Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Mad Men Season Seven: A Day's Work

Don and Sally bring the goods once again.

This week’s episode of Mad Men made me cry each time I watched it. I’m sure you can already guess why, but I’ll explain later on.

First I want to start with a random quote:

[T]his is why happiness is so fleeting. Anyone who has set out major life goals for themselves, only to achieve them and realize that they feel the same relative amounts of happiness/unhappiness, knows that happiness always feels like it’s around the corner just waiting for you to show up. No matter where you are in life, there will always be that one more thing you need to do to be extra-especially happy.”

This quote comes from Mark Manson, a writer who focuses on what is happening to human psychology in the technology era. The website can sometimes seem like just another place where a random web writer cranks out endless click-bait/self-help articles, but his advice leans more towards the practical and sober than the New Age.

I find the above quote appropriate for this week’s episode of Mad Men, entitled, “A Day’s Work,” as well as for the series as a whole. The world of advertising is based on the conceit that the consumer wants to be happy and that if they buy a certain product, they will attain happiness. Businesses, using the law of diminishing returns, aim to provide their consumers with just enough of their product so that the consumer, after feeling the initial satisfaction of having bought or consumed, immediately feel empty and must consume or buy again in order be filled with happiness once more. As Don said in “Commissions and Fees,” one of Season Five’s best episodes, “You don’t want most of it, you want all of it.”

We want all of the happiness, and very often today we are promised happiness as some kind of commodity. Self-help books are churned out with the promise that there is a way for us to be happy, as though there were a time when we were happy and we are capable of getting back there. Last season, when Don hit rock bottom (again!) and got out of jail, he told Megan that he wanted to move back to California. With his swollen, booze-weighted eyes, his voice cracked as he said, “We were happy there.”

In Manson’s article (the one the above quote is lifted from) he argues that we should not try to achieve happiness, because like anything else, it will immediately fade. If you set your happiness based on a goal or achievement, once you reach that goal, you will immediately be unhappy or empty. You’re dead in the water because where else do you go from there besides wanting more?

Life is filled with little deaths. Everything becomes the past and we believe that if we squint hard enough in the right light that we can feel or see that happy time once again. However, it’s gone. All we have is what we are becoming. If you miss that, then you become like Pete Campbell who is bent out of shape in California.

Pete laments to Ted about not having a purpose; about feeling as though he is dead or in limbo. That’s because after he made his deal, he wanted more. He wanted to parlay his deal into greater success and accolade. He complains that there’s nowhere else for him to go. He feels like he is in limbo because he defines his happiness on each achievement, but it only leaves him expecting and wanting more. Pete is already dead.

And Ted, who has become a shockingly complex, flawed, but good character acknowledges this fact somewhat indirectly. When Pete sits on his couch complaining, Ted simply tells him to cash the checks because he is going to be dead someday. Pete shoots back that all Ted does is answer the phone and mope around. And that may be true, but at least Ted recognizes the bigger picture and is in some way trying to get better. That’s why he came to California.

According to Manson, it is the trying that actually comprises happiness. It is the failures we endure. But this is not the same thing as some Buzzfeed listicle or a think piece on Girls where some Internet writer in New York (hand raised!) or Los Angeles waxes poetic on the currency of “making mistakes” in your twenties—because that is just another dangerous commodity as well. That is just another means of creating a status quo that people can buy into in order to check something off their list in life. That is false and untrue.

No, what the trying is, is attempting something with your life no matter how old you are and coming up short. But instead of looking around you and being jealous of others or disappointed with your standing, you say, “Well, fuck it, at least I tried. At least I made a conscious effort to do something good and avoid being mediocre. This time around may have been mediocre, but I’ll do what I can to do something truly good the next time around.”

I’m not immune to feeling like shit. Why the hell do you think I stumbled upon an article like Manson’s in the first place? I was feeling lousy one morning and I had worked myself into a frenzy on bad, rocket fuel coffee and wanted to look in some direction that would make me not feel like a failure. I get hung up on achievement and reaching goals all the time. I think the next time I post an article or interview somebody that I’ll publish the piece or post and immediately be filled with happiness. Some part of me even believes that when I finally publish a book that it will make me happy. But that isn’t true at all. The only thing that makes you happy is being in the moment; solving problems and trying to be better with each pass.

That brings us to the crying.

Don, for all his faults, has constantly tried to get better throughout Mad Men. He’s ruined many relationships and made countless mistakes. He’s placed happiness in sex, in running away, in creating an ideal picture of American life. But now that all of that has been stripped away, he can continue his attempt to understand that there is no true happiness—there are only the important relationships in your life and the strife it takes to do something good; to get better at something; to enjoy life while you’re still “cashing checks.”

Don and Sally’s relationship has perhaps become the deepest and most powerful relationship in all of Mad Men. Don’s “best” scenes and relationships are with the women he can’t or doesn’t sleep with: Anna, Joan (well, maybe they did in the distant past), Peggy and Sally. Since Sally is Don’s daughter and he values her approval perhaps above anybody else’s their scenes are constantly charged.

There’s lots of good television out there. Breaking Bad was meticulous and Shakespearean. I enjoy Game of Thrones for what it is. True Detective was great. But I doubt that I will watch anything on television this year or in any future year that will satisfy me and move me more than the story arc between Sally and Don in “A Day’s Work,” Each scene between them was subtle and filled with masterful body language and facial ticks that conveyed a wide swath of psychology and emotion. Their scenes were what I look for in television; which is to say, the best aspects of literature.

Take for instance Sally’s immediate curiosity once Don tells her that he “said the wrong thing.” Or the ingenious way Don tested Sally’s moral center by suggesting they “dine and dash.” Sure, Sally has raised some hell in her early teenage years, but she’s really a good kid. She just wants the truth and sometimes you have to piss people off in order to get to the truth.

But the last scene was devastating. Sally looking at Don from the open car door, quickly telling him that she loves him and then turning abruptly and jogging up the steps at her dormitory. How often are we caught off guard and moved by the people we love? How much deeper and heartbreaking is that emotion when it is between a parent and child? That surprise is what causes us to furrow our brows and wonder what we mean to other people; it causes us to think about the way we view ourselves. Basically, it makes us feel raw and hurt and holy all at once, which is to say that it makes us feel alive.

And very often feeling truly alive is such a hard, confusing and moving sensation that it causes us to cry. Those are the type of moments I’m striving for. And I’m hoping to enjoy them as they happen, instead of groping for them in some unseen rearview mirror that I think I can make out in the orange light of a mild April evening.

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