Schmucks on Meth (Mad Men!)

What happens when Dr. Hecht brings his magic needles to a Schmuck Parade?

This happens.

But also, this happens. Beauty.

But then again, flippin Grandma Ida? Will there ever be a black character on the show that isn’t a symbol of white fear, ignorance, or self-regard?

(About this, my take remains that the show painted itself into a corner: by depicting the loss of status of white, straight masculinity the show made it impossible to allow for much else. And even the women, whose characters are far more vibrant and compelling than the men, don’t move much out of the margins. According to structural necessity of the show.

Which disappoints, but also leads critics to say that well, just put on a show about a Civil Rights era all-black ad agency instead. Or a 70s feminist women show. Etc. Still, I hold out hope that it’s possible to treat socially marginalized characters as real characters, even as the show’s focus remains on the drama of white masculine social power crumbling.)

The inimitable Emily Nussbaum, who makes me want to watch everything she writes about (is there a better compliment?) shares some of my misgivings about the Don character.

In short, too much backstory and thematic posturing.

 But, the more the puzzle has been filled in, the more he’s begun to feel suspiciously like a symbol, a thesis title rather than a character: “Appearance Versus Reality”; “American Masculinity as Performance”; “The Links Between Prostitution, Marriage, and the Ad Game.”


I’ve been watching and listening to some Matt Weiner interviews, notably this Jeff Garlin interview. Dude seems awfully pleased with himself. Like a toddler learning how to walk.

He also seems significantly fixated on the period in his life when his own masculinity failed: when he wasn’t making any money as a screenwriter. When his brave, talented, enduring wife supported him.

He just kept mentioning it. Several times. Partly in service of a Jeopardy joke. Partly, I suspect, because it really bothered him. Compelling me to make an unwisely biographical reading of Mad Men as a vehicle for Weiner’s own fixation on the failures of masculinity in his own, now quite privileged life.

Which is a bit too easy, but still. This relentless fixation on, yeah I’m saying it, Don’s (or Weiner’s) repetition compulsion for Don to keep working through his own childhood traumas. A compulsion relentless enough that it threatens viewer’s patience and the show’s credibility.

As Nussbaum reminds us, Don’s life story is a bit too too:

This is no longer the backstory of a serial adulterer; it’s the backstory of a serial killer.

Indeed, I’m starting to think of Mad Men as a cautionary tale in how not to apply Freud to everything.  Repetition compulsion crack notwithstanding. Don’s a lying, cheating, self-hating piece of scum that we manage to enjoy watching because he’s clever, discerning, and tops at his job. I don’t need a reason for it.

Why not? Because IT’S NOT NEW. Men have been cheating and lying and treating women poorly for a long time.

So then why do you need to keep piling on the bad moms?

  • The nurturer that then molests him and arouses him unwillingly.
  • The stepmom that beats him and calls him disgusting.
  • The cold mom that treats her children indifferently and hostilely except for a few brief, shining moments when her weight gain took her out of the market for trophy women and seemingly allowed a bit of humanity to peek through some cracks.
  • The absent prostitute mom that died in childbirth.
  • The unwilling and ignorant mom who gave up her child without even looking at it (and she’s the best of them).

And Joan. Whose maternity is almost irrelevant except as a motivation for her to have sex with a jerk-off in exchange for a partnership stake.

It’s too easy to draw a line between the mom figures of his childhood who nurtured, molested, and beat him and the mom and prostitute figures of his adulthood who trigger his desires for serious B&D sex play (several decades before Dan Savage normalized this sort of thing). And who seem to have inculcated a constant, if occasionally repressed, sadistic impulse toward all the women in his life.

I’ll just say it: Don’s story right now seems easy, lazy, and even a little boring. Blaming bad moms for men’s shitty-ass behavior isn’t fresh.

But still. Ken tapdances. And Don cracks out a pseudo apology to his daughter. And the speed trips are so gorgeously orchestrated.

And they set the mandatory trippy late 60s drug episode to meth instead of LSD or pot.

So I still love watching.

One of the Slate writers said something that suggested to me a more historical reading of Don. Wshew!

The big lie at the heart of Don’s existence (he was literally not who he said he was) kept him especially attuned to the hypocrisy and perversion hidden beneath the rigidly pleasant social cues of his era.

So Don’s ability to understand the emptiness at the heart of all human existence allowed him to dominate in the “50s” era of pretending there wasn’t no such thing.

But the Vietnam era launched a new culture of widespread condemnation of hypocrisy. Of suspicion of authority and its pre-set narratives about youth, sex, gender, and race. Now Don’s insights no longer seem so foxy.

His nostalgia-based advertising, fixated on loss and absence, now just seems sad.

And square.

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One thought on “Schmucks on Meth (Mad Men!)

  1. […] know how sometimes you can’t tell whether a story or TV show or film is either sexist or critiquing […]

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