(S P O I L E R S)
In which we take a break from the booze and self-loathing.
“Babylon” marks a sort of chronological and spiritual midway point for Season 1 of Mad Men. It also generally marked the final episode that we would watch in Sophomore English before the arrival of two weeks of Winter Break. So in that spirit, it’s time for a brief intermission from this series of essays. Herewith is some tying up of loose ends, and some unravelling of others.
*I’m always intrigued by people who watch Mad Men, even for a season or two, and can only see Don as a morally repugnant character. Especially if they’ve seen an episode like “Babylon.” Or parts of Season 2 where, amidst the gratuitous Bobbie Barrett-shagging, Don shows a real commitment to the concept of loyalty during the botched American Airlines deal, and some hardcore pondering of his empty, glamorous life. Granted, the show doesn’t always throw these insights in your face. And a lot of Don’s reflective nature is motivated by his rivalry with the uber-unctuous Duck Phillips. But Don is such a compelling, conflicted figure that it’s too reductive to pigeonhole him as a despicable hedonist, or a bro-tastic icon of cool; he’s both of those, and more.
*This interlude in the class also marked the point where our time with The Great Gatsby was coming to an end. If you’ve read it, then you can probably see the major parallels between Don and Gatsby, the Drapers and the Buchanans, the jetset world of 1960 Madison Avenue and the sanctuary of old money privilege that is 1922 Long Island, etc. etc.
When we reached the penultimate chapter of the book (in which George Wilson murders Gatsby, and then himself) I wouldn’t assign the final chapter, instead telling the student to come to class on the next discussion day, when we’d take care of the final part. When they arrived, I would surprise them by reading the final chapter aloud. I have a long history of theatrical acting and public speaking, so I hoped that even if some of the students had hated the book, my attempt at conveying the crushing emotions of the final section might sell them on at least part of it. Or maybe they’d just get a kick out of hearing my mellifluous voice assuming the roles of Nick, Tom, Jordan, Meyer Wolfsheim, etc.
Now here’s the part of the story that many of those students might not have caught onto at the time. As I’ve made clear to most sentient men, women, children, dogs, and mannequins, Gatsby is my favorite book. (You can read more about it in my epic review of the 2013 film version of the book.) I’ve read it ten or eleven times. But even with all that experience, I still find it very moving…and for different reasons every time I read it. So moving that each time I read that final chapter to the class, I almost started crying at several points. I would genuinely have to choke back tears at least two or three times. Now, some of this reaction would depend on if the class was figuratively giving me the finger at this point. And more often than not, my moments of emotional bleeding would be at their strongest during the first class of the day (sorry 5th and 8th periods across the years.)
But yeah, certain images or passages really got to me every time. Nick realizing that almost no one would show up at Gatsby’s funeral, and that Daisy hasn’t even sent flowers. His vivid memories of the train rides back west from college, in the midst of which he realizes that he and the main characters of the book were all Westerners who “possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.” His final phone conversation with Jordan Baker, in which he ruefully tells her “I’m thirty. I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor” (trust me, experience with one too many Jordan Bakers over the years will do this to you.)
And Nick’s final confrontation with Tom, in which he finally confirms that Tom essentially signed Gatsby’s death warrant. Even now when I read the following passage, I get a bit misty:
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”
That was a brutal moment to read as a teen, but life had since taught me that this sentence spoke more truth about the world than many books did. And the stark brutality of that truth always put a noticeable hitch and waver in my voice. The only other moment in my teaching career that was guaranteed to elicit the same feeling was the climactic sequence in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (which I taught in a Literature and Film course), the awful collapse of hope in which Noah Cross utters that most terrible of truths: “You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything.” And the final scene, in which Evelyn Mulwray answers J.J. Gittes plea to let the police take care of her father by yelling “He owns the police.” Damn. Yeah.
And, of course, there was the final page of Gatsby, in which Nick looks out on Manhasset Bay and ponders the twin dreams of America and Jay Gatsby himself. And how “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Still powerful today. I’m sure that a few of the more perceptive students caught my suppressed tears during this day. But for those who didn’t…yeah, reading the final chapter kinda tore me up.
*In my four years of teaching Mad Men as part of the Sophomore English curriculum, I occasionally got some heat from colleagues of various stripes and levels of authority about the pedagogical appropriateness of teaching a full season of a television show. To quote one detractor’s withering assessment “So basically you’re teaching a pop culture class.” (It should be noted that said person made this assessment many months into that school year…and with almost no prior involvement or contextual knowledge of my methodology. Or its results.) And hey, a few of you might also be thinking the same thing. So here’s my one stop defense.
We live in an age that is saturated in media like no other before it. At no other time of modern history has so much media been available in so many formats, and in so many permutations. And that point of saturation is only increasing each day. Pre-teens and teenagers, in particular, have grown up fully immersed in this pool of information and entertainment. The frictionless experience that so many Silicon Valley hucksters strive for in all forms of technology has also made the media deluge easier than ever to unconsciously digest. The advent of the smartphone has made it possible, for the first time in history, to have almost all of this media with you 24 hours a day, in any situation and place. (At this point, if you haven’t already seen it, I highly recommend checking out David Cronenberg’s 1983 masterpiece Videodrome, as prophetic a film about the melding of mind and media as I’ve ever seen. And long live the new flesh.)
I think that any educator, hell, any person worth their salt realizes that it’s imperative in such a hyper-driven, hyper-saturated media environment to include critical media studies in the scholastic setting. Emphasis on critical. I’ve seen my share of attempts at media studies that double as TED talks for the magnificence of the modern media and technological machine. Deep analysis of all forms of media, their inherent aesthetics, and their impact on different types of audiences is the best way to prepare young people to be the critical thinkers who will hopefully drive the media environment in a more positive and productive manner in the future.
And in this media-saturated environment, television is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Much of the traditional major network content is dying, but the episodic drama (and, to some extent, comedy) has become one of the great cultural flashpoints of this era. As the increasing corporate strictures of Hollywood make complex individual filmmaking (at least on a mass level) more and more difficult to achieve, television (mostly premium cable so far) has become the playground in which artistic visionaries can experiment with long form narrative, moral and ethical ambiguous characterization, and deep philosophical exploration that would make most studio execs blanch if they read about it in a script for a two hour film. The Sopranos was such a genius work and a massive hit because it was wildly entertaining, profanely funny, and profoundly challenging; at the time, achieving all three in the television world wasn’t that easy. Breaking Bad gained much of its popularity and watchability from its suspense-laden plot arcs. But it was also a fascinating character study of moral rot and the complex motivations for it. And it’s one of the most beautifully shot shows of the modern era, Michael Slovis’s painterly compositions turning Albuquerque into a neon-noir landscape of splendorous desolation.
All of this brings us back to Mad Men, which might be the unlikeliest water cooler show of this so-called New Golden Age of Television. As I mentioned in the intro essay, I chose to teach the show because it so closely hews to the greater concerns of The Great Gatsby and In the Lake of the Woods. But it also contains everything that we, as humanities teachers, were supposed to champion. A long form narrative that requires careful attention to detail. Realistic characters whose hopes, dreams, flaws, and motivations can only be fully understood through context. A finely tuned visual sensibility that is sometimes the main storytelling voice. A dissection of one of the most influential periods of American history. A compelling, cautionary tale about the birth of the modern advertising industry, which has stealthily colonized our minds; what could be better than learning to analyze a show that, in and of itself, analyzes media history?
One other criticism that was thrown my way was that taking one class period per week to watch an episode together was a waste of time, that I should use the flipped classroom model instead. For those of you unfamiliar with this latest educational fad, it advocates that instructors should tape any lecture-related material, have students watch it at home the night before class, and then devote the class period to group work and discussion. As with most education fads, it’s interesting in theory, but too often applied across the board without contextual understanding of the individual class dynamic. And like most edu-fads, it’s actually one that’s already been recycled several times. (For a concise analysis of the flipped classroom fad, check out this piece by the always spot-on education analyst Audrey Watters.)
In any case, this line of criticism was, at best, both amusing and wrongheaded. It was also delivered by someone who had never seen the classroom dynamic on the days that we would watch an episode. For all the talk that we, as educators, engaged in concerning the importance of shared experiences (especially in a technocratic society that can all too often promote a solipsistic attitude), you’d think that anyone would understand the power (and, let’s be honest, the pure enjoyment) of 15-18 people gathered together to watch an episode of Mad Men together. Anyone could watch “5G” at home, but they wouldn’t experience the electric tension in the air when Don walks into the hotel with his mysterious satchel, an entire group of people on the edge of their seats. And the post-screening discussions that we engaged in, when insights and questions were still fresh in everyone’s heads (mine included), when we could talk about the historical context and references of the episode in an immediate fashion? Yeah, I don’t feel like I need to explain myself much more. Other than to remind you that the bulk of the essays in this series reflect the content of that classroom unit...and I've only mildly touched on all the literary content. And needless to say, I still get former students telling me how meaningful that unit was to them.
*On the final day of classes before Winter Break, I’d have some fun and play a collection of Mad Men-related videos for the students (or at least those who hadn’t taken off for vacation early.) You can watch those videos in playlist form here. I’d also highly recommend watching this episode of Between Two Ferns, which I also showed. And yes, I like websites too.