Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Way Back In The 1960s

Season 6 of Mad Men presents us with a Don Draper hellbent on undoing any sign of growth we might have seen in him in the previous two seasons. After bottoming out in 1965 with alcoholic blackouts and creepy, destructive sexual power-tripping, he pulled himself together and married a smart, assertive young woman who kept him interested enough that he seemed to be making a real effort to make his second marriage something his first could never be: a real partnership. Fast forward to 1968 and Don is back to his 1960 self, luxuriating in the privileges of the double standard that allow him to pout jealously over his actress wife playing a love scene in a soap opera one minute and mess around with the bored stay-at-home housewife downstairs in the next. Don's pathetic, threadbare hypocrisy is further underlined by the earlier scene where he and Megan are propositioned by another couple; for a minute the Drapers seem to be on the same page. But while Megan's objections seem straightforward enough (it's just plain skeevy and doubly uncomfortable because she has to work with these people!), for Don this kind of flagrant sexual openness is a violation of the twisted code he lives by where a man indulges his appetites in secret and returns to the "good" woman waiting patiently for him at home.

Deliberate Values Dissonance has always been the point of Mad Men. From the beginning, the show has rubbed your face in the conventional wisdom of 50 years ago. The characters are true to their era, but they're seen through the eyes of a present day audience. The brilliance of the show is the way they've played with that: sometimes blatant (Doctors smoke cigarettes! Everyone drinks at work! Sexual harassment is just a perk of success!), and sometimes jarringly subtle. (Wait a minute, is that family really going to just leave all that trash behind in the park? Ummm...I guess they are, all right. Lady Bird Johnson and "Keep America Beautiful" are still a few years away.) This could have been done in such a way that we are allowed to smugly sit back and look down at those poor ignorant fools from a less enlightened past. But instead, we're given a set of deep, complicated antiheroes negotiating their way through a rapidly changing culture, which has made for some of the most fascinating TV we've had in years. We view this world, so different from our present and yet so much the same, through a lens that adds layers of meaning to everything that happens. If a time traveler took a few episodes of Mad Men and showed them to a Sixties audience, they would (once they got over their shock that this overtly risque stuff was actually a TV show) not see the same show that we do. The most obvious example would be the way the men treat the women. Sexism and even misogyny are simply a fact of life for all of these people. They no more question it than a fish would question water. But we get to see the impact of each casual word or act through the eyes of the female characters, most of whom don't even have the language yet to understand what's being perpetrated on them, but they know they don't like it.

At the same time, there are no cartoon villains in this show. We care about these people, no matter how hideously wrong they are, even tragic douchebag Pete Campbell, who got put in his place deliciously by his wife Trudy the week before. (So deliciously that it's easy to forget the poor woman he was caught cheating with, the evidence taking the form of a horrific beating by her husband. If you needed a reminder that we've progressed a little bit on the issue of domestic violence, look no further.) And there are no flawless heroes either. Megan may be guilelessly honest and sincere, but she's made some ruthless moves to get her acting career off the ground. And even Peggy, our viewpoint character if anyone on this show is, had to betray a friendship for the sake of her job last week, and seems to be OK with that in this episode. Temptation, corruption, workplace politics and, of course, (this is a show about advertising, after all) the art of persuasion keep popping back up as recurring themes. Whenever Don or Peggy delivers a great pitch to a client, the thrills are palpable. And when we see Don do a crappy pitch that falls flat (as we have two shows in a row now, though last week's was deliberate and even brilliant in its passive-aggressiveness), it's painful to watch.

The show first caught my radar when my favorite feminist blogger, Amanda Marcotte, started co-hosting a weekly video critique of the show with partner and fellow blogger Marc Faletti called The Orange Couch, which continues to probe brilliantly into the historical context of each episode, and gives you a more enlightening picture of what it's about than those ubiquitous Banana Republic ads.

By the end of last summer, Davis and I had devoured the first four seasons on Netflix. The fifth season came out on DVD just in time for her birthday, and now we're watching the new season in real time. I've seen a few online naysayers who think the show is going downhill. Nonsense. The characters keep surprising us, but I have yet to see any of them do anything that doesn't ring true.

The other subplot (besides Don's increasingly anachronistic "morals") that caught me was the sudden power struggle between Joan and Harry. Talk about your workplace politics! Both of them have a valid point, but the central bone of contention (Joan has more authority as a partner in the company than Harry, but does that mean she has the right to fire Harry's employees without his permission?) is a controversial one, and the combination of power imbalance and gender dynamics just makes the whole thing murkier. I leaned towards taking Harry's side while knowing that doing so undermines Joan's hard-won authority and respect. There are no good answers. (But we also got to see what may be the beginning of an alliance between Joan and Dawn, which has all kinds of possibilities.) Things are bound to get even messier as 1968 progresses, and I don't want to miss it.

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