mad men, mad women, and beethoven

There were excellent reasons not to blog about the episode “Mystery Date” at all. To begin with, it was good, and in such a way that watching it was more valuable than breaking it down into pieces. That’s because it offered one of the pleasures that TV does better than any other medium: observing the subtleties of people of character. There was an infinite amount of restraint in the way that Dawn, the African-American secretary, endured Peggy’s melodramatic (but still kind) kindnesses, beginning with Peggy’s invitation to stay with her for the night. Given how clumsily Peggy tries to empathize with Dawn, you get the distinct feeling that Dawn would have been fine with sleeping at the office. She can’t say as much, though; for one thing, she’s in no position to offend Peggy. Furthermore, the scene never boils over. There’s no overblown confrontation, with Dawn shouting “You will never understand what it means to be black!” So there is only Dawn carefully deflecting Peggy’s attempts to make the new girl over into a version of herself.

The same goes for the scenes between Sally Draper and her new step-grandmother, Pauline. Sally’s a bore, as usual, but Pauline is fantastic as she tries on varying shades of discipline and motherly love, essentially testing them out on Sally to see what might work. Pauline accurately diagnoses Sally as being a motherless child with a mother, but in trying to fill the gap in Sally’s life, she ends up having to confront her own upbringing — in particular, her father’s cold, even abusive approach to being a parent. Plus, just at the moment where the sun breaks through the clouds, and Pauline seems genuinely maternal in her response to Sally’s fright, the show splendidly undercuts their intimacy. Pauline gives Sally and herself tranquilizers, and Sally crawls under the furniture in a pantomime of death.

The good stuff, then, is all based around scenes of tenderness and mutual support between women. It’s a realer feminism than the show has ever dared before, in my opinion, because it’s not as oppressively predictable as Peggy’s move from secretary to copywriter. But they sprinkle so much bad, excessive imagery and plot into the same 45 minutes! The theme, “mystery date,” is a show that Sally’s watching, and the man who opens the door…is a murderer! Because, you see, the patriarchy is a form of psychic murder. That’s probably, actually true, but it doesn’t make the show any less heavy-handed — Don kills a former flame and stuffs her under the bed. No, wait, he doesn’t, because he’s got a fever and is hallucinating. But in a way he still does, because his own daughter ends up in the same place and position as the dead woman. Plus, he really is using his second marriage to stuff all the scandals of his past into a closet, or under the bed, so they’re out of sight and out of mind. This makes him just like the serial killer slaughtering nurses in Chicago. In fact, this theme gets taken so far over the top that it stops being feminist at all; by comparing Don’s former lovers to the dead nurses, the show strips them of agency, when agency, of course, is precisely what is so sexy about Andrea — that she won’t take no for an answer, that she invades a home, instead of being victimized by an invader. But that turns out to be nothing more than a figment of Don’s lively imagination.

As for Joan’s blatant plotline…we’ve seen little of her, and nothing of Greg, so we really don’t care. It’s totally obvious where it’s going, and again, it’s not especially progressive since Joan struggles more with her mother than with her husband. It’s more of the traditional Mad Men Peggy plot: Joan is part of the new generation. “You’re not a good man,” she tells Greg, “and you know what I mean.” He does! So do we! She means that he hits her! I award the scene zero points for subtlety, and may God have mercy on its soul.

***

I loved “Signal 30″ for everything it was and wasn’t. First of all, it featured one of the best scenes of a bourgeois dinner party, ever. Here’s what happens when a bunch of American, middle-class couples get together for a dinner party: everybody laughs and doesn’t know what the hell to say. They try talking about the country, and Don makes the topic unpleasant by mentioning horseshit. They end up talking about Ken’s writing, which is not good, because nobody’s supposed to know about it. (What’s more, the summary of Ken’s story by his wife, like all summaries of stories by casual readers, makes the writer seem both idiotic and just plain mean.) They try to play the country off against the city, but since Ken and his wife still live in the city, that goes nowhere. The only thing that produces any excitement or resolution is the explosion of the faucet, which Don fixes. That makes him seem very sexy, but the sexiness dissipates as he moves from realism (horse apples and telling Pete that he broke his own faucet) to fantasy (proposing to Megan that she get pregnant immediately).

Pete Campbell, incidentally, is in hell. He’s feeling  the first twinges of aging, which causes him to embarrass himself by coming on to a high school girl, who is anyway immediately scooped up by a real life version of Archie. He’s clearly indifferent to his own baby. Don’s impressed that Trudy can push him into attending the dinner party — he’s into that, as we already saw with Andrea — but to Pete, it’s just another sign that Trudy wears the pants. He’s so unmanned that he’s willing to sleep with a prostitute if she’s willing to call him a king. But Don is still two steps ahead of him! It’s Don the moralist now, the same strange beast who appeared briefly during the Rolling Stones concert, two episodes earlier. He competently fixes faucets and he abstains.

The abscess right at the center of masculine identity: even when it’s not there, it’s there. In the case of the client representing Jaguar, it just hasn’t appeared yet, but it will as soon as he gets comfortable with his admen. It’s gruesome to watch Lane imitating his father by invoking the gentleman’s right, and proceeding to thrash Pete. The only sane, healthful work is being a writer, a creator of new worlds. Ken gets a warning from Roger Sterling to stop moonlighting, but Roger says too much when he reveals that he’s “a frustrated author,” too. The last scene is reasonably close to miraculous, with Ken writing a story by transcribing Roger’s disillusioned voice as it echoes in his head.

The closing credits are Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; he’s mentioned earlier, when Roger describes Beethoven rising from his death-bed to finish composing. Really, what could sum up this show’s profundity and its own tragic innocence better? A lot of critics have accused Mad Men of being too knowingly contemporary: every time a pregnant woman smokes a cigarette, it’s too obvious that the writers are winking at us. But it’s really not contemporary at all. It still believes, with nearly perfect faith, in the old American battle between The Superficial and The Deep, which are Satan and heaven, respectively. Nothing in the world could be more sublime, according to the show, than Ken Cosgrove sitting down to write stories about robots (and Roger Sterling, the human robot). The robot is Everyman, and his rebellion is our rebellion.

We need superficiality to be superficial; if you begin to contemplate the vast ideological edifice that underwrites the most cloying aspects of American culture, the whole problem seems much more ingrained. We need depth to be a long and arduous dive; if it looked any easier, we’d have to feel guilty about shirking it the great majority of the time. Ken Cosgrove and his nom-de-plume are not only two names for the same person, they’re two names for the same syndrome. Still, before we knew that, guys like him made a lot of really fantastic art — Frank O’Hara, John Cheever, John Updike, Arthur Miller, Henry Miller, and the rest. Mad Men is great too, when it convinces itself, but it can’t convince itself fully. You can hear the writers rattling their cage when they play the Beethoven, instead of playing yet another elbow-in-the-ribs ironic pop tune (like the one from the week before, “Mystery Date”). What does it mean if you can swap in Beethoven and nothing changes? What do you do? Oh God! What do you do, what can you do, then?


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