The Moth Chase

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

I’m Not from Somewhere Other Than This Moment?

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Dear Kathryn,

There are a number of threads in this episode on which we could pull to try to unravel it and get at its meaning. I feel like the whole thing was full of one-liners, each of which could constitute the central focus of a whole blog post. The one I want to tease out is history. But first a brief aside: Mad Men gets consistently accused of being heavy-handed; indeed, I know I’ve made that accusation myself. Sally’s realization last night – “And then I realized I don’t know you at all” – or Don’s exclamation that every time they get a car “this place turns into a whorehouse,” hot on the heels of a set of flashbacks to his being raised in a brothel both offer examples of this classic Mad Men move of hitting us over the head with content summary. But last night I came to the conclusion that these moves are the show’s strength, not weakness. Because it’s not like any one of them makes the meaning of the whole thing so much clearer. Instead, they provide small footholds for reflection. I began to wonder, in fact, if when we bloggers like to point out how heavy-handed these moments are, it’s really because we’re a little overwhelmed by just how smart (and, by extension, confusing) this show can sometimes be, and we want to respond with something like, “don’t think you’re smarter than me Mad Men, because you’re not…I’m on to you!” An episode like this – that bends time and reality (brilliant use of lighting at various times makes hours pass unnoticed as a character simply walks down a hall to his office…I imagine alluding to whatever blackouts the drugged state may have been inducing) and opens up new dimensions for characters (I. Love. Stan. Now) – puts its meaning just beyond our reach. And in that, whether Don’s got time for art or not, the show, I think, comes as close to art as anything running on tv right now. Now, back to history.

Mad Men has used drugs before to open up characters to deeper truths about themselves (Roger’s LSD trip being perhaps the best example of this). And Don and Ken’s brilliant scene tapped us into the fact this was happening here too. Don proclaims that the timbre of his voice is just as important as the content of the ad – he might be submissive or forceful, he simply doesn’t know, but he can sell it in a way Ken can’t. And he knows he’s as much style as substance. Ken, at the same time, admits immediately that he has absolutely no power – he’s simply tap dancing for the clients…truly all style, no substance. And so we’re set on the course that lets us know enhanced B-vitamins function – among other ways – like a bit of a truth serum.

And the truth for Don in this episode is that he doesn’t give a crap about Chevy – he needs to be in the room with the timbre of his voice because he’s never been selling products; he’s always being selling himself – whether to Chevy or Sylvia is somewhat irrelevant. He wants to be bought to affirm his own worth. He’s just another Aimee trying – corny though this might be – to find out if someone loves him. So the reason I think the heavy handedness is the show’s genius rather than downfall is because I think it actually depicts the way deep psychological grooves fight their way to the surface of our consciousness and action. This process isn’t subtle – it’s heavy handed and awkward, even as the one doing it isn’t aware of what’s happening at all. Don doesn’t know he’s telling his own history when he compares his workplace to a whorehouse…we the viewers do, but Don is oblivious. It’s the same when he creates an ad for oatmeal that draws on an old memory of a prostitute feeding him soup (complete with Aimee’s mole on the mother’s cheek-because she knew what he needed, in both soup and sex*). We need to know with heavy-handed precision because our knowing heightens just how much Don doesn’t know. He needs to be utterly transparent to us to prove just how opaque he is to himself. For Don, or for anyone, history works and surfaces through psyche not because we’re aware of it, but because we’re not. And so, likewise, history draws people together – even if it’s not their history – because it’s buried in our desires, our hopes and our fears, all of which we’re playing out again and again with each other in different configurations.

*One more aside: perhaps we can see this moment as the genesis of Don’s seductive style – how many times has he made a woman want him by convincing her she has what he needs…by making her feel needed? Sylvia bucks this trend by being the one who tells him (last week): I need YOU, and nothing else will do. Perhaps this is why he’s so desperate for her – she is the first one to play Don to Don.

What intrigued me most about this concept of history of trauma and ecstasy repeating itself throughout a person’s unconscious, in ways that are frequently obvious to everyone but themselves, was what this might mean for Sally (who was, in this episode, about the same age as the younger flashback Don). Don told her to forget what happened with Ida the thief – it’s his fault, not hers. But, of course, forgetting is the fastest way to creating the memory as something that will surface again and again until it’s worked out. What will be Sally’s legacy, trying to undo the night she couldn’t protect her brothers from an intruder?

It’s also just part of the aesthetic glee of the show, but given these themes of history playing out on the psychological level, some of the play in the creative team’s room only heightened the interaction of the serious with the trippy. From quoting Abe Lincoln (very serious, very real history!) to Lewis Carroll (a sort of fantasy of history), to images of William Tell and St. Sebastian, the creative team grounded us in multiple historical and pseudo-historical narratives that felt quite foreign to what Mad Men usually gives us.

I haven’t even had the chance to touch on Peggy, Wendy or Sylvia – so I hope you do! Or how much I love watching Roger and Cutler bond over checkers…not the most thinking man’s game!

There were so many great lines, it’s difficult to pick the right one to sign off, so I’ll go with Stan and brighten your day…

You have a nice ass –
Natalie

ps: I know the “next week on Mad Men” spot is always a little weird, but did its loop of repetition make you wonder if we’re going to have another episode that plays with time? The reverse movement of the Howard Johnson episode last season was one of my favourites. I wonder if we’re getting some sort of repetitive, cyclical theme next week? If so, these themes of history and repetition seem even more significant!

———————–

I may be able to feel my legs just fine, but even as the sober person in the room, I loved this David Lynch-esque escapade into the wilds of the creative process, Don’s cyclical imagination, the well spring of all desire, and Ken’s tap-dancing expertise. For me, the episode was one extended, often hilarious, meditation on the creative process: a kind of “Don and Peggy stay up all night and save the day” a la “The Suitcase” on speed. And not just any creative process, but the messianic answer comes in a flash of light deep in the night kind of process that Don specializes in. The rabbit hole opens when Ted Chaough takes his creative schema and brainstorming process out of the building to mourn Frank Gleason, “the irreplaceable man.” Don and the gang have the help of their own personal Dr. Feelgood, but they basically all pace, sweaty and worked up, waiting for lightening to strike. Don mistakes the lightening of a good idea for Chevy with all good ideas, with the very idea of a good idea, with the well spring of desire itself, and the key to getting Sylvia back. As you note, it has something to do with history, with feeling connected, tied into something, even if it is an imagined history. But Don does not explain, because, again as you note so well, he is coming to revelations about himself, the very psychic structures of his person, his own erotic economy but he can only see them in the ciphers of his ad campaigns.

Or maybe his ad campaigns, if we could pull them all out of the archives, would turn out to be just as good a back story as the flashbacks to his time in hillbilly whorehouse hell. If, as Peggy says quoting Wordsworth, “the child is the father of the man” then Dick Whitman birthed one fucked up man. I can’t get Emily Nussbaum’s words out my head (from her recent review of the series and the character): Don’s is not the back story of a serial adulterer. It is the back story of a serial killer. So yes, it is heavy handed and all a bit too symbolic, but like you, I’m gonna go with it. Because heavy handed or not, we are also watching how the psychology of advertising moves beyond a “interrupting entertainment” model to becoming the full force of entertainment itself. In post-Fordist America, it is not enough to sell products; you have to sell history, identity, and desire itself. Don may not have found the key to unlocking Chevy, but he was really close to describing post-modern advertising theory in general!

What did you make of the Ida interlude? Did you, like Sally and Bobby, almost buy it for a minute? I did! I knew she was fleecing them, but in the spirit of the episode it seemed entirely possible that a figment of Don/Dick’s memory would step out of his hallucinations and appear to fry him chicken. And isn’t something like Bobby’s naturally childish question – “are we Negros?” – exactly the anxiety Don’s whole existence masks: that he will be revealed to be categorically below his class and caste?

Where did you learn to do that? From my mother. No, from my first girlfriend.

Kathryn

Written by themothchase

May 20, 2013 at 12:57 pm

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