(Or, A Blog is Born.)

Hi.

So, I’m a little uncomfortable with this, because it may be crossing over into narcissistic. But I was over in TV Squad. TV Squad’s Bob Sassone has been a fan of and written about Mad Men since the beginning, and I used to follow his write-ups and comment. The show finally has its own category on the site, and Bob is now a reader of ours as well. (And watch for an interview over there with Rich Sommer in a few weeks. We’ll let you know.)

The thing about Basket of Kisses, as you basketcases know, is that we started it after Season One had aired. Pretty much, right after. The first post was basically Peggy? WTF??? only with a better title.

(Actually, pretty funny. I just glanced over at that first post so I could put in the hyperlink, and I absolutely ask the spelled out version of WTF. I am very freaking consistent.)

Okay so my point, and I will make one, and it in fact ties in with my being consistent… it turns out that looking at my profile page in TV Squad, I can (and now, so can you) view all my comments in one place. So, kind of mini-write-ups/reactions to S1 in progress. (more…)

An article in the Montreal Gazette provides this juicy Matthew Weiner quote:

The culture views the ’60s as this kind of golden glory. The election of John F. Kennedy is memorialized as a time of great innocence. And yet, reading the New Yorker from April 1960 and reading the movie reviews in there of Psycho and The Apartment, I thought to myself, ‘This is not a particularly innocent society.’ We forget that the wave of youth and enthusiasm that swept the country then was decided by about 100 votes.

Psycho and The Apartment? Where have I heard that before? Oh, yeah. Here’s a Mad Men conversation about The Apartment:

Aw, Red, that’s not how it is. Look, it was crude. That’s the way pictures are now. Did you see that ridiculous Psycho? Hollywood isn’t happy unless things are extreme.

Roger Sterling to Joan Holloway, Long Weekend

What were the big movies of 1960? (more…)

So I posted about the naming of Don Draper. (Mr. Weiner has not called to confirm my theory, but he will, I’m sure. Call me, k?)

Well within an hour of this revelation, (I kid you not, within an hour!) I get an email from our very own wisefish (whose comments were always inexplicably visiting our spam-catcher first before being rescued but now it’s finally better), talking about the possible origins of Dick Whitman’s name. (more…)

Two thoughts this last time I watched Nixon vs. Kennedy (okay, a zillion thoughts; two I’m posting about here).

First: Holes. At the beginning of the Hobo Code flashback, Dick “Bowlcut” Whitman is digging a hole. For fun. His stepmother asks him to stop. In the opening of the final flashback in Nixon vs. Kennedy, Private Dick Whitman is digging a hole. Nice visual continuity, that.

Second: Fairness. In discussing the outcome of the presidential race, Cooper tells Don that Nixon will allow Kennedy’s election shenanigans in Chicago to go uncontested so that he’ll have a chance to run again. (It was more complicated than that, but that’s how he tells it.) Don says that it doesn’t sound fair, a phrase which brings astonishment to Cooper’s face.

Later, Peggy says that what happened in the office isn’t fair. The first time I saw this episode, I thought that the phrase of Peggy’s that pushed Don past his fear was “some people…people who aren’t good can do whatever they want” (I may have that imperfectly worded, but it’s close). But at that point I didn’t notice the parallel “fair”s, and we do know that Peggy parallels Don. I think the simple, plaintive “It’s not fair,” the child’s voice that was never answered, never soothed, is what ultimately compels Don to at last fight back.

Okay, one last parallel. Rachel calls Don a coward. Don remembers that he was a coward; he pissed himself. And y’know? He’s still pissing himself. Calling Pete’s bluff, he is, at last (in a way that honestly doesn’t soothe him, merely surprises him) not a coward.

One way to describe the underlying theme of Mad Men, if you look at the stuff that Matt Weiner says, is that it’s the dark side of the American Dream. What is the American Dream, you ask? It’s the self-made man, rise from nothing, become Somebody. Humble origins. Put your belongings on a wagon train and strike gold. In a word, it’s Don Draper.

Don is the ultimate self-made man, because he made not only his success, but his very identity. But what is a secret identity?

Mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent is secretly Superman. This is an ancient story: Stammering Moses is secretly God’s Chosen Prophet. But there’s another version, opposite to this one.

While Clark Kent’s secret identity is Superman, Spiderman’s secret identity is Peter Parker. For Superman, his authentic self is the hero; invulnerable and awesome. The bumbling reporter is just a put-on. But for Spiderman, the science geek with girl trouble and a nagging aunt is his true self; when Spidey looks in the mirror, who he sees is Peter Parker. It’s the hero that’s the put-on.

The question is, who does Don see in the mirror? Is it Don Draper, or Dick Whitman? Maybe the real dark side is that he himself does not know.

I was watching Long Weekend tonight, and taking extensive notes. I’ll have more to say later on. But for now, I was noticing this. That Don is not a womanizer.

People all over the Internet are angry at Don for cheating on Betty. And yeah, Don’s a cheater. An adulterer. These are bad things and we can be mad at Don. But he’s not a skirt-chaser. He’s not, to put it plainly, Roger Sterling. (And I have some thoughts about Roger I’ll also be fleshing out—no pun intended—in the near future.)

In Long Weekend, Roger says he wants to use Don “as bait.” He knows the way to go is to pick up two young women and end up with one. This isn’t new; he’s after the same thing in Red In the Face, and only wrangles an invitation to dinner when his plan fails.

Roger is a womanizer. He wants warm, lovely flesh. He wants a young woman to remind him of youth. He wants beauty and soft skin and lips like strawberries in milk. Don wants something different.

When Don says he wants to go home he means it. He doesn’t want to be with Roger, with twenty year-olds on their laps. He’s a bad husband, but he believes in the salvation of being a husband and having a family. And it’s when that salvation doesn’t pan out that he goes for Midge, and then for Rachel. He tells Rachel in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes that he doesn’t believe in love, but he’s deeply romantic; he believes each of these women might save him.

(more…)

As we wrap-up Jon Hamm Birthday Week here at BoK, I wanted to focus on the events of Don Draper’s life over the course of Season One.

Weiner, at the oft-quoted Jacob Burns Film Center event, talked about the influence of the film the Apartment. We’ve heard this a lot, and the film itself is alluded to in Babylon. But what Weiner discussed was how in the Apartment, most of the movie is set-up. Exposition. The bulk of the film is the audience and the characters discovering the circumstances that are already in occurrence.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is mostly exposition. It remains a brilliant pilot no matter how many viewings, but the big reveal at the end turns into a not-so-much once you know that Don is married. And the season is filled with such reveals. We are figuring out who these people are by finding out who they’ve been. Dick Whitman. Joan and Roger. Joan and Paul, for that matter.

This is the nature of storytelling, these two components; exposition and occurrences.

And so I wanted to close in on what has happened to Don, distinct from what we learn about him.

Because um… he’s had a hell of a year. And that is what I thought as I watched him sit on those stairs, our heads filling with the future.

So let’s review.

Nine months for Don

  • He gets a new secretary. He recognizes her talents and promotes her to copywriter.
  • His wife grows increasingly unhappy and strange. After Betty has a car accident with his children, he reluctantly sends her to a psychiatrist… with whom Don covertly discusses her progress.
  • He fires Pete Campbell, only to have him unfired by his superiors. He gets a big fat bonus. He gets seriously wooed by a bigger agency, and as a result gets an even bigger fatter raise. His direct supervisor and sometime partner-in-crime has a non-fatal heart attack in his presence. He heads up several successful campaigns, brings in new clients, and loses one account. He is made partner.
  • He leaves his mistress of (seemingly) many years.
  • He meets and falls for Rachel Menken. He reveals things to her that have never been revealed. She leaves him.
  • His secret past is discovered, and he is blackmailed. He does not give in, and the truth is brought to his boss. Who doesn’t care.
  • He falls down a flight of stairs. Ow.
  • He smokes pot.
  • His younger brother comes to him out of his lost past, and Don pushes him far away. After a few months, Don has a change of heart and tries to contact Adam, only to discover that he has committed suicide.

And I am just saying… holy crap, that’s a lot. For a man who knows how to cope and survive but who doesn’t have a clue how to process, this is a lot.

So, last week I was speculating about Don at the train station in Marriage of Figaro. Was he suicidal? Was he thinking about running away again—was the train “escape” to him?

So on Saturday, there’s Matt Weiner, and of all the zillion questions I want to ask, well, that seems like the best one. After Roberta finished her question, I took the mike and that’s what I asked.

She has the digital recorder, so I’m paraphrasing, but here’s what he said:

Trains are profoundly important for Don. He got on a train as Dick Whitman, got off as Don Draper, leaving “his” corpse behind. In a very real way, the train is where Don Draper came from. So when he was lost, confused, bereft, and didn’t know where to go, he went to where he came from, where he began. The train.

Then Weiner talked about the CGI image of the train reflected on Don, and how beautiful it was, and how important, and how pleased he was to see it.

But the thing I came away with was that (a) I was right about the importance of trains as a symbol, and that felt validating, and (b) that Weiner’s response was more psychological, more nuanced, and less of an answer.

I love that. I was looking for “an answer.” As in “it meant this.” It meant suicidal. It meant running away. But no, it didn’t mean anything so specific, so packagable. Don sat there not knowing why he sat there. He sat there hoping an answer for why he was sitting there would emerge.

I hate movies and TV shows that are too answery. It was all a dream. She was really his sister. Ray Charles had a drug problem because of his brother’s death. Howard Hughes had OCD because his mother made him spell c-h-o-l-e-r-a. Movies and TV are full of “because,” but real life just isn’t.

Sometimes I’m on a date and someone will ask me why my marriage ended. And I want to ask, ‘Did your marriage end because of a “why”? Does any marriage end that simply?’

There’s an answer to Don’s past—he was Dick Whitman, “whoreson,” and he switched dog tags with his dead CO. But there also isn’t an answer. He’s a lost and fearful person who doesn’t understand why his happy life doesn’t feel happy, why he’s given his wife everything but her hands go numb, why he sits at the train and can’t make himself go home. And answers don’t come in neat little packages just before the last commercial break. Not on our show.

The episode title “Babylon” is more oblique than many. What does it mean?

Over lunch, Don asks Rachel about Judaism and Israel. She says the Jews have always been exiles; first in Babylon, and then all over the world. She tells him “Zion” is just an ancient word meaning “Israel” (Don is a little threatened by those “Zionists”), and that she has no interest in living in Israel, but it’s important to her that it exists.

It seems that, if there’s a Homeland, she is more at peace with living in exile. Don, too, lives in exile—from himself—and we see the first flashback to the childhood of Dick Whitman in this episode.

One thing that’s interesting about Don/Dick is that he has no education. Dirt poor, abused, neglected, Dick joined the Army and then began the life of Don Draper. Betty tells him what she learned in “first year Anthropology,” and Rachel tells him the Greek meaning of “Utopia,” which she learned in college; he is hungry not just for these women’s bodies, but for the knowledge they have. And that underscores his outsider/exile status.

Later, Don meets Midge, longing to satisfy both hungers. He grabs her passionately (right after seeing Rachel…) and then she shows him a beatnik underground in which he is an alien. It is there, at “The Gaslight,” that Midge and Roy’s friend sings a version of Rivers of Babylon (at least, I think it’s Rivers of Babylon—it might be one of the other songs based on Psalm 137).

And, finally, Joan and Roger. He is alienated from his wife and daughter. Which is clearly his own fault. They are in a hotel, which is a no man’s land, a place between, a territory for the homeless that reminds Joan uncomfortably of a hospital room (suggesting some back story there, I think). It is also a waystation, a place where they can find comfort in each other. In the final seconds of the episode, as the song plays, Joan and Roger are apart from each other, and leaving the hotel. Leaving Babylon? Or leaving Utopia to return to Babylon?

Roberta is obsessed with Betty, but for me, it’s mostly Don (although all of the characters have their fascinations).

What I learned in Episode 12 was that Don is improvising, and he’s operating out of panic. We know a bit about his childhood; “I’m a whore-son” he said matter-of-factly in Episode 8. My thoughts at first was that he had an intense (and justifiable) urge to get away, that he was full of rage, and that he was a social climber. Dick Whitman couldn’t have the home in Ossining, so Dick Whitman had to be over.

But in Nixon vs. Kennedy I saw something different: Terror. Don fears he can be dragged back to “Dick Whitman, Whoreson” at any time. His escape hangs by the thinnest of threads. And all he really wants to do is run. He wants to run with Rachel. He wants to drown in the comfort that Rachel offers, and he wants that comfort to be a running away of a kind.

All of it is improv. He had no master plan when he became Don Draper, no plan when he buried his past, no plan when he didn’t get off the train. It’s all a little boy running away from home with his meager possessions tied in a bundle and resolutely refusing to cry.