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All the men!

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, August 24, 2009 23:45 EDT
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Spoilers!

I guess as long as “Mad Men” is fascinating, I’ll be blogging about “Mad Men”. Last night’s episode was titled “Love Among The Ruins”—it’s more than obvious at this point that Matthew Weiner draws on poetry for a number of allusions and for inspiration, but I’d say this episode more that any before really used the poem in question as a framework for the episode, at least its imagery. The poem in question is, of course, “Love Among The Ruins”, a poem by Robert Browning detailing out a fantasy of a love affair conducted in the single tower left in what was once a great city, but is now a ruin completely overgrown by grass and happily munching sheep. Browning’s conclusion is that this instability of history should push one to recommit to love, since conquest and civilization are just as fleeting but less satisfying. The idea of permanence is an illusion pursued by humanity, and it makes fools of those who believe in it. So that’s how I took that business at the end of Don brushing his hand against the grass while watching his daughter’s teacher do a silly Maypole dance—a moment of enjoying the beauty of the moment and taking one’s self out of the hustle and bustle of maintaining and growing the American empire.

The reference to the poem adds many dimensions to the business about Madison Square Garden vs. Penn Station, if only in the very literal sense that a “garden” was planted right on top of a beautifully built station. Of course, that’s not quite right, because the grass overgrows the city in Browning’s vision because the city has fallen to ruin and has been reclaimed by nature. But the episode functions narratively as a prophecy, as the audience knows very well that Don’s ominous statement about how New York is a city in decay is more true than he realizes, that within the decade, the city will be very close to being considered a failed city, and in 12 years, this will be the infamous headline:

With these considerations in mind, Don’s speech about change becomes disturbing indeed. Tim Goodman notes that we’re beginning to see the shift in American business models from long-term business building to short-term gain, which fits with these themes of ruin and decay, as the short term gain model is why the unprecedented prosperity after WWII came to an end, and left us instead with routine economic bubbles and crashes, and the results we’re living with now—namely, the mortgage crisis and the health care crisis. And that’s on top of a future of Reaganomics, mounting third world debt, and hyper-capitalist military dictatorships around the world. Don Draper yelling about the need to have a relationship with Madison Square Garden that would produce routine business for Sterling Cooper? He might as well be yelling about neoliberalism and deregulation and every other bright idea to maximize short term profits while the world burns around you.

Marc pointed out that the other theme was paternity, or more specifically, the relationship between fathers and daughters. The episode explores three father/daughter pairs:

1) Roger Sterling and his daughter
2) Betty Draper and her father
3) Peggy Olson and her father figure/mentor Don Draper

In all three cases, the girls have rejected paternal authority, and I’d say it’s more evidence that “Mad Men”‘s writers find women’s emerging independence to be an utterly fascinating theme. I would say that all three women fundamentally examine the values laid out by their fathers, values they’re supposed accept without question, and they say no and insert their own values. Roger’s daughter puts his belief that women are disposable baubles to the ultimate test, laying out for him the uncomfortable reality that his new wife-plaything is her age, and drawing his attention to the fact that believing women are toys means that you put that on your very own daughter. (We hope Don learns his lesson before Sally gets too old, but alas, the hints are this will not happen.) Betty overrules her father’s stubborn belief that he’s capable of taking care of himself, and as a side bonus, she rejects her brother’s ideas, on the grounds that he’s too greedy.

Peggy isn’t in the position to say no to Don, but her increasing resentments about being told that men know better than she does what women want are beginning to wear on her. Specifically, she’s getting sick of Don and every other man in the place telling her that the beginning and end of a woman’s desire is to fit some man’s sexual fantasies, specifically the fantasy of submissive femininity. Peggy isn’t so sure that Ann Margaret singing (shrilly, I agree!) “Bye Bye Birdie” while mooning at the camera should be all that a woman wants, or all that a man wants in a woman. But it’s not so cut and dry, because it’s also clear that Peggy doesn’t know what she wants to replace that. The business where she experiments singing like Ann Margaret was brilliant. Peggy is being scientific about this. She’s going to give being the chirpy flirt a chance. She goes to a bar and takes a guy to bed, but he assumes she’s a secretary, and seems disinterested in other possibilities. Peggy believes, and probably for a good reason, that she doesn’t fit into the world of What Men Want, and after toying with the idea of being that, she realizes she doesn’t want to. She wants love, but Peggy grows quickly bored of things that can’t happen on her terms, and love so far seems elusive on her terms. The young man she sleeps with wants to continue seeing her, but she knows that she will eventually have to tell him that she’s one of those new-fangled career women, and that proves to be too much of a burden. Plus, he seems like a douche.

But her relationship with Don is not so easy to shrug off, since he’s the way towards climbing the career ladder. I’m eager to see where this is going. Will Peggy be able to insert her own values and ideas into the ad copy? Will Don finally open his mind? It can only happen if Peggy even starts to decide what her values and ideas even are.

In the poem “Love Among The Ruins”, there’s a distinct contrast between the masculine world of war and commerce in the city that was, and the world that is there now, a world of soft grass and loving embraces. If the masculine vs. feminine contrast isn’t obvious there, it’s obvious in this episode. The decaying masculine—Betty’s father and Roger Sterling, ever more pathetic as he chases youth—is being replaced by the feminine that puts an emphasis on love and care. A tad essentialist if taken literally, but it’s clear that it’s highly symbolic in this case. Betty’s grumpiness and Peggy’s lack of imagination create the argument that real women should be judged as individuals and are separate from these symbols and themes.

Interesting, then, that I just finished reading Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco, where Peter Shapiro paints a picture of New York laying in ruins, where it is overgrown by disco and punk and art collectives—all very feminine and queer compared to the masculine world of empire-building and commerce. Disco especially was about pleasure, about living in the moment, and about not giving a shit about the ruins that you’re overgrowing. Perhaps, Shapiro suggests, that instead of disdaining this, we should look at it as a positive thing, that this feminized reaction is a result of the will to live and even a communal, loving impulse. Something I’ll no doubt be keeping in mind this third season.

But there is a thread of hope in this war between the sexes. In both Betty’s case and Roger’s daughter’s case, a man stands behind them and supports their values, their decisions. Are Weiner & Co. suggesting that love is the key to transcending the horrors of patriarchy? It seems that the answer, is yes, or as Browning puts it, “Love is best.”

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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