Monday, October 18, 2010

Mad Men Season 4 - The Cure for the Common Don Draper

Season 3 of Mad Men left us with a lot of questions. At the end of the season Don was beginning the ugly process of getting divorced from Betty, Sterling Cooper was going to be sold, and so, he, along with Lane, Roger, Pete, and Bert formed a new agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Price (SCDP). The conclusion left things not looking too good for Don, but nonetheless there was room to grow, and so many hopeful possibilities for some welcome change in Don's life. Was the new company going to be successful? Would Don meet someone new (not just sleep with someone, we all know the answer to that)? Would he be confronted by Betty, or someone else, about his true identity?

Initially, as Season 4 began, I wasn't sure what to think of the show. For three seasons, the show had been so consistently strong- it's dialogue so crisp, the storytelling (and stories) captivating, and the character's so nuanced and subtle.

"It feels different around here." -Don's Secretary, Meghan

It probably wasn't until about episode 7, "The Suitcase" where I felt like this season had found its tone, or rather, I had grown comfortable with the new tone. Aside from merely cosmetic differences such as the new office for SCDP complete with more modern furniture and (gasp!) windows with open shades and natural lighting; the way the character's spoke, their body language, and their interactions seemed different. Maybe it was because now Pete was a partner and on equal footing with Don, Roger, and Bert; maybe it was because Don was living alone in the Village, sleeping with prostitutes, and drinking much more heavily (leading to an embarrassingly clumsy pitch to the Life Cereal folks, in which Don, absentmindedly pitches an idea which he had gotten from a hopeful applicant, Danny, whom Don ended up having to hire). Maybe it was Roger's angry, World War II inspired outburst to clients from Honda, and his refusal to peddle their "Jap-crap." In any case, it seemed like the characters, in the almost year since they had last been seen, had changed a bit.
"...but I'm just so damn tired of all of it." - Don, concerning his secret
One thing the season revealed to audiences was just how frail Don really is. In the first season, he very much seemed to be almost superhuman, certainly larger than life- a character who was so comfortable in his skin, doing his job, smoking his cigarettes that you would think he was born just as he was when we were first introduced to him. The seasons up to this point have slowly peeled away the layers of the Don Draper mystery. In season 1, we learned that he was actually a military deserter named Dick Whitman, who had led a rough childhood in Illinois during the depression. Season 2 showed us some of the more immediate aftermath of his decision to adopt the real Don Draper's identity and how that decision led to what is, or was, the most meaningful relationship Don has ever had, in Anna, the wife of the real Don Draper. In Season 3, we didn't see much of post-Korea Don, but were granted a glimpse of his childhood and saw how the lessons he learned from his father led to his ballsy decision to get himself fired in order to be released from his contract so he, with Bert, Roger, and Lane, could start their new agency.

In season 4, we see that Don is very much a man who looks tall, but is, in fact, simply standing on the shoulders of others. Much of his success has been gleaned through the niceties, favors, and mistakes of others.

Early in the season, we see the effect divorce has had upon Don, who lives alone and frequents a particular prostitute who he likes to have slap him while doing it. Don's naughtiness has been well documented over the course of four seasons, so maybe he's trying to atone. We realize, early on that one of the key elements in maintaining the Don Draper mythos is the typical middle-American, nuclear family- a wife, 2 kids and a dog. After he's stripped of that, the rest of the Don Draper facade begins to disintegrate.

In episode 6, "Waldorf Stories," we learn that Don landed his fortuitous position at Sterling Cooper after a fuzzy conversation Don apparently had with a drunken Roger, whom he met while Roger was shopping for a fur coat for Joan, early in their relationship. Don spends most of the episode completely sloshed, going from the CLIOs, where he wins for his (and Peggy's) work on Glo Coat, then to work so he can make a drunken pitch to Life Cereal, and finally to the after party where he's turned down by Faye (who performs consumer research for SCDP), but picks up another girl instead. The scene shows Don laying down with a brunette from the party, but after she gets up, time lapses as the sun rises and a new, blond girl lays down next to him, apparently having spent the entire day after in a fog which he can't even remember.

As we saw, it doesn't take much to throw a wrench into Don's gears. The Don we were presented with this season, is not the Don we saw in the past. In episode 10, he nearly has a panic attack upon spotting what he thinks are two G-men in his apartment building looking for him. He'd recently filed for security clearance with the Defense Department because of SCDP's contract with American Aviation, which they signed in season 2. His secretary fills out the forms and sends them in, not bothering to check with Don, who nearly loses it when he finds out, since the information on the form will not match up with the information given to the DD by the real Don Draper's family. Knowing how Mad Men works, this is one thread which wasn't resolved this season, and so I'm left to wonder how this is going to play out next season, or the sixth, as it most certainly will. I'm not familiar with how the US treats, or treated, military deserters, and identity thieves, so, I really am clueless.
"No matter how powerful we get around here, they can still just draw a cartoon." - Joan
All these elements, taken together, along with Don's mid-season turn-around following the much praised episode, "The Suitcase," left us wondering if this would be the season where Don confronted the pile of shit he had landed himself in all those years earlier. The introduction of Faye into his life was a glimmer of hope for audiences hoping the Don Draper story might move a bit closer to resolution after he confessed to her in episode 10 that he wasn't Don Draper. In contrast to Betty, who abandoned him in light of the revelation about his identity, Faye stands by him, assuring him that everything is going to be alright, but encouraging him to confront the problem, rather than continue to hide behind the character he'd cooked up.

This strength, shown by Faye, however, is unacceptable to Don, who apparently cannot, or refuses, to regard a woman as his equal. Earlier in the season, when we saw the dissatisfaction he had with the woman (read: girl) he was seeing, Bethany Van Nuys, I had hoped that Don wouldn't ruin his blossoming relationship with Faye with his usual Don Draperisms (cheating, lying, disregard for her personhood); and, for the most part, he didn't. The problem, however, is that Faye's strength was too much for Don's weakness- girls. Don doesn't want someone who is strong and independent, he wants a girl who is going to stand with him as a follower, say the things his ego needs to hear, hold him up on a pedestal as a paragon of manhood and masculinity, and purr whenever he looks at her. Faye didn't do those things, at least not naturally.

When Lucky Strike bailed and Don asked her to forego the ethics her job requires by telling him which of her clients was unhappy with their agency, she angrily refused, leaving him in his office to feel stupid. Later, she relents and lands him a (unsuccessful) meeting with Heinz, but only after deciding that her personal relationships are more important, unlike Don whose work takes center stage.

Don doesn't even realize he's losing interest in Faye, all he knows is that his new secretary, Meghan (after Mrs. Blankenship passes away), is looking pretty hot, and is saying all the things that Don wants to hear. In "Chinese Wall" she tells Don, "Let's be clear, I'm not going to run out of here crying tomorrow. I just want you right now"- words Don desperately wants to hear. All he needs is an excuse, and she's given it to him.

All he needs is a single excuse to choose Meghan over Faye. He finds it in the season finale, "Tomorrowland," when he takes Sally, Bobby, and Gene to California with him, bringing Meghan along as the nanny. Despite her claim that she has no experience, he finds that she's great with children, and his kids seem to adore her, whereas Faye was not comfortable with children, which she readily offered in "The Beautiful Girls." This is Don's in; his reason for deciding that Meghan is the right one, not to mention the fact that she's willing to kiss his feet. This leads to the finale's big surprise, where Don impulsively asks Meghan to marry him. Where Faye seemed to be the antithesis of Betty, it's not unreasonable to think that Meghan is very much how Betty was when Don first fell in love with her. Though we can't know for sure, Faye's remark about how Don only likes things in the beginning grants some weight to the notion.
"They're just in between marriages." - Joan

With the news of Don's engagement, Peggy, it seems, has a particularly strong opinion about the matter, though she doesn't really let Don know. Instead, she heads to Joan, whose earlier chastisement in episode 9 ("So all you've done is proved to them I'm a meaningless secretary, and you're a humorless bitch.") suddenly makes sense as she glimpses one possible future where Meghan is rewarded for stroking Don's ego. Joan's cold and distant attitude doesn't seem so bitchy to Peggy upon realizing all her perseverance and hard work may have been a wasted effort given that Meghan may have discovered the fast track to success, which just so happens to be located on Don's dick.

So, what do Matthew Weiner and the writers of Mad Men have in store for next season? I wish I knew. But there are plenty of lingering questions which need answering.

-What about Roger? Since Lucky Strike dropped SCDP his value to the company has certainly decreased. Looking at how he handled things in "Blowing Smoke," he seemed almost like he was contemplating suicide. Given his dissatisfaction at home, his rejection by Joan, and Lucky Strike bailing on him, where does this leave him next season?

-How is Roger going to take the news that Joan kept their baby, but is trying to pass it off as Greg's?

-How is Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price going to stay afloat minus Lucky Strike's business?

-What is it going to take to get Don to face reality? At this point, given his choice to curl back up into his shell, it seems like he will either a) be forced to suffer the full consequences of his dishonesty, or b) something drastic and tragic is going to have to occur that forces him to see what his dishonesty is doing, both to himself, and to those who care about him.

-Is Peggy's reaction to Don's engagement merely out of anger from the diminishing of her success, or is there something more there? Obviously, Peggy has a serious emotional investment in Don. It's not clear at this point whether that investment is romantic, nurturing, or something else. But, given how both Don and Peggy's characters are, in part, inspired by advertising legend Draper Daniels, and his wife/colleague Myra Janco Daniels, it's not unthinkable. However, given the not-so-happy direction the show often takes, it's likewise, not unthinkable the show may end with Don a miserable shell of the man we met in season 1.

-How is Peggy going to adapt and grow next season in light of Meghan's promotion to wifey?

-Is the scene between her and Joan in episode 13 a sign of things to come for the two women, who've always shared an awkward and somewhat hostile non-alliance.

-Is Meghan using Don? Meghan's ability to say just what Don wants to hear doesn't feel entirely sincere. Maybe the writer's are trying too hard to draw her as submissive, maybe the actress playing her isn't convincing enough, or maybe it's intentional and Don is willingly putting on his blinders to her charm and she's just looking to use him as a step-ladder to a better life. If this is the case, what is that realization going to do to Don who seems to be making one last ditch effort to reclaim the life he lost in season 3 by hitching his wagon to Meghan.

-Will Don's brush with the Defense Department come back next season to haunt him, or is that one plot the writers are going to hold off for season 6, which may be the series finale if Matther Weiner sticks by his guns.

All in all, this was a good season. Maybe not the best on it's own, but taken in context with the other seasons, it presents a good step forward in the tale of Don Draper. In the mean time, I'll be looking forward to the DVD release of this season so I can partake of the always amazing commentary tracks by the cast and crew.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Where's the Beef?

Following is a light-hearted editorial I wrote back in the Fall of 2007. A few things have been changed merely to make some of the language less awkward or to improve a couple jokes. There are numerous dated references to commercials and culture in general, however, so bear with it.

It’s a scenario many Americans are all too familiar with, you’ve been there: You’re sitting at home in the evening, having returned from a busy and stressful day at work. You sit down in front of the TV, maybe with your dinner, or possibly after; the button on your pants is undone, or you’re just hanging out, in the buff. You flip through the channels, searching for NBC’s Thursday sitcom lineup, looking forward to laughing off the day’s stress. There’s no better medicine. Everything is going fine, but in the back of your mind is a growing anticipation and fear. You look at the clock on the wall, beads of sweat dotting your brow. It’s already ten minutes into the show. They’re coming…the commercials!

Irish Spring has just released a new body wash and, apparently, according to the commercial, inside the bottle lives a community of little mischievous Irish girls, just waiting to be unleashed on your dirty, sweating carcass. One can only imagine if the inclusion of the tiny women was meant to be sexy, scary, or possibly funny. I, personally, was terrified.

The last thing I want to see when I’m getting soaped up is a miniature person being pooped out of my soap bottle ready to do God-knows-what to my body- clean me, Riverdance me, or maybe she wants to bite my nipples off. Welcome to the world of advertising (cue strobe lights and dancing tomatoes).

The vast majority of commercials really perform no truly necessary task. The general idea we hold concerning advertisements is that they’re meant to inform us about products that we may not know about. But, in truth, nobody actually needs to be told that there exists somewhere out there, in the vast, ever-expanding universe, a chewing-gum called “Trident.” When folks go to the store and they see a package of gum on the shelf, they know that it’s gum and not cyanide or a nuclear warhead. Commercials aren’t necessary to inform people of these things. The point is, more or less, to convince (or brainwash) you into believing you need their product, not just more than their competitor’s, but that you need it to fill a hole that exists in your life. Chew this gum and you’ll be having fun and dancing all night long! Or Use our body spray, and you will literally have women tearing your pants off!

Now, any rational being, who had not yet experienced this phenomenon, might say to themselves, “Oh. Well that’s not so bad,” and sit down expecting to see some scientific data involving charts, graphs, studies, or other information that might provide genuine evidence that Trident is better than Dentyne Ice or Orbit. Instead, what we get is a man in an airport, ripping off his coat and rub-a-dub-dubbing it across his ass while boogying through the metal detector, while strobe lights flash and obnoxious bass thump along with the middle-class white guy having convulsions (which he’d probably call dancing). He shoots a sexy look into the camera, telling the audience that if they chew trident, they too can turn the airport into a dance club. But, a question is left lingering- What the hell does this have to do with chewing gum?

In the vast majority of cases, the strategy to pick up customers is not to inform them. This is done by appealing to the most basic and primal aspects of the human psyche. One example, which in recent years has become increasingly common, is the use of sexual innuendo, or in some cases, just straight sex. I doubt I need to remind anyone of the old Herbal Essences vehicles that ran when the product was first released- the woman in the show moaning and shouting with orgasmic delight. Meanwhile, her husband or lover is in the other room and believes he’s stumbled upon her banging their hunky 29-year-old pool boy. But, alas, she’s merely shampooing her hair which has apparently rendered her husband useless, at least in regards to giving her sexual pleasure. While Herbal Essences has not rendered the husband moot, their company, no doubt get their own sort of pleasure from knowing that such a seed has been planted- Herbal Essences will give you a orgasm.

Now, while no victim of these advantageous and predatory practices would outwardly admit to being fooled into believing such absurdities, the reality remains that though we don’t buy into the immediate silly premise, now, that bottle of Herbal Essences (or whatever product) stands out more than it otherwise would have.

Additionally, there is another trend going about the advertising circuit that, while not new, is rapidly becoming dangerously more prevalent, and surreptitious.- product placement. While earlier it was more about endorsing certain items (i.e. cigarettes), the past couple decades have seen a focus on endorsing specific products (see Reeses Pieces in E.T.) Over the summer was released what is probably the longest and most financially taxing commercial ever in the history of advertisement. The piece was complete with state-of-the-art CG, massive explosions, big name celebrities, and some really kick-ass action. You probably remember it as Michael Bay’s Transformers. Yes, the summer blockbuster was nothing more than a two hour propaganda piece for the GM corporation.

Increasingly, more advertisements are being masked as entertainment. You might ask why this is such a big deal, but I personally am growing tired of being sold something at every turn; and the fact that companies are actively trying to make it more difficult for us to even realize when we’re being sold something, makes it frightening. How far are companies willing to go to advertise their products to us consumers?

Sometimes, they don’t even try to make the commercial memorable in a good way, but just want the spot to be so insanely mind-numbing that you end up hating the commercial with a furious passion- but you still remember the product’s name, and that’s all that really matters, in the end.

But, maybe I’m making a bigger stink about all this than is necessary. All I want is for advertisers to stop telling me about the next piece of crap that is going to “complete me.” I honestly (and desperately) hope some people will wake up to this invasion of our homes, and more importantly, our minds; though, I expect that they may be too busy getting freaky with a bottle of shampoo to notice.

Interestingly, about the time I had written this, AMC’s amazing program Mad Men was running its first season, though I would remain ignorant of it until the following summer. For those unaware (shame on you!) of the show, its about the advertising business on Madison Avenue (hence the title Mad Men) in New York circa the 1960s, and one of its running themes is the battle between the old and the new ways, including advertising which actually used to (partially) tout a product's actual virtues. This idea stands in opposition to the new (at the time) ideas concerning marketing and the notion that products have to resonate with people on an emotional level, hence the advertising we have today which insists on connecting products with positive experiences, regardless of whether the product actually has anything to do with the subject presented in commercials. Just watch the denouement of the first season where Jon Hamm’s character, Don Draper, engages in a nostalgic rant about the Kodak Carousel, a slide projector which was originally going to be called the “wheel.” The superiority of the name Carousel, which invokes memories of ones’ childhood, is immediately apparent to that of the Kodak “Wheel.”