MAD MEN 5×09-10

"Dark Shadows" & "Christmas Waltz"

I had, this week, a moment of clarity about Mad Men: it was the realization that none of these people—not a single goddamned one of them—will ever, ever be happy.

I suppose that shouldn't come as such a shock, for several reasons. First of all, happiness is bad for serialized television: happy characters, stable relationships, and successful business ventures make for boring stories. More importantly, however, Mad Men—as I've said again and again—is about the changing of the "American Dream," and if we think about that term too much we start to realize that desperation and dissatisfaction are woven into the very fabric of our national identity. You never hear about the French Dream, or the British Dream, or the Senegalese Dream, but the constant striving for self-improvement and upward-mobility is written into our nation's founding documents: we promised ourselves not happiness, but the pursuit of happiness. America's glory and curse is that we are a nation of relentless pursuers, always chasing white whales, always believing in green lights, always building Xanadus that crumble around us before they're even completed.

It eluded us then, but that's no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning—

In other words, we're deeply fucked up, as a people: no matter how much we have, we'll always want more, and so we'll never be satisfied. It is not simply greed for more money and power and stuff (though that's how it often manifests itself); it's the addiction to the pursuit, the inevitable preference for the journey over the destination. Mad Men, like the best of American art in any medium, recognizes and reflects this fundamental truth: Americans aren't happy with what we get, we're only happy when we're getting. (In fact, serialized television—with its constant need for new conflict, and its constant postponement of anything resembling a happy ending—may be the best medium for exploring this peculiar American longing for perpetual struggle.)

And—though this is stating the painfully obvious—it's not for nothing that Mad Men takes place in an advertising agency. If  Matthew Weiner had simply wanted to make a period piece about the tumultuous 1960s, he could have chosen any industry: Don Draper (Jon Hamm) could just as easily have been an insurance man, or a politician, or a manager of distribution and product-support services. Weiner chose advertising, I believe, because it's the perfect backdrop for exploring that quintessentially American quality of always longing for what we don't have, for what we can reach that just exceeds our grasp. (Advertising, as Don Draper once said, is about creating an itch, and that itch is never, ever satisfied.)

I'm once again doubling up on episodes this week because I've fallen behind on my reviews—my real job as a manager of distribution and product-support services has kept me busy lately—but fortunately Mad Men has enough thematic integrity from week to week that almost any two episodes work well to discuss together. Personally, I think "Dark Shadows" is the stronger of these two episodes, but both center around this itch, this fundamental notion of dissatisfaction, of longing for whatever it is that we don't have.

In "Dark Shadows"—as in most of American society—the dissatisfaction manifests itself as envy, and competition. "The grass is always greener," as Pete's friend Howard (Jeff Clarke) says. Many people would say that Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) has the perfect life: he has a good job, he's married to the beautiful Trudy, and he has a child and a lovely house in the country. But no, Pete is dissatisfied with his life, and so envies (and cuckolds) Howard, who is married to the beautiful Beth (Alexis Bledel). Howard, too, is dissatisfied, of course, and so he cheats on Beth with a woman in the city. None of them are happy, and we're pretty sure that none of them would be happy, even if they could all just have the lives they think they want. (I guarantee that within six weeks of marrying Beth, Pete would be once again getting called "King" in a whorehouse, or extorting sexual favors from the German au pair down the hall.)

The same is true in business: Bert (Robert Morse) and Roger (John Slattery) have worked their way to the top of their professions, they've each accumulated tremendous wealth, and they have earned the right to take it easy as the Ad Men Emeriti. But no, they're envious of the younger men, and so find themselves in competition with their own employees for relevance.

Don, too, has risen through the ranks to become Creative Director, but no matter how Joan (Christina Hendricks) tries to convince him he should be proud of nurturing younger talent, he longs for the days when he was a struggling copywriter responsible for pitches. He also finds himself, therefore, in competition with one of his own underlings, getting into a creative pissing contest with Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman).

"I feel bad for you," Ginsberg tells him, after Don fixes the contest for himself. "I don't think about you at all," Don says—and he's not exactly lying. It's not about Ginsberg, or any kind of competition between men: it's about that itch, the need to prove that he can still do it, still push himself to make something new. It's been a recurring theme this season that Don doesn't enjoy his work the way he used to, and certainly part of his unhappiness is that he's become too comfortable: Peggy and Stan and Michael sweat over the work, while Don, in his success, has become a mere rubber stamp. He's been promoted to a safe command post, but he misses the excitement and uncertainty of the trenches.

A throw-away line in "Christmas Waltz" subtly underlines this problem: "The only thing they didn't plan for was success," Roger says. He's speaking about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, but the line can also be seen to refer to all these people who have achieved the lives they thought they wanted, only to discover that they're still not happy. This theme of dissatisfaction with success—and envying those who are still struggling—runs throughout these episodes. Megan (Jessica Pare), for example, found that success in advertising came too easy, and so she quit to pursue a less certain career in acting. But now her friend Julia (Meghan Bradley) reminds her that she has the luxury of pursuing this career from a beautiful penthouse at 73rd and Park, while Julia has to wait tables and struggle to make ends meet. Megan should be happy with her security and freedom, but instead she clearly envies her friend's hardscrabble existence.

And then there's Betty (January Jones), in competition everywhere she looks: she attends Weight Watchers, where success and failure is measured in half-pounds, and she visits Don and Megan's modern apartment, where she gasps audibly at the sight of the younger, slimmer Megan changing clothes. Driven into poisonous envy by that (and by a cute note she finds from Don to Megan), Betty attempts to sabotage Don and Megan's relationship—and, perhaps more importantly, their relationship with Sally—by telling Sally (Kiernan Shipka) about the first Mrs. Draper.

As we've discussed before, Betty should be happy. "I can't help but think that I'd be happy if my husband was faithful to me," she told her shrink, way back at the end of Season One. Now she has a faithful, adoring husband in Henry (Christopher Stanley), and a huge house in the country, and the perfect housewife role that she always thought she wanted. (Don didn't leave her, remember: she left Don, in order to marry Henry.) But she can't allow herself to be happy. (Like the Pearl Harbor line I quoted above, Weiner loves to use non-contextual asides to comment on characters: here, the echo on Betty's situation comes from Henry's discussion of his political career. "I backed the wrong horse," he says. "I jumped ship for nothing." Betty is clearly feeling that she backed the wrong horse, in choosing safe, dull Henry over Don.)

Considering that the entire episode is about no one being happy with what they have, "Dark Shadows" takes place, appropriately enough, at Thanksgiving. "We're supposed to say what we're thankful for," little Bobby Draper (Mason Vale Cotton) reminds the Francis household, as they sit down to dinner. They look like a Norman Rockwell painting, which is all Betty ever wanted, as she admits. "I'm thankful that I have everything I want," she says—but her poisonous envy seeps into the prayer: "…and that no one else has anything better."

"Christmas Waltz" continues these themes in slightly different ways. "Do you know how lucky we are?" Harry (Rich Sommer) asks Peggy, to explain why he's willing to help out Paul (Michael Gladis), who has joined the newly formed International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The Krishnas are a direct and deliberate contrast to the culture of constant dissatisfaction that plagues everyone else: their beliefs are all about being at peace with yourself, and living a simple, spiritual, possessionless existence. Paul, however, isn't quite there. He can't let go of his competitiveness: "Everybody else looks so happy. You know, I got there and I started trying to figure out who Prabhupada likes best." And neither can he let go of his material needs: he's fallen for Mother Lakshmi (Anna Wood), and wants to build a life with her, and has pinned his hopes on a spec-script for Star Trek called "The Negron Complex."

It turns out, however, that Paul doesn't really want peace, and he doesn't really want Lakshmi (who reveals herself to be fairly scary). He just wants something different, and is pleased when Harry gives him $500 and a ticket to California. California, as I've said before, always represents the hope of happiness on Mad Men: it's a seemingly mystical place where people don't have problems like they do in New York.  "You don't understand what it's like out there," Harry tells him. "This failure, this life, it'll all seem like it happened to someone else." It's no doubt a fantasy—can we imagine Paul ever finding peace?—but hell, even Don was happy in California, for a little while.

Don is fairly happy now, but the cracks are beginning to show. The heart of "Christmas Waltz" is the interaction between Don and Joan (Christina Hendricks), who has been served with divorce papers after her plan for a perfect life fell apart. They go to test drive a Jaguar—as the agency is pinning its hopes on an account with the company—and Don says the car, this symbol of material success, does nothing for him. "That's because you're happy," Joan tells him. "You don't need it."

And the things is, Don is happy—but, like Betty, he can't be satisfied having gotten the life he wanted. "You found someone perfect," Joan says to him, and he agrees that he did—but he still flirts with Joan, and confesses that he misses his old philandering life. "You know what this woman said to me once? That I liked being bad, and then going home and being good." He doesn't seriously put the moves on Joan—these two respect each other too much for that—but driving home, he seems to enjoy the Jaguar a little more than he did before.

At home he's confronted by Megan, who is angry he was gone all day without calling her: "Why did you want me to think that?" she asks him—as in, Why did you want me to think you were having an affair? It's as though Don is unconsciously introducing his bad self into their marriage, to see how it fits, and perhaps to prepare her. He has everything he ever wanted, but he's already setting out to systematically destroy it: he can live with anything except boredom and contentment. (Joan emphasizes this point in the bar, speculating on the wife of a man who is making eyes at her. "I bet she's not ugly," she says, of the hypothetical wife. "The only sin she's committed is being familiar.")

Which leads me back to where I began: none of these people will ever be happy. Maybe the Hare Krishnas are happy—emptying their minds of want and ambition—but that's an unnatural state for most Americans. We tend to want more, and when we get more, we tend to want something else. That's why the '50s suburban dream where Mad Men began could never sustain itself, and still isn't enough now for Betty, or for Pete: that house with the picket fence was perhaps the last widely agreed-upon vision of the  American Dream, the end-goal for every boy and girl, but once they got there they discovered they wanted something else.

"Christmas Waltz" ends with Don giving a rousing speech to the firm about landing Jaguar—a new symbol of success and prosperity, a new Holy Grail of happiness. "When we land Jaguar," he says, "the world will know we've arrived." But we know better, because we know there is no such thing as arrival: there's just the constant movement towards the next thing, the thing just out of reach, the thing that will, finally, make us happy.

Additional Thoughts

  • I have to stop doing two episodes at once: there's just too much to discuss. I left out Roger's storyline with Jane, which was completely on-topic: Roger's competitiveness, and his always wanting whatever it is he doesn't have, leads him to sully Jane's chance for happiness in her new apartment. "You get everything you want," she accuses him. "And you still had to do this."
  • And it's not fair to skip over Roger's scenes, since they're almost always gold. I particularly liked the fact that he lies to Jane about things she promised him when she was tripping.
  • I also skipped over Lane's storyline, since it seems designed strictly for plot purposes: he's now embezzled funds, and put the firm in a very precarious financial position. (If he'd done so to maintain a lavish lifestyle he couldn't afford, it would have fit the themes of these episodes better, but that doesn't seem to be the case: it appears to be a tax problem.) Good thing SCDP's insurance policies cover suicide.
  • I've never liked Betty, but it's disturbing me how little Matthew Weiner seems to like Betty: her treatment this season feels more than a little mean-spirited, with Betty squirting whipped cream into her mouth, and being symbolically compared to a whale (in one of Bobby's drawings) and smog (which threatens to poison Don and Megan's Thanksgiving).

Finally, some quotes, which I've been neglecting:

  • "The twist is that the Negrons are white." (I have to admit, that script doesn't sound like it would have been terribly out-of-place on the original Star Trek.)
  • Don, on why he never hit on Joan: "You scared the shit out of me."
  • Roger, inquiring about some clients: "How Jewish are they? Fiddler on the Roof: audience, or cast?"
  • Roger, to Michael (about Pete): "Well, Michael, when a man hates another man, very, very much…"
  • Don, to Joan: "You're going to need to start defining some of these pronouns if you want me to keep listening."
  • Harry, to Lakshmi: "You're the worst girlfriend in the world."
  • Jane: "I feel like I can't start a new life until I start a new life."

 

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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Comments

  1. I felt in your reviews since e07 of this season and i must say that i enjoy reading your comments as much as watching the actual episodes…i even read some sylvia plath poems!

    Muchas gracias!

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