don draper’s big avventura

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And you and Anna…No, I guess [things] aren’t like that any more. My God, is it possible to forget in such a short time, for things to change so quickly? […] It’s so terribly sad.
-from L’Avventura by Michelangelo Antonioni

Scott Eric Kaufman and I are live-blogging Mad Men. May the odds be ever in our favor.

(UPDATE: Scott’s posted his take on the episode, which you can find here. It’s great, in that we somehow manage to cover almost none of the same material, and it’s also great because Scott has an uncanny ability to recreate and explain the theory behind the direction. His analysis of Sally’s perspective is a tour-de-force. I guess I would say that the episode still feels smart to me, but it doesn’t feel glamorous, and Mad Men needs to be both. Otherwise it can’t get away with its crimes against our modern sensibilities.)

I say that because I’m not sure I’ll survive. I’m locked in, thanks to my iTunes Season Pass. For now, I’ll hold out hope that the writers have a better sense of where it’s going than I do. It’s one of those cases where I can (I think) be of some use in offering an interpretation, but I still can’t make the damn thing enjoyable.

As much as we all love shows with long arcs and staying power, around Season 4 or 5, shows tend to reset. They have no choice. For the viewers, there’s so much to keep track of that we revert to our original impressions. That’s why, for quite a while now, discussions of Breaking Bad have stopped being about Los Pollos Hermanos, and returned to the simplicity of Season 1’s synopsis: high school teacher goes on crime spree. The Sopranos parodied this with a montage, set to “It Was A Very Good Year,” that showed everyone just going about a normal, reasonably good day. Who knows who murdered who? Who cares? No plot to see here, folks!

Like The Sopranos, Mad Men is trying to get the better of its predicament by going meta. This whole first episode is an extended, dry joke on Betty’s absence — or, more accurately, on the absence of her absence. It celebrates Don’s ability to forget her, and our ability to do the same. After putting Don through years of a disintegrating marriage and post-divorce ennui, all 90 minutes are dominated by Megan Draper, except for brief interludes that catch us up with the other characters. Don and Megan in the morning, as spied upon by Sally, who now talks like Bela Lugosi. Megan at work. Megan throws a surprise party. Megan does “burlesque,” by which I mean “karaoke.” Megan is sad. Megan plays sexy maid and rouses Don to violent passion.

Especially with everybody wearing bright, rectangular dresses, it’s impossible not to think of Antonioni’s great L’Avventura, about a man and a woman who get together while searching for the man’s missing girlfriend. In that film, though, the characters discuss what’s going on: why is it so easy to forget? If we are so interchangeable, even in intimate relationships, what do those relationships mean? Antonioni comes to melancholy conclusions; the film is as merciless as it is beautiful.

(To be fair, not everyone wears a rectangular dress. Joan wears something that looks like detonated cotton candy.)

Here nobody mentions Betty, but we feel her absence, if for no other reason than that she represented something and Megan represents nothing. Betty was the good wife. She had everything: the kids, the house, the anxiety disorder. The delicious tension of the show was built around the contrast between Don’s authentic phoniness, which enabled him to be successful, and Betty’s inauthenticity, which was her entire life even though she wasn’t using an alias. Don and Betty were gorgeous, iconic disasters. Megan, on the other hand, is too idiosyncratic to represent the new generation. She’s French-Canadian, sings lounge music, and likes old-fashioned men. She’s not rock ‘n roll. She has no politics, nor even much education, at least as far as we can tell.

This isn’t Jessica Pare’s fault, incidentally. It’s the show. Mad Men is drowning in realism. We see an astonishingly gross close-up of Joan’s baby. We’re watching as she smears his chapped butt with cream. There is an uncomfortable physicality to everything. The baby is followed by Pete Campbell busting open his nose. I think the baby is supposed to be a commentary, actually — Joan pushing her pram into an office full of petulant babies. But what’s for us to watch? Lane trying to pick up somebody else’s mistress? Three different people complaining about their offices? Peggy getting drunk and waxing bratty about the long hours? Joan’s mom undermining her, something Bernadette Peters does much better on Smash?

The press team tried to get ’round this by emphasizing the civil rights storyline. That’s well and good, but in this episode, it barely registers. Guys at another agency lob water bombs at protestors on another block, and our guys make fun of them; a lot of African-Americans looking for a decent job get caught in the middle. Separate But Equal it is not.

In fact, even the drinking scenes in Separate But Equal were better. Mad Men‘s writers seem to agree with the people at Heinz, who reject Peggy’s idea for a “bean ballet” campaign on the grounds that beans, viewed up close, are repulsive. That’s what we’re getting here — the ugly bean, up close — and it’s all very joyless, except when Megan gets up to sing “Zou Bisou Bisou.” Everyone on Twitter fell for this; I must have scrolled through two dozen tweets all saying “Congrats to Jessica Pare! Zooby zooby zoo!” Well, the song is terrible. It’s the French equivalent of “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window.” I saw it used in a real burlesque show, as perhaps did Matthew Weiner, and I remember thinking please, somebody, make this stop then as well. Megan’s bad Rita Hayworth impression only emphasizes the lack of creativity afflicting the writers, and therefore also her husband’s agency. They used to be able to make cigarettes look wholesome, and now they can’t even sell us a can of beans.

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