June 25, 2013

The Last Don: On the Season Finale of “Mad Men”


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It’s not easy being Don Draper.  Megan is seemingly about to leave him.  He’s as distant from his kids as ever, to put it lightly.  And the agency that tabbed him as creative director is turning its collective back to him.  Let us not forget though, Don brought this upon himself, committing personal and professional suicide throughout this booze haze season.  His unrelenting efforts to control women and men around him have severely backfired and we’re only left to wonder for at least a year if he can recover.

Many critics pointed to Don’s Royal Hawaiian campaign as a foreshadowing of Don’s self-inflicted demise.  He’s still breathing, but the Don we’ve come to know and hate-to-love has, at least for the moment, ceased to exist.  Don couldn’t ascertain what the shortcomings of his dreamt up Royal Hawaiian ad were.  “Always make the client feel good,” they say, and Don failed, er, royally at that by using such morbid death imagery that proved to be prophetic.  It was the beginning of the end.  Don couldn’t see what was coming: a de-tenuring of his continuous, masterful grip on those around him and the makings of a real-life personal hell for the man.

The symbolism of Don’s reading of “The Inferno” has come full circle upon the season’s closing episode, exhibited most conspicuously when he’s asked if he is “Going down?” by fill-ins Duck and Lou Avery.  Don’s been doing just that over the course of 1968 (along with the rest of the country).  His levels of descension have been marked by the loss of control he has had over others.  First it was Sylvia, just as he thought he had optimum jurisdiction over her body.  He gave in to Betty’s yearning for attention by sleeping with her.  Then Sally saw the kind of man he really is and she wrestled free, at least as much as a burgeoning teen girl could.  At work, Don fought an underhanded war with Ted, one in which Don was clearly the villain.  Don surrendered there, but that was only a preview of the blows that were about to reign on him from the other partners in retaliation for his perceived disinterest and more recent implosion witnessed by potential top-notch clientele.  And after flip-flopping on California and thus Megan’s immediate career path, an act that established new heights of selfishness, Don hit rock bottom when Megan couldn’t stand his gall any longer and walked out of their condo.  The Betty Case aside, which was already a broken relationship, all of these instances feature Don ceaselessly taking advantage of the blind trust people had for him.  They’ve all broken Don’s sleeper hold now.

The very last scene when Don takes his three young ones to the site where he grew up is a symbol of hope though.  He’s been at rock bottom before, and on more than one occasion.  The barely-standing childhood abode before them on a sunny day is proof of that.  The look on Sally’s face when Don tells her what they’re standing in front of reads of a reluctant admiration for her father’s resiliency.  It’s going to be hard for her to complain about much from here on out, so that was an easy first victory for Don on his road back to being in the driver’s seat.  He’s looking to sober up and everyone at the firm respects Don’s talents far too greatly for them to completely give up on him yet.  Don may have lost Megan, but he once lost Betty too.  The question is not whether Don will find another woman or not, it’s if he can be with one for the right reasons and not treat her like a child’s plaything.  That would indicate he actually learned a thing or two from his season-long personal realization of Dante’s classic.

April 8, 2013

Why Don Draper of “Mad Men” Can’t Stop Cheating


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At the close of last night’s Mad Men Season 6 premiere, Don Draper reveals his New Year’s resolution to his latest mistress, saying “I want to stop doing this.”  Sylvia, Dr. Rosen’s wife, says she knew that to be the case.  However, Don’s use of pronouns, and absence of therapy sessions, paves the way for fun viewer speculation as to what exactly it is he wants to stop doing.  Better still, there can be discussion about why he, apparently, lowers himself, and periodically feels twinges of guilt.

Taking a Freudian approach, delving into Don’s sketchy, but unfortunately turbulent backstory is a necessity.  The women in Don’s life have been disappointing him, literally, throughout his entire life.  His mother, a prostitute, died while giving birth to him.  It’s difficult then to lay blame for Don’s issues at his mother’s feet because she certainly didn’t choose to abandon him; however, it was repeated to him on many occasions throughout his childhood that he was a “whore child,” so, even from beyond the grave, his mother’s character was a nuisance to him.  Abigail, Don’s stepmother, must not have been so wonderful to Don either because when Don is informed of her death from stomach cancer, he says to his half brother, the bearer of that news, “Good.”  Therefore, by the time he was a teenager and joined the army, Don’s positive experiences with women were likely minimal, if there were any at all.

In Betty, he found someone as childish as she is beautiful and, for a time at least, he could control her.  After years of infidelity, Don finally proves to be untrustworthy when Betty learns of Don’s prior identity as Dick Whitman.  The staggering truth that Don is a man Betty doesn’t know-a reality that any woman only minutely more aware than Betty is would have seen years prior-is finally too much for her to bear, and she files for divorce.  Rapidly, in Don’s eyes, the best thing about Betty, her immaturity, becomes the most infuriating aspect of her personality as he tries to navigate his new life as a single father.  Betty uses their children to control Don, making it increasingly difficult for him to be an effective, even loving parent.  In short, Betty becomes an incredible irritant to Don, just like his mother and stepmother.

Don tells Peggy towards the close of Season 5, “You help people, and then they move on.”  This was soon after Peggy had left Don’s firm where, under his tutelage, she’d learned all her advertising trade tricks, but, at that point, Don was really referencing his wife, Megan, and not really trying to impose guilt upon Peggy.  He checks himself and quickly insists to Peggy that he is indeed proud of her achievements.  In the case of Megan, Don was feeling duped because in his former secretary, he thought he’d found another woman he could control.  But when she gets the acting bug in her, he’s combative and tries to restrict her pursuits.  Turning over a new leaf, Don gives in, hopeful that he can still find comfort in someone so independent, and he lands her the gig in a commercial that his very own firm was producing.

mad-men-jessica-pare-jon-hamm-season-6-premiere-amcTo Megan’s credit, she looks intent on balancing her career commitments with those that come with being in a marriage.  For instance, she appears genuinely upset that she can’t attend Roger’s mother’s funeral, an event that Don, as a partner of Roger’s, would most certainly have to attend.  Don says he doesn’t mind, which also comes after he seemingly restrains some internal frustration at her newfound notoriety during their Hawaiian trip.  So, despite Megan’s best efforts to be a good wife, Don’s anxious anyway.

Don cheats on Megan because he expected her to be a disappointment to him.  Now, because she is doing her own thing as opposed to sitting at home waiting for him to arrive for dinner, Don’s bailing.  His current swing into infidelity is the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  All of the women in his life, his mother, step mother, Betty, and, though they weren’t a couple, even Peggy, have been a source of some varying degree of angst for Don.  It’s virtually impossible then for Megan to keep Don close, for Don’s just been waiting for a reason to leave her all along.

Don’s “first wife,” Anna, is the lone exception.  They had “an understanding” and “it wasn’t romantic,” he tells Sally in Season 5.  Anna was nice enough to allow Dick Whitman to go on living as Donald Draper and, when he asked her, nice enough to divorce him too.  Don struggled with her untimely death and now only speaks fondly of her whenever he must to the few people, all women, in his life who even know of Anna’s existence.  Anna could be an illustration that there is a section of Don’s character willing to turn itself completely over to one woman.  However, it might already be occupied by Anna, a dead woman whose entire presence in Don’s life, as someone who allowed Don to do whatever the hell he wanted, was a positive one.

So, as Don reads Dante’s book about “you know where,” to quote Roger, he’s pausing to actually reflect on his sinful actions.  Don doesn’t just want to stop sleeping around, he wants to thwart his reemerging tendency to sabotage relationships with women.  Perhaps it’s because Megan is proving to be simply a better woman than Betty  as she makes a concerted effort to not let Don down, despite wanting to achieve her own personal goals.  Or it could be that Don has matured and finally grown tired of the intensity that comes with cheating, the very thing that for years could have provided him with a thrilling rush of excitement.  Whatever the reason for Don’s potential enlightenment, the root cause of his behavior goes back quite a ways, and it’s a bit unsettling to think Megan, through no fault of her own, could experience some painful days if Don can’t figure this all out.        

January 21, 2012

Not 30 Rock Solid


In Nashville last summer, Tracy Morgan told an audience attending his standup comedy show that should his son make a choice to be gay and one day bring another man home, Morgan would stab him in the throat.  He would later apologize in a very public manner and the story eventually fizzled away.  On this past Thursday’s episode of 30 Rock, “Idiots are People Two!,” the unprovoked creative team decided to address the real-life controversy with a satirical version of the event, which is not out of the ordinary for the show.  However, the semi-autobiographical Morgan character, Tracy Jordan, found himself having to apologize for simply saying, “Being gay is stupid.  If you want to see a penis, take off your pants!  If I were turned into a gay, I’d sit around all day and look at my own junk.”  Liz Lemon points out the offensiveness of the notion that a person could be transformed into “a gay,” which is accurate, but the Jordan punchline fails to draw a true comparison between the two scenarios, making their attempt at lightheartedness ring distasteful.

When controversies such as this one erupt, people become offended for two reasons: 1) the content of the comment is insensitive to the liberties of the those who have been targeted and 2) the statement just isn’t funny.  Liz indirectly highlights this in the episode by saying to Tracy Jordan that it’s a bad idea to offend gay rights groups “because they are the most organized” of them all, making “the Chinese look like the Greeks.”  Jordan asks how his comment could be deemed offensive, but not hers, to which Liz ironically replies, “Because nobody heard me say it.”  Plenty of people heard her say it, and it was funny.  So, Morgan and anyone else who strives to be edgy in their works of comedy simply need to make sure that their statements are appealing to the mass’ sense of humor as opposed to genuinely concerning themselves with the level of offensiveness in their writing.

Perhaps another reason for this public displeasure with Morgan was that on any given night, a comic might not mesh with their audience, failing to win them over.  Having been raised on the streets of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, Morgan’s life path, like anyone else’s, helped shape his raw comedy stylings.  Nashville could be the type of town where his act just didn’t translate well, giving patroners a reason to publicize anything remotely contentious after not receiving a satisfying level of entertainment for their spent money.

With that stated, Tracy Morgan spoke of committing a murder of his own child.  Most certainly, this was an overzealous attempt at humor, a right that Morgan should not find himself begrudged of.  But 30 Rock mimicked Morgan’s act with jokes that did not feature any suggestion of physical harm being done to another human being at all.  The result is that the consequential satire that turns up throughout the rest of the episode falls short of having a direct correlation to the real events, which completely takes away from the idea that there could be humor in what was an unfortunate incident.  This also creates a delayed watered-down effect on Morgan’s initial apology to GLAAD and the gay community.  GLAAD says they thought the episode was “hilarious,” namely the moment where Jordan calls the Glad trash bag company to say he was sorry for offending gays, but if 30 Rock finds the whole situation so funny, then how honest and genuine could Morgan’s real apology have been?  The truth is there was no humor in what happened last summer, hence the controversy; therefore a successful parody is impossible and only serves as an uncomfortable reminder of what went on.

December 4, 2011

A Seoulful Effort


Fear Eats the Seoul debuted in the United States last night to a quaint group of twenty-to-thirty-somethings, who could not have known what to expect from the cherubic NJ Calder on his maiden feature film effort.  With a budget of $4500, Calder skillfully pieced together a horror flick, ripe with depth and subtle original twists to the genre.  Set in Seoul, South Korea, it is about four English teacher transplants trying to survive a sudden zombie apocalypse, while facing their own unsavory character flaws.  Mirrors are a prevalent symbolic presence, representing a forced reflection that the protagonists must have of themselves if they are going to deal with the “demons” and get along with each other.  After locking themselves into a safe haven, the foursome find that, aside from hunting for food and debating what their next move will be, there’s not a whole lot to do.  The stress and tension build as the realtime vignettes pull viewers into a setting saturated with conflict.

In the spirit of 28 Days Later, Fear Eats the Seoul is better characterized as a drama with zombies as opposed to a traditional gore fest, like Dead/Alive and Dawn of the Dead.  With expected budgetary constraints, Calder knew he had to piece together images that suggest devastating violence instead of putting it on gratuitous display.  The result proves Calder a prodigy in that often overlooked editing portion of the filmmaking skill set.  Couple the quick cuts with near seizure-inducing focus shifts, throw in a sickly tense score, and voila: a highly entertaining, gripping movie emerges.

Another applaudable aspect of the film is Calder’s awareness of the need for the zombies to be stylized.  He challenged himself to be original.  Though inspired by Freddy Krueger, the “demons” as they are called (a play on the “inner demons” that the characters must face), are different from the monster predecessors that fans of the genre have seen countless times before.  Once transformed, the demons develop a predatory tool with their fingers having turned into elongated root-like claws.  The faces of the demons resemble a somehow even more horrifying version of Heath Ledger’s Joker of The Dark Knight fame and these zombies are fast and smart too.

Calder appeals to the horror die hards though by lifting the premise that once a human’s skin has been broken by a demon, they too turn into one.  This sets up the inevitable moment where a character must choose to become malevolent towards someone who, moments earlier, were quite dear to them.  Perhaps the best example of Calder’s ability to be true to the genre, yet unique is the kill method that must be employed, which involves pinpoint blows to an undead head, originating from the unquestioned foundational film Night of the Living Dead, but with a symbolic variation that astute viewers will find themselves pondering in between late night shuddered looks around their apartment.

Opportunities to view NJ Calder’s Fear Eats the Seoul may be limited, but should you over the course of the next year or so find it listed on the queue of a local indie film festival, a download of a couple of etickets to your smart phone should happen as quickly as you can say “Soju Hangover.”

November 20, 2011

The Rise of Butters


South Park‘s “City Sushi” of Season 15 is a true “Butters episode,” featuring said character at his quintessential best.  He, innocently enough, opens the show working as a flyer distributor for the new local sushi place.  The Chinese owner of City Wok is outraged because the Japanese are cutting in on his territory, just like they’ve continuously done throughout history.  An Asian turf war breaks out and the authorities believe Butters is involved.  Upon examining him, the psychologist says Butters suffers from multiple personality disorder, but what he offers in support of this diagnosis makes it clear to viewers that the doctor is simply observing Butters’ incredibly creative and playful mind.  These “personalities” are simply characters that he has created so as to entertain himself while being drastically sheltered by his parents, who proclaim themselves to be “awesome.”  Once again, Butters finds himself surrounded by people, usually adults, who drag him into a situation of some peril.  Sure, Butters suffers from a bit of extreme naivete, but Trey Parker and Matt Stone have made efforts to develop very subtle layers to Butters, as he has emerged into a more (ironically) perceptive, less reserved staple of the show.

Early on, Butters was not as prolific and was inserted into spot episodes as an easy target of ridicule for the cast mainstays and audience alike.  In the second half of Season 4 (2000), Butters briefly appears in “4th Grade.”  On behalf of their peers, the core four decide to pull a prank on their new teacher to establish their dominance in the classroom.  They propose the act of pulling down their pants while shouting “Kiss my ass!”  Butters asks for clarification.  “Should we stand front ways or back?” he stutters.  “Do we show our behinds or our weiners?”  Surprised at the lack of thought behind the question, Stan stares, pauses and deadpanly explains that showing their asses would be “sufficient.”  Such scenes were the norm for poor Butters, the mere fringe character.

Butters would become more prevalent by the end of the 5th season though, when he was the focal point of the aptly, humorously entitled “Butters’ Very Own Episode.”  This is when the audience would become more in tune with what makes Butters tick.  Setting up his increased role in the next season as the possible replacement of Kenny as the fourth friend, Parker and Stone take viewers into the Scotch household-a pretty terrifying place.  Like in the aforementioned “City Sushi” episode, Butters is asked to be involved in some unsavory activity.  Looking to please his mother, he complies to spying on his dad, only to unknowingly reveal his father’s secret gay life.  Mrs. Scotch snaps and decides that the only way to protect her son from the impurities of a life with a homosexual for a father is to kill Butters.  He survives and by the end of the show lectures his parents about the pitfalls of lying.

By the time he creates his alter-ego, “Professor Chaos,” Butters has suffered many-a-pangs at the hands of Stan, Kyle, and Cartman, while serving as their stand-in friend.  Finally, after an ultimate rejection as their confidant, Butters becomes the super villain, looking to create displeasure for anyone in his presence.  Sure he only performs crimes against others that are more cute than harmful, like swapping people’s soups at Bennigan’s, but this is a turning point for Butters as he would come to assert himself amongst the group more and more.

Of late, Butters has been increasingly vocal and, dare I say, confident in his voice.  By the premiere of the current Season 15, “HumancentiPad,” viewers behold him actually pointing out a poor choice on Kyle’s part to accept, without reading, the exceptionally verbose agreement between Apple and their users of the frequently updated ITunes application.  It is Butters, of all people, who calls into question Stan’s defense of the entrapped Kyle.  After reading aloud the portion of the agreement that clearly indicates that Kyle had agreed to be a part of the Apple experiment in which Kyle’s face would be sewn to the rear end of another user, Butters slowly, moves his mouse into place and  sarcastically enunciates, “Yeah, I’m going to click…’Decline.’”  In “The Last of the Meheecans,” Butters is the unheralded hero.  After (once again innocently) becoming a recognizable symbol of Mexican pride in the neighboring country, the gang fail to be aware of his leadership capabilities and refuse to appoint him head-Mexican should they once again play “Texans vs. Mexicans.”  With dramatic irony at work, Butters simply raises his arms, thus manipulating the native Mexicans into a chant for their new idol, a chant that can be heard all the way to Colorado.  And at the end of “City Sushi,” Butters is again the hero, having unmasked Janus and put an end to his Japanese brand of terror in South Park.  During the course of the episode, Butters is literally pissed on by Janus, who was pretending to be his therapist, while he slept.  It is as though Parker and Stone created a visual reminder of what had been happening to Butters throughout his tenure on the show, while, at the same time, pointing out the new irony present in his character, having become smarter, stronger, and more assertive.  It will be interesting to see how many more times the creators of South Park use Butters as a purveyor of keen perception, while trumping Stan and Kyle’s level of cognizance and intelligence.

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