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“Every current of fashion or of worldview derives its force from what is forgotten. This downstream flow is ordinarily so strong that only the group can give itself up to it; the individual – the precursor – is liable to collapse in the face of such violence, as happened with Proust. In other words: what Proust, as an individual, directly experienced in the phenomenon of remembrance, we have to experience indirectly… in studying… ‘fashion’… Fashion, like architecture, inheres in the darkness of the lived moment, belongs to the dream consciousness of the collective. The latter awakes, for example, in advertising.” – Walter Benjamin
“well I’m sure I’ll love you all my life/& in the morning too/everything you have is out of sight/but even I can see through you” – Roxy Music
Turns out Greil Marcus’ strange, impatient, droning essay on the first two seasons of Mad Men was partly right: not quite Last Tango in Paris, but Don certainly dropped out, even if only – as the online consensus seems to be – to be plugged back in. It seemed a flight of fancy at the time, a trajectory out of what already appeared to be the crushing circle of Don’s life: the man committed to normality as the set, theatre & capital of an existence taken on from someone else’s ruin, driven – by what exactly? – to act as if that life itself were already in ruins, to pick among its precious fragments. Don seemed at the time to already be stuck like a prisoner in his own self-invented story – a nihilist who, like all nihilists, get that way because they believe in the values they trash, in their negativity. Hence, perhaps, the strange inversion of the middle seasons, with the crucial pivot being his marriage to Megan at the end of season four. If in the opening episodes Don appeared a figure in the vanguard of consumer desire, someone with a frustrated elective affinity with Greenwich Village, by season 5 he was “an old person” not quite up to the standards of this year’s model, embarrassed by her effusions & sense of theatre, his flannel suits seeming to harden around him like a carapace (a look that Roger pioneered) even as the other members of Creative took on mildly hip threads. Then the endless fall into the past: to the moody brunettes who become his endless series of objets petits a, to the repetition of breakups & abandonments, back even to the old house in Pennsylvania, finally to the absence of Anna in California. Critics complained – as they would of an old lover – that Don’s story arcs from season 4 onwards were just repeating themselves with less interest in the specificity of how they played out: Don’s drunk again, he’s committing adultery again, he’s left his kids again, he’s sped off for the golden west again. Was the finale just the inevitable break in these loops, the lie given to the promise of self-renewal? (Even as the New Age philosophy of the camp seemed to promise “a new start”.) The other break & ending – death, which seemed to linger to the point of tedium over the series from the first episodes – came only to Betty. (The eternal nag, Lili Loofbourow: “it was all a MacGuffin. None of the gravitas that awesome opening sequence conjured — none of the visions of death, none of the wars, none of the people who actually died because of Don — Don’s brother, Lane, Rachel, or Don Draper himself, blown up by his subordinate’s shaking hands — mattered!… Death was the giant gun on the mantel of almost every scene and it NEVER WENT OFF.” Given the series was applauded for all its other frustrations of narrative expectation – barring that final, bizarre bit of fanservice, Peggy/Stan – this is a little rich.) I’m not all that convinced, in part because of that final, California-golden burst of (self-)persuasion. But also because the notion of the break designates reality, the Real (of family, responsibility, the genuine self & all those other abstract nouns) flooding in after all those seasons of procrastination over the Symbolic – “the big question that waits at the end of Mad Men” as Philip Maciak claimed, the examination of the value or otherwise that their work really has. It’s a profoundly undialectical claim & one which mistakes the nature of the critique the show has been performing the whole time – that of the serially betrayed & betraying lover.
So these are the beginnings of a few notes on the final season, with some lines drawn back to points in the whole thing.*
The Bogus Man
“The price he pays for sleep. Pockets of grief,/wrecked ladies, back in his own country, write/him ruined letters.” – John Berryman
Who is Don Draper? The question was, by the beginning of season 4, already an empty & actively unhelpful one. Betty’s aggravated discoveries at the end of season 3 had taken much of the reality-effect out of Don-as-family-man. Don-Draper-as-mess or Antonioni drifter followed. By the start of the last season, everyone close within his orbit knew what had in the 1st season been a locked-drawer secret, defended, in effect, by at least one death. By the final 7-episode stretch it was a story to dine out on, a marker to show how far he appeared to have come. & how he got there: the story of his adoptive father wrapping the toaster cable in copper wire showed that even then Dick possessed the beginnings of the smarts to get away, to slip the snares of the American class system. Wh/ suggests the kernel of irreducible potency at the heart of the tawdry, overexposed “Don Draper” mystery, what lurks in that upturned sunward face that precedes the final shot.
The basic appeal of the “Don Draper” narrative was clear enough from the first season. The Bryan Ferry of Westchester, the “secret agent” among the bourgeoisie of the American midcentury, in a cover so deep he had – momentarily – forgotten it was a fake, “an agent of the secret discontent of his class with its own rule”. It was a lingering part of his official importance for the agency: that he didn’t quite fit the east coast good health of the staff, w/ their decent nuclear families & clear-cut adulteries, Shore & Vineyard houses & informed opinions of Upper East Side real estate, that he supplied glimpses of the part of themselves whose exclusion or repression constituted them. (The fact that this role doesn’t go to any of the black or queer characters is, as people have pointed out, a real weakness. But then it’s precisely because of their marginalisation within their historical context that it’s practically hard to assign them such roles. More developed storylines premised around passing would have been fascinating: one can imagine a scenario in which Sal’s terror of what his desires portend, what they mean for the gap between his cosmopolitan wishes & collapsed, cowed life, don’t finish off him & his arc. But advertising c. 1962 can’t recuperate queerness or black culture in the way it can mainline Don’s shadows of childhood terror, except perhaps as “camp” & Uncle Tommery. & as Adam Kotsko pointed out, the refusal to keep Sal around was one of the boldest, most productive counterintuitive moves of the show – along with Fat Betty.) He can introduce fragments of alterity, of a past he’s repressed just as totally as they’ve disowned the subjects of class & racial terror on whom their life depends, to the constellations of pure surface the industry creates & moves among. But it’s this very alterity – the ratification it gives to his senseless, narcissistic, terrified gropings after temps perdu – that allows his perennial self-destruction. When, after Roger’s heart attack in the 1st season, he stumbles into Rachel Menken’s apartment, hair disarrayed, she has his number: visible despair as “an excuse for bad behaviour”. But the despair is also real, could not be real without the theatre of his need. When they’re on the couch – that site of rigged confession – he asks if her desires are genuine; her reply, “Yes please”, is that of a sarky girl being asked if she wants her medicine. Even the rawness of sex, the state that the 20th century made the locus of Truth, becomes shared, self-made pretense. It’s an odd scene, about the extent to which authentic pain & terror can find ‘authentic’ expression or catharsis, the extent to which the most intimate, grounding relationships – the family, the ‘good life’, art (by which we mean advertising) – have only a very oblique & fraught relationship to the images & burdens that we are, the extent to which whatever invariant goods exist in craft or dedication or honesty or love have to assume the guise of put-on or small-talk**, to which one person’s needs & gifts hardly ever overlap with another’s. (Which makes me wonder if Weiner was thinking of another dark-haired Rachael.)
Don brings with him – & destroys – origins as distant & mythic from the perspective of 60s New York as the lifeworld of the blues. The Pennsylvania farm where young Dick Whitman washes up exists in a previous century, just as the Delta of Robert Johnson, recording his Texas sessions at the same time, did with its Faustian pacts, indentured labour, poisonings & hellhounds. This is part of what Marcus means when he says that Don appears to have “had already lived a mythic American life”. (He’s also referring to John Hamm’s resemblance to Kerouac, another bleary soak, who died of alcoholism in October 1969, between the first and second halfs of season 7, & who turns up in Don’s long disappearance of the final 6 episodes – but more of him in a moment.) But Don turns up as the doppelganger of other mythic American (half-)lives: Fitzgerald’s Dick Diver, from whom he purloined those initials, who longs for the blank depths of alcohol; & – the country’s overdetermined favourite son – Jay Gatsby. “A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the washstand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor… these reveries… were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality”. But the unwritten right of American life after the 19th century of Huck Finn & the endless west – the only reality its democracy had – was the freedom to begin again, to “become what you are”. So that even self-invention, this entry into a world of images, is already a trap: enlightenment reverts to myth. When Bert made his arch-sentimental speech after Ida Blankenship’s death – born in a barn, died in a skyscraper, “an astronaut” – it was difficult not to think of Don. But, as Phil Maciak points out, the real arc of her life was a lot more tawdry than this: “instead of founding an agency or flying to the stars or doing it Her Way, she died as a punchline secretary who’d been fucked by at least two separate bosses.” Likewise, “Burgerchef isn’t a family table, a Carousel isn’t a time machine, and the little boy who watches TV in your living room isn’t your son”. Except that they “really” are, insofar as the flickering reality-effect of depths is a function of surface, of the totalising self-closure of image.
For Don & Betty, middle-class normality, the advertisement of American family life (to rip off James Meek), was precisely a shared, conspiratorial illusion. The precarious New York model, sharing apartments, dreams into being the young adman who’ll take her away from it all, just as he picks the girl in the fur ad, the sheltered cosmopolitan blonde, as the vehicle for the realisation of one (closely held) version of the American dream. This is, of course, the great Cheever theme: happiness as the loved image for which you sacrificed all, even your memory & the lingering fragments of ‘real life’ it preserved, but that no longer reciprocates. In the journals for 1966, he spots a boy he wants to pick up but can’t: “To have the fortune to love what is seemly and what the world counsels one to love, and to be loved in return, is a lighter destiny than to court a sailor in Port-au-Prince who will pick your pockets, wring your neck, and leave you dead in a gutter.” When it becomes openly untenable, Betty dissolves it, leaving for the “real thing”, dependable old money Yankee Henry. Whereas Don’s left with the repeated impulse to escape a life that can’t now be gotten out of, until perhaps the final walkout from the Miller Lite meeting. The noir trope of the first season – the man whose lost identity can’t be uncovered without disinterring some ugly parts of the past – is no longer the mnemonic inferno of Out of the Past, but the battle with a new memory that merely repeats the old. American lives turn out to have second acts, but they’re inescapable.
Hence, perhaps, the ghostly signifier of Bob Benson. James Wolk, with his shag-carpet side-scraped hair & not-quite-severe-enough side-parting, the off-square jaw & slightly pudgy cheeks (with only one dimple?), had an air of anonymity that curdled into something on the edge of queasiness. He seemed to melt away slightly in the camera’s glare; in this most aggressively colour-coordinated of shows, his dress receded to a kind of generic corporate palette. (Notably, in some scenes his ensemble looks closest to a slightly flabbier version of the Don of the first episodes, “the man in the grey flannel suit”.) The occasional splashes of colour, in tie or off-work wear, sits on him as a kind of camouflage. Even his gestures seemed as if sampled from a How To Make Friends & Influence People-esque primer. At the same time, he formed – as Matt Zoller Seitz noted at the time – a “dark mirror” of Don, as flaccid, perky & contained as Don was sculptural, dour & apparently Promethean.
His reappearance in the final series felt like a real return of the repressed after the end of Don’s flashback device at the end of season 6. The scene in ‘The Strategy’ where he goes to bail out a Chevy executive arrested for cruising & takes the taxi back with him felt like an extraordinary rip in the texture of the show, a fragment from the unpeopled concrete nights of Fassbinder or The French Connection or Der Amerikanische Freund in this environment where even the brothels are fussily art-directed. Not least for the first unambiguous signal that Bob was queer. One wonders whether this wasn’t Marcus’ predicted future for Don deflected onto Bob: a truly double life, a total merger with image on the one hand & with the abyssal blankness of sex on the other. (How telling that it’s with ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ that Don identifies: “Heterosexuality! you are inevitably approaching. (How discourage her?)”) Which is partly to say that Bob is undialectical – no wonder, he’s in Accounts. (Adorno: “The dark closets have been abolished as a troublesome waste of space, and incorporated into the bathroom.”) The scenes of his Sunday date with Joan are as rich with sick ambivalence as the moment, back in season 6, when he appeared to try to seduce Pete.*** His square’s leisure jacket, a mirror of Pete’s in the preceding scene; the Erector Set he gives Kevin; her mother’s caressing of those slightly sickly flowers. The actual proposal scene is very odd: Bob’s body language, sitting on the edge of the sofa, distant from Joan, is the same as in the Pete-pass scene; his convenient shallow breath & enthusiast’s grin is that of the salesman overwhelmed by his own product, concocting an atmosphere, his set jaw afterwards the look of the account man leading a complaining client out after paying the cheque. Bob is, in a sense, the authentic Don, or Don as the figure of unified ‘authenticity’ he appears as, the Howard Roark that Don – disappointing Bert – will never quite be, imagining Joan as his Patricia Neal.
If there was ever a notion that Don’s is a cautionary tale about the perils of living through falsehood – & such a moralising nugget is implicit in many critiques of the show – then Bob’s storyline dispels it. Apart from his shady connections with rent boys – the mysterious Manolo – and his implicit threats to Pete, he’s the most uncomplicatedly & practically virtuous character in the series: courteous, discreet, capable, putative family man & bread-provider to Kevin & Joan. If Don is effectively a poet of the commodity-image, “half in love” with the “easeful death” of dead labour, Bob is one of its official documenters, its flat-prosed clerks – a creature that believes in the lingering 19th century image of the bourgeois, all real-world solidity & straight-toothed decency, absolutely in a way that the remnants of the bourgeoisie never can; “a certain sort of executive”, as he put it to Joan. Midcentury management theory envisaged remaking white collar workers as “company men”. Bob’s trajectory enacts this in the most literal & total way, becoming a figure with no past other than his work history. Don’s vector, from the inferno of poverty to the fugue of the commodity, enacts what the company & the template of the “company man” must repress: the very texture of lived experience, of memoire involontaire, that, in revolutionising the means of production, capital perpetually disintegrates, now resurrected as Marx’s “chimera” of flesh & Spirit. The “[n]ameless things, unlabelled things, things without brands and logos, generic things, free things, things without margin” of which James Meek writes in his superlative essay on the series, the irrecoverable “places where we know we are loved”, are precisely contigent, localised, fragile, & yours for the price – as magic lantern images or Potemkin households. Blooming under the electric lights of Times Square or Broadway, is the commodity, the fruit of what sets itself up as second, (falsely) universal nature.
*Methodological note: I thought about rewatching the whole thing – or at least the first few seasons – before the finale, but since one or another of my ex-flatmates stole my season 1-3 boxset, that plan was rather scuppered. As it is, I ended up rewatching all of season 7 & some of seasons 1 & 2. These notes will, inevitably, be slack on the middle seasons, though given I’ve never believed the claim that serial television series are meant to be read holistically, like novels, I’m not that bothered.
**Cheever, The Journals, p.209: “On the train home I share a seat with two men I have not seen for fifteen years… One of them has an alcoholic and circulatory ailment that has given his face the colors of an extended bruise. They discuss their lawnmowers throughout the trip. ‘I got a double-blade, three-horsepower Ajax rotary from Warbin’s two years ago. I’ve got my money back.’ ‘Well, I got a single-blade rotary last year, but I’m thinking of getting a reel mower this year,’ etc. The conversation does not shift, for an hour, from the subject of mowers, excepting to go briefly onto fertilizer. Warfare, love, money – the natural concerns of men – are barred from their talk. It is sincere, I expect; it is ceremonial: I suppose they dream of leaf mulchers, gasoline mixes. Their aim is probity, and yet it is the mad who, to cure the wildness of their thought, talk in such rudimentary terms.”
***Somewhere on the internet there must be a whole seam of Pete/Bob fiction – if so, you know my email address.
June 16, 2015 § Leave a comment