Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Time and Horizons

Riffing on both "Time & Life" and "The Lost Horizon."



Maybe because “Time & Life” and “The Lost Horizon” are the two best episodes of this season of Mad Men thus far, it feels like they tie together in a nice way. Or maybe its because I had no time to write a recap of “Time & Life” last week so I have to tie the two episodes together here. Either way, I believe there is some kind of thematic unity.

This Season 8 (or back half of Season 7, whichever you prefer) has focused on stripping Don’s life away to the bare essentials. Betty and the kids have all moved on (Sally to boarding school, “coming and going as she pleases*”, Betty to her master’s program in psychology, and the Draper boys to Cub Scouts and baseball). Megan has a million dollars of Don’s money, his furniture, and her freedom from his moody, narcissistic, self-hating orbit. Don’s apartment was sold to a young couple. And, at the end of Time & Life, his agency and his professional freedom were taken away from him as well.

* Don described Conrad Hilton in the same way in “Shut the Door, Have a Seat” and I swear Betty has said the same thing about Don before. I just need to find the episode.

By the time “The Lost Horizon” wrapped up to the halting drum kicks of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Don’s actual professional role had been rendered obsolete and redundant. His latest love infatuation was deemed not worth the trouble. As Don drove West toward Minneapolis with his hippie hitchhiker, I couldn’t help but wonder if “California” would be taken away from Don too.

In “Time & Life,” while Don and Ted are trying to save the agency one more time, they ruminate on Ted’s failed stint in California, which only happened thanks to a moment of kindness from Don. Ted says to Don, “I know you’re attached to California. I don’t know what it means to you, but it doesn’t mean anything to me.” To which Don replies, “It does mean something to me.” In the Mad Men world, California has represented freedom to Don; it has represented comfort; brief windows of time when he can be himself, when he can be happy. Anna’s house was  a sanctuary for Don, but that sanctuary has long been removed. His trip to Disneyland with Megan and the kids, was a shot of unexpected joy and passion. But that beginning faded to nothing but drunken, bitter boredom and resentment.

If Don is indeed heading West to try and claim the last aspect of his life that has meaning, perhaps he will be disappointed there as well. Perhaps even the idea of “California” will no longer be something he can fantasize about or grasp in his hand. When even that metaphorical meaning—that symbol—is taken away from Don, what will he be left with?

Both “Time & Life” and “The Lost Horizon” played with history in different but equally affecting ways. Mad Men’s greatest strength is using the interpersonal relationships and histories between its characters to create drama and that virtue was on great display in the past two weeks.

“In Time & Life” we got Peggy and Pete both ruminating on the child they could have had together. Pete sees Peggy with the child actors and, remembering for an instant the connection they once shared, decides to tell her about SCDP being absorbed by McCann.

Meanwhile, Peggy has a deeper visit from history when she gets into an argument with the parent of a child actor. When the mother tells Peggy that she can raise her kids however the hell she wants, Peggy is once again confronted with the child and life she chose to give up. She confesses that fact to Stan in one of the best one-on-one scenes in Mad Men’s entire run. Peggy and Stan share their own complicated history—one that is arguably as complex as Peggy’s relationship with Don. At turns they have been enemies, best friends, simpatico co-workers, resentful boss and colleague, reluctant crushes, and mistimed lovers.

In “The Lost Horizon,” we were treated to the epic Roger andPeggy empty office scene. What any good work of fiction does is set up characters and scenes that are loaded with meaning just based on which two characters are together. As a reader or viewer, you are on the edge of your seat because you don’t know what information will be relayed, what topics discussed or what plot devices put into motion based on the fact that two characters have been brought together. Peggy and Roger never share one-one-one screen time, so when we all saw the two of them together, we knew we were in for something special. This isn’t fan service, its well-written fiction.

Besides all the roller-skating, organ playing and vermouth drinking, Roger and Peggy had perhaps the best exchange of the entire episode. Peggy tells Roger, “You know I need to make men feel at ease.” And Roger replies, “Who told you that!?” Look, I’m no Peggy. I’m not a woman and I don’t command the respect she does in her professional environment. But, since as a man I am feminine (in the way thatJames Salter used the word), I know what is like to feel like you have to make other men feel at ease. I’m a people pleaser by nature, but living your life that way is misguided. It’s true for a guy like me in 2015 and it was even truer for a woman like Peggy in 1970.

Because Peggy and Joan are both up against the terrible forces of misogyny and sexism that are on full display at McCann Erickson. Many people have already written much more articulately (and with more knowledge) about Joan’s showdown with Jim Hobart this week. However, what I want to focus on is a moment of brilliant acting from Christina Hendricks.

Joan and Dennis get into an argument after his insensitive comments to the wheelchair bound Avon executive over the phone. When Dennis says to Joan, “Who told you you got to get pissed off?” Joan has the slightest look of hurt on her face. You can actually see her cycle through wanting to cry, wanting to scream, hopeless frustration and finally access her otherworldly composure (the professional demeanor she has honed over years of professional mistreatment) in the span of about two or three seconds. It is astonishing moment and one of the most truthful pieces of acting I have seen on television—maybe ever.

In the end, Joan is eventually pushed into a corner by Jim Hobart. She goes toe-to-toe with him and loses. Roger (history again!) begs her to take Jim’s offer of buying her out at 50 cents on the dollar and Joan agrees to accept. Its not the victory she wants or that she knows she deserves. But at this point in her life, tragically, Joan realizes that she will never get what she wants; that she will never be treated the way she wants to, or deserves to be treated. We know things haven’t changed—that there are women all over the world who feel the same hopelessness. But Joan is leaving McCann with some of her money instead of fighting an expensive court battle. Money is no solace. However, in the world of Mad Men, what does count as solace?

Don drives through the night and hallucinates the ghost of Bert Cooper. Bert and Don talk about On The Road. Bert muses about “the ghost of America in a shiny car at night.” Does that fleeting moment of freedom count as solace? Kerouac found out thatthere was nothing to be gained in traveling back and forth across America. He discovered that there was nothing but loneliness wherever you turned; that youth turned to age and that all the spiritual searching (whether Buddhist or Catholic) in the world was no match for family and truly giving yourself up to another person. And Kerouac never truly figured that out; because he drank himself to death in his mother’s home.

As Bert says, “Don likes to play the stranger.” Don wants to go to Racine to find “some waitress that doesn’t care” about him. What Don cares about is distracting himself before death. And he does it all in the name of some kind of spiritual searching, some romantic longing for another time and place; some beginning that he fell from. As Don once told Peggy, “There are people out there who buy things. People like you and me. Then something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is…gone.” But that sounds like a fool’s errand to me (and I would know). We all remember what happened to Jay Gatsby.

Maybe solace comes in the form of Peggy’s now infamous strut through the offices of McCann, sunglasses on her face, her colorful dress moving through a sea of gray and Cooper’s octopus cunnilingus paining under her arm. Solace rarely lasts—existence is constant sadness and distress. We need other people to help us bridge the gap. But maybe if Peggy can accept who she is, then she can figure out how to keep that moment in her pocket for the darker times ahead. Maybe she can keep that moment in her pocket and allow other people in.

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