Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mad Men and Mad Women

A lot has been written about Season Five of Mad Men, and I was struck with the comments and reactions to the last episode of the season, especially the attacks on the character of Megan, and the yearning for the "old" Don.  I have never written a blog about a popular TV show before.  But there is so much symbolism and social commentary in this material, that I found myself wanting to weigh in.  

For me, the arc of this season was fascinating. Suddenly, where other seasons presented a predominance of  married woman,  against which Peggy and Joan were the only counterpoints, Season Five shows us Megan Calvet, the younger, second wife of Don hungrily pursuing an acting career, a young black woman, Dawn, who is a secretary in an all-white advertising firm, breaking barriers, Catholic Peggy deciding to live with her Jewish journalist boyfriend, and then leaving Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to pursue her own best career potential, Joan throwing out her rapist husband, shutting the door on Roger Sterling, and negotiating her sexuality in a way that guarantees her a slice of the real pie.  Yes, there is still housewife Betty - but look at her!  Overweight, isolated in a mausoleum of a home, certainly not the ice goddess she has been in previous seasons.  Peter's wife gets her suburban home and child, only to sink into the same misery that has befallen the others who have been planted in suburbia.  Their fate is to grow more disconnected from their spouse, more discontented with their lives.  The most unnerving fate is suffered by Beth Dawes -- Peter's latest heart-throb, who succumbs to a fate that happened more often than people may realize - over 70% of all electroshock therapy was used on women during the '60s - often a decision made by the husband and doctor "for the woman's good" -- wiping out parts of her memory and personality, sometimes permanently, creating docility and vagueness -- a medically devised way to create what would later come to be called a Stepford Wife.   I'm shocked that not one of the responses to the Mad Men finale even mentions this horrible story line.  For once, I found myself in agreement with Pete Campbell's perspective - that this was a terrible and disgraceful abuse of a woman.  It's the most glaring illustration of the cruel ways women were managed and controlled during this time period.  Their unhappiness, seen from the vantage point of 2012, seems perfectly understandable.  During their own time period, they were pathologized.  

Electro-shock therapy is a far more vicious way of anesthetizing pain.  Drinking seems to be the preferred anesthesia of most characters.  It is also a red flag when someone who did not always have a glass in hand suddenly does.  In this last episode, the drinking we saw Betty doing in previous seasons is now something we see in Megan.  

And,  perhaps the writers are trying to tell us that the sickness of that era's "housewife" syndrome wasn't just American.  Megan's elegant, French Canadian mother seems intent on persuading her daughter to give up her dreams and get pregnant.  She even tells Don that her daughter has no talent,  "Nurse her through this defeat, and you will have the life you want."  What an unbelievably horrible thing for another woman to say -- especially about her own daughter.    What I find astonishing is that so many writers, in discussing this season, attack the character of Megan in the same way.  She is "selfish", she is "childish" -- is this attitude somehow reflective of the reactionary mood of our society, the attempted roll-back of women's rights and a desire of our country's old white men to take things back to the 1950s?  

And what of Don?  From the beginning of this season, the character seemed hell bent on NOT making the same mistakes.  He sees his infidelities and lies clearly enough, and is trying valiantly to live honestly and faithfully.  What he doesn't see are the ways in which his rigid side can cause great damage.  So, his unflinching demands of Lane lead to suicide -- and Don is now twice guilty of driving someone to hang himself.  We know he is aware of this, since in the last episode, he keeps seeing his brother Adam, who hung himself in the first season when Don rigidly refused to allow him into his new life.  "Don't go," Don begs his ghost.  "Don't leave me."  Deep fear of abandonment  is expressed, perhaps because at that moment, Don is under the effects of anesthesia.   

Don is also slowly realizing that he is repeating the same mistakes with  Megan -- Betty was once a joyful, lively young woman with a budding career as a model.  When he saw her desire to return to that life, and the joy it rekindled in her, he did nothing to support it.  Her drinking and misery grew as the seasons went on.  And now, in Megan's desire to succeed as an actress, she is asking for his support and understanding -- but feels the pain of his withholding.  So, the scene in the last episode -- where she is falling down drunk -- is not lost on Don.   He sees her drunkenness as a repeat of what has happened before.  Two conversations underscore his growing struggle -- Marie Calvet's terrible advice about her daughter's failure, and the conversation he has with Peggy, where he assures her that he is happy for her success,  "That's what happens when you help someone.  They succeed, and move on.. .I just didn't know it would be without me."  Those two conversations reveal his two possible choices.   

Immediately after this, Don watches Meagan's reel and sees something in her face -- a sorrow that wasn't there before.  The words he spoke to Peggy are too fresh -- they must resonate here.  He risks losing Megan either way -- to misery and disappointment, or to joy and success.  When he helps her to get her first big job, to succeed, his long walk away from the soundstage makes it clear -- he fears he will lose her.  But he's done the right thing this time.  He doesn't repeat the same mistake he's made with Betty, even though he knows that, just as Peggy spread her wings and flew away, Megan may well do the same thing.  

Where Beth Dawes is the most horrifying example of the ways in which women were controlled and denied, the alternative is Megan Calvet, who is supported and affirmed, and given greater, if more frightening, freedom of choice.  

At the bar, when the young woman asks, "Are you alone?" Don doesn't look at her right away.  His pause is long, and when he finally looks up, the powerful, heartbreaking look of devastation on his face does not say to me that, yes, he will return to his cheating ways, as many other writers seem to think.  It says that, yes, he is realizing he is alone - that we are all, in a profound and constant way, alone.  He can no longer possess or control other human beings, he can no longer overpower or intimidate another into obedience.  He knows now the huge price that is paid for that.  This is not a moment of going backward to old behaviors.  It is a moment of facing the split between old behaviors and new understandings, new clarity that unsettles our view of life.  Don's look was one of aching realization.  This season was about deep yearning, endless longing -- and the realization, shown in Don's last look, that there is no possession in this market-driven world that will satisfy what we truly long for.