“There’s a Twinge in My Chest:” Mad Men Goes in Circles

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“There’s a Twinge in My Chest:”

Mad Men Goes in Circles

By James B. South

Last week in my discussion of “Severance,” I noted that Mad Men seemed to be winding down, showing us that the future of the world was artificial and that the lives of the characters, their motivations, desires, and actions were resistant to interpretation. Using Susan Sontag’s famous essay “Against Interpretation,” I argued that it’s best not to look for content and meaning in that episode (or, perhaps the series as a whole) and that we should be wary especially of the notion of allegorizing, thinking that the work has levels of meaning.

Again, for “New Business,” Sontag is a good guide as she writes, “Once upon a time (say, for Dante), it must have been a revolutionary and creative move to design works of art so that they might be experienced on several levels. Now it is not. It reinforces the principle of redundancy that is the principal affliction of modern life. “ Redundancy, of course, is the name of the game in advertising. Campaigns are repeated over and over until a new one appears, and the products being sold are often themselves redundant.

Indeed, in the primary advertising campaign we see in “New Busuiness,” it’s striking that the photography is of multiple women dressed alike striking the same pose in an effort to sell Vermouth. Equally evocative for me is that the person the agency hired to do the photography, Pima Ryan, bears a resemblance to Susan Sontag’s long-time friend and partner, Annie Leibovitz. Here are their two pictures and you can see how Pima looks like a black and white version of Leibovitz: 

Pima Ryan

Pima Ryan

Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz

It’s natural for Matthew Weiner to evoke Leibovitz here at the beginning of the 1970s, since her photography dominated so much of popular culture throughout the subsequent decades. This is just an intimation that Sontag stands behind much of Weiner’s aesthetic aspiration. More direct evidence comes from another essay of hers, “On Style.” There Sontag makes this point:

“A work of art may contain all sorts of information and offer instruction in new (and sometimes commendable) attitudes. We may learn about medieval theology and Florentine history from Dante; we may have our first experience of passionate melancholy from Chopin; we may become convinced of the barbarity of war by Goya and of the inhumanity of capital punishment by An American Tragedy. But so far as we deal with these works as works of art, the gratification they impart is of another order. It is an experience of the qualities or forms of human consciousness.”

“An experience of the qualities and forms of human consciousness” could be the subtitle of Mad Men as a series. Interestingly, in “New Business,” we see a lot of old business wrapped up or revisited—Don making milk shakes for his kids in a suburban house, an image that looks like it could be from the first episode given the way Don is dressed; Megan and Don divorcing; and Roger and Megan’s mother “defiling” Don’s apartment by repeating their previous sexual encounter. But in the revisitings, things have also changed. The contexts and effects of these pieces of old business from earlier seasons give us a new awareness of the “qualities or forms of human consciousness.”

Among the echoes, the most significant is that we see someone running away, as Don ran away from his real identity as Dick Whitman. The mysterious Diana, who is the object of Don’s new and persistent infatuation, is an obvious doppelganger for Don—it’s no surprise that he finds her fascinating. Don claims that she is not a rebound, but the real thing, yet Diana sees through that. She seems to know that Don is Don, not someone prone to be sincere, no matter how much he tries. How can she know this? Because, like Don, she knows that the story she tells is not a real one.

She confesses that she is divorced and left her daughter back in Racine, Wisconsin, shortly after we’re told that Sally Draper is away at boarding school. Both Don and Diane have absent daughters, though Diana also claims that she had a second daughter who died. But we have no way of believing her story, no diegetic confirmation of the dead daughter. When she asks Don if he wants to know why she left her daughter behind, he simply says, “No.”  Does it matter? It might from a moral standpoint, but from an artistic standpoint, it makes no difference. This doubling of daughters also parallels Don’s two ex-wives: Betty, whom he divorced years previously, and Megan whom he is divorcing in this episode. Is Don right to divorce Megan? Does she deserve the one million dollar check Don gives her? Why does Don think she deserves the life that check will bring? These are not questions answered by the show.

So, if we’re not looking for content or answers to “why questions” in this episode, what do we get in its place? Sontag again is helpful:

“But consciousness-what used to be called, rather tendentiously, the faculty of contemplation-can be, and is, wider and more various than action. It has its nourishment, art and speculative thought, activities which can be described either as self-justifying or in no need of justification. What a work of art does is to make us see or comprehend something singular, not judge or generalize. This act of comprehension accompanied by voluptuousness is the only valid end, and sole sufficient justification, of a work of art.”

The temptation to be resisted, then, is moralizing art—trying to find a moral or a utility, to use Sontag’s description of morality, in the motives of the characters. Of course the characters have motives, but more important, I think for Weiner, is the way that the characters’ actions widen our consciousness. We can’t say why Don gives Megan one million dollars, or why he uses the word deserve, but we can think about what situations would allow us to do the same thing.

Having talked about a way Sontag can help us avoid falling into the trap of trying to find meaning and content of a moralistic sort in “New Business, it’s now time to think about a couple of particular aspects of the episode. Here, I want to rely on another thinker who can help us follow Sontag’s advice, Joan Didion. In her crucial book, The White Album, she dissected the experience of living in the 60s and 70s with insight and personal conscience. In her summoning up of what it was like to live in the 1970s, she writes as the beginning of her book:

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely…by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

In light of this thought, two scenes in the episode stand out. First, there’s the breathtaking scene in which Don and Diana are embracing and Diana says, “There’s a twinge in my chest.” Don asks, “A pain?” to which Diana replies, “No, it’s not that, I’m positive.” Of course, this is an echo of Don’s famous first season pitch for a slide projector in which he talks about nostalgia:

“But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product: nostalgia. It’s delicate… but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means, “the pain from an old wound”. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the Wheel. It’s called a Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, and back home again… to a place where we know we are loved.”

Here Don does equate pain with nostalgia and the twinge in the heart, so when we hear Diana rejecting the twinge as pain, we recognize that Matthew Weiner is both reminding us of this previous scene and letting us know that Don’s certainty that pain is involved—the ache to return to a place—is not a universal experience. He’s not telling us what nostalgia is; he’s challenging us to reflect on what we make of nostalgia and the twinges in our heart. Perhaps equally important, though, is a slightly earlier part of that same sales pitch, where Don, again attributing wisdom to someone who didn’t exist, says: “And Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is ‘new.’ Creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of… calamine lotion.” Here, the “New Business” of the episode becomes plain—the characters are still trying to see old experiences as new, old products as new, and old lives as new. And indeed, there is newness. But the newness arises not from their conscious willingness to change for something better, but as a result of situations which can no longer be enjoyed or experienced in the same ways.

If, as Burt Cooper made so clear, “The best things in life are free,” we see those free things—the freedom of divorce, the freedom of renouncing the past, the freedom of not having to work for someone else (Megan will never have to put up with a creep like Harry again)—come at a price. But we are shown, too, that the price is one that is specific to each character and this enlarges our consciousness without moralizing or sermonizing. In the slide projector pitch, Don told a story and we see now that he has internalized a “narrative line,” to use Didion’s phrase, that makes him assume that Diana’s twinge is a painful one. Don’s surprise when she says it isn’t a pain mirrors the surprise of the viewer, who is brought up short to find out that Don’s brilliant pitch about the slide projector contained a view of nostalgia not universally shared.

One other scene is played for humor, but has darker undertones. Don’s secretary, Meredith, is talking with Harry, who has just flown back from L.A. She mentions how scary the Manson brothers are, and Harry corrects her by naming them the Manson family. Again, among all the broken families we see throughout the series, the irony of talking about the Manson “family” is breathtaking. It’s also yet another way that the show moves us forward into a new decade. Didion, again:

“On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. These early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were twenty dead, no, twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined, and bad trips blamed. I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”

The proximity of the Manson murders to the moon landing, which had been highlighted in previous episodes, is one of those facts that we try to tell a story about. But there is no connection between the two, no matter how much in retrospect they seem to capture the end of a decade in their varied ways. Again, I can’t help but think that Weiner is subverting our ability to draw connections—interpretations— between events in the show, including the ways that past actions are being replayed with a different inflection in the last two episodes. Which way of interpreting those actions could be right?

The final scene of “New Business” shows us Don standing in his living room, empty of furniture, thanks to the vindictiveness of Megan’s mother. The show then rolls credits. Last week we heard, “Is That All There Is?” in the credit sequence. This time, we hear, perhaps in keeping with all the other French spoken in the episode, a French song—Yves Montand’s version of  “C’est ci bon” (It’s so good). Again Weiner is throwing a challenge at the viewer to consider from what perspective all the new business of the episode is good. The song does not start at the beginning, but cuts in at the second verse, which I’ll quote in English:

It’s so good

To go out, no matter where,

Arm in arm,

Singing songs.

It’s so good

To say sweet words to each other,

Little nothings-at-all,

But which take a long time to say.

Seeing our delighted demeanor,

The passers-by in the street…

I’ll close with two thoughts. First, the song itself: “To say sweet words to each other / Little nothings-at-all, / But which take a long time to say.” Could this be what the show has been about all along? Sweet nothings that take a long time to say? That might be meaningful within a scenario of two lovers walking down a street, but of a TV show? Is that all there is? Second, the song cuts off midway through a verse—the passers-by in the street, we’re told in the song, envy the lovers, but we don’t hear those closing words. Why does Weiner cut at those words? Is love something we envy? Or are we just supposed to appreciate the newness of romance? Weiner is leaving it open for us to respond to the delighted demeanors, or more precisely, the actions of the characters, from our own point of view. He is not going to tell us what he thinks of them. In a world of moralizing and narrative fictions, “that’s so good.”

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