Spoiler Alert Thursday: Mad Men and Top Shot

Mad Men

I confess I had kind of a hard time watching this episode.

A couple of quick observations:

– Twice so far this season we’ve seen Don pull out of his funk in the middle of a crisis.  In past seasons, Don’s flashes of brilliance — say, with the Carousel campaign, or the Lucky Strike “It’s toasted” ad — had been in service of his creative work, and were directed towards winning clients and creating compelling advertising.  By contrast, both times the brilliant, audacious Don of old has appeared this season, it’s because he’s energized by the prospect of going to a meeting and rejecting a prospective client.

To the extent that Don’s energy is directed towards any constructive end, it goes to the bigger picture of his and SCDP’s relative stature in the advertising business, rather than any creative campaign or advertisement.  His rejection of Jantzen is the wind-up to pitching himself and SCDP to the Wall Street Journal; and in this episode, he resigns Honda as part of a plot to undermine a rival ad agency.  Don is on record saying that he wants to sell products, not advertising; but it seems like the only thing that snaps him out of his stupor these days is business, not creative.

– I didn’t really want to talk about the Honda audition but I confess I can’t get away from it.  It made me kind of uncomfortable. Don reads aloud his takeaway quote from The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, on how shame is about ridicule, rejection and ostracism.  In accordance with that theme, we are treated to the sight of Don, Betty, Sally, Roger, the Honda executives and Ted Chaough being publicly shamed for their non-conforming behavior.  Fine, I get it.  What bothered me was the show’s assumption that a work of cultural anthropology could have precise predictive power over individual behavior.  I haven’t read The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, so like probably 80% of the people who watched this week’s episode of Mad Men, after I turned off the tv I went to my computer to google it.  Wikipedia tells me it’s a 1946 study that was commissioned by the U.S. Office of War Information “in order to understand and predict the behavior of the Japanese.”  So it makes sense internally that Don requires everyone in the office to read the book in order that they can better understand the Honda executives and predict what will make them tick.

But we enlightened cable television viewers of 2010 know better than to adopt the crude racial assumptions of the mid-1900s, right?  We know now that you can’t predict an individual person’s behavior based upon cultural stereotypes and broad-brush anthropological treatises about his race.  So surely when Bert starts making very detailed predictions about what the executives, who he’s never before met, think and feel, based upon his supposed expertise on their culture, he probably won’t be right, right? (By the way, of what, exactly, does Bert’s expertise consist?  His collection of Edo-period octopus hentai?  He apparently doesn’t even speak Japanese!)  Except that he keeps getting it right!  And Don makes a huge, high-stakes gamble based on his predictions of how these executives will react to a number of super-particular variables.  Again, he’s barely even met these people!  All he’s done is read a twenty-year-old study about their race, and eat dinner at Benihana once.  Never mind all that, because he’s right too!  I mean, seriously?

Turning to another topic, it was nice to see Highlights in Dr. Edna’s waiting room.  Confidential to Sally: Goofus thinks only about his own pleasure, but Gallant cares about pleasing others.

Top Shot

I finished watching the first season of Top Shot, and the show was pretty close to flawless, except for the host, who I found unbearable.  The producers really should replace him, perhaps with Jane Lynch, who would be perfect for the role.  I was disappointed that Iain won, rather than Peter (who I kind of love) or Kelly, but at least it wasn’t Adam.

20 thoughts on “Spoiler Alert Thursday: Mad Men and Top Shot

  1. I’m relieved that I’m not the only one to find this episode of Mad Men problematic — though your reasons are far more thought-out than mine were. I just felt like the one was “off.” Upon nearly everybody in my life telling me that they liked it, I decided this vague, negative review was probable due to my illness at the time of watching the episode, and I didn’t follow up. You’ve done the legwork for me.

  2. Wow, that is a pretty devestating review — I can’t help but agree, though I found the “caper” satisfying. Maybe it was an attempt to show that everyone is racist, even if most involved are racist in a “nicer” way than Roger? But having everyone be right in all their predictions — yeah.

    I kept wanting to speak up for Sally — it wasn’t in public! She made sure her friend was asleep. Of course, if she’d said this, Betty might’ve actually cut off one of her fingers. Four days a week of therapy is pretty hard to imagine for a 10-year-old, though. Maybe she can split her sessions with Glen?

  3. I enjoyed it when, in the most recent episode of “True Blood,” Russell killed a prostitute pretending (hallucinating?) that it was Talbot so as to be there when Talbot met “the true death.” It was even better that it was that ugly kid from “90210” (making him the second person from that show to appear in “True Blood”–Silver appeared in the very first scene of the first episode, but with different hair colour). Russell is by far the best villain of the series thus far: Maryanne was too over-the-top and Rene was too likable to be a villain.

  4. Rene was totally unconvincing as a villain — you felt like as they got toward the end of the season, they realized someone would have to be the killer and didn’t want to waste a central character. (I realize that they were probably basing it on the source material, but the execution was terrible.)

  5. Rene as a split personality/character being played by the real personality was forced. Insofar as he was a character, I liked Rene; insofar as he was a villain, I did not.

  6. Aughh, the True Blood season one finale. I already complained about it at truly pointless length here, so I’ll refrain from repeating myself, but I was disgusted enough to stop watching the show.

  7. That’s unfortunate, because from what I’ve read of “Mad Men” (including your summaries, but not only), “True Blood” makes “Mad Men” seem like “Everybody Loves Raymond”! “True Blood” is the most important series since either “Battlestar Galactica” or “The Wire.”

  8. Back to Mad Men, what is it about babysitting situations that causes the Draper ladies to engage in transgressive haircutting behaviors? Poor Sally — she doesn’t know you’re not supposed to cut off all your hair at once, you’re supposed to save it so you can dole out snippets to lovesick neighborhood children.

  9. I was really into True Blood for about a month or so, when I caught up with seasons one and two, but as I got to the end of season 2 and began watching season 3, it suddenly dawned on me: True Blood is awful.

    Also, I agree with the comments here, jms’s takedown of Mad Men seems pretty convincing to me in retrospect, though I hadn’t even thought about the racist implications of the plot until reading the post. Now that it seems so obvious, I have to wonder what the writers were thinking, it doesn’t make any sense.

  10. I don’t think I’m ready to write off this season yet, despite the valid disappointment viewers are expressing with Draper’s impotence in being who he once was.

    This might sound a bit sexist, but I found a moment of satisfaction with Joan Harris’ (Christina Hendricks’ character) disposition in response with the way Roger Sterling (John Slatterly) was behaving. Her disposition reminded me of the final lines of Faust II, where Goethe writes, “All that must disappear / Is but a parable; / What lay beyond us, here / All is made visible; / Here deeds have understood / Words they were darkened by; / Eternal Womanhood / Draws us on high.”

    The strongest feminine qualities came from Harris who became the reconciling figure between Sterling’s hatred of the Japanese and with the “current” political implications from that war. Because Sterling couldn’t act professionally due to his prejudices, Harris’ medium of getting through to Sterling was her sensual perspective. She was Sterling’s better half in this episode by affirming what he couldn’t; that American victory of the war has made the world a safer place. In the dialog between her and Sterling near the end of the episode, Harris asserts herself by telling him to stop thinking in terms of war, and when he then tries to go on with a war story, Harris again impedes upon his behavior. Sterling finally relents with a question, “When is forgiveness a better quality than loyalty?” And Harris comes back with a sharp response by saying what I thought was the most powerful moment in the episode, “I know it must be awful and I know it will never seem it was that long ago. But you fought to make the world a safer place. And you won and now it is.” Sterling questions her reasoning, which provokes Harris to admit to a belief I found poignant with our own current ideological struggle, “I have to.” And that’s where I met the cliff’s edge.

    Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka’s character) I think is the character that ties the confusing parts of the episode together. Her behavior seems to point that she is lost and yearning for something, her father’s love perhaps. But she, at least for me, represents the quintessential tensions of having to live in a patriarchal world. She’s innocently doing what is expected of her as a woman living in a patriarchal world, what is essentially expected out of Betty and of Don’s women. But rather than her beliefs being criticized, it’s her behavior. Her want of being pretty by cutting her hair and her recent discovery in masturbation outside her own “private home” stimulated in part by a man tied up on television affirms the same relationship. She is playing out what was missing in the Draper family from day one, a strong feminine role model. And this theory could be played out by looking at where she lives (suburbs), or the repressed role Betty played with her relationship with Don, as well as Don’s vapid behavior as a father which clashed with Sally’s strong relationship with her grandfather before he died. Even when Dr. Etna asks Betty how she reconciled herself with masturbation, she sheepishly says she grew out of it, leaving us wondering it what ways she found her strength (or was it that she just repressed it). Of course this is all an exercise in simplifying psychology, but I found that it nonetheless helped me connect to the narrative of the series.

    And a final thought that I wish to share is that I found it interesting to see that the person who brought Sally to Dr. Etna was the housekeeper, Carla, which the episode ends with her expression of Sally going into Dr. Etna’s office. I just found it ironic that Sally’s struggle is juxtaposed to Carla’s facial expression. It makes me think that what if the Sisyphean role model that Sally’s looking for can be found in the company of the person who she just left, because I don’t see anyone else who is closer to the cliff’s edge than Carla.

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