Paradise by the refrigerator light

Perfect harmony?
Perfect harmony?

 

The Mad Men finale was overstuffed and all over the map, emotionally and geographically. Peggy did get to have it all, more or less (a generous nod to Peggy/Stan shippers). Joan chose her career and lost her eleventh-hour, too-good-to-be-true boyfriend, but who cares about him anyway? Roger and Megan’s mother lived happily ever after (I never could get behind this weird and pointless coupling). Pete flew off to become the King of Wichita.

And Don … His story, and the series, could not have ended more perfectly. In the previous two episodes, Don plunged deeper into the Dante-like symbolic death that began in the first episode of season 6, “The Doorway”. In “Lost Horizon,” he disappeared from McCann-Erickson as if he was shedding his skin;  in “The Milk and Honey Route,” his stolen identity in shambles, he head out on a road trip searching for salvation in the form of the elusive Diana, but ended up in an Oklahoma motel that practically screamed “Purgatory.”

As the finale, “Person to Person” opened, it was late October 1970 (only a few weeks after the action in “The Milk and Honey Route”) and Don was racing a test car in the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Apparently, some time after we left him at the Oklahoma bus stop in “The Milk and Honey Route,” he hooked up with a couple of car racers who agreed to take him to California in exchange for his staking their expenses. We soon see him talking on the phone to Sally, who betrays her mother’s confidence and tells her father that Betty is dying. In one of several moments that teased viewers’ hopes for “closure,” Don tells Sally, and then, in another collect call to Betty, that he’s coming home to care for his kids. Could it be that Don is going to finally get it together and be a selfless, responsible family man?

Nah. You could almost hear Matthew Weiner chuckling “Gotcha!” Both the resolute, resigned Betty and the newly grown-up Sally reject Don’s attempt at reconciliation. Betty tells him that she wants the boys to live with her brother and sister-in-law. So Don, a.), gets drunk, and, b.), continues on to California with the racer boys.

It’s no surprise that Don is headed for California. That’s where his lives as Don Draper and Dick Whitman converge. In the finale, he washes up on the doorstep of Stephanie, the hippie niece of the original Don Draper’s (now deceased) widow, Anna. When last seen, Stephanie was broke and pregnant, asking Don for money. Now, Don wants to give her Anna’s wedding ring, last worn by Megan. But Stephanie rejects the family heirloom. She tells Don — she calls him “Dick” — that she doesn’t understand or need his concern for her welfare. She’s heading out to a “retreat up the Coast” — probably the Esalen Institute in Big Sur — and Don tags along.

Don is an amusing fish out of water at Esalen, scowling through encounter groups as earnest, emotional souls try to reach their “human potential.” At one point, when Stephanie confesses her guilt over having hated being a mother (she gave up the baby), Don tells her the same thing he told Peggy after she gave birth to her out-of-wedlock child — to “move on,” “pretend it never happened.” Indeed, a heartbreaking, if somewhat conservative, thread that runs through the finale and the series itself is the depiction of children as collateral damage of sexual freedom and divorce amid the social upheaval of the ’60s (poor Sally and her brothers). Don and Stephanie argue and she leaves, taking her car and abandoning him at the retreat.

Once again, Don has been led to a place he doesn’t want to be, by a woman from whom he sought salvation, love and family, and he’s been left in limbo. He’s been rejected by his Draper family. He’s been rejected by his Whitman family. If he had sought to shed “Don Draper” and return to being “Dick Whitman,” that path has been closed off. He calls Peggy collect and breaks down; she tells him to “come home” to McCann. “They’d take you back in a minute … Don’t you want to work on Coca-Cola?” He hangs up and falls to the ground immobile.

But then along comes another women to guide him, an earth mother-y Esalen instructor who picks him up and coaxes him into the encounter group she’s heading. Don sits in the circle, looking lost and glassy-eyed. And then a middle-aged man named Leonard — pale, average-looking — starts talking about feeling invisible in his life, about wanting love, but never quite getting it. The man tells a story about a dream in which he was on a shelf in the refrigerator, waiting in the dark for the door to open and the light to come on and to be chosen. Don watches with increasing sympathy. When Leonard begins to sob, Don unexpectedly goes to him and hugs him, sobbing with him.

The scene is rich with imagery. Leonard wears a light blue sweater the color of holiness and healing; Leonard’s story of being ordinary, unwanted, unloved resonates with Dick, the whore’s unwanted child who grew up craving family and love. When Don embraces Leonard, he’s embracing his Inner Dick Whitman. He becomes whole.

If Don’s descent into Hell began with his affair with Sylvia, and if Oklahoma was Purgatory, then Esalen is Paradise. It just takes him a while to realize it. In the final shots of the episode, Don is standing on a cliff overlooking the ocean, haloed by the sun. And then he’s dressed in white, eyes closed, cross-legged on a bluff, greeting the morning with retreat-attendees of assorted age and race. As the camera pans in on Don’s face, the meditation leader guides the flock to give gratitude for “the lives we’ve led, the lives we’re yet to lead, a new day, new ideas, a new you.” A bell tinkles. The group, including Don, chant “Om.” Don gives a slow smile, a bell dings again. And then we see the famous “I’d Like to Teach the Word to Sing” Coke ad from 1971, with young people of all races and nationalities standing on a hillside, equating world peace with Coke. The episode ends with the last line of the jingle: “It’s the real thing.”

The only ambiguity in this ending is in its intent. Read one way, Don/Dick’s smile suggests that he has made peace with himself, has survived the traumatic ’60s and will enter the ’70s as a more enlightened person, a “new you.” Maybe he went home to McCann, sober and self-aware, and used his Esalen experience to create the Coke ad, because he genuinely wanted to teach the world to sing. (See photo below.)

But read it another way, and the tiny bell that rings after Don smiles becomes the cha-ching of a killer advertising idea. Don has finally made peace with his past, and in doing so, it cleared his brain of self-doubt, absolved him of his bone-deep shame; freed from these distractions, Don is now cleansed of outdated ideas about how to speak to the desires of the consuming public. The juices are flowing again. And, if we really want to take the cynical road about the result of Don’s epiphany, the Coke ad in its time represented the end of whatever was authentic about the hippie ethos. It co-opted “love and peace” to sell sugar water.

I’ll take the latter interpretation, in all its bittersweetness and complexity. Sure, Don Draper didn’t really create Coke’s “Hilltop” ad in real life. But in the Mad Men universe, it has Don Draper written all over it. Don spent the series searching for “the real thing,” needing to believe that it existed; he based his greatest ads, which hit the mark like spare, poetic arrows to the soul, on that need. In the end, what he takes from his journey is that his emptiness and loneliness is not unique, but his talent for reinvention is. But has he really changed? Maybe the smile is Don welcoming back his true self, the lie that is the real thing.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

Left:  Front desk employee at Don's retreat. Right: Girl from actual "Hilltop" Coke ad.
Left: Front desk employee at Don’s retreat. Right: Girl from actual “Hilltop” Coke ad.

 

 

 

 

 

Peggy, for the win

I am woman, hear me roar
I am woman, hear me roar

Mad Men is as much Peggy’s story as it is Don’s. She’s not just his protege. She’s both his conscience and his opposite. Don is ultimately a negative, defined by a void filled with all the things he is not, a pantomime of a kind of Scotch-swilling manliness rapidly becoming extinct.  Peggy is the positive image, a vivid Kodachrome snapshot of a woman shaped by the emerging feminism of the times.

At the beginning of the series, Peggy is Don’s secretary, a wide-eyed, pony-tailed girl from a strict Catholic family. She tries to want what she’s supposed to want — basically, a job until she snags a husband — but it isn’t enough. Peggy is ambitious, but she’s so naive that she doesn’t understand what that feeling is, bottled up inside and clawing to get out. She mistakes it for sexual hunger, and has a tryst with a drunken Pete that leaves her cluelessly — and secretly, even to viewers — pregnant. As the first season continues, Peggy begins speaking up with ideas for tag lines, and guilelessly tells Don that she wants to do what he does. When the baby is born in the final episode of season one, Don counsels her to give up the kid for adoption, to “pretend it never happened.”

That episode, “The Wheel,” was also the episode where Don promotes her to junior copywriter after she shows her skills behind the scenes on the Clearasil campaign (which Pete steals). In a sense, her pregnancy was like a chrysalis, and out of it emerges a tougher, more assertive Peggy. She gives up her son for adoption (her married sister initially takes him, but then he’s adopted out), and refuses to be shamed by the disapproval of her mother and their priest. Like Don, Peggy sees a clear path to reinvention and grabs it.

As she grows into her career, Peggy inevitably clashes with Joan Holloway, the highest ranking woman at the agency. Joan was “raised to be admired”; she’s beautiful and smart, but she’s disastrously slow to change with the times, still using her looks and “feminine wiles” to go after what she wants, asking rather than taking, pinning her future on the whims of powerful men.

Both women assert their ambitions in the season five episode “The Other Woman,” both come up against entrenched sexism. Joan agrees to have sex with a sought-after Jaguar client in exchange for a partnership in Sterling Cooper; in the saddest scene in the series’ entire run, she undresses for the piggy client, he puts a jeweled necklace around her throat, and we see in her eyes that she knows exactly what she has become.

In the same episode, there’s a horrifying moment when Peggy clashes with Don over her request for more autonomy and he responds by throwing cash in her face. By the end of that episode, Peggy has accepted a copy chief position at a rival agency for more money, and Don is kissing her hand, with tears in his eyes. It’s a courtly, almost fatherly, gesture. But as poignant as their truce is, it’s also another signal that Don is out of step with a changing society. He is unable to relate to women as equals. And it’s clear (to both of them) that, in ambition, creativity and nerve, Peggy is his equal. There is only room for one of them at Sterling Cooper. But in moving on to a newer, younger, agency, Peggy outstrips Don. He’s the relic, and time is increasingly catching up with him. Peggy is the future.

That future comes to fruition in the beautiful, brilliant ad campaign she devises for Burger Chef in “The Strategy” from the final season. All of the previous Burger Chef ideas, including Don’s, were rooted in shame, fixated on masking uncomfortable truths about societal changes pulling at American families. Who resorts to fast food for dinner? Working mothers. And whatever happened to the ideal of a family sitting down together, without Dad working late or the kids glued to the TV?  Peggy’s breakthrough on the campaign comes when she stops trying to shoehorn the family reality of 1969 into nostalgic ideals of the past. She creates a campaign revolving around the notion that every table at Burger Chef is “the family table” in an oasis of calm. She takes what was once looked down upon as a sign of slovenly housekeeping and turns it into a positive. These families are not “broken.” Our idea of what constitutes a family is.

As a woman who has chosen work over motherhood, but has a psuedo-mother-son relationship with a little boy in her apartment building, Peggy gets it. Family is where you find it. And the episode’s last pullback shot of Peggy, Don and Pete sitting down to a meal at Burger Chef glows with the prescience of Peggy’s vision: Work families, friend-families, unconventional families are no less a family.

In the episode “Lost Horizon,” Peggy and Don have parallel moments where they face down their secrets and make peace with them. Peggy tells Stan, her platonic friend, about her out-of-wedlock child; she may never have another, and it hurts, but maybe not every woman has to be a mother to be fulfilled. Maybe there’s no such thing as having it all. Meanwhile, Don is in the process of shedding the armor of his false identity. On the same night, Don has a ghostly visitation from the deceased Bert Cooper, while Peggy has a surreal encounter with Roger Sterling in the emptied, half-dismantled offices of Sterling Cooper. The founders are passing their respective torches, and it’s fitting that Don appears on his way to disappearing, while Peggy, after an inebriated pep talk from the non-conforming Sterling, emerges as the surviving soul of the defunct firm.

In an indelible scene (Elisabeth Moss absolutely nails it), Peggy shows up for work at McCann-Erickson the next morning, wearing dark sunglasses to hide her Sterling-sized hangover, a cigarette dangling Draper-like from the corner of her mischievously grinning mouth. Her hips sway as she strolls down the corridor holding a cardboard box of her possessions, with Bert Cooper’s prized erotic Japanese painting of a woman being pleasured by an octopus under her arm. Peggy is the unconventional creative spirit of Sterling Cooper gearing up to raise hell inside the advertising factory that is McCann.

What’s ahead for Peggy in the series finale? I’m betting that there’s a jump in time and when we next see her, she’ll be running her own agency. Olson, Holloway anybody?

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

 

 

The death of Don Draper, Part 2: Purgatory

King of the road
King of the road

 

The next-to-last episode of Mad Men, “The Milk and Honey Route,” which aired May 10, takes its title from hobo lore. Sociologist/hobo Nels Anderson (under the pseudonym “Dean Stiff”) explained the phrase in 1931 in his “The Milk and Honey Route: A Handbook for Hobos”:

Often the hobos speak of a railroad as a “milk and honey route.” The original milk and honey route was a railroad from Salt Lake City southward through the valleys of Utah. Along this line were the Mormon villages so euphoniously named, Moroni, Manti, Nephi, Lehi and Juab. In the early days, before the Latter Day Saints got disillusioned by the great influx of bums and yeggs, or, what is worse, the auto tramps, this was the greatest feeding ground for hobos. Hence the name, milk and honey route, which has since become a household term among hobos. Any railroad running through a valley of plenty may be called a milk and honey line. But this is a transient term; what may be a milk and honey route to one hobo may not be so to another.

In “The Hobo Code” episode in season one, Don gets high on weed and flashes back to an incident from his childhood, where a hobo gives the young Dick Whitman his first glimpses of the possibility of escape and reinvention. Dick/Don has lived by that code ever since.  “The Milk and Honey Route” echoes back to “The Hobo Code,” and also continues Don Draper’s flight from himself which began the week before in episode 12, “Lost Horizon.” (See The Death of Don Draper.)

“The Milk and Honey Route” finds Don stranded in an Oklahoma backwater when his Cadillac breaks down. He takes a room at a roadside motel, and the vibe is unsettling — as in “Twin Peaks” unsettling — from the git-go. The motel is a log-cabin and pine affair run by a suspiciously folksy old husband and wife. The handyman is a fledgling con artist who mistakes Don for an easy mark. (The actor who plays the con artist bears more than a fleeting resemblance to Dana Ashbrook, who played delinquent teen Bobby Briggs on Twin Peaks.) The repair of Don’s car drags on and on, while the motel owners inveigle him into attending a fundraiser for a war vet at the VFW.  At the VFW, he gets drunk with a group of old soldiers, one of whom was, like Dick Whitman, a Korean War vet. Without fully confessing to identity theft, Don acknowledges aloud for the first time in the series, the stroke of luck that ended his war: “I killed my CO. I dropped my lighter and it blew him apart.”

Later, he’s accused of stealing money from the benefit and beaten by the vets, who take away his car keys. The only way Don can leave is to find the stolen money. He doesn’t have to look far; the young con man has taken it, and Don leans on him to cough it up. The ambitious, rough-hewn kid clearly reminds Don of himself, and in a scene heavy with meaning, Don offers to drive the kid to the bus stop on his way out of town. But when they arrive at the deserted roadside stop, Don hands over the keys to the kid: “License and registration are in the glove box.” Like the hobo from his childhood, Don passes on the gift and secret of the road to the kid. Don takes a seat on the bus stop bench, while the kid drives off in the Cadillac, which is the last outward vestige of “Don Draper.”

There’s another haunting callback to the past in that final shot of Don, smiling under a wide sky in the middle of nowhere. His possessions are contained in one Sears shopping bag, a far cry from the Samsonite suitcase that provided a touchstone moment in the season 4 episode “The Suitcase,” in which Don gets news of the death of the real Don Draper’s widow, Anna. In “The Milk and Honey Route,” Dick/Don unloads the last of the baggage of his past and his deception, the suitcase replaced by a paper bag, the Caddy by a bus. He is free at last.

“The Milk and Honey Route” also called back to “The Doorway” from season 6. That pivotal episode, which sets up the long dark night of the soul from which Don has now emerged, opens with him reading Dante’s Inferno (a gift from his extramarital lover Sylvia) on the beach in Hawaii. So it’s no accident that “The Milk and Honey Route,” with its endless waiting and surreal, disorienting tone, felt like Don/Dick in Purgatory. There’s a moment in the episode where Don hangs out by the motel pool and is stunned by the sight of a beautiful brunette sunbathing. He considers her hungrily, but then her husband and kids arrive and Don turns away. He resists the temptation. This moment, and his truth-telling at the VFW hall, might have been the actions that tip the scales in his favor, that clear the way for his passage from Purgatory. When he hands off the Cadillac — registered to Don Draper — to the kid, it’s his final act of coming clean, of skin-shedding. Next stop, transcendence?

***

I have the strong suspicion that next week’s series finale will be set some years on from where the series is now (Fall, 1970), which means, it will be after the death of Betty Draper Francis. Matthew Weiner dropped quite the bombshell in “The Milk and Honey Route” when he revealed that Betty is suffering from metastasized lung cancer. It’s not a random diagnosis; Betty smokes cigarettes throughout the series, Don works on ad campaigns that glamorize cigarettes. You could read her illness as this: Being married to Don has, literally, poisoned her.

But Betty, with her icy propriety, has always been a throwback to an era of remote femininity. Remember that line about the hobos: “What may be a milk and honey route to one hobo may not be so to another.” Betty reaches her Land of Milk and Honey, twice, in marrying two handsome men who provide her with wealth, children and status. But her tragedy is that she was never able to quell the messy emotions and ambitions required of her to play the part of the Perfect Middle-Class Suburban Wife and Mother.

Betty has a college degree, as she often reminded people, but was never encouraged to use it. She could never quietly tolerate Don’s infidelity. She replaces Don immediately with another knight in shining armor, rather than embracing the role of single mother (as Trudy Campbell did). And she has been, at times, a terrible mother, angry, cold, selfish, taking out her unhappiness on her children, particularly on Sally. Betty learns, too late, what Peggy already has — that not every woman is cut out to be a mother, that there is no such thing as having it all. But Betty does learn it. Thankfully, for Sally’s sake, “The Milk and Honey Route” finds Betty expressing her love and approval to Sally at the eleventh hour, writing her a note that tells her that she admires her for marching to the beat of her own drummer. And though she left her self-actualization as a mature returning student until it was too late, the last shot (maybe forever) we have of Betty alive is her slow climb up a staircase to her college class, breathless from the cancer. But still she ascends, lit from above.

Well, if Weiner is taking the Dante’s Inferno metaphors literally, Don is going to need a Beatrice to guide him through Paradise.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

The death of Don Draper

The artist formerly known as “Don Draper”?

“Lost Horizon,” which aired on May 3, would have made a terrific final episode of Mad Men. There are two more to go, but that episode felt like we were seeing the character known as “Don Draper” evaporate before our eyes.

Ever since the series’  season 6 opener “The Doorway” (the Hawaii episode), Mad Men has been about Don Draper losing his carefully constructed sense of self. Money and success do not bring happiness. In episode 10 of the current season, “The Forecast,” Don sells his penthouse in the wake of his divorce from Megan (her mother has had her revenge by selling off all of Don’s furniture), and the realtor tells Don that it’s a hard sell, because his empty living room looks sad. Don counters, “A lot of wonderful things happened here.” But I can’t think of a single one, can you? That line might have been the last shriveled leaf of self-delusion clinging to the wintry branches that are Don Draper.

Ever since it began in 2007, Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men has told a beautifully intricate story about transformation and reinvention. On one level, it portrays an era — the 1960’s —  when the world took a giant leap into the new, when American society and culture underwent a sea change. It was still a white man’s world in which to pursue the American Dream, but women, minorities and youth, were knocking at the gates of privilege. The meaning of the American Dream, the sureness of the American purpose and individual ideas about right and wrong, about expected life paths, were all in flux.

Mad Men used advertising as the lens through which to view the pop culture-driven ’60s. It gave us advertising as the purveyor of the American Dream, the great tempter, the seller of false aspirations, but also, advertising as an art form, a kind of poetry attaching desires and emotions to objects, making those objects symbols of deep, inarticulate yearnings.

But at its core, Mad Men was about Don Draper, the ultimate self-made man. Born with the inelegant moniker “Dick Whitman,” “Don Draper” is a Gatsby for our time. Don spent the greater part of Mad Men running away from himself. Dick Whitman was raised in a brothel, unwanted and unloved. He was a coward in the Korean War, a deserter who stole the identity of another man killed in the war. Dick was a hermit crab of a man, hiding inside “Don Draper.” Freed from the shame, insecurity and self-loathing of his early life, Don Draper is Dick Whitman’s American Dream made flesh. Draped across Dick Whitman’s frame, Don is an advertisement for himself; he is a masterpiece, a performance piece, and he’s dazzling, tall and handsome and manly, with just the right touch of mystery, so that people look at him and see the archetypical American hero. Inside Don Draper’s skin, Dick is free to express his poet’s soul, and to pursue his longing for home, roots, family, love — all the things little Dick never had. And Dick/Don’s story meshes perfectly with the stories that advertisers need to tell. Don is a walking lie telling beautiful lies to a culture hungry to hear lies.

But inside the impeccable gray-suited prince of Madison Avenue, all was turmoil. The great achievement of Jon Hamm’s acting is his ability to play a man acting as if he’s supremely comfortable in his own skin — virile, in control — and then slowly, through the smallest of changes (like that thing he does where he shows you fear in his eyes and his face suddenly looks ravaged), lets his character’s uncertainty slip through. Inside Don Draper, Dick Whitman will not be still. He sabotages his marriages, he cheats, he lies, he drinks. Enough is never enough to silence the self-doubt and the urge to self-destruct. In the ’60s, America was coming apart from within. And so was Don Draper.

The long unraveling begins in the long opening sequence of “The Doorway,” in which Don doesn’t speak a word, as if he’s sleepwalking through his dream life. He woos Sheraton officials in Honolulu, he smokes dope and makes love with his young wife, actress Megan Calvet. He stares inscrutably at the surf. Toward the end of the episode, he pitches a strange and disturbing ad campaign for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. His prototype shows a drawing of a beach, a man’s clothing discarded on the sand, footprints leading to the ocean, with the tag line “Hawaii. The Jumping Off Point.”  It was suicidal, in every sense of the word.

That scene (as well as the “falling man” imagery of the show’s opening credits) was echoed in “Lost Horizon,” when Don is shown to his new office at McCann-Erickson (Sterling Cooper has been subsumed by the parent company) and he touches the skyscraper window and it unexpectedly rattles. Startled, Don jumps back. It would be so easy.

I have the feeling that everything from Hawaii on is Don Draper wrestling with Dick Whitman for control. Don begins to show his age, looking tired, haggard. He loses Megan because he can’t rein in his desire for new romantic conquests, can’t stop following his Dick. Don drinks, messily, spectacularly. His hands shake. He sabotages a pitch meeting with Hershey’s by blurting out a confession about his hidden past, recounting how, as a child, he received Hershey bars from the whores for good behavior. Is it Don, trying to patch up his facade, who subsequently humbles himself to accept his suspension from Sterling Cooper, and to pledge sobriety and re-dedicate himself to Megan? Or is it Dick, trying to come clean? It’s unclear who means to obliterate who.  But one thing is clear: Whether metaphorically or literally, “Don Draper” is not going to get out of this show alive.

In the first of the seventh season’s final episodes, “Severance,” Don — or perhaps, Dick — considers the road not taken, as he becomes simultaneously obsessed with a depressed, cryptic waitress named Diana (like Don/Dick, a runaway from her life), and Rachel Mencken, the department store heiress with whom he had an affair in earlier seasons. While pursuing Diana, Don dreams of Rachel, and when he tries to track the latter down, learns that she has recently died.

The timing of Don’s interest in Diana/Rachel is interesting. Separated from Megan, Don appears to be flying on automatic pilot in his attempts to quickly replace her with another brunette. He seems genuinely shocked when he hears of Rachel’s death; his desire for a do-over with the brunette not taken hits a dead end. And so he woos Diana harder, but his wealth and charm appear to have no affect on piercing her aura of profound sadness and mystery.

There’s a comical moment in “New Business,” episode 9 of the current season, where Diana calls Don in the middle of the night, waking him from a sound sleep. He asks her to come over, but in the next scene, he answers the door of his apartment fully dressed in his usual crisp suit and tie, hair perfectly groomed. At least, I thought it was comical when I first saw it. But the more this half-season has progressed, the more haunting and significant that scene now seems to me. Don — or should we call him Dick? — is desperately trying to keep up appearances, to keep being Don Draper. The suit is key. It’s always been his “Don Draper” skin. But now, Diana takes a look at him and laughs.

In “Lost Horizon,” there’s another resonant “suit” scene where Don’s boss at McCann tells him that he’s expected to turn on the dazzle at a big meeting with Miller Beer, and Don automatically produces the Don Draper smile and announces, “I’m Don Draper from McCann Erickson”. Except that Hamm perfectly calibrates the moment, overdoing it just the tiniest bit, so that it feels and looks as if Don (Dick?) has to work harder to sound convincing to himself. Don is not quite Don anymore, and all the outer trappings of being Don Draper are revealed as mere costumery. He is an empty suit.

In the extraordinary Miller pitch scene that follows, Don looks around at his McCann peers, all with pens raised, an identical white, male, necktie-sporting mass. He (and we) see advertising for the first time on the series not as a juicy, brainy creative endeavor but as a cold calculation, a predatory activity. Detached, Don  turns to gaze out the window at a plane flying over the Empire State Building, and something springs to light in his eyes. He gets up and slips silently out of the meeting, leaving that room as if he’s shedding a skin.

Don goes to visit ex-wife Betty, intending to drive daughter Sally to boarding school, but Sally has already left, and his sons are out at their little-boy activities. He has no place there and is unneeded. He’s also homeless;  he’s living at a hotel while his realtor and secretary find and decorate his new apartment. Diana has disappeared, with no forwarding address. And Sterling Cooper is no more. So Don does what he does best — he runs away.

Driving on an impulse to Wisconsin to track down Diana’s ex-husband, Don has a bleary, night-driving visitation from the deceased Bert Cooper, who last appeared to Don as a ghost singing “The moon belongs to everyone, the best things in life are free” — quite a statement for a man who founded a firm dedicated to selling and consumption. I think “Lost Horizon” is Don’s Road to Damascus moment. Don appears to have lost his religion for advertising, appears to be considering Spectral Cooper’s newfound renunciation of the material world.

When Don gets to Diana’s ex’s house, he bluffs his way in by claiming to be “Bill Phillips” of Miller Beer, there to inform Diana that hers is the winning entry in a contest for a new refrigerator. But the ex-husband is not fooled. Don’s (last?) attempt at identity-assuming, something he has previously been so successful at doing, falls flat. In the episode’s final shot, Don picks up a hippie hitchhiker and agrees to take him to St. Paul, and they drive off down the straight, open, empty highway. My wild guess is that we’ll never see Don among his Sterling Cooper cohort again. We may well have seen the last of “Don Draper,” entirely. The question is, does this man have one more reinvention left in him?

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

(Thoughts on Peggy to come …)

 

 

Pop quiz

lana

Lyrics to “The Oogum Boogum Song”* or fashions at a summer music festival?

1. Your high-heeled boots with your hip-hugger suit

2. That cute miniskirt with your brother’s sloppy shirt

3. Nose ring, dreads, British barrister wig on your head

4. Your pink cowboy hat, mini-romper, fanny pack

5. Your bell-bottom pants (I just stand there in a trance)

6. Those big earrings, long hair and things

7. Your cute tank top, sideboob about to pop

8. Your gladiator shoes with your Batgirl Underoos

9. That macrame dress (girl, you’re such a hot mess)

10. That cute trench coat and you’re standin’ and posin’ (you got soul, you got too much soul)

11. Floaty scarves all around —that’s it, just a bunch of scarves?

12. That Fedora from Kohl’s (girl, you’re so rock and roll)

13. Your red union suit with your KISS army boots

14. Your hair like Haim, stripey cardigan like Mayim

15. Your cute flower crown and your see-through hippie gown (get out the way, for Miss del Ray)

16. Not Your Daughter’s Jeans and an E Street Band tee —Mom???

*A 1967 Billboard Top 40 hit single written and recorded by R&B/soul singer Brenton Wood (real name: Alfred Smith). It was resurrected in 2014 for a Kia K900 commercial featuring LeBron James.

(Answer key: 1,2,5,6,10 – lyrics)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

Outlander’s day of reckoning

THIS face. ©Starz
THIS face. ©Starz

Ever since I first read Outlander, I’ve wondered how the book’s notorious spanking scene in Chapter 22 (“Reckonings”) could be brought to life, should any filmmaker be brave (or foolish) enough to take it on. How would this scene, in which a husband in 1743 Scotland applies heavy-handed discipline to his modern-thinking wife (she, is, after all, a time traveler from 1945 England), play out on screen? Would it be cut entirely? Or would the filmmakers risk the show losing viewers and becoming a social media outrage du jour? Would Outlander be slapped with the scarlet letter “P” for “problematic” — the new word used to shame entertainment that doesn’t adhere to a strict and ever-widening list of “appropriateness”?

If you’ve read my previous Outlander pieces, you know that I have no problem with That Scene. When I first encountered the scene in the first book of Diana Gabaldon’s much-loved series, I weighed my feminist convictions against my weakness for well-written, big, sexy historical yarns and, well, guilty pleasure won. Individual responses to the scene will differ and, you know what? That’s OK. We’re not all wired up the same.

But I’m just going to throw this out there: Nobody ever seems to get riled up about all the other spankings in the novel Outlander. And there is a lot of spanking, and talking about spanking, and Jamie remembering past spankings he’s received, going on in the book (so far, none of this has made it to TV).  In Dragonfly in Amber (Book 2) and Voyager (Book 3), Jamie is forever being asked to administer spankings (to his surrogate son and his nephew), or is volunteering to take disciplinary whippings to spare the men in his charge. (Interestingly, in Dragonfly, Claire asks him to beat her, but he refuses. I won’t spoil the book for those who haven’t gotten there yet by saying more.) There is a kinky pulse thumping through the novels’ historical romance/fantasy/bodice-ripping heart, and maybe that’s the dirty little secret of why so many women love them.

The other reason might be Jamie himself. Boyish, courageous and built like a ginger Adonis, Jamie is not just a sympathetic romantic hero, he’s an unabashed object of fetishization, as you’ll presumably see as the TV series goes along. (And if you want to talk “problematic,” just wait.) The normally courtly and sweet Jamie spanking Claire is the scene that gets all the attention; some readers are turned on by it, some see it as violence against women. But in the grand scheme of all things Outlander, Jamie is the victim, the one who suffers gruesome physical abuse in the books, not just once, but over and over. Even I have to admit, it’s weird. The irresistible quirky pull of the novels, though, lies in how fluidly Jamie and Claire keep swapping roles as the “damsel in distress” figure and the hero, and how they take turns rescuing one another.

Now, on to Episode 9, called “The Reckoning,” which aired last Saturday. The spanking scene remained, more or less as was written in the book. We saw the set-up in Episode 8, in the first half of this season; Claire ignores Jamie’s order to wait for him in the woods while he and his highlanders go off in pursuit of the one man who might be able to clear Jamie’s name as an outlaw wanted for murder. One bit of dialogue from the book was left out of Episode 8, however  — Jamie warning Claire that if she strayed from her hiding place, he would “tan your bare arse wi’ my sword belt.” I wish that line had stayed; it prepared viewers unfamiliar with the book for what was ahead, rather than having the spanking scene come out of nowhere. I think it would have also signaled to the Outlander uninitiated that the upcoming scene was not intended to be consensual sex-play.

Anyway, Claire, who hasn’t accepted the strictures placed on women in 18th century society and is subservient to no man, least of all her husband, wanders off towards the standing stones that might take her back to her own time, and is captured by Redcoats. She’s taken to Fort William, to Commander Black Jack Randall, Jamie’s old torturer and enemy, and that’s where Episode 8 ends.

Episode 9, which premiered after a months-long promo campaign, opens not with Jamie and his men busting in and rescuing Claire from Randall’s attempted rape, but with an interesting change in narrative perspective from Claire’s voice to Jamie’s. We’ve been seeing the action through Claire’s sensibilities all along, which is also how the book is structured. But in changing this episode to Jamie’s story, the material from Chapter 22 becomes his meditation on what it means to be a man. The first scene of the episode echoes Claire’s opening narration from the first episode of the series (“It’s funny the things you remember …”), except it’s Jamie saying those words, over a visual of him pensively skimming rocks in a stream. Then there’s a flashback  to the rescue at Fort William, and a ferocious verbal battle between Jamie and Claire after they’ve gotten well away.

Jamie and Claire’s fight scene lifts whole passages of dialogue from the book, and actors Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe generate astounding heat as their characters tear into each other with almost palpable anger. Jamie tells her that, as his wife, she must do as he says, and Claire screams back, her face contorted in magnificent contempt, “Your wife! Your wife! You don’t care a thing about me! I’m just your property! … As long as I’m there to warm your bed, you don’t care what I think or how I feel! That’s all a wife is to you — something to stick your cock into when you feel the urge!”

Of course, Claire has succinctly described the societal norm for husbands and wives in Jamie’s time, one which the naive Jamie (he’s four years younger than Claire) has never questioned before. When he sees Claire’s contempt, he suddenly sinks down on a rock in confusion and frustration. It’s all there in the book, but on film, it becomes an even more powerful moment; it contextualizes the spanking scene, when it comes, as Jamie’s last stand, his attempt to regain his sense of self according to the ideas of manhood as he’s internalized them. She put the men in danger and if Jamie doesn’t make her pay for it, he loses their respect.

As for the spanking scene … In the book, we’re inside Claire’s head, and her narrative voice flits between shock, guilt, humiliation and anger (“Whatever the justice of the situation — and I had to admit that at least some of it lay on his side — my sense of amour-propre was deeply offended at the thought of being beaten, by whomever, and for whatever reason. I felt deeply betrayed by the man I depended on as friend, protector and lover …”). On TV, Balfe expresses all of those feelings in her face, but it’s not the same as hearing her say them. This is the one point where I wish this episode didn’t have a flip in narrative voice.

I’m still not feeling the sprightly jig that strikes up on the soundtrack at the moment Claire twigs that Jamie is serious. I first thought the lively music was what turns the scene a bit too Kiss Me Kate, but then I watched the scene with the sound off and it looks the same, so the lightness must come from the way the scene is choreographed. Jamie’s facial expressions are not menacing, they’re more sheepish, pleading, comically exasperated — why won’t she let him do his duty? Claire fights back hard (in the book, she first agrees to her punishment, but on screen, there is no acquiescence), and there’s a nicely-timed kick upside the head, but eventually, the brawl ends with Jamie the victor, and the strap comes down.

Props to the TV team for not copping out and doing something dumb like coyly placing the spanking off camera. And props for allowing Jamie his believable gleam of sexual arousal at the end (“I said I would have to punish you. I didn’t say I wouldn’t enjoy it”). But the tone of the scene is undeniably lighter than in the book, and I’m not sure that playing it for comedy helps make the whole regressive “wives as infantile property” stuff more palatable. Adapting this scene was always going to be a no-win situation. And so it was.

The real meat of the episode, though, is Jamie and Claire’s reconciliation that comes a few frosty days later, after they’ve reached Jamie’s clan home, Castle Leoch. Claire has refused to sleep with Jamie since the spanking, leaving him more confused over the remorse he’s feeling. Wasn’t he simply doing his duty as a man?  In the episode, Jamie has an epiphany when he sees Colum McKenzie, who is the leader of the clan and his uncle, bend on a point of honor in order to keep peace within the clan. Jamie tells Claire that he punished her because that’s what he’s been taught a man should do, “but for you and me, maybe it has to go a different way.” He kneels and swears an oath on his knife (a serious thing for a highlander) that he will never beat her again. When she’s slow to forgive him, he sorrowfully asks her if she wants to live apart. Balfe has another outstandingly transparent moment here, when her conflicting emotions are all there on her face. “I feel that’s what I should want,” she says. But after a long pause, she adds, “But I don’t.”

“I feel that’s what I should want … but I don’t.” That line gorgeously sums up the conflict between what Claire knows should be her appropriate response in accordance with the social norms of her time, and what she really, viscerally wants, which is, to be with Jamie. It also nicely parallels Jamie’s realization that he doesn’t have to live in a prison of rigid cultural expectations. (Apply it to our own times, if you’re so inclined.) This is the moment when the balance of power in Outlander evens out;  Jamie realizes that Claire is making him into a new kind of man, and it intrigues him, and Claire realizes that, in her fantastic trek through time, she has met her sexual, spiritual equal. They make up, they get naked and have a long, stunningly naturalistic bout of lovemaking (rapidly becoming the show’s specialty) that mirrors the spanking brawl in its acrobatic carnality.

But not before Claire straddles Jamie, holds his knife to his throat and tells him that if he ever raises a hand to her again, she’ll cut out his heart and have it for breakfast.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

(Not) Record Store Day 2015

 

Desi and Marnie in happier days (Photo © HBO)
Desi and Marnie in happier times (Photo © HBO)

 

(FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE — APRIL 1) Record Store Day is April 18, 2015, and this year’s celebration of independent music sellers promises to be the best ever. Why? Because Record Store Day 2015 Ambassador Dave Grohl is included FREE with every purchase!  At last, you won’t have to endure the wait for Dave’s TV appearances, which can sometimes occur hours apart!  The inexhaustible Foo Fighters frontman will come to your house, wherever you are, and do whatever you want! He’ll organize your vinyl collection so the rare stuff is placed in just the right spot for your friends to notice your awesome taste –not too near to the top, where it looks like you’re trying too hard, but not buried in the back of the crate, either. He’ll clean out your garage. He’ll drive Grandma to the foot doctor. He’ll even DJ at your daughter’s bat mitzvah. And he’ll do it all with a big toothy smile, because that’s the way he rolls! And best of all, he won’t leave!  You can hint, you can plead, you can even call the cops, but how much do you wanna bet the cops end up jamming with him? His energy is THAT infectious!

Here are some late additions not really to the totally fake list of Record Store Day 2015 special releases, as of April 1 get it?:

Various Artists, Saturday Afternoon at the Guitar Center. An exclusive compilation of live performances by the best unsigned musicians around!  Tracks include some of the guitar solo from “Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love” by the retired firefighter down the street; the opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven” by the guy who gives guitar lessons at the Senior Center; something that might be “Master of Puppets,” it’s hard to tell, by the scary Peterson kid; a three-year-old having a tantrum on the floor while her brother pounds on a djembe;  the intro to “Crazy Train” by that weird guy over there in the Slayer T-shirt; and the chords to “Heart of Gold” by your mom. Each album comes with a commemorative extended warranty and a ukulele.

U2, Songs of Innocence (Deluxe Version with 10 Bonus Tracks). FREE to anyone who visits a local independent music seller on Record Store Day! You don’t even have to buy anything to receive this exclusive gift from the legendary Irish rockers;  just cross the threshold of a record store and it’s yours! Seriously, you will not be allowed to leave the premises until you’ve accepted your copy. Too busy to stop by? No worries! We’ll find you! We have your Apple accounts! We know where you live! Slainte!

Various Artists, Lost in Greenpoint: The Songs of Desi and Marnie.  Producer T Bone Burnett and a host of roots-ish superstars celebrate the short-lived but influential Brooklyn duo whose sound defined modern American folk music with an indie edge. Or were they more, like, “She & Him” with actual romance? You decide! Guided by newly discovered demos recorded during the duo’s heyday in the early-2015’s, Lost in Greenpoint is a vision of what might have been if Desi hadn’t disappeared right before the couple’s big record company showcase. Features Desi and Marnie’s timeless words and music performed by Mumford and Sons (“Song for Marcus Garvey”), Bon Iver (“Oaxaca Blues”),  the Decemberists (“Rattlesnake Cowgirl”), Of Monsters and Men (“Kokopelli Shelly”) and First Aid Kit (“Whoa, Wow, Wonderful”), among others, as well as a bonus track (“Close Up”) by 12-time Grammy-winning solo artist Marnie herself. (Desi, who now fronts a Lumineers cover band, refused to participate in the project, citing “negative energy”. Plus, he’s just a big douche.) This exclusive Record Store Day release features passionate liner notes by the mayor of New York City, Ray Ploshansky.

The Estate of Marvin Gaye, You’ve Been Served: The Lawsuit Album. Includes remixes, greatest hits and unreleased cease and desist orders against Prince, Usher, Justin Timberlake and the estate of Michael Jackson.

Bruce Springsteen, The First Seven Albums: The Remastered Remasters of the Remasters. Are you a Springsteen fan in your 40s who wishes you were born 10 years earlier? Are you an older fan who dreams of going back to your youth, when life still sucked, but not as much as it sucks now? Well, this Record Store Day, you can finally purchase Greetings from Asbury Park (1973) through Born in the USA (1984) in a vinyl format that faithfully reproduces the experience of listening to the Boss’s seminal albums of the ’70s and ’80s — just as if it were the ’70s and ’80s! All seven albums are re-released on crap-quality floppy vinyl distressed with pops and skips. Authentic smudges of Clearasil, burger grease and human tears adorn the covers, poignant reminders of that time Bruce helped get you through some really heavy shit. Super-collectible random copies feature the name of an older sibling scrawled in ballpoint pen on the top left back corner.

Record Store Day wouldn’t be complete without these exclusive singles and reissues!

  •  50 Cent featuring Ringo Starr (“Hey Kanye, I Have a Beatle Too!” b/w “Octopus’s Garden”)
  • George Ezra featuring Dave Matthews and a screaming goat (the folk classic “Wimoweh” b/w a cover of Focus’s “Hocus Pocus”)
  • The 20th anniversary reissue of Bryan Adams’ “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?,” the Oscar nominated theme song to the Johnny Depp-Marlon Brando classic Don Juan DeMarco. The limited edition single features Adams’ original track on one side and a newly discovered version by Depp (with Brando on bongos) on the other.
  • The 20th anniversary reissue of “Peaches” by The Presidents of the United States of America, b/w the dub step remix. Pressed on cannabis-resin vinyl.

Do you miss those classic all-star charity releases of the ’80s? Well, this year’s Record Store Day includes TWO exciting new supergroup projects for a good cause! Jay Z, Beyonce, Kanye West, Madonna, Jack White and many others join forces under the banner of Artists United Against Spotify for an exclusive single! “Do They Know It’s Christmas (and There Ain’t No Santa Claus)?” b/w “I’m Just a Water Bill” aims to raise money for impoverished millionaire music-makers while also teaching them basic life skills. Available in two limited-edition vinyl formats: 200 gram pressing ($20) and paper plate with grooves drawn on it in Magic Marker ($10).  Meanwhile, Dick Aid features Eminem, Robin Thicke, Chris Brown, Adam Levine and more in an all-star benefit for victims of feminism. This special four-and-a-half-inch single features the Dick Aid anthem “We Own the World” b/w a Diplo remix of “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” All proceeds will be donated to the Bill Cosby Defense Fund.

(Record Store Day is April 18, 2015 — for real. You can find the complete list of actual RSD 2015 releases here.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015