Posts tagged ‘Television Criticism’

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.

November 9, 2010

Your Head Was Broken, Not Your Cable Box


June 11, 2007.  You remember.  “I thought my cable went out!”  You heard it all day.  Hell, you might’ve said it too.  Didn’t you?  And with that, one of the most anticipated and best grand finales in the history of television was reduced to an assumption that one of the most brilliant and respected television writer/directors of this generation got together with HBO, Time Warner, Dish Network, CableVision, and Ashton Kutcher and played a little joke on America.  Fucked with our heads a bit.  You dolts.  If I had to hear “I almost called the cable company” one more time, I was liable to take an x-acto knife to my own skin so that I could feel a different kind of pain that I could control.

The Sopranos team did an incredible job of fusing intellectual art with raw, gratuitous violence.  The result was a series, on cable no less, that had both obscene mass appeal and critical appreciation.  The reason for the unrelenting attacks against the show’s creators for their efforts in the last episode was the void in that bringer of viewers: the almighty shootout and explosion.  All that was left was the blank screen and that shitty highbrow ambiguity, right?

But I digress.

Look here reader, I’m not going to point out to you the discernible interpretation of the quick cut seen ’round the country (David Chase’s statement clearly being that it doesn’t matter if Tony breathes again or eats it, just understand that the life Tony chose is one filled with constant anxiety and a lack of trust for anyone…oh, I just couldn’t help myself), but I will discuss why the climax of the series was actually filled with classic American themes that should have been clear to anyone who paid attention in their high school American literature course.

Exhibit A:  The last episode is entitled “Made In America.”  This suggests that Tony, his immediate family, and the entire Soprano mafia are products of this country and a culture that facilitates their ability to thrive, despite their underhanded, greedy, and homicidal tendencies.  Like the title character of The Great Gatsby, Tony Soprano is a man that will do anything to get his hands on as many almighty dollars as America makes available. (He’s a mafia crime boss; I hope I don’t need to give supporting details here).  However, Tony’s brush with death towards the end of the series forces him to consider the world in a new way.

After Uncle Junior shoots him and the road to recovery begins, Tony is placed in a room with an older man and they watch a boxing match together.  The patient next to Tony points out that when people see two boxers punching each other, they are only witnessing a minimal percentage of reality.  In fact, he says, “everything is connected” because the punches, all the activity in the universe really, are just a bunch of atoms bouncing off of each other.  After 9/11 and this bit of scientific philosophy, Tony finds himself oft-worried about another terrorist attack; he constantly talks with that FBI agent, not only regarding the supposed strategies of the New York bosses, but also about terrorist threats.  Tony, even through the last episode when he is still concerned with getting whacked, goes out of his way to give the fed tips that may lead to terrorist arrests.  So, this man, who has done his share of killing, is becoming very anxious and aware of threats to the safety of people he loves, people he doesn’t even know, and to the country that provides him with the luxuries of his existence.  This sounds to me like a guy who is reevaluating mortality.

Meadow and A.J. play a central role in David Chase’s plan to develop his theme regarding America’s opportunities.  With all the money that Tony has dubiously acquired, he can afford to put Meadow through law school after leaving med school.  He and Carmela also keep A.J. around, despite his constant ability to be the founder of revolutionary methods of fucking up (He doesn’t even cut it in a pizza joint).  In the grand finale, it is clear that Meadow is on her way to happiness and success with her impending six-figured salary job.  Though done with some hasty script-writing, A.J. too, after an exhaustive search and a plethora of pouting faces, seems on his track too in the movie business.

So, Tony is successful at achieving many of the common goals that many Americans have, though few see come to fruition: he has enormous wealth, is looked up to (or is it just feared?), can provide for his family, and enjoys the freedoms this country provides.  The big question though is, “At what cost?”

Because we are all connected, Tony is worried in that famous diner scene.  He knows that he has done wrong, many times.  Despite the supposed “fact” that family members of mafia targets are not typically victimized, as per Tony’s earlier claim to Carmela, he is concerned that anyone who walks into the place is liable to off him and his wife and his kids (Why else would he have put them all in hiding in previous episodes?)  There are many, even with Phil, the New York Crime Boss, vanquished, who could potentially seek revenge.  So, in that fateful or not-so-fateful final second, Tony’s apprehension boils to the point where he is even worried that his own daughter could kill him.  Certainly that won’t actually happen, but Chase, with the buildup of Meadow’s terrible parking job (I grew up in Queens, New York.  We know what we’re doing there.), creates this tension for our antihero.  This is what Tony Soprano’s life has become: an endless string of worries and sizing up all the people around him, while he waits for the one with the nerve.

October 28, 2010

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to Narrate “Mad Men”…


***Spoiler Alert for those who have not seen Seasons 3 and 4 of Mad Men***

Mad Men has built up quite a following over the course of its first four seasons.  And why shouldn’t it?  It’s about the drama that permeates the private lives of the rich and absurdly attractive.  (Sound familiar?) We love the stories with the backdrop of the 60s – a racy, yet somehow simpler time.  We follow the characters – devilish or not, they’re hot.  But the critical acclaim that the show gets is a byproduct of its depth of themes, and it’s as much about the ascension of African Americans as anything else.  Who better to tell that story than Blacks themselves?

Now, I must apologize, dear reader, for having to focus a lot of my attention on Season 2 and on the character who was in the running for “Biggest Douche on the Show,” Paul Kinsey, because he, in exercising his exceptional talents for douchebaggery (Yeah, you can use that), spends the bulk of his bearded face time in that season with Sheila, his black girlfriend.  Kinsey’s body is such a safe haven for douche that when the partners ditch the Brit-owned office at the end of Season 3, Draper and Co. leave him behind.  Shit, they even bring Pete “I Knock Chicks Who Aren’t My Wife Up” Campbell with them!

But I digress.

One of the opening scenes of the Season 2 premiere quickly establishes African Americans as potential narrators, sympathetic figures, even voices of reason.  Joan is trying to decide where in the office to put the tremendous new copy machine.  In front of the black delivery guys, she seeks the counsel of the girls, with Kinsey, shoehorning himself into the conversation as well.  After Paul humanely exits the shot, Joan turns her attention to one of the men charged with setting up the monstrosity.  He kindly, sincerely says, propelling blacks into a positive light, “I’ll try as many places as you want.” And throughout the series, African Americans like him are looming in the background, performing their service work without any complaints or grudge.

We see maids, floor buffers, and, quite prominently, elevator operators.  In the same episode, Don Draper is in an elevator with the operator and two other white guys from some other office, who are having a nasty talk about recent female conquests.  They continue even when an older woman gets on, but Don breaks it up by telling one of the jerks to take his hat off.  The elevator operator certainly couldn’t stand up to the white men due to his status, so Don’s the hero here; however, the black man has born witness to the impure side of the white, dominant race.  Much of the same occurs at the 30-minute mark of Episode 6 when Pete Campbell, while riding an elevator with his wedding band prominently displayed, irrefutably hits on a blond model who was at Sterling/Cooper, hoping to get ad work.  Half of the operator’s body is in the shot, as if to point out that blacks are always present, but not entirely noticed – nor appreciated.  As Pete and the blond leave, the operator is back in the shot, eyeballing each.  The next scene is of Pete laying the girl, taking advantage of the notion that he could get her a job.  Again, we have been privy to what a black man has seen and we don’t like it.

Sigh.

Kinsey, the Douche of Montclair throws a house-warming party for himself in the opening scene of Episode 2.  (On the way in, Campbell’s wife gives an example of her likability when she says to Pete, “I have no problem with Negroes, I’m just worried about the car.”  M-hm.)  In a desperate ploy to sell to his own friends and coworkers the façade of someone with stellar depth of character, Kinsey has moved outside of Manhattan, grown a new beard, and has taken up smoking a pipe.  Worst of all, we see him simply use Sheila as a billboard for his apparent counterculture affiliation.  In introducing her to Joan, Paul calls her his “baby,” and I do believe I heard an ever-so-slight hint of a put on “black-cent” there too.  To prove her worthwhile of his time, this monger of douche is compelled to promote the fact that Sheila is “saving for school” while working as a grocery-store checkout girl.  Joan offends Sheila by saying that she was surprised that Paul was so “open-minded,” but in another example of self-restraint, the black woman only retorts with a compliment of Joan’s purse.

Later in the season, the 9-minute mark of Episode 10 to be exact, Kinsey tells Sheila in the middle of the office that he is going to put off going to Mississippi to register new, black voters with her because he has to go to Los Angeles for a “convention,” saying that he’d rather be “yelled at and maybe shot at” after he goes to California.  In trying to smooth things over, Paul walks Sheila into the famous elevator and is greeted by the black operator with: “Hello, Mr. Kinsey.”  Without skipping a beat and in quite an earnest tone, El Douché de Leche says, “Hollis, please; it’s Paul,” as if he’s told him a thousand fucking times.  Then, Paul goes out of his way to introduce Sheila as his “girlfriend” to Hollis.  Hollis has never heard Mr. Kinsey, or anyone else for that matter, implore him to use a first name in addressing a passenger.  But he graciously nods his head and smiles, going along with the rouse.  Then, Hollis is lucky enough to hear Sheila give it back to Kinsey a bit by asking him: “Did you ever really plan on going down south?”  His phoniness shines here because Kinsey’s response (“Why can’t it wait?”) is coupled with him pointing out that Sheila can get a job at any supermarket, any time, but he, of course, “can’t just walk into an ad agency.”  So, clearly, there is little genuine interest on Paul’s part in taking the trip.

Wonderfully enough though, Draper declares that he is traveling to California in Kinsey’s place.  After a fair amount of pouting, Paul gives in and, while on a bus jammed with black protesters, we marvel as he audaciously proclaims that in advertising, “the consumer has no color.”  Upon his return to Sterling/Cooper, Kinsey says, “I think we really made a difference.  And it was the adventure of a lifetime.”  Quickly, Krane highlights that Sheila dumped him three days into the trip.  Unfortunately, but understandably so, it took heading to the deep South and a few moments of black pride to have Sheila realize Paul’s disingenuous motives and cut ties with the underhanded bigot.  She is able to provide for us viewers a righteous perspective on those whites who were “involved” in the civil rights movement really for personal gain only.

Mad Men jockeys its attention between the Draper household and the Draper workplace.  The black elevator operators, among others (i.e. the waiter, Cleveland, who is “trustworthy” and actually in the room with Cooper and his sister while they are discussing the sale of Sterling/Cooper to the British in Episode 12 and, much later, the gorgeous black cocktail waitress that Lane, in charge of accounting, declares his very requited love for in this last season, while the new office is going through gigantic financial woes) successfully eavesdrop and can account for all the goings-on with the two Draper offices throughout the series.  This leaves Don’s personal life up for grabs.  But that’s an easy one: Carla.  At the end of Season Four, Betty fires the nanny of the Draper children, who has been in that position since “their birth.”  That line says it all.  Carla has been in the house constantly and has witnessed and heard everything.  Sure she doesn’t stay with the newly single Don when he’s living in the East Village, but it doesn’t take a genius to fill in those blanks.  (He was getting laid…a lot.)  Carla is also the epitome of the strength of character of these black narrators in that she knows she must put up with a lot before the fast-approaching horizon of equal rights creates a wave of change in America.  In other words, she minds her business, but quietly observes all of the Draper shortcomings and internal family conflicts: the drinking, the cheating, the lying, the need for psychological treatment, the pain of the divorce, and the like.

When put in the context of the 21st century, we easily grasp the irony in having a show about the coarseness of the whitewashed ad business and the lack of family values in wealthy homes being narrated by African Americans – the “have-nots” shining a grim spotlight on those who “have it all.”  However, outsiders have the best perspective for judgment.  Blacks weren’t second-class citizens at that time; they were third, as made evident by the obnoxious treatment of white women in the show as well.  Because, to some extent, in the workplace, blacks were ignored, they could then become convenient observers of the corrupt, prevailing race.

Plenty of African Americans then were spending much of their time protesting in the streets of hypocrisy and generating momentum that would lead to the Civil Rights Bill being passed.  I’d suppose that about all of them had jobs, many like those on Mad Men, and surely couldn’t constantly demonstrate.  Blacks knew though that their time, the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., John and Robert F. Kennedy, and Muhammad Ali, and of equality, was upon them.  So, when they had to, they bit their tongues and waited patiently for guys like Paul Kinsey to find the road to irrelevancy.

***Special thanks to Stephen and Kim for helping me make this post possible.***