Kids are out! Free time! Finished my taxes! Time to blog!!!
I’ve watched most of the Mad Men premier twice. I say “most of” because the second time around, I fast forwarded through EVERY STINKIN’ SECOND of Betty – got it? EVERY STINKIN’ SECOND.
Why couldn’t she have died of thyroid cancer last season? This better have a huge payoff , Weiner, that’s all I can say, if I have to continue to suffer through your blindness regarding this character and this actress.
Mad Men is not the Best Show Ever. That would be, er, Breaking Bad IMHO. But it’s enjoyable and has flashes of insight. Matthew Weiner doesn’t have the moral center, creatively speaking, that Vince Gilligan has (who has said outright that Breaking Bad is an exploration of the question of how one makes moral choices in a moral vacuum) – and so one can never be too sure if he’s serious about the moral dilemmas his characters thrash about in, or if it’s mostly for affect.
Which brings us to Dante.
Now Dante, mind you, is about to be Hot. Not only were his the first words out of Don Draper’s mouth (via voiceover) in this season opener, but our very favorite, Dan Brown, takes him on in his next novel. So it might be time to brush up on your Divine Comedy.
Here’s the thing to remember, though. Notwithstanding what you might think, given Don Draper was reading Dante on a Hawaiian beach, contemplating (we can assume) his essential solitude (a contemplation calling back to the last line of the previous season, in which Don was asked, leadingly, Are you alone? by a girl at a bar. The answer is obviously, existentially, yes) – oh, yes – well, in Dante, the lowest level of hell, the spot where Satan resides alone (yes), is cold. He is frozen in his solitude. Isolated, frozen and immobile.
The great drama of The Sopranos was the agonized journey with Tony Soprano to…that diner. Along the way, the viewer wondered if Tony would ever be able to break free of whatever bound him. Weiner, who learned his craft on that show, has put us on the same journey with Don Draper and, in fact, almost everyone else on the show, each of whom is equally misguided, either endlessly running after false and ultimately pleasure or failing to recognize the gift of the present moment.
Leaving the focus on Don, it has become a bit tiresome, as no woman can find him resistible, apparently. He is not exactly changing with the times. He has no clue what is popular with The Kids, his ad pitches are getting tired and repetitive, and his personal life is just one big cycle of exploitation.
Midway through our life’s journey I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself alone in a dark wood.
He’s in the middle of his life, alone. What’s the end point of his journey? Is it going to be that frozen place, or will there be a way out? Will he ever reach any sense of self-awareness?
And this – aside from the burning mystery of what all these people are going to look like as the 60’s creep on and fashion gets more execrable with every approaching bell-bottom, striped trouser and (eventually) leisure suit – is what keeps me watching.
I wonder, too, if Weiner is going to really play out the advertising theme – if he is going to give any of his floundering characters a chance to connect their floundering to the extraordinary superficiality of their chosen careers. The advertising has often been used as a means of exploring human yearning, since this is what marketing and advertising are all about: identifying what you really want and then manipulating you into wanting something shiny as a replacement. Last season, Stan, one of the creatives, said something about how ridiculous their efforts were and one day they’d wake up and realize what they were sacrificing, “and all for ….Heinz beans.”
That’s the line I keep thinking about, wondering if any of that insight will bear fruit.
Death, of course, is all around Mad Men. Near-death began this episode, and Don is both haunted by recent deaths and fascinated by a new acquaintance – a cardiac physician – who has great power over life and death, a reality that fascinates Don to the point at which he evidently wishes he could be this doctor – to the point of sleeping with his wife.
His wife being a Catholic, who gave him the Dante he read on the beach and to whom he says at the end of this episode that began with him, with Dante, alone on that journey, “I want to stop doing this.”
Time – and many scenes featuring witticisms uttered by men in ever-growing sideburns – will tell.
Don’s proposed ad campaign for the Royal Hawaiian (who had bankrolled his fact-finding trip) is the place where it begins to come together. His campaign suggests Hawaii as a “jumping off point” – a place where the old self is left behind. Everyone else at the table is a little aghast because the image reminds them of suicide – specifically of James Mason’s suicide in A Star is Born. Don defends himself, saying their reaction is unique and not at all what the general public would see – and even as he says this, we wonder what’s at work in his subconscious, as weighted as it is, not only by identity issues, but also by two suicides for which he could be seen to be partially responsible. No, no, he says, it’s a “jumping off point” in the sense that it’s a place in which a person becomes completely one with the surroundings. But then he implicitly acknowledges the objections in another fascinating line in answer to an accusation of morbidity. Well, he says: “Heaven is a little morbid. How do you get to heaven? Something terrible has to happen”
Roger Sterling is dealing with death, as well, of course, and to him belongs the most striking line of the episode. Roger’s mother dies, and in processing this with his therapist, Roger says, “I used to jump off mountains and it never occurred to me I had this invisible parachute. My mother loved me in some completely pointless way and now it’s gone.”
Not to get too theological on it all, but really, how can I not? True love is “pointless” – in that it is not utilitarian. It is the love we learn from the beginning from human beings and that hopefully points us to Love that is so paradoxically pointless and essential. There is no reason for us to be here, yet here we are. To see the pointlessness can be a grace-filled shock that reveals, of course, the point.