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breaking bad  Skyler

Is there such a thing as a “bad fan”?  The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum thinks so.  In a widely discussed piece about “Breaking Bad” last year, Nussbaum identified the Bad Fan as an enthusiast who’s watching a show for the wrong reasons, too often reveling in behavior that he’s supposed to deplore.

The concept of the Bad Fan grew out of the animosity that many viewers displayed towards Skyler White, the long-suffering wife of “Breaking Bad’s” villainous protagonist.  Walter White had ruined or destroyed countless lives during the course of the series, but the fans dumped on his WIFE?  Because she was trying to corral his reign of terror?

A similar problem had arisen during “The Sopranos,” when some fans thrilled at Tony Soprano’s violence and clamored for more.  The issue of the Bad Fan may also partially explain the declining ratings for “Mad Men.”  A segment of the fanbase might not have understood they were supposed to be appalled at, not entranced by, the outrageously sexist and self-destructive behaviors of the early-‘60s male characters.  It appears that some of these fans have since lost interest in the show as the consequences of these behaviors played out during the rest of the 1960s.  The Bad Fan experience becomes especially problematic in cases of male-on-female violence, like the rapes on “Game of Thrones,” when some viewers might get off on it instead of recognizing it as horrifying.

The problem of the Bad Fan has been around for centuries, going back to at least Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” when readers found the clever-but-evil Satan more compelling than God himself.  In the television age, Nussbaum located the original Bad Fan experience with All in the Family,” a 1971 Norman Lear sitcom about a working-class family headed by the bigoted, conservative Archie Bunker.  To make sure everyone understood the score, Lear, an outspoken liberal, even ran a disclaimer at the top of the show that advised: “The program you are about to see is ‘All in the Family.’ It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show—in a mature fashion—just how absurd they are.”

In the end, the laugh was on Lear (to the extent the laugh can be on anyone whose show makes him a gazillionaire).  It turns out that millions of other bigoted, conservatives fans didn’t find Archie Bunker absurd. Instead they found validation in Archie’s politically incorrect observations and didn’t understand (or maybe they understood but didn’t care) that they were the subject of mockery.

As an art form, television seems to be particularly vulnerable to the Bad Fan phenomenon.  Viewers won’t watch a show for years on end if it has a protagonist who’s as personally loathsome as his actions, so showrunners pull their punches when depicting antiheroes.  Even if you are disgusted by the misdeeds of a murderer, it’s hard not to sympathize with him after seeing him interact with his kids and friends over the course of 30 to 40 shows.

For some reason, the Bad Fan tends to be a man.  It might just be that men are more morally obtuse than women and can’t help but root for strong, dominant figures.  Or maybe modern men feel tied down by the restraints of civil society and act out by identifying with transgressive anti-heroes who don’t seem to care they are violating social norms. The popularity of antiheroes does seem closely tied to the reaction against political correctness, and it’s likely that some men are reacting by rooting for anyone who will stick his thumb in the eye of the establishment.

To the extent there are female Bad Fans, they would be more closely associated with the outrageous behaviors on soap operas.  There’s a long-standing tradition of the scheming, nasty villainess whom soap opera viewers love to hate. Think of Joan Collins’ character Alexis Colby on “Dynasty.”  For women viewers who feel put upon by the indignities of everyday life, the evil manipulations and immense confidence of these characters can provide a vicarious thrill.  Still, I can’t see Alexis Colby’s fans taking to Facebook and Twitter to vituperate her husband(s), like “Breaking Bad” fans did with their “I Hate Skyler White” pages.

Another way in which women sometimes stray into Bad Fan territory is by admiring and hoping to emulate female reality stars (“Real Housewives,” “Jersey Shore,” etc.) who would never be anyone’s role models in a normal world.   But this is not true Bad Fan behavior because to be a really Bad Fan, you have to miss the point of what a showrunner is trying to say, and it’s not clear that the producers of these reality shows find anything objectionable about their stars’ behavior.

No, the true Bad Fan is almost always a man so hopped up on testosterone, aggression and grievance that he doesn’t appreciate the subtlety of the showrunner’s vision.  The lesson, then, is pretty clear: if you don’t want Bad Fans, don’t create a bad-guy protagonist and then humanize him.  And don’t make him kind of awesome.  If you do, then don’t complain that your viewers don’t understand you.

mad.men_.episode.3.recap_

Oh how the mighty have fallen.  In Mad Men’s first season, Don and Betty Draper occupied a comfortable position at the top of the 1960 food chain.  Both gorgeous and impeccably turned out in the most current fashions, they reigned over their respective worlds: Don as a superstar in advertising and Betty as the youthful stay-at-home mom.  Of course the picture they presented to the world was a façade but at least they could hold their heads high in public.

Now it’s 1969 and forget that.  They still look great but they’re out of step with the times.  Betty is still decked out like a 1950’s TV mom, in dresses and heels (even at the farm!)  Worse, she has to sit there and be condescended to by her former sad sack neighbor Francine, who may be wearing a hideous orange pantsuit but at least has a job in an office – three days a week with three phones ringing so frequently that she goes home at night with a sore neck and isn’t that wonderful.  Betty’s clearly jealous.  She already unloaded all her heavy artillery – that her big shot husband patched things up with “Rocky” (Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who was pissed when Henry ambitiously left the governor’s staff to be a top aide to NYC mayor John Lindsay) and that Henry is under consideration to be “A.G.” But it’s not enough to gain the upper hand.

Francine is suitably impressed with the Rocky news, but nothing beats that job in the travel agency office, especially when the alternative is “being in the home unoccupied all the time.”  In an early shot in the Mommy Wars, Betty counters that children are their own rewards (this is the first time in the episode, but not the last, when one of the women tells obvious lies to herself.)  And to prove the point, she marches right home and volunteers for Bobby’s field trip, to the clear shock of her poor vulnerable son.

Meanwhile, Don’s not in much better shape.  He spends his day watching bad 1960’s movies and wondering if and when he will be released from professional purgatory.  He’s still handsome (and all kinds of women, from secretaries to flight attendants are still drooling over him) but he’s clearly a man of the 1950s (he’s even reading a Time Magazine article about Dwight Eisenhower) and his clothes are dated.  Once a master of his universe, the highlight of his day is now the moment when his former secretary Dawn brings him his mail and the office gossip, and he acts petulantly when she’s too busy to visit personally.  Then, as impetuously as Betty, he agrees to go on his own field trip – to visit his wife when he learns that she’s losing it in California, chasing after directors and whatnot.

But there’s a big difference between Betty and Don.  Don is growing in self-awareness and moral depth but Betty is stuck in a rut.  When she gets home from her lunch with Francine, she announces “I’m going to change.” She means she’s going to put on a new get-up, but we are meant to take it ironically because we know she will never really change. Matt Weiner continues to express surprise that people don’t like Betty, but she is a horrible person.  The best you can say is that she’s pathetic and that we should somehow feels sorry for her that the rules of the game have changed and that the woman she was raised to be is no longer valued; but even by the standards of 1960, she would still be considered a terrible mother.  Off she goes on her field trip, and at first things are OK, as she actually manages to have a “conversation” with Bobby and even gamely drinks the raw milk.  But she flips out when Bobby trades her sandwich for candy.  When she reports back to Henry on what happened she sounds like a fourth-grader herself when she says, “It was a perfect day and he ruined it.”

Don’s field trip is almost as disastrous.  He flies to L.A. to surprise and buck Megan up, and she’s initially thrilled to see him.  But after a quickie (and we can assume it was pretty quick given that Don’s been living the life of a monk back in NYC) he rushes to the matter at hand, ham-handedly suggesting that her friends are handling rejection better than she is.  It’s interesting that Don still doesn’t understand women very well, but then again he hasn’t had the benefit we modern men have had in reading instruction manuals like “Men are From Mars; Women are from Venus.” He thinks he can “fix” the problem by giving her a pep talk instead of just sympathizing and listening to her.  Worse, he blurts out that her agent called him and reported her growing lack of confidence, meaning that one man she should be able to trust is talking behind her back to another man she should be able to trust, but can’t.

Matters go from bad to worse when Don finally comes clean to her about having been suspended from work.  Trying the truth worked so well with Sally last episode, but Megan can’t handle the truth.  She suspects he’s seeing another woman, which would be bad enough, but she’s even more horrified that he didn’t confide in his own wife about losing his job (actually, that happens a lot Megan, so don’t feel bad) and then made a conscious, sober decision not to spend his free time supporting her in California.  In other words, his real mistress is not another woman but his job, something she can’t compete against.

But here’s where the difference between Don and Betty is most apparent.  Betty reacts to the disastrous field trip with passive aggressiveness, but Don is a man of action.  He immediately calls Dave Wooster at Welles Rich Greene and solicits a job offer.  He immediately takes the offer to Roger Sterling, who tells him to come into the office on Monday and get his job back.

Roger’s habit of refusing to confront a problem until it is thrust directly upon him (seen most vividly when he didn’t tell his partners he’d lost the Lucky Strike account) precipitates one of the great scenes of office politics we’ve even seen.  Since Roger hasn’t told anybody about his unilateral decision to ask Don back and then conveniently doesn’t show up until 12:30 p.m., Don arrives at the office unannounced and cools his heels while everyone asks “What’s he doing here?”  He almost walks out but is saved by Michael Ginsberg, who asks his advice on a pitch.

When Roger finally arrives, we discover that he might be weaselly, morally appalling and a terrible human being, but he can be a sharper businessman than we thought.  Just last episode we assumed he was going to be rolled by Jim Cutler, but it’s soon apparent that Cutler’s a bit of an empty suit himself.  Roger forcefully makes the case that Don is a partner with a contract.  It would be devastating financially to buy him out and worse to compete against him at Welles Rich Green.

There’s also a philosophical issue under debate.  One side of the firm, led by Jim Cutler, doesn’t care about the creative aspects of advertising.  He goes so far as to say, “This agency is too dependent upon creative personalities,” and he’s more than happy with Lou Avery, who is deemed “adequate.”  Cutler is supported by Joan, who has her own history with Don (more on that later), but has been shown to care only about the nuts and bolts of advertising, especially the media buys.  She’s the only one in the office who things Harry Crane is a whiz (although Cutler is catching on.)  Roger, and to a lesser extent Bert Cooper, know that clients want the creative pizzazz that comes with advertising and they don’t like the way the agency is being talk about in the market.

In the end, the partners reach a compromise, but a compromise that is too clever by half.  Instead of firing Don outright, they offer him a deal they think he can’t accept: he can’t meet with clients alone, has to follow a script that they approve, can’t drink in the office, has to take Lane’s office and worst of all, he has to report to Lou.  And if he violates any of the terms, his partnership is revoked.

This is the low point in the show, which has been one depressing sequence after another.  The deal is an insult and Don will almost certainly bolt. But then Matt Weiner pulls another great surprise out of his hat.  Don looks at the terms and simply says “OK.”  Holy Cow! And I literally laughed out loud.  If the partners think they’ve seen office politics before, they haven’t seen anything yet, as the battle for the soul of Sterling Cooper and Partners begins.

Some other thoughts.

— I have to admit that I couldn’t identify the movie that Don was watching at the beginning of the episode and had to rely on others to figure out it was “Model Shop,” released in 1969.  The IMDB summary:  “George Matthews is a young man who is having a bittersweet affair with a French divorcée in Los Angeles. Waiting to be drafted, he is unable to commit himself to anything or anybody, including his girlfriend Gloria. While trying to raise money to prevent his car from being repossessed, George is attracted to Lola, a Frenchwoman who works in a “model shop” (an establishment which rents out beautiful pin-up models to photographers). George spends his last twelve dollars to photograph her, and discovers that she is as unhappy as he. Although Lola is unwilling to respond to George, their brief night of lovemaking gives both the will to deal with their respective problems.”

That sounds relevant to Don Draper.  Here’s the trailer.

— Also relevant to Don Draper is the closing song over the credits, “If 6 Were 9,” an anti-establishment anthem by Jimi Hendrix.  Here are the relevant lyrics: “White collared conservative flashing down the street/Pointing their plastic finger at me./They’re hoping soon my kind will drop and die,/But I’m gonna wave my freak flag high, high.”  Don Draper may be the White Collared Conservative flashing down the street, but he’s as creative and impatient as any of the hippies celebrated in the song.  He’ll be tearing stuff down at Sterling Cooper pretty soon.

—  After two straight episodes set on very specific dates (Inauguration Day and Valentine’s Day 1969) this episode is set during a generic week in spring.  The only hint of the period is the Time magazine that Don is reading, with its cover of Dwight Eisenhower, who died March 28, 1969.  By the looks of the greening farm on the field trip, the events of this episode must be taking place in early spring, the week after Ike’s death, in April 1969.

Ike Time

— It seems pretty clear to me that Betty has an eating disorder.  By way of explaining away why he traded her sandwich, Bobby says he didn’t expect her to eat it, and the first thing that Henry says to her when he gets home is “Did you eat?” (Her response, “I was hungry but now I’m not,” shows that she’s punishing Bobby by punishing herself.)  It is possibly important that Bobby gave the sandwich away to a girl; Betty may equate food with love and assume that he has given his love away to another female. And making him eat that candy shows that she’s really learned how to weaponize food.

— Jim Cutler and apparently Peggy blame Don for what’s become of Ted Chaough, but Peggy should blame herself more than anyone.  They don’t know that Ted came to Don and begged him to let him go to California instead of Don so he could save his marriage.  Don basically sacrificed his own marriage for Ted’s – a marriage that Peggy was trying to break up – but he gets no credit from Cutler.

— I think we are supposed to infer that the reason the firm can’t afford a computer of its own is because the firm went into debt when Frank Gleason – the former partner of Cutler and Chaough – died.  Because they rushed the deal, the Sterling Cooper partners didn’t know that Frank Gleason was terminally ill, and when he died, the firm presumably had to buy back his stake from Gleason’s estate.  When Cutler says the firm has to look to the long-term, Roger gives him a dirty look and says he’s the LAST person to talk about the long term, since the firm won’t be out of debt until 1973 or 1974.

—  I love how Harry Crane is so rude to Jim Cutler, and that Cutler appears to eat it up.  He says to Harry, “You have stiff competition.  I believe you to be the most dishonest man I have ever worked with.” And he doesn’t mean that as an insult.  In fact, he wants to fund Crane’s beloved computer.  Incidentally, the discussion about using data to integrate national and local buys was fascinating.  Too bad Joan wasn’t there: she probably would have swooned in the office.

— Joan and Peggy have their own grievances against Don, which causes them both to lie to themselves: Peggy says, “Well, I can’t say that we miss you,” which is USDA-approved Grade A B.S. She hates working for Lou.  And Joan says that things are working better than they ever have, which might mean they are working well for HER but she can’t seriously mean the firm is in better shape.  As noted, Peggy blames Don for breaking up her and Ted, but Joan’s grievance is more subtle: she had slept with Herb from Jaguar to get that account, which Don then unilaterally dumped, thereby rendering her sacrifice meaningless. It’s dispiriting that she has joined the anti-Don cabal and you can tell she insisted on the provisions that prevent him from meeting with clients alone and without a script.

— When Megan’s agent calls, Don is initially more impressed that she might have met Rod Serling than anything else.  Serling, of course, was a creative genius and also the initial screenwriter of “The Planet of the Apes,” which Don and Bobby went to see in the episode when Martin Luther King died.

— So many call-backs to previous episodes: Pirate Ken Cosgrove shows Don a photo of his son on the carousel in Central Park, which reminds him of Don – a clear reference to the most famous scene in the series, when Don pitched the carousel to Kodak in season one.

— Notice that the staff is happy to have Don back.  Handshakes and hugs all around.  The hoi polloi seem to understand that the agency is adrift without him.  He may have ridden them hard and occasionally mistreated them, but he provided vision and leadership.

— The other chaperon’s crack about milking the wrong udders was nasty but, I think, well deserved.  If a teacher is going to go braless the least she can do is keep her shirt buttoned so she’s not flashing those things in front of fourth grade boys.

—  Peggy’s another one who never changes either – still bitching about those Clios.  And boy does Ginsberg hate her.

— Speaking of Ginsberg, who was born in a concentration camp, it’s creepy to hear him say, about management’s decisions on who to nominate for the Clio’s, that “you shouldn’t give them the power to decide who should live and who should die.”

What an episode! 62 and a half minutes into the show I was about to slit my wrists, and then boom: “OK”, and I can’t wait for next week.

We could all learn something from the funeral home industry!

 

mad Men office

The title of this week’s “Mad Men” is “A Day’s Work” and the day in question is February 14, 1969, Valentine’s Day.  The title is a bit ironic because two of the lead characters – Peggy and Don – basically do no work, and the other two – Joan and Pete – are subjected to numerous work-related frustrations and indignities.

The episode opens with Don in bed, alone, being woken up at 7:30 a.m. and then again at 12:34 p.m.. Anyone who’s read a “How to Combat Depression” self-help column knows that sleeping too much is a symptom of depression, and if we needed another reminder, there’s a bathrobed Don, sitting in front of the TV and eating Ritz crackers straight out of the box while watching “The Little Rascals,” a series of Depression-era movie shorts about a group of cute kids (none of whom grew up in a whore-house like our hero, although you have to wonder where Spanky got his name.)  I can’t tell you how many hours I spent watching “The Little Rascals” as a child, by the way.

As lousy as his life is, appearances are still important to Don, so he finally cleans up and puts on a suit at 8:00 p.m., just in time for Dawn to arrive with his mail and the office gossip.  In addition to providing SC&P news, Dawn is also in charge of keeping Don’s marriage on life support by making sure a Valentine’s Day gift was sent to Megan in California.

So Don’s not doing too good.  And neither is Peggy.  There’s a certain kind of person who takes Valentine’s Day hard when he or she doesn’t have a relationship on Valentine’s Day and Peggy is one of them.  Already sullen when she gets on the office elevator, her mood doesn’t improve when Stan and Michael tease her about her lack of romantic prospects.  (Michael tells Stan that he saw Peggy’s calendar entry for Feb. 14 and it says, “masturbate gloomily.” Heh.)   She starts to go completely over the edge when  she sees roses on her secretary’s desk and, since there was no note, assumes they were sent by Ted Chaough  (proving yet again that Peggy, as much as we love her, is as self-absorbed as anyone else on the show.) But no, her secretary Shirley received them from her fiance and is too embarrassed by Peggy’s behavior to tell her so.

From there the mood of the show continues the bad vibe so evident in last week’s episode.  Everyone is still miserable.  We have a funeral – Sally’s roommate’s mother died and Sally and her other friends at Miss Porter’s School callously discuss how they will use the trip to the service as an excuse to get some shopping done in Greenwich Village.  We have outright racism, with kindly Bert Cooper saying he doesn’t want a black receptionist out front because people can see her from the elevator.  We have the previously happy Pete losing a battle of office politics when his partners are not so impressed that he brought in the Southern California Chevy Dealers as a client and insist that the account be brought under the auspices of Bob Benson at Chevy HQ in Detroit.

And of course we have the problem with the two bad bosses – Lou and Peggy.  Lou graduates from mere douche bag to the personification of evil in this episode when he demands a new secretary so that he won’t have to share a “girl” with the specter of Don Draper.   Poor Dawn, who was out buying Lou’s wife a Valentine’s Day gift at lunch, wasn’t around when Sally Draper came by the office and discovered Lou sitting in her father’s chair. (Sally had lost her purse during the shopping spree and when she couldn’t find it went to Don’s office to get train fare back – but presumably her real motivation was to see her father.) Lou is enraged by Dawn’s first reaction to Sally’s visit, which is not to comfort him for the emotional bruising he experienced talking to someone else’s daughter, but to rush to warn Don.  He doesn’t even know Dawn’s been feeding Don dirt from the office; all he knows is that he wants his own girl, who will be loyal to him and he insists that Dawn be moved off his desk.

Meanwhile, Peggy’s just as bad.  If not worse, because at least Lou was right that Dawn is more loyal to Don than she is to him.  Peggy starts acting a bit crazy about the flowers, first calling Ted and leaving a cryptic message that his alleged peace offering won’t work and then refusing to take his return call.  But she really flips out when she learns that Ted didn’t send the flowers after all.   “You have a ring on,” she snaps.  “We all know you’re engaged. You did NOT have to embarrass me.”  And in the way the people do when they demand that other people change the very behavior they’re exhibiting, Peggy tells her to “grow up”! So the caucasian, successful, property-owning career gal Peggy Olsen is jealous of her black-but-affianced secretary.  Huh. In her embarrassment she demands that Shirley be taken off HER desk.   Not very nice for someone who used to be a secretary herself.

But that’s not the low point in the show.  Not knowing that Sally had been to the office, he lies to her when he finds her in his apartment, claiming he came home from work early because he was sick. Sally absorbs this blow without flinching but she must be devastated that her father, who’d opened up to her at Thanksgiving, is back to his lying ways.  When Don asks what he should write in the note she’ll need to explain her absence, she says “Just tell the truth.”  Oh, burn!

Their day of quality time deteriorates further when he’s driving her back to school and she in turn lies about how she came to be in Manhattan and not at the cemetery in Queens. They get into a “you lied/no you lied” fight, with Don accusing her of lying in wait to catch him in a lie, “just like your mother.”  That’s a very low blow.  Don’t talk to me, she says, and gives him the silent treatment, which every parent knows only too well.

But all of a sudden, things start to get better.  Back at the office, Joan, who’s been driven to distraction by the unreasonableness of Peggy, Lou and Bert, is offered a promotion by Jim Cutler.  Realizing that she’s managing two jobs (office manager and account executive, thanks to Avon and Butler Shoe), Jim gives her the chance to “move upstairs” with the important people and start managing accounts.    And in a hugely satisfying (but dialogue-free scene), we see Dawn moving into Joan’s old office, having gone from secretary to receptionist to personnel director in one day.   Joan has some sweet revenge on Lou.  She has put his former secretary in a position of power at the firm. Meanwhile, she has finally moved out of the administrative ghetto where she has resided these last 15 years to a position of actual influence and responsibility.

But this blissful moment is nothing compared to Sally and Don.  Stopping for dinner on the drive back, Don demonstrates one of his great strengths – his emotional resilience.  Rather than petulantly hold a grudge, Don is able to let storm quickly blow over, and he does it here, trying to make up with Sally. Finally he hits upon the right strategy – the truth.  In a scene that calls back that great moment in “The Suitcase” episode, when Don finally opened up with Peggy about feeling alone and unloved in the world, he confesses it all to Sally. That he’s been suspended from his job because he “said the wrong things to the wrong people at the wrong time.  I told the truth about myself, but it wasn’t the right time.”  He admits that he was ashamed to tell her and has a pretty frank discussion about the state of his marriage to Megan.  For her part, Sally says she “only went to the funeral so I could go shopping” (and Don, like the good father who believes in his daughter’s inherent goodness, responds “I doubt that,” which is true – she had conceded to her cold-hearted friends earlier that she actually was upset about the death of her roommate’s mother.)  Sally also confides that “I’m so many people,” a really smart insight for a teenager, who has to play a part in front of her school friends, another part in front of her teachers, and yet another part for her family.  Being more than one person is something that Don can really relate to.

The payoff comes in the last scene, when Don drops Sally at her school. As she gets out of the car she turns and says “Happy Valentine’s Day, I love you.”  What a great actor John Hamm is – his face betrays a variety of complex emotions, including (we can only hope) the realization that there is at least one person in the world that loves him even though she knows his faults better than anyone else.  This is something he can build on.

And as the Zombies song, “This is Our Year” plays out over the credits, it’s hard to keep those tears in the eyes.

Some other thoughts about this episode:

— There are a lot of dualities on the show.  Lou and Peggy both acting unreasonably is obvious, but we also see Dawn and Shirley calling each other by their own names, presumably because the people at work can’t tell the black secretaries apart.  Then there are Shirley and Sally both being too embarrassed to tell Peggy and Don the full truth about what they know.

— It’s Valentine’s Day but no one (except probably Shirley) is actually getting gifts from the lovers they think they are.  Dawn buys the presents for Lou and Don’s wives. Roger sent flowers to Joan in her son’s name.  And of course Ted didn’t actually send flowers to Peggy.

— After a weeks’ absence, the elevator is back.  Long-time readers will know I believe there is a PhD thesis to be written about scenes that take place in “Mad Men” elevators.  Nothing last week but there are two scenes in this episode.  First, when Michael and Stan razz Peggy about Valentine’s Day and second, when Roger and Jim Cutler leave for the day and Jim says he hopes they can be friends and “I’d hate to think of you as an adversary.  I’d really hate that.”

— Speaking of Jim Cutler, he seems to be emerging as the dominant figure at SC&P, fulfilling the slow-motion takeover of the firm that he outlined to Ted last season when he concocted the strategy to let the  Sterling Cooper partners think they were winning by letting them keep their name on the door, while grabbing all the important clients for themselves.  Already he’s got his flunky Bob Benson running the firm’s biggest account; now he’s got Joan’s loyalty.  And it looks like he was the force behind the decision to put Don on leave, referring to him as “our collective ex-wife who receives alimony.”  Bert Cooper is too doddering to notice what’s happening and Roger is too supercilious to fight back, or even understand that this coup is underway.

— It’s surprising how little it means to be a “partner” at this firm.  Joan gets bossed around by non-partners Ken and Peggy.  Don is forced out.  And Pete is soon to be taking orders from Bob Benson.

— It’s great to see the banter and solidarity between Dawn and Shirley, but Shirley is not quite as knowing as she thinks.  “Who the Hell is sending her flowers?” she says dismissively of Peggy.  She doesn’t seem to realize that Peggy has cut a pretty wide swath through the office, sleeping with Pete in episode one, having sex with Duck Philips on the day JFK was assassinated, literally driving Ted Chaough to flee to California to escape her charms, getting naked with Stan, and generally attracting the attentions of numerous other beatniks and revolutionaries. In another season she definitely could have received flowers on V-Day.

— Still no sighting of Betty or Harry Crane.  And I’m not sure we’ll ever see Bob Benson again, since he’s hanging out with Mork from Ork and Buffy the Vampire Slayer on CBS (see below).

— Ha ha on the botched conference call.  Things haven’t progressed that much in 45 years, have they?  In any event, it’s always great to see Pete get his comeuppance.  He insists on giving his partners the blow-by-blow on how he landed the Chevy dealers, which bores them to tears, especially when it’s delivered over speakerphone.  Pete continues to be the guy who’s never satisfied, who always wants more ego-stroking than his partners are willing to deliver.  He’s also denied a Valentine’s Day treat of afternoon delight at the Beverly Hilton because his realtor mistress doesn’t want to miss the chance of a commission.  Our beautiful Bonnie is quite the philosopher, though.  Instead of complaining about life’s randomness she remarks, “That’s the thrill.  Our fortunes are in other people’s hands and we have to take them.”  Bonnie is probably in deeper than he realizes.

— There are a lot of death references. The funeral that Sally attends. The flowers that smell like an Italian funeral.  The “act of God” that ruins Bonnie’s commission.  Ted’s advice to Pete to “Just cash the checks. You’re going to die someday.”

— It’s not clear whether Don is not seeking work at another agency because he actually wants to work it out at SC&P, as he tells Sally, or whether he’s prevented from doing so by a non-compete clause in his contract, as he tells his lunch partner.    He probably could get out of his contract if he tried, but he probably doesn’t want to cut the cord with the only thing in his life that gives him any satisfaction and identity.

— Don says that he almost went to work twice for the big Madison Ave firm McCann Erickson.  I remembered that the guy who dropped by at lunch tried to recruit Don by hiring Betty as a model (bad move) but I had to look up the other reference, which is to when the British owners tried to sell the original Sterling Cooper to McCann Erickson.

— Don’s lunch partner works at Welles Rich Green, the creators of the well-known Alka-Selzter “Pop Pop Fizz Fizz” commercial.  Mary Welles, the founding partner, used to work at McCann Erickson, which is why there was such snarky banter between those other two executives.  In any event, for all the moaning on the show about how hard it is for women to advance, the truth is that the real-life Mary Welles and others were doing quite well at a time when we see the fictional Peggy Olsen getting dissed.  Mary Welles is still alive, btw.

— Some interesting anti-rural snottiness by our characters.  Bonnie the real estate agent scornfully refers to her clients as “Okies,” like they stepped out of a John Steinbeck novel, and Don jokes that his lunch partner looks like he’s from “Hotterville.”   This is a reference to the TV shows “Petticoat Junction,” and “Green Acres,” two other TV shows I used to watch, which are set someplace where the hayseeds are not as dumb as they seem.  Here’s the Petticoat Junction theme.

— Miss Porter’s School is in Farmington, CT,which is about a two-hour drive from the East side of Manhattan.  That should provide plenty of time for a uncomfortable ride for a father and daughter who aren’t really talking. Here are the directions in case you’re interested.

Keep pretending. That’s your job.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How I met your mother

The series finale of “How I Met Your Mother” went over like a lead balloon, joining such finale fiascoes as “Lost,” “The Sopranos,” “Dexter” and “Seinfeld.”  The higher the stakes and more beloved the show, it seems, the harder it is to achieve a satisfactory conclusion.

This is an issue of considerable concern to “Mad Men” fans as the series enters its final season.  How will Matt Weiner wrap up Don Draper’s story?  Many fans predict that Don and the 1960s will both expire at the same time, a guess that’s not particularly far-fetched since the guy’s already a walking heart attack.

The way a TV series departs the realm of original programming for the afterlife of syndication and boxed DVD sales is a matter of some emotional importance to fans. A bad ending can leave a sour taste that retrospectively taints everything that went before.  It makes fans wonder if they and the showrunners had really been on the same page all along.

Of course most TV shows don’t have to worry about this problem because they go to the big cancellation bin in the sky before they’ve been around long enough for anyone to care.  And for the first several decades of television history, wrapping up a television series with a special concluding episode was the last thing on anyone’s mind.  Most series were comprised of independent, unconnected episodes that didn’t provide a narrative arc over the course of the series.  Consequently, there was nothing to wrap up – the show simply stopped offering new episodes.  And since the networks usually didn’t decide until the end of the season whether to bring back a show back for another year, there was rarely an opportunity to produce a series finale anyway.  This happened most recently with “Deadwood,” which went off the air without any narrative conclusion.

Usually it’s only the longest-running and most-beloved shows that get their own special event conclusion.  And history has shown this can be a mixed bag.  A really great ending needs to sum up the overriding ethos of the series and provide a good explication of what the program has been about.  Sometimes it’s not even apparent until the last couple of episodes that a series has been “about” anything other than jokes or drama, but usually the impending void does tend to concentrate the mind of the writers and they come up with something.

Of course trying to sum up a series can backfire.  In the case of “How I Met Your Mother,” the problem seems to be that the creators had a vision for how they wanted the series to end from day one, but because they couldn’t artfully get back to that ending nine years later they just tacked it on in a way that undercut most of the storyline of the last few seasons.  In “Lost,” the problem was the exact opposite. The creators had no idea how the series would end when they launched the show and struggled to come up with an ending that was both imaginative and comprehensible.

Shows like “Lost,” “Under the Dome,” “Revolution” and “The Walking Dead,” which consist of one long narrative story, present the networks with special challenges because in contrast to episodic shows like “CSI” or “Law and Order,” they cry out for some kind of resolution.  But as long as their ratings are good, the networks keep renewing them instead of bringing them to a natural conclusion.  Unfortunately, in too many cases viewers have lost interest by the time the shows are wrapped up (does anyone remember the series finales for “All in the Family” or “Dallas”?)  That’s why the producers of “Mad Men” and “Justified” were smart to announce their end dates well before they had squeezed all the creative juices out of those shows.  They are able to end on their own terms.

So how will “Mad Men” end?  The most common way to end a series is to introduce a crucial change to the premise of the show. In a show about kids, the kids will grow up:  “Leave it to Beaver” ended with the oldest son going off to college, which was also the concluding event in “Family Ties” and “The Cosby Show.” In the “M*A*S*H” finale, Hawkeye returns to the States.  Chandler and Monica move to the suburbs in “Friends,” and in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” everyone except Ted Baxter got fired.  For “Mad Men” to take this route, Don would need to do something way out of character, like quitting advertising altogether, or Peggy would have to take over the agency.

Another way to end a series is to let the characters go on more or less as before.  In “Cheers,” Sam and Diane do NOT run away together, and Sam ends up back at the Cheers bar.  In “24,” Jack Bauer kills his final terrorist and reconciles with his daughter, but there’s nothing to prevent him from going back to CTU (and indeed, it looks like the show is returning after all.)  If “Mad Men” were to take this approach, Don remain an ad executive — maybe at Sterling Cooper, maybe not — but he would finally wrestle his demons to the ground and become a better father, husband, friend and colleague.

I don’t know what Matt Weiner has up his sleeve, and I wouldn’t even begin to speculate.  This has been a show with so many head fakes and feints that I’m pretty confident it will be something we’ve never thought of.  And as long as it doesn’t undercut the previous 90 episodes that went before it, I’ll be happy with that.

Mad Men Neve Campbell

And we’re off to another season of “Man Men,” with a new episode called “Time Zones.”

“Mad Men” has always had a special relationship to the passage of time and over the years we have come to view “Mad Men”-related cultural change through three separate prisms.  The first is the period from Don’s childhood to the beginning of the series in 1960.  As presented by “Mad Men,” the America of the late 1930s was rural, poor, restricted and depressing.  But by 1960, post-War America is the richest and most powerful nation in world history and for the white men who run it, it’s almost a paradise of cool clothes, female deference, wealth and possibility.

The second prism through which we view the series is through contemporary eyes, as people who have lived through the consequences of the 60s.  With the power of hindsight we can see that as great as the early 60s seemed to be for a certain class of white male, it was not paradise for women, people of color, gays, Jews, or even white men who were not satisfied with their lot in life and wanted more than they already had. We can gape in amazement at how different our own world is from this era.

But the most important prism through which the series should be viewed is through the actual years covered in the “Mad Men” era.  America changed a lot from 1940 to 1960 and then again from 1970 to 2014, but the pace of change in the 1960s was enormous.  If you were to watch the Season One and Season Seven premieres back to back you could scarcely imagine you were watching the same show.

Sadly, the early optimism of the early 1960s has given way to a sense of despair in late-stage Mad Men.  The sexual revolution has been good to Roger Sterling but he’s not getting much satisfaction from his counterculture orgies.  Distressingly, Ken Cosgrove, the one sane and balanced character on the show, is still blind in one eye and losing his mind as the new head of accounts.  Don Draper is still essentially banished from both his marriage and his job.  Disneyland, which once represented Don and Megan’s hopeful love, is now used as a place to scatter someone’s cremated remains. And whatever progress woman have made during the 60’s seems to be stalled or even regressing.  The character who’s truly happy is Pete Campbell, so you know this is “Bizarro Mad Men.”  This is a dark era — many of the scenes were filmed at night or in the dark early morning, casting a pall over everyone’s mood.  I mean, an orgy should be a fun right?  But this doesn’t look like much fun:

roger_sterling_orgy

The episode begins on Friday, January 17, 1969, three days before the presidential inauguration of Richard Nixon.  The first scene is an amazing close up of Freddy Rumsen talking directly into the camera, pitching an remarkable commercial concept for Accutron watches — a commercial that like so many on “Mad Men” positions the product as a solution to someone’s status anxiety.  The pitch goes on and on, with one brilliant idea after another spilling out of the normally unimaginative Freddie.  Finally we see that he is pitching these ideas on a freelance basis to Peggy, who is dumbfounded that Freddy has proposed such high quality original work.  For his part, Freddie is a bit put off that Peggy is so amazed. He was her mentor once, after all, before his literally pissed away his job through alcoholism and mediocrity.  It is part of Matt Weiner’s genius that the answer to the conundrum of how Freddy came up with these ideas is staring us right in the face but still a surprise when it’s revealed in the last scene.  Don himself fed the pitch to Freddy — because he’s on leave, he can’t offer them directly to Peggy or anyone else, so Freddy is his secret conduit.

There is a body of television criticism that argues that the real “Man Men” protagonist is not Don after all, but Peggy.  I wouldn’t go that far.   Don’s story is the prime focus of the show but Peggy’s is a close runner-up.  Just as Don represents all those the old-school men who built the post-war world, Peggy represents  the women who came into the workforce and raised their consciousness in the 60s.   Together they are the yin and the yang of mid-century, middle class America.  Over the years they have fought and grappled for control and credit but they’ve always had this in common: they were dedicated to excellence in their work.  Their personal lives might be a mess but they are committed to their careers.  As Peggy confessed to Don during that great “Suitcase” episode from Season 4, “nothing seems to matter as much out there as what happens in here.”

This is why Peggy is so miserable.  Not only is her putative lover boy Ted Chaough in self-imposed exile in Los Angeles, she’s also turned into a slumlord because her brave urban homesteading project on the Upper West Side has become a nightmare with a tenant who keeps flushing sanitary pads down the toilet.  Worse, her new boss Lou Avery is an empty suit.  He’s a lot of things really: he’s also a dismissive, sexist asshole, but his worst sin is that he doesn’t care about the quality of the work.  He was hired to be creative director in the wake of Don’s flame out at the end of Season Six, and for a guy who was out of work just two months ago, he’s very satisfied with himself .

Lou’s the kind of boss who wears a Mr. Rogers cardigan in the office and makes jokes like “Who do we have here?  Gladys Knight and the Pips?” when his staff and black secretary convene for a meeting. His main concern is moving work along as expeditiously as possible without a care for the quality.  He can’t be bothered to listen to the pitch that Peggy brings from Freddy Rumsen, says he doesn’t care what she thinks, and outright tells her he’s “immune to your charms.”  What a jerk!  Our Peggy!  The horrible implication is that she got ahead of her “charms,” such as they are, rather than on her clear and obvious talent.  No wonder she calls the rest of the creative team hacks when they go along with him.  I can guarantee, though, that Lou will not be sitting in that chair by the end of 1969.  A guy like that is almost always found out and dispatched to peddle his inadequacies for some other poor employer.

If Peggy is miserable, Don is hollowed out.  He looks as great as ever, flying out to LA to meet his beautiful glamorous wife, who’s living now three time zones away.  She made good on her threat  to leave Don after he reneged on his plan to move to California, and their marriage is barely hanging together.  She has an Astin Martin, (just like James Bond) and is wearing a dress that looks like it came from a Victoria Secrets catalog.  No longer deferring to Don, she pointedly insists on driving, gets so drunk celebrating her call-back for a part on “Bracken’s World (a real but mediocre TV series about a movie studio that I actually used to watch) that she can’t have sex with her husband, and gets exasperated when he buys her a big color TV.  She’s living in a cabin in the Hollywood Hills, with a tremendous view of the city below.  Her isolation seems dangerous; you can hear coyotes howling in the canyons, but she’s so excited about her LA adventure that she doesn’t care.

In seasons past, California was Don’s escape valve – the place where he could be himself as Dick Whitman – but his great friend Anna Draper is dead now and California provides no balm for his soul.  He’s only there for two days before taking the red eye back to New York.  Why he bothers to make such a speedy return is unclear since he has no job in New York.

The irony is that although as he’s hit this new low point, he’s got his act together like never before.  He’s barely drinking and when presented with the opportunity to commence a new affair with Neve Campbell – the beautiful brunette he meets on his flight home – he passes. More important, he’s gained a measure of self-awareness. He confesses to Neve that he’s been a bad husband and coolly dissects his personality as astutely as any blogger.  But the reward he gets for coming clean about his past and going straight is that he’s more isolated than ever, spending his days as Cyrano for Freddie Rumsen.

In the final scenes, we are presented with the images of Don and Peggy, desolate and devastated in their empty homes.  Peggy actually collapses on the floor in tears when her fix-it-man brother-in-law, who has temporarily solved her tenant’s gripes, insists on returning home late at night because he doesn’t like to leave his wife alone.  What a solid guy!  Who’s worried about Peggy staying alone?  Nobody.  And Don’s just as shattered.  We see him and Freddy Runsen going over a pitch in a dark and dank room, which is soon revealed as Don’s living room.  This is the formerly glamorous pad that he and Megan moved into when they got married; now it’s dirty and the balcony door won’t even close properly.  All his early hopes for a fresh start are as ruined as this apartment.

The year 1969 was a bad year. Not as bad as 1968 with its riots and assassinations, but still pretty bad for the country’s soul   The Vietnam War was at its climax and families continued to be at each other’s throats over it.  The violence and murder at the Altamont Concert quickly undid all the goodwill from Woodstock.   And of course there was the shocking murder of the actress Sharon Tate and four other people on August 9, 1969 by Charles Manson’s cult, which made it seem like the country was becoming totally insane.  The bad karma of tarnished dreams that Don and Peggy are experiencing is the very karma that 1969 embodied.  That final image of Don shivering alone on his balcony while The Vanilla Fudge’s “You Keep Me Hanging On” wells up is as depressing as the spirit of the late 60s.  “Set me free why don’t you babe?”  Both Peggy and Don are desperate to be set free from the problems they’ve created for themselves.

Some other thoughts:

—  Less depressing was the third major subplot of the night: Joan’s attempt to salvage the Butler Shoe account.  Ken’s too consumed with other clients and concerned about his status to meet with Butler’s new head of marketing, a whippersnapper MBA who’s focused on the four Ps – a real thing apparently.  Instead of calling off the meeting, Joan meets him in a restaurant and tries to woo him with her charms, to which this guy truly is immune.  He tells her he’s going to cut costs by taking the advertising in-house, one of those genius moves that marketing managers come up with from time to time.  Next thing we know, Joan is trekking up to the Columbia Business School to meet some professor, who’s willing to give her insight into the shoe business but he wants something in return.  Joan naturally thinks he wants to get into her pants, but lo and behold, he wants her for her mind! He wants to know about how fees and commissions work at her firm!  By Monday, she feels empowered enough to call him on the phone and go FULL METAL JOAN on him.  Armed with a few facts, she reduces him to a blubbering mass in 30 seconds.  I love the “Man Men” segments when they explain how advertising actually works, although I did notice, that, as usual, Joan thinks the agency’s strong point is its ability to place ads, not its creative.  In her world,   Don, Lou and Peggy really are interchangeable.  It’s the great buys they get on NBC that set them apart.

—  Don is shown watching the movie version of “Lost Horizon,” the story that introduced the concept of Shangri-La to the world.  It’s the tale of a world weary man who stumbles upon a warm, peaceful paradise and has to decide whether to return to the cold cruel world.  Hmm, I wonder who that could be referring to?

—  Love the scene in the restaurant with Megan’s agent, who’s as gay as Paul Lynde, feels it necessary to reassure Don that his interest in Megan is strictly “green,” by which I assume it means he’s interested in the $$$ that a successful client will generate.  Don doesn’t seem to worried about the competition.

—  Speaking of Megan, here we go again with the Sharon Tate references.  Last year the Internet almost melted down with theories about Megan’s vulnerability and similarity to the murdered Sharon Tate.  She survived 1968 but is now living in a remote canyon house like Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski did, so maybe she’s in danger again.

—  Also speaking of Megan, the agent says, “I’ll say one thing about this girl, she evokes strong feelings.” Presumably this is an inside joke about how divisive a figure she is among Mad Men fans.

—  Funniest line: “Those are some nice properties,” while looking at the chest of Pete’s real estate agent.

—  Overall I liked the episode although not much seemed to be going on.  But with AMC breaking the season into two seven-episode halves, I worry about how much can be accomplished in the next six episodes before we break for another year.

—  Would love to know what kind of mumbo jumbo Roger’s daughter is into.  I love how she’s willing to forgive her father but not willing to accept any forgiveness in return.  After all, why does SHE need to be forgiven?  (Also love that one of her grievances is that he made her ask for money.  Not that he refused to give it, but that he made her ask for it in the first place. What a spoiled brat.)

— Whenever I hear about an arty woman living a bohemian lifestyle in an LA canyon I always think of Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon,” which came out in 1970.

— Don says that Pete Campbell looks like a hippie, because he’s a little shaggy and informal.  This was an often-used insult that corporate types used to put down their slightly looser colleagues — like at IBM you could be called a hippie for wearing a blue shirt instead of the more common buttoned down white shirt.  Speaking of Pete, poor Vincent Karthheiser has shaved a widow’s peak into his head to show that his character is balding, something he’s not doing in real life. But he only gets one short scene.

— Talk about art imitating life!  That douche bag Lou tells Peggy she’s “too emotional” about her work, a clear sexist jibe.  How far we’ve come — not!  Last week the political correctness police were up in arms because CIA director Michael Hayden said that Senator Dianne Feinstein had an “emotional reaction” to the CIA waterboarding program.  So we’re still arguing about whether being emotional is a good thing or a bad thing.

— No Bob Benson?  James Wolk wasn’t mentioned in the credits but that doesn’t mean he’ll never appear again, even though he’s stationed out in Detroit at GM..

Anyone else worried that his or her vessel is broken?

justified 3

Given the critical acclaim for dramas about violent, damaged men, it’s a surprise that FX’s “Justified” doesn’t generate more attention that it does.  The story of a trigger-happy U.S. marshal dealing with the low-lifes and criminals of rural Kentucky, the show would seem to have all the elements for the pantheon of “Golden Age” TV: crackling dialogue, a high body count, moral ambiguity, exciting plotting and a handsome hero.

“Justified” deals with the adventures of Raylon Givens, the son of a criminal operator in Harlan County, Kentucky who rejects his father’s ways and becomes a lawman.  Givens operates under his own code, defying authority and breaking any rule necessary to bring the bad guys to justice.  In the series pilot his superiors send him back to Kentucky as punishment for various offenses against federal procedures.  The rest of the series addresses how he deals with his past, his family, and the generally lawless culture in which he was raised.

“Justified” probably isn’t a critical darling because Givens, for all his moral complexities, is an old-fashioned hero, not an anti-hero in the mold of Tony Soprano, Walter White and Don Draper.  He’s basically a character out of a classic Western, a seemingly outdated genre with clear good guys and villains.  He’s a U.S. marshal, for cripes’ sake, with a badge, a gun and even a trademarked white Stetson hat.  Take out the swearing, the cell phones and SUVs, and Givens could be John Wayne.

Back in 1954, the great movie critic Robert Warshow wrote the definitive essay on the American Western (“Movie Chronicle: The Westerner) and rereading it today is like discovering a character sketch of Raylon Givens.  Like the traditional Western hero, Givens is a loner who can’t really connect permanently with women and can’t articulate why he acts the way he does, except to say it’s the right thing to do.

Then there’s the violence.  The very first scene of the series is an outright duel, with Givens and a mob boss pulling their guns to see who can shoot whom first.  (That this takes place in a fancy Miami restaurant is the final straw for his bosses and precipitates Givens’ exile back to Kentucky.)  In the five seasons since, the show has been suffused with violence, shoot-outs, beatings and blood.  Still, as Warshow explains, “it is not violence at all which is the ‘point’ of the Western movie, but a certain image of man, a style, which expresses itself most clearly in violence…. A hero is one who looks like a hero.”  And Givens does look the part, always cool in the face of danger.  But although his brutal behavior is almost always “justified” (hence the title of the show) it takes a toll that puts him even further outside normal society — why, just like Ethan Edwards at the end of “The Searchers”!

Of course from the critics’ perspective, the real problem with the show might be that it’s just too entertaining.  As portrayed by the extremely likable Timothy Olyphant, Givens is a wise-ass, a protector of the vulnerable with a dead-eye aim, and too charming for his own good. The episodes are taut, exciting, extremely well-written (the show is based on an Elmore Leonard short story, after all) and the plotlines are neatly tied up with a bow.

“Justified” is deeper than a mere entertainment, however.  Even the title has more than one meaning.  In Christian theology “justification” is God’s act of removing the guilt and penalty of sin while declaring a sinner righteous through Christ’s sacrifice.  Unfortunately, as soon as Givens is forgiven for his sins, he goes out and commits some more. Religion provides an important backdrop on the show; sometimes the preachers are frauds, sometimes they are sincere. But always the characters wrestle with their sins or, more tellingly, make a point of affirmatively NOT wrestling with their sins.

The characters and the issues they address on “Justified” could come out of the Bible. Are the sins of the father visited upon the children?  Maybe yes, maybe no.   “Justified” shows how hard it is to evade your birthright. Givens escapes only because his mother and then his stepmother insisted that he not follow his father’s path.  Givens’ semi-evil counterpart, Boyd Crowder, is not so lucky. As smart, brave and cool as Givens, Crowder actually does follow his father, first into the coal mines, then into white supremacy and crime. As hard as he tries, Crowder can’t rise from “white trash” into respectability.

FX recently announced that next year would be the series’ final season, which is just as well.  Season five, which ends next week, has strained to find new stories.  There is a natural conclusion to this tale that involves Given getting his act together and getting back together with his ex-wife and daughter.  Until then the series is just spinning wheels.

Kudos, then, to FX for ending “Justified” before creative paralysis sets in.  Unfortunately, once “Justified” is gone there will no longer be any good Westerns on TV.