Monday, October 27, 2008

Mad About Mad Men II

I've learned since my last Mad Men post that some of you out there have seen a few episodes of the show and were left cold. Well, all I can say is that not everything moves everyone and that's cool. I stand by my recommendation, though, for those of you who haven't tried it out. 

But I think it important to point out that one should watch the entire season before making a final decision, as the show and its characters unfold slowly and subtly. The joy of the show is its pacing, its nuance, its arc. Or as one of The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates' readers puts it:
To me each of those shows have more in common with novels than episodic TV. Which is why I never get into this episode was better than that episode debates.…To me you have to view each episode of theses series like a chapter in a novel. You never hear someone say chapter 13 of Moby Dick was the shit, but 20 was lame. You judge the novel as a whole. Same with these series. You need the whole season to play out before you pass judgement.
You may not end up liking Moby Dick, but you should at least read the whole thing before drawing your conclusion.

Speaking of Coates, he has an interesting post on Mad Men titled "The Negro Don Draper" in which he meditates on the way Draper is akin to other marginalized minorities, some of whom can "pass" in society. It's one of only two shows that have ever made him tear up:
When I rewatched the first season of Mad Men, all of this came back to me. Don's past is unorthodox for his profession, and furthermore it is an object of great shame for him. And yet the past is the source of his power. In the last episode of season one, Don has to do a pitch for "The Wheel" a slide projector in need of rebranding. Don's marriage is crumbling and he's lost his brother—the last link to his murky, and poignant past. Don pulls all of that together and makes a beautiful pitch, rechristening "The Wheel" as "The Carousel" a device that's a time machine which takes us to a place where we ache to go again." The pitch blows everyone away, and Don is hailed as a genius. But what only we know, is that Don can write such pitches because he sees different, and he sees different because he's literally seen different things. His life has been much harder than his colleagues, and that gives him a power to see more than them.

But he's also haunted by the past. Don believes his progress is tied to no one ever knowing who he truly is, to no one discovering his true history—his secret identity, if you will. Don Draper is, in the parlance of old black folks, passing. His orgins are not proper and gentile--he is the child of a prostitute, who as reinvented himself for the Manhattan jet-set. He is Gatsby and Anatole Broyard, no? And yet the irony that animates Mad Men is the fact that, without that past, Draper would likely be the sort of pampered hack he despises. He'd be Pete Campbell. His double consciousness, makes him, indeed, doubly conscious, doubly aware. Don Draper sees more.

Only two groups of people truly can sense something amidest—the blacks, and the Jews. There is a lovely scene in Season Two where Peggy, Don and the black elevator man are riding up. They are talking about Marilyn Monroe's death and noting how shocked they are. The elevator man casually notes, "Some people just hide in plain sight." It is not so much that he directly knows Don's identity, but that he is playing the role that blacks play throughout the show--they are a kind of Greek chorus, unseen, but offering short poetic takes on the themes at work.

The major theme is set from the first episode, when Don, wooing Rachel, a Jewish proprietor of a department store, is enjoying the sound of his own voice. Rachel listens skeptically and then cuts right through the mask:
I don't know what it is you really believe in, but I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it.There is something about you that tells me you it to.
To be out of place, To be disconnected. That is the essence of us, and I guess in one way or another, it's everyone else too. 
That scene with Rachel was the one that hooked me, the one that intimated that the show was going to be something more than interesting set pieces and nostalgia, that it was going to be something special. 

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