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.