My birthday is this coming Monday – my golden birthday, I feel compelled to say. When I was a teenager, a good friend of mine turned 15 on the 15th of June and I was horribly jealous that she could celebrate this mathematical birthday anomaly so much earlier than I could. But Monday I will be 29 on the 29th. I choose to see this as auspicious.
Because of this timing – another year gone, things changing, so on, so forth – I should probably use this space to talk about something more consequential than Mad Men. But I can’t help it. The heart wants what the heart wants.
My feelings on the current season have been making me think about the nature of storytelling: what are a story’s needs? What keeps us interested, other than the simple passage of time, experience of events? Whatever it is, this season (so far) seems to be missing it.
Here’s what I think: one of the most important pieces of a good piece of art is the mystery in it. That doesn’t mean it needs a whodunnit plot – god knows, I said art, not literature specifically. This applies to poetry, it applies to painting, it applies to an arrow, chalked on the sidewalk on a sunny day, pointing to nowhere. A good piece of art is both familiar and utterly strange, and it’s this strangeness that resonates most deeply with us as viewers/listeners/participants.
(Because we do not understand our lives. We do not understand death. We don’t understand any of it. Being able to recognize this uncanny sensation in something manmade is comforting, and unsettling, and this is the engine that moves the art forward. (Yes, ok, now I’m borrowing heavily from the Kantian notion of the sublime.))
A mystery makes us ask many questions, and in fiction, one of those questions is a simple one: What Happens Next? But the phrasing here is important – we must ask the question, not the story. When only the story asks, the question ceases to matter.
Now, wasn’t I talking about Mad Men? Yes. To start, let’s agree that Don Draper is the heart of the show. (Not the character with the best heart, just its beating center.) In previous seasons, he was also its mystery – what is going on in his mind? What will make him change? How will he evolve?
But now, I feel like those questions have all been answered. He is self-loathing, psychologically schismatic, lonely, and confused. Nothing will make him change. He will not evolve. I was started down this path of thinking by a great review by Nelle Engoron, but she suggests that the mystery now is what will ruin Don, what will make him implode? I’m not even sure that can be expected. The themes this season set up early suggest a sort of eternal return (Roger: “…you realize that’s all there are: doors! And windows and bridges and gates. And they all open the same way. And they all close behind you.”), and Don is certainly playing that out, with his new affair and his attendant cruelty to Megan – it’s terribly reminiscent of how he treated Betty, blaming her for what he did wrong (and this time we don’t have as much reason to dislike the victim, and so we just sour on Don).
So: I don’t wonder what will happen anymore. It’s a shame. I almost think the show should have ended last season, with the Don’s return to form just hinted at but not played out in all its monotonous glory.
The only thing that gives me some hope for change (other than the fact that this is TV, so they are going to have to dramatize something – though that’s really relying on the story to ask the question) is the fact that Don is in some ways more miserable now than ever. He is worse at his job. He is cheating on a woman he loves, and even seems to know it’s self-destructive. And at the beginning of the season, he was reading The Divine Comedy. So maybe this is just his descent into hell – the beginning.
But it’s hard to see him ever coming out in heaven. It’s hard not to believe that he’s in some kind of Purgatory, with doors that only lead to more doors, and more doors, and more doors.
That said, my life is going fine.