Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Jameis Winston and the Impossible Resolution

Human beings are different. They - we - are different in so many ways, amidst our similarities.

Different in terms of ideology.

Different in terms of regional heritage, national identity, and cultural comfort zones.

Different in gender. Different in terms of sexual experience. Different in terms of educational background, role models, parental figures, siblings, and socioeconomic status.

The phrase is worn enough to make the significance fade from sight, but verily, every life is a story. Similar forces visit many lives, but the precise order and combination of forces is unique to every person. These combinations of forces and events - and our responses to them - make us who we are. Each successive parade of events and responses continues to reshape the person we become.

It is therefore no surprise at all, and may I hastily add, no defect or flaw, that the Jameis Winston story has created, is creating, and will continue to create sharply divided and highly emotional reactions from many people. I experienced this a week and a half ago, two days before the ACC Championship Game between Florida State and Duke. Upon voicing the opinion that, on balance, it would be a good idea for FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher to not play Winston against Duke, I ran into quite a bit of resistance from Florida State fans on Twitter, aka, "FSU Twitter." Such a clash was, realistically, unavoidable. Now, a few days removed from Winston's much-deserved Heisman Trophy victory, it is both safe and appropriate to visit this issue in greater detail. It's also appropriate to continue to examine the Winston story removed from College Football News pages, in a personal space where pageviews and web traffic aren't the sought goals or motivations (and FSU readers can see as much).

Not a dollar is being made or sought in this post. It's an attempt to continue a necessary conversation, the kind of conversation we different human beings ought to have every now and then in our brief lives. If we can't discuss the weighty stuff, what's the point of discussing whether a catch really is a catch, or whether a timeout was used wisely in the final two minutes of regulation? At CFN, I've talked about the need for players' on-field accomplishments to be given the respect they deserve. Here, I'll talk about the need for off-field considerations to receive the primacy they deserve.

*

The first thing I need to say is that as a participant in a Twitter conversation, tweets rapidly exchanged in response to polarizing or highly debatable statements often come across as being presentations of facts, when in reality, they are exchanges of opinions. Most pieces of authoritative speech carry the feel of a fact, when they're merely forceful attempts to advance a line of thought, one person's sense of a deeper and more unknowable or inexact truth. I realize that in my initial tweets from Dec. 5, I gave the impression at times that Jameis Winston had in fact engaged in imprudent behavior. I had meant to stress that I believed it was likely that Winston engaged in imprudent behavior, but I can see how that line got crossed. Since I was the sender of communication and am therefore responsible for conveying specific meanings, I must step back from that errant and excessive point of emphasis, FSU Twitter, and acknowledge that I pushed a point too hard, to the extent that a line was blurred. I apologize for crossing that line.

As for the other important distinctions I sought to make, I can say with clarity and confidence that I didn't overstep any important boundaries. I never said or even hinted that I felt Winston was guilty of a crime, or that he deserved to be seen/treated/handled as a criminal. I made an unambiguous distinction between criminal behavior and imprudent behavior, stressing the point that legal behavior is not equivalent to the complete absence of any wrongdoing.

This is where my discussion with you, FSU Twitter, left off, so this is where it should continue.

*

As said at the beginning of this essay, people are different. This is a necessary and not unpleasant part of life. Differences give color to life, imbuing our existence with a necessary measure of balance and proportion. The best governing philosophies incorporate elements of multiple approaches, not just one. The best leaders appeal to people from all walks of life, not just one segment of the population. The best preachers are able to reach congregants or seekers from various backgrounds, not just one. Any intimate relationship is an attempt on the part of two people from two different starting points to come together and share their lives with each other. This stuff is difficult, but it all flows from an acknowledgment that differences are not (inherently) bad things. They make resolution and reconciliation the beautiful things that they are.

Yet, differences - on a topic as explosive as alleged sexual assault or rape - are hard to bring together, and that's the obvious yet difficult truth of this case.

Many (though not all) Florida State fans will obviously see this story in one way. SEC fans and other people outside the FSU community will view (and have viewed) this story in a different way. It's no surprise that tweets critical of Winston or supportive of the accuser's attorney get retweeted by SEC or non-ACC fan bases, while tweets supportive of Winston get retweeted and shared by Florida State fans.

It's also no surprise that many men will see this story one way, and women another, although that division demands further segmentation. Many men convinced of Winston's guilt will react just as sharply to this as the men who think Winston was wronged and falsely accused in this situation. On an even more granular level, men who were collegiate athletes are likely to be particularly sympathetic to Winston. Athletes who were in fact wrongly accused of sexual misconduct of some sort (or to some degree) will be even more inclined to see this issue through Winston's eyes, and not the eyes of the accuser. These are all magnifications of the role our own life experiences play in shaping our views - on larger issues and on the stories that thrust said issues into the public spotlight.

Whether you're a member of FSU Twitter who thinks Winston did nothing wrong (which is possible) or a woman who thinks that there are still questions about this process that the accuser deserves to have answered (also a valid position), let's establish one thing right now: It is not wrong, in the sense of being a failure of morality/ethics/the exercise of one's conscience, to have a given viewpoint. 

Florida State fans who forcefully disagreed with me on Dec. 5 were not and are not wrong to have argued their case as they did... not when they're mindful of the fact that a former FSU player, lineman Travis Johnson (as reported in a story by Dan Wetzel and Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports on Nov. 21), was charged with sexual battery by Willie Meggs (yes, the same man who decided not to charge Winston a few weeks ago), only for the case against him to be nonexistent.

If Johnson and other athletes (think of the Duke lacrosse players) were wronged, it is perfectly natural for FSU fans to come to Winston's defense, just as it is natural for women and advocates of sexual assault/rape victims to promote the need for the accuser's voice to be heard.

The persistent and inconvenient question at the heart of this discussion - the one I attempted to develop on Dec. 5 - is this: What do you do when a high-profile athlete is cleared of legal wrongdoing, professes to have done nothing wrong, but nevertheless resides in a situation in which full and perfect knowledge of the events of a given night (or time period) does not exist?

Can that player's word to his coaches and administrators -- "I did nothing wrong" -- be taken as gospel truth? Accordingly, should the accuser's version of events be dismissed or diminished to the point that it should not be seen as sufficiently credible to warrant further exploration?

These are tough questions. Moreover, I certainly realize that FSU administrators and coach Fisher - if fully convinced that Winston really did nothing wrong - would regard his exoneration in the legal realm as proof that he was and is fully free and clear, thereby meaning that suspension against Duke wasn't ultimately necessary. It is a legitimate, reasonable, valid view for an FSU fan or anyone sympathetic to Winston's situation (former athletes, especially those cleared of sexual battery/assault charges that were wrongly brought against them) to say that he shouldn't have been suspended for the Duke game, even after being cleared of criminal charges on Dec. 5.

Yet, providing leadership and - moreover - a full resolution to a contentious situation is found not just in satisfying one constituency or one set of concerns on one side of a larger landscape. What about the message sent to society by an (ostensibly) educational institution when Nationally Known Football Star escapes any sort of genuine sanction over here, and Anonymous Female Accuser watches that situation in the shadows over there?

Let's take Florida State (and the BCS championship chase, and the Heisman Trophy) out of the equation for a moment. If specific names were removed/redacted from this scenario, and we were left with a generic scenario ("What if Star QB on No. 1 Team X became immersed in Controversy Y surrounding allegations of rape, just before the final game of the regular season, which had BCS title implications?"), what would a larger community of reasonable human beings think about the way in which the situation should be handled?

Yes, the timing surrounding the emergence of the case was and is suspicious in ways that did not help Florida State at all. Yes, there were all sorts of questions about the way the Tallahassee Police Department processed this case. Yes, there have been problems with the way in which the press has reported on this case. Yet, those particulars are part of a larger and recognizable situation:

He said/she said. Details were murky and confused. The accuser had some alcohol in her system, but not enough to be legally drunk. How many times does this kind of situation play out in a dark corner of a bar, a room, a street, in America?

Of course the various constituencies in a case such as this would rush to defend and argue their particular point of view and the interests attached to them. That's not in dispute, and that's also not being criticized here.

What's difficult in a human life surrounded by differences is that the adult decisions have to consider all viewpoints, not just one.

Is Jameis Winston innocent not just in a legal sense (criminal behavior), but in a full moral sense (imprudent, advantage-seeking behavior)? Possibly so. Could it be that Winston was falsely accused? Possibly so.

Is his accuser not wrong, but telling the truth instead? Possibly so.

Most (though probably not all) people who have taken the time to comment on this larger series of events would conclude that, "We don't currently know everything that happened; we might not ever know the full story; legally, though, Winston has not been charged and should not be viewed as a criminal or somehow predatory figure, especially not as some 'big, black guy' with all the racial undertones such a label has carried and can still carry to the ears of a neutral observer." Such an interpretation of events is reasonable (not indisputably correct/true/accurate, but reasonable).

What's just as reasonable? This view: "Knowing that we don't know - in other words, knowing that the full version of events is still somewhat elusive - should the legal realm and its decision on this case confer the benefit of the doubt on Jameis Winston on a more personal and internal moral level? Does the winning of a legal victory mean that, in actual fact, Winston did nothing wrong?"

Yes, FSU Twitter, it really could be that Winston did in fact do nothing wrong.

Yet... there is a chance that he did something wrong.

What tells us this? A woman and her family have sought to continue to press their case in public, appealing to various authority figures in a larger politico-legal framework.

Yes, the mere act of appealing to authority figures does not automatically mean that the content or quality of a given claim/protest/media push is somehow legitimate or proveable. Yet, there is an obvious emotional consideration to be contemplated here: Just exactly why would a person and her family do what the accuser and her family are in fact doing?

This isn't what one would call a "normal" course of action. There is not evidence of calm acceptance of the way in which this case has been handled. There is not evidence that the accuser's family has escaped some sense of trauma, some degree of pain, in this case. "Injury" is not just a physical thing. It is and can be an intangible, psychological, deeply penetrating organism. Why is the accuser acting like an injured person, a wounded soul?

Is it mental illness?

Is it jealousy or vindictiveness or some such combination thereof?

Or is it a cry of pain after an experience that genuinely and legitimately wounded a young woman?

In a situation governed by a lot of "It's possible" answers and very few "We know  this with 100 percent certainty" kinds of answers, what would a reasonable person be left to conclude? What would a sexual ethicist say? What would a moral theologian offer? Should there be a default assumption or inclination to believe one person entirely, to the exclusion of any and all blame or sanction against the other?

FSU Twitter, you  are quite free (and, I hasten to add, reasonable) to think that Jameis Winston should be regarded as 100 percent right, especially when one realizes the extent to which Travis Johnson was wronged a decade ago during his playing days as a Seminole.

Yet...

Yet, FSU Twitter, it is just as reasonable - in the absence of complete evidence - to assess at least some degree of responsibility and/or blame to Winston for what happened, and to therefore have him miss one football game as a result.

This is a view with which Seminole fans might (legitimately) disagree, but if one football game (against Duke) was to be the price paid by Winston for a perhaps-fractional or moderate display of imprudent behavior, so that other women could feel confident in the future that their voices will be heard by a football program on the other side of a deep and wide situational chasm, that seems like a small price. This all gets back to the original tweet that started it all, from @BPredict.

Indeed -- wouldn't it still have been quite a noble, positive, socially and communally enriching thing for Florida State to have sat down Winston for one game -- not even as punishment, but as a powerfully affirming message to vulnerable women across the country?

Yes, FSU Twitter -- and male athletes wrongly and/or falsely accused by women -- such an act risks taking something away from Winston that never should have been taken away in the first place. This is true. I do not dispute or seek to ignore this.

Yet, what are we talking about here? One. Football. Game.

If it was known to an absolute certainty that Winston was 100 percent innocent of any kind of imprudent behavior (not just criminal behavior), yeah, not a single bit of sanction or public politics would be necessary here. Yet, we don't have that 100-percent level of certainty. Ergo, making a public statement on behalf of vulnerable women seemed - and still seems - like the kind of thing an educational institution (as opposed to a football factory) should not only undertake, but be proud to undertake.

It's a question of values and points of emphasis. It's not objectively superior or more correct than other conclusions. It is debatable. It is not a statement of fact, but merely one opinion among many. Point conceded.

Yet, it's certainly a reasonable claim, one to be discussed and given as much weight and consideration as other options.

That's what Florida State was left with on the afternoon of Dec. 5. In the absence of even more facts and hard evidence, the Jameis Winston situation was - and is - a situation that defies easy resolution to the satisfaction of all parties in a world governed by human beings and their manifold differences.



Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Advanced Box Score: Air Force 79, Army 68

Conventional basketball box scores give you a lot of familiar stats. Here's an attempt to go deeper and tell the fuller story of a basketball game. Look at the advanced numbers from Army's season-opening loss to Air Force.


STORYBOX: AIR FORCE 79, ARMY 68

PART ONE: ADJUSTED FREE THROW SHOOTING


Adjusted free throw shooting incorporates one-and-one free throws into overall team percentages.

EXAMPLE: Team A makes 14 of 18 free throws (77 percent shooting), but it misses two front ends of one-and-ones. Because a missed front end results in the denial of a second foul shot, Team A essentially made 14 of 20 free throws (70 percent). Team A took 18 shots, but it lost the right to take two more shots due to front-end misses. This is adjusted free throw shooting. Naturally, this is something that applies to scholastic basketball, not professional basketball.


Free throws made/attempted for AFA

Front ends of one-and-ones: 2 of 4

Overall makes and attempts: 17 of 26, 65 percent

Adjusted FT shooting totals: 17 of 28, 61 percent

Free throws made/attempted for ARMY

Front ends of one-and-ones: none attempted

Overall makes and attempts: 10 of 13, 77 percent – no adjusted total

PART TWO: SCORING RUNS AND DROUGHTS

AFA RUNS OF 7 POINTS OR MORE:


12-0 from 10:53 to 8:46 of the second half

Score change: 49-44 Army to 56-44 Air Force

8-0 from 6:33 to 3:32 of the second half

Score change: 60-55 Air Force to 68-55 Air Force

ARMY RUNS OF 7 POINTS OR MORE:

7-0 from 16:46 to 15:03 of the first half

Score change: 6-2 Air Force to 9-6 Army

AIR FORCE FIELD GOAL DROUGHTS OF 3 MINUTES OR MORE:

3:03, from 18:06 to 15:03 of the first half.

Score change: 6-2 Air Force at the start of the drought, tied 9-9 when the drought ended.

3:46, from 12:12 to 8:26 of the first half.

Score change: 15-11 Army at the start of the drought, 18-14 Army when the drought ended.

7:18, from 6:05 of the first half to 18:47 of the second half

Score change: 24-21 Air Force at the start of the drought, 33-30 Army when the drought ended. Air Force did make four free throws during this field goal drought.

ARMY FIELD GOAL DROUGHTS OF 3 MINUTES OR MORE:

3:04, from 19:50 to 16:46 of the first half

Score change during the drought: 2-0 Army at the start of the drought, 6-4 Air Force when the drought ended.

3:34, from 12:47 to 9:13 of the first half

Score change: 15-9 Army at the start of the drought, 18-11 Army when the drought ended.

3:04, from 4:53 to 1:49 of the first half

Score change: Tied 26-26 at the start of the drought, tied 28-28 when the drought ended.

3:30, from 11:11 to 7:41 of the second half

Score change: 49-44 Army at the start of the drought, 58-53 when the drought ended. Army made one free throw during this field goal drought.

4:46, from 7:41 to 2:55 of the second half

Score change: 58-53 Air Force at the start of the drought, 68-58 Air Force when the drought ended. Army made three free throws during this field goal drought.

PART THREE: SECOND-CHANCE POINTS/MISCELLANY

AFA second-chance points: 6 points

ARMY second-chance points: 7 points

OTHER NOTES

--Player-control fouls: 2 by AFA, 1 by ARMY

-- Air Force twice made three-point shots while getting fouled. The Falcons missed the ensuing foul shot after the first three-point basket, but they completed the four-point play the second time.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Mad Men Season 6 Review: Wants And Needs

Last year, I reviewed the Season 5 finale of Mad Men.

I'm not a TV critic by trade, and I wouldn't want the job of having to identify every nuance of a show within a context of taking copious notes. I like to watch shows for the meanings they can evoke, for the lessons they can offer, for the ways in which they tap into the fullness of the human experience. TV critics certainly watch shows for meaning, but they must pay attention to the technical aspects of a series - of the craft of television storytelling - with equal vigilance. They must absorb the content of a series and exhibit full command of the subject matter within the workings of the television industry when conversing with readers. That's a very difficult thing to do for a living; what you're about to read is definitely not intended to be a critic's professional review of Mad Men Season 6.

This is -- like last year's effort -- an attempt to make sense of a season as this treasured part of my cultural life approaches its endpoint in 2014. This review of another Mad Men season is an attempt to come to terms with the messages conveyed by this uniquely powerful show, one that has captured a piece of my heart and soul like none other.

What to make of Season 6? Through the first 10 installments of this 13-episode season, I was -- frankly -- underwhelmed. Yes, Don Draper had problems with women, drink, his marriage, his sense of self, and all the other usual demons. Tell us something we, the loyal viewers of the show, didn't already know.

Immediately, one must confront a nuance that lies at the heart of not just Season 6, but Mad Men itself: It's easy to think that the repetitive (and not disguised) dynamics at work in the first 10 episodes of Season 6 constituted creator Matthew Weiner's way of giving viewers what he felt they needed, not what they wanted. There's a difference between satisfying plot developments and necessary plot developments. A show needs to be authentic to its characters and, more specifically, convey moments and twists that register as emotionally and situationally honest. Being honest with viewers matters more than giving them a feel-good moment which somehow feels cheap, hollow, or hastily designed. Yes, the first 10 episodes of Season 6 gave viewers something other than what they wanted, but the way in which Weiner executed each episode seemed to be unnecessary.

The injection of a vitamin-based energy stimulant into the members of Sterling Cooper's workforce - the basis for a trippy, mindbending episode in which characters arrived at unexpected places under the influence of chemicals - created an engineered plot and the overpowering awareness of the presence of metaphor. Mad Men ceased to be subtle, searing and superb in such a moment. Chemical alterations of mind was a device that had been used in prior seasons (Roger Sterling's LSD trip in Season 5 felt much more organic and, instructively, honest), so the act of "dusting off" this device smacked of gimmickry. It felt - no, not necessarily lazy; it felt forced.

Similarly, Don's period of drift in his relationship with Megan - something which carried weight and poignancy in Season 5, punctuated by Don's "Carousel-"style look of Megan's film slides late in the season finale - lost its juice as a storytelling vehicle in Season 6. Critiques by Mad Men viewers that Megan's character was empty in Season 5 didn't seem to hold merit at the time. Don existed in newfound territory in Season 5, and for that reason, his new marriage held out the promise of new directions in his life... and his character. It's in Season 6 that Megan became what the critics said she was in Season 5: little more than a mirror for Don, a reflection of problems and patterns that were noticeable from a great distance but not a robust character in her own right.

Yes, the repetitive nature of Season 6 - especially as it applied to Don and Pete - naturally had a point behind it. Don and Pete, the characters who have most centrally grappled with their own self-loathing on the show, were unable to dig out of long-established tendencies. This is the stuff of life in its most urgent dimensions: We are given problems and challenges that are unique to our selves, to our deepest identities. It often takes many years of repetitions, many years in which we reunite with the same issues (perhaps clothed in slightly different situations), to finally solve them. This is one of the great dramas of Mad Men and - to expand the conversation - any show that establishes a deserved track record of creating unflinchingly honest moments for viewers, moments that announce something to the effect of, "We're not merely aiming for entertainment in the telling of this story. We're trying to reach into the deepest part of what it means to be fully human, in all its flaws and glories."

It's not satisfying to see characters continuously fail to solve their most urgent problems, many years after first being introduced to an audience. Yet, it's necessary to show as much when that's the most honest way to pry open those characters. Mad Men has excelled in that very art, but for most of Season 6 - despite the brilliance of "The Flood" and "For Immediate Release" (its two best midseason episodes) - the willingness to show characters continuing to fail (one of Mad Men's greatest virtues as a piece of storytelling and exposition) was overwhelmed by the inability to give viewers bracingly honest situations. I can't speak for every Mad Men fan, but I personally felt that the injected stimulant and Don's smoking of hashish robbed the show of its layered honesty and authenticity. Devices work when used selectively and sparingly. The use of mind-altering substances - while perhaps fitting into the late 1960s (we get that, Matt Weiner...) - was still just a bit too obvious, a bit too transparent... and a bit too frequent in the first three-fourths of Season 6.

Then, however, just when some momentum was leaking out of this remarkable show - creating that awful feeling in which a storied television run loses the ability to carry an audience to the finish line with a maximum of impact - Weiner and Co. found their fastball again in episodes 11, 12 and 13.

The final three episodes of this season - especially Sunday night's finale - showcased Mad Men at its best. The show's highest level of art from prior seasons wasn't surpassed in these episodes, but it was certainly matched.

Chemical alterations were not part of the formula in this trilogy of marvelous episodes. The marrow of Ted Chaough's life - and how it related to the people around him (his wife, Nan, and co-workers Don and Peggy) - served as a central foundation for organic yet complicated sequences of dialogue and action that took something very familiar - Don's penchant for being a nasty person - and used it to create fresh waves of consequence and drama. Real life and its unpredictable convergences of intention, spontaneity, desire, and uncertainty led Don, Ted and Pete to various breaking points. They led Joan to an important lesson (and situational rescue) delivered by Peggy. They led Peggy to yet another crushing realization about the primacy and power of the decisions of the men in her life.

No gimmicks entered the picture, and so, amidst the tumult of 1968, the turmoil of the times was sufficient to convey to viewers the inner turbulence of flesh-and-blood people trying to make sense of not only the bewildering world beyond, but the even more confusing reality within one's own heart and household. Various characters encountered either transformations or new challenges that promised substantial fork-in-the-road moments in Season 7 next year. What had been the muddle of chemically-altered or imagined drift for much of Season 6 became a different sort of jumble after the final three episodes of Season 6: Everything - every possible life trajectory, every set of choices and movements, for better or worse or anything in between - is now on the table for Season 7... and NOT at the expense of the show's honesty in its relationship with viewers.

Naturally, the way in which the final three episodes of Season 6 set the table for Season 7 is most fully reflected in the central iconic character of Mad Men, Don Draper.

Don's awareness of how much Ted needed to go to California (episode 13), coupled with his humiliation not at the hands of an adult, but his own daughter (episodes 12 and 13), brought him to a place where he could no longer keep Dick Whitman hidden before his co-workers and even his clients. A seminal life event - a two-faced character deciding to step out of a double life and fully come to grips with his true self and the shadow side which accompanies it - occurred in a way that felt very natural.

The gradual telling of the story of Young Dick Whitman - in expositional flashback scenes over multiple seasons - has been, at heart, a way of showing the viewer the pain Dick absorbed as a boy. This pain is the basis for giving the viewer an understanding of how Don Draper was a mask for - not a true escape from or solution to - an overpowering sense of inadequacy and self-loathing. What often emerges from these feelings when they surface in an individual is exactly what Mad Men has been showing for six full seasons now: Don's  reflexive pursuit of material and carnal conquest to blot out his pain, his easy inclination to enjoy the beginnings of things but then run away whenever any situation becomes fraught with difficulty. The constancy with which Don fails to break this cycle of painful realizations followed by self-destructive actions is precisely why many TV critics think - especially in the wake of the Season 6 finale - that Don Draper is an irredeemable character. However, the reality of Don's latest and deepest humiliation occurring in relationship to Sally - not Megan or Betty or a work colleague - is the very thing which makes the idea of a Draper transformation emotionally honest, and that's the genius of the final three episodes of Season 6, especially the finale.

The recollections of a shattered boyhood do not, by any means, assure the viewer that Don will figure it all out and achieve an easy redemption in Season 7 as this show rides into the sunset of the 1960s. However, those recollections do make the contents of Season 6 - chiefly, Don's dreary and doomed affair with Sylvia, not to mention his deeper connection with his old wife (Betty) compared to his current one (Megan) - feel relevant to the development of Don's character at a deep level. The floating, miserable drift of Season 6 - always possessing a genuine and evident purpose but not always being conveyed with the nuance befitting Mad Men - was finally turned into not just an epiphany, but a truly different state of mind for Don Draper.

A life history that has been teasingly shown to viewers in small doses over six seasons finally met a moment which led Don Draper to genuinely embrace Dick Whitman. This haunting past - the one Don Draper has been trying to escape since the first time we got to know him six years ago - always needed to be confronted, because the inability to accept that past is what has always prevented Don from being happy with Dick Whitman, his truest innermost self. Dick, the child who never recovered or healed from what he saw and suffered, has needed Don to look at him lovingly and express that love in public, so that Don's double life can become integrated and his masks can fall away.

It was a boy, a child, who carried all this pain  for so many years, and so it took another child's deep and confused pain - marked by a complete lack of understanding toward her father - to call Don Draper to this place of clarity. It took Sally Draper to bring Dick Whitman out of the shadows and into full view. To me, that makes complete sense. It resonates with truth and authenticity.

It also represents a brilliant counterpoint to the final line of Season 5, when a mysterious and alluring woman (one fit for a night of empty and meaningless sex, a reality that has pervaded Don's life...) asks Don, "Are you alone?"

Don, you see, has been alone throughout Mad Men's six seasons. He has needed Dick all this time. More specifically, he has needed Dick to accompany him so that he would no longer walk alone, unloved by his own deepest self at the truest possible level. Don has needed to take to heart the words of the patron saint of Mad Men, Anna Draper, who uttered the central line of the show's entire history in episode three of Season 4, when she says to Don/Dick: "I know everything about you, and I still love you." There is no greater expression of unconditional love than that. There is no greater height of spiritual wisdom, no fuller reach of forgiveness, no purer articulation of the need to accept everyone - including your own self - exactly as you are. Don, in worlds dominated by either power (SC&P) or sex (his household or any location of one of his affairs), has not been able to find a reason powerful enough to get him to embrace Dick Whitman. It took Sally - the reflection of a confused and desperately wounded child - to get Don to look into that mirror and behold Dick, also a bewildered and lost child of wayward and dysfunctional parents. Upon looking into that mirror, Don was finally able to view Dick with affection and a lack of shame.

Don's meeting of Sally's eyes in the final scene of Season 6 was and is a moment that will live on in television history -- not because it was poignant, not because there was something unmistakably hopeful about it, but because the moment was created in a complex, layered, and supremely honest way, with natural connections forging a link between a haunting past and a redemptive present, between the old chains of persistent long-term behaviors and the recognition of the possibility that those chains can yet be broken.

Season 7 might not give Mad Men viewers the happy ending that would be so satisfying to contemplate, but if it does, the foundation has now been laid, enabling viewers to say the following: "If we get said happy ending, it will feel emotionally honest." This brings up an important point about Mad Men that's worth revisiting as this reflection concludes.

One of the show's many hallmarks is that it doesn't deal in (obvious) linear progressions. Characters are not completely virtuous or completely evil. Just when a character seems to be headed over the edge, s/he is brought back from the brink or encounters a situation which brings out his/her best qualities, ones that had been hidden and perhaps didn't have a chance to shine in other circumstances. Just when characters can seemingly do no wrong or dent their reputations, their insecurities emerge - think of the way Joan reacted to Don telling off Herb Rennet earlier in Season 6. (Viewers didn't see that one coming - not most of them, at any rate.) The reality of complex, multidimensional characters is not merely intended to perpetuate intrigue or suspense in Hollywood; it's part of real life, too.

How delicious it is to contemplate, then, that Mad Men - a fundamentally dark show for its six seasons of existence - could give way to a seventh and concluding season in which the characters - especially Don - arrive at a whole and nourishing sense of self. Yes, every character will have to walk over the hot coals of self-doubt and untamed appetite to achieve that happiness, if it does emerge for them, but the grand achievement of Season 6 is that the possibility of happiness seems realistic. If Matt Weiner does bend the arc of Season 7 to the happy side, it would be one final and lasting testament to this show's ability to avoid the predictable path or the easy, preconceived expectation of what is going to (or supposed to) happen.

And if Mad Men retains its dark edge in Season 7? Well, that would certainly be emotionally honest, too...

... as long as there are no unnecessary and clouding gimmicks, of course.


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Christmas Sermon For An American Catholic Situation

I heard a very bland, nondescript sermon last night at Christmas Eve Mass. I know I could have given a better sermon to a community of American Catholics, many of them being the once- or twice-a-year congregants who come only at Christmas and/or Easter. This is the sermon I would have given to them, but it's a sermon that speaks to the global human family in just about any faith (or non-faith) perspective as well:


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What is my Christmas wish for all of you, for all of us? What is it that the Catholic Church should want for all its people? Let's get one thing straight: Following Church teaching and obeying Church doctrine have their place. There is a purpose, a reason, for engaging in spiritual discipline - to become a better person. More specifically, it is to become more like the One whose birth is being celebrated today. That, in short, is why we're here -- to publicly acknowledge that we're trying to become more like Jesus, the Christ, and that being more like Christ is our highest aspiration as human persons. This forms the heart of everything, and I don't think any of you would disagree.


So, in trying to be like Christ, what can we gain from this Christmas celebration in this American situation in 2012? We gather in the wake of an awful event in Newtown, Connecticut, an event in which children - just like the ones who participated in the pageant during the Gospel reading; just like the child in a manger whose birth is celebrated today - had their lives so tragically snuffed out. Our hearts are heavy and a part of us is scared. We realize anew that this life is so tenuous, which makes it that much more important to make it count. It is for that reason that Christians around the world worship today. We want to be more like Christ, to be more like the human person who modeled a Godly life for all people. We are here because we want to be more like the man who showed us, in living form and flesh, the ways of God the creator. 


One of the foremost ways in which Jesus showed us how to follow the path of God is to model a nonviolent way of being, to not injure others in any way, shape or form. Jesus, though being persecuted and killed, told Peter to put away his sword. He did not lash out in vengeance at Pontius Pilate or the Jewish religious leaders. He said from the cross, "Father, forgive them." He accepted the death penalty though being entirely innocent. As Philippians 2 verse 6 says, Jesus, though being in very nature God, did not deem equality with God something to be clung to. Jesus, living his one human life, showed the world for all time that nonviolence is a paramount virtue, a core part of what it means to live like God, to live as God wants His children to live. In the book of the prophet Isaiah, we are reminded that "God's ways are not our ways." This is, in many ways, the toughest thing to remember about our lives of faith. We have so many instincts and longings as human beings, but our goal is to be more like the God and author of all life, of all creation. It is not meant to be easy. It is not meant to be a quick fix. It is not meant to be something that comes naturally.


So it is with our relationship to nonviolence. It is easy to want revenge. It is easy to snap in five seconds, 10 seconds, or 15 seconds, and say something we instantly regret. During these stressful and emotional times of the holidays, it is easy to do something that causes injury to another person. It is easy to lose control in a brief period of time. We know this. We're human. We - like the lives we live - are frail.


My friends, it is not my place nor the place of the church to say anything about what any government or law enforcement agency should do about guns. That's not meant for this night and this place. What I can say, and what the Church should promote, is the path for all of us to take as individuals, as believers, as people yearning for meaning after a tragedy that has shattered us and shaken us to the core as Americans. Nonviolence is what we can do to respond to what happened in Newtown. Nonviolence is what we can take away from this Christmas, the gift of the baby Jesus that can nourish us and sustain us for the road ahead. Nonviolence is what we can do to live in a way that's closer to Jesus, a way that's more like the God whose ways are not our ways.


Doctrinal purity and correct religious expression have their place, but remember -- they are only meant as guideposts to the only real goal that matters: being more like Jesus, living a life that is faithful to God. Many of you, as visitors, might be coming to mass for the first time in a long time. This does not make you bad Catholics. Anything but. You're here because you want to be more like Jesus. You're here because you want to find something that will lift you up and give you hope. 


You've come to the right place, and you should know that Jesus - who reached out to people in all sorts of situations - accepts you just as you are. That's more than enough for Him, and that's more than enough for the Church today. You are welcomed and embraced in the fullness of love... the same love that is quick to forgive and rich in compassion.


For you, special visitors, as well as our regulars here at the Franciscan Renewal Center, the attempt to be more like Jesus is why we're all here. With the shadow of Newtown lingering over us, may this celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord - the baby in a manger, with no crib for a bed - may we renew our practice of nonviolence, to be more like the One who did not injure anyone else despite having very legitimate reasons for doing so.


May the Prince of Peace bless our broken world with peace, and let that peace being inside each and every one of us, with a commitment to nonviolence that the Son of God so powerfully manifested on this planet in his one and only human life.


Let there be peace on earth this Christmas, and let it begin with me.


Merry Christmas from all of us here at the Franciscan Renewal Center.... in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 
 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Loathing the Loathing: A Call For A Tennis Fan Truce

I am a quixotic person. I tilt at windmills. Paul Wellstone, he of the 1 vote in many 98- or 99-1 United States Senate votes, was a foremost political hero of mine. I fight losing battles. Hey, I'm a political lefty. Moreover, Jesus fought losing battles.

Oh, geez -- there goes Matt, comparing himself to Jesus... or at least, that's what I can imagine a few readers saying at that point. Yeah, I just don't say things exactly the way they should be said every single time.

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In the two paragraphs above, the first one was dead-dog serious: There are battles I want to continue to fight. The second paragraph was meant to convey a point: People acquire very specific notions of what it means to behave well, and by golly, when public figures cross those lines, they often stay on a shiznit list forever.

The battle I want to fight is the battle against loathing among fans of men's tennis. This crusade has animated a part of my tennis writings and tweets over the past five years or so, and its necessity was raised yesterday when Roger Federer -- the men's tennis player I'm partial to -- broke a two-and-a-half-year drought at the majors by winning Wimbledon, and then made a remark after his victory that did not sit well with a considerable portion of the online tennis community.

I surround myself with plenty of Federer fans on my Twitter timeline, but I include substantial portions of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic fans as well, to provide a rich sampling of opinion and color from a sport that has added much to my life experience. Similarly, my political Twitter feed -- @RealHowardBeale -- includes just as many conservatives as liberals. I don't go on Twitter or any interactive medium so that I can only hear what my side, my "tribe," has to say. People don't learn much that way. People don't grow much that way.

This is an essay meant for all tennis fans, but my story must necessarily begin with a survey of non-Federer fans in my timeline when Federer notched his victory. Dozens of Nadal and Djokovic tweeps met the moment with class and a sporting mentality. I recognized some of them specifically in tweets during the trophy presentation and in the 30-45 minutes after it. Sadly, though, an equal amount of tennis tweets following Federer's win conveyed a palpable sense not just of disappointment, but disgust. Most tweeps were sad that Andy Murray lost, a sadness that is shared and embraced by any sports fan with a heart that hasn't frozen over. Murray's post-match speech on Centre Court moved me to tears. I want him to win a major someday, and I reckon that most tennis fans feel the same way.

It was with great perplexity, then, that I beheld the following post-match chain reaction on Twitter: Federer said that he felt Murray would win at least one major, but a vocal subsection of Twitter pronounced the Swiss to be classless and appalling in his behavior. This, just a week and a half after a huge kerfuffle emerged from Federer's revelation that he laughed for 10 minutes after Lukas Rosol beat Nadal... the laughter coming out of disbelief, not haughty enjoyment of Rafa's plight.
 
To the non-Federer fans in the audience, let me share with you a few things: As stated above, I am a political liberal. I want the athletes I root for as a sports fan to be good people, to exhibit good values. There is a certain connection between the athletes I root for and the values they represent. Yet, athletics being what it is, it is almost invariably true that successful athletes lead lifestyles different from the common person. It's also true that athletes come from so many different backgrounds, meaning that as much as I might want to envision or think of an athlete in my own image, I'm never going to get a perfect package.

Federer's lifestyle is not one I can remotely begin to identify with. There is an extravagance which certainly doesn't mesh with my sensibilities, a sometimes aristocratic bearing which smacks of overwhelming elitism. Speaking to non-Federer fans, you know these feelings better than I do. You can't begin to bear this part of Federer's identity. I get that. Moreover, that's not a problem. Rafa, the simple low-key fisherman without the champagne-and-caviar tastes, is the kind of man I and my late Czech father would identify with in terms of a daily lifestyle. War-surviving Novak Djokovic has fashioned a life story that -- to a neutral observer -- would rate as more inspiring than anything Federer has managed to do. It's great that many people on this planet find more to like about Nadal or Djokovic than Federer. I am not here to try to sell you on Federer as an identity or, more urgently, as a person.

What I am here to do is to draw a distinction -- a distinction that so often gets blurred, much as in American politics. You may not prefer a given person, image, or modus operandi. Your heart may not be captured by a stylistic imprint, an essence, a vibe, a worldview. Yet, your lack of preference for that person/image/worldview/essence does not make it bad or value-negative. Human beings -- in politics, tennis, religion, anything under the sun -- have, in the internet age, lost sight of the difference between a life-and-death contrast and, on the other hand, varying flavors or shapes of legitimate competing ideas.

If an athlete does really bad things -- Michael Vick's dogfighting, Ben Roethlisberger's aggressive behavior toward younger women, Shawn Kemp's or Antonio Cromartie's fathering of several children with several different sexual partners -- the notion of said athlete going on a fan's black list is perfectly reasonable, even enlightened. If an athlete doesn't grow up, thereby failing to honor his/her compact with the ticket-buying public, there's an undeniably appropriate quality to any subsequent attempt on the part of fans to shun that athlete.

With Roger Federer, no such dirt exists. No, you don't have to like the guy. No, you don't have to see the world through a Federer fan's lens. You don't have to prefer the way he plays tennis. You should, however, be able to muster up enough humanity to avoid the blackest forms of loathing.

What is Federer's great sin, a la Vick/Roethlisberger/Kemp/Cromartie/Adam "Pac Man" Jones/Tiger Woods or any other athletes who have truly engaged in shameful behavior at some point in their careers? Federer runs a charitable foundation that, to my knowledge, has not become one of the shadowy, flimsy shops that fails to give donors (and recipients of aid) a good return on their investments. He has, by all accounts, led a monogamous life. Sure, could there be a Joe Paterno-style expose in the future? There's always that chance, but remember: This is not an attempt to deify Federer or give him the kind of veneer that allowed Paterno to slip under the radar at Penn State when Jerry Sandusky's abuses went unpunished. This is merely an attempt to allow Federer's humanity to be seen for what it is: maybe not your own flavor, but not anything worth loathing.

This brings us back to Federer's remark that he hoped Murray would win at least one major. I can see why another human being -- one with a different worldview or wiring compared to mine (much as a conservative differs from my left-leaning outlook) -- would say, "Ya know, I just don't agree with or prefer that way of handling that kind of situation. Federer should have remained generic and applauded Murray on a great tournament without applying pressure to him." Again, I understand why Federer's remark would create a wince or a chagrined reaction of some sort.

What I don't get is why that remark was so strongly perceived by a decent-sized chunk of Tennis Twitterville as somehow classless. Is Federer perceived as dishonest when he says that? Is Federer willfully trying to place pressure on Murray? Sadly, I suspect one of those two answers applies to the (not representative) subsection of non-Federer fans who pounced on that remark with such passion on Sunday. The quickness to find fault in a Federer comment was striking because, well, Federer had just won a major for the first time in a long while. When Federer was winning majors with more regularity, the fault-finding-in-a-phrasing police became a numbingly regular part of a post-major experience for Federer fans.

Here's a quick pair of thoughts for those inclined to view Federer's post-victory remarks in the worst possible light:

1) What is your handbook for what to say in moments of victory? That's not a snarky question; it's serious. If certain remarks are inappropriate, what is the range of acceptable ones? See, this stuff gets tricky in a hurry. What might initially seem to be inappropriate to your own way of thinking is really just something that sits outside your realm of preference or your field of taste. This leads to...

2) When judging an athlete's post-event remarks, specifically those to his/her defeated opponent, always be ready to make the distinction between, on one hand, "acceptable or unacceptable" versus "preferred or not preferred." Those are two very different distinctions, the kinds of distinctions that should draw a bright red line between actions and statements that justify the true loathing of an athlete, and -- on the other hand -- actions and statements that merely lead you to prefer one athlete's way of being over another's, without enmity or rancor.

This is where I'd like to speak directly to fellow fans of Roger Federer.

You felt some of the larger online tennis community's displeasure yesterday. You rediscovered what it was like to stand in the winner's circle after two and a half years of watching Nadal and Djokovic fans catch the heat. The absorption of that outside negative energy should serve as reinforcement for the good Federer fans, those who have always been quick to congratulate Nadal and Djokovic fans in the aftermath of a sweet win for the Mallorcan or the Serb. For the Federer fans who gloated when Nadal lost to Rosol -- only to watch Federer come within two points of losing to Julien Benneteau the very next day -- this can become an eye-opener, a moment that leads to greater peace among men's tennis fans in this golden era for the sport. The fact that Roger Federer endured such withering and unfair scrutiny during his foremost years should now make it easier to appreciate, two and a half years later, what Nadal and Djokovic fans have had to put up with... especially today. This really is a great time for a tennis fan truce.

It is especially true in matters of religion, ideology and politics, but it's not very different in men's tennis: Human beings lash out in bitterness and frustration when attacked or made to feel lower by another subgroup. The various factions in men's tennis have all taken such a pounding from the other sides that they're the first to loathe those other subgroups and view their favorite players in the most negative light possible, damn the evidence. This is the tribalism that moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt speaks to in his excellent new election-year (in America) book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion. It is a book every American should read in advance of the Obama-Romney campaign, and it is the book Federer, Nadal and Djokovic fans would do well to read as well.

In conclusion, the three men who have done so much for the sport of tennis over the past nine years should be lauded for their achievements. As people, they represent three distinct ways of being: Swissness with affluence and a regal bearing; Spanish island-ness with a strong family emphasis on hard work and simplicity; Serbian-ness with a burning desire to strive and achieve and make a positive name for oneself and one's country, driven by survival instincts and a certain degree of nationalism. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic represent such different things to many people. We, as human creatures, are different and -- moreover -- meant to be different, so it is good and right that these three tennis players not be seen in the same ways by everyone. It's good and right that each player is preferred over and against the others by a subsection of tennis's global fan base.

However, all of this exists within a context of preferences, not Good versus Evil or Life-Affirming versus Life-Squelching. One should prefer Djokovic over Federer as one prefers strawberry over vanilla; one should prefer Federer over Nadal as one prefers organ music over guitar music. It is entirely true that many fans of the Big Three are terrific tweeps, gracious in all circumstances and reflective of the best of humanity. However, when one person's victory is met by a desire to quit tennis (what, the past two and a half years suddenly ceased to be enjoyable?) and one's perfectly reasonable remarks are viewed as somehow unsporting, it would seem that for far too many tennis fans, a good-versus-evil tribalism is alarmingly prevalent.

Federer fans, Nadal fans, Djokovic fans... none of us should feel it important or necessary to loathe one of these three terrific players who have contributed to this remarkable time in the sport's history. Here's a compromise, however: If anyone feels it necessary to continue to engage in loathing, why not keep it private instead of taking the fun away for the fans of the victorious player?

I have rather enjoyed the past two and a half years of men's tennis, even though my favorite player didn't win very much at the majors. Moreover, I'm quite aware of the extent to which Federer fans have been quick to gleefully gloat when Nadal or Djokovic suffered some form of setback, so I know whence this revulsion comes. This is therefore the perfect time to make an appeal for mutual respect and decency... not just from your side, but from mine.

Tribalism, in any field of endeavor or any aspect of human beings' sociocultural pursuits, has never worked out particularly well for the global family of all creation.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Mad Men, The Season Five Finale: Don and Megan Everywhere

There's too much to neatly summarize after the season finale of a show as densely layered as Mad Men. I'll look ahead to the final two seasons of the show later this week, but that demands a separate post. For now, here are several collected observations about the series, almost all of them focusing on Don and Megan. The focus on Don and Megan to the exclusion of other characters might seem excessive, but the final 20 minutes of the season five finale took us into the deeper world of their marriage than ever before. Moreover, this is a marriage which isn't nearly as stable or happy as the first two-thirds of the season might have led us to initially expect.

On with the show, now that we have at least 35 weeks (probably more) to wait for season six... and talk about what has happened over the past 12 Sundays:


In my mind, the essential takeaways from the exploration and expression of the Don-Megan relationship in the season 5 finale are as follows:

1) There is, as always in Mad Men, a great deal of ambiguity and tension running through these events and the inner workings of the characters involved. Season five leaves us with questions more than certainties.

2) Megan is reduced to wanting work for a paycheck. There is a diminishment, if not an exhaustion, of passion for the work, of desire to do the work to advance noble ideals or give expression to something True and Beautiful. Megan’s self-loathing is so high and her confidence so low because there’s a part of her which realizes that “the struggle” has lost much of its romantic or revolutionary qualities. Yet, the alternative to abandoning the struggle is a home-bound boredom that is soul-crushing in a different way. She is utterly trapped, hemmed in by both per parents and by the two dimensions of Don: the one who is a provider/connection/insider and the one who is her spouse, the one who carries a strong set of expectations toward her, many of which have been unfulfilled.

3) It’s not as though Betty was “content” to be a stay-at-home mom. Betty thought that’s what was expected of her, and she took her cues that way but at cost to her emotional well-being. With Megan, the trajectory is neatly – and strikingly – inverted. Megan established an appreciable degree of emotional separation from her parents and displayed a strong independence of mind, but as she goes along, she’s more affected (not less) by what her parents say. She didn’t luck into a photo-shoot gig the way Betty did, but she finds herself with the gig and trying to fight off boredom… not entirely unlike Betty. There’s a heavy dose of irony at work in Megan’s life/career trajectory, relative to Betty’s… and in Don’s realization of this reality, which is why the final scene of season five (after what was a largely forgettable episode, it should be said) struck the perfect chord of ambiguity.

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Don’s toothache as reflective of the more central problem in his life: That he can avoid facing up to his problems and the expectations that play a large part in perpetuating them.

What season five unpacked was the extent to which Don wanted Megan to fit a certain role and mold in his life. She hasn’t met Don’s expectations, and as a result, he feels so distant from her, looking at her in the film room the way he looked at Betty in The Carousel – longing for something that either once was (and is consigned to the past) or never truly existed.

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Someone I talked to online asked this very penetrating question: "Has Don grown enough that he realizes that he’s still connected to the world, to other people, even if Megan has let him down?"

My response to such a thoughtful query:

The question is certainly one of the two or three foremost questions Don must address at a deeper level. (For me, the other big Don question is: “Can Don allow Megan or anyone else to live on their own terms – not only by letting others sort out their own pursuits of happiness, but in conveying full and unreserved emotional support to them?”)

Being alone is, essentially, feeling alone. People can be surrounded and yet “be” alone. The alone-ness emerges in the mind, in times when one’s worldview or wavelength is not shared by anyone. It is indeed a mistake on Don’s part to believe that he is alone, but I think that in season five – compared to the previous four seasons – this belief is more the RESULT of his behavior than the CAUSE of it. This is an important distinction to make.

In seasons 1-4, Don’s belief that he was alone led to his philandering and such. In season five, it’s different: Don’s internal expectations led him to think that his actions (and his life with Megan) could take him to a different mental world, into a different psychological state. He sees, though, that for all the ways in which he has changed – for all the cheating he has (temporarily) ceased to engage in – his psyche hasn’t. Therefore, his belief that he is alone is that much stronger, in my opinion.

The scene with Peggy in the movie theater is so perfect because Peggy is the one person whom Don understands – and is understood by – on a very deep level. Don’s line about helping people to succeed and then allowing them to move on is not entirely true, given all the times Don smacked down or ignored Peggy over the years; however, it’s still substantially true – Don was Peggy’s foremost mentor and gave her a chance to flourish in the advertising business. If Don could take his attitude to Peggy and then apply it to everyone else, he’d be in great shape, but of course, no one else is quite like Peggy.

I think one can see from this episode that the head space and thoughtful attention Don denied Peggy this season were devoted to Megan instead. Yet, amidst turmoil in his relationships with both women, Don is much more able (and willing) to allow Peggy to be happy on her own terms, compared to Megan. Why is this so? The answer deserves a stand-alone essay, but the short version is that Peggy is someone who has met Don’s internal expectations. She’s doing the things Don has always envisioned her as doing (and has needed to do) ever since she first caught Don’s attention. Megan – with a layered quality not evident in previous episodes – definitively revealed in the season five finale just how fully her life path has veered from Don’s expectations and hopes. Don didn’t want another Betty, but this feels all so familiar, albeit with some underlying differences.

It sets up a fascinating season six.

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Megan's character, more than any other character in season five, has created profound and rather entrenched divisions among Mad Men fans. The big raps against Megan take multiple forms, the chief one being that she doesn’t fill or command the screen the way other characters do. (This is true, but it is presented as a knock against both Megan's character and the acting of Jessica Pare; it doesn't dawn upon Megan's and Jessica Pare's critics that there could be a point to Megan's lack of electricity or depth in a number of scenes from the past season.)

A response follows:

Has it ever occurred to Megan's critics that this Zou Bisou Bisou charmer, this person with bubbly optimism and a hatred of cynical Debbie Downers, this person who scooped up little children and cleaned up spilled milkshakes, is so much better at the hard sell – the creation of an image – than at the performance of everyday work in an everyday life? Has it occurred to Megan's critics that this unmistakable dullness (it's true -- it does exist on the screen especially when compared to Joan's or Roger's characters, among others...) is in itself a powerful commentary… not on the 1960s or Emile Calvet’s socialism or the value of being countercultural, but on the ultimate Mad Men truth — that happiness must be found from within? Isn't Megan's hollowness compared to other characters a startling revelation of the fact that for all of her effusive and attractive sex appeal in her best moments, the reality of being married to Don Draper in "Tomorrowland" - which did indeed seem like a fantasy come true for her - has NOT automatically delivered lasting happiness?

It’s also very much worth noting that the construct underlying Mad Men’s central truths is that people are rarely (or anything close to fully) what they first seem to be on the surface, far more layered and complicated than appearances or positive attributes might first suggest. Megan, due to her emergence on Mad Men in the middle of the series (season four of seven), is not as wholly developed as other characters, without question. However, she’s no longer the hologram/cipher she was in the first third of season five, and now, she’s not even the demanding, emotionally strong person she was in the middle third of this just-completed season. She’s been brought low, her confidence utterly shaken, bringing her through the full gamut of emotions and – instructively – becoming far more like Betty than Don ever could have imagined.

Different person, different background, different outlook, but the same central weaknesses. Don thought he had found such a distinctly different second wife, but he hasn’t. It makes season 6 quite fascinating.

I think we’ll see this late-arriving character get developed more deeply in 2013, enabling us to see that the undeniable flatness and dullness of this character (well, when she wasn’t Zou Bisou-Bisou-ing or raging at Don outside a HoJo…) were and are quite intentional.

I could be wrong, but I still trust Mr. Weiner enough to see what he’ll do with Megan. As a fierce critic of “Tomorrowland,” I think “The Phantom” has done something(s) far more constructive, reasonable and – most of all – honest with Megan’s character.

It’s instructive to point out that Megan has never felt more like a full, whole character than right now, after the completion of the season. She’s finally experienced the feeling that was hinted at in previous episodes, but never as fully as in “The Phantom”: self-loathing. This is the other side of the “Zou Bisou Bisou/Tomorrowland” person who fit multiple fantasy images and was relentlessly positive about everything around her.

Because Megan feels this way, Mad Men has retained its honesty and its textured, multi-dimensional, “appearances are deceiving” quality. The development of Megan’s character was always going to, in a certain sense, “slow down” the progress of season five by forcing a comparatively new character to get more screen time as Don’s wife, thereby taking screen time away from other characters. Yet, when tasked with developing Megan’s character – a task that must be done much more forcefully next season – Matt Weiner did a superb job in peeling back the onion and showing us new layers of this person, who is now far more complicated than we first thought.

When Mad Men shows us new dimensions of darkness/sadness/ugliness in a character, the show so often – if not always – feels more right and more honest. On a less ordinary, less thoughtful television show, a character like Megan would be patently non-entertaining and unambiguously disappointing. On Mad Men, the intentionality with which Betty Draper portrays unspoken confusion, with which Megan Calvet Draper conveys a surprising degree of flatness and dullness, is unmistakable and subtly powerful.

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Another online commentator explored Don's psychological state and his intentions – does he want to cheat on Megan or not? – in the final scene of season five and Sunday night's episode.

My opinion:

I think Don is more thoughtful and contemplative at the end of season five – and not as deeply disturbed or unsettled compared to seasons 1-4 – for a very simple reason that’s not particularly connected to visual cues: He’s been brought back to the beginning of another cycle.

After all he’s been through, after being paralyzed with fear over the prospect that he might one day be unfaithful to Megan, he now realizes that his marriage is not the fantasy it originally seemed to be. Even with Megan, this person who is different in temperament from Betty on many levels, he finds a situation which carries with it all too many echoes of what he went through with Betty. Don finds himself in a most unexpected psychological position, with a wife whom he thought would be so refreshingly, positively different for him… but hasn’t proved to be.

He has to give this matter some honest thought… the kind of thought he hasn’t had to devote to his life since his pre-Megan days.

I think he’s not ready to make a decision as season five ends, but he definitely does feel alone, or at least, far more alone than he has ever felt before as Megan Draper’s husband. He is in a place that demands a lot of reflection on his life, chiefly: 1) Who he is, and 2) how his expectations should/n’t govern his attitudes and behavior toward other people, especially Megan.

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I think that Don has told Megan the broad outline and most of the general details of his backstory, but not everything in its most minute detail. I’m of the view that there will come a time in season six when one of these minute details will surface, and it will carry powerful storytelling resonance for the series, not to mention a great deal of weight for Don’s and Megan’s characters.

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Monday, June 4, 2012

Mad Men And The Power Of The Unspoken

The power of life is not just found in words and actions, but in the scenes we encounter and the silences found within them. One of the most impressive aspects of Mad Men is that it is able to speak so powerfully... by not speaking.

Sunday night's episode didn't just convey a number of seminal events in the series; it did so with the unspoken power Matthew Weiner so deftly uses to his advantage... and to the benefit of viewers.

First, though, some background:

Think of some of the more unforgettable moments in the history of Mad Men: Peggy, Joan and Faye in the elevator; Peggy and Dawn, silently looking at each other in Peggy's apartment; Don and Peggy looking into each others' eyes in multiple situations (the hospital; the end of season three; episode 11 of season five, one week ago); Joan and Greg after Joan's rape; Joan and Lane in the second half of the season five opener, and then later in season five after Lane punched Pete -- these and so many other moments gained power because of the silences between the artfully-arranged words of a first-class Mad Men script. Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, Elisabeth Moss, Jared Harris - the best of the best actors on this show convey an astonishing range of emotions in and with their faces, especially their eyes. Much as it's easy to focus on the ball in any sporting event when non-ball action is often more determinative of a team's successes or failures, it's also true that in a dramatic presentation, it's easy to focus on verbal communication when non-verbal communication is just as  important.

Exploring this theme of the unspoken a little more deeply, consider the ending of "At The Codfish Ball" from earlier in season five. The episode unpacked the thought worlds and emotions of five characters in particular: Megan, her two parents, Don, and Sally. When the five of them are shown sitting at the table near the very end of the episode, their simple presence together in one wide-frame camera shot says so much in itself about what had happened over the previous 62 minutes of television. The unspoken act of gathering those five characters is meant to convey a theme, much as an elevator shot of three professional women is meant to convey another theme. Showing Don and Peggy in one extended scene develops their relationship and, with it, the flow of the series. Showing Peggy and Joan in a particular kind of scene makes a commentary on the different choices and paths taken by women in the 1960s. You get the picture.

In Sunday night's episode - the penultimate one of season five - there were so many unspoken scenes that carried such an enormous amount of weight and, moreover, resonance. Forget the dialogue of the characters; the mere presence of certain people in certain places became a part of the narrative Matt Weiner intended to advance.

Lane wanting to initially commit suicide inside a Jaguar shows how utterly trapped Lane was by the mere idea of going back to England in shame and humiliation.

Don's final scene with Glen - a boy who created an outsized persona for himself in a younger age (wanting to be Betty's husband) - paired two people who have experience at reinventing themselves... which is precisely what Lane was unwilling and unable to do.

Betty's scene with Sally showed that for all of Betty's weaknesses as a mother and for all of Sally's misgivings about her biological mother's integrity, the two are still bound by a connection that can never change or disappear. Betty didn't experience a transformative moment - she still relished gaining the upper hand over and against a flustered and worried Megan - but she was able to experience a pure moment of affirming motherhood, a moment that transcended both her struggles and Sally's frequent (but not quite permanent) hatred of her, a hatred built by - yes - Betty's reactions to Glen Bishop.

The way Joan was treated at the partner's meeting was in many ways defined by silences between and among words. The way Megan and Glen awkwardly stared at each other presented a moment in which two very uncertain people - out of their element, worried about their respective partners - were trying to find more of a foothold in lives that felt very unsettling for them.

All of this was wrapped inside an episode in which Lane's death provided a powerful message, albeit one drenched in unbearable sadness: while reinventing oneself cannot and should not be a lie - a foundation for deceit - human beings do have to start over on many times in their life journeys, finding new ways of bringing an authentic and whole self into new, paralyzing, and witheringly complex situations. Lane reinvented himself in a positive way by embracing the good elements of American culture and its creative energy, but he lived a lie by trying to alter SCDP's books instead of asking Don - ironically, the man he trusted most in the workplace - to help him out. (Don would have done so, too.) Moreover, Lane loved America to the point of death: so great was his desire to stay in the country and succeed on a specific set of terms that when he felt he couldn't do so, he gave up.

Mad Men unites themes and motifs this way on a regular basis. What's seen and unseen is all of one piece. Verbals and visuals merge to create a larger message which can be seen, yes, but also heard... and felt... and absorbed. It's hard to describe with words alone, and that's precisely why the realm of the unspoken speaks so loudly on the best television show in America.