Thursday, June 14, 2012

When Passion Overwhelms Skill: Season Five of Mad Men


Caution. Many, many spoilers are included.

I had a friend in university who wanted to be a writer. His eventual degree was in English (I don't remember which area he concentrated on). He did all the right things to become a writer. He wrote stories and plays; he was a consistent member of a writer's group. It was his passion. There was only one problem: The things he was really good at, his greatest skills, had nothing to do with writing. Economics and Math were his strengths, ironically, the areas he had no passion for. (He took a course on each subject in his first year and received very good marks – he never took another class in those fields.) Now the thing he had nothing but passion for? He was okay at it; but if I'm being honest, he was missing three key ingredients to be a great, or even good writer: sweat, skill and imagination. 

One of the main themes of the just-wrapped Season Five of Matthew Weiner's Mad Men was about examining characters who pursued their passion at the expense of their skills. There were other ideas percolating away below the surface, but this was the major thrust that Weiner pursued in what I think is the strongest season in the series since the first. In the show, it wasn't always career choices; sometimes it was cringe-worthy wrong personal decisions that more than one character made which often led to disaster, or at the very least, a life-changing experience. Though I will occasionally discuss individual episodes (especially those that were great or bad), I'm more interested here in dissecting how Weiner developed his season-long theme through individual characters.

As the season begins, mid-1966, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is now happily married to Megan (Jessica Paré) – he was only just engaged to her at the end of Season Four. His happiness at finally having an optimistic, youthful, enthusiastic wife has changed him. Gone is the dour, guilt-tripping Betty (in fact, so gone that January Jones as Betty only appears in a handful of episodes this season). Also gone (or at best, temporarily set aside) is Don's obsessive wandering eye, because he's found someone who accepts him on his own terms. We learn early on that she has been told his “big secret” – that he's Dick Whitman, not Don Draper – and she could care less. Through the force of her will she breaks through his barriers and pushes him into the real 1960s. Or at least she tries. (Her throwing a surprise birthday party for him and then sensually singing the song “Zou Bisou Bisou” to him in front of all the guests (see it here) was a first-episode highlight – killer line: Roger Sterling to wife Jane, “Why don’t you sing to me like that?” Jane to Roger: “Why don’t you look like [Don]?”) 

Megan (Jessica Paré) singing "Zou Bisou Bisou"
As a woman in her 20s, she is primed for what the decade has to offer. She even tries to open his ears to the music of the current generation. The scene when he listens to The Beatles' wildly experimental “Tomorrow Never Knows” from Revolver at the end of the episode “Lady Lazarus” is also a highlight. The completely puzzled look on his face as it dawns on him that the zeitgeist is passing him by because he cannot comprehend what this song is about is a perfect mute summary of one generation beginning to overtake another. Throughout the season, Don's problem is two-pronged. On the one hand, he feels out of touch with the emerging culture, even with a young wife at his side; and on the other, he is so wrapped up in trying to achieve some measure of happiness in his personal life that he begins to let his career ambitions slip. His desire, his passion is to have a real home life with a loving, understanding wife (a Norman Rockwell existence). His skill, as the master manipulator ad agency creative head, is practically ignored. Time and again during the season he leaves his staff, especially Peggy, floundering because of his indifference to the job. It is this indifference; a selfish pursuit of his own happiness that causes Peggy to finally leave for another agency and, in the penultimate episode, is partially responsible for Lane killing himself (more about Lane when I look at his story during this season). 

Ironically, throughout the season, his strongest female relationships are not with Megan, but with Joan and Peggy. Two moments during the season are completely heart-wrenching. In the fine episode, “Christmas Waltz,” Joan (Christina Hendricks) confides in Don that her husband has filed for divorce. Don, in a gallant gesture, takes her out to a bar to talk and drink. In a long sequence, they discuss life and the consequences of the passing of time (this latter issue is dealt with mostly non-verbally). The conversation is melancholic, but in a way that is filled to bursting with genuine feeling. It's not sexual tension that Joan and Don have (I've never believed that's what Don and Joan really share); rather it is a mature, adult relationship between two people who admire and respect each other.

Don (Jon Hamm) kissing Peggy's hand
The other moment comes when Peggy (Elizabeth Moss), finally fed up with Don's tendency to take her for granted, accepts a gig at another agency. She takes Don into his office and tells him she's leaving. He tries to talk her out of it, but he knows he's lost her. As she says goodbye, he takes her hand and kisses it for a very, very long time. It is held longer than most TV shows would dare. Silently, it goes on and on. There's five years of living between those two in that hand kiss. He knows he's lost someone who understands him better than anybody else, even his wife. He knows he's fucked up and there's nothing he can do about it. It's beautiful.

Megan is the wild card this season. Her eternal optimism flies in the face of the cynicism that holds sway at the ad agency. Many fans of the show grew to loathe her character because Mad Men spent so much time on her. In some ways, it was as if Weiner himself, like Don, had become drunk on Megan (or perhaps the actress), and as a result other characters were pushed aside. Did Weiner get as wrapped up in her character as Don did? Not sure, but it was not until the aforementioned “Lady Lazarus” did I finally join the club in thinking, “too much Megan.” For the first half of the season all we see is that she was just so nice. And I think that was what most people hated about her. Nobody's that nice! No matter how angry Don got at her, she managed to continually allay his angers/fears/self-doubts. She was a fairy princess in some ways, but I found her a wonderful tonic after four seasons of foul, unhappy people tearing each other apart. What does become apparent as the season moves along is that, though her optimism is not put on, there are damaged recesses in her character that only gradually become apparent. Her cold and aloof parents (Julia Ormand and Ronald Guttman) visit finally in a sad (in a good way) episode called “At the Codfish Ball.” In her encounters with them, we see where her optimism comes from (namely, you can see she grew up thinking she would be damned if she was going to let their negativity drag her down!), and what she also finds so appealing about Don. Don's darkness is attractive to someone who grew up with a brooding father and brittle mother. In Don, it's her chance to “fix” someone like them. And for the most part she seems to succeed. Since he loves having her around him, Don, as a proud husband, gives her a job with Peggy at the ad agency.

Christina Hendricks as Joan
Megan thinks everybody hates her there because she is the boss's wife (she's not completely wrong) who’s just been given a job. But what she can't see is how good she is at coming up with sales copy. On more than one occasion, she cuts to the core of an issue and saves or gets an account for the agency. The problem is she hates advertising. She was born to write ad copy; where her passion lies is acting. In “Lady Lazarus” (titled for a Sylvia Plath poem, but the episode is really about attempted rebirth), she finally manages to convince Don to let her quit the agency and try her hand at acting. (“Lady Lazarus” is one of the few episodes I didn't like because, except for the ending with Don and The Beatles song, the thing just goes on and on about Megan wanting to quit to become an actress.) That is sometimes a flaw in Weiner's work in that he's sure people aren't getting what he is trying to say so he hammers and hammers and hammers it home. I was ready to scream at the TV, “Okay, got it. She wants to act, but she's better at ad copy. Move on.” Critics call him Professor Weiner for a reason.

As the season progresses, it's pretty clear Megan might not have much talent as an actress. As her mother says to her at one point in one of the many too on-the-nose moments in the infuriating and disappointing season finale, “The Phantom,” she has artistic sensibilities without artistic abilities. It's a horrible thing to say (and she says much worse to her daughter later), but there's much truth there. Megan, in her darkest moment, begins to think the same thing, so she begs Don to get her an audition for a TV commercial for one of the ad agency's clients. At the end of the season finale, he does so, but the final seconds of “The Phantom” suggests her passion and his decision to help her fulfil it (he does it because he loves her) will have relationship-destroying consequences. Season six will tell the tale.

The most devastating character arc this season is undoubtedly Lane Pryce (Jared Harris). Like Megan, he is too nice, but his friendliness does not come from a natural place; it's from his British reserve. His accommodating nature and willingness to be seen as “good” ultimately leads to his destruction. Hints are dropped early in the season when he finds a woman's wallet. Inside the wallet is a picture of the attractive young woman who owns it. He contacts her and tries to convince her to come to the office to pick it up. He's smitten by her, based on absolutely nothing but a picture. Lane has lived his whole life trying to make others happy (his father, his wife, his child, and finally his partners at the ad agency) that he has forgotten to please himself. So when he finally attempts to do so, it blows up in his face. As he almost pleads with the unseen young woman to come in so he can meet her in person, you can hear in her voice on the phone that she is creeped out by his neediness. As a result, she sends her boyfriend down to pick up the wallet. But Lane keeps the photo. It is a photo that will still be in his wallet when his affects are given to his wife after he kills himself. The young woman is unattainable, but he still can't let it go. His resentment towards all the people in his life reaches a boiling point when he attracts the first feelers for the agency from the people behind Jaguar, but he has no skills to close the deal, so Pete and Don are brought in. His failure to close, or even do anything other than fund the agency, is something he cannot even tell his wife. He suggests to her – up to the moment he takes his own life – that the whole deal went through because of him.

Jared Harris as Lane Pryce
His unwillingness to be seen in an embarrassing light leads him to do something so stupid that it will result in his being asked to resign from the agency he helped found, and, inevitably, in him taking his own life. In England, he's had income tax problems that require him to pay the government $8,000 within days or he might be brought up on charges of tax evasion. Instead of going to Don, who would have the capital to float him a short-term loan, he forges a cheque (faking Don's signature on a company cheque) to cover his tax problem. He convinces himself that the year-end bonuses will more than cover his cheque (a 13-day problem, as he says later). Only problem is, due to circumstances, the employees get bonuses, but the partners (of which, Lane is one) do not. He then does something to Joan that breaks an unspoken trust between them when he sides with the partners in an action which will help the agency get the Jaguar contract, but at the expense of Joan's dignity.

His fraud is uncovered by Don when Cooper (Robert Morse) accidentally finds the cancelled forged cheque and upbraids Don for signing it. After confronting him, Don demands Lane’s resignation (Don will say nothing to the partners and cover the lost money). What Don can't see (it's just business to him) is that Lane is coming apart at the seams. All he can see is someone he can no longer trust. He's not really callous – he's justified in his actions – but he's blind to Lane's distress. And Lane's personal humiliation leads him to his suicide. As a viewer, my guts were torn apart as I watched Lane head to the only conclusion possible. His first attempt to kill himself is blackly comic. As a reward for his “success,” his wife surprises him with a Jaguar of his own. But this only compounds his isolation. Early in the season, it has been established that in the 1960s, Jaguars were an unreliable car that often would not start. That night, as his wife sleeps, he goes down to the car to kill himself. He stuffs rags in the exhaust, seals the windows and tries, repeatedly, to start the car. It won’t start. I laughed out loud at this latest failure, but that laugh soon got caught in my throat. He leaves the car, let's himself into his office at night and hangs himself with a cord on the back of the door. He is found the next day by Joan. When Don and others cut him down I thought I was going to be sick. Here was a character I really liked, and followed his ups and downs for three years, and now he was dead. Dead in an undignified manner. (My God, they sure didn't save the viewer either. Lane was purple and slightly bloated with blood oozing from the cord around his neck. It was a horrifying end and it hurt.) Lane always put on a front and pretended he was someone he was not capable of being. His widow spits at Don when he drops by to pay condolences and repay the $50,000 Lane loaned to the company as a start up (money, if he had it when the tax man came calling, would have prevented his death). “You had no right to fill a man like that with ambition,” she tells him. The song over the closing credits, a little-known Lovin' Spoonful track called “Butchie's Tune,” offers a perfect summary of what Lane's passing means (to Lane, anyway):

Please don't stick around to see when I'm feeling low
Don't pass the cards to me to deal the crushing blow
I'll even close the door so you won't see me go
When I'm leaving, gone today
I'm on my way.

Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) is another issue. He is ambitious and has had much success in business, but there's emptiness at his core that he has no idea how to fill it. His wife, Trudy, their child, and their lovely suburban home do not begin to help. Throughout the season, he constantly tries to fill the emptiness with pointless flirtations, especially with a too-young-for-him girl he meets at a driving class (Pete had never got his driving license), but also a pathetic attempt at dominance/submission games with a prostitute, and finally an affair with the neglected wife of a man he meets on the commuter train. What he fails to see is he's just as neglectful of his wife. He thinks he can bring meaning to his life in an unlikely and guaranteed-to-fail affair with another frustrated (and as we learn in “The Phantom,” mentally fragile) spouse. Remarkably, by season's end, you have a small measure of sympathy for beady-eyed Pete.

Roger Sterling ( John Slattery) on acid
For Roger Sterling (John Slattery), escape from the disaster that is his personal life (and declining powers in his professional one) comes in the form of LSD. (One of this season's funniest and most touching episode is “Faraway Places”). In an attempt to ignite their faltering marriage, his wife, Jane (Peyton List), convinces him to take LSD with her and some friends. Their high is often funny and surreal, but it unexpectedly achieves precisely what it (unfortunately) should. It shows that, in a few moments of unvarnished clarity, their marriage and life together is a sham. Roger comes through the experience a changed man, but as with many things, the feeling fades and he is desperate to get it back. In the final moments at the end of the season, he stands naked with his arms spread in the midst of an LSD high, as he looks out the window of his hotel room. It is yet another attempt to return to that moment of perfect clarity that reshaped his life. Unfortunately, he has no capacity in life to capture clarity on his own; he has to rely on drugs.

Joan is probably the most pragmatic character on this show. Her husband's left her (in a pathetic attempt to find his own meaning, he re-enlists as an army surgeon stationed in Vietnam), she has a baby to look after, an irritating mother and a job that she clearly sees has an end (she knows her physical attributes will fade and her ability to use them to achieve her ends will vanish). In the other fine episode “The Other Woman,” Pete Campbell tells her that the man who can give the nod to the agency for the Jaguar account fancies her; in fact, fancies her in a more than “I want to take her out on a date” way. He bluntly tells Pete, “If you want the contract I sleep with Joan.” Joan, of course, refuses the request even after Pete offers a sum of money (Pete the pimp). He brings the issue up to the partners and only Don, disgusted by what it means, leaves. The other partners, including Roger (whom she had a long-term sexual relationship with in the past) and Lane (who has always fancied Joan, but because of his money crisis ignores his friendship with her) all agree to put the offer to her again. Joan finds out both Roger and Lane support the idea, so she makes them an offer they cannot refuse: minority, non-silent partner in the agency – non-negotiable. In a terrific piece of film-making, Don comes to her apartment, which we think is happening before she goes on her “date,” to tell her she doesn't have to go. She's pleased that he voted against it (she thought otherwise until that moment). What we don't know until a bit later is that Don coming to her apartment is a flash-forward. She has already returned from her “date.” But the sad smile she gives Don tells her that she knows she still has one ally she can trust. She knows exactly what she's done, but looking at her prospects as a single mother in 1960s America, she reaches for a brass ring that can and will bring both her and her child security in the years ahead. What she has to do is degrading, but by doing so it has given her a chance she might not have had as the years went by.

Throughout the season, other characters have similar epiphanies and disasters in equal measure. They include Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) who was a pipe-smoking civil rights do-gooder, and is now (in a brief return) a Hare Krishna who's written a Star Trek spec script that he wants Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) to get to NBC – he is thus far ill-equipped for anything he has filled his life with. The people on this season of Mad Men are at a dark crossroads that was indicative of the rapid changes streaming through the 1960s. People were desperate to find their place in a world coming unravelled with war, drugs, protests, riots, free love and assassinations. Their dreams and ambitions may be, in hindsight of the 21st century, delusional or worse, but with the world that was in front of them at the time nobody knew what was going to happen next. The people of Mad Men, in this season anyway, became an exceptional microcosm of what was happening during that troubling, (emotionally and physically) violent decade.

And finally, I often wonder if my friend ever achieved his goals; or whether, like Joan, he took a more pragmatic road when his dreams and passions never worked out. I doubt I will ever know.

 David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to http://www.wordplaysalon.com for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

3 comments:

  1. A terrific analysis, really spot on...

    Two things: a minor addition -- it was Lane, in Joan's office, who told her to go after a 5% minority non-silent partnership. The idea did not originate with her, but she certainly sparkled when told about the possibility.

    Second, you could also examine the changes that Sally Draper was going through, in that pre-puberty and then puberty circumstance, which seems to draw many writers to some sense of witchhood (viz. Exorcist, countless books, etc.). Certainly she expressed a malevolent stare and caustic conversation. There's a name for this, but it escapes me.

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  2. Perhaps with the end in sight (2 seasons on), I could speculate on the ending, and stake a claim to my idea here: IF the ending is to be a positive, uplifting one, the I think it would only be natural for Don and Peggy to come together with their own ad agency. The final scene would be the two of them going off into the sunset arguing, whether the firm will be Draper Olson or Olson Draper....Something the fans would argue about for years. Just sayin'...

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  3. A most interesting theme you've found in this here show! I've only watched one episode, but now I feel like I know it. A well-written perspective

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