Friday, March 13, 2015

MAD MEN Ep. 1: Bonus Round



   (S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

Before we head into Episode 2 (the essay for which should be arriving early next week), a few additions and corrections to the Episode 1 article are in order.

*A longtime reader (and survivor of my Mad Men academic gauntlet) reminded me that in the first writing assignment that I described last time, there was great hay to be made in analyzing the similarities between Don and Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan.  She did, to great effect.  Truthfully, I had so much information left over from teaching the show that I struggled to condense it all into something that was semi-digestible for yesterday’s writing.  So in the paring down process, the Don/Tom angle flew over my head. 

I also conveniently forgot that in the first few chapters that we read for class, Gatsby only appears in the conversations of other people (and, briefly, at the end of his dock, longing after that phantasmagorical green light.)  Hence, as far as I can now remember, almost no one used Don and Gatsby in that first essay.  I’m sure there are a few out there who will take great delight in my mishandling of the facts.  So to them I say “Minus 3 points for me.”

*I also left out discussion of a scene that, though it only lasts about a minute and ten seconds and in some ways is a huge anomaly, has haunted me ever since I went through the show a second time.  Around five minutes into the episode, a distraught Don visits gal pal Midge to confess his total lack of a plan for the Lucky Strike meeting.  Midge is one of those great semi-lost Mad Men characters; her entire run on the show only lasts six episodes (with a brief, yet key, cameo reappearance in Season 4), and yet she’s such a fully formed, vibrant creation that you wish she had stayed a regular (she isn’t the only such character to appear throughout the series.)  A lot of the credit here goes to the always sublime Rosemarie DeWitt, who infuses Midge with the counterculture feminist spunk that so appeals to eternal outsider Don, while also capturing the strong sense of traditional sex appeal that hooks him even further.

In any case, Don and Midge’s banter eventually leads to them making the beast with two backs.  After they descend into their romantic clinch, the scene cuts to the next morning.  Sunlight streams through the windows of Midge’s studio apartment.  The camera pans down to a close-up of the lovers lounging in bed, sharing a post-post-coital cigarette (or maybe it’s just post-coital…Don Draper is quite the ladies’ man.)  And the whole scene is bathed in a soft blue light.  It looks like something out of a late-‘80s/early ‘90s perfume or underwear commercial.  We’ve seen this visual style so many times as short hand for the uber-stylish afterglow of two good-looking people getting it on.  It’s gorgeous.  And it’s a look that the show will almost never repeat after this 70-sceond clip.

Now I know that, realistically, this is a case of Matt Weiner and company still trying to work out the show’s visual palate.  It’s a fairly common tack for pilot episodes to differ in some ways from the bulk of the series; it’s especially noticeable in the physicalities of the actors (the Jon Hamm of the pilot looks almost skinny compared to the slightly more filled out and imposing one of  Episode 2.)  But as I kept rewatching the first episode, each time having delved further and further into the run of the series, this brief scene took on a certain poignance for me.  Before the viewer discovers Betty at episode’s end, Don and Midge’s moment adds to the utter seduction of said viewer into the luxurious dream life of our anti-hero.  In retrospect, it also plays like one of the last moments before the fall from grace.  This is the life that Don could’ve had if he had been able to reconcile the warring factions of his psyche.  Even from the beginning, he’s pitching himself a lifestyle that’s just a bit better than what he thinks he has. It’ll take him several more seasons before he finally makes a go of attaining this idyllic existence when he marries Megan.  But even then, his inability to separate the pitch from the reality leads to problems.

It’s also notable that in this brief scene, Don is laying back on Midge.  As Season 1 progresses, it’s Betty who will always take this slightly more submissive position in their marital bed.  It’s not until Episode 10, when Don (existentially devastated by the brutal reality of his mortality that is Roger’s heart attack) finally sleeps with Rachel, that he’ll lay back on another woman like this, as he confesses part of his hidden past to her.  Even five minutes into the pilot, we already see Don’s submerged feminist leanings.  And also his need for a mother figure, a point whose psychological motivations are searingly explored in Season 6.  But we’re a long way off from that.    

Thursday, March 12, 2015

MAD MEN Ep. 1: "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"



   (S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

In which Don Draper is the greatest ad-man ever and his big strong brain will find a way to lead the sheep into the slaughterhouse…

It’s all about the back of Jon Hamm’s head, isn’t it?  Of course, the iconic Mad Men logo is Hamm in silhouette, languidly reclining on a couch, cigarette perched between two fingers.  But it’s notable that the first shot of the series tracks left from a bar full of happy hour revelers and comes to rest on a tight reading of the back of Don Draper’s head.  It only lasts for a few seconds, but it sets the tone for the entire episode and the entire show. Happiness surrounds Don, but he’s an enigma, an imposing shadow. 

And when we’re finally introduced to Don in full, he embarks upon a conversation with Sam the busboy which serves as a microcosm of the show’s (and the character’s) obsessions and preoccupations.  Sam admits to smoking Old Gold cigarettes out of a habit that began when he received free cartons during his army days, and both men agree that their love of smoking trumps the cancer claims in Reader’s Digest and other media outlets.  Habit, nostalgia, self-interest: it’s like the outline for the Don Draper playbook.  When Don asks the bartender for a refill of his drink by enjoining him to “Do this again.  Old Fashioned”, it’s the grace note of the tightly constructed conversation that Matt Weiner has crafted in his script. After all, “Do it again.  Old Fashioned” could serve as Don’s catch phrase throughout the entire run of the show.  Even the ingredients of his favorite libation, a combination of the sweet and sour, prefigure the dichotomy of his life, one where even the exalted moments aren’t far removed from ones of abject misery.

Looking back, it’s easy to see why Mad Men’s pilot is regarded as one of the best of the television pantheon.  Just as that opening scene sets up so much of the show’s greater trajectory, so too do the events of the plot establish most of the major character relationships and complex dynamics in an easily digestible, yet still stimulating manner.  Don is John Galt and Cary Grant rolled into one, the smoldering ideal of American success and sex appeal, but also a man fraught with self-doubt who seeks solace in his independent-minded illustrator girlfriend.  Peggy’s first day at Sterling Cooper sets her up as audience surrogate, a canny move by Weiner that allows us to join her in gawking at the rampant sexism and cruelty that are part and parcel of the SC DNA and the early ‘60s (which is still slightly shocking upon first viewing.)  Pete is almost superhumanly weaselly throughout, yet his more vulnerable side is still revealed near the end.  Joan slyly subverts male expectations of dominance by playing up her sexpot image, while manipulating her way into a state of limited power that is the envy of her female co-workers.  Roger Sterling is Roger Sterling; his second line, spoken to a mildly disheveled Don is “You look like $100.  Long night?” (Pete will later repeat this joke to Don in a botched attempt at smarmy flattery.)  It wouldn’t  be until Season 2 that the great John Slattery would start to be given the chance to showcase his deadpan comedic chops on a regular basis, but even the small bits that are revealed in Season 1 are (as Roger’s eventual vanity autobiography would deem them) gold.  And the whole episode plays out in such a breezy manner that it’s over before you even know it.  As the camera pans out on the dreamy suburban tableau of Don sitting at the bedside of his children while an adoring Betty looks on (the irony of his double life simmering below the surface), you get the feeling like this could be an adaptation of a John Cheever short story commentary on the American Dream.  Indeed, Cheever is a major source of inspiration for the show…but that’s a conversation for a child’s birthday party to come. 

And then there are Don’s moments of revelation, the most obvious one of which comes during his train wreck of a meeting with Lee Garner squared and the Lucky Strike team, when in a moment of panic he comes up with the knockout blow of “It’s toasted/Happiness is saying whatever you’re doing is okay” (with its stock revelatory background music, it’s also one of the few heavy handed moments in this episode, which reminds the viewer that this is indeed a pilot.)  Three times in the episode’s 48-minute runtime, Don experiences slow motion epiphanies: once in the opening scene (when he scans the bar and its happy, smoking patrons), once when he’s lying down on his office couch (and he sees the fly trapped in the fluorescent light ceiling panel and hears distant battlefield explosions, both of which serve as metaphorical indicators of what lurks inside him), and finally at the conclusion of the Lucky Strike meeting.  Matt Weiner was well-schooled in moments like this from his time as a writer on The Sopranos.  The central conceit of that show, the dramatic tension that pulled viewers in tight, was the struggle inside Tony Soprano between revelation and change, and a deeply ingrained set of destructive habits.  And sans the firearms and waste management scams, we’re back in that territory again in Mad Men, dashing Don both a vice-ridden captain of industry and existential truth seeker.  But just like so many of Tony’s revelations were fleeting in their potency, so too will Don set out on a long road in which his greatest moments of redemption are followed by descents into the Inferno (a journey which would be taken to wrenching extremes in the Dante-inspired sixth season.)

ME AND MY SHADOW

Teaching this episode was fairly easy, as most of the students glommed onto the archetypical characters and plot mechanics.  And, of course, they hated Pete Campbell.  Most people do when they first watch the show, and the first season presents the rivalry between Pete and Don as one of its major through lines.  What’s fascinating is how Weiner and company subvert everything that we think about such a battle of wills.  It can’t be a mistake that studly Jon Hamm was cast as Don and the much more effete Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell.  Their wildly divergent physicalities already set up the audience to root for the broad-shouldered savant and to jeer the snivelly backstabber.  But even in this first episode, there are signs that we’re being played.  Handsome Don is also cracking around the edges, and the final revelation that he’s married and living a seemingly idyllic life in Ossining show that, while Pete sleeps with Peggy the night before his wedding, Don has constructed a split life wholesale.  Before his last minute Lucky Strike save, marketing genius Don has no clue how to proceed.  Pete’s appropriation of Dr. Guttman’s report on the Freudian death wish is jeered by the Garners and scoffed at by Don, but Pete is actually ahead of his time in prefiguring Madison Avenue’s eventual embrace of psychoanalytics (this moment of savviness would recur throughout the season and the run of the show, but here it’s the first indication that Pete Campbell has something going for him.)  And just like Don, we’re introduced to Pete with a shot of the back of his head, gazing to the right.  At episode’s end, both men try to pick up women who won’t have them, their bruised egos forced to retreat to a Betty and Peggy. 

ALWAYS BE CLOSING

In what might be the defining scene of the pilot (and possibly the show), Don meets with Rachel Menken in an attempt to salvage their damaged business relationship (which is splintered by that most Don-like of lines “I’m not going to let a woman talk to me like this.”).  Even in his state of apology, Don still tries to gain the upper hand on Rachel by asking her why she’s not married, why she wouldn’t want to enjoy a family instead of the headaches that come with fighting people like him (as in many excerpts from the Don Draper Book of Seduction, it’s part cruel power play, part suave flirtation).  When she tells him that she’s never been in love, he shoots back with one of the defining Don axioms:

“By love you mean big lightning bolts to the heart, where you can't eat and you can't work, and you just run off and get married and make babies. The reason you haven't felt it is because it doesn't exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me...to sell nylons.  You're born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget... I'm living like there's no tomorrow, 'cause there isn't one.”

It’s a moment of personal triumph for Don, and you get the feeling that he’s trotted out this line before.  But it’s also utterly hollow, a lie to trump all lies.  The characters of Mad Men are always in closing mode (indeed, when Pete arrives at Peggy’s door one scene later, he reassures her roommate that this is the first time today that he’s not trying to sell something), but here it’s made quite evident that master pitchman Don is also always trying to close on himself.  Repeat the macho bravado enough times and it becomes true.  And the glib nihilism of his tack also serves as inadvertent commentary on the Mad Men worshippers who focus on the show’s studied cool to the exclusion of its soul-searing drama.

But Rachel is smart enough to fight back and puncture Don’s bravado, retorting:

“I don’t know what it is you really believe in, but I do know what it feels like to be out of place.  To be disconnected.  To see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it.  There’s something about you that tells me you know it too.”

As she says this, the camera cuts twice to the same close-up of Don that portrayed his ineffable cool a moment before.  But this time, he’s clearly shaken.  He maintains his focused stare, but his eyes are mildly glassy, his mouth subtly quivers, and his only reaction is to deny it and quickly ask for another drink.   It’s a wonderful moment of acting by Jon Hamm, who’s never received full credit for the grace and range he brings to the table in playing Don (making your hay concurrent to Bryan Cranston’s run as Walter White will do that to you.)  Being a handsome leading man playing a handsome emotional cipher doesn’t often provide the showy tics and mannerisms that sometimes pass for ACTING(!), but Hamm’s run throughout six plus seasons is filled with so many fantastic, small character moments like this (see also the moment when Don tells the Garners that happiness is saying “whatever you’re doing is okay.  You’re okay.”  The slow deflation and blank despair on his face as he says those words is a great counterbalance to his overt victory.)  And as we see time and time again in Mad Men, this emotional distance and restraint eventually pays off in moments that on the surface seem fairly pedestrian, but in actuality resound with the power of a gunfight (see most of Season 4’s classic “The Suitcase.”)

This exchange also establishes the growing bond between Don and Rachel, two outsiders stuck in a world of insiders.  And it offers the first hint of how out of the mainstream Don really is.  He’s married to the idealized blonde Betty, the Grace Kelly to his Cary Grant, and yet his romantic longings are directed toward brunette beat girl Midge and raven-haired Jewish girl Rachel.  It would take him awhile to admit it to himself, but Don only has eyes for the outsiders, the counter cultural ladies.  This leaning would continue throughout the show, as he would come to romance the flighty and idealistic Susan Farrell and to marry the young and vibrant Megan.  His only other major romance with a blonde involved the fourth season sojourn with Dr. Faye, and her profound psychological understanding of him caused him to firebomb the whole thing by running away to Megan.  And, of course, there’s the monstrous Bobbie Barrett in Season 2, which was akin to an extended run of Don making love to himself.  But more on her later.


NOW LAUGHING FRIENDS DERIDE, TEARS I CANNOT HIDE

A huge part of Mad Men’s charm rests in the deftly cultivated soundtrack that Matt Weiner employs.  David Carbonara has composed the incidental score for all 83 episodes (and counting), and perhaps it’s indicative of the power of his work and how seamlessly it blends into the fabric of the show that he continues to be so underrated.  But Weiner and his crew also have a keen ear for the right pieces of source music, period melodies that complement the story in ways both fascinating and tricky.  Take the title of this episode.  In so many ways, this song is the perfect summation of the show’s themes.  The high toned bullshit machine that is Sterling Cooper operates by figuratively blowing smoke in people’s faces.  The main company crisis of the pilot is the encroaching government regulation of cigarette advertising (more conflict between habit, nostalgia, and self –interest and harsh reality).  And the song’s lyrics, which reflect the elation, heartache, blindness, and tragedy of love and love lost, cement the melancholy foundation upon which much of the show rests (this is especially true in the heart-rending vocals of The Platters, who released their version of this standard less than a year before the events of Mad Men’s pilot.)

And yet, the song itself never appears in the episode.  Weiner shows the hand he really wants to play by bookending the pilot with Don Cherry’s “Band of Gold” and Vic Damone and Percy Faith’s “The Street Where You Live.”  Both songs are the prototypical love ballads that we now associate with the era.  Cherry croons about marriage and true love trumping any desire for foreign lands or exotic adventures.  Damone and Faith capture the giddy rush of walking by the house of your beloved.  Both stand in contrast to what makes Don tick, the restlessness that drives him away from happiness, the riven personality that eventually drives everyone away from him.

TALES FROM THE CLASSROOM

There isn’t a great deal of stories to tell about using “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” in the academic setting.  It served as a nice entry point to the show for the students.  Most of the girls swooned over Don.  Most of the guys swooned over Don.  Every year I taught the Mad Men unit, I had at least one group of young dudes who would react to Don’s burns of Pete (and anyone else…but especially Pete) with a resounding “Ooohhhhhhhh!”  In the moment, was frustrating; I was a little disappointed that they seemingly weren’t getting the point.  In retrospect, it’s a pretty amusing bit of business, and a sign that they were actually engaged with the show.  Hey, in the heat of the pedagogical moment, you can sometimes lose perspective. 

As the years went on, more and more of the girls hated Peggy’s first turn.  Which sort of puzzled me.  I figured that they would sympathize with her plight, but a good deal of them just thought she was ugly.  (Dowdy, maybe, but ugly?  Ladies, if you’re reading this, please don’t kill me.  I know that it wasn’t all of you.  And that some of you came around to Elizabeth Moss’s charms.)

The pilot episode coincided with our reading of the first few chapters of The Great Gatsby, which made the comparative analysis for the weekly essay pretty easy.  Or so I thought.  In the intro to this unit, I warned everyone that analytical similarities had to be, by nature, deeper than surface level.  So no “Don and Gatsby are both wealthy, powerful dudes” as the final word on the subject.  Nonetheless, I still received a smattering of essays that proudly trumpeted this base comparison.  Because Sophomores.  Oh well, we had to start somewhere.  I was quite proud of the students who delved into the similarities between Peggy and Nick Carraway, and between Joan and Jordan Baker.  Much credit to those intrepid authors for going a few steps beyond the minimum.  Although, come to think of it, I probably also heavily hinted about the Peggy/Nick connection.  But hey, let’s not reduce credit where it’s due.

(I’m suddenly realizing that the tone of my writing has inadvertently captured the essence of my time teaching Sophomores: long stretches of academic analysis, punctuated by intervals of dry humor that’s sprinkled with 21st century youth slang.  My dear, departed Sophomores: you’ve affected me more than you knew.  Or you’ve just warped my writing.  We’ll see how that develops in the essays to come.

And just in case you were wondering, I’d probably give myself an 18/20 on this essay.  A lot of good ideas, but a bit shambolic in places. )   

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Slight Rebellion Off Madison: Booze, Dames, and My MAD MEN Years



In my 38 years on this earth, I’ve smoked exactly two cigarettes.  And I wouldn’t even count those two as being smoked; I lit them up for comedic effect amongst friends, blew on them, but to quote that sage wit/ladies’ man from Arkansas, I did not inhale.  I’ve been legitimately drunk four, maybe five times.  All over a woman.  Or women, for that matter.  Such a classic and clichéd male response.  I didn’t drink at all until I was 22, and then only on very rare occasions.  Four years ago, I returned to my teetotaling ways, possibly due to the long shadow that my late father (who was an alcoholic, and smoked for 40 plus years…but a great dad and human being as well) cast, but mostly because I never much liked imbibing and I wanted to rededicate myself to outliving my friends.  Okay, in all honesty, the rise to world fame of pro wrestler CM Punk (who espouses the straight edge lifestyle both in his career and regular life) served as my main impetus.  But that’s another story for another day.

Yet for someone who takes such little interest in the classic vices, I’ve devoted a good chunk of the last six years of my life to a television show that has done more to portray the seductive and destructive glamor of these accoutrements than any other work of modern mass media.

In many ways, Mad Men has been the unlikeliest of cultural institutions of this so-called new Golden Age of Television.  Pitch the show’s premise (advertising executives struggle to stay relevant as the ‘60s progress, vintage bad behavior is indulged) without any of the finer details and you have what sounds like a fairly plodding story arc.  It’s built around a sub-sociopath of a main character who’s not a cancer-riddle meth cook, or a mob boss in therapy, or an alcoholic cop chasing a deadly drug gang.  He chain smokes (a somewhat radical concept in the modern tobacco-phobic media environment), drinks himself to oblivion on a regular basis, cheats on his wife, and lives a generally reprehensible and self-serving existence.  His wife begins as a victim, but is then revealed to possess the stunted psyche of a little girl; she becomes a cold enigma as the show progresses.  The second-billed character is a neophyte secretary who serves as audience proxy, but she too becomes a much colder, pragmatic, and distant character as the show goes on.  Her romantic interest is an Ivy League weasel who makes the show’s lead look downright wholesome.  The comic relief bosses are a pair of Ayn Rand worshipping, rabid capitalists who really only care about the bottom line.  And the younger supporting characters are generally feckless drones in a cutthroat environment.  A death happens here and there, but the most radically dramatic moments usually involve an office argument.

As more than one of my friends has said to me “Mad Men is so depressing.”  Or “I made it through Season 1, but by the time I got halfway through Season 2, I hated everyone except for one of the secretaries.”  Or “Boy, it looks great, but does anything actually happen?”  The West Wing this ain’t.  But Matthew Weiner’s fin de siècle epic has never been too concerned with likeable protagonists and satisfying audience expectations (a lesson he learned well in the writers’ room of the final few seasons of The Sopranos.)  And it’s been this dedication to the purity of his storytelling pursuit (along with singlehandedly reviving mid-century fashion and that distinct strain of Rat Pack-style cool) that has propelled the show into the pantheon of great filmed entertainment…and I’d argue into the pantheon of great art.

My connection to Mad Men began partway through its run.  And much like Don Draper’s best ad pitches (which are carefully cloaked bit of self-analysis), it came out of desperation.  In my former life as a high school English teacher, I made my bones for quite some time teaching elective courses at the Junior and Senior level.  The workload was often challenging, but I could also rest assured that, more often than not, I was getting the cream of the crop enrolling in my courses…or the students who actually liked me.  It was all generally fun, but then the day came, early in 2009, when the department decided to reorganize teaching assignments.  Up to that point, I had successfully (or stubbornly, depending on your viewpoint) avoided dipping below the Junior level, but I was left with little choice but to take on a section of Sophomores in the next year.  I was none too pleased, and in my imagination I pictured this as the final straw.  Because, you know, I could never debase my brilliance by teaching Sophomores.  Ah, the stories we tell ourselves.

Faced with this new challenge, I took solace in the fact that Sophomore year focused on American Literature, which I had taught when that subject was settled in a year-long Junior class several years hence.  So I could drag out some of the old warhorses that I still knew and loved.  But how to mix things up?  My answer came when I finally broke down that spring and watched the first season of Mad Men on DVD.  And then it all clicked. 

The year before, I had created a trimester course in which the class read David Simon’s classic non-fiction tome Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets while watching Seasons 1 and 2 of his HBO masterpiece The Wire.  My aim was to combine the literary chops of an English course with the sociopolitical musings of a history course and the formal and cultural analysis of a good art course.  The regular homework entailed writing weekly two page essays that drew analytical similarities between each week’s episode(s) and the assigned reading.  For a good deal of the term, most of the students were fairly befuddled by this requirement.  But they enjoyed watching McNulty fight crime in a drunken, womanizing haze.  And, as most people do, they loved Omar’s modern day Robin Hood act.  So it all evened out in the end.  Some of that first crew still reminisces fondly about our time together.  One or two probably still want to kill me.  Such is life.

As I watched Mad Men’s maiden run, I realized that this could be fertile ground for reimagining the Homicide/Wire course for the Sophomore level.  I already planned on teaching Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, two books whose themes and tropes overlapped so heavily with those of Mad Men that I figured students would have an easy time seeing the connections (my hopes turned out to be slightly inflated…and some call me a cynic!)  And Matt Weiner’s story, while complex in so many ways, was also highly accessible on a plot level; these Sophomores wouldn’t have to immediately dive into the deep end of the story pool like they would with The Wire.

And so, I designed a winter trimester plan in which the Fitzgerald and O’Brien books took the place of Homicide, and Season 1 of Mad Men served as the main viewing requirement.  We would watch one episode a week (two episodes during a few weeks) and then students would take that week’s reading and draw analytical similarities between it and the episode(s) they viewed.  The dreariness of Ohio winter seemed like the perfect time to change things up a bit, and watching a season of this modern classic of a drama the perfect vehicle.  When we finished each episode, I’d take questions from the students, clear up any confusion about plot points, etc.  We’d discuss character development, the historical relevance of certain plot threads and events, and I’d try to hint at some connections they could draw on for that week’s essay.

I ran this curriculum for that first section of Sophomores, and continued to do so for three more years with the entire Sophomore class.  Some of them probably thought I was a bit crazy.  The true believers among them thrived in such an environment.  Others grew to despise those weekly essays with a white hot fury.  Still others probably thought that my nights were spent in a Clockwork  Orange-style contraption, visually mainlining loops of a soused Don Draper hooking up with unattainable women.  At the very least, many enjoyed the exploits of Don, Betty, Peggy, Pete, Sterling, Cooper, Midge, Midge’s dirty beatnik lover, Rachel, Sally in the plastic bag, and creepy Glen.  And sometimes in education (and in life), you have to take the small victories.  ‘Cause in the grand tally, a victory is still a victory.  Unless you’re a character on The Wire, where all victories are pyrrhic at best.

This coming April 5th marks the beginning of the end for Mad Men, as the final seven episodes start rolling out to the world.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the show and the impact it’s had on my life.  About the young people who might have gained even the smallest insight on life by thinking about the connection between Don Draper and Jay Gatsby.  About the former colleagues whom I clashed with over the supposed pedagogical appropriateness of watching an entire season of a television show in school.  About the deep satisfaction and existential thrill that I always derived from the whole experience.

A month ago, I convinced myself that in the lead up to the final episodes, I would run through the entirety of the show from the beginning, writing a new essay for each episode.  That turned out to be highly improbable.  And the writing would have probably caved in around Season 3, from the tight deadline alone.  But I’m prepared to embark upon this endeavor in compromised form nonetheless.  So in the few weeks before April 5th, I’ll be diving in once more to that first season and penning an essay for each of its 13 episodes.  Some of this literary journey will feature insights into the show itself, examining old happenings anew and reflecting on how they eventually played out in the dramatic arc of this fictional universe.  Some will feature stories from my adventures teaching the show to Sophomores.  Hopefully, all of it will be, at the very least, somewhat entertaining.  Or amusing.  Or as amusing as a show about encroaching dread and obsolescence can be.  After all, in my final run of teaching this curriculum, a small group of students would occasionally serenade me at odd moments with the iconic “Doo doo, doo doo” melody of RJD2’s Mad Men theme.  Something that can produce that type of advanced level goofiness can’t be all bad, right?