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Mad Men Monday: Another day late

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, August 31, 2010 13:44 EDT
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Spoilers!

Sorry that “Mad Men” blogging is late yet again. We were traveling to El Paso, where it’s still 1996 in many ways (especially according to the music in the bowling alley), and internet access was spotty, if available at all. I didn’t even get to see the show until last night! So, it’s yet another Tuesday. Hopefully, next week, things will be back on schedule.

As I’ve noted before, I’m wary of alcoholism as a plot device in the same way I don’t love inflicting any kind of horrible disease on a character to raise the stakes. I don’t mind having characters that are alcoholics, just if that’s being used as a cheap plot device. I feel, on “Mad Men”, that we had alcoholic characters all along, but it was played with a bit of subtlety. Now, we’ve had another episode about how Don has gone way past “functional alcoholic” and deep into “blacking out and losing entire weekends” territory. Alcoholism is an easy card for drama writers to play, but it rarely means much onscreen besides a stern message about the evils of excess and the horrors of addiction, both of which amount most often to as much as saying, “Cancer sux.” Are the writers of “Mad Men” going to give us more than that?

So far, I’m still feeling good about this storyline, for a couple of reasons. One is the usual ability of the “Mad Men” writers to take a done-to-death topic (like, say, “The 60s were a time of tremendous social change!”) and breathing new life into it, often by employing a heavy dose of bluntness that usually makes most writers fearful they’ll scare off the audience. And they usually do a good job of making the shocking stuff onscreen mean something, something more than, “Would you look at that?” And so far, we’re getting that with the alcoholism storyline.

Don’s low points aren’t being rendered in quite the same cliched terms that you usually get. He’s not screaming and throwing things, getting into fights, or getting in accidents. His personality doesn’t change, but he just becomes less inhibited when he’s drunk. At the end of the episode, you get the impression that the biggest losses are his ability to control his situation and his mental capacities. We discover that, since he’s really been hitting the sauce, he’s basically not had a really good idea since they started SCDP. On the contrary, his big Clio-winning coup was actually created by Peggy, who gets no credit for her work. And worse, Don gets wasted and steals a crap idea from a crap applicant that he then has to hire.

Which leads me to my biggest question about the comic parallels drawn in this episode. We’re led to believe that Don basically used Roger’s alcoholism, albeit in a more crafty way, to get a job. And Danny stumbles into this job because of Don’s alcoholism, though he doesn’t actually do anything to make that happen. So, what are we to make of this? We’re led to believe that Don deserved the job he got, that he was entitled to exploit Roger a little because the Rogers of the world don’t just let the working class Dons of the world in the door. Roger didn’t even look at his work! But there’s no reason to think Danny actually deserves the job. In most ways, he’s the opposite of Don—he’s a hack who is using his connections to get in the door, instead of a talented person who has to use cunning. They’re not the same at all, really. So why the parallels? To draw attention to how useless Don has become? Is Danny a symbol of the mediocrity Don has invited into his life by getting wasted every night?

Entitled hacks were a real theme of the show, which I enjoyed. The writers took a swipe at the very kind of writing I criticize at top, which is to be shocking for its own sake. The new art director is pretty much idea-free, but he gets away with it by adopting the persona of a shocking, belligerent artist who is constrained by stupid middle class mores inflicted on him by a sex-withholding matriarchy. He’s simply ahead of his time, of course—born a couple decades later and he could go on to found American Apparel and then run it into the ground. As usual when something on the show is as over the top as this, there’s a conflict. It seems to buck the norms of restraint that we expect on a critically acclaimed show like this, but on the flip side, to be less than over the top is to sacrifice accuracy. Douchebags like that are, in the real world, like a million times worse. Probably more so in the 60s.

Which leads me to the most interesting aspect for me of this show, which is how it deals with feminist ideas with sympathy and intelligence they almost never get anywhere else. The conflict between feminists and sexual liberationists who belligerently insist that any resistance to objectification equals prudery is one where the latter camp gets all the sympathy in the vast majority of Hollywood products. People can’t conceive of a sexual model where women are really treated as full human beings, and therefore they assume that when feminists get bunchy at a bunch of “show us your tits” dudes, it’s because we’re uptight and hung up. This dude noticed Peggy’s instinctive feminism—her quiet demands that the world take her seriously as a human being—and immediately determined it was anti-sex. After all, what’s less sexy than treating women like human beings? But the show sided with Peggy every step of the way, including the feminist critique of how female sexuality is portrayed in most pornography, as a commodity item—female receptacles who give you no grief for sale. But I was genuinely thrilled at the way they showed Peggy laying waste to this “feminists are just prudes” argument that is still, to this day, flung around if a feminist dares clear her throat in the direction of suggesting that there’s some misogyny afoot when men insist on sexualized images of female humiliation, or use porn as a way to intimidate women they don’t want to deal with. Getting naked and making it clear that her objections are to his misogyny and not to sex itself? Brilliant. If the art director was Dov Charney before his time, then Peggy is Donita Sparks throwing her tampon at the male audience at the Reading festival that objected to having to tolerate female musicians on stage. Take what they’re so afraid of and shove in their face, ladies! You’re my heroes.

The other feminist theme was a bit more complicated, but once again, I love how the writers get to the heart of these problems instead of being distracted by shiny baubles like “prude” and “man hater” being waved by sexists. Peggy and Don’s relationship is a classic example of the more subtle and frustrating ways that sexism works its magic on women. The art director flashing KKK images was a nod to the problem—much of the public only accepts the reality of oppression when it’s overt and dressed in a white hood. But at the time he’s making the ad, the images are already dated in significant ways. The civil rights movement had passed a form of formal equality and were beginning to face the far more complex problems of oppression beyond overt laws demanding segregation. The face of racism was quickly turning from burning crosses and hoods and into politicians demanding “law and order” and complaining about welfare fraud. In 45 years, they’d be taking a piss on MLK’s grave while pretending to speak for him.

Don both lifts Peggy up and keeps her in her place, and she knows it, but it’s complicated. She doesn’t know what to do about it. Sexism doesn’t always come in an ass-pinching, easily threatened package. Don wouldn’t call Peggy “toots” or shove porn in her face as if to say, “I don’t care what job you have, you’re still just a vagina on legs to me.” Don believes Peggy is talented, and he respects her, in his way. But Don still sees her as a woman, and still believes it’s her job to pick up the slack, show ladylike humility, and play the peace-maker, even when it’s a man that is causing all the problems. In fact, I’d argue that sometimes Don is hard on Peggy precisely because he knows that she will be treated unfairly her whole life, and he believes that her best bet to succeed is to accept this as the way things are and play the game. Peggy, however, is beginning to realize that smiling and taking it from dudes will get her a decent job writing ad campaigns that someone else will take credit for, but if she really wants to make it to the top, she’s going to have to break the rules made for women. She and Don functionally have a disagreement on the best strategies for Peggy to succeed. To her, Don isn’t an evil sexist. He’s just wrong. But what do you do with a man who means the best for you, but is so consistently wrong?

This is all coming to a head. Peggy is the creative force holding the agency together, and Don is taking all the credit. There is much love and respect between them, but this cannot last. I predict that eventually, Peggy will have to suck up all her love for Don and push him out of his job so she can take it.

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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