Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mad Men - The Loss of Failure

AMC’s Mad Men is by far the best drama on television. I meet with a group of women every morning at Starbucks, and at least three times a week those of us following the show do the analysis of the characters and the plots.

Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, “A Night to Remember,” is about failing.

  • Don Draper can look his wife in the eye and lie to the end that he was faithful. But does he love Betty as he says he does? My women friends say he does. I’m not as certain. I think he likes the protective coat of marriage and children—the sense of a “womb with a view” where he can come home and feel safe in the life he has created. Before he is thrown out, Betty finds one of his ad campaigns written on a napkin. It says, “What do women want? To feel close.” Don understands Betty, but in spite of his saying he loves, does he? I find it interesting that Don is so good at compartmentalizing his assumed identity that he doesn’t even leave clues to himself in his suits.
  • Betty Draper has to face the failure of her marriage. She is trapped with two small children she doesn’t even appear to like. She loves the upward mobility of her life with Don in the suburbs but at the same time feels trapped in a world away from the working world where she thinks she wants to be. She seems to have as much of a problem with the fact that Don knows her better than perhaps she knows herself as she does with Don's being unfaithful. Her descent into the hell of her obsessions about Don and who he is proves uncomfortable to watch.

  • Peggy , like Don, has created a persona—the successful Madison Avenue female ad agent--but when she agrees to help Father Gill, she fails at winning the committee over to her views because the two closed-minded church biddies care more about having a hand in the planning than they do in wanting to create a dance for the girls. And Father Gill once again prods her, trying to get her to confess what he knows—that she had a baby out of wedlock. [One of the priests I teach with was irate about Father Gill’s using information he has learned to deal with Betty.)
  • Joan finally seems to be breaking out of that shell we have seen. She helps Harry out by reading scripts, making suggestions, and ultimately being a great asset to him. At which point, oblivious Harry passes her over and hires an ungifted but male replacement. When we see Joan with her future husband/doctor—is she putting him through school?—the most telling things he says are, “You should be sitting home eating bon bons” and “Were you going to get me some water?” The look of heartbreak that we see when Joan realizes her attempt has failed in getting her beyond being just secretary is one of the moving images of the episode.
  • And finally, Father Gill, who ends the episode by taking off his collar and playing the guitar, seems to register a sense of failure at not having “healed” Peggy, finding solace in singing.

The show is set in 1961. The coping mechanism for many of these characters are cigarettes and Manhattans. One wonders what will happen when they all discover valium (1963), the drug of choice for many of my parents' generation.

It’s not too late to follow Mad Men. Check AMC’s OnDemand.

Some interesting reviews on last week's show:

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