Friday, April 03, 2015

MAD MEN Ep. 13: "The Wheel"

(S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

In which it’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.  And in which it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.

“ ‘Verona,’ Kathy said, and then they talked about Verona, the things they would see and do, and soon the fog was all around them and inside them and they were swallowed up and gone.  Not a footprint, not a single clue.  All woods and water.  A place where one plus one always came to zero.”    Tim O’Brien/In the Lake of the Woods

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning-------

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
                          Nick Carraway/The Great Gatsby

It’s one of the signature scenes in the history of Mad Men.  It serves as an emotional climax for Don Draper’s character arc in the first season, a moment of catharsis for a deeply troubled man.

But in the end, for all of its haunting power, it’s still a sales pitch.  And in this famous scene, in which Don unfurls his brilliant renaming of the Carousel slide projector, the Kodak reps aren’t the only ones being sold a dream.

“They said ‘someday you'll find all who love are blind’
When your heart's on fire,
You must realize, smoke gets in your eyes”

As Don walks around the Kodak village three times and then sets it on fire (to borrow a line from Freddie Rumsen in “The Hobo Code”), we sees smoke wafting across the slides that he’s showing, the ones depicting a gradual recession into his family’s past (ending on his wedding day, and then a shot from what appears to be his courtship of Betty.)  It lends a sense of atmosphere and melancholy to the scene, the fog of the past rolling in to envelop those in the room.  It’s also a callback to the title of the pilot episode, whose first shot features the back of Don’s head, setting up this enigma that the audience will soon try to solve.  “The Wheel” ends with us seeing Don straight on, from the front, no distractions or obfuscations.  No smoke.  And with the arc of the season coming full circle (around and around, and back home again), we see the smooth man of mystery for what he really is: lost. And alone.

The brilliance of the Kodak sales pitch scene is the brilliance of Mad Men in capsule form.  Throughout this season, we’ve seen Don careen in all directions, searching for the fulfillment that always seems to be just out of his reach.  His placement in the grand archetypical tradition of the wayward seeker tugs at our heartstrings, because if only he could….And when he finally seems to come to his senses, when he realizes the value of the family he’s slowly abandoned (including the brother he rejected, whose suicide he finally learns about early in the episode), when for one final time he speaks to his inner self through an extroverted business action, all in a gorgeously shot scene that puts a capper on the traditional hero’s journey, well…

But as authentic as the scene’s emotions are, they’re also colored by reality.  All season long, Don has saved the day with pitches drawn from his own psychological turmoil.  All season long, he’s pulled the rabbit out of the hat again and again.  And just like those previous moments of glory, he’s pitching himself hard in the Kodak meeting.  Tapping into his own sense of nostalgia for a more idyllic family life, he’s like Jay Gatsby yearning to recover that part of himself that had gone into loving the object of his desire.  But just as Gatsby became lost in his dream of the vanished past, so too does Don become enraptured by his own patter.  And when the prodigal son finally returns home, his fantasy of an excited family greeting him can only last for a second.  The reality is an empty house, and a legacy of pain that can’t be erased by an advertisement.

But Don isn’t the only character in this episode that ends up adrift in the sea of life.  In a staple of the Mad Men universe, the greatest victories are often tempered by a creeping sense of defeat.  Witness the culmination of Peggy’s season-long transformation.  Flush with her newfound (albeit limited) prestige, she gets to join Ken in the casting session for the Relax-A-Cizor radio campaign.  And then comes a scene that stands out as one of the more uncomfortable, sad, and powerful moments in this season.  As Peggy tries to coach the gorgeous Annie in her line reading, a cutthroat edge that we’ve only seen glimpses of emerges in her.  The end result is the formerly timid secretary destroying a fragile woman in a manner that Don at his worst would be proud of. 

It’s such a complex scene, as Peggy tries to establish some level of control by picking a traditionally beautiful candidate who will instill confidence in the consumer, only for Ken to remind her that the prettiest girls have the lowest self-esteem.  Listen to her instructions to Annie, filled as they are with images of regaining lost luster and youth, a sentiment which the much heavier Peggy is surely feeling at the moment (“Maybe you put on a few pounds, but then you got the Relax-A-Cizor and you’re back to being you, right now.”).  But also listen to the edge in Elisabeth Moss’s voice, as resentment for Annie’s looks drenches her words in acid (it’s a reminder of the Belle Jolie scene from “Babylon”, in which she gazed in mild horror at how readily the rest of the office pool dove into being manipulated into such stereotypically girly behavior.)  The student has learned well; just like in the best of Don’s pitches, Peggy has used a work assignment to deal with her own interior doubts.  But also just like Don, her budding killer advertising instincts can’t completely plumb the depths of those doubts.

Not that it matters in the short term, as by episode’s end she’s promoted to junior copywriter on the new Clearasil campaign (partly because Don begins to see her as his protégé, but also partly so he can emasculate Pete once more).  But defeat comes calling for victory once again, as an hour later she learns of her pregnancy (one of the major reveals of the season, even though in retrospect, it plays a bit like a traditional television cliffhanger.)  And here is the final moment of transformation, the decision that will haunt Peggy for years to come, as in a heartbreaking maternity ward scene, she refuses to hold her newborn child.  The double whammy of her promotion (“Is this really happening?” she asks Don) with the shock of carrying Pete’s child (“No, no that’s not possible.”) creates the signature trauma of her life, her very own Dick Whitman moment.  The almost mythological, fate-governed timing that allowed Pete to impregnate her literally on the night after she received the birth control pill prescription is too much cosmic weight for her to handle.  And like that scared young man who ran from the trauma of his old life into the safety of another man’s life, Peggy too will choose to survive by (as the modern buzzword parlance would put it) moving forward. 

And there’s Betty, the neglected queen of Ossining, sharing a touching scene with Glen, the only person in her world with whom she can be honest.  Glen’s first appearance in Season 1 is played for oddball laughs, but his attempts to console Betty (“I don’t know.  I wish I was older.”) offers a stark, dramatic portrait of these two lost souls: a young boy mature beyond his years and an adult woman stuck in a state of emotional immaturity.  When Francine tells her about Carlton’s affair, it finally motivates her to dig into at least one part of Don’s private life: the phone bill.  It’s through her discovery of his calls to Dr. Wayne (a worse betrayal, in some ways, than an affair) that she finally chooses to strike back at him through the information she doles out in her therapy sessions.  And it’s only the beginning of the split that will grow even wider come Season 2.

“A work of art is a confession.”
-Albert Camus

And so it is.  And so it goes.  Don Draper creates ad campaigns that are touching and beautiful, but which are also hidden confessions of his own insecurities (a method that will finally, devastatingly cave in his world in Season 6).  Matt Weiner creates a wildly popular television show that reflects his own experience growing up as a Jewish outsider in the rarified air of the West Coast.

J.D. Salinger recalls his own experiences with the artificiality of the adult world, and particularly the East Coast elite, through the words of a frustrated, isolated teenage boy.  Sylvia Plath confesses her descent into the abyss through a thinly veiled version of herself.  F. Scott Fitzgerald excavates his feelings of alienation, of being trapped between the worlds of the mega-rich and the destitute poor, of falling prey to the destructive power of affluence through a friendship between two men, one a disillusioned observer, the other an unashamed romantic destroyed by his dreams.  Tim O’Brien uses the nightmares of his Vietnam service, the phantasmagoric visions that keep him awake at night, to craft a story about a man who loses himself in his inner house of mirrors, of a wife who loses herself in trying to beat the odds, of a country that loses itself in the fog of history.  Raymond Carver confesses a life of alcoholism and self-destruction through the words of middle class characters struggling to overcome their setting and themselves.  Chuck Klosterman uses a rock and roll death site road trip to confess the pain and confusion of his romantic life.

A work of art is a confession.

I create a Sophomore English curriculum tailored (inadvertently or not) to a confession of my life.  Of a young man for whom The Catcher in the Rye illuminated the falsity that awaited him in the adult world.  Of that same young man who followed Jay Gatsby’s idealized visions of romance to his own detriment.  Of that young man several years later, who finally realized the self-destructive nature of Gatsby’s journey.  Of that same young man several more years later, who realized that the Tom Buchanans of the world really do get to call the shots, and then run from the damage in their wake.  Of an adult who looked at his own working class upbringing and wanted to share that world with a group of young people who might find it a foreign oddity.  Of an adult who wanted those same young people to realize that it’s sometimes only through enduring the most grueling, soul-baring struggles that we can emerge as stronger, wiser, kinder, and better.

A work of art is a confession.

“But I thought it was like someone reaching through the stone and right to us”  -Harry Crane

My history with Mad Men is my history with life.  You grow up as a hyper-intelligent, sensitive soul.  You realize that too much of life enjoys crushing sensitive people.  You build a defense system galvanized with sarcasm.  You occasionally let down those defenses, but still get burned far too often.  You strengthen that defense system, mold it into an armor of icy cool.  You will not get hurt, because you’ve removed the concept of hurt from the equation.

I teach a trimester of English that encapsulates most of my preoccupations: the past, the seductive allure of melancholia, the latent cruelty of humanity, the need to come to terms with who you are.  I lead a group of young people through a season of a period television drama that says more about our modern lives than many shows set in the present.  I empathize with a character who is trapped in the effortless cool that he’s constructed.

I write a series of essays in which I revisit this world.

A work of art is a confession.

When I started these Mad Men essays, a great deal of my motivation laid in jumpstarting my long dormant writing life, with a deadline (the final seven episodes) to move me along.  And in following that old axiom: write what you know.  But I also knew that like those cave painting handprints that Harry describes in “The Wheel”, the story I would tell, the story I lived, would invariably come reaching out of the past for me.

And I didn’t know how locking hands with that past would affect me.

But in reconnecting with that past, I’ve also been able to appreciate it.  To gain a greater understanding of who I was, of who I am.  To hold onto all the mental snapshots that I captured during those years.

To make it all part of my landscape.

It’s been a time machine, moving backwards and forwards.  Taking me back to that place.  But also taking me back to where I am now.    

For one last time in Season One, the loose ends:

*I owe a great deal of gratitude to Natasha Vargas-Cooper, whose excellent book Mad Men: Unbuttoned served as such an invaluable guide for me, both in my teaching and real life.  It’s a breezy, informative catalog of the cultural reference points for the first three seasons of the show.  If you ever want to know who Draper Daniels was, or why the VW Bug campaign was so influential, it’s a great place to start.

*Matt Weiner recently told an amusing story about the shooting of the touching bank parking lot scene between Betty and Glen.  Turns out the rosy cheeks on Marten Weiner were authentic: that winter scene was actually shot on a 100 plus degree day, and the poor kid was sweating to death inside the car.

*Weiner has also noted how the original plan for this episode was to end on the scene of Don happily reunited with his family.  In part, this was because AMC didn't renew the show until after all 13 Season 1 episodes were in the can, so there was the distinct possibility that these stories would end after one go around.  But motivated by the possibility of a one and done show, Weiner wisely decided that the happy ending wouldn't be honest, and thus chose to end the season with the site of Don, alone in his house, perched at the precipice of despair.

*”Did you know that there’s a surge in adolescence right now?” (Trudy’s father Tom to Pete, offering him the Clearasil account.  That line will lead directly into the “For Those Who Think Young”, the first episode of Season 2, and one that deals with the emerging youth market and its role in Sterling Cooper’s future.

*Thanks to all of you who have been reading these essays.  If you’re new to the show, I hope that they’ve been at least somewhat illuminating.  If you’re a Mad Men veteran, maybe they made you think about something you hadn’t considered before.  If you’re one of my former students, I hope I provided a good laugh or two.

*And finally, I’ll end with this: this isn’t the last you’ve heard of Mad Men and me.              


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