Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Your Belated Monday Mad Men Review: Ground Control to Major Ted

With lots of spoilers.

A few weeks after the 2001-themed Monolith, Mad Men returns again to the Moon.  But not Kubrick and Clarke's Moon, humming with colonists living in Earth's furthest suburb, at the end of a long commute in sleek, regularly-scheduled Pan Am rockets.  Instead, we will meet the real Moon of 1969 arriving from chaotic Earth and dropping into a Sea of Tranquility in a spindly pup-tent made of Erector set parts and aluminum foil...

...carrying a guy named Neil and a guy called Buzz.

But first we must unstick ourselves momentarily in time.  Back we must tumble to February of 1945 where young Jim Cutler is at the stick of a high high altitude Allied bomber; one of an armada which dropped thousands of tons of incendiary and high-explosive bombs on the charming and strategically irrelevant city of Dresden, Germany, wiping the city center off the face of the Earth and incinerating tens of thousands of civilians.

At the time and unbeknownst to Death-From-Above Cutler, four miles below his B-17 Flying Fortress, a group of American POW's were being held in a disused slaughter house meat locker.  By some miracle they survived Jim Cutler's USAF/RAF firestorm and, 24 years later, one of those survivors found a means to fire back at those who poured fire on all the innocents of Dresden when his most famous novel -- Slaughter House Five -- was published in 1969...

...a year which we now rejoin, already in progress, where Jim Cutler still believes in coolly dispensing with unpredictable humans in favor of precision-guided technology -- 
“Roger, I know what this company should look like: computer services, media buys pinpointed with surgical accuracy… it’s the agency of the future.”
-- and where we find him once again preparing to destroy a writer by hitting him straight-on with everything in his bomb rack.

And so it goes, as we plunge into Mad Men's July of 1969, pausing only long enough to orient ourselves to the events leading up to the Apollo 11 lunar landing...

...before quickly pivoting to a very different craft crammed with three very different men.

Instead of Apollo's majestic sense of mission and destiny, we find Ted Chaough's sweaty, defeated, and possibly drunk version of David Bowie's Major Tom (a character from the song Space Oddity, also released in July of 1969), with his circuit dead and definitely something wrong.

Ted is having his very own Hershey Moment, but rather than some wildly inappropriate public sharing, Ted cuts the engine of his airplane while flying over some orange groves and offers the Sunkist clients the chance to join him in a suicide pyre to his bitterness and failure.

Tell his wife he loves her very much (she knows).

By any objective standard, Ted's corporate sin is far greater than Don's and yet, other than Peter, no one really seems to care.  The Five Families are not brought together in emergency session.  Ted is not recalled to the East coast for a beat-down.  No one contemplates exiling him to an indefinite "leave" from whose bourn no traveler returns.  According to Hoyle, Ted's career should be in rubble from self-inflicted wounds.  But Hoyle is dead, and while there are rules, there are always other rules.  And if you don't know what those other rules are, nothing of the world of business will ever make any sense to you.  Like, for example, why Jim Cutler seems perfectly content to let Ted off with a warning, while at the same time happily hammering together the gibbet from which he expects the newly-soberish, still-brilliant, loyal, supportive, team-playing Don Draper 3.0 to hang.

This is because cool, bloodless Jim Cutler hates Don.  Really, really hates him, hard enough to try to bait him by tearing the scab off of Don's moment of maximum professional humiliation.
You know, Ted and I, whenever we would hear that your agency was involved, we would always be so intimidated “What was that man up to?" Such a cloud of mystery. Now that I've been backstage, I'm deeply unimpressed. You're just a bully and a drunk. A football player in a suit. The most eloquent I've ever heard you was when you were blubbering like a little girl about your impoverished childhood.
But while Jim may be a Sky god capable of dropping lightning* from above, Don is an Earth god, mighty within his own realm, and once Jim descends from the clouds to do battle in the mud, he is on Draper's home turf.

I wonder how that will work out for him?

By the way, have you noticed all the telescopes?  One on the lovely deck of Megan's soon-to-be single's pad.  One in Jim Cutler's office.  Still another in the box it came in at the Francis/Draper residence.  And as the young nerd-bro upon whom Sally Draper bestows a real, grownup kiss explains, you can use a telescope to look at a lot of things besides the Moon.

Like, say, Polaris.

Except you really can't.  Not exactly, anyway, because the Polaris you see in the night sky is the Polaris as it existed 433.8 years ago, when the light that would strike your eyes today began its Cheeveresque swim across our little suburb of the Milky Way. Which meant the photons which Sally Draper encountered in 1969 left Polaris right around the time the Pope was deposing and excommunicating Henry VIII.  Which probably doesn't have much to do with the plot, but damn, there sure are a lot of telescopes.

Overall, The Great Accounting Department in the Mad Men Sky was hard at work this episode balancing accounts and setting up the last lap of this rat race perfectly.  Almost everyone gains and loses.  Joan wins a million and loses her battle with Don. Peggy wins real power and the sincere approval of the one person who's opinion matters (and a hot handyman's phone number), but loses a surrogate son.  Roger loses a surrogate father and gains a small kingdom within McCann Erickson's polyglot empire.  Jim loses his job, but makes a mint.  Ted loses his mind, but gets some of it back via Don's magic pipe of Hope-ium.   Bert, a child of the 19th Century, loses to the Grim Reaper, but sticks around long enough to see humans land on the Moon and give the 20th Century something to be remembered for other than one bloody war after another.

And Don loses another wife and another marriage, but gains a true peer and a second bite at the Big Advertising Apple. And, possibly more important to his soul than any of that, to save his professional life Don makes his greatest pitch ever to a room full of people who know all of his tricks and are immune to his usual bag of dazzle.  Thus, he does what no one expects: strips himself bare in front of them and lays it all on the table.  All of his failures, his humiliations, his desperate junkie hunger to Do The Work because that is the real addiction...all of it now put into harness to help Don Draper the artist compose a story so fucking true that it will persuade a drowning man to dive back into the ocean. Because, as Faulkner said, that's what writers do:
The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.
But we know that from this pleasing plateau of achievements made and new worlds conquered, there is still an outstanding balance of seven, post-Moon landing episodes due on the account.  And because we the audience, in effect, look back on the sun and the Moon and the Earth of 1969 from 45 light years away, we know what's waiting for them, just around the corner.  They have never heard of Charles Manson or Woodstock or Stonewall.  Sy Hersh has not yet introduced them to Lieutenant William Calley, and Kent State is still just a college in Ohio.   Fred Hampton and Mark Clark have not yet been assassinated by the Chicago Police Department, and the Sixties have yet to crawl off and die under a porch at Altamont Speedway.

And within this agonizing tension -- our character's perfect, doomed ignorance of what is to come, and our time-worn familiarity with those days of future past -- is the rocket fuel that will power Mad Men through 2015 and into history.

In one of his collections of teevee criticism from that era ("The Glass Teat), Harlan Ellison (who turned 80 today) summed up this sensation of post-Moon landing cresting-and-falling well enough for me to remember parts of it almost verbatim all these years later (h/t Ellison-fan "jimmy" for retrieving the entire quote from his copy of TGT when I could not locate mine):
"You see, it just sorta killed all the adventure for me. Maybe because I'd taken that first journey so many times being led by Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clark, who dreamed all these dreams twenty years ago.

I can see why all the rest of you dug it . . . inherently it is the single most exciting thing that's happened since Christ splashed down on Calvary, but for the guys who knew without a doubt that it was coming --- all the science fiction fans and writers --- it was a letdown . . . I guess. At least a little.

But I understand there were some marvelous serendipitous benefits: such as the crime rate in the country dropping to almost nothing. All the crooks and heistmen and cat-burglars were in front of their sets,  too. 
Right up to the point where Nixon said the Apollo 11 flight had brought the world closer together than ever before.

After which point the crooks turned off their sets, and went out to mug old ladies for seventy-four cents."
And so here at Tranquility Base we will sit, waiting to plunge back to Earth for one more, splendid year of Matthew Weiner's Mad Men mugging old ladies for small change and robbing their mothers for High Art.

PS.  Other than admiring the loving panache with which it was executed, I wouldn't make too much of Donald Draper's farewell vision of Bert Cooper, sock-footing it off to the next life.

Because of all the reference made to who Don Draper is -- "an old, bad boyfriend" which "a teenage anthropologist would marry"... a "sensitive piece of horseflesh”..."a bully and a drunk" ..."a pain in the ass"... a "football player in a suit" -- none of them gets it quite right.

Above everything else, Don is a writer.

And when you apply sufficient pressure to the writer's mind, sometimes you get a Carousel

and sometimes you get Dem Bones:

*h/t Ulysses Bloomsday for the correction

No comments: