Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Puddles of My Mad Men Season Six: "The Flood"

Tragedy and race in real time.


Last week, Brian Phillips, a writer much better than I am, wrote a piece about the Boston Marathon Bombing. In his article, Phillips focused on our tendency as individuals and as a society to ceaselessly seek out “the facts” in the moments in the immediate wake of a tragedy. At the end of the article, Phillips explains why he feels the need to focus on how we experience a tragedy:

It's because this is what we all are, at any given moment: threads of half-remembered images and fragments of ideas and intentions that we will or will not carry out, and if we come to a tragedy and are lucky enough not to be its victims, then this is how we come to it. And if we are unlucky and do become its victims, then this is what is most immediately taken away — feelings about horse fights and memories of electrocuted art teachers, angles of sunlight, whatever our experience comprises in that moment, whatever is uniquely in our heads…

“Our flight to fact following a disaster can sometimes feel, and can sometimes be, brave, but I think it can also be a way to sever the trauma from our own points of contact with it, to construct a world where real life encircles but does not quite touch the tragedy. But real life's tendrils go everywhere, and the disaster will never be separate from your experience of the disaster. And knowing that, being conscious of that, may be the key to the empathy without which it is impossible to imagine, much less to honor, the dead.”

The day of the Boston Marathon Bombing, I was at work just like almost everybody else in the world. During that afternoon and the rest of the week, I relentlessly followed the news.  I followed every reporting gaffe, every bit of misinformation about the suspects, every story of bravery and courage. I also went running each day and cooked dinner and watched sports and listened to albums that I love and thanked God that I had not had the misfortune to lose a limb. And here we are over two weeks later and now the first active NBA player has announced he’s gay. I was at work when that happened too.

Whenever I see my parents now, I have a habit of picking their brains about current events and pieces of pop culture that they have lived through. I’ll ask my dad what his experience of living through Prince at his peak was like; or I’ll ask my mom about the Iranian hostage crisis or her early impressions of David Letterman. When I ask my mom about an album I love from the 80’s, she’ll think back on it and say, “I wasn’t really paying attention, I was too busy with you kids.” I’m not saying that an album by Prince is anything like living through a tragedy, but what I’m saying is that, as Phillips wrote, we only experience pop culture and current events by what is currently going on in our lives. “I remember when that happened. I was working at…”

We remember what our lives were like when something terrible happens because we were able to keep going—to see what happened next.


After the latest episode of Mad Men, “The Flood,” ended I tweeted that the episode was perfect fodder for people who do not like the show to make their case as to why, just as the episode was yet another example of the show’s excellence for those who love it.

I still love Mad Men, but I will admit that Season Six has been slower than usual and that I am still very uncertain where the narrative thrust of the show (no jokes about Don and his proclivity for fucking, alright?) currently lies. The show is no longer about what it once was about (Who is Don Draper?); and it is now about something much deeper, darker and brooding—dealing with time, death and happiness.

For me, this is perfect because those ideas are usually only things I usually ever want to watch a television show about or read a book about. However, for viewers that actually want to know where Don’s arc is going, or don’t want to go through another cycle of his bad decisions or behavior, I understand that this can be frustrating. McNulty constantly made mistakes and reverted to his old, bad habits on The Wire, but he wasn’t the main character on that show and, besides, there was always a Barksdale, a Stanfield, Sobotka or Greek to keep the plot riveting.

“The Flood” dealt with death, specifically in the case of Martin Luther King’s assassination. This is the second episode of Mad Men that has outrightly dealt with assassination—the first being Season Three’s “The Grown Ups,” which saw the Sterling Cooper (pre-SCDP!) universe reeling in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. That episode was generally received poorly, as many felt that the show spent too much time on characters watching TV, listening to the radio and generally just reacting to the news rather than continue the storyline of Season Three, which, the episode being the penultimate one of that season, was in a very important place.

This latest episode has received criticism because it exploited Mad Men’s tendency to avoid racial issues or add a truly prominent black character to its cast until Dawn became Don’s secretary last season. Sure, we had a certain 1960’s African American experience through Carla and though she was a great character in the time she received, Carla wasn’t fully written and was hastily fired by Betty at the end of Season Three anyway.

Arguments have been made supporting Matt Weiner’s decision not put more focus on African American characters (the Mad Men depiction of race is more realistic because integration didn’t happen overnight; Madison Avenue in the 1960’s was not a diverse place; you can’t just gratuitously add a minority character) and opposing it (those first two arguments are completely B.S.). I personally do not mind the way Mad Men handles the race issue. Of course, I’m not black, but Weiner seems to have made a firm decision as to his stance on how his version of this reality operates in relation to actual reality and has stuck with it. The African American characters that were featured in “The Flood” (Dawn, Phyllis, the movie theater usher) all had reactions that felt natural within the confines of the show and within the confines of everyday life: Don fatherly told Dawn to go home like he would with all of his secretaries, but Dawn wanted to stay, not only to avoid facing the tragedy, but also because she has become accustomed to the masochistic and martyrish way a person is supposed to work at a Madison Avenue office (or really any office nowadays); Joan tries to console Dawn, but awkwardly hugs her in the wake of their tense interaction from last week; Peggy is kind and unassuming towards Phyllis because she in some way doesn’t see color and only sees tragedy; Bobby Draper talks to the usher in the simple language of a child, but a phrase like “everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad” takes on an extra resonance to the usher (and to Don)—even though Bobby most likely wasn’t trying to console the usher or take some stance on race. It was just something a slightly melancholy rich kid said.

“The Flood” felt like real life in a tragedy. You continue on and you act selfish in your own ways. You get drunk and avoid your real problems. Sometimes, like Don, you prey on the emotions of those that love you by giving speeches about your deep-seated fears and shortcomings that you may or may not be able to change. And then that moment will pass and you’ll wake up and wish you hadn’t revealed that kernel of truth or pushed some kind of emotional brutality onto someone who loves you, because, Jesus, a peaceful man was murdered—or an 8-year old kid was killed by two reckless guys who knew how to build bombs. Or, maybe, a small argument between you and your loved one will turn into some kind of epiphany as to how intimate you and your significant other actually are; your entire relationship taking on a new depth that was perhaps under your nose the whole time.

I thought “The Flood” was great. I loved Don’s speech to Megan. I loved Peggy’s face on the couch behind Abe. I loved the woman that Ginsberg went out with and just Ginsberg himself. I enjoyed Roger’s brief allusion to being “talked off a ledge” on some kind of acid trip; I loved how beautiful Trudy looked when she spoke to Pete on the phone; I loved Betty’s scene with Henry. I love the depth and breadth of emotional interaction and currency that this show has built and continues to build and that can make your head dizzy sometimes as you try to wade through it all.

As an emotional crutch and a way to avoid true intimacy with others, I tend to bury myself in the cultural items I love: songs, albums, movies, novels and television shows. Maybe I’m doing that again here. Maybe I’m just a dumb white guy who isn’t critical enough of race relations on a TV show or is too sheltered and soft to truly understand a tragedy. Or maybe Pete Campbell would call me a racist.

But if you need me, tomorrow I’ll be at work by 9:30. And if it’s not raining, I’ll probably go for a run before I head to the office.

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