Culture, Issue, Media — December 4, 2010 at 4:14 pm

Self-Made Mad Men

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Mad Men is a show founded on the very American idea of self-reinvention. Like Fitzgerald and Gatsby, the show’s creator, Matt Weiner, and his main character, Don Draper, argue that we can make ourselves out to be anything or anyone. And the entire first season centered on this theme of self-reinvention: originally a lowly farm boy, neurotic Dick Whitman becomes the self-assured, Madison Avenue executive Don Draper. Yet his speckled past comes to haunt him. In this looming apparition of Don’s past self, Weiner reminds us that self-reinvention is complicated. There is a fine line of authenticity— is your new self your authentic self? When has one really transformed into a new self? Or do reinventers partake in the con-man tradition of manipulation and self-delusion? Do they all just fake it until they make it? It’s been two months since the season finale of Mad Men, but the trauma of the series’s last “WTF” moment still flashes back like a suppressed childhood.

Something wasn’t right as the scene cut from Don and family recovering from a calamitous milkshake spill in a California diner: Don was sitting on his bed in his New York apartment in deep contemplation. Questions buzzed in my mind: Where was my California sun? Was this a dream sequence? Alcohol-induced memory lapse? Would I ever see Don Draper in a skimpy bathing suit again?

And there she was in his bed, Megan Calvay—Don Draper’s secretary/one-time lover/French-Canadian Maria von Trapp. “I’m sorry. Is it late?” she asks slowly waking from her slumber. What seemed like just another post-vacation tryst quickly devolved into the season’s controversial moment. “I’m in love with you, Megan, and I think I have been for a while” Don says. “Will you marry me?” he asks.

The season finale divided Mad Men fans—some lambasted it as a cheap trick, while others probed for deeper meaning. Slate’s John Swansburg, part of the former camp, felt that he had been played; as demonstrated in the season finale, Weiner’s character development has been a bit too “fast and loose.” And the proposal to Megan “felt like a big, disappointing step back.” In response to the outcry, advocates of the episode quickly ran to their keyboards. The Awl’s David Cho wrote an article titled “In Defense of the Season Finale of Mad Men” that praised the cliff-hanging implications created by the finale. As a whole, he felt the episode was “awesome.” But, arguably, the common feeling that transcended the divergence of opinions was confusion. What the hell, Don?

Summing up our befuddlement, New York Magazine’s Logan Hill writes: “You spend four seasons and over 50 hours of television with a guy—you think you know him, and then he just up and marries some 25-year-old woman you’ve seen onscreen for maybe twenty minutes?” Now, Mad Men viewers can all agree that we never expected —or even wanted—Don to be the next Bill Cosby-esque husband or father. We liked him pushing boundaries, owning his masculine prowess, and being shirtless. But how we didn’t like him was stupid – and the proposal was stupid.

 

For one thing, we had no idea who Megan was. Viewers had a similar feeling to Roger Sterling’s reaction to Don’s announcement of his marriage to “Ms. Calvay.” “Who the hell is that?” Viewers only knew Megan Calvay as three things: 1) Don’s secretary, 2) Don’s one night stand, and 3) a vapid Pondstest subject, who continued to emphasize her Frenchness. She was empty and, to be honest, just down right boring. Oh did I mention she was French… French-Canadian? How could Weiner-so vocal about his grand vision for the show-make the Don Draper, our Don Draper, marry someone so insignificant? What seemed to infuriate many was the question of why Weiner resorted to this seemingly crass plot twist. Viewers had been through three seasons of Emmy-winning drama painted with a soft and subtle brush.

Despite all the melodrama, Weiner let the series’s plot delicately unfold. Why did he decide to just throw a whole can of paint onto the canvas? Why would he insult his captivated audience? As a Mad Men fan, I was divided: I knew Weiner had his reasons-at the same time, I was furious while I watched the episode on my laptop (I had never shouted at an inanimate object that loudly). But, after much thinking and some consoling from my mother, I realized the brilliance of the episode: Weiner and his writers were very aware of their own ridiculousness and the response it would elicit. The proposal wasn’t just a crazy, out-of-left-field plot twist, but rather a carefully constructed turning point in the Mad Men series-it marked Don’s second self-reinvention. Don’s marriage proposal to Megan marks a shift from a Don Draper we knew and loved to an unknown third-self we had yet to meet.

This season, the question of Don’s authentic self is at large. Pull-himself-up-by the bootstraps Don is looking more and more like a con. Viewers have always seen Don as the talented, hardworking man who worked his was up to creative director. But this season we learn that Don had exploited Roger Sterling’s alcoholism to secure a job at Sterling Cooper. Showing up at the SC building after Roger dismissed his ad portfolio, he thanks Sterling for the opportunity while Sterling tries to recover his botched memory.

The scene closes on a shot of Don, smiling the goofiest of smiles as the elevator door closes, and reminding us that he has and always will be dim-witted Dick.

We’ve become very unsure of the cosmopolitan, adman self Don has worked so hard to establish over three seasons. The revelation of his earlier swindling accompanies a spectacular shlup in his love life. The guy who had women waiting in line to get into bed with him just can’t get laid this season. And when he does, it’s either with a prostitute or with his former secretary who afterward barks out the show’s only public feminist rant against male chauvinism. Living in a disgusting bachelor pad, Don drifts in and out of blackouts and writes in a journal. A journal! At the workplace, Don makes multiple business blunders. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is going down the drain and Don has done little to bandage the wound-he chews out a client while wasted and steals a cliché slogan from a rejected copy writer. What has become of the infallible, stoic hunk? Further, Don has lost not only his Donian self, but his Dickian self as well.

With the death of Ann, Don’s links to this past are dissolved-no character from his Dickian past remains. The show consecrates the loss of both selves with the selling of Don’s two previous homes – Dick’s in California and Don’s in New York. As a result, we see Don in an identity crisis (presumably the reason we see Don in so many contemplative sitting-on-the-bed shots in the last episode).

With no selves, he has no idea what to do with himself. But with Megan, Don sees a path for a second reinvention. As she says as they lie in the California hotel bed, “I hardly know you.” In Megan’s eyes, although she knows hardly anything about him, Don is a fundamentally good man. Much like the death of the real Donald Draper, this situation gives Don a complete tabula rasa.

After the marriage proposal, the transformation is immediate-we can hardly recognize the new Don. The Don we meet  in the office on the day of his engagement announcement is a strange one. His facial expressions are markedly different. A smiley- dare we say luminous?-Don has replaced stern-Don face. It is at once jarring and unfamiliar. But we can see the contrast of the new self when Don calls his recent exgirlfriend Faye Miller. Grasping the phone and looking serious in a familiar Don way, Don relinquishes ties to both his Dick Whitman and his Don Draper self (Faye knows of Don in both contexts).

But other than smiley, who is this new Don? My guess is as good as anyone’s, but signs point to a backward-looking man of the 1950′s. The new Don is old-fashioned and wants to conform to the strict gender roles of the past. The abrupt marriage-to his secretary, no less-s a sign that Don recognizes the need to conform to the 1950′s ideal of the husband. Further, Don also seems to be subscribing to the 1950s ideal of father. Jumping into the pool with his kids, he experiences some sort of West coast baptism and actually wants to spend time with his children. At night, he plans for their day at Tomorrowland with Sally and Bobby next to him and his baby in his lap.

But, as the title of the last episode- ”Tomorrowland”-portends, this future self is located in the realm of fantasy. The entire episode centers on the journey to the kitschy amusement park of the imaginary future. As viewers, we wait and wait and wait for Don and family to enter the magical 1960′s version of Disney World, but it never happens. Instead we get the abrupt transition from the Disney World scenes to the marriage proposal that evening. Weiner wants us to see Don’s “tomorrow” – his future - as some sort of delusional joke, for just like the amusement park, it’s a terrain of make-believe.

Weiner contrasts this retrograde Don with two forward-looking characters: Joan and Peggy. In what became everyone’s favorite scene of the season, Peggy comes into Joan’s office, slams the door, and lights a cigarette in disbelief over Don’s proposal. The meeting of the two office Amazons turns out to be a girl talk sesh (I was waiting for Joan to pull out the Haagen-Dazs and Peggy a Cosmo). But the slumber party has more serious implications-these two women recognize the absurdity of these outmoded, chauvinistic ways. Peggy complains about how a pretty face eclipses her saving of the company, and Joan, talking to her husband on the phone, can’t believe Don’s naivety: ”And he’s smiling like a fool, like he’s the first man to marry his secretary.” These two women foreshadows the 1970′s. Paralleling Don’s backwards development, these are the only two figures who recognize the insanity of conservative behavior.

Presumably Joan’s husband will be wounded or killed (he may never get to see Joan’s “pregnant” breasts) and Joan will become emblematic of the citizen disillusioned with the American government and Vietnam. Peggy, becoming more and more marginalized and closer and closer to her lesbian-alternative entourage, will be the feminist of the ’70s, decrying the unfair practices of the workplace and the ridiculousness of her male counterparts.

If my predictions are correct, I will first of all be really surprised, but second of all, I will be interested in its implications for the office. With only two seasons left, Weiner has a choice to make between taking the show and its characters forward into the tumultuous 70′s or insulate them in the comfort of regression. How will Weiner resolve the tension between forward-looking progressives and reactionary conservatives? Will office dynamics resemble the cultural battleground of the 196′s – or even the militant battleground of 1968? But for now we’re left waiting for next season. We can only hope that Weiner uses the proposal for some other purpose than a proposal. Otherwise, we’ll only have Megan’s gap-toothed smile to comfort us.

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