Mad Men blogging: Dick in a box
Back in Austin, Pandagonians, and so regular blogging will commence. Which means I’m finally able to get around to “Mad Men” blogging, since I finally saw it last night. This edition’s title was suggested by Marc. As usual, spoilers.
Early on in the show, Don and Suzanne are laying in bed, talking about that little childish thing you wonder and never completely resolve as an adult: everyone roughly agrees on what is blue (or red or yellow), but are we actually seeing the same thing when we look at “blue”? In the strictest sense, we know that not everyone sees colors the same—the existence of colorblindness proves that—but for those of us not missing the sensors for certain colors, the question remains. When you see blue, does it look different than when I see blue?
On the surface, the conversation highlights the differences between Suzanne and Don’s worldviews, and explains why Don is going to start seeing Suzanne as a daughter figure he must protect (as Betty continues to wonder about Henry, a father figure). It’s not just that Suzanne engages with childish questions so earnestly (seeing a value in them I find legitimate), but also that Don is so cynical, believing (probably correctly) that the question is more a disturbance to most people than anything else, because everyone wants to see blue the same way.
But the questions also sets up the theme of this show, which is perception. The various story lines are all about looking at how one person’s view of another person may not match what others see. Or I’d say what’s there, but I think the show ends abruptly on an important question about what reality even is, as we get a shot of everyone looking at Don, and Betty’s view is so different than everyone else’s. But is it more accurate? At this point, I contest that Dick Whitman is really who Don Draper is, any more than we are “really” our childish selves, and not the people we become. Don just shoves his childish self in a box, while the rest of us file it away in our minds. But it’s understandable that Betty’s not going to see it that way. And so we’re asked to believe that the multiple views of Don Draper have varying degrees of accuracy, and two people who see very different views of Don can both be right. Roger’s speech points to this, when he calls Don a father, a husband, a partner, etc. Many different ways of seeing blue.
The entire episode was laced throughout with conflicting views. Peggy says that Don hates her, and Paul says that Don loves her. Paul asks Achilles the janitor if he’s Greek, and Achilles says he’s American—and we realize that both are true in a sense, at least if Achilles is Greek-American. Suzanne sees her brother differently than he sees himself, and Don gets another view entirely. Paul initially believes that Peggy is rising because she’s a woman (!), but then he comes around to seeing that Peggy is simply better than he is at the job. The phone rings and the person on the other side hangs up, providing both Betty and Don a blank slate on which to project what their anxieties and secrets. Each comes to believe that the hang-up was their secret lover, and was the little story Betty told Sally about a wrong number actually the truth? Price obviously loves New York City and the American way of doing business, but all his wife sees when it comes to the city is filth and disorder. Betty looks at the divorce decree of Don’s and no doubt imagines a prior love affair and marriage; but from Don’s perspective, the divorce decree represents an old friendship and an act of love for his real wife Betty. Bert intends to skip out on the party because the memories it stirs up depress him, but Price points out that other people will think he’s sick. Bert agrees to go, because Bert is a firm believer that perception creates reality. Which is why focusing on “truth” in this episode is to miss the point. Betty sits up half the night with the “truth” in a box in front of her, eagerly waiting for a reckoning that doesn’t come. Instead, the “lie” continues to form her reality, which forces the viewer to ask which one is the lie and which one is the truth. What’s more real—their fun weekend in Rome, their miserable marriage now, the fact that their marriage is arguably not real? All of it, even if it conflicts.
All of this is why the last shot of the episode isn’t a shot of the person that everyone in the room is staring at, but a shot of one of the people doing the staring. Perception is forming reality—what Betty believes isn’t the “truth”, even if it feels like it, because those documents block out the love Don honestly had for her—and Bert would be pleased.
But even in an episode that ponders the question of “what is blue?” and concludes that it depends on the viewer, there is a caveat about how far this can be taken. Don and Suzanne’s brother argue precisely this issue. Don’s stance is that one should fake it until they make it, which he can believe, since he did that. He perceived himself as Don Draper, and became that. Suzanne’s brother points out that he can fake it until he wakes up from a fit covered in piss. That’s the sort of blunt reality impervious to illusion and projection, and a reminder that philosophical inquiries about the nature of reality and perception should be tempered by a respect for certain blunt realities. It’s all well and good to talk about subjectivity and relativity, but let’s not go past the point where we’re pretending that creationism is a legitimate viewpoint, people who think vaccines cause autism deserve to have that view respected, or that racism doesn’t truly constrain people’s choices. Don must concede that some things are beyond the control of perception, and gives Suzanne’s brother money to let him go into night. And then he lies to her about it, controlling her reality.
By the way, I just to gloat a little thatBenjamin Schwartz’s dream-killing misreading of “Mad Men” and right wing wankers like Lisa Schiffren gloating about Schwartz’s piece. Schwartz hangs his entire “the 50s weren’t so bad!” argument on one very minor flaw the writers on “Mad Men” put on the show—they have Betty talking about her sorority, but Betty went to Bryn Mawr, which has no sororities—and uses that to strongly imply that the recklessness, the racism, and the sexism are exaggerated, missing the entire point of the show. At this point, both Schiffren and Schwartz argue that no way could Betty have gone to Bryn Mawr (as if her family connections weren’t the major factor in where she went), because they believe Betty is a bimbo. But their accusation is evidence-free—Betty is a beautiful blonde and shallow, sure, but she’s also been, as I noted before, routinely characterized as having more of an attachment to an intellectual life than Don. Don’s always scribbling notes about work at home, but Betty is always reading. Schiffren actually says, “We’ve only twice seen her with a book,” which is patently false, as we saw her 3 times in this one episode alone reading. Showing people reading on TV isn’t done—we almost never see the other characters doing it—because it’s static. But we see Betty reading all the time, and she’s often reading famous novels of the period. That Schiffren can’t get that detail right is way more telling than the Bryn Mawr sorority detail. (Sororities are far from an indicator that someone is a lightweight, particularly when it comes to the 50s.) It’s not out of the question that a Bryn Mawr graduate would go into modeling, for fuck’s sake. We’ve been told repeatedly that Betty is insecure about her looks, because she was a fat child, and always seeking validation. Being well-educated doesn’t preclude that.