "apology" speech many times, he knows how to pull the emotional heart strings, he's in advertising after all. [8] He is always sorry, promises to do better and feels awful about how screwed up things have gotten.

But this stint of more sobriety appears to have been honored only in the breach - his lies are done in the service of saving face, the people who used to ignore his duplicity no longer do so. Once the people closest to you see you for who you truly are, attempting to put that genie back in the bottle is impossible. That Don and Megan will divorce is unsurprising, the facade of a bi-coastal marriage was not going to last any longer than his foreswearing of alcohol, but unless and until Don stops worrying about how he is perceived and focuses on who he wants to be, he is cursed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

Don's return to the office should not be looked at as any great victory for him. The things that got him in trouble in the first place - the lying and the drinking - are still there. His interest in how he is perceived instead of improving the person he is has not changed either. He wanted to "fix" things instead of telling Sally or Megan that he had been put on sabbatical, but his solution was just to get his job back, not to do the harder work of figuring out what it was that got him booted in the first place. In the balance, he missed another key point - people's perception of who he is has changed - he can no longer hide behind the mask of inscrutability, ducking out for an afternoon shag or a double feature - he can no longer get away with the lies he once casually told and clean up the mess with a furrowed brow and an apology. It is entirely possible, indeed, probable, that this will not end well for Don. The falling man motif is one I have written about extensively and the idea that Don is always able to reincarnate himself just before he splatters to the ground has occurred numerous times during the show's six-plus seasons; however, at some point, like everyone's luck, Don's will run out. And so, things are unlikely to end well for him (or anyone else for that matter), but it is going to be a hell of a ride.

PS - you are a terrible mother, Betty.



1. When Pete threatens to expose Don's bogus past, Don's initial reaction is to move to California. The Wheel, Season 1, Episode 13. When Betty kicks him out toward the end of Season 2, he does the same thing. The Jet Set, The Mountain King, Season 2, Episodes 11 and 12. It is not until the possibility of working for Conrad Hilton becomes a reality (and with some not-so-subtle goading from Bert) that Don signs his contract. Seven Twenty-Three, Season 3, Episode 7.

2. Shut the Door, Have a Seat, Season 3, Episode 13.

3. Man With a Plan, Season 6, Episode 7.

4. Commissions and Fees, Season 5, Episode 12.

5. See, fn. 3.

6. Waldorf Stories, Season 4, Episode 6.

7. It's entirely possible that Joan is taking some revenge over Don's unceremonious dumping of Jaguar after she slept with Herb. Man With a Plan, supra.

8. Don's letter to Betty that results in his being welcomed back into the family home is Exhibit A for this idea. Meditations In An Emergency, Season 2, Episode 13.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Mad Men S7E2 - A Day's Work

Don Draper is a liar. We have known that since the day we met him, but after saying the "wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong people" as Don explains his involuntary hiatus from SC&P to Sally, it seems as though his effort at self-improvement is halting at best. He is still lying to his wife about his employment status, cagey with a colleague at lunch, and would have continued keeping Sally in the dark had she not inadvertently discovered his deceit. And let's not even mention the sudden reappearance of liquor in his life. 

Don is drifting aimlessly, and whereas in seasons past he could buckle down at work when his home life was unstable or focus on his new marriage when he became disinterested in work, now, he has neither, and thus, the seepage of old habits - of shame and stealth - become convenient shields. So he is taken aback when he tries to shout down Sally for lying to him and she pushes back, hard, on the fact that she had to come to his apartment building and risk running into Sylvia. He's still collecting a check from SC&P, but dances around the circumstances of his departure, and is left to having Dawn provide crumbs of intelligence to him on the sly in a vain attempt to keep abreast of things in his absence. 

And Don's absence is unquestionably felt at SC&P. As unmoored as Don is, the agency's character is clearly different. Without Don's vision, mediocre work is accepted by Lou Avery, a quintessential middle manager more interested in keeping the trains running on time than offering clients creative work that will move the needle and who, we learn, is quick to temper. Peggy, denied both the professional challenge Don presented her and the personal warmth Ted gave her, is souring before our eyes. That once plucky junior copywriter who deftly moved up to be Don's chief lieutenant is now a pale shade of her former boss - nursing her drink (and petty grudges) along with a cigarette, the frustration that comes with feeling like good work is not rewarded, and the anger at unrequited love. 

Of course, if Peggy wants to win any awards for petulance, she must contend with the heavyweight champion, Pete Campbell. He may look (and talk) like a hippie, but neither a comely blonde woman nor 3,000 miles of separation to his prior life in New York have altered Pete's attitude. As he marinates in another perceived professional slight, it is left to his new girlfriend to set him straight about the difference between being squeezed by corporate bureaucracy and suffering at a true force majeure. While Pete may not like interacting with Bob Benson in order to get a blessing to sign a group of Southern California GM dealerships, Bonnie shares a story of losing a commission after busting her ass for months to land the deal because someone tossed a cigarette out a car window.  

So it is left to Joan, in the awkward position of being both an equity partner in the firm and an aspiring account manager, to provide A Day's Work its moral compass. When Dawn gets caught between Lou and Don and is not permitted by Bert to sit at the reception desk, Joan rights the wrong and twists the knife in Lou's back while solving her own problem of carrying dual jobs by promoting Dawn into her personnel position and taking an upstairs office, officially severing her ties to the life she lived for 16 years and starting anew. That Peggy lashes out at Shirley over a slight that did not even exist or Bert showed a lazy prejudice that Joan finds distasteful make the elegant solution that much sweeter, but the early returns on SC&P without Don providing creative ballast are not good. 

Meanwhile, Don's fits-and-starts attempt at truth, of figuring out who he is and what he wants to do are rewarded, tenderly, by Sally, who tells her cad of a father she loves him. That Matt Weiner reminds us that we are all redeemable after piling on an hour's worth of bile and bitterness is one of the many reasons this remains one of television's most compelling programs. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Chait, Obama and The Politics of Race

Jonathan Chait's recent cover story for New York magazine, "The Color of His Presidency" generated much teeth gnashing among the Inside the Beltway crowd (the sheer volume of back and forth surely a "win" for Chait, as the media traffics these days almost exclusively in generating conflict without much more). Chait's thesis is that race has come to infect the "Age of Obama," but his claim has the familiar whiff of "both sides do it," tagging "all" supporters of the President of seeing a racial bias behind Republican opposition and "all" his opponents equally offended at the accusation, without either side being able to see the legitimate (?) claims of the other. 

Personally, I think the obstruction the President has experienced has much more to do with his political party than his skin color. That a President Hillary Clinton would have been any more successful at getting Republicans to work with her may be a thought experiment we see in action in 2017, but the tactics Obama has seen from Republicans harkens back to the days of Bill Clinton, the key differences being our 42nd President had a stronger economic wind at his back and foes who attempted to impeach him over something the American people felt was unworthy of such a severe punishment. Now, the gerrymandering of many Congressional districts affords Republicans a free pass to block bills that were once uncontroversial, extract concessions on social welfare programs in exchange for doing nothing more than paying the country's bills, and suffer no consequences for blocking proposals like the minimum wage and background checks for gun purchases that have overwhelming public support.

And while it might be fair to cherry pick a few instances when MSNBC hosts were over zealous in their defense of the President, the simple fact is that there is a racial aspect to what the President has suffered through. You simply cannot wish away the images of Obama-as-witch-doctor or Obama-as-tribesman-with-a-bone-in-his-nose, the marchers who swung a Confederate flag outside the White House, or the litany of elected and appointed Republican officials who have been caught on tape or through email, spewing racially charged venom at the President (Chait cites one, who, was, oh, only a sitting federal district court judge). 

Interestingly, Chait ignores the vilest racial taunt that occurred during Obama's presidency, the ugly strain of "birtherism" that was not relegated to some dark corner of the Internet but rather, put front and center by elected Members of Congress and at least one putative Republican Presidential candidate (Donald Trump) that questioned the President's legitimacy to hold office. This alone would be enough to suggest a racial animus (invariably, the suggestion that the President was born in Kenya spoke for itself in terms coded language), but taken together with the overtly racial taunts that have been levied against Obama, it is not paranoia, as Chait suggests, that animates the belief on the left that a party that is overwhelmingly white, largely Southern, and not very subtle in some of their jabs against the President deploys racial animus as a weapon. 

Indeed, credence might be lent to Republicans were their opposition not so reflexive and unyielding. Major pieces of legislation like the Affordable Care Act (itself an idea that originated at the conservative Heritage Foundation) may have been improved through bi-partisan cooperation, but Republicans refused to play ball. That Obama permanently locked in 99% of the tax cuts initially passed by George W. Bush was met with howls over the tiny pinch the increase to those earning more than $400,000 would feel. The lie that "both sides do it" is illustrated by looking at the number of major pieces of legislation George W. Bush got Democratic votes for - on everything from tax cuts to bailing out Wall Street, No Child Left Behind to the Iraq War resolution.  

Meanwhile, "welfare queen" language that began under Ronald Reagan was rebranded as calling people who are on food stamps "takers" (no word on multi-national corporations whose snouts are deep in the public trough), dudgeon was high anytime the President had the temerity to take a vacation (never mind that his predecessor set the modern standard for loafing) and the stream of Voter ID laws that have passed since Obama's election and disproportionately affect minority groups are surely not coincidental, be they to simply depress Democratic turnout or target African-Americans directly is a distinction without a difference. Any hope that the "fever will break" as Obama famously thought would happen upon his re-election have long since been dashed and whether Hillary Clinton or another Democrat succeeds Obama, the fact is, Republicans simply cannot countenance a member of the other party in the White House, regardless of their skin color. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

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. 


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 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, 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 at Grumpy’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 unrequited 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 Girls traffics 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.