November 4, 2009

The Pursued, the Pursuing, the Busy, and the Tired

(as of this moment, the last Mad Men post for a while, check out the first relating mad men to obama, the second, on what mad men means after the 90s, and third, an in-depth look at an episode)

wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight, but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild, strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.
                                                 -The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men has reached a level of critical mass that it requires no introduction. We get it. Television show with phenomenal production values, paced like none other on tv, about advertising executives in the early 60s. Every intelligently crafted episode unpacks historical themes through the intelligent drama of the individuals circling around the fictional ad agency.
            But with the third season winding to a close, and the two first on DVD for a while, it’s now possible to talk about some of what the show means in-depth (this means a fair number of spoilers. Don’t say we didn’t warn you). There are a two assumptions I’ll make coming into the show. First, it’s a unified work of art (though we don’t have an end yet), and second, every part of the show is there for a reason. From the extras screwing around in the background of a shot in the fourth episode, to a seemingly throwaway line late in the second, it’s all there intentionally, and has some importance.
            So with that in mind, what’s the appeal of Mad Men?
            Mad Men creates its power through a dance of personal drama, and gestures at greater meaning. Through a fetishistic love of details—yet a callous disregard for historical accuracy when in conflict with emotional truth (in some cases flagrant enough to suggest that perhaps its intentionally inaccurate to the history). From references both direct (Billy Wilder and Federico Fellini films for instance) to the filtered feel of a nonspecific reference. This is so carefully mannered, and so wholly a world, as to be almost unrecognizable to all other television.
            And to what aim?
            Jewish identity, equal rights politics, the dreams of Matthew Weiner, his Proustian recollections, his Fassbinderian melodrama, and his Bergmanesque fear of meaninglessness will have to wait. Today, let’s talk about identity, specifically, Don Draper.

He had come such a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. But what he did not know was that it was already behind him, somewhere in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Mad Men shares a great deal with The Great Gatsby, though its differences reveal more of Mad Men’s identity. At first glance, they seem strikingly similar. Both set between Manhattan and a suburb, the central characters of both are Masters of the Universe who only became so through changing their names and assuming their roles. But where Jimmy Gatz creates Gatsby, practicing and working towards it every day while still a North Dakotan nobody, Dick Whitman’s transformation into Don Draper is different.

In this case, the name brings the identity. Whenever we see Dick Whitman, it’s the nervous, pale, solicitous guy, who’s bossed around by everyone, and by circumstance forced into desperation. When the opportunity to escape the hell hole of the Korean war appears, Dick Whitman jumps for it, and takes on the name. And with that name, everything changes. Don Draper is a warhero, attractive to women, and capable of success at the top of the world. They may share the same face, but the man is different. Jay Gatsby is still Jimmy Gatz, just with a layer of gilt on top. Don Draper bears no relation to Dick Whitman. Whenever his past does appear, he reacts as if to a stranger. 

To look at the ways in which the name takes the identity, let’s first look at the revelation of Dick Whitman from Season 1, Episode 12 “Nixon Vs. Kennedy” (easily in the top 13 episodes of that season).

In his first appearance as Don Draper, he watches his family take in the coffin of Dick Whitman (shades of Tom Sawyer), and is visibly torn. But Don Draper takes over, just barely, and keeps his distance. He’s asked by a woman (appropriately named “Mae” in the script) if he knew Dick Whitman, to which he shakily answers “a little”. Still torn between identities, this exchange occurs:

The name has made the man. And the name is more powerful than the man knew.

The first season is in many ways shaped by the conflict between Don Draper, and his subordinate, Pete Campbell. In most ways, they’re opposites. Pete constantly tries to suck up to Don, Pete talks too much, reveals too much. Pete isn’t particularly talented (though, and this is fodder for another piece, he is often historically right. The VW bug ad DID work. Kennedy did have the better campaign, the death wish of cigarettes did work to sell cigarettes. But with Mad Men, the historicity of it seems often against the point), Pete isn’t a self-made man, he’s been plopped there by dint of his wealthy family. Pete’s wife controls his career.

When Pete discovers the disconnect between the figure and the identity, he assumes that the Don Draper fa├žade will crumble. So, apparently, does Dick Whitman, who briefly surfaces to try to flee. It’s telling that when he comes to his mistress, she looks at him with disgust, and tells him that he’s acting like a teenager (the last time he was Dick Whitman), and that she “doesn’t know him.” And it’s true. She knew Don Draper, she has no connection to the appearance of Dick Whitman. He snaps out of it though, after this exchange:

Why? On this train of thought, it’s because while the fleeing figure of Dick Whitman may live outside the rules, Don Draper is the rules. He’s the man in the grey flannel, who rules this world. It’s a cruel, vicious, fucked up world, but with rules nonethelesss. So Don Draper comes back swinging. With the line “I thought about you, and what a deep lack of character you have,” Don takes his chances. He has character, or rather his character has him. Pete, Pete's just coasted, doesn't get identity.

And the Don Draper character prevails once it comes to it, because the head of the agency doesn’t care:

The rules of this society allow this. The self-made man demands this. The rich are different, as old Fitzy says.
In this case, directly. Because of the name, Don Draper has a wife, a house in the suburbs, and an executive pay. Because of the name, Don Draper always knows what to say, is extraordinarily good at his job, and commands the attention of the room. Dick Whitman not only doesn't have those, but couldn't have those, just as Don Draper MUST have them.

And if season one was the peeling away Don Draper to reveal the emptiness where Dick Whitman once was, season two was the flighty figure of Dick Whitman chafing at Don Draper. At the end of season one Dick Whitman surfaces, and he doesn’t disappear. He gets involved with an off-putting figure (only to freak out once he seems caged), he gets sloppy, he takes off to a Californian commune. Once there, he even calls himself Dick Whitman. And while looking at the aimless life of no rules, of total freedom, Don Draper comes back. There, in the Pacific, Dick Whitman gets washed away, leaving Don Draper simply that.

Season three consists mostly of Don Draper trying to keep control, even as the world around him changes. The promotional poster seems to show it best, him keeping perfect cool as the flood rises.

But who knows, the season’s not over yet, I haven’t had a chance to look it over on DVD. I could be all wrong.

There’s a lot more to be said. The pitch meetings, that rarely have anything to do with reality. The tragedy of Pete Campbell. The Fassbinder influence on Betty Draper. The flaws of the show.

Should Awkward Haiku talk more about Mad Men? Let us know. Also let us know if you think we’re full of shit, and really Don Draper’s a cheap created hack, or if Ben got it all right, I got it all wrong.

Check out, The House Next Door, The AV Club, and the Atlantic Monthly for more.


Ben said...

Actually, for my money, this is the best Mad Men post out of the four. I feel like I learned something important about the show, in the way Orwell describes Winston Smith experience of reading Trotsky's "Revolution Betrayed" in "1984"--yes, yes, I know the author was Emmanuel Goldman and the book wasn't *actually* "Revolution Betrayed," but I don't remember the name of the avatar for the book in 1984--that Goldman was saying things Smith had always vaguely sensed on some level, but explicitly and much better than he could have.

David said...

Thanks. What's probably worth going into is what exactly we can call Dick Whitman, and what we can call Don Draper. It seems to me that Dick Whitman is the one who runs away (runs away to war, runs away from war). But of course, being Don Draper also means cheating on his wife...which in some cases certainly seems to resemble Dick Whitman approaches... it's just subtle enough that it could probably use a post, though that may never come.

Looking forward to reading something, possibly even not Mad Men-related from you!