The Moth Chase

Elevating the Art of Procrastanalysis – Academics wasting time on pop culture

A Mistake You Love Making

with one comment

Dear Kathryn,

Well if we ever had an episode that was ‘all about…,’ this one was it: the violent heart of men, being the ‘…’ in that ‘fill in the blank’. But for the first time the theme of the episode got me wondering, how often are the Mad Men themes a fruition of a seed previously planted? When Greg raped Joanie last season (or was it the season before?), it got brushed under the rug so quickly.  Nevertheless, the memory of that scene has hung sometimes ominously in the air and other times, much as it would in real life, I suppose, it has disappeared from clear sight. Indeed, there have been moments when I’ve mistakenly liked Greg again, and then quickly wondered if not only Joan, like me, had forgotten what he’d done, but if even the writers had too.

To build a whole episode around this theme of male violence, then, that couched the dissolution of Joan and Greg’s marriage in the Chicago Speck Massacre of mid-July, 1966 was perfect. As the episode explored its theme, and the terror (as well as desire) such violence can incite in the women who face it, I think Ginsberg offered the most interesting thread. Consciously repelled by his colleagues’ fascination with the Speck case, he nevertheless sub-consciously turned it into an ad-campaign for shoes (“She knows she’s not safe, but she doesn’t care…She wants to be caught”). And that the men in the room jump on this fairy-tale parody of a real and present heinous crime speaks to the vision being spun in the episode that men, at heart, are steeped in and longing to play with, a violence against women that is mixed up with the sense that the lady’s asking for it.

Of course, Don’s ongoing dream sequence brings this to its height with the fantasied fatal attraction seduction by a passing old flame and his subsequent murder of her. At first I struggled with the meaning of all this – men have violent hearts and women want it? This vision seemed to lack the sophistication of Mad Men’s usual commentary. But as we approach some genuine cultural revolution in the Mad Men world, this type of clash begins to make sense. We’ve dealt with the sexism all these years/seasons, and we’ve had the genuine rearing of something truly evil with Joanie’s rape, but here it all comes to a head. The low level versions of violence that happen through women (or anyone who is not a straight white male citizen) being marginalized, excluded from participation in culture, objectified, etc., are all rooted in a more insidious, terrifying type of violence. Quaint though the former have seemed at times in this series – and they have made us giggle uncomfortably time and time again – they are versions of the latter. And the latter is much easier to see when it is on full display.

What really intrigued me though was how the terrifying creation of Don’s sub-conscious – one that results in kicking a dead body under the bed, only to have a high-heeled foot poke out as a reminder of what he did – is a violence doesn’t only threaten the victim; it threatens the fabric of the world in which the perpetrator lives as well. Don lashes out sub-consciously because he feels the threat of his own failure, his own insecurity, and his own weakness. Violence stems not from power, but from lack of power – and if that’s really the case, we best expect to see much more of it as these revolutions continue.

And this is why Peggy’s drunken line was so poignant – I try to be like a man, but I don’t know if I have it in me…I don’t know if I want to. Indeed, it’s her hospitality – her behaving ‘like a women’ – paired with a trust she doesn’t actually want to extend that allows an, albeit fractured, friendship beyond the violence to begin.

On another note – I’m intrigued by the near obsessive historical situating that has been happening this season. I’ve never seen a television show speak so frequently about current news items, but we can pinpoint each episode of this season by precise date based on what is happening in its media. I don’t know what I make of this yet, but I want to flag it for future consideration.

I’ll leave Pauline, the momentary appearance of a less fat Betty, and everything else to you!

Can’t wait to hear what you thought!
xoxo,
Natalie

—–

Dear Natalie,

I couldn’t agree more – this was definitely an “all about” kind of episode and while there were some lovely moments, visual and narratively, I didn’t love it. Maybe I like my Mad Men more cryptic and brooding, but this episode felt a bit rushed and forced. Though I think your reading of the main theme – the violence that lurks in the heart of men – was fantastic, and very much right on. And in true Matthew Warner style, even the heavy-handed theme has a historical referent in the Speck murders that haunt the story.

I think you are right that the specter of those murders creates the larger backdrop wherein violence and sex mix it up with women’s liberation and shifting gender roles. From Ginsberg’s creepy ad hoc shoe pitch to Pauline’s voyeuristic recounting of the murders to a terrified Sally, the message is clear: women out alone at night, or worse, living alone in a big city, are prey to the big bad beastly desires that lurk in the hearts of men. Worse still, they most likely incite those desires with their short uniforms and trailing tresses. Just like Ginsberg’s Cinderella wants to be caught, Pauline implies that the young nurses were at least partially taken in by the handsome stranger waiting at the door. And everyone, from Pauline to the office gossip pool, was fixated on the lone survivor. Underneath the feigned concern (“it will be a miracle if she is ever sane again”) is the twisted mix of desire to be the girl, to know what she knows, to feel what she felt, and even to wonder if she wishes she had not survived.

Probably my favorite part of the episode was the way the visual image of the surviving girl hidden under the bed played itself out visually: Don hiding strangled Andrea under the bed (with one shoe poking out, as you say to remind him, and also a visual throwback to Ginsberg’s shoe campaign – the shoe that reminds us all that she kind of wanted to be caught), Sally sleeping off her first narcotic under the sofa, and finally, Joan lying on top of the bed, no longer willing to be the scared woman who hides the violence of her past in order to survive. The first two images lent the episode an almost campy feel. Combined with the “whose alone with Peggy in the office?” horror trope there was something playful about it. I liked this silly edge best and maybe I would have liked the whole episode more if they had just gone whole hog on a horror jag. As it was, Don’s dream sequence felt forced and too obvious a psycho-drama of what Megan so beautifully called his “careless appetite” – he is a cad and a lout but would he really kill the girl, even in a fever hallucination? Didn’t that play a bit too neatly to the “all men harbor dark violence” theme?

Joannie, on the other hand, climbing squarely on top of the bed, baby and mother in tow, was a beautiful end to the fever dream of her marriage and a much better solution than simply killing Greg off in Vietnam. I was so glad to realize that the rape scene (all the way back from season 2!) was not forgotten, but was lurking just as strongly in Joan’s imagination as in our own. And I think you are right: that was the high/low point of misogyny at the time, a reminder that sexism and oppression are matters of life and death and bodily integrity. To bring it back as a reminder that violence, rape, and assault are not just the property of serial killers or hallucinations, but the reality of many women who will never find their stories told on the front page, was brilliant and perhaps one of the best combinations of social commentary and character development yet.

I wish I could say the same about Dawn. I was very glad she got more than two lines into Don’s intercom last night, but I still don’t feel like I know her as a character. Even the sleep over with Peggy felt like it was more about Peggy’s awkward attempts to cross the color line and her struggle to overcome the knee-jerk racism that she knows is wrong but feels nonetheless. Don’t get me wrong – there is something brilliant in reminding us how deeply racism lurks in the subconscious and in exposing the limitations of liberalism. But I do hope that the one black character gets to be a real character in her own right, not just a foil for our white folks to learn more about themselves.

I will leave with one last question: how much cash does Roger Sterling carry on him?!

K

Written by themothchase

April 9, 2012 at 12:48 am

One Response

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  1. Enough, Roger Sterling always carries enough. And he smugly imagines that he’s actually done something (or been something) to earn it. He’s very much the Puck-ish trickster with his mercurial and magical (and sporadic) interventions in the affairs of mortals.

    I’ve noticed that Madmen seems to use a very 1960’s version of Freud as a kind of sub-language of symbol and meaning. Sometimes the characters even make passing remarks that reference this episteme. I think this is an interesting choice on the part of the writers. What we might read as “forced” they read as “stylized.” I sometimes felt the same thing watching the Sopranos–the awareness that there was a psychological scheme on a whiteboard in a writers’ room. But I didn’t mind, because the completion of the pattern was still satisfying even if we were pretty sure we knew what was going to happen in the end.

    I didn’t think the focus of this episode was so much on “the murder that lurks in the hearts of men” as the death impulse that motivates all of us in a lurid way. Subjectivity in the presence of violence was the question, I think, more than the origins of such violence. Characters consistently acted with more attraction than revulsion. I think we were supposed to feel the same way, and I played right into that as I looked up the Speck Murders on Wikipedia.Then we all supposed to feel shame when this impulse is taken to its logical conclusion (Sally’s fear and Don’s fever dream).

    Heavy handed? Perhaps, but I still thought it was a beautiful episode and I liked that it took the show in some surprising directions.

    Speaking of “The Sopranos”–I thought of the episode “University” when I saw this. Also about violence against women, and a fascinating case study itself in how such violence is portrayed and received in media.The actress that played Tracee, the stripper who is murdered, commented in an interview that many people cancelled their HBO subscriptions because of that episode. And yet we can’t look away.

    Tay Moss

    April 11, 2012 at 11:25 pm


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