Before mercury, my blood used to fill thermometers.

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment