Monday, April 20, 2015

Papa Don: This Week In Mad Men Speculation

This episode of The Flying Nun was playing in the background of last night's Mad Men.

In it, Carlos Ramirez -- a wealthy playboy with a good heart who solves all of his problems with money -- is anticipating the arrival of his foster daughter from Korea.  His accountant had sent a few dollars to the foster care service every month over the years (because why not) and now that his foster daughter is paying him a visit, Carlos is getting ready to play Disney Dad to a little girl for a few days by stocking up on stuffed animals and dolls and consulting with his staff on the subject of merry-go-rounds and roller coasters.

But the foster daughter who shows up is not a little girl; she is a grown woman.  Attractive, subservient and looking for a husband.

If you can get past the OMFG 1970s racial stereotypes and the fact that this was a featherweight comedy where all problems are always resolved to everyone's delight and amusement in 23 minutes, this is the situation in which Donald Draper now finds himself: living as a wealthy aristocrat/arrested adolescent in a world rapidly filling up with actual young adults for whom he is responsible. Young people whose anxieties and desires he is only too happy to exploit for his clients as one of the Lords of Madison Avenue, but who he barely comprehends as a father even as one of them stands in front of him, laying the bill for for his years of negligence and indolence at his feet.

What else was on teevee in the background of this episode of Mad Men?
  • The Flying Nun --A bachelor raising a foster child (war orphan) with the help of selfless nuns.
  • The Brady Bunch -- Two, single-parent families raising kids with the help of selfless housekeeper.
  • Harlow (1965):  The child of a broken and exploitative home rises to fame and fortune, and falls from the pinnacle of her career through a series of failed relationships before dying of alcoholism at a young age.
You can read what you wish into all of that.

All I would note is that, as I have written before, by the time the mid-1960s arrived, shows about happy stable nuclear families like Father Knows Best were disappearing from teevee almost as fast as happy stable nuclear families were disappearing from the real world.
Of course, teevee single parents almost always have terrific jobs that afford them an enormous amount of free time and economic autonomy.  And they're usually assisted by aunts or maids or other adult helpers who are only too happy to pitch in as surrogate parents for little or no remuneration.  However it is amazing but true that even as the America of 1969 was desperately struggling to keep the facade of the Idealized Nuclear Family Nixoned firmly in place, on teevee the "Father Knows Best" template was quickly vanishing in favor of Family Affair (an uncle raising orphaned nieces and nephew), The Courtship of Eddie's Father (widower), The Beverly Hillbillies (widower), Julia (widow), Bonanza (widower), The Andy Griffith Show (widower), My Three Sons (widower), The Brady Bunch ( a widow and widower, although all references to previous marriages are kept deliberately vague), etcetera.

It's a long damn list.

And so we find ourselves in June, 1969, watching a system shuddering on the verge of implosion because it is a system which took some of humanities oldest and proudest achievements -- art, storytelling, psychology, technology -- to warp the basic rhythms and desires of human life in order to serve post-WWII America's shallowest and most transient commercial interests.  And as the need to be human comes into more and more direct, violent conflict with the Mad Men imperative to go along with system at all costs, our characters find that their lives don't work, their marriages don't work, their jobs are killing them and even shopping barefoot through the stone canyons of the city at the pinnacle of the American Empire only makes them miserable and gets their feet hobo-dirty.

And so, as the credits roll, we meet the two, contending visions of the American Family which will dominate our cultural and political landscape for the next 40 years.

One is the family-of-choice: the mutants and strangers and bastards and imperfect darling ones with whom we gather because we love them somehow, and they love us somehow.  We are with them, scars and secrets and all, because we choose not to be alone in the good times or the bad times.

The other is the Bob Benson's Erector Set Family. The family that comes with a set of prefabricated parts and an instruction manual -- all you need to do is slide it out of the box, put the pieces together as directed and, bingo, you're on your way to a perfectly constructed, loveless marriage, a mansion in Detroit and a little freaky on the downlow to keep you from blowing your brains out.

1 comment:

Fritz Strand said...

The creator of his series took a lot of (undeserved) heat for the way he ended 'The Sopranos'. I wonder if he is feeling pressured to end this series some sort of pressed metal conclusion.