Monday, August 17, 2009

How Can I Not Write about Mad Men?

...what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
- W.B Yeats, "The Second Coming"

By 1967 Joan Didion would use Yeats' evocation of the apocalypse to anchor her reporting on the Haight during the Summer of Love, but these lines strongly came to mind when thinking about the Season 3 premier of Mad Men. Yes, the episode is literally about births, and the anxiety surrounding births: we begin with a flashback to Dick Whitman's birth, Betty and Don are awaiting the birth of their third child, the episode takes place on Dick's birthday, and the episode ends with Don and Betty telling Sally the story of her birth. Beyond the literal, though, the themes of the season hinted at in the episode are all about changes that are being born, the anxieties attendant to those changes, and how one reacts to change when one is in the middle of it.

From the first scene of the pilot episode the audience has known what the characters can't know: that the complacency and seeming hegemony of the immediate postwar years is about to explode into chaos. Everything that happens to these characters takes place on the cusp of a great cultural shift that they can't predict because they are living through it. In 2007, would any of us have predicted the events of 2008, the extent of the financial meltdown, the depth of our national anxiety, the result of the Presidential election? Although those living through a period of cultural shift might have glimmers that a change is gonna come, the nature of that change and its repercussions are fully understood only in hindsight, which is precisely what Mad Men's characters lack. They are simply adults living their lives.

It's sometime around April, 1963; the Beatles recorded their first album in March, but the British have already invaded Sterling Cooper, thanks to Duck's ambition and Roger's libido. The anxiety of the characters has a very literal cause, as we know that about a third of the staff has been let go. Beyond British control, advertising itself is changing. Harry's position as head of the TV department has clearly given him more power within the agency, since he himself points out that TV brings in 42% of their revenue. Pete and Ken are pitted against one another for a promotion; the arrival of a male British secretary who sees his role as something much more grandiose than Joan has ever imagined challenges her supremacy over the support staff; Roger and Bert seem to have a symbolic "advisory" role at the agency with no real authority.

Much of the episode focuses on Don and Sal's jaunt to Baltimore to placate London Fog. "Out of Town," as the episode title suggests, is the episode's theme. To be out of town is to have the ability to rebirth yourself, to pretend to be anything and anyone you want to be because no one knows you. Don Draper is an expert at rebirthing, at changing identities, and is quick to make up a backstory for himself and Sal for their night carousing with the stewardesses. The real birthing that takes place though is of Sal's true identity; being out of town allows him to let the bellboy kiss him and to acknowledge his true desires. It's Dick's birthday, but in this sense it's also the day Sal is birthed into a new way of conceiving of his life.

The new doesn't fully replace the old because the new is born from it. Dick Whitman lies just under the surface of Don Draper just as the Beatles lie just under the surface of Perry Como. Change isn't coming so much as it's slowly and inexorably happening all around, every minute. In the next few months of 1963 the Draper's baby will be born, TaB and ZIP codes will be introduced, JFK will call for passage of a Civil Rights Act, the SCLC's Birmingham campaign will grip the nation, MLK will be jailed and pen his famous Letter and a few months later deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech while James Meredith enrolls at Ole Miss, Kenya and Uganda will free themselves from British domination, and in a little country called Vietnam Diem will be assassinated by US-backed military coup. Joan will deal with the repercussions of her marriage, Don will try to remain committed to his family, Pete or Ken will be promoted, Peggy will try to force her secretary to respect her, all the adults living in this world will continue to live in it even as the ground underneath them keeps shifting.

How we deal with the change we live inside of is the theme of all our lives.

1 comment:

beths said...

Go, Peggy Olson!!!!