Friday, August 27, 2010
Cultural psychology underlies this week's episode of "Mad Men" with the title "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" based a on book by the same name, a 1946 study of Japan by American cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict written at the invitation of the U.S. Office of War Information in order to understand and predict the behavior of the Japanese in World War II.
According to Benedict, shame is a violation of cultural or social values while guilt feelings arise from violations of one's internal values. Psychoanalyst Helen B. Lewis in her 1971 book Shame and guilt in neurosis explained that "The experience of shame is directly about the self, which is the focus of evaluation. In guilt, the self is not the central object of negative evaluation, but rather the thing done is the focus."
In other words, a good person can do a bad thing in secret and feel guilty about it. On the other hand, by failing to meet societal expectations one experiences the shame of being a bad person without having committed any bad acts.
"Forgiveness" versus "revenge." "Guilt" versus "shame." These differences are critical to the understanding of ourselves as a culture and ourselves as individuals.
If you watched the HBO mini-series "The Pacific" you learned just how difficult it was for soldiers from the U.S. to understand the Japanese. Simply put, in 1942 Americans were at war with a nationalistic, well-trained, initially well-equipped, war machine that had been at war more or less continuously for nearly 50 years. Japan was a country of extremely xenophobic, culturally isolated people, dominated by a military caste and a state sponsored religion.
"Shame" at having failed was a much emphasized value and "guilt" for having harmed a person of "the others" was not even acknowledged as a possibility. But by 1965 the Japanese had effectively started the process of "rethinking" and "restructuring" their society.
Roger looked at the old men from Honda with their bowing and saw what he experienced in his Pacific war. He hadn't moved on and he suspected that these old Japanese men hadn't either. Maybe it is possible to truly move beyond "the sins of the fathers" through the changing of the guard to a new generation.
This focus on cultural differences facilitated the episode's portrayal of the effects of shame and guilt as different experiences. To do this, we get back some characters more or less missing from prior episodes this season, Betty, Sally, and Henry.
Betty, who we already know is a mess psychologically, punishes Sally for bringing shame upon her, telling her if she "touches herself" (one of those euphemisms of neurotic America) again she'd "cut off her hands." Henry sees Betty's response as damaging and Sally ends up seeing the school's psychologist four days a week. Of course, poor Sally is delivered there by Carla the housekeeper.
In one interview the psychologist, Dr. Edna, already sees Betty's problems as creating Sally's problems. "Maytag Betty" (you remember the washing machine incident?) tells her "I was private and mostly outgrew it."
Back to Roger, who's always enough inebriated to be missing any inhibitions, almost blows the future for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with his hate - the big marketing future for the next 20+ years is going to become very Japanese - think Sony, as well as Honda and Toyota. But this episode allows Don to redeem himself.
The writers provide Don with a foil in the form of a competing small agency, C.G.C., whose chief creative executive is named Ted, that has some of his former clients and is a former associate. Through deceitful manipulation Don gets Ted to buy into a need to spend too much money in the Honda competition in violation of Honda's rules, a contest which neither was ever going to win now anyway. Don wins points with Honda using ceremonious courtesy by citing the rule violation as a basis for withdrawing his firm from the contest.
As usual, there was much in this episode I'm not writing about. I do have to note that the best scene in the show was Peggy by herself riding a Honda (50?) around and around in a room to make Ted think SCDP was spending loads of money making a TV commercial. The second best scene was when Peggy was excited about the drinking bird toy.
Friday, August 20, 2010
In fact, it is only through Laura Linney's performance, not the words in the script, that we learn that. (And so we also learn that this is one of those shows requiring the viewer to pay attention, or you might as well flip over to watch psychically challenged people eating worms while immersed in a tank of snakes.)
As her brother says looking a bit puzzled, she's got her weird back. Now we're told something about her that only a sibling would know, so we need to be told.
"The Big C" on Showtime premiered Monday with the network's best premiere rating in eight years and its best half-hour opener in 12 years. Premier ratings don't say much about a show, but let me state unequivocally - this show meets the high expectations created by its cast list.
The show's lead Laura Linney - as teacher, wife, mother, and terminal melanoma victim Cathy Jamison - is one of America's best actresses working today. She is a three-time Oscar nominee, a three-time Emmy winner (most recently for her portrayal of Abigail Adams in HBO's "John Adams" miniseries), a Golden Globe three-time nominee and one time winner, a SAG best actress winner, a Tony nominee, etc. That should be enough for a half-hour dramady, but in addition we have:
- Oliver Platt, who also has multiple award nominations (including some for his performances in "The West Wing", "Huff", and "Nip/Tuck") is the perfect choice for the hapless recently exiled husband, Paul.
- John Benjamin Hickey, a familiar face as a guest or supporting actor is the weird, but loyal, brother Sean.
- Phyllis Somerville, another even more familiar face, is Marlene, the older, but definitely not dead, woman across the street lost to the world for years because of her husband's demise.
- The dermatologist is played by Reid Scott who we most recently know from "My Boys".
- And then there's Gabourey Sidibe, of "Precious" fame, who is "that" student.
It's a half-hour dramady, but much was crammed into that time. If you haven't watched the pilot, you should. It is running all week on Showtime, available to stream on the Showtime website, and on Showtime on Demand.
Perhaps there is one caveat to my recommendation. Times occur in viewers lives when a TV show or movie just doesn't work, doesn't fit. You need to know that whenever this series ends Cathy Jamison is going to die from cancer at a relatively young age.
The humor in the show is about relationships - family, friends, etc. - generally found in how Cathy handles them. In the last scene of the pilot she's talking to Marlene's dog, while both are resting in a large hole taking up most of Cathy's back yard. It's humor, but not necessarily funny.
The last show we watched about a woman dying of cancer was "Terminal City," a superb Canadian dramatic ten-episode series shown on the Sundance Channel covering the last eight months of her life. It was time well-spent watching TV, something that cannot often be said. I believe we'll be able to say that about "The Big C."
Thursday, August 19, 2010
Historical context is the elephant on the set in the opening scene of this week's episode "The Rejected." We know that Lucky Strike is the cash cow that keeps Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in business. From this episode, we begin to see that for Don and Roger this is going to continue to be the nightmare client.
The scene began with us seeing Don, stressed, chain smoking, lighting a cigarette off the end of his last one. (Sometimes I wonder if the final scene of the final episode will be about Don dying of lung cancer.)
At one point Don describes to American Tobacco Company heir and closeted gay sadist Lee Garner, Jr., what can't be shown as: "Anything that makes the smoker appear superhuman." We know that while he's assuring about the latest regulations, ultimately TV advertising will be banned.1
In another context scene, we see Peggy and her newfound "counterculture" friends standing outside the glass office door as Pete schmoozes in the lobby with the representatives of his new client - the entire Vicks line worth $6 million in billings. (Good work Pete, even if you had to extort it from your father-in-law!) The representatives were all men in suits, middle aged and older. Outside the glass door is the future, diverse and soon to be the target demo. We know that first the two generations must clash violently, beginning in 1965.
Peggy was well represented in this episode except for one part. I know the "ring" shots were meant to show her still evaluating traditional relationships, but it appeared like she was longing for that role as housewife. And the peeking through the window at Don was meant to show that for a woman seeking a route to a stable traditional relationships is fraught with problems, something she already learned the hard way with Pete (emphasized in this episode) and that Allison's breakdown emphasized, but it also emphasized that men have problems there too.
My problem is with the writers or the Director (sorry, John Slattery, who directed this episode). The Peggy character is too smart and too experienced to appear wistful about a ring. The one thing we know about Peggy is she knows she has the talent and skills for the job and has already chosen to become "a suit" not a hippie nor a traditional wife and mother.
Her adventure in this episode was more consistent with her character. I was anticipating that being in the Time Life building would bring her more exposure to the direction of the future. Let's hope that the character Joyce Ramsay effectively played by Zosia Mamet ("The Unit", "United States of Tara") will continue to expand Peggy's big picture view.
But what about Pete and Peggy? We know that Pete and Peggy have a history. In the sequence where Pete is coping with having just been told he'll have to "fire" the Clearasil account, in frustration he ends up banging his head against a post.
In a different sequence:
- Peggy and Joey have an exchange over the shooting of Malcolm X which tells us (a) we're at the end of February 1965 and (b) neither one of them is very cool as Peggy is a week late learning about it and Joey gives a snotty reply.2
- Peggy congratulates Pete on his wife being pregnant, leaving a pregnant moment between them.
- Peggy ends up banging her head on her desk in frustration.
Then, of course we have the whole Fay(e) demo and Allison's breakdown.
We are shown Don's clumsy handling of Allison's request for a letter of reference. Then we have his nearly angry assertion to Faye about going with the traditional "find a husband" approach to women for Ponds: “You can’t tell how they’re going to behave based on how they have behaved.”
Don is inherently progressive in everything including women, except in his personal behavior. And even there, he knows he keeps screwing up and tries to figure out how to apologize.
Finally, there is the context reminder of the Don/Dick story arc that is offered in a haunting way.
In the beginning scene, in the middle of trying to explain things to Lee Garner, Don is obviously upset when he opens this letter from California:
In the last scene of this episode a sober(!) Don is in his apartment complex hallway with the "pear pair":
We really can't see enough of Don's reaction to them.
But Don/Dick knows that Anna is dying of bone cancer. The picture of Anna and Dick in earlier times in the beginning scene juxtaposed with the old couple who are, after all, aware that death will come sooner than later, but who are together as a couple, a pair, has to touch a painful place in Dick/Don as a person isolated from love.
1. Last season we were made aware that the "Surgeon General's Report" on health effects of smoking was published. In early 1965 FTC regulations were going to require among other things the health warnings that we see now. The industry obtained delays and then got Congress to pass weakened rules in the form of the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965. In June 1967, the Federal Communications Commission would tighten up its rules on tobacco advertising and in April 1970, Congress passed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act banning the advertising of cigarettes on television and radio effective January 2, 1971.
2. There is some ironic relevance to today regarding the assassination of Malcolm X as it involved a dispute over militancy between Muslim sects. From Wikipedia:
While in prison, Malcolm X became a member of the Nation of Islam. After his parole in 1952, he became one of the Nation's leaders and chief spokesmen. For nearly a dozen years, he was the public face of the Nation of Islam. Tension between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam, led to Malcolm X's departure from the organization in March 1964.
After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X became a Sunni Muslim and made a pilgrimage to Mecca, after which he disavowed racism. He traveled extensively throughout Africa and the Middle East. He founded Muslim Mosque, Inc., a religious organization, and the secular, Pan-Africanist, Organization of Afro-American Unity. Less than a year after he left the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was assassinated by three members of the group while giving a speech in New York.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
When Stephanie said to Don regarding advertising "You're kidding me. It's pollution!" I felt that it clearly reflected Betty Friedan's criticism of advertising mentioned in my post on last week’s episode. And Don’s response was reflective of the truth about the direction Americans collectively headed which got us into the economic mess are in: "So stop buying things."
The most politically charged comment of the day was Anna joking question to Don about whether there were more Mexicans here (in San Diego) or Acapulco. Assuming Anna’s perspective about what constituted a “Mexican” was typical for middle-aged "Anglo" Californians of 1964, the correct answer was “here.”
At that time Acapulco had a population of about 50,000. (It also had a huge influx of gringo tourists like Don.)
In the 1960 census in the City of San Diego there were 29,085 people born in the United States who had Spanish surnames and 22,194 people who were born in Mexico out of a population of 573,224. In San Diego County, there were 50,402 people born in the U.S. who had Spanish surnames and 37,870 people born in Mexico out of a population of 1,033,011.
I don’t know whether the writers included the comment to emphasize the difference between Anna’s 1964 California and Don’s 1964 New York, but there was a huge cultural difference beginning with history. (Alta) California was part of Mexico from 1535 to 1848 (313 years), including Mexico’s colonial period when it was known as “New Spain.” California will have been a U.S. state only 160 years on September 9 this year.
California, with its 840 mile Pacific Coast frontage, faces Asia (Japan, China, Korea, and Siberia) and Asian culture. It is part of the Pacific Rim demographically, geologically and economically. Mexico is literally “south of the border.” The California land area is 163,696 square miles and in 1960 had 15,717,204 people (96 people per square mile, approximately 50% more people than it had in 1950 and over double the population it had in 1940, and that 1960 population number would double again by 2000).
New York faces Europe across the Atlantic and is deeply tied to European culture. In the early 1600's, it was settled by the Dutch, but in 1664 it became the British Province of New York in 1664. It established its first state constitution in 1776. It does have an international border, but with Canada, specifically Ontario and Quebec, provinces that have a (partly) French heritage. The New York land area is 54,555 square miles (about one-third the size of California) and in 1960 had 16,782,304 people (307 people per square mile, about 10% more than it had in 1950 and 25% more than it had in 1940 and by that 1960 number would increase only 13% by 2000).
The point here is that California in 1964 offered a different milieu than the East Coast, including New York. The differences went much deeper than just the pop culture which would infiltrate eastward, but even that was "in our faces" in this episode.
Jan Berry and Dean Torrence, “Jan and Dean,” were both born in Los Angeles and attended University High School (the post office that serves 90210 is located within the District and Los Angeles city boundaries). In the early to mid-1960's, Berry and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys collaborated on roughly a dozen hits and album cuts for Jan and Dean. Jan and Dean were a significant part of the California surf and auto culture music of the time. When we first see Dick (Don), Anna, and Stephanie in the bar, it is Jan and Dean we hear coming from the jukebox.
Then we see Don and Stephanie dancing to “Old Cape Cod” recorded by Patti Page, a hit in 1957, not even eight years earlier.Stephanie calls it old, Dick says it suggests a beautiful place he wishes he could go. For Dick that is meant to be a metaphor, but Stephanie takes it literally and asks him if he’s ever been there. Dick is jerked back to real life suddenly and says “no.” Nonetheless, we know that Old Cape Cod is more than a bit different from Jan and Dean’s California.
Stephanie’s UC Berkeley experience is radically different from anything Dick/Don has experienced. In September 1964, University officials announced that existing regulations prohibiting advocacy of political causes or candidates (other than invited political speakers, and fund raising and recruitment of members by authorized student organizations at the intersection of Bancroft and Telegraph Avenues) would be strictly enforced. This was one of those "Smell gas - light a match." moments that began the Free Speech Movement, a student protest which took place during the 1964–1965 academic year on the campus.
In the spring of 1965, the free speech inertia would be taken over by the Vietnam Day Committee movement and a May protest attended by Dr. Benjamin Spock. This would expand to the rest of the nation. Presumably Stephanie frequently will not be going to classes in 1965.
The Earth was moving under our feet, as it always is here in California. That's our way of life. When the Earth becomes unstable for Dick/Don, it is a major shift. Divorce and creating a new company in the same year, 1964, are change. But on the eve of 1965 learning of Anna's terminal bone cancer - well, a piece of California just fell into the ocean for Don Draper taking with it Dick Whitman.
Don knows that being surrounded by such instability can be uncomfortable. And so he signs off "Dick + Anna '64", packs up, and returns to New York instead of going to Acapulco. There he could commiserate on New Year's Day with his new-found fellow newly-single buddy Lane Price. They drink booze without bite provided by Lane's alcoholic father, then go to a campy Japanese monster movie (folks in the blogosphere are arguing over its identity) where Lane yells pseudo Japanese to irritate irritable moviegoers, then enjoy a double-date overnight set up through Don's call girl, and then ultimately return to the offices in the Time-Life building where management is seated around a conference table (!) with Joan at the head kicking it off with: "Gentlemen, shall we begin 1965?"
Like Don, Joan's planned life is shifting under her feet. Her doctor-husband Greg is already a disappointment after failing to get the big prize at the hospital. But he's in the Army now, and she is sure he'll go to Vietnam. Maybe he'll get killed there.
Uhhhh, well, he is an doctor-officer, not some lieutenant who's going to get fragged. Just how many doctors will be killed in Vietnam? Surely there must have been one. I don't remember any and can't find any through a Google search.
But Joan doesn't know that. We learn that she, soon to be 34, is ready to start a family with Greg. She's off the pill and according to her sympathetic gynecologist, it could take at least a month before she's fertile again. No, the two abortions appear not to have caused any problems. Two? But things aren't going according to plan. She and Greg can't coordinate schedules. We are presented with a failure homemade luau, I guess as a symbol of her frustration. Greg has no appetite and Joan cuts her hand. That seems to be the only thing Greg the-possibly-soon-to-be-MASH-surgeon can fix for Joan, using a few stitches.
While this scenario would be easily believable today, what "Mad Men" is presenting is Joan as a real pioneer in the dilemma facing a career woman in the age of the pill (in 1964, an age that is barely 4, maybe, in New York City with a very sympathetic gynecologist) - how do you have it all?
But this story arc does continue the feminist theme from the last episode.
As with every episode, the layers are deep and there is too much to discuss, though I probably overthink it. The best wrong-headed quote of the night would be Stephanie's: “Nobody knows what’s wrong with themselves. Everyone else can see it right away.” If the last sentence were true, the course of history would have been substantially different.
I'm trying to figure out why this episode was named: "The Good News."
Saturday, August 7, 2010
This show is set in the heart of New York City, both in physical location and with regard to the cultural avant-garde. The second wave of the American feminist movement had reached boiling temperature. Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl sold 2 million copies in 3 weeks in 1962 warming the cauldron around working women. But Betty Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique ignited the fire.
Brown's book was a pop advice book on how to handle men in various situations to the single girl's advantage.
Friedan's more scholarly book challenged the basic assumptions about a woman's role in terms of family demands and housewife assumptions. Motivational research behind advertising that "manipulates" women into consumption and perpetuates a "sick or immature" society instead of one that encourages women to develop their human intelligence is one of her key criticisms of 20th Century life.
Feminism as a movement refers to a series of campaigns for reforms on issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, maternity leave, equal pay, voting rights, sexual harassment, and sexual violence. Voting rights were accomplished in the so-called first wave.
What most people don't really understand is that this second wave resulted in the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a 1967 Executive Order extending full Affirmative Action rights to women, Title IX (1972), the Women's Educational Equity Act (1975), Title X (1970, health and family planning), the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (1974), the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, the illegalization of marital rape and the legalization of no-fault divorce in all states, a 1975 law requiring the U.S. Military Academies to admit women, and many Supreme Court cases, perhaps most notably, Reed v. Reed of 1971 and Roe v. Wade of 1973.
One critical element affecting women at this time was birth control. Most don't remember that although the FDA approved the first oral contraceptive in 1960, contraceptives were not available to married women in all states until Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 and were not available to unmarried women in all states until Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1972. Carey v. Population Services struck down a New York law forbidding distribution of contraceptives to those under 16 in 1977.
Remember that this season is set in 1964, before Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 struck down a law in nearby Connecticut that prohibited the use of contraceptives. If you are under 35, you were not born when that case was decided.
Many economists argue that the availability of the Birth Control Pill led to an increase in women in the labor force. Since the pill allowed women to have a sexual relationship while pursuing a career, it is given credit as one of the factors in the quiet revolution.
To say that Peggy and Joan, along with Faye, Allison, and Phoebe, all working women, plus Betty who gave up a modeling career to become a housewife, were living in times different from today is to
- minimize the flow of events regarding a woman's life and
- minimize the personal stress and confusion they confronted daily.
There was no rule book as the women were rewriting it while many men stood around looking ... puzzled.
In some kind of ironic twist, this season's Christmas episode ends with Teresa Brewer's version of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" with its "Jingle Bells" counterpoint. (In case you missed this version, the song someone posted on YouTube is embedded below at the bottom.)
On a positive note, other than Pete Campbell everyone (including most of the TV critics and audience) was glad to see Freddy Rumsen return. I guess one can ignore that it was sad to see the "AA" Freddy being a counterpoint to the drunken Don. So much in these first two episode is about Don Draper without his anchors - no wife and no established employer to fall back on, just his single, self-employed self, aka Dick Whitman, lest we forget. But despite Don's prominent drunken "bad" behavior, his situation and that of all the men appear to be a means to the writers' ends.
Freddy Rumsen brings an account - Pond's Cold Cream. This is hardly a product that needs a man's understanding to sell. And Peggy let's him know it, telling him he's "old fashion" and he just looks momentarily "puzzled" before continuing with an idea to use the 62-year-old Tallulah Bankhead and a bouquet of roses in an ad for Pond's. Peggy points out that she's old saying: "Nothing makes old ladies look good." Some may have thought that was kind of a mean remark, but if you're in advertising focused on the client's interest, the expanding market in 1964 was going to be the baby boomers, not their grandparents.
Peggy is at the head of the assault on rewriting the rules. She has learned the hard way and intends on figuring out how to get through the subtle complexities, including having her own controllable paramour. And Freddy, sober or not, has completely missed the signals even though he seemed more aware than some of the other men.
Which brings us back to Dr. Faye Miller, the woman psychologist carrying the torch for use of that motivational research Betty Friedan so disdained. One has to assume at least one of the writers knew the history of the name they gave this character, right?
Immediately after her divorce from Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe was so distraught and potentially suicidal that her psychiatrist Dr Marianne Kris drove her to New York Hospital and checked her in to a private ward on February 5, 1961, under the pseudonym of Faye Miller.
On August 5, 1962, perhaps one of the most successful working woman of her time, Marilyn Monroe, was found dead in her home. Suicide.
Not for one minute do I believe Don doesn't understand advertising psychology. His walking out to avoid dealing with the questionnaire is to avoid dealing with Dick Whitman. But he does ask Dr. Faye to dinner only to receive a rebuff and her assuring him he’ll be married in a year. When Don protests, she "apologizes" with sarcasm telling him that she forgets that people don’t like being told they’re a type.
I'm uncomfortable with the Don character as portrayed in this episode. Perhaps there are some things predictable about Don, but there was nothing trite about the character.
This brings me to that other woman in Don's life, his daughter Sally.
Sally sees in the ghost of Christmases Past her dad lurking around the house. She wants her mom to move. Maybe she can make that happen as she has that maladjusted Glen Bishop looking out for her.
Last season he had a thing for her mother. But, hey, if his newly found Betty-surrogate Sally wants to move, he can arrange to make it less desirable for the Francis family to live there while bringing a little satisfaction to Sally in the form of an untouched room. After all, Glen and Sally both have divorced/remarried mothers, another modern feminist type, the free-thinking-feminist-mother? Anyway, the Glen-and-Sally relationship has somewhere to go.
Sally does have a father. Before Christmas we have (enter trite) Secretary/Office Wife Allison reading Sally's "Dear Santa" letter to Don. You get the feeling that what Allison is reading matters to her; in fact, you get the feeling that Don matters to her. (This character - superbly played by Alexa Alemanni - has been in all three seasons and 21 episodes, so we know she knows something about Don.) Without any feeling, Don rattles off the list of stuff she should get for the kids.
Then after the Christmas Party fiasco he "sleeps" with Allison. Then he's very uncomfortable. After all he's the one who thought Roger was an idiot for marrying his secretary. Allison-the-office-wife delivers the packages, completely gift-wrapped. Don appreciates her extra services - two fifties worth. (At least he didn't have Allison slap him around.)
We get the impression in this episode that Allison has thought about becoming the next Mrs. Don Draper, but is confused. No worry, even Dr. Faye Miller is confused about Don, probably because he's really Dick Whitman deep down in that head these women find attractive.
As usual, this season's Christmas episode felt like a family Christmas with all those layers under the surface, too many to peel through here. So much was under the whole Christmas party thing with Roger being humiliated by the sadistic, closeted client Lee Garner, Jr., who bullied Sal in the editing room last season.
But it would be remiss not to note one more new woman character introduced in this episode, next door neighbor St. Vincent Hospital Nurse Phoebe (played by Nora Zehetner whose character on "Grey's Anatomy" was shot and killed at the end of last season). In contrast to Allison, she is able to handle drunk Don's attempts at "seducing" her. But she's aware of him as a person, enough to elicit from Don: "I don't hate Christmas, I hate this Christmas."
Me too, Don. So sit back and enjoy the music.