We’re all Buffy now

I’m sorry I haven’t written here in months. I’ve been having trouble focussing on the things that used to be so important to me. Music, TV, arguing about the fine points thereof … that was life before. Now, I spend more time glued to Resistance Twitter and poring over the Washington Post and New York Times for glimmers of hope that our national nightmare will end in something other than an ignorant, grifting fascist tweeting us into nuclear war.

But I was roused from my tunnel-vision by the realization that there is a meaningful anniversary to mark this week. Twenty years ago, on March 10, 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on The WB. At the time, I was the TV critic for Salon, and writing about BtVS and its darkly satisfying vampire/detective-noir spinoff Angel was one of the greatest pleasures of my career. Both shows still rank in my Top 10 of the best TV dramas ever.

Throughout its six-year run, BtVS remained a cult hit on the WB and (for the final two years) UPN, marginal broadcast networks that didn’t even reach every major market; the show never cracked the top tier of the Nielsen ratings, never earned any major Emmy nominations (star Sarah Michelle Gellar did pick up one Golden Globe nomination). Rich in mythology, seeded with zingy pop culture references and crackling humor, the then-singular tone of BtVS would have been perfect for Netflix or Amazon, but those cachet-dripping alt-TV platforms had yet to be invented. The influence of BtVS, though, reverberated through the past two decades in shows about uncommon young women (and their friends) fighting seemingly unbeatable evils, from Veronica Mars to Orphan Black to Supergirl to The Good Place. 

The tale of Buffy Summers was a feminist hero’s journey; the snarky California teen grappled with her responsibilities as the once-in-a-generation Chosen girl tasked with protecting the world from the supernatural evil known in the show’s shorthand as “The Big Bad.” Created by Joss Whedon, BtVS mashed together a slew of genres — sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, John Hughes teen angst, Anne Rice vampire hotness — into something thrillingly new.

There were moments of genuine terror, of both the scary-monster variety (all these years later, the free-floating, skeletal “Gentlemen” still give me the creeps) and the quiet, personal kind (the premature death of Buffy’s mom). The empowerment of women, their strength, courage and sexual agency, was a central theme of the series. Not that the show put Buffy on a pedestal. She was Chosen, but she was also a poignantly human young woman. She struggled with being a savior;  she sometimes made bad choices that hurt the people she loved, and herself. She was realistically imperfect, and as the series went on, we watched her come to terms with her imperfections and her life (and death).

One of Buffy’s flaws was that she took too much on her shoulders, shutting out the loyal members of her “Scooby Gang.” The Scoobies each had a role to play in saving the world from the demons that issued forth from the Hellmouth beneath Sunnydale, Buffy’s suburban hometown. This misfit gang was named for the crew in Scooby-Doo, which itself borrowed from Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars. Buffy’s Scoobies included a Jewish-computer-geek- lesbian-witch (the incomparable Willow Rosenberg, played by Alyson Hannigan), a proper British middle-aged librarian (Rupert Giles, played by Anthony Stewart Head), a mean girl (Cordelia Chase, played by Charisma Carpenter), a loyal platonic guy friend (Xander Harris, played by Nicholas Brendon), and a platinum-haired punk vampire (Spike, played by James Marsters) with whom Buffy indulged in a masochistic affair that even now retains its power to polarize fans.

Despite their differences, the Scoobies were a true community; in fact, their power derived from the linked diversity of its members. Willow’s computer skills early in the show and her witchcraft later in the series, Giles’ knowledge of occult arcana, Xander’s selfless dedication — these were just a few of the weapons in Buffy’s arsenal.

I’ve been thinking a lot about BtVS, and Angel since the election. How did this happen to us? How could a cabal of the worst and the ugliest turn our democracy upside down so quickly?  Russia? The KKK? Nazis? It’s as if the Hellmouth opened and set all our existential foes running wild at once.

But if we learned one thing from BtVS and Angel it’s this: We know what a diverse group of people working together for the common good can accomplish.

So much of BtVS and Angel seems astonishingly familiar now. Mike Pence, fronting  homophobic and anti-woman politics with an impossibly tidy veneer of churchgoing blandness, could be a doppelgänger for the creepily paternalistic, gosh-golly Mayor Richard Wilkins of Sunnydale, who lurked through early seasons of BtVS. The Mayor was the Big Bad of season three, secretly fattening up on dark power until he shed his human form and revealed himself as a giant snake bent on destruction. Mr. Vice President, we see you.

Creepy paternalism and rapey and misogynistic men made for a recurring theme throughout the run of BtVS. The Trio, the Big Bad of season six, were three computer game nerds who couldn’t get laid; they developed the magical equivalent of a date rape drug and built robot women (including a robot Buffy) to abuse and debase. (Sound familiar?) Later, in the final season, an army of young women — the entire line of Slayer succession through time — banded together to help Buffy fight Caleb, a misogynistic preacher who railed against “dirty girls” and the primal evil of woman. The preacher was clearly meant as a personification of the religious right’s contempt for women’s rights — contempt that has become bedrock Republican policy today.

Angel, which ran for five seasons on The WB, was even more persistent in weaving social and political commentary into its storylines. One of the most indelible of the show’s story arcs transported the vampire-with-a-soul and his own Scooby Gang into the home dimension of pal  Lorne, a gay, disco-singing demon. In this brutally Medieval shithole, women were regarded as “cows” and there was no music; being able to hear music in his head made Lorne so different, (read, “gay”) as a child, that he’d had to flee this place for his life.  This three-episode arc from season two has only grown more biting with time. And the ending of the last episode of Angel still gives me chills, a tiny band of comrades steeling themselves against dire odds, as every beast and monster ever known is unleashed on Los Angeles. “Personally, I kinda wanna slay the dragon,” says the battered Angel with a grin. “Let’s go to work.” Freeze-frame.

The fact that BtVS and Angel are so on-the-nose in our current political reality is not an accident. As a country, we’ve been locked in the same cultural war — women’s rights, LGBT equality, racial equality on one side, and fear and meanness hiding behind a warped version of evangelical Christianity on the other — for the past two decades. Back then, BtVS and Angel showed us the monsters that lurked beneath the surface of our country. The monsters all out in the open now.

But, on the upside, isn’t it easier to slay the dragon you can see than the one you can’t? Which is why, on this anniversary of the birth of the Buffyverse,  I’m taking solace in the organic Resistance that arose on November 9 and continues every day against xenophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia and, yes, Nazis. The Resistance is the Scooby Gang writ large. We may be snowflakes who watch too much TV, but we know how this story goes. We know the sacrifices and the setbacks. We also know that if we stick together, we will win.

Buffy once said, “I’m the thing the monsters have nightmares about.” The Big Bad that slimed its way into the White House when we were looking the other way? It’s more afraid of us than we are of it.

***

Here are a couple of my favorite BtVS pieces from the vault:

The Death of Buffy’s Mom (Salon, Mar. 12, 2001)

Getting Buffy’s Last Rites Right (New York Times, Apr. 20, 2003)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2017

 

 

No flipping: Garry Shandling, 1949-2016

garry shandling

 

Garry Shandling was a pioneer of TV’s second Golden Age. In 1986, his surreal sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show debuted on Showtime, back in the days when the broadcast networks ruled and pay-cable was thought of as career exile. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which ran until 1990, found stand-up comedian Shandling playing a sitcom version of himself; he frequently broke the fourth wall to directly address viewers, much like another TV pioneer, George Burns, did on The Burns and Allen Show in the ’50s. With episodes broadcast on fledgling Fox a week after they ran on Showtime, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show created just enough buzz to convince viewers that something weird and wonderful was happening on cable, and maybe it was worth paying for.

Between It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and the masterpiece that followed, HBO’s mock-talk show The Larry Sanders Show, Garry Shandling was responsible for some of the most inventive and influential TV of the 1980’s and ’90’s. These two shows were instrumental in changing pay-cable’s image from a purveyor of uncut feature films to a source of original programming that colored outside the lines of broadcast TV.

Even if you’ve never seen either show, you’ve seen their influence. Following a couple of years in the wake of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Seinfeld had a similar neurotic-comedian-playing-himself premise and subversive/quirky comic tone (writers Tom Gammill and Max Pross got their start on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show). Larry David’s later Curb Your Enthusiasm, with its star and celebrity guests playing versions of themselves, hearkens back to both of Shandling’s shows. And Ricky Gervais’s The Office worked both the broken fourth wall angle of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and the uncomfortably awkward emotional tone of Larry Sanders. Among the now-familiar writers and actors who came to prominence working on Shandling’s series are Judd Apatow, Jeffrey Tambor, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Jeremy Piven. Shandling’s two shows jump-started what we now know as the modern TV comedy sensibility — self-reflexive, not afraid to make viewers squirm, with the punchlines unpredictable if there at all.

In a column written for Salon at the end of 1999, I listed The Larry Sanders Show as one of the decade’s most groundbreaking TV shows; it further blurred the boundaries between TV and reality and commented on the pervasiveness of TV in our culture and emotional lives. Shandling’s Larry Sanders was an insecure, egotistical, paranoid late-night talk show host, aloof as Johnny Carson (for whom Shandling often subbed in real life as host of  The Tonight Show), self-loathing as David Letterman and viciously competitive as Jay Leno. Forget psychodrama, I wrote, this was psychocomedy: “Life was a talk show for the emotionally frozen Larry, who couldn’t relate to other humans without a camera running; his producer and father figure Artie (Rip Torn, in one of the most brilliant performances of the decade) called him ‘half-man, half-desk’.”

The Larry Sanders Show was a pitch-dark comedy about Hollywood at its ugliest, where ratings equalled love and everything in Larry’s world came down to maintaining his perch at the top of the celebrity food chain. In the jerk behavior of guests playing themselves on the talk-show-within-a-talk show (Roseanne Barr, Alec Baldwin, Robin Williams, Jon Stewart and David Duchovny are a few of  those who appeared) and in the brutal carelessness with which passive-aggressive Larry treated his sad-sack on-air sidekick Hank Kingsley (an unforgettable Tambor), Larry Sanders anticipated the train wreck appeal of reality TV. And Shandling’s layered performance as a complicated monster who you can’t help cutting slack might have helped ease viewers into the mindset needed to appreciate Tony Soprano when HBO unveiled The Sopranos a year after Larry Sanders‘ final episode.

Even Larry’s talk-show catch phrase — “No flipping,” said directly to the camera while miming a TV remote as the feed cuts to a commercial — commented on the enormous changes TV was undergoing in the ’90s. Before cable and remotes, there weren’t enough channels to even make it worth flipping.

As I wrote in a Salon column about the end of Larry Sanders, “Some of the show’s funniest and sharpest moments — and some of its saddest and most intimate — came when Larry watched himself on the tube. Nothing else turned him on this way; he was enthralled with, in love with, his TV self. Five hours a week he was Larry Sanders; the rest  of the time, he was bored with himself for being human. The paradox of Larry Sanders is this: A show about people too damn famous to have feelings was the one comedy on TV that could make you cry.”

In real life, Shandling was more introspective (he practiced Buddhism for much of his life) than his TV alter ego. After Larry Sanders ended, Shandling kept a low profile, appearing in the occasional movie (Iron Man 2, Dr. Dolittle). He was a recent guest on close friend Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee; ironically, the episode is titled “It’s Great that Garry Shandling Is Still Alive.” His death from a suspected heart attack Thursday at age 66 stunned his fellow comedians, friends and fans. If you care at all about TV’s history, do whatever you can to see full episodes of Shandling’s two series, and give a pioneer his due.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

Alan Rickman: A deep dive

AlanRickmanPictures

Most people have seen Alan Rickman in Die Hard, the Harry Potter movies, Love Actually. In Sense and Sensibility and Galaxy Quest. On The Tonight Show doing hits of helium with Jimmy Fallon.

But Alan Rickman had a long career, and he was game for pretty much anything. As someone who has spent the past 25 years or so in the throes of Rickmania, I’ve seen it all. Here’s a deep dive into some of You Tube’s choicest Rickman obscurities and oddities.

The Four Yorkshiremen. In 2001, Rickman, Eddie Izzard and British TV comedians Vic Reeves and Harry Enfield recreated Monty Python’s immortal “Yorkshiremen” skit at the Secret Policeman’s Ball, held in London to benefit Amnesty International. When Rickman delivers his first line, a huge roar goes up from the arena crowd and Izzard ad libs, “I think Jesus has just come in.”

Revolutionary Witness, “The Preacher,”  1989

Rickman and British playwright Peter Barnes were close friends and frequent collaborators. This short TV film is part of a series of monologues written by Barnes to celebrate the bicentennial of the French Revolution. I know, sounds like a rollicking good time. But I promise, you’ll be hooked from the moment Rickman, as Jacques Roux, a revolutionary and churchman, opens his mouth. This is one of his greatest, most magnetic performances; if I had to choose one video to explain why Alan Rickman mattered, this is it.

Music video, “In Demand,” 2000

The Scottish band Texas’s video has become the stuff of legend among Rickmaniacs. Enjoy.

Girls on Top, “Four-Play” 1985

Girls on Top was a British sitcom written by and starring Tracey Ullman, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders (later of Absolutely Fabulous) and Rickman’s protege, American comedian Ruby Wax. Always ready to help out his friends, Rickman donned a blinding white disco jacket to guest as a Greek con man.

“Plots and Proposals”, Victoria Wood with All the Trimmings, 2000

British comic Victoria Wood, another of Rickman’s friends, wrote a blisteringly funny spoof of Jane Austen in particular and BBC period dramas in general, then got Rickman to essentially send up his Colonel Brandon role from Sense and Sensibility. There are many familiar actors here, including Imelda Staunton and Richard E. Grant, and they all do a bang-up job of keeping a straight face through exchanges such as, “Fetch me my writing mittens, I have letters that will not wait till the warm weather.” “Could you not stick your hands in your muff?” Rickman manages to get through his scenes with Grant without breaking up, but only barely.

Victoria Wood, “All Day Breakfast,” 1992

Rickman proves what a good sport he is in this short send-up of TV morning shows.

“Play,” written by Samuel Beckett,  directed by Anthony Minghella, 2001

And now for something completely different. Rickman, Juliet Stevenson and Kristin Scott-Thomas play a man, his wife and his mistress, squabbling out Beckett’s venomous lines in double-time, while crouched in large urns with their faces painted into a state of decomposition. I didn’t get this play until I saw it performed in this video. Rickman believed that no playwright was too “difficult” to communicate to an audience, and if it was, the actors hadn’t done their jobs.

Painting with Light, in-house commercial for Turner Classic Movies

Rickman talks about his favorite actor, Jimmy Stewart, while drawing with a light pen in one of a series of ads TCM was running in the early ’00s.

“Dust,” a short film by Ben Okrent and Jake Russell, 2014

Rickman was generous with his time and mentorship, often appearing in young filmmakers’ projects just for the asking. In this film, which also stars Jodie Whittaker, he is a silent, menacing and unshaven presence, but wait — there’s a twist.

American Cinematheque Salute to Bruce Willis, 2000

That time Alan Rickman did stand-up comedy as the host of a prime-time TV awards special. And you know what? He killed.

Closing credits, “The Search for John Gissing,” 2001

Rickman donned Peter Sellers glasses and a wardrobe of impeccably cut suits to play the title character in this uneven screwball comedy by director/writer Mike Binder. The ensemble cast performed a dance routine over the closing credits. Rickman, who idolized Fred Astaire, may not have those kinds of moves, but he throws himself into the dance like a hyperactive kid, wholeheartedly abandoning himself to goofiness. There are no traces of the intimidating antagonist, Thinking Woman’s Crumpet or distinguished thespian here. It made me laugh to see it again, the day after his sudden and heartbreaking demise. I hope he’s dancing wherever he is.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

Salon.com turns 20

salon-logo

The trailblazing web site Salon.com celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. I was proud to have been on staff for its debut in November 1995, and it was my regular gig until 2001. From the beginning, traditional media didn’t know what to make of this “left-coast, interactive version of The New Yorker,” as Rolling Stone called us in 1996. Since we actually did think of ourselves as a left-coast, interactive version of The New Yorker, the line felt like a compliment — as long as we ignored the rest of the review, which likened Salon (then called “Salon1999,” because we had not yet been able to wrest the Salon.com domain away from its owner) to the doomed “flying boats” at the dawn of commercial air travel in the 1920s.

Salon’s demise was predicted early and often. And yet, it’s 2015 and Salon lives on. Sadly, a lot of the content from its early years as a webzine has vanished into the ether. It’s still possible to find early issues (Salon published weekly at first) via the Internet Archive, but it takes some sleuthing. [The Internet Archive is in the process of building a search engine for the Wayback Machine, but it won’t be ready until 2017.]

I was Salon’s TV critic from 1995-01, which coincided with some great television; I was privileged to have been able to write frequently about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, The Sopranos, Seinfeld, NYPD Blue and arguably the finest cop drama in TV history, NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street, which was adapted from David (The Wire) Simon’s true stories from Baltimore’s homicide squad.

The first piece I ever wrote for Salon (it ran in the startup issue on Nov. 13, 1995) was about Homicide. The link is gone now, but, pack-rat that I am, I saved hard copies of all my pieces. I guess I didn’t totally trust this Internet thing to be around forever. I’ve scanned the column and posted it below; I’ll try to post others from time to time. For me, Salon was an exciting leap into the unknown. I’m glad it outlived its obituaries.

Scan 2Scan 4

Scan 6

© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

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 headed 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