Monday, September 27th, 2010

Footnotes of Mad Men: The Delinquent Hero on Hands and Knees

VOMFor drama, in the Greek sense, to resonate with the modern viewer it needs have three elements: Acknowledgement of the universe's benign indifference, recognition of the utter loneliness of human existence and a commitment to something or someone outside oneself even in the face of those two principles.

KABLOOIE• The philosophical underpinnings of modern drama stem from the myth of Sisyphus. This is what Albert Camus described as the conflict between what we want from the universe (such as meaning, order, explanation) and what the universe gives us (a big rock that never makes it uphill). The great art produced in the latter half of the 20th century and this last decade embodies this existential stance.

• The exact moment of no spiritual return would have to be the use of the atomic bomb. In 1957, Norman Mailer diagnosed the unfathomable havoc the atomic bomb wreaked on the human psyche:

For the first time in civilized history, perhaps for the first time in all of history, we have been forced to live with the suppressed knowledge that the smallest facets of our personality or the most minor projection of our ideas, or indeed the absence of ideas and the absence of personality could mean equally well that we might still be doomed to die as a cipher in some vast statistical operation in which our teeth would be counted, and our hair would be saved, but our death itself would be unknown, unhonored, and unremarked, a death which could not follow with dignity as a possible consequence to serious actions we had chosen, but rather a death by deus ex machina in a gas chamber or a radioactive city; and so if in the midst of civilization-that civilization founded upon the Faustian urge to dominate nature by mastering time, mastering the links of social cause and effect-in the middle of an economic civilization founded upon the confidence that time could indeed be subjected to our will, our psyche was subjected itself to the intolerable anxiety that death being causeless, life was causeless as well, and time deprived of cause and effect had come to a stop.

The bleak realities of World War II, the camps, the annihilation of millions, according to Mailer, "presented a mirror to the human condition which blinded anyone who looked into it." The traditional values and expectations-the guilty are punished, the virtuous are rewarded, the authority of the church and state stand as legitimate-could no longer hold the same guarantee.

• A secular world is a lonely world. Isolation, the absence of wholeness; the longing for some structural integrity to the psyche permeates modern drama. Nietzsche said that once we reject the Christian myth, chaos ensues inside of us: "Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up and down left? Are we not straying through an infinite nothing."

Science then validated our sense of isolation and insecurity with two words: kinetic theory. The discovery that solid objects were comprised of negative and positive electrons bouncing off one another in a constant state of gyration destroys the assumption that we can trust what we see or touch in front of us, let alone what we feel in our own bloody hearts. This insecurity translates itself, in narrative, into an identity crisis for our heroes, the very essence of himself questioned and unknowable.

RUN• How did you feel when Don wolfishly smirked at his next possible sexual conquest? If you're like me, it was a twinge of disgust, then a rallying sense that "we got our boy back." While the afternoon of spooning post anxiety attack seemed delightful, it's Don's delinquency that enthralls us. Characters with mass appeal win their audiences not by demonstration of their heroic dimensions but through their display of weaknesses and ambiguities. When we get glimpses of nihilistic, fuck-all instinct in our hero, it's difficult not to feel twitches of worship. Pauline Kael, in an essay on appeal Dean and Brando called this certain kind of charisma "the glamour of delinquency":

One thing seems evident: when the delinquent becomes the hero in our films, it is because the image of instinctive rebellion expresses something in many people that they don't dare express…these kids seem to be the only ones irresponsible enough to act out, not the whole system of authority, morality, and prosperity.

If we know that attempts at individual decency go unrewarded, then it's up to the delinquent hero to test our limits of how much self-indulgence we can stomach. Kael points out that we're uneasy about the rebel's moral indifference. "When he attacks the weak or destroys promiscuously" then we realize what are necessary values. Otherwise it's all just too grim and disturbing. So we formulate our own ethical schema through their folly, always a bit on edge that we'll unwittingly beg our hero to go too far. Anyhow, that's why last night's episode was so damn good.

59 Comments / Post A Comment

hockeymom (#143)

Are we allowed to talk about plot points here?

So, a couple of questions about Our Joan.
1. Did she go through with it?
2. When she said her "daughter" was 15, do you think:
A. She was just being nice to the mother in the waiting room
B. Joan at her first abortion at 15
C. Joan had an abortion 15 years ago and that child would now be 15.
D. She was embarrassed to state the truth.

carpetblogger (#306)

E. Joan has a 15 y/o daughter that she gave up!

Speaking of given up children, where the heck was
Peggy this episode?

jrb (#3,020)

1. No.

2. D.

In my mind, Peggy is still riding a Honda motorcycle in circles.

mathnet (#27)

1. No
2. A, C & D

I got the sense that she was saying it to be a little mean to the mother she was talking to, who admitted that she had had her now-17-year-old daughter at 15.

oprah (#6,203)

1. Yes. Oprah cannot take more secret pregnancy plot lines.*
2. D. [Pretending she was there for a daughter, not herself -- right?]

*And Joanie needs to be conflicted about her rapisthusband's mission when the tee-vee starts beaming graphic images of the war. And here's also hoping that SCDP's next big client is Dow Chemical. Maybe Peg isn't "political" enough to think too hard about her segregationist clients, but she'll be hard pressed to forget about the burning flesh of Vietnamese children.

Sproing (#561)

Poor Lane Pryce. Poor, battered, emotionally stunted Lane Pryce.

mathnet (#27)

"She's the finest waitress."


hockeymom (#143)

Also, that frothy, pink concoction worn by Pete's wife?

Smoking_Robot (#7,632)

Oh you mean the talking cupcake? Almost didn't notice the appendages sticking out

LondonLee (#922)

Insane and incredibly hot.

Hope I'm not the only one who thought so.

mathnet (#27)

Pete is super honest.

jrb (#3,020)

Even with the departure of Danny, I've enjoyed that this season has been a mini-"Jack and Bobby" reunion. You know, the short-lived "West Wing" meets WB drama.

mathnet (#27)

What are you talking about?

jrb (#3,020)

Oops, I meant to say the departure of cocky art-boy "Joey."

But yeah, him, John Slattery and Don's new secretary were all main characters.

jrb (#3,020)

Correct link.

"We must imagine Sisyphus happy."

musicmope (#428)

Seriously: why does everyone forget that part? Is it because they never make it to the end of the essay?

melis (#1,854)

Yes, probably.

joeks (#5,805)

"The discovery that solid objects were comprised of negative and positive electrons bouncing off one another in a constant state of gyration destroys the assumption that we can trust what we see or touch in front of us, let alone what we feel in our own bloody hearts."

Do people really think about scientific discoveries in this way? To me the subatomic composition of matter is totally irrelevant to the way I sense and experience it. It's an implementation detail, not a reason for completely re-evaluating how one experiences the world.

This is like looking at the person you love and being disgusted because their body has inside of it trillions of bacterial cells.

Sproing (#561)


scrooge (#2,697)

I'm afraid Natasha's grasp of physics is a little loose here, bless her heart.

HelloTitty (#830)

No, I did not like that wolfish look Don directed at Megan. Not. One. Bit.

gotham (#1,572)

me too. disappointed.

mathnet (#27)

Is it possible, maybe, that he was looking at Megan after being prompted earlier by his accountant–realizing he'd never really seen her before since he was so busy being charmed by Faye? Yeah no.

mathnet (#27)

OK, I just watched it again, and it actually didn't seem wolfy to me at all this time. Just about putting on your face?

EvilMonkey (#1,063)

A great moment in last night's episode, the scene where Don pukes and you are there just above the bowl as he raises his head. Toilet-cam's shining moment; you can almost smell the reality. Also, I now fear this whole mess will end very badly, the animated falling man no longer a metaphor. Someone is going to die that way. Not Don, maybe Roger.

mathnet (#27)

"Hands and Knees"

LondonLee (#922)

Losing Lucky Strike means Roger is metaphorically "dead" but showing him taking a heart pill (first time I've seen that in the show) could be advance notice that it might happen for real. Christ, I hope not, I want to see how Roger reacts to the Hippies.

joeclark (#651)

"[A]n essay on appeal Dean and Brando"?

I dislike your avatar hat.

melis (#1,854)

I can't quite tell – is it a cowboy hat with the crown cut out?

mathnet (#27)

Why do you think Don and Pete weren't honest with Bert about the American Aviation/DOD/desertion situation?

mathnet (#27)

Any chance they'll hire Sal back now that Junior's given them notice?

LondonLee (#922)

I was struck how Faye was the first person that Don has voluntarily told about his real identity.

mathnet (#27)

Yes, and now romancing her has lost its appeal for him because of it. #beentheredonethat

mathnet (#27)

("Do You Want to Know a Secret?")

barnhouse (#1,326)

@mathnet Yeah. Faye all earnestly goes, "I'm glad you told me," and that was that.

bb (#295)

I know, totally know that feeling when you tell someone a huge secret and the next time you see them, they are all "we'll work on that together" and you think, ugh, never mind just go away.

or is that just me. me and Don and mathnet.

mathnet (#27)

How awesome is it that Betty's using his old office as her sewing room?? I enjoyed some relief this week from hating her.

mathnet (#27)

Oh! And Hurricane Betsy is on her way. . .

sunnyciegos (#551)

This was my favorite part of the episode!

Beside my enormous relief that Don's promise to take Sally to see the Beatles would apparently be realized, because WHEW.

Carina (#4,319)

I loved Betty sewing–we've never seen her be so domestic, have we? It seems that Betty is the happiest she's ever been.

Patrick M (#404)

Or just: Betty being genuinely happy for her daughter. I sort of forgot that was possible

jrb (#3,020)

How come nobody is talking about Roger essentially saying that he whacked off Lee Jr.?

mathnet (#27)

(And also held his hand.)

bb (#295)

"hands and knees"?

mathnet (#27)

And here's a word for poor Dr. Loser Rapist. He can only manage to become a second-class surgeon for the surgeon-desperate army, and he can only manage to become a second-class father to Roger's child, sad dude.

mathnet (#27)

And P.s. I don't think he's going to die in Vietnam. I think he's going to get some respect there and stay on for a second tour. And then end up MIA.

Or come back as an even bigger asshole.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Or come back super damaged, crippled and psychotic.

@barnhouse, I wanted to say that but immediately felt bad for all the damaged, crippled, psychotics out there.

Patrick O'Connor (#7,655)

Not sure Sally is going to Shea. Don seemed to be going back and forth from tickets to new secretary

Do you think she would go if she knew that he was supposed to take Sally? I think she knows, right? That's why she made sure she got them?

Carina (#4,319)

I loved how Roger actually brought up what we've all been saying, Dr. Rapist will die in Vietnam, only to have Joan tell him that that was no way out of the situation. Thanks for the shout-out, Weiner.

michael miller (#7,316)

i'm not so sure that was a wolfish smirk at his secretary. weiner has, of late, used some misdirection in the commercials as well as in the show. on second viewing, the glance – not so much a smirk – was not at all wolfish but seemed to be something more like "i think i'll have my secretary take sally to see the beatles." draper fails to connect meaningfully with others and instead sees utility in people, especially so in women. my guess is that his secretary has some use for him that is not so much sexual.

not that this suggests emotional growth for don…

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