Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Footnotes of Mad Men: A Rage For Order, or, The Problematic Episode

In the intentionally dull world of academic writing, the descriptive word of choice for a thorny issue about race or sexuality is 'problematic.' As in: "Sal only serving as a gay prop this season is problematic." And it was, though not for any kind of politically correct reasons-how eye-rollingly boring would that critique be-but because it makes for crappy drama. Sal's tragic situation and Carla's steely silence during the Birmingham news report was a clumsy plot gimmick. It felt as though the writers were grabbing hold of us by the shirt collars and screaming, "CAN'T YOU SEE? THESE PEOPLE ARE OPPRESSED?!" Well, perhaps we needed reminding. But in this instance, the writers of Mad Men sacrificed their usual elegant nuance for some ham-fisted 'social message.' Fortunately, though some elegance was found in other places-like Disneyland! Yay.

§ The Russians! They can be so problematic. Like shoebanger Nikita Kruschev, who threw a tantrum when he was barred from visiting Disneyland. This snub, according to capitalist stalwart Conrad Hilton, is what cinched our victory in the Cold War.

During a diplomatically fraught visit to the states in 1957, Kruschev announced that he wanted to spend some time in Anaheim's Magic Kingdom. Neither the LAPD nor the suits at Disney, they said, could guarantee Kruschev's safety. So during a dinner hosted by MGM (with Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe cavorting around with some Russians from the politburo), General Secretary Kruschev was informed that the trip would have to be canceled. Kruschev, who had already taken a fair amount of razzing about from studio heads and senators, was upset by the denial and left Los Angeles the next day.

It's unsurprising that Connie would regard with such pleasure seeing the desires of a wily dictator snuffed out by a cartoon mouse. Conrad Hilton and Walt Disney shared similar views about their role in American culture: while the rest of the country rumbled with social turmoil, both men believed that their particular blend of folksiness and modern efficiency could secure social harmony. They both built their empires on the notion that respect for traditional values could establish (or reestablish) order among a diverse and unruly public. Conrad's vision for moon hotels, as expressed to Don, echoes Disney's homespun vision of Tomorrowland: the terrifying solitude of space made orderly, sanitized and comfortable, with a bible in every bureau.

§ Let's slip out of the climate-controlled moon room into the sultry and prickly arena of gay sex. Specifically, let's look at the super homo-erotic imagery of the 1963 Lucky Strike Print campaign. Recognize the imagery?

The 'It's Toasted' slogan, from Season 1, seems to be a 1954 print campaign (Also? Kind of girly!). Starting in 1961, the thrust of the Lucky Strike advertisements were more along the lines of "SMOKING, IT'S WHAT MANLY MEN DO."

Hunters, farmers, fishermen,and men of worthy of a hard-won stubble dominated the images – with the requisite thousand-yard stare.

§ Speaking of staring into oblivion, though the (newly) coral-colored walls of the Draper home barricade the family from outside events, still the rushing tide of history does find a way to seep in. Burning monks, election results and political addresses intrude from the radio, TV-and via the tortured do-gooder conscience of Don's newest school-teacher fling (that was unnecessarily catty, I'm just envious. Of a fictional character. Christ).

§ As Carla solemnly helped Betty prepare dinner, a funeral service streamed on the radio. Four little girls had been killed in a firebombing of a black church, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a gathering place for civil rights activists in Alabama. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the eulogy three days later.

The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man's inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood. These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilt blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future.

This is the speech that Teacher Lady told Don she would read to her second graders and the same speech that caused Betty to question the fast-paced civil rights movement to Carla. (But do you see what I'm saying about overstating the drama? Wouldn't it have been richer to just let the eulogy play rather than walloping the viewer with it?)

The reverend of the church, who was giving a sermon as the bomb ripped through the building on a Sunday afternoon, told a local newspaper that it sounded as though "the whole world was shaking."

Doesn't it feel that way now, though? Like it's all crumbling? Perhaps that's why the overt use of white callousness and human dread as narrative felt excessive, ill-handled, suspect.

For more Footnotes of Mad Men, Natasha Vargas-Cooper is always on duty here.

42 Comments / Post A Comment

So, should the JFK assasination episode (I assume there will be one) just show the Zapruder film with no comment?

Would it be too ham-handed for the writers to actually have the characters react, you know, with words?

Words! Sure! I love words. Or how about they don't show the Kennedy footage at all? And it's all reaction? Or the episode ends in some optimistic moment right before the great tragedy? Either way, I find with these sort of things it's better to be opaque than blunt to have great drama.

Are you being sassy with me? I LIKE IT

JoshMeed (#1,928)

There has always been so much focus on "I remember exactly where I was…" when it comes to events like this and MM has done similar things in the past where it has given a glimpse of how several characters are experiencing a particular moment. Might be interesting to get a brief glimpse of each character – particularly something that we know they will remember forever simply by association. We don't have to see any JFK thing for it to be powerful.

katiebakes (#32)

If the words are "back and to the left" then yes fine.

LondonLee (#922)

I think the speech the teacher was referring to was 'I Have A Dream' – that's what was playing on the car radio at the time.

I know what you mean about the characters reactions to current events being done with a drop of 21st century, 20-20 hindsight superiority. Reminds me of seeing 'Far From Heaven' at the movies at hearing ripples of smug "oh we're so much better than those people now" laughter in the theatre.

LondonLee (#922)

Obviously that should be "and hearing ripples"

I don't think it's as bad as you make out though, Sal is obviously a human being, a character with depth, not just a signpost for closeted homosexual.

belltolls (#184)

The two lines that absolutely slayed me where when Don chastises Sal for not sleeping with the psych0-scion of the cigarette company with, "You people" and when Betty asks Carla after the news of the Birmingham church murders if she would like to take a day off. These were redeeming writing moments, no?

Yes! See those moments were waaaay more powerful. Subtle and man, thank god we were given a reason to complicate our relationship with Don a little bit. Things were getting too chummy.

LondonLee (#922)

I watched the episode again last night and John Hamm looked like it took a fair bit of work to get the necessary nasty bite into that "You people" line while still keeping it subtle. His face was going red and his top lip was curling up.

That scene was fantastic, I'm referring more to the overt gay sex park phone call leather daddy scene.

barnhouse (#1,326)

True LondonLee. These tiny vignettes have the air of pronouncements, explanations … the Disneyland business gave an especially false, flat and Hollywood-centric view of this hugely complex story. With the really important stuff (e.g. the Kitchen Debate) still to come.

bb (#295)

but I think that is the point — showing Hilton's total cluelessness about the fact that communism hasn't been killed yet, won't be for 35 more years (or not even then, depending how you see cuba and china). I'm sure this has been mentioned before, but we are all thinking of the Hanoi Hilton through all of this, right?

MatthewGallaway (#1,239)

Your analysis reminds me (in a rare, good way) of law school, where they taught us never to ask the 'last question' in a cross-examination but to let the jury draw the inference for themselves.

Yes! Also fun fact: I am above the law.

lempha (#581)

Hmm. I actually don't at all like Don's Conrad or school-teacher-fling subplots. Feel like we've 'been there already' with Don as a character. Feel like Don is kind of static? No? Or is that 'the point'?

MatthewGallaway (#1,239)

In terms of not yet done yet, I'm hoping we follow Sal on his nocturnal trek through the Rambles, which I thought (speaking of ham-fisted) was kind of hilariously populated by 'Village People' extras?


SemperBufo (#1,849)

Yeah, that felt oversold, and not really period.

lempha (#581)

There is some meta way in which Sal as Token Gay and Carla as Token Black function. If the show is trying to convey that they are Oppressed Persons, using them as pawns in grossly stereotyped plot-lines, to affect some contrived 'social message', does that. But then there is the problem of the contrived social message.

How about Betty throwing that moneybox! I LOVE HER!

Agree on teacher lady, with her dark haired sass and all that. Conrad is my favorite subplot right now because Don doesn't know how to work him yet. YET.

ALSO: Betty throwing the change box. INCREDIBLE! That woman, that woman is on THE VERGE!

sunnyciegos (#551)

Ah, Natasha, the writers have been up to this all along. The heavy-handedness irks me from time to time, but even I have to admit my heart dropped when Don said, "You understand this is how it has to be."

Of course, the curious conversation that follows, where Don admits he’d bang a broad if she were the right client, is negated by the clumsy Sal-in-the-Rambles vignette. You win some.

Trrrruuueee. My heart seized on that line. I actually think if they would have wrapped up there it would have been exquisite but then it was the disheveled Sal calling from the Gay Sex Park. Yesh.

bb (#295)

That wasn't Don saying he would bang the right client.. (I think) he was saying that he wouldn't defend a female staffer if a client forced himself on her, if she had a bad reputation, basically. The only men who are allowed to be sluts are straight men.

mathnet (#27)

All I have time for right now is that the girl in that girly ad? IS TRUDY!

OMG. Truds! I want more of her and Mona. Also? Harvey — what a wanker.

What if a dude hit on you in the Brooks Bros suit? I'd be conflicted.

mathnet (#27)

"Sure, Keith."

sigerson (#179)

Reminds me of an apochryphal tale from my old law firm. Associate is working late in a conference room with a female client. The hour is late and things become amorous. Pretty soon he is banging the client on the big conference room table.

Old partner walks in suddenly, takes in the scene and promptly asks, "I trust you're billing this time?"


mathnet (#27)

Can somebody explain to me the significance of Sally and the stupid pencil case?

Hello Kitty was not discovered until 1974 so I don't know what she's rattling on about!

bb (#295)

I was thinking it's just her catching on on lots of new stuff/options available (precursor to Trapper Keepers, if you will) while Betty is still in the 1940s childhood where you buy one pencil box for your entire lifetime.

dallasite (#1,297)

..possibly a reason to spotlight her writing on looseleaf paper late in the episode?

JoshMeed (#1,928)

I would love to hear more about what people think of the "Rome" thread and how it's related to the natural order at SC and in 1960s USA shifting so dramatically? Does anyone else get the feeling that the MM world is sort of falling apart? I love how MM does this to us. Season One ends with the election of a young, handsome, charismatic leader (and Don's survives Campbell's efforts). Season Two ends with the missile crisis (and Don bests Duck in the conference room showdown). Season Three ends with losing JFK…(are we going to lose our charismatic young leader as well in some way?)

Well! I'm not sure what 'Others' think but I'm totally bought into the crumbling empire/Rome thing happening. Even down the detail of their being IMPERIAL GUARD uniforms lurking in both Bert and Pryce's office. I think SC is kind of a tinderbox right now, the question is what will that mean for Don? Will he go down with them and watch modernity pass him by? Clinging to the old guard? Or will he adapt/evolve as well. Same goes for Betts.

ALSO? Hmmm Mark Anthony = Don ???

LondonLee (#922)

Nah, Don is Brutus and the season will end with him on the grassy knoll assassinating Caesar/JFK.

Or not.

LL– Can we write historical fan fiction together?

bb (#295)

oh, I don't know. Between Sal and Joan we are seeing some pretty harsh realities about people leaving their jobs, and no sunny happy "hey, we know you are everyone's favorite characters so we will put in an escape hatch" resolution. If Don had somehow reversed Roger/Lucky Strike homo's decision on Sal, that would have been ridiculous. As it was, to me it called out a bit of subtlety about how Sal assumed a certain level of professional respect because he is a man, but the eventual conclusion is pretty realistic. True that the cruising scene at the end (is there a phone booth right in the middle of the Ramble? How convenient!) was a bit much. But I guess he and Don both go to sex as catharsis.

Right, see. I was little saddened by seeing the sex/catharsis scene with Don. Not that I didn't know that sex was one of his ways of 'coping'. It was just like, Don's motivations for lady chasing have never been laid out so bare. It was unclear if it was dissatisfaction with Betty , some need for anonymity … but you know, even as I write this I can see the ironic parallel between Don's 'you people' line and his adultery. Hmm, And now I'm thinking about sex with Don which is cathartic.

Hiro Gliffic (#1,962)

I'm still thinking about Italy here… and Roland Barthes' amazing essay about the Blue Guide (tourist guide) in his collection "Mythologies", which you can read here:

For example, Barthes on Spain:

"The ethnic reality of Spain is thus reduced to a vast classical ballet, a nice neat commedia dell'arte, whose improbable typology serves to mask the real spectacle of conditions, classes and professions. For the Blue Guide, men exist as social entities only in trains, where they fill a 'very mixed' Third Class. Apart from that, they are a mere introduction, they constitute a charming and fanciful decor, meant to surround the essential part of the country: its collection of monuments."

What about the living Italian cliches chatting up Betty? Cliched because they are figments of the Americo-tourist imagination? In some ways, the Rome episode felt like some long extended dream sequence.

Mythologies was published in 1957 in French – one of the first texts to take the messages behind advertising culture seriously… a la semiotics.

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