Wednesday, June 26, 2013
On the truth, improvement and more James Salter.
Yesterday, during the course of my daily ingestion of all media related to pop culture and sports, I listened to a podcast between TV critic Andy Greenwald and writer Chuck Klosterman. In the podcast, Klosterman—doing the kind of (seemingly off-the-cuff) intellectual, pinpoint articulation he has come to master—stated that watching Mad Men “feels very close to reading.” This is a somewhat odd thing to say about a television show—although, maybe it isn’t—but it explains precisely why I love Mad Men with an intense devotion.
If you’ve been reading these Mad Men recaps (or following me on Tumblr or Twitter or talked to me in person), you’ll know that through the course of this Sixth Season, I have fallen under the spell of James Salter’s writing. The way Salter captures small moments, the passing of time, and the pure and unadulterated sadness and constant beauty of life has not been seen since Virginia Woolf. For instance, a random passage about a peripheral character from Salter’s latest novel, All That Is:
“…but one day he saw something else, perfectly innocent, Karen and a girlfriend she had known since high school lying on the grass in their skimpy bathing suits tanning themselves, face down, side by side, talking to one another and occasionally the leg of one of them kicked idly up into the sun that was soothing their bare backs. He was sitting in his shirtsleeves on the stone terrace, reading a manuscript. He thought for a moment of going down to sit beside them, but he felt a certain awkwardness and the knowledge that whatever they were talking about would cease. He did not try to imagine what they were talking about, it was only their idle happiness in doing it while his own habits were less joyful and animated. He lit a cigarette and sat smoking calmly as he reread a few pages. They were standing up now and picking up their towels. On that day and other days he accepted the reality of what happened with women he loved, wives, principally, which was one of the things that led, despite his position and intelligence and the high regard in which he was held, to his suicide at the age of fifty-three..”
That passage could describe Don Draper. Even though he has slowly come to be held in something less than “high regard,” Don is very much a man who feels a certain awkwardness about the fact that whatever two beautiful women are talking about would cease, leaving him on the outside, not guessing at what they were speaking about, but only left with his own “less joyful” and animated behaviors.
Throughout this entire season, Don has gone down a dark road. Whether you think the Dante’s Inferno allusions from season premiere, “The Doorway,” hold up (I think its a stretch), or you more firmly believe in the fact that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it—and find out that when you repeat yourself you are left with something less satisfying and more depressing than the first time—Don has fallen low. Just re-watch the finale again. It’s amazing to notice how much everyone is just sick of him. In last week’s episode, Peggy’s called Don “a monster”, this week you also have Stan disgusted at the fact that Don stole his idea to go to California, both Ted and Jim Cutler exasperated that they can’t find Don yet again, Ted frustrated that Don can just decide to move to California without a vote, Pete saying that “he has bigger problems” than Don making another hasty decision, and Roger telling Don that he “shit the bed” in the Hershey meeting.
The audience has grown tired of Don as well. No one wants to watch him repeat the same mistakes and treat people badly. He has become an entirely unlikable character and the audience’s reaction reflects that of the actual characters on the show. No one wants to put up with this kind of narcissistic, selfish and unreliable person anymore. And the evidence has been there the entire season—the true tide turning when even Joan called Don out for acting selfishly with Jaguar. And in the end, the other partners rightly put Don on “a leave of absence”. Whether he will ever return to the firm seems, at least to me, to be entirely up in the air. I hope that doesn’t.
Don’s breakdown in the meeting with Hershey was monumental; he finally removed the barrier about his personal past in a professional environment and made an attempt to connect to another human being (even if it was a hasty misguided attempt at connection) using details from his own life and not from a general idea of life that can be applied to any product or brand in order to sell it to a public that needs an idea of how they should be living and consuming products. That was a huge moment because Don was able to tell the truth and “pull back the curtain” as Bert Cooper once told him back in Season Two—we had no idea how hard and realistically difficult that would be all the way back then.
As everyone who watches the show or writes about the show has already noted in one way or another, this entire episode came down to the look between Don and Sally while they stood and looked at the whorehouse that Don was raised in. Clearly, Don showing his children the whorehouse was a way to begin building a relationship with them; of trying to feel that connection that, earlier in the season, he told Megan just wasn’t there. Don has no relationship with his sons and, when Sally walked in on him with Sylvia, he destroyed any semblance of closeness that they had at one point. Though, you could argue that Don and Sally have not been close since Season Three or, at the latest, Season Four when she poured rum on the pancakes at his Greenwich Village bachelor pad.
However, I brought up Salter earlier (yet again), in order to properly discuss the look between Sally and Don at the end of the episode. That was the most moving piece of television or film I have ever seen. There’s something in that moment, a pay-off for the relationship and closeness we always wanted between Sally and Don that wasn’t ever truly there. Now that Don has ruined their relationship as it was, he can hope to rebuild it in a more honest and open way. In that look, he begs for her empathy, for her to understand that maybe the world is slightly bigger than what she knows; that her entitled and rebellious attitude is just due to the way she was treated by her father and mother, but that perhaps he always wanted to do better, but was still a child himself and incapable of it. In that moment, Don doesn’t force Sally into adulthood, but he nudges her towards its prime tenet—that we can’t escape childhood or the past, but can only hope to understand it, so that we can learn from it, become as comfortable as we can in our relationship to things we can no longer experience but can remember, and continue to move forward and progress as human beings. That all occurred in a momentary look— thirty seconds—which is something James Salter does the equivalent of, and masterfully, throughout all of his work.
I don’t believe Don will come back next season as a better man or that his life will be entirely different or better. We try to go on vacations or remote weekends with friends or loved ones to forget about the daily problems we face; the incessant waves of overwhelming content and information. We vow that we won’t ever get frustrated by our lack of success or let someone else’s career or success or life make us feel depressed about our own; but we do. We fall back into routines and repeat ourselves, only to try to make things better, to make them right. And we continue to do so, until we die.
No, Don will not be a different man next season. He will have made an effort to improve and will have to take time and observe the results of that effort and try to follow up and progress. It’s hard to live a life of truth, to allow people to see all the messy and imperfect parts of your character. It’s something I’m terrible at. And even when you do “pull back the curtain,” how much is too much? A life of complete truth is not tenable in a modern society—no one cares and you can’t expect anyone to bear the burden of your problems and epiphanies. As Levin says at the end of Anna Karenina, “It is a secret, necessary and important for me alone, and inexpressible in words.” Yet, there are specific moments with specific people when you can truly attempt to express the truth; and that makes all the difference.