Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Footnotes of Mad Men: Misfits, Horse Meat and Clark Gable

In Edward Albee's 1962 play,Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, George, after having served as a punching bag all night for Martha's verbal roundhouses, decides to have out with it. He and his wife had put on a pretty good act for a their guests, the young and obnoxiously naïve Nick and Honey. Right before George divulges his wife's big secret-it is of Dick Whitman proportions-he starts to peel the label off his liquor bottle. He turns to a confused Honey and explains, "We all peel labels, sweetie; and when you get through the skin, all three layers, through the muscle, slosh aside the organs, them which is still sloshable-and get down to bone… you know what you do then?" Yes: go for the marrow! Nice, horsey marrow.

Wet and lumpy like pony-filled dog food! Wasn't that 'label' foreshadowing marvelous? During the focus group scene-ahem!-a new label to slap on the same horse product.

"That name got us where we are. Do you think that was just luck?" the dogfood heiress cries.

"I'm not saying a new name is easy to find… But it's a label on a can."

So: they eat horses, don't they? Yes, they do! And by 'they' we mean dogs and Europeans. Beyond any sort of animal rights advocacy, there's an American cultural taboo about the human consumption of horsemeat, even though it's perfectly legal. The horse, it seems, is too much a sentimental character in American mythology to be edible-even for our pets. But touting the savory flavors of equine chunks-that was once a selling point.

Like for Kalkan pet products, before they changed their name to Pedigree.

The movie referred to by Burt and the dogfood lady for the outrage it created over sliced pony parts was The Misfits, from 1961. The film was meant to be a sweeping Western with a dazzling cast: Marilyn Monroe, Clark Cable, Montgomery Clift, under the direction of John Huston, with a script by Arthur Miller. These beautiful screen stars rope and ride the elegant ponies (before they are sent to slaughterhouse for dog food. The ponies. Not the stars. That was the 30s. Poor Judy Garland). The fabulous film critic and historian David Thomson wrote that it was Huston's love of ponies that made you look at the horses and "see the wild four footed miracle."

The Misfits is considered an epic misfire, particularly because it was Gable's last role and the strenuous horse-taming scenes apparently led to his heart attack. (He died in 1960.) In the same Thomson essay, he writes that Gable's acute, grizzled performance was actually enhanced by the vague dreaminess of Marilyn's. Additionally, he wrote this about Gable's persona-it could now easily double for a description of Jon Hamm.

Gable succeeded on-screen because of the promise of force behind the smile-that's what made the smile knowing… He was like Jack Dempsey in a tuxedo…. Joan Crawford said [being near him made her have] "twinges of sexual urge beyond belief."

Hamm has that exhilarating algorithm of sexual command, poise and vulnerability that were all on full display as Betty forcibly peeled off the Don Draper label. In the Virginia Woolf scene referenced above, George and Martha seem forever tied because of their ability to tolerate furious confrontation and an exposure of personal failure. Does Betty have that same… should we call it courage?

You can always find more Footnotes here!

62 Comments / Post A Comment

cherrispryte (#444)

Don and Betty ….. sad, sad sad.

sigerson (#179)

Who was the moron who pointed a finger at January Jones as the glaring bad actor among the cast? Jeez what a bad call. She's incredible. Like when she snaps at her poor daughter, or when she softened in her lover's office after raging at him.

As Betty Draper, she is stiff and shows little emotion. WHICH is *exactly* how the character is supposed to be, and it is very hard to pull off convincingly. Playing a character with stunted emotions is like driving a car with only three tires, and she deserves a lot of credit for managing to communicate from under Betty's layers of ice.

mathnet (#27)

I agree with you! And yet. Have you listened to the DVD audio commentaries? She admits she aktully didn't understand some of her lines. And still doesn't.

belltolls (#184)

Oh, I felt her every move, muscle twitch and GLARE; oh I felt it. I though Hamm was great but my quibble is with Weiner. Thanks for the completely man of the 1990s falling apart while telling the truth of his past to his wife. Would my conception of the 1960s Don have fallen apart like this…only if he was doing a community theater presentation of The Days of Wine and Roses.

haensgen (#2,089)

I get the impression the director is practically in her face giving her orders for every tiny bit of dialogue.
She sounded kind of dense in that GQ piece. She obviously enjoys being a sex object. The whole interview was pretty embarrassing.

sunnyciegos (#551)

Edie Falco's earlobe is a better actor. At best, January Jones is well cast and well-directed. I miss Elisabeth Moss; do you suppose she is bored? WHAT IS GOING ON WITH HER AND DUCK â€" NEED TO KNOW.

I found this all vaguely unsatisfying. Roger's old flame was a prop for the campaign. Joanie's response to her hubby's "I'm going Army!" declaration was absolutely the wrong one. Suzanne the teacher was sweaty and clingy as usual, although thank Jeebus she didn’t barge in on the unmasking scene. The last line from Carlton was a bit on-the-nose. Give us some credit, hey Matt Weiner?

That Jon Hamm, though, he is a revelation. Just gets better all the time. Love.

fuzzyjay (#2,070)

I go back and forth on JJ, but Elisabeth Moss is incredible to watch.

My plate is also in need of some DUCKSAUCE.

She is not versatile but damn good at what she asked to do: A combustible ice queen.

josh_speed (#97)

I can no longer watch this show because it's too devastatingly sad, but it's my loss and I may reconsider my stance, because they're getting to–as evidenced by this piece, above–the part where all the politeness and porcelain fragility of the 50s/early 60s just _breaks_ and everybody freaks out and loses their shit.

amockingbird (#2,015)

I'm with you. I had to give up a few episodes ago because the character of Betty just makes me want to cry, throw things at my television, scream, or all the above at once. She's just a horrible mother and I couldn't take it anymore.

HiredGoons (#603)

I haven't been able to keep up with Mad Men of late, but 'Virginia Wolf' is MY FAVORRRRRITE MOVIE!!! Picture made me creeeeam!

HiredGoons (#603)

Also, I do not bray.

phlox (#204)

Walking what's left of your wits, are you?


HiredGoons (#603)

Martha, in my mind you're buried in cement right up to the neck. No, up to the nose, it's much quieter.

phlox (#204)

It's a familiar dance, Monkey Nipples (HiredGoons).
We both know it.

I play Get the Guests at all my parties.

phlox (#204)

I assume, Natasha, that Hump the Hostess' is on the menu as well?
At your so-called 'parties'?

Phlox- If they can create the quietly noisy relaxed intensity.

Adouble (#1,300)

"that exhilarating algorithm"
I'm pretty sure that word doesn't mean what you think it means.

fuzzyjay (#2,070)

Maybe "amalgam" was the word: "a mixture of different elements."

Algorithm as a synonym for 'formula'. Webster's ain't got shit on the Awl.

Adouble (#1,300)

Here are other technical terms whose actual meanings may be safely ignored to talk about how dreamy John Hamm is. Start trends! Remember, if it sounds wrong to someone, it only means that that person is a nerd who knows what those things used to mean.
"Hamm has that exhilarating axiom…"
"Hamm has that exhilarating inductive proof…"
"Hamm has that exhilarating beta decay rate…"

mathnet (#27)

"It is a testament to how hard I was cry-coming that I am STILL GNASHING MY TEETH at the idiot ruiner person who decided to fuck the whole thing up by selecting Where Is Love for the closing credits. I mean, fine. Bang me over the head with it if you must. But at least use an instrumental version! Don’t make me listen to the pathetic kid voice singing the pathetic ruin-y lyrics, you china-shop-bull episode-ruiner!"

I am quoting myself; isn't that fun? I just really need a witness on this point!

oudemia (#177)

I spent the whole rest of the evening singing it. WheEEEEre is she/ Who I close my eyes to seeee?

barnhouse (#1,326)

Ack, ack, yes. Plus, Mark Lester is tone-deaf so it's actually a little girl singing, it turns out.

I feel you. This is a David Chase thing that I think MW picked from the Sopranos: the frying pan approach to the theme. But! It WAS the hit musical in 1963. Still, wanky.

mathnet (#27)

Oh! See now that 1963 FOOTNOTE helps me feel a little better, so thanks.

oudemia (#177)

But mathnet, you should have known that since it has already been mentioned on the show! Joan had gotten tickets to Oliver! (never forget that screamer!) for the nasty Brits!

mathnet (#27)

TOTALLY! I am dumb.

fuzzyjay (#2,070)

It jarred a little. Not too bad for me.

mike d (#61)

The most disturbing part of this episode was the lesson that in the sixties, if you're a bad surgeon – be a psychiatrist. If you're a bad psychiatrist – be an Army surgeon. Someone's getting a Purple Heart at his hands.

LondonLee (#922)

Hamm was amazing, he managed to look naked and exposed while keeping all his clothes on (sorry ladies).

Now that the Don/Dick thing has reached some "conclusion" hopefully we'll get more Peggy: "I can't turn it off! It's really happening!"

Peggy is the only female lead who has yet to destroy any furniture.

roboloki (#1,724)

kill your tv

hhoran (#1,642)

Great episode with lots of fine acting/writing (Slattery taking Roger in a new direction while staying fully in character, Hamm visually shifting between Don and Dick) and the usual mix of deft scenes (Joan having the empathy/insight to coach Greg on how job interviews work and coax job help from Roger while keeping everyone’s integrity intact) and overly obvious ones (Joan and the vase).

But while the show is always pitch perfect on period, settings, and short character arcs, the longer arcs, especially the three year Whitman changing identity in Korea arc, just don’t work very well. Imagine Whitman had never served in the Army. He moves to LA and changes his name (legally) to get away from his hardscrabble, dysfunctional past, and ends up where we see him in the show. The reinvention makes perfect senseâ€"lots of people have pulled off similar jumps in business/marital status, and inhabit a adult persona different from their nasty childhood. How can the difference between a legal name change and the improvised Korean change drive three years of plot development?

The original Korea premise was quasi-schizophrenic: Dick/Don as two different characters in the same body, foreshadowing big moral crises (can’t be honest to family/colleagues if he doesn’t know who he really is) and allegories about advertising (misrepresentations concocted out of thin air, lost ability to tell the difference between ad claims and reality). But the show has given Dick/Don has a perfectly consistent, coherent personality. For most people, shutting off your childhood identity is destructive, but for people like Dick it is the correct, healthy choice. No one has been hurt, thus no real moral dilemma. Draper’s first wife was made whole. Betty didn’t marry him on the basis of any explicit misrepresentation, and obviously Bert and Roger don’t have any moral concerns. The illegality of the dogtag swap is completely extraneous to the Sterling-Cooper and Don & Betty story lines.

Because the Korea arc had no real substance, a bunch of specific scenes went nowhere. His brother’s suicide might have made sense in a schizophrenic/moral crisis context, but was out of place if Don is just another upwardly mobile American who’d moved to New York and shed his unhappy childhood. Pete’s attempt at blackmail was a wet blanket. Since Suzanne doesn’t work as a mother figure triggering a core identity crisis, she’s just another girl willing to sleep with him because he’s rich, successful and looks like Jon Hamm. Yawn. And while this week’s Betty/Don confrontation was well played, it doesn’t really go anywhere. The drama didn’t come from any identity/moral issues, it was all because Don had inexplicably never prepared a cover story. At any point in the marriage, Betty could have demanded more history, and Don could have explained that his mother was a prostitute, and that he changed his name to cut ties with his deceased family and that would have been that. If Betty wants a divorce, she could use the dogtags as leverage, but the show could never justify Betty’s character suddenly abandoning the marriage because of the dogtags and the lease in Long Beach.

If these bigger arcs break down, all you are left with is a soap opera about an Ossining family, with lots of interesting period pieces thrown in. A way above average soap opera, but far short of the show’s original promise.

roboloki (#1,724)

while you're at it, don't forget that betty was in a sorority at byrn mawr.
kill your tv.

Too busy listening to my crass albums.

sunnyciegos (#551)

I think it's more that the show has outgrown its premise, not its promise. Don's dual personas never really intrigued me that much, perhaps because I didn't believe he really had that much to lose. Bert Cooper was unfazed, and Anna Draper was cool with it. End of story.

Now we've gotten a true ensemble drama where each supporting member is more complex and interesting than the last. That's something I can sink my teeth into.

More Peggy please!

Well I think the dual persona gimmick is part of the whole show's ethos about advertising in American culture: packaging a product (even of dubious quality).

bb (#295)

I wonder what their plan is for future seasons.. if Don is the focus of a story about the conflicts of persona/profession in of the early 60s, wouldn't it make sense that others would take center stage as it progresses (of course, I mean Peggy but maybe she already had her day in Season 1). But my sense from Weiner interviews is that he is most interested in Don – so we might be stuck with him, in which case I think you are right that the premise has a limited run.

Just a minor qualification: Betty did point out that Don subconsciously wanted her to learn the truth, which is also why he didn't try to lie his way out of it.

Also possible is that he was faced with either going through the box and having to confront is his past or walking out the door and having to confront the lies he's been telling about the present, ie THE LADY IN THE CAR.

diego (#2,069)

the only premise you listed was the Don premise. while Don is a central character, Mad Men has always been bigger than Don.

the Dick/Don premise has been dead since Pete exposed Don to Burt. since then that premise has only been used as a vehicle to explore other premises. Don goes to California and you meet Mrs. Draper and she reminds him of his "love" for Betty.

in the latest episode, the premise was used to further illustrate Betty's coldness and lack of empathy. Betty hears the entire Don/Dick story and witnesses her husband weeping and can barely extend an arm in support. It's also also used to juxtapose it with Suzanne's warmness and feeling. She asks Don if he's alright the next day on the phone after he leaves her outside all night.

you're right that the Don/Dick premise is no longer dangerous in the sense of Don being destroyed, but it served its purpose and it still is fueling the show in a different manner.

also, january jones is amazing. and so is jon hamm.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Agreed. I think we've all been snowed by the art direction. It's a 60s magazine come to life; who can resist?

I keep thinking of the titles, which weirdly show the falling silhouette, and then the silhouette-guy smoking placidly in a fabulous chair. The whole narrative is equally inconclusive–suggestive, but meaningless.

Yet, I keep watching it.

What show has 'meaning'? (Not rhetorical, genuinely curious)

barnhouse (#1,326)


hhoran (#1,642)

Diego, my actual argument was that the show originally seemed to be setting up a variety of longer story arcs (in addition to the shorter arcs of interplay between the various characters)and all of these longer arcs have fizzled or been abandoned.
The main "long arc" was the Dick/Don identity/morality setup, which appeared to be the jumping off point for posing basic questions about fabrication vs truthfulness in the Madison Avenue culture. The show also seemed to be setting up long arcs about the origin of "the sixties" (including the feminist movement and the "sexual revolution"), and about the shift from the oldline WASP establishment (Bert, Roger, Pete) with strict social codes to self-made men (Don, Connie, Peggy) who were much more lax about rules. You still see echos of these in isolated scenes, but there's no longer any attempt to connect scenes from different shows into a larger storyline. You can infer some of this stuff if you happen to know the history, but it is not actually written into the show.

Don's philandering originally appeared to fit a "long arc" story showing the conflict between the 50s idealized "princess" wife (Betty) and stronger, independent women (Midge, Rachel, Bobby) fitting the proto-feminist and "birth of the 60s" storylines, and contrasting with the servility of the women at Sterling-Cooper. But that got dropped, and subsequent affairs (the flight attendant, Suzanne) were just opportunistic skirt-chasing that was weak dramatically because it didn't really connect with anything else in the plot. Without a coherent longer arc, you are left with a generic "unfaithful husband" story, with no real connection to the world of advertising, the social changes of the 60s, or the New York/Westchester setting.

I agree the characters are wonderfully written and acted. But if the show is just the short-term interactions between these characters, it falls well short of the promise it seemed to have originally. Maybe I'm wrong and Weiner never intended any of the long arcs I've suggested. But the Sopranos was certainly more than a character drama, and the 60s and ad culture setup suggested a show about much more than people named Peggy and Pete and Betty. If long arcs like these work, then all the 60s sets and costumes and references help drive and add depth to the drama. If not, then they are all period-piece indulgences.

sunnyciegos (#551)

I don't think you're wrong about Mad Men vs. the Sopranos, but I also don't necessarily think that the Don dual-personas thing is really all that critical to the show (anymore), just as the Tony-Livia relationship forged the Sopranos but didn't sustain it for six seasons. But then, I've never thought Mad Men was in the same league as Sopranos or the Wire. Mad Men is like those hard candies your grandmother kept in a glass dish. Shiny, outdated, impenetrable, delicious.

If it's a fancy-dress soap opera, I'm cool with that.

hhoran (#1,642)

—true, but that begs the question of why they wasted so much time on it over the past three seasons. A big set up for a dramatic approach they couldn't follow through on. The whole Dick to Don turns out to be a big waste of time. Dick could have escaped his awful origins, started over in LA without changing his name, hit the big time in NY advertising after a couple of lucky breaks, and all of the Sterling-Cooper drama and all of the Betty/life in suburbia/outside affairs drama could have gone on just as they have.

–The Wire is obviously the gold standard in terms of presenting wonderfully written/acted characters week to week, short plot arcs over a few episodes, and longer arcs over and across seasons. Each layer added depth and complexity to the ones underneath.

–yeah, but it really had the potential to take it to the next level. Not to The Wire's level, but certainly to The Sopranos level

hhoran (#1,642)

Sunnyciegos: "I also don’t necessarily think that the Don dual-personas thing is really all that critical to the show anymore"
—true, but that begs the question of why they wasted so much time on it over the past three seasons. A big set up for a dramatic approach they couldn't follow through on. The whole Dick to Don turns out to be a big waste of time. Dick could have escaped his awful origins, started over in LA without changing his name, hit the big time in NY advertising after a couple of lucky breaks, and all of the Sterling-Cooper drama and all of the Betty/life in suburbia/outside affairs drama could have gone on just as they have.
"But then, I’ve never thought Mad Men was in the same league as Sopranos or the Wire"
–The Wire is obviously the gold standard in terms of presenting wonderfully written/acted characters week to week, short plot arcs over a few episodes, and longer arcs over and across seasons. Each layer added depth and complexity to the ones underneath.
"If it’s a fancy-dress soap opera, I’m cool with that"
–yeah, but it really had the potential to take it to the next level. Not to The Wire's level, but certainly to The Sopranos level

Hey guys, remember OZ? <3

mathnet (#27)

Oh! And it was also neat how the baby started crying in the middle of the confrontation? So that we were reminded of how pissed Don/Dick was about the NAME she'd given their son.

I still don't think that babeh is going to make it.

lostdownunder (#1,728)

Though I wanted all Betty/Don all the time the other night, I was glad to have a bit more Roger- I've really missed him and his and Don's destroyed relationship makes me sad. Side anecdote: when I lived in LA I managed a little West Hollywood cafe that was always in danger of failing (not my fault!) and Slattery was a daily customer. He was always really nice and we reminisced often about our east coast backgrounds. When Mad Men premiered I was shocked to see my regular customer on the screen- I'd had no idea he was an actor. The next morning I told him how impressed I was and congratulated him on the new show. He was very humble and grateful and it still me makes me smile that he responded "Well, let's just hope you weren't the only one."

Roger is my favorite supporting character! Every time he comes on screen he gets a reaction — which generally complicated! He's also gives such a graceful, mannered performance. Miss you, season 1!

revmeg (#2,083)

I have watched every single episode of Mad Men, and I finally have to say it…my parents were real life versions of Don and Betty Draper (my dad even had the same first name)! Every time Betty snaps at Sally and Bobby I hear the way my mother used to speak to me and my sister. My dad did not work in advertising, he worked in aerospace. During my early childhood he designed missles, and I well remember that nerve wracking time when we faced off with Russia over the missile bases in Cuba. Every other house on our block had a bomb shelter, and when the crises was over we kids used to play in them. My dad was very distant with my sister and me until he discovered we were talented musically, at which point he did everything he could to encourage us, giving us music lessons and taking us to musicals, symphonies and plays; otherwise we did not have much to talk about. I do not know anything about either parent's childhood, it was not talked about then and it is not talked about now. I do know they both grew up desperately poor and from what one of my aunts has said, may not have had enough to eat at times (they grew up during the depression). I think their memories were too painful to share. Like Don Draper, my dad hid a lot of things from my mother. Like Betty, my mother was beautiful and concerned that her life looked perfect to the neighbors even though she knew it was not.

Are you from California? Aerospace daddies were a big part of our social history here.

revmeg (#2,083)

Yep, I'm a California girl…about the same age as Don Draper's daughter Sally.

My Dad eventually left the missle program to help send men to the moon, so I got to meet a few astronauts (they were my heroes). Much better than blowing up the world, in my opinion.

If Sally Draper is anything like me, she will overcome her upbringing (especially her mother) marry a reformed bad boy biker (the total opposite of Don Draper and my dad) and become minister.

revmeg (#2,083)

About the part of the episode dealing with feeding dogs horsemeat…when my husband and I saw that, we both turned to each other at the same instant and exclaimed, "That's Kal Kan!" We both remember Kal Kan well. My family had two dogs when I was Sally Draper's age, a poodle and a yorkshire terrier, and it was my job to feed the dogs, mixing Kal Kan with Walter Kendall 5's kibble. Walter Kendall came in a 20 pound green bag and was five different colors. The dogs scarfed it down. At the time it made no difference to me what it was made of, and even though I am now a member of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) I think the consumption of certain meats and not others is largely cultural. Most people in the United States would never think of eating dog, yet in other countries it is commonplace. One of my favorite movies is "Little Big Man" about a 110 year old white man raised by the Cheyenne, who has this to say about their diet: "Dog is greasy, I admit, but you would be surprised at how delicate it can taste, especially when you're starving." Hindus won't eat cow, Muslims and Jews won't touch pork…it's cultural.

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