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Why the Decemberists?

By Amanda Marcotte
Saturday, December 20, 2008 21:21 EDT
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We’ve been re-watching some episodes of the second season of “Mad Men”, and there’s a choice that they made that I can’t for the life of me understand, so I figured I’d toss it out to the fans in cyberspace to see what their opinions are on it. My working theory is that the producers put a lot of attention into every little detail on the show, and that most of it echoes with meaning, even what the characters are watching on TV or reading (like Betty’s reading of Katherine Anne Porter as she begins to be a more adult, cynical person facing up to some ugly realities). The music choices are often quite pointed in the same way, like when season two opened with “Let’s Twist Again”, which throws back to “The Twist” being in the first season. And just as importantly for this post, the music choices are largely songs that had already come out, or would in a few years so fit the general tone of the era. There’s one giant, glaring, super-duper obvious exception that waves its hands in your face and stomps its feet. At the beginning of episode 6, called “Maidenform”, you see the three biggest female characters getting dressed and the Decemberists’ “Infanta” is blaring at top volume, being every inch the 21st century Decemberists sound that it is.*

Lyrics here. Lyrically, it makes a certain tongue-in-cheek sense, drawing a parallel between the almost imaginary patriarchy in the song, and the one that the show critiques so beautifully. But it’s still incredibly disconcerting in an episode that’s otherwise pure perfection. It’s not like there aren’t a million of-the-era songs that could offer the same kind of comical punctuation, or the overwhelming sound of it. In fact, the entire girl group catalog under Phil Spector seems more appropriate. And I’m not sure if it’s a sour note in an otherwise great episode, or if the deliberate anachronism is a way for the producers to let you in the audience know that they think this episode is something special, too.

Because it’s the pivotal episode of the season, even though, as they noted at TWOP, not a lot seems to happen. But for Peggy, it’s the moment when she really realizes that if she doesn’t get pushy with the men she works with, they’re going to continue to exclude her. Being nice and polite isn’t doing it, and bemoaning without doing anything isn’t going to work. It’s when you realize she really is headed for that corner office. It’s also when Don really grasps that his problems largely stem from his poor attitudes towards women, particularly his Madonna/whore complex. He gets alternately angry at his mistress for being a mother and angry at his wife for being a sexual person, and while I don’t think he makes the connection to his problems with monogamy, he still has a heart-breaking moment at the end when he seems to realize that his shut-the-fuck-up-and-do-what-you’re-told attitudes have infected his daughter. You’re left to wonder what he’s thinking as he ponders this tragedy, but of course historical hindsight means the audience can fill in the particulars, because we know his daughter is heading towards a world where women have the responsibilities men have, but not the social esteem or self-esteem that men have as a birthright.

Still, that it’s pivotal doesn’t mean that you need an anachronism to drive home the point. Why the anachronism? To remind us that all the characters on this show are heading towards the world we’re in now, and we’re supposed to read the intervening years in? What’s your theories? Am I the only one who found it odd?

*That is, the sort of thing that makes you embarrassed to be in a room where it’s playing, it’s just so over-the-top.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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