Saturday, 16 June 2012

Mad Men - No Resolutions

This post contains some spoilers, I give plenty of warning before the big ones come.

An article about Mad Men has been, much like the series itself, slowly brewing within me for quite a while. Now that the series reached its wonderful fifth season finale, I think I may be ready to write some words about this beautiful series.

Though its aesthetics is the first thing that comes to mind and it is a fundamental part of Mad Men, when I say it's beautiful I don’t only refers to its visuallity. The series’ unique structure, the painfully subtle moves and the overall feel of the show are as beautiful as its cinematography, costumes, actors and design.

Mad Men is famously and sometime excruciatingly slow, moreover, it often has a cold and detached air to it. The characters are not there for us to hang on to and/or relate to on a deep emotional level like in most TV series', because, contrary to common belief, Mad Men does not tell the story of Don Draper, nor does it tell the story of Joan Harris, Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell or Roger Sterling, Mad Men tells the story of the 60s, more specifically America’s 60s, and so Joan, Peggy, Pete, Roger and even Don are just passers by, whose stories don’t lead to a big dramatic climax and don’t always have a third act, resolution, they’re stories are there to tell the bigger story of a time and a place.
This concept is hard to grasp and difficult to accept, because it means that everything about Mad Men, including the story, is secondary to something that you can’t really see onscreen: a sense of, a mood of and an atmosphere of an era and an area, which are the heart and soul of Mad Men. Secondary, however, doesn't mean non-existent. Mad Men has an array of brilliant characters, some of the best female characters I have seen on American television in a long time, and they all have plots and developments, only they are transient, like time.This also means that essentially nothing that happens, however big or dramatic, lasts and specific occurrences don't necessarily have an impact straight away, but rather they add up to bigger gloomier picture.

Being so used to three act structure, getting used to a series that plants a gun but systematically avoids firing it in the third act, and often simply avoids the third act altogether, episodically or seasonally, is not easy and quite demanding, but, for me at least, makes watching Mad Men most rewarding.

Spoilers galore up to season five including.

Being a series about an era, Mad Men touches many different themes in different varieties and levels of depth. One of themes, which appeals to me in particular, is of course the women of the time, their feminist and other kind of development and of course how it affects the men.

As I mentioned, Mad Men is one of the few American series’ I know that has such a great variety of different type of women and not only do none of them make me want to punch them, or their creator, but I find each in her own way compelling and wonderful to watch.

Betty Francis, previously Draper, who is perhaps the hardest woman to like or relate to in the series, is a complex and interesting character to me. She was the perfect housewife, who was gorgeous and like a good wife had nothing of her own to say. She accepted her role with complete surrender, yet she failed.

In the first season, Betty was in effect forced to go to therapy and her doctor called her husband at the time, Don, after their session to report what she said and give his opinion. To me this was a shocking moment, and while, like all other plot lines, this moment never developed further, it stayed with me as a defining moment for Betty, who seem to exist for men, and it accompanies her character and influences how I see her, even now in her miserable state of the fifth season. 

She replaced the husband who didn't want the perfect wife, with one who did. Only now she doesn't want and perhaps can't be the same perfect wife, not since her first husband and her daughter replaced her with a younger, ambitious woman who has opinions, a woman who is more than just a mother and a wife.

In parallel, but almost complete contrast, Peggy Olson has developed as an independent strong woman who became a pioneer career woman and flourished until she finally left for a better job. This is the same Peggy, whose defining moment was in season one when she discovered she was pregnant only when she was in labour, whose baby was seen only once after birth and whose fate, four seasons later, is not quite clear. Peggy hasn’t got an ounce of motherhood within her and men, while she is interested in them, are not her top priority.

She has transformed, from a silly secretary, to a valuable copywriter, from sexually naive and ignorant to open minded and progressive, and eventually from dependant to independent. On their own, all these life changes are almost, and I emphasis almost, meaningless within the Mad Men splendour, but they all come together in the backs of our minds to paint an elaborated profile of a certain kind of woman, inseparable from the time and the place.

While Betty doesn’t evoke much compassion and Peggy makes us proud, Joan Harris’ development is the one that is probably most difficult for a viewer to deal with. She is the most beautiful and sexy of the Mad Men women and, at least on the surface, the most powerful, perhaps as a result.

It infuriates me when I read or hear people, usually men, say that it isn't believable that a woman as gorgeous and confident, because if a woman is beautiful and as one of the sentences I read said: 'all eyes of the office are on her', that of course means she must be strong, would marry a man who raped and abused her. Not only is it a delusion to think these things don’t happen today and even more in the 60s, but to assume a strong woman, or a woman who is perceived as strong, and beautiful is immune to pain, suffering and insecurities, is not only ignorant, but in my opinion dangerous.

However, before Joan was raped, something else happened, which for me captured Joan’s tragedy, which reached a new kind of low in the latest season. Somewhere, I think in season one, Joan was asked to go over scripts for TV commercials, give an opinion and help choose the right ones. Not only was she good at it, she enjoyed it and wanted to do this on a regular basis. Unlike Peggy, she was denied. Unlike Peggy, Joan, in the eyes of almost all men in the office, is decoration, sexual object and finally a sexual instrument and never a person with thoughts and feelings. True, this is not as violent as rape, nor is it as depressing as what happened to Joan this season, but the pain of that moment stuck with me and hasn’t let go since. It is telling that a small moment of pain has such a strong impact.  

Because Joan is such a loveable character, by women and men alike, it is much harder to accept that all the drama in her life turns into echoes. It is almost unbearable that her rape, like her abortions, motherhood, divorce and the tragic circumstances in which she gained partnership in the company are so intangible and once again transient. You could make an after-school-special out of any of these and most TV series’ would and have done, but not Mad Men. Mad Men expect its viewers to carry this burden with them like Joan does, without dwell or, yes you know it, resolution.

On the other hand there is the story of the almighty men. Only they aren’t, and the fifth season is where they slowly start their inevitable decline. Most pathetic of all, Roger Sterling. He is a typical man child, deciding on a second divorce following an LSD epiphany, chasing Megan's mother in the crudest of ways and having childish power games with Pete Campbell. Pete, on the other hand, who seemed like he had it all, at least all that Don had in the first season, a wife who came from money a legitimate child and the illegitimate one safely tucked away somewhere, and a promising career, yet he still feels the need to prove himself and is generally unhappy. He is turning to Don Draper of season one.

Don Draper, who previously dazzled women and clients with his commanding presence and irresistible charisma, is gradually losing his mojo during season five. He's in love, which distracts him from his job and soon enough he's upstaged by a younger, talented and brassy new copywriter. Moreover, all the important women in Don's life not only let him down one by one on a personal level, but damage his career, which for a while seemed untouchable.   

Major season five spoiler alert! 

Joan's decision to whore herself hurts Don after he alone defended her honour. He respected her and was the only one who never treated her like a sex object, and her action disappoints him. But it also compromises his work and shakes his confidence. It wasn't he who swooped in charmed the clients with his speeches, nailed the account and saved the day. Then Peggy's resignation doesn't only hurt Don, who nurtured and mentored her, but leaves him and his team without a woman’s perspective, which now may cost an account. Finally, his second wife, Megan, who he loves (or possibly loved?), supported and tried to be a better husband to, eventually chose a path not so different than that of Joan. This too can't reflect well on his professionalism. And so, in the course of the season the dashing, smooth and almighty Don Draper got old and tired in front of our eyes and became a part of and not beyond a generation that has no place.

Of course the ultimate and final decline is of the men who never belonged, the most compelling Lane Pryce. His suicide, like all other dramatic events on Mad Men, will, if it didn't already in the final episode that followed, become another trauma that will be pushed aside. More than that, his death was the push for the company's expansion, for isn't this what America's capitalism is built upon? The death of the old British empire and, well, sex.
This season of Mad Men was full of drama, which is probably why so many declared it the best season so far. It portrayed a grim yet glamorous picture of the 60s in the US, where women liberation is an illusion, a beautiful packaging, just like peace, love and happiness. Yet, despite all the drama, the final episode was almost mundane in comparison, reinventing the understatement and reinforcing the general feeling of time passing by and "things happens" and they do, like people, not but a fleeting moment.   



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