A Bluster-Based Economy (Mad Men!)

One of the more reliably impressive aspects of the Mad Men premise: advertising makes big business out of our deepest, most intimate and private experiences. Allowing the show to do the same.

Which is itself synecdoche for Don Draper’s genius. Something about his preposterous backstory, combined with his mercurial glowers, has produced his (the show’s) ability to sell our loneliness and fears back to us, and make us like it.

But, as critics have been noting over the past few episodes, his genius seems to be morphing into desperate pretension.

But while we’ve watched Don sink, we’ve also watched the show deal more straightforwardly with the intimate business of business.

As advertising reminds us, several times a day, no matter where we are or what we’re doing, our most private experiences are market fodder.

And the market itself—all those giant anonymous-seeming corporate/government entities that compose it—is personal.

It’s both afraid and cocky, both mired in the past and confident about the future. Both sweaty and calm. Both a pilot and, you know, the opposite of a pilot.

Blogging four episodes at once can be as heady or as headachey as Ted’s flight to Detroit. On the one hand, a lost opportunity to blog in-depth about my ambivalence about the MLK Jr episode. On the other, an opportunity to contrast it with the Bobby Kennedy episode.

Which was actually the B&D/Big Johnson Swingin’/Womanly Cysts episode. With Bobby’s assassination an afterthought, a symbol of Don and Megan’s distance rather than of the historical cataclysm it actually was.

The real opportunity in summary blogging is to reflect on what images and scenes stand out the most.

And my favorite of the past 4 episodes was last week’s penultimate scene. When Don moved ominously toward Peggy, hand out, waiting for her to shake on his obviously false promise that the merger would be the best thing in the whole world.

And her reaction shot: seriously annoyed that she’d have to work for that dude again, combined with skepticism that the merger had anything more going for it than two dudes throwing a hail mary over some drinks.

A bluster-based economy, friends.

The stock market, a lucrative carrot on a stick for two episodes now, based on nothing but all the Drapers’ sweaty promises of greatness. Based on our beliefs about value, rather than tangible value.

Or rather, through the stock market, our beliefs about value become tangible value. Beliefs become dollars.

The Mad Men premise allows me to say that our economy is about feelings, not numbers. And everything we’ve seen lately on MM has borne that out.

Every single company transition has been driven by petty masculinist bullshit:

Don’s dick-swinging with the “big” firms, with his partners, with his clients, with whoever’s around.

Pete’s post-oedipal whatever with his father-in-law.

Don’s condescending defense of Joan’s “honor” vis a vis the repulsive Jaguar guy.

Then there’s the less petty shit: Ted’s grief about his partner dying of cancer. Said partner giving Ted sage advice to treat Don Draper like a f-ing toddler playing ball (let him win a few rounds while he tires himself out.)

And whither the women? When we think about MM as a show about BUSINESS, the women tend to fade. Even Joan, literally crippled by her lady parts during the big merger. Megan literally drowned out by Don’s by-now tiresome (for me, at least) unknowable introspection.

And, thinking back several episodes, Don’s been nothing but cruel to the women in his life. The particular moment that stands out from several episodes ago, of course, is Don’s horrid reaction to Megan’s kissy-face soap opera scene. Cruel enough on its own, but doubly or triply so when he goes to Sylvia’s apartment in the same episode (probably on the same day, for all I remember from a month ago.)

And Megan’s desperate attempt to use her own sex appeal to win back his loyalty and fidelity. Because sex is a proxy for intimacy, which she’ll never get from him.

So we’re back to Mad Men being nothing more than a dressed-up Schmuck Parade.

With white people acting shifty, guilty, and awkward about King’s assassination. Pete and Don treating women as poorly as possible. Don acting out cruel power fantasies with Sylvia (and Megan and Betty and…)

And the women? They’re all growing and changing. When they’re not punching bags, pawns, and trophies for dudes.

I was tired last season of the Schmuck Parade.

I want to see Betty continue to explore her dark side and join Shulamith Firestone’s crew—bringing along Sally o’course.

I want to see Megan wise up to Don and kick him back to the whorehouse where he grew up. Or just wreak endless vengeance on him through the swingers she works with. Or join Shulamith Firestone’s crew—bringing along Sally o’course. Or dump him and become a workout video bazillionaire.

I want to see Peggy figure out that maybe she’s actually too bourgie, at heart, for radical Jewish Abe, or maybe she isn’t and they become a real estate mogul power couple responsible for creating the Upper West Side that we now know?

I want to see Dawn at her friend’s wedding, with black people of many different personalities and experiences.

I want to see Joan be Joan forever. I love that she’s gracefully accepting her age. Kevin’s her man now. She’s moving on in a way that Don will never be able to.

But all that would be a different show. And I guess I’m curious to see how Don’s shame spiral will wind down.

And I’m curious to see if any of these more fascinating stories will move out of the margins, out from under Don’s thumb.

Till then, this is capitalism: bluster, covering up fear, making promises of value that they’ll never be able to make good. And men beating down on women out of terror that women will see everything underneath the bluster.

I know that “bluster” is too mild a word for Don’s cruellest moments, let alone the real-life domination of women by, to mention the very worst, Kermit Gosnell and Ariel Castro.

But “bluster” links male domination to the shifting winds of our economy and the lies that support it all.

“Bluster” ties Don’s handshakes and dubious corporate mergers with his loneliness and sorrow. And the ways he swings his johnson around to cover it all up.

“Bluster” nails Pete.

“Bluster” nails Matt Weiner, who asserted in an interview that his MLK Jr episode was about how “society was crumbling” when, in fact, Mr. Weiner, the Civil Rights Movement was pretty well organized and focused.

King was shot, but the movement lived on. It didn’t crumble till, what? The FBI crackdown on the Black Panthers? Systematic ghettoization of and theft from the black middle class?

Which indicates that white society certainly got itself together enough to ensure that the Civil Rights Movement would be only partly victorious. Despite all the violence and mayhem of the late 60s.

But this show isn’t about that. It’s a big bluster asserting the importance of white male dominance at the very moment when everyone else in society was starting to see behind it all.

As I keep saying, how is our world today any different?

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2 thoughts on “A Bluster-Based Economy (Mad Men!)

  1. […] What happens when Dr. Hecht brings his magic needles to a Schmuck Parade? […]

  2. […] too. A tool of the two dudes comparing dicks. Peggy, whose dick has better ad […]

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