Thursday, May 21, 2015

The ad was making me sick.

I was ready think about something else other than the Mad Men finale when I watched Matthew Weiner's decompression at the New York Public Library (with AM Homes! The circumstances of that talk fulfilled my high school dreams and my young professional dreams all at once).
I did hear rumblings of people talking about the ad being corny, and it's a little bit disturbing to me....The people who find that ad corny are probably experiencing a lot of life that way and they’re missing out on something. Because five years [before that commercial ran], black people and white people couldn't even be in an ad together, and the idea that some enlightened state and not just co-option might have created something that is very pure — and yeah, there's soda in there with good feeling — but that ad, to me, it's the best ad ever made....I felt that that ad in particular was so much of its time. So beautiful, and I don’t think as...villainous as the snark of today thinks it is.
That is such a slap in the face!

Mad Men forfeited the ability to make race an organic component to the finale. It gave up on Dawn, it gave up on Shirley. It is not a reach to read a vision of utopian racial harmony concluding a story that lost interest in exploring racial tension in any degree as cynical.

"Utopian" is an important Mad Men concept. I do like the idea as Don plunging from one utopia — the domestic one of the fifties — into another — the peace-and-love one of the sixties — that the coming decade will inevitably shatter as he contributes to the excavation and exploitation of it, making the seventies a rehash of what Don spent the sixties doing.

The commercial is "not just co-option" but is also enlightenment, but why did Don have to reach enlightenment? Because he desired. And advertising is desire. Enlightenment can't begin with "I want," which is exactly how Don's revelation starts. Discovering what he wants makes sense for Don, coming to terms with the fact that making advertisements is the least harmful thing Don can do for his loved ones and the people of the world makes sense—poignant, awful, sad sense considering that he found out Betty has lung cancer from the cigarettes he used to advertise. So somewhere in the future there's a page in the New York Times titled "Why I'm Quitting Sugar by Donald Draper."

I am okay with eternal return. That is not the part that wounds me as a viewer. But the ending of Mad Men was not part of the story of Mad Men. The show did not earn that ad — it is too famous — and even if it had, it is a real ad for a real product that of course did not need money for its use in "Person to Person." It's an ad. It made the company money. I agree with Emily Nussbaum:

Co-option, continued: The presence of the ad is double co-option: it is co-option within the narrative of Don's experience at the retreat, and it is co-option of the narrative, of the story and experience by the viewer of Mad Men, to sell something. Because there is nothing of that ad that does not exist in the service of selling its product. And that is what Don is, too. Weiner did acknowledge that in his talk when he addressed Don's love of seducing strangers who, as soon as they familiarize themselves with him, he ditches, repulsed. It is valid, in my opinion, to leave on the note that Don has nothing more to offer, no better a love note to write, than an ad.

But I never watched Mad Men expecting Don to grow. I watched Mad Men expecting Don to be discarded, for Pete and Peggy to realize the Don-model was worthless to them, for it to be revealed that the anxieties he was exploiting in his work were missing a nuance. That is what I thought they were driving at effectively with the constant invocation at the end of the way people "come and go as they please," the epiphany Ginsberg had about Megan that led him to the Jaguar tag, a tag that exploited Don's anxiety about the way people are not products. His commodification of harmony and togetherness and products as "the real thing" severs him once and for all from his family and his coworkers, who are all shown to be off in their own, enjoying actual real things (which, for all of them, is some variation of work/life balance — except for Sally, who is still tied to the Betty model that life is work, "you're painting a masterpiece," etc.).

I think of Don less as a character and more of the thing that happened to all of the other characters on Mad Men. I was hoping Don would be come, as Dear Television put it, "decentered," and season five — with Ginsberg's Jaguar tag that played on Don's anxieties the way it did — beautifully set the show up for that after season four gave Don every opportunity to forge a new paradigm. He chose not to, and Ginsberg figured out why. Season six did not entirely swerve off this trajectory — both Pete and Peggy had to confront the extent to which trying to be Don was failing them (Pete lost his family, Peggy kind of lost her grip on her career trajectory when her staff started to revolt) — but it did get mired deep in stories that stalled (Don vs. Ted, which was the most promising of all the Don-centered season six stories) or dragged on without a climax (Don's stories with both Megan and Sylvia).

Joyce Carol Oates identified the trouble and appeal in decentering Don:

If Don Draper is an advertisement, Mad Men could not transcend him unless Peggy or Pete — preferably Peggy and Pete — took over as protagonist/s, particularly after their attempts to follow Don's example broke down so hard for them in season six. The strongest themes that recur in the finale are from season one, which is understandable, and season five, which made season six seem all the more an exhausting exercise. Because season six was about the extent to which the Don-model was supremely failing Don himself. All this, only to end on Don embracing the product that he is.

But, then, what product works? Is this a criticism of the cathartic potential of art? Was "Person to Person," again, Mad Men's attempt to kick you out of the TV and into bed? Were you supposed to turn off the TV as soon as that song crept in at the end? Was your half of the bargain already over?

It was villainous, but it does give the viewer the ultimate opportunity to reject Don Draper, and maybe that is how Mad Men had to end: something that provokes the viewer to move on the same way Peggy and Pete did.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

If I had my way, you would never advertise.

Mad Men jumped off the cliff.

In "Lost Horizon," I believe it came to pass that Peggy's Belle Jolie pitch was the most important one made on the show.

"The Milk and Honey Route" reminded viewers that whatever, death imagery — cigarettes killed Don Draper a long time ago.

And beauty was still the easiest thing to sell by the time "Person to Person" depicted the ultimate Mad Men moment when a Hershey bar gave a bottle of Coke a hug.

I keep thinking about lots of things, particularly what it means for Don to share an ad with the audience. Don articulated these concerns about the efficacy of advertising in "The Crash":
I keep thinking about the basic principle of advertising. There's entertainment and you stick the ad in the middle of the entertainment like a little respite. It's a bargain. They're getting the entertainment for free. All they have to do is listen to the message. But what if they don't take the bargain at all? What if they're suddenly bored of the entertainment? What if they don't — what if they turn off the TV?
Was "Person to Person" Mad Men's attempt to do the reverse of what Marie did to Roger? She kicked him out of bed and in front of the TV. "Person to Person" kicks you out of the TV and into bed.

Don warns Stephanie that because she was not raised with Jesus, she does not know what happens when people "really believe" in something. He really believes in advertising because, as Mad Men painstakingly demonstrated over seven seasons, it is the least harmful way he can connect with people and give them something. So his ability to shed friends and family, enter solitude, and find the best way to show his love for them that will not make them cry or leave them emotionally disfigured or exploded — it will just emotionally blackmail them into buying a soft drink.

But does that meta-diminish the connection Don made with Mad Men's audience, by defaulting to the use of an ad to pay them back for following his story? Is that a failure to acknowledge what "a great ad" means within the context of the show? Would this be as much of an issue if it were Peggy whose face filled the screen, knowing as the audience does that it is her one dream to have "a big idea," where for Don that is just what he does?

Mad Men achieved a lot, but did it achieve the ability to show its audience an ad through Don's eyes, divorced from the reality of that ad? That is an especially difficult challenge when the ad in question is a real ad that people have real, separate associations with that is so famous to not even really (arguably) be the subject of nostalgia. I did not exist until sixteen years after that commercial aired. I feel like I was born tired of it.

I think apart from its aptness — it makes sense as an endpoint for Don Draper — it is necessary to question whether or not Mad Men earned it. Was it really so afraid viewers would turn off the TV?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

His big song was "I'm Alright."

Pretending I was not so sick the life was seeping out of me was not the worst way I could have chosen to spend a one-off Saturday alone in New York. At the end of the day, I was so worn out that I could only lie in the pod I arranged to sleep in and play episodes of How Did This Get Made. I stared at pages of Brian Kellow's Pauline Kael biography but did not have it in me to read it, really, just ask myself aloud what was going on inside Kael to inspire her unnatural noise. All of which amounts to what passes for me as relaxation.

I was there to go to the Emily Books party, where I let my insecurity about how close I was to passing out/crumbling into a pile of germs get to me, but what an event that was. I am so grateful to be familiar now with Berl's Brooklyn Poetry Shop — the opportunity to handle and purchase so many small press titles I've wanted and so many I could not afford on this trip took me right out of my swirling sick vortex.

And the reading lineup was worth all the money in the world. Eileen Myles could have read virtually anything, but I was excited she chose a part from Chelsea Girls since I've been heretofore unable to get a copy and am looking forward to reading it for the first time this fall. Elisa Albert, author of After Birth, read from her journal, and she concluded by vowing never to do that again. It was hilarious and surprising in a way I have never experienced in a reading, so should she hold herself to that, I treasure all the more the opportunity to have heard it. Johanna Fateman read her tweets, which reinforced Emily Gould's introductory note that those not following Fateman are fucking up their lives — every reader at this party was a font of joy to a crazy degree. And I was looking forward to hearing Jami Attenberg read since I have not yet read her work myself, but her choice of material made the whole event so special: Niina Pollari's Dead Horse!

Niina came to the Midtown Scholar in April for a reading organized somewhat by me, mostly by the whirlwind of inspired ideas that is Meghan Lamb, of whom St. Louis will get the benefit when she moves there to attend the Washington University MFA program in the fall. Niina read with a radiant lineup — Carina Finn! Paige Taggart! Margaret Bashaar! Erin Dorney! Melody Johnson! — and hearing Jami Attenberg's takes on them brought a whole other dimension to what a tremendous pleasure it is to hear them read. I loved having Niina's voice back in my head.

I also procured, finally, Carina's Invisible Reveille and Paige's Want for Lion; Ottessa Moshfegh's McGlue, which made me scream "YES" when I found it; the aforementioned Kael biography; The New Fuck You ed. Myles and Liz Kotz; the new biography of the publisher/founder of New Directions; Virginie Despentes' Apocalypse Baby; Bhanu Kapil's Ban en Banlieue; and (finally) the Arcades Project. And I walked two miles with them strapped to my person. It was worth it. I feel better now.

That was my first time in Brooklyn. I told the cab driver that, and that I thought Brooklyn is lovely, and he rebutted, remarking about the blight in the neighborhood we were driving through. Then he asked me where I'm from, and I told him — Harrisburg, Pennsylvania — and he conceded that I know what I'm taking about when I'm talking about the quality of a city's blight and that Brooklyn is lovely.

Also: I ran into Eileen Myles on Houston Street afterwards and she recognized me and I had an elderflower lemonade in my hand and the weather was perfect and this weekend could not have been better (state of my health notwithstanding).

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Called out of darkness a new life to begin.

I'm getting ready to go to the Emily Books party. I'm getting over a cold. I wrote about "The Forecast" and "Time & Life," and this weekend, Mad Men gets antepenultimate.

Some things to ponder: What does Joan want? Where is heaven? Who would win in a Sterling Cooper secretary battle royale?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

I think he's making Clara nightly.

Just when I thought I had my priorities in order, at work, I was installed on the Mad Men beat. In addition to writing about the episodes as they air — like "Severance" and "New Business" — I am also writing about the motifs that reappear throughout the seasons.

Photo: Dou Hyun/AMC
The characters on Mad Men might drink alcohol to avoid confronting the changing world around them, for instance, but every time the agency takes on a client that sells alcohol, it catalyzes big change in the way they do business (although they frequently respond to that with tantrums that include, among other things, drinking).

Idealistic Peggy and Don both consider Paris a dream place where they can take a proper reprieve from their worlds. This despite the fact that everyone on Mad Men who has been to Paris associates it with some personal disaster — a pivotal lover left Roger there, Sylvia Rosen's son got his draft papers while he was there. Like Carmella Soprano before them, if either of them get there, I bet they will see a ghost.

Don and Roger's changing — or unchanging — attitudes towards women can be charted in their approach to buying fur. And when put that way, it is clear why.

And while Don wants to make people into piles of money so he can escape having to deal with their emotions, Joan — sadly — wants to become a pile of money so she will not have emotions anymore.

Did you notice the story of season one is happening again, quietly, in the periphery of season seven? Actually, a lot of previous seasons are happening simultaneously, but this is the creepiest.

And if Mad Men ended like Twin Peaks, that would not be the worst thing. I mean, even if it ended the way Twin Peaks ended, with a slog through the Red Room, Roger up all night waiting for Don, and evil Don roaming the Earth, I would not resist.

Also: Mad Men is one big ham joke.

Monday, April 6, 2015

I think you have me confused with someone else.

"She's my cousin, but doesn't she look exactly like Laura Palmer?"

What I'm saying is: Mad Men season seven, episode eight, "Severance," is to your cousin what Twin Peaks is to Laura Palmer.

"This is the girl."

"You're going back to Missoula, Montana!"

"Chikadee on a Dodge Dart."

Monday, March 30, 2015

Girls Season 4, Episode 10: "Home Birth" - Um, yes, I'm familiar with the works of the writer Sheryl Sandberg.

Just after last week had me gasping for air, I wound up all my lingering commitments. And even though this season of Girls is over and I'm going to miss it — I'm looking foreword to next season like I was looking forward to the second after the premiere, that is how much I loved these episodes of Girls — now I'm working on something else that I'm really overjoyed about: I'm covering Mad Men at work for the next seven weeks. Watch it with me!

Girls, Episode Forty-Two, "Home Birth"

Photo: Mark Schafer

"Home Birth" opens and closes with uncharacteristic moments for Girls. First, Hannah plunges out of St. Justine's in a panic, still in turmoil over her father coming out as gay and her mother's inability to handle it. The episode ends with Hannah attempting to reach out to her parents in a vulnerable moment in which she has to face what a wreck they both are, how remote help from them is for now, and how little help she can offer them. The story jumps six months, and Hannah is walking down the street in winter, laughing with and kissing Fran. Fran was there for Hannah when she was running out of St. Justine's, but when she tried to divulge why she was in the state she was in, he offered his support but discouraged her from burdening him with why she was upset.

This is such a compelling place to leave Hannah in as the fourth season of Girls ends! Any time Hannah makes a choice in the service of her own happiness, it is significant, but this one is informed by some of her worst coping mechanisms. Based on what the audience has seen, Fran is patient and funny and unwilling to let Hannah get away with any bullshit. This is a big change from Adam, who has always been oblivious to Hannah and, so, ultimately in no way invested in any bullshit Hannah was into or experiencing. Adam never listened to Hannah even though he professes to, but in his handful of appearances, Fran has told Hannah he will not listen to her.

Throughout season four, there were allusions to patriarchy and misogyny, the oppression, silencing and "bitches be cray" dismissal of women incorporated into episodes in a central, consistent way but, in the end, did not portend anything obvious. But consider the state Hannah is in as of "Home Birth": much like the second season when she started to see her book imploding, Hannah has tried to devote herself to her dream of being a writer by going to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The mortifying and fruitless experience blew holes in some of her most important relationships, and her one great constant, her parents, have their own problems of such a magnitude they cannot be there for Hannah. In fact, they need her to be there for them. That forces Hannah to consider her decisions and how she must set an example for them and be happy. But instead of dedicating herself anew to writing, she enters into a relationship with a guy who has expressed dislike for a real dimension of her personality.

And the latest boost she is riding is from her therapist, who told her she only went to Iowa to please her parents. The subtext of him telling Hannah that her talent is for helping people is that he is giving Hannah permission to excel at something besides writing. She clings to the excuse for all it's worth and she is propelled into season five determined to help with all the force of her shame, defeat, and desire associated with her vocation as a writer.

This is a MAGNIFICENT place to find Hannah next year.

Last year, season three's finale "Two Plane Rides" opened with Hannah learning that Adam's sister, Caroline, was having a baby with Hannah's neighbor-in-recovery, Laird. When Hannah returns from her St. Justine's meltdown in "Home Birth," she hears Caroline's screams from the hallway in their building. She investigates and Laird shows Hannah to the bathtub, where Caroline is shrieking in pain, preparing to self-doula the birthing of her baby.

When Hannah fails to effectively make Laird and Caroline appreciate that their home birth plan is unreasonable ("How can it be crazy?" Laird says. "It's happening."), Adam and Jessa join her. Despite being a part of the season finale, their business at the home birth cite does not contribute to any catharsis with Hannah and is entirely devoted to showing Caroline and Laird how they need to get to the hospital and, in fact, their team effort culminates in them carrying Caroline screaming down the street to the hospital. In fact, rather than unifying them — even though they are all represented in the name of Caroline and Laird's baby girl, Jessa-Hannah Bluebell Poem Schlesinger-Sackler — the experience splinters Adam, Jessa, and Hannah. It moves Hannah to confront her crisis with her parents, it moves Jessa to both dunk her head underwater to see Caroline's vagina and consider a career talking people down from crisis, and it moves Adam to grope after Hannah's love, taking for granted that she has just been waiting for him to come around after the Mimi-Rose escapade. The scene between Adam and Hannah, who talk over Jessa-Hannah Bluebell Poem's incubator, is brief and stunning, especially the way Hannah, explaining how relationships end, goes, "What was that? Who was that?" Adam can barely justify what he did with Mimi-Rose and why he is trying to reconnect with Hannah, and she tearfully dismisses him in the way he has dismissed all her attempts to tell him what she needs from him.

A note on Jessa's role in the home birth action: pregnancy and children get Jessa at her most vulnerable. The fact that witnessing what goes into a birth inspires her decision to pursue a career in therapy might mean this was the catharsis she needed to recognize she cannot keep trying to wedge herself into families? But must learn different ways of interacting with people and contributing to their lives? This is early to call, but I want to call it because it's what I want for Jessa.

When Jessa shares the news of her new ambition to Shoshanna, Shoshanna breaks the news that she is relocating to Japan, Frances Ha-style, for a job at a fastidiously-arranged crop of red flags masquerading as a company called Abigail. Her new boss springs the necessity of the move to Shoshanna amid racist jokes and the fact that she must accept the job as soon as possible so they can fire the person currently in the position, who is bipolar. I have had interviews like this, including one where the interviewer expressed his desire to take me on road trips.

Unfortunately, Shoshanna's dispiriting slog through interview wastelands has blinded to the luxurious garden of red flags that Abigail represents, and her attempts to see the offer for what it is — Abigail is taking advantage of her lack of experience and perspective — are derailed by the agendas of those to whom she turns. Hannah would be able to help Shoshanna here, and Jessa could probably detect what a minefield this is, but Shoshanna turns to two men instead: her datemate Scotty the Soup Mogul and, with the intent to see Ray, Ray's partner, Hermie. Scott implores her to turn the offer down and to work for him and live with him because, he says, "I'm going to be in love with you soon." Hermie, with his migraine twerking, advises Shoshanna to heed the words of Sheryl "Lean In" Sandberg. Both Scott and Hermie make their recommendations to Shoshanna based not on the quality of the offer or on Shoshanna's career goals but on the fact that she is a woman. To Scott, she is a woman he is interested in, and to Hermie, she is the woman Ray used to date, about whom Hermie told Ray in the season two finale "Together," "She doesn't want a Latin scholar. She wants somebody who can support her for the rest of her life so she can keep buying purses shaped like different bread products." Viewers haven't seen Hermie since, but it is not a stretch to believe he is encouraging Shoshanna to seize the opportunity just so she can buy her own croissant-shaped clutch purses and leave Ray alone.

Ray, in the meantime, witnesses Marnie and Desi making headway with a record company executive played by Spike Jonze, who looked like he was having a ball in his cameo. After their meeting at Ray's coffee shop, Desi attempts to both settle the bill and settle whatever his relationship is supposed to be with Ray, an interaction that swiftly and perfectly renders Desi as one of those people who unleash emotional blackmail when they detect that someone, somewhere, does not like them. Ray lays into Desi with some vintage season one "I don't even want to hate fuck you, it's that real" Ray business. This scene rhymes pretty spectacularly with the scene I'm referencing from the first season, from "Hard Being Easy," when Marnie stopped by Café Grumpy to ask Ray where she could find Charlie, who was Ray's best friend at the time. Charlie and Marnie were dating, but their relationship had imploded over Marnie's inability to confront how she did not like him or respect him. Ray saw all of it, knew all of it, was a force in bringing it to Charlie's attention, and the sight of Marnie sent Ray into a rage. Just like he tried warning Marnie that she was no good for his best friend, Charlie, here he tries to warn Desi that he is no good for Marnie — and he is not good for Marnie because he is perfectly, freakishly, exactly like Marnie. And because they are so alike, and Ray does see that, he guarantees Desi that he will hurt and betray Marnie, and Marnie will always take him back. In this, Ray sort of confronts the weakness (her fear of abandonment) he himself has exploited in Marnie and the inevitability that Marnie will hurt him, which it seems like Ray believes he deserves.

Ray's takedown of Desi moves Desi to disappear, abandoning Marnie at the showcase Spike Jonze arranged for them. Ray encourages Marnie to go on alone, and she seizes the opportunity to do so with the a spectacular reverse-minimization of her talents. She plays guitar, a thing that has never been revealed to viewers that she could do, and when she comes off stage, shaking, Ray assures her he loved her performance, and she asks if Desi arrived. The fact that he did not does not seem to have changed anything, but it is early to call. I am ready to see.