Subscribe via RSS Feed

Tag: "television"

Don Draper is, of course, never himself.

[ 0 ] January 19, 2010 |

Let me open with a quick clarification about the previous Mad Men post: as to the purview of self-fashioning, we all do it. In blog terms, you know me as this guy, i.e. the one who caught those students, made that other one extremely uncomfortable, is frequently victimized by the library, hid his cancer from his wife, etc. Those are the stories I tell about myself to explain myself to myself. To quote Gertrude Stein from Everybody’s Autobiography:

Identity is funny being yourself is funny as you are never yourself to yourself except as you remember yourself and then of course you do not believe yourself. That is really the trouble with an autobiography you do not of course really believe yourself why should you, you know so well so very well that it is not yourself, it could not be yourself because you cannot remember right and if you do remember right it does not sound right and of course it does not sound right because it is not right. You are of course never yourself.

The phrase “of course” captures the central irony of all self-fashioning: we know, of course, that we are more than the sum total of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and yet we only understand ourselves, and can only be understood by others, through those stories. In case you ever wanted to know why narrative diversity is important, there you have it: the more narrative modes available, the more possible understandings of themselves the people who encounter them can have.

This is self-fashioning at its most mundane, and in terms of Mad Men, this is why Peggy Olson becomes more modern: once she understands herself in terms of the upwardly mobile career-oriented woman, the audience understands her frustrations in terms of the conflict between that meritocratic fantasy and the realities of being a woman in a male-dominated working environment. She becomes more recognizably modern not because the world she inhabits does, but because the way she responds to that changing world elicits a chorus of “of courses.”

Neither she nor Peter Campbell become “more real” as the series progresses—fictional characters, being fictional, can only aspire to escape the fictions they inhabit—but as the stories they tell themselves about themselves in order to understand themselves come to resemble ours, they’ll seem more realistic because they’re telling themselves the same stories we tell ourselves and we, of course, live in the real world. What I meant when I wrote the following, then, is that Campbell is increasingly understanding himself in reference to the same narratives we do, whereas Don Draper is not:

Campbell is, in a sense, becoming us, and we revile his behavior to the extent that we recognize our sins in his actions. Draper, however, is becoming art, and as such we hold him as responsible for his actions as we would Emma Bovary. His self-fashioning was not merely based on literary precedent, it was an act of literature, if you will, and much of the appeal of the show is based on watching an inscrutable literary character interact with actual humans.

Draper’s self-fashioning is not remotely this mundane—it is radical. He envisions himself not in the way a person envisions his or her self, but in the way an author envisions a character, which is why Joseph Kugelmass refers to it as aesthetic self-fashioning. To a certain extent, this is how my blog functions, i.e. as a stylized version of the life I actually live and the person I actually am; but because there are stories central to my conception of myself that have not and will never make it on the blog, the person you associate with my name will always feel, to me, like a persona. If withholding certain core stories so alters the warp and woof of my persona that it aestheticizes my self-fashioning, you can imagine what would happen were I to start inventing those stories whole cloth à la Draper.

The only people who know him on the show are the dead actors in his increasingly frequent hallucinations, because only they have access to his entire allotment of self-narratives—and, of course, they only have that access because they are the stories he tells himself about himself. The audience is privy to some of them, but not the entire store, which is why Draper remains ever at a remove. To the extent that Mad Men belongs to Draper, it is a story about someone will never be able to integrate his stories with the ones he wants told about him even to himself. His hallucinations bully and hector him in order to remind him “that it does not sound right and of course it does not sound right because it is not right,” because the troubled antecedent of Stein’s “it” is even more troubling when the narratives that constitute identity are the convenient inventions of an unsettled soul.

If this conception of self-fashioning seems less modern than modernist, that would be my point: the manner in which Draper is integrating his competing narratives into a semi-coherent sense of self is entirely consonant with the modernist obsession with integrating competing narratives into semi-coherent sense of self. From the unstable “I” in Samuel Beckett’s trilogy to the endless renegotiation of familial roles in Joyce’s Ulysses, literary modernists sought to explode the tidy, reducible self that had been the hallmark of literary realism. Draper is, then, something of an exploded man sifting through bits of himself in search of the core to which all these bits once belonged. However, until he accomplishes this impossibility, his self-fashioning will still be far more aesthetic than that of the other characters on Mad Men, and as such, the show’s literate audience will still be drawn to him more than them.

I keep on meaning for these Mad Men posts to move beyond Draper so I can talk about Joan or visual rhetoric, but I can’t quit Draper quite yet.

Don Draper as an unraptured Emma Bovary

[ 0 ] January 16, 2010 |

As I noted in the comments to this post, it was only a matter of time before I started Mad Men; however, as I’ve studiously avoided reading about the show for the better part of two years now, I’m not sure my insights into it will be all that insightful. Still, I’ll soldier on, with the caveat that I’m about to watch the eighth episode of the most recent season and would rather not have it spoiled. Not, mind you, that I think it could be, as the one of the defining features of the show is the thundering predictability of its characters. That’s not as an indictment of Matt Weiner or his writing staff, merely an acknowledgment of the show’s central conceit: these are people who want to be left behind when the rest of the world is raptured by history—at least at first.

Don Draper and his fellows at Sterling-Cooper aggressively court their own obsolescence by cultivating an aesthetic that appeals to inhabitants of a disappearing culture. In this respect, focusing the show around the Gatsby in the gray flannel suit is an inspired decision: Draper is a man at a remove both from his own history and those of archetypes that shape his character, and as such is constitutionally belated. He does not believe in free love, like his beatnik paramour Midge Daniels, he merely lacks a convincing moral objection to committing serial adultery. His persona is a fashioned response to a vanishing culture, and it appeals—both for the clients of Sterling-Cooper and viewers of the show—to the perpetually recycled nostalgia for a time in which romantic figures of powerful genius were recognized and compensated accordingly. In the decades previous, as evidenced by an article Earnest Havemann wrote for Life in 1958, it had actually been true that

most advertising agencies were started on the strength of one man’s genius and personality. These old giants of the business had an intuitive feel for advertising. Flying strictly by the seat of their pants, they made brilliant guesses as to what would put the public in the mood to buy and planned brilliant campaigns around their hunches. Yesterday’s ad man used to take a look at the product, then go off in a corner to dream up his campaign. Today’s ad man sends for the research on what consumers are thinking about at the moment and often goes out to size up the consumer himself.

Havemann captures, in miniature, why Peter Campbell’s career will inevitably eclipse Draper’s: a person can only have hunches about cultures they know intimately, so the value of a Don Draper is inversely proportional to, for example, market penetration into urban black communities. This is not to say that Campbell’s attempt to identify the desires of black Americans at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement makes him any more sympathetic as a character, or to viewers, as his commitment to equality is as instrumental as Draper’s is to free love.

Campbell is, in a sense, becoming us, and we revile his behavior to the extent that we recognize our sins in his actions. Draper, however, is becoming art, and as such we hold him as responsible for his actions as we would Emma Bovary. His self-fashioning was not merely based on literary precedent, it was an act of literature, if you will, and much of the appeal of the show is based on watching an inscrutable literary character interact with actual humans. Not literally, of course, but as the show moves forward in time, the endgames of everyone except for Draper become increasingly recognizable to the audience as modern types. We know why the black elevator attendent is reluctant to talk to the white advertising accountant. We know why the career woman is undermining gender expectations by sleeping around. These characters are commendable or revolting according to a familiar cultural logic tempered by a little historical knowledge. We may not know precisely how the story of Peggy Olson ends, for example, but we know what will limit her ability to grow and how struggling against the stunt will deform her, because hers is the thundering predictability of unwed mothers and unfair office politics.

So Peter and Peggy are not left behind because, over the course of two seasons, they learn to love and accept modernity in their hearts. They still seek Draper’s approval, but they recognize that he’s valuable in a way the world soon stop valuing. When the rapture comes, they know Draper won’t be numbered among the chosen. They may not know why—Draper himself seems ignorant—but they know. The key item, in this regard, is the note left by the hitchhikers who dose and rob Draper:

In an act of petty kindness, almost pity, they leave him behind with the means to join them because they know he lacks the will to do so. They may not have personally witnessed his days of the locust in the second season, but like Peter and Peggy, they understand that he will not be following them into the future. Nor, for that matter, will Joan Holloway, whose related status I’ll address in a future post should you so desire.

(So long as I’m feeling semi-literary, I should add: if you want to learn why The Dark Knight is actually all about dogs, that’s my beat too.)

Mad Men

[ 0 ] November 9, 2009 |

The classic Sopranos pattern: big events in the penultimate episode, final episode sets up the next season. But the finale was richly entertaining in itself…

Deep Mad Men Related Thought

[ 0 ] October 8, 2009 |

Is it just my imagination, or does the Draper marriage resemble the Soprano marriage in a lot of ways? Discuss.

My Life Now is All CSI, All the Time

[ 0 ] September 17, 2009 |

This is pretty awesome. Via Gary.

Who Would Win in a Fight?

[ 0 ] September 10, 2009 |

Gil Grissom vs. Jessica Fletcher?*

*Infant care=too much daytime teevee=stupid questions

They took our jobs

[ 0 ] August 20, 2009 |

Last winter my fiancee got me to start watching Top Chef, which was my introduction to so-called Reality TV. I confess I really enjoyed it, despite the obviously stagey aspects of the whole thing (and I picked up a few cooking tips in the bargain).

Last night we stumbled onto the finale of a version called Top Chef Masters (as Steve Allen pointed out, imitation is the sincerest form of television), which involved a contest between various well-known chefs. The three finalists were a French guy cooking French food, and Italian-American cooking the food first fed to him by his mother, a native of Calabria, and guy named Rick Bayless whose speciality is the Mexican food he first encountered when visiting Oaxaca as a 14-year-old.

Bayless kept going on about how he saw his mission as introducing Americans to a level of sophistication in Mexican cuisine that is still hard to find in this country. That’s all fine and good, but it struck me that in a country where the actual cooking in high-end restaurants is dominated by Latin Americans in general, and Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in particular, the “celebrity chef” doing the Mexican cooking against his French and Italian-American competitors was a very WASPy-seeming fellow. Nothing wrong with that of course — it’s not like you have to be a member of an ethnic group to be a great cook in that genre — but it also reminded me of the point Anthony Bourdain makes in Kitchen Confidential that almost none of the thousands of superbly skilled Mexican and Ecuadorian and Peruvian etc, cooks manning the lines ever seem to end up as head chefs or sous chefs at the fancy places they work, let alone with TV shows on the Food Network.

Update: Just to be clear, I’m not knocking Bayless, who came across on the show as a guy who was eager to educate people about how much great food there is in Mexico, and how sophisticated the various regional cuisines are (Bourdain also makes this point well in Kitchen Confidential).

Mad Men Open Thread

[ 0 ] August 17, 2009 |

Captured the zeitgeist, or something. If you don’t want spoilers, don’t click the comments.


[ 0 ] July 25, 2009 |

Looking forward to August 16….

BSG Finale Open Thread

[ 0 ] March 21, 2009 |

My five favorite series finales:

Star Trek: The Next Generation*
Quantum Leap
Magnum P.I.**

*Penned by Ron Moore
**This refers to Limbo, the season 7 finale, and pretends that the misconceived season 8 never happened.

BSG open thread. Consider this a spoiler free-fire zone; enter at your own risk.


[ 0 ] December 3, 2008 |

Ezra is right; Entourage works best when things go well. I don’t know that I agree that this season has been problematic, because of course success after hardship is so much sweeter… I also don’t know that the success was improbable, given that Martin Scorsese has seen fit to give Leo Dicaprio three consecutive leads, and that Vincent Chase reminds me a lot of Leo.

Evolution of the Cylon

[ 18 ] September 19, 2008 |

Andrew Probert, designer of the Cylons for the first Battlestar Galactica series:

“Originally the Galactica motion picture (for overseas distribution) was filmed with dialog explaining that the Cylons were creatures,” Probert confirmed. “They were blind and created helmet scanners to see. That explains the helmets. Then, since their suits could also allow them to survive in space, I provided a back-mounted support system. Also, after several viewings of Star Wars, I didn’t want these bad guys dropping their weapons like the Stormtroopers did, so I included an arm-mounted weapon on their right wristband. The giant hockey gloves that were added made those pretty useless and the Cylons ended up carrying (and dropping) guns after all.”

“The living Cylons were changed to robots for the TV series because of an hourly body-count limitation for prime-time television. There was, however, no limit to how many robots could be ‘killed’ per hour so they became robots and dialog was revised to explain it all.”

Today, with the growing strength of the Robot Lobby in Hollywood and in Congress, the logic would probably be reversed. Soon, I doubt that we’ll be able to kill any robots on screen without facing charges of anti-robot bias.

Page 5 of 7« First...34567