Monday, May 6, 2013

"Mad Men": Villians, Victims, and Lies

I suffer from cultural claustrophobia. What is "cultural claustrophobia"? It is the feeling of being imprisoned in a culture that is basically anti-freedom, anti-capitalist, anti-American, anti-reason, and anti-value. In short, of being marooned in an alien, hostile, leftist culture determined to wear or beat down anyone who won’t yield to its propaganda and beseechments and stealthy osmosis and refuses to get with the collectivist program. Writing critiques like this one is my way of pushing away the moldy, fly-specked walls that threaten to suffocate me, of kicking down the closet door, and breathing some fresh air, before the walls close in again, and I push back anew.

I do not think I am alone in suffering this phenomenon. It is quite common among men who see the civilized world slipping into anarchy and tyranny and cannot understand why. Ayn Rand called it "our cultural value- deprivation."*

Oft times, as an antidote to contemporary culture, and feeling lonely for a cleaner, rational, and more honest world, I will re-read a classic novel or nonfiction book, or watch an older movie (pre-1965, when the last of the epics was made), or just listen to music that was meant to be listened to and enjoyed, and not endured. Mostly classical, some popular, but rarely contemporary.

"One can feel nostalgia for places one has never seen," remarked Greta Garbo in Queen Christina. And, of course, one can feel it for times one has lived through.

But, some sojourns of nostalgia do not necessarily take one back to happier times. It all depends on who is tinting the photographs. A Marxist will blur Rockefeller Center and call it a slum. The creators of "Mad Men" populate it with scoundrels, prostitutes, neurotics, power-lusters, and fools, and call it "life in America."

AMC's "Mad Men" is a lavishly produced instance of literary naturalism, "things as they were" in the early to mid-1960s, with no real plot direction, no real resolution or denouements of any of the plot or subplots, posing as "social criticism." Actually, is it a super-sized nighttime version of a daytime soap opera. There are no heroes in the series; virtually all the characters are manipulative, dishonest, repressed, or blindly avaricious frauds. If a character isn't a villain, then he is a victim of the villains.

But then, literary naturalism cannot tolerate heroes. Heroes overcome conflicts and solve problems. There is a multitude of conflicts in "Mad Men," but no defining resolution or closure of them, except by happenstance or on the whim of the director; there is no way to distinguish which. All the principal characters repeatedly succumb, and without much resistance and often with relish, to their flaws, foibles, and amorality.

I watched all five available seasons of "Mad Men" on Netflix. There are plot spoilers ahead, for anyone who has not seen any of the series episodes. The sixth season has already debuted, which I have not yet seen. A seventh is in the works.

When I lived in New York City, I worked on Madison Avenue, in the 1970s, for two large firms as a teletype agent and as a proofreader. I recognized the trade culture in the series, and the ads, the brand products, the offices, the smoking, the drinking, the clothing styles, and all the other recreated concretes that went into lending "Mad Men" a large and credible dose of verisimilitude.

"Mad Men" obviously, as a "slice of (nostalgic) life" of the 1960s, seeks to indict a country seemingly free of government controls and regulation, when in fact the groundwork for a welfare/regulatory state had been laid many decades earlier. This is what happens when men take for granted and approve of a welfare/regulatory state, and view remaining liberties with a jaundiced and critical eye. Consequently, the 1960s seem to creator Matthew Weiner to be a period of unbridled freedom that needed to be reined in, when in fact the political trends of the preceding 1950s and earlier had doomed those "excessive" liberties to ultimate regulation if not virtual extinction. Today, smoking, cigarettes, cars, employment, professional associations, and even diets are regulated by the government.

Before overseeing the production of "Mad Men," Weiner was an Emmy-winning writer and co-producer of "The Sopranos" series.

The chief, and, incredibly, the most popular fraud is Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm), creative director of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, Sterling Cooper. He's handsome, ruthless, and debonair, gets all the women, and looks like a casting gem for a hero of Atlas Shrugged. But, he's a fraud, a liar, and a master of deceit.

He was born Richard "Dick" Whitman, who enlisted in the Army during the Korean War. His commanding officer, Lt. Don Draper, is killed when, after an attack, an accident blows up a fuel dump and the officer is burned beyond recognition. Whitman, who is merely wounded, exchanges dog tags with the officer, and is sent home with a Purple Heart as Don Draper, while the body of the officer, now identified as Dick Whitman, is also returned to the States.

Years later, the actual wife of Don Draper, Anna, tracks down the false Draper and confronts him with the knowledge that he is not her husband. Whitman tells her what happened in Korea. The storyline glosses over how they both agree to let bygones be bygones – requiring enormous evasion on both their parts – and they become friends. Technically, the false Don Draper is married to Anna. They do not enter into a romantic relationship, but the false Draper agrees to take care of Anna for the rest of her life but divorce her so he can marry another woman he has met. Anna agrees.

This relationship is based on a disturbingly twisted – nay, corrupted– sense of benevolence, on especially Anna's part. She is willing to help Whitman maintain the pretence that he is Don Draper, her late husband; in short, to help the man who stole his identity sustain a lie. However, we learn nothing about what she thought of her late husband, the real Don Draper. In an authentically adult storyline, she would have insisted that the imposter stop faking reality. She could have turned him in to the authorities. From a storyline perspective, she did him no favors by abetting his crime, which resurfaces later on and causes him angst and problems with his new wife, Betty, and with other characters in the series.

Later, a sole surviving relative, Adam Whitman, a younger half-brother, comes to New York after seeing Draper's picture in a newspaper story, and tries to befriend Whitman-alias-Don Draper, who is now a successful advertising executive. Fearing that the truth about his false identity will harm his career and marriage, Whitman-alias-Draper spurns the man, denies their relationship, and bribes Adam with money to go away. Adam, distraught over the rejection, sends his half-brother a shoe box containing photographs and other evidence of his past life, and hangs himself in his hotel room.

Whitman-alias-Draper is tempted to destroy the contents of the box, but keeps them because he doesn't want to entirely erase his past. His wife, Betty, however, angry about his suspected philandering, finds the box in his home office desk. This discovery adds fuel to their conflict, which ends in divorce. She could have legally turned him in and that would have been the end of Whitman-alias-Draper's career. But later in the series, when Whitman-alias-Draper is being checked for a security clearance for a client's government contract with the agency, she is interviewed by the FBI and lies when the agents ask if she suspects he isn't who he claims to be. She answers no. Her motive for the lie is left begging, contrasting with her hatred of Whitman-alias-Draper.

But the incriminating box was first mistakenly delivered to a colleague at the ad agency, Pete Campbell, who discovers Whitman's secret. Campbell tries to blackmail Whitman-alias-Draper, and failing, tells a senior partner of the firm. The partner expresses indifference to the discovery. "Mr. Campbell, who cares?" The lie means nothing to him, either.

This character, Bert Cooper, twice recommends in the series that Whitman-alias-Draper read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Cooper's nonchalant attitude about the truth is somehow intended to reflect ironically but not flatteringly on the novel. This was not a throw-away reference; it was a subtle, but intentional smear of the novel. Dishonest men with knowledge of a fraud, it is implied, read great novels that contain themes alien to "Mad Men," in this instance, honesty, facing reality, and exposing frauds.

Why didn't Weiner and the screenwriters use Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, or Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, instead? The choice of book title wasn't random or whimsical. It was conscious and deliberate. It was intended to indict the author. "See?" Cooper says in unwritten dialogue, "This is what selfishness and greed lead to. But, that will be our little secret, eh? We're all frauds."

Whitman-alias-Draper contributes to another death when he learns that another partner, a Briton named Lane Pryce, has embezzled a large amount of money to pay his British taxes and forged Whitman-alias-Draper's signature on a bonus check. He tells Pryce that he will not call in the authorities or tell the other partners about the crime if he resigns from the company. Pryce subsequently hangs himself in his office, leaving behind a short letter of resignation that reveals nothing. Whitman-alias-Draper does not enlighten his partners about Pryce's motive.

While the revelation of Whitman-alias-Draper's shady past causes emotional fireworks between Betty and her husband, leading to a divorce, the same revelation is made "off stage" without explanation or drama to Whitman-alias-Draper's new wife, Megan. She apparently is comfortable with the lie. Betty, now married to political huckster Henry Francis, maliciously attempts to ruin Whitman-alias-Draper's new marriage with the information (using her pre-teen daughter as a cat's paw), but fails when Megan concedes that she knows the truth about Whitman-alias-Draper.

When Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the new agency, loses the Lucky Strike cigarette account, Whitman-alias-Draper, still the creative director, concocts a sly but deceptive saving gesture by buying a full-page ad in the New York Times in which, over his signature, he announces that the agency will no longer accept tobacco company business. It reads like a conscience-ridden apologia. It is in conformance with the government's and advocacy groups' campaigns against cigarettes and smoking of the time. Whitman-alias-Draper and his smoking colleagues, however, continue to smoke and drink to distraction and, from their perspective, continue to help their clients tell "lies" about their products. The ad was a ploy to draw attention to the agency, a tactic that ultimately brings it more business and saves it from folding.

"Product placement" in movies and novels is an anathema to advocates of "pure" literature, unless the placement helps to denigrate the product. Ian Fleming's James Bond novels are chock full of "product placement" – such as his cigarette brands, cars, his favorite drinks, his wardrobe, even places, such as Monte Carlo – but no one ever objected because those very real products helped to romanticize Bond and reality. The anti-business New York Times, however, received an invaluable "product placement" boost in the series, thanks to Whitman-alias-Draper's controversial ad. Whether or not the Times paid for the placement, or received itgratis, no one is saying.

Finally – although this isn't the last instance of lies, frauds, and deceptions – Joan Harris, office manager for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, has a baby conceived by one of the partners, Roger Sterling (shortly after they are mugged, in a bizarre heat of inexplicable passion only a few feet away from where they were robbed), but passes it off to her husband, an Army doctor serving in Vietnam, as his own. Later she is divorced by him, but only because he prefers his career in the Army (because he is "needed" there) and never learns the truth from her.

When the new agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, stands a chance to win a prestigious Jaguar car account, a fat, obnoxious dealership executive says he will help the agency land the account if Joan spends a night with him. The partners delicately suggest to her that she oblige him. Initially outraged by the proposition, she ultimately agrees to the "trade," but bargains for a lucrative partnership in the agency in exchange. Whitman-alias-Draper, ostensively disgusted by the partners' readiness to proposition her, salvages his friendship with Joan when he tells her that he wasn't present when the partners voted to behave like pimps. But he doesn't discourage her from accepting the offer, either, and acquiesces without a word when the agency wins the Jaguar account. No one discusses Joan's "sacrifice" or mentions it to the company's staff.

What is Whitman-alias-Draper's philosophy of life, and philosophy of advertising? Here are some choice quotations that reflect on his character and on the whole "Mad Men" series:

"The reason you haven't felt it is because it doesn't exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. You're born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one."

Translation: Love is chimerical, artificial, and false, and so are all your other values. Reality is an illusion and optional.

"Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing is OK. You are OK."

Your happiness is fraudulent. You are basically unhappy, which is all capitalism's fault because it persuades you to value and buy things you don’t really need and would be better off without.

"When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him. He has a million reasons for being anywhere, just ask him. If you listen, he'll tell you how he got there. How he forgot where he was going, and that he woke up. If you listen, he'll tell you about the time he thought he was an angel or dreamt of being perfect. And then he'll smile with wisdom, content that he realized the world isn't perfect. We're flawed, because we want so much more. We're ruined, because we get these things, and wish for what we had."

A wise man knows that he's a fraud, a walking Kleenex box of tissue-thin lies and self-deceptions, and not an angel or perfect. He's flawed, and that is all he can expect to be. Freedom only helps him maintain the self-deception and the lie. He is a helpless pawn of his social environment. "Everyone knows" that social conditions, heredity, and environment shape his character and influence his choices. He is the capitalist dupe of determinism.

"Mad Men" is a glitzy, fashion-conscious, slick, exposé-obsessed rendition of the kitchen-sink, "social criticism," anti-capitalist genre whose better-known practitioners are Frank Norris (The Octopus), Upton Sinclair (The Jungle, the Lanny Budd novels), and James T. Farrell (the Studs Lonigantrilogy). Upton Sinclair, who unsuccessfully ran for president and the governorship of California, was particularly savvy about marketing his socialist ideas and getting them accepted by Americans. In a September 1953 letter to fellow Socialist Party of America member and unsuccessful presidential candidate Norman Thomas, Sinclair wrote:

The American People will take Socialism, but they won't take the label. I certainly proved it in the case of EPIC. Running on the Socialist ticket I got 60,000 votes, and running on the slogan to "End Poverty in California" I got 879,000. I think we simply have to recognize the fact that our enemies have succeeded in spreading the Big Lie. There is no use attacking it by a front attack, it is much better to out-flank them.

That deceptive out-flanking "brand name" label is Progressivism. Hollywood is over-populated with Progressives, from its directors down through its casts, cameramen, and key grips. President Barack Obama and his whole cabinet and all of his political appointees are "Progressives." So is most of the Mainstream Media.

So are the ranks of critics. Criticsand blog roadies of the series have tittered over the series like high school girls raving about or dissing some envied Prom Queen's gown and escort. See The New York Times Arts Beat blogs to read the screaming squirrels as they discuss the pros and cons of "Mad Men" and fawn over it, too, fans who behave like housewives yakking about a favorite daytime soap opera. "Mad Men" has received dozens of awards, including four consecutive Emmys and four Golden Globes.

No one bothers to note, or cares to observe publically, or direct the TV audience's attention, to the fact that "Mad Men" is a lie itself, created to advance a political and social agenda which, too, is a lie, if all the failed socialist, progressive, and communist experiments around the planet and over the last century are any guide.

And when one examines the political and artistic premises of Matthew Weiner and his colleagues, one can only conclude that they, and not the TV-watching American public, are the helpless, uncritical, deterministic pawns of the culture, the doyens of "our cultural value-deprivation," moved by a vested interest in sustaining a moral fraud.

*"Our Cultural Value-Deprivation," by Ayn Rand, in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought. Ed. Leonard Peikoff. New York, NY: New American Library, 1989.

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