Tuesday, December 9, 2014

We Are All Close Readers Now: On Season Five

I wanted to be the 45,931th person to blog each episode of Mad Men this season, but it was not to be. I could try to be noble and say David Simon's arguments got to me instead of, you know, life.  Just as a counterpoint to Simon, though, I think it's kind of awesome that so many people spend so much time dissecting them, from acting and costuming to character motivations to each period reference. Sure, there are more important things we should be doing, but when is there not? When I was a kid there were lots of earnest pieces by the serious concerned types about how TV was making everyone "passive." Now these serious (semi-serious?) people say that TV is brilliant art and it's the interactive 2.0 stuff that's killing us, what with how we're all "distracted" instead of "absorbed."  I've spent more than my share of time around my English department comrades lamenting how hard it is to get people to close read, or how students resist analysis by saying "they didn't really think that much about it." But of course people love to "close read" as soon as there's something they're invested in, and no one is saying Weiner doesn't think this shit through. 

And so, at this belated hour with two of thirteen episodes to go, ten ways of looking at season five:

1) Over at slate, John Swansburg asks the big question: Is it possible Don is actually becoming something like a better person?  Weiner of course comes from The Sopranos, where the whole arc was about Tony setting out half-heartedly to see if he could be redeemed, when it was actually clear all along that he couldn't. As with Tony, we forgive Don too much because of his charms, but of course we're operating in a very different moral universe here (no matter what that stupid fantasy murder scene thought it was trying to do), one where redemption would seem to be more possible. The real obstacle seems to be the narrative one: this is a serious show, so it has to be a tragedy, right?

I remember reading Crime and Punishment way back and being struck by how Raskolnikov kept falling back into justifying his actions after he'd seemed to have a breakthrough. The Sopranos used the long form to capture this even more acutely. We think we have epiphanies, we think someone's "life can change in an instant," as the melodramas would have it, but more likely the change is just another thought we had about ourselves. Don sunk low in the fourth season, and seems to be crawling back up, but who knows. It's not just that these multi-season shows can have characters ebb and flow over years instead of having the one arc Christopher Moltisanti thought he should have, it's that we get the feeling we're dipping into lives that continue off-stage, a whole texture of experiences that are as much like the formless unfolding of lives - or history - than the constructed lives of tragic personalities.

Of course the tragedy could be that he becomes a better person too late: one of those men who becomes such a devoted husband/father the second time around, in part because the first set can never forgive him. I loved Ken's line about Don and Megan's cool whip act, how it's a twist on the normal schtick because "they actually like each other." Our girl from Montreal isn't at all the Betty 2.0 she seemed to be last season. That would be a very take-this-to-the-seventies outcome, but it feels pretty unsatisfying. 

2) I'm struck again and again by how, with all its bang up research, the thing that really makes the period detail work is that it's a little "off." And as with The Sopranos, the dialogue is also a bit off - a little over the top, a little too metaphoric. It fills in what would be outside the dialogue in a story, punching it up to where it feels real instead of being realistic in a mimetic sense. This shit isn't easy to do. Likewise the reference points are not inaccurate, just not the trajectories or reference points you're expecting. Even the Beatles thing hit at this - the unexpected choice, the last song off the album, after an episode of fake-Beatles. Being interested in the period I've seen enough films and documentaries that hit the exact same notes to realize how important this is. It's the sixties as lived before people knew what "the sixties" were.

3) Hey, do you remember when the woman who played Daphne on Frasier was pregnant and instead of writing the pregnancy into the character or trying to disguise it they put her in a fat suit? Yeah. Fat suits and fake chins need to die. I had a problem with the Peggy stuff in the first season but there you could at least make a case for it. There's no excuse for such a perfectionist show to have something so visually unconvincing, as if we don't know what non-thin bodies look like and will just accept the signifier. Find something reasonable to do with Betty Draper or let her go.

4) Speaking of pregnancies, what happened to little Kevin? Yes, yes, Joan's mom is at home, and yes there was no attachment parenting in 1966 but she seems awfully unencumbered.  Mad Men has done a great job with Sally, but Bobby, Gene and Kevin all seem to follow the pattern of existing as plot points. Obviously there are practical reasons for this but it would be nice to see a little of how these little ones affect the texture of these everyday lives.

5) Also speaking of pregnancies, is that memory out of Peggy's life for good? Narratively speaking it seems so. I want her to triumph as much as anyone (which is to say, a lot), but it doesn't seem likely that she would have put this behind her in any meaningful way - as far as we can tell she only discussed it honestly with Don once, in "The Suitcase," and even then somewhat obliquely. And from what we know, adoptions of this period proved highly traumatic in the long run.

6) How great that the least angsty of the bunch, Ken, continues his run as the show's one true artist? And too bad for Paul that wishing don't make it so. Like Pete, no one likes him, but unlike Pete, he's not an asshole, just kind of foolish. If he'd kept his mouth shut in his early romance with Joan she could have broke it to him gently and helped him find out he had a talent for gardening or some such and maybe they would have moved to the country together . . . 

7) "Signal 30" and "The Other Woman" were to me the strongest so far. "Signal 30" is a perfect short story - what Cheever or Updike would have written with the benefit of feminist insight. And putting them together, it's striking how much Joan's situation owes to this little worm. Pete's another example of the zig-zag in the long-form approach to storytelling: for a while it seemed like he and Trudy were actually the best-matched couple on the show, but like Pete and, like one suspects, Trudy before too long, we had another thing coming.

8) Speaking of which, Trudy seems the perfect candidate to get radicalized. I'm afraid the show won't totally go there in later seasons out of the misplaced fear of being too explicitly political, but for all the talk about how it would be ahistorical for people on the show to speak from contemporary values, there's a point at which ignoring radicalism will become the real ahistorical path. Joan's too caught up in the games she's learned to play - the feminist insight about femininity as role playing wouldn't be a shock to her at all. Peggy's too invested in her ambition, and Betty's just too Betty. But Trudy is still young, she's obviously well-educated and nobody's fool, and watch out if she finds out just a fraction of what the man she's hitched her star to has been up to. 

9) Speaking of radicalism and the ahistorical, there had really really really better be some payoff with Dawn in the next few episodes.  Seriously, I don't care how realistic you want to make the period's racism, there were, you know, still actual African Americans who have personalities and stories. Start telling them, like, way before yesterday.

10) Is it time for the Mad Men death/suicide pool?  Pete was the early and perhaps too obvious choice, Roger would have made more sense a while back, and Joan - well, can't bear to think about that. My money's on Lane.  

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