Monday, August 23, 2010

Confessions of a Geisha

I was raised a Catholic and one of the pillars of the Catholic faith is the value of confession. As early as seven years old you are taught the joy and reward of confessing your wrongs outward to someone who isn’t your mother or father or your sister or brother, but a man in a uniform, someone who can talk to God – a person just like Santa Claus in the Department Store, a proxy who can speak to the person you want to speak to.  And you are also taught at that time, at the time of Reconciliation that perhaps if you are good and concentrate hard enough you can speak to God as well and admit all of the things you have done wrong, as though at seven years old you have a grasp about what is good and what is bad.  You only have vague notions of people and of what causes pain – you are on the road to understanding these objects and words of the world but lack any true fundamental experience to create concrete definitions that can be chartered through your world, your various worlds as they begin to develop within in you in your Youth.

Now, I was raised a Catholic but I believe in the religion of Mad Men, which also preaches the values of confession and the detriment that it can cause on your life if you do not communicate or open up to the world.  Clearly Don Draper is a character who obscures the truth and does not often confess what is troubling him – and of course he did not confess his true identity to his wife until Season 3. Now, confession is not as dire as having to admit that you are living in sin and have comitted a holy injustice – for perhaps in the end there is nothing so much as a holy injustice for our religions are made up of injustices and there is only the universe in the end, so perhaps the only injustice could be one against the universe and as far as I’ve learned in my life, the only injustices that go against the universe have something to do with love and light, but I’ve been struggling for over ten years to try and put what that is to a word or words that are discernable to other people.  However, Mad Men has always explored that idea of sharing and admitting when you are wrong.  We saw this in “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” at the end of Season 3, where Don admitted to Peggy that he had been hard on her, when he admitted that he had taken advantage of Roger’s relationship.  Don had already admitted his identity to Peggy so he was able to open the door slightly and make these admissions or confessions to the other important people in his life.

Our current 1965 Don Draper has drawn the shade back across himself.  He has thrown himself into his office life, still concealing his true identity and finding no satisfaction either professionally, personally or sexually.  I bring up “Shut the Door, Have a Seat” because it is closest in theme and tone to  last night’s episode, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.”  In “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” Don found himself against a wall and instead of running away as Dick Whitman is wont to do, he decided to fight and ended up taking control of his professional life.  Here, Don is up against a wall in so many areas of his life: Betty and Henry living in his home, no woman to love him, inability to connect with his kids, another agency gunning for him and trying to take his business.  Earlier in the season we have seen him in disarray, but in this episode he decided to take control of the situation once more by leading the agency on his scheme to fake the Honda motorcycle commercial in an attempt to drive the competing agency into bankruptcy.  This was a brilliant sequence as there is no show more exhilirating than Mad Men when they kick into a frisk gear, when the whole agency is working together towards a cause as they were at the end of Season 3.  Everyone pitches in, from Joan and Don working together to lead the director on, to Peggy riding around the empty sound stage with the Honda motorcycle.  Don was able to unify everyone in the great cause of fighting for the agency, which has had its up and downs and growing pains in its first year of existence.

The fact that Don was able to do this was in no small part due to the confession he was able to make to Faye Miller in the SCDP kitchen when they share the drink of sake that was sent over by the competing firm as a joke (it had a very “I drink your milkshake” vibe).  Faye Miller admits to Don that her wedding ring is a fake, she uses it as a defense to keep people away so that she can get work done – it is an identity she uses and plays into as a means to shield herself.  Don recognizes this confession because there isn’t anyone who has used an identity to shield the world more than Don Draper.  Don admits to his insecurities regarding spending time with his children since he and Betty were divorced and admits his great sadness at feeling relieved when he drops them off and then crushed when he misses them again during the week. As Don says, “its not going well.” 

Don is able to own up to his shortcomings and his faults, just as the Japanese are when Don points out that they did not honor the rules of their own ad contest.  The Japanese know honor and they end up giving SCDP the account for their upcoming Honda car line.  We have seen Don acknowledge his situation on his night out with Lane as the two men share the same pain of loneliness and divorce.  However, that was an evening of simple action between two men.  The intimate moment with Faye Miller, will her stockings off, washing her dish in the sink while she and Don sipped sake was something very different.  He was able to make a confession. And I don’t care if you are Don Draper or another man with an  illusion of toughness or aloofness, you never feel more comfortable or open then when you confess something to a woman – it becomes your chance to tell a story, even if you lack in that area.

This was the theme that drove the episode.  In the early stages when Betty and Don argue about Sally’s hair, it is Betty with Henry Francis’ help that admits she was too hard on Sally, though that breakthrough is soon lost when Betty finds out about Sally masturbating and must take her to therapy – althought the strange moment when Betty smiles at the doll’s house seems like some kind of obscure admission in Betty’s own mind, though that remains to be seen.  Roger even has to come to admit that the Japanese must be forgiven and that he has been living in the past for so many years and can’t afford it professionally and perhaps personally to stayed tied to old grudges and prejudices.

While Don, Faye Miller, Betty and Roger have to come to their confessions in this episode, we see that Peggy, Pete and Joan have already made some sort of confession and admission about who they are.  Clearly, Pete and Peggy reached these admissions last week when they exchanged their glance between the glass windows of the office and admitted the different directions they were taking in life.  We don’t know if they will regress from the progress they made through the exchange of information that Pete would be a father with Trudy, but the beauty of Mad Men is that with a simple shot of Peggy riding on the scooter, looking carefree and iconic, that her lesson seems to have stuck. This is not to overlook the confidence and poise Pete shows in standing up to Roger’s prejudice and lack of business vision, as well as his willingness in joining Don to “risk it all” in order to land the new account.  Meanwhile, Joan, very quietly and simply acknowledges that her husband is going to be going to Vietnam and admits that perhaps the world is not a better place after World War II, but that is what the war was fought for and we have to believe that our wars and our battles whether personal or national are fought to sustain good in the world, even if the world may not ever bet better or good.

And again, this is all only scratching the surface.  We could delve further into Sally’s character and the road she is going down, but that storyline seemed to speak for itself in the sheer weight of what that little girl is experiencing. I’d like to reserve judgment until her character and storyline develops a little further in this season.  But, speaking of reserving judgment you have to love a show like Mad Men where in the first twenty minutes you can’t figure out which character is in the wrong. Whether its Betty slapping Sally, Don going on a date while his kids are visiting or Henry Francis for suggesting Betty had something wrong with her by going to therapy (and for still living in Don’s house yet chiming in about how to raise his kids).  And in the end, none of them is worse than the other because they are all human and we have to see how they try to make it through despite it all.

This is only five episodes into Season 4, traditionally, Mad Men gets stronger around episode 8 each season.  We’ll see where we’re going from here.

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