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Empathy For The Devil (Writing For Electronic Media, May 2013)

EMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL (written for BECA 370, Writing For Electronic Media, May 2013)

As 1968 unfolds, Mad Men continues to subvert Sixties nostalgia

Season 6 of Mad Men presents us with a Don Draper hell-bent on undoing any sign of growth we might have seen in him in the previous two seasons. After bottoming out in 1965 with alcoholic blackouts and creepy, destructive sexual power-tripping, he pulled himself together and married a smart, assertive young woman who kept him interested enough that he appeared to be sincere about making his second marriage something his first could never be: a real partnership. Fast forward to 1968 and Don is back to his 1960 self, luxuriating in the privileges of the double standard that allow him to pout jealously over his actress wife playing a love scene in a soap opera one minute, and mess around with the bored stay-at-home housewife downstairs in the next. Don’s pathetic, threadbare hypocrisy is further underlined by the earlier scene where he and Megan are propositioned by another couple; for a minute the Drapers seem to be on the same page. But while Megan’s objections seem straightforward enough (it’s just plain weird, and doubly uncomfortable because she has to work with these people!), for Don this kind of flagrant sexual openness is a violation of the twisted code he lives by where a man indulges his appetites in secret and returns to the “good” woman waiting patiently for him at home.

Deliberate Values Dissonance has always been the point of Mad Men. From the beginning, the show has rubbed your face in the conventional wisdom of 50 years ago. The characters are true to their era, but they’re seen through the eyes of a present day audience. The brilliance of the show is the way they’ve played with that: sometimes blatant (Doctors smoke cigarettes! Everyone drinks at work! Sexual harassment is just a perk of success!), and sometimes jarringly subtle. (Wait a minute, is that family really going to just leave all that trash behind in the park? Ummm…I guess they are, all right. Lady Bird Johnson and “Keep America Beautiful” are still a few years away.) We view this world, so different from our present and yet so much the same, through a lens that adds layers of meaning to everything that happens. If a time traveler took a few episodes of Mad Men and showed them to a Sixties audience, (once they got over their shock that this overtly risqué stuff was actually a TV show) they would not see the same program that we do. The most obvious example would be the way the men treat the women. Sexism and even misogyny are simply a fact of life for all of these people. They no more question it than a fish would question water. But we get to see the impact of each casual word or act through the eyes of the female characters, most of whom don’t even have the language yet to understand what’s being perpetrated on them, but they know they don’t like it.

At the same time, there are no cartoon villains in this show. We care about these people, no matter how hideously wrong they are, even tragic douchebag Pete Campbell, who got put in his place deliciously by his wife Trudy the week before. (So deliciously that it’s easy to forget the poor woman he was caught cheating with, the evidence taking the form of a horrific beating by her husband. If you needed a reminder that we’ve progressed a little bit on the issue of domestic violence, look no further.) And there are no flawless heroes either. Megan may be guilelessly honest and sincere, but she’s made some ruthless moves to get her acting career off the ground. And even Peggy, our viewpoint character if anyone on this show is, had to betray a friendship for the sake of her job, and seems to be OK with that in Episode 4. Temptation, corruption, workplace politics and, of course, (this is a show about advertising, after all) the art of persuasion keep popping back up as recurring themes. Whenever Don or Peggy delivers a great pitch to a client, the thrills are palpable. And when we see Don do a crappy pitch that falls flat (as we have two shows in a row now, though the Jaguar bit in Episode 3 was deliberate and even brilliant in its passive-aggressiveness), it’s painful to watch.

Episode 5 treats us to another Mad Men staple: how a pivotal Sixties event affects our characters. The assassination of Martin Luther King results in a series of awkward moments where well-meaning white characters try to show sympathy for black ones. Peggy comes off relatively well as she offers her secretary a stilted, but genuine, hug. But when Joan tries the same with Dawn while the latter is arguing to Don that no, she does not want to take the day off, the tension is thick. And when Don’s son Bobby innocently tries to offer a kind word to the black janitor in the movie theater, the man’s silent stare speaks volumes; Dr. King’s message has not gotten across if his death is treated as a tragedy for “them” rather than “all of us”. Meanwhile, Pete may be an awful man in many ways, but his outburst of rage and grief at Harry’s indifference to the event suggests that out of all the main white characters, he is the one who really understands what the King murder means. (The paradox of Pete is that he has somehow stayed ahead of the curve on racial issues from the start.) Once again, the show has managed to avoid the temptation to superficially run through a historical checklist, instead finding a deeper take on stories we’ve heard over and over. From what we’ve seen so far of Season 6, Mad Men still has more than enough juice left to keep us addicted at least until Nixon resigns.

100.0000 % Good job!

Well, thank you. I won’t rewrite anything, then.