Why Mad Men Represents the Best of TV

Don and Sally

Don and Sally in an early season (L) and in last Sunday’s episode (R).

 

On last Sunday’s Mad Men, Sally catches Don in a lie—she visits SCDPCDPCHCHJ (I can’t remember the agency name anymore) and finds that he’s not there, but doesn’t confront him about it when he later claims he was at the office. Once Don finds out Sally knew the truth, he asks why she withheld as well. “It’s more embarrassing to catch you in a lie than to ignore it,” Sally says, no doubt recalling the events of last season, when she walked in on Don mid-hookup with a woman who was not his wife. Don sneers at Sally’s response, accusing her of lying in wait, then trapping him in a fib, “just like your mother.”

Mad Men rarely patronizes its viewers, so the show doesn’t spell out that Don is referencing the events of season three. In episode 3×11, Betty confronts Don about his identity theft after opening the Pandora’s box in his desk, chock-full of family photos and references to Dick Whitman’s life. As soon as Don spits that insult at Sally—just like your mother—we flash back to Betty standing righteously in Don’s office; to his mistress, the long forgotten schoolteacher, hunched in Don’s car parked outside. Don’s entire journey—really, his descent—is present as we flash from the moments after Betty’s confrontation in season three to the Don Draper of season seven. In the former season it was odd to watch Don, always suave and composed, shaking so forcefully in the face of Betty’s discovery that he couldn’t light his cigarette. Now Don is often that unmoored; he traipses around his house in pajamas, marking the levels of his quickly depleting liquor bottle. “I can explain,” Don sputtered to Betty in season three, the box of photos between them. “I know you can,” Betty replied. “You’re a very, very gifted storyteller.” It was true then; it’s not so true now.

At the moment that Don knew his wife had found him out, he must have thought it was the lowest point in his life. Looking back, he knows it was not, as do we. The depths of his misery have only deepened, and today he is essentially an unemployed alcoholic in an unhappy marriage. In a four-word phrase—just like your mother—Mad Men reminds us of Don’s relationship with Sally, his relationship with Betty, his relationship with the truth, his relationship with himself. We become conscious of the years and years we have spent with this character. Television is unique in this way; a movie, a book, a painting, are contained experiences, stretching over hours or days. Television stretches over years. This is changing through shows like True Detective or the new Fargo, one-and-dones that in future seasons will perhaps be united by an aesthetic sensibility, if not by character. But the best television takes advantage of our extended relationships with its characters and uses that intimacy to move us. “Just like your mother” reminds us how broken Don is, and how fraught he and Sally’s relationship is. Which is why the episode’s ending scene is such a gut punch. Don drops Sally off. They have had dinner, have mended at least a post on the fence. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” she tosses off through the car window. “I love you.” Don is stunned, and touched, as are we. It’s so hopeful, the capacity for love after all that. And therein, the power of television: that we are able to experience all that. 

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Gender and The Good Wife

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I want to kind of unpack my reaction to this week’s The Good Wife because I’ve noticed sort of a disturbing trend. Those of us who love TV have heard a lot about the era of “difficult men” that The Sopranos ushered in—that is, the largely white, male antiheroes that anchor television’s most acclaimed dramas (Walter White, Don Draper, etc.). I love those characters, particularly Don Draper, which is what led me to question my response to Alicia Florrick’s defection from Lockhart/Gardner on The Good Wife tonight.

By all accounts and purposes, this is a feminist move from Alicia. Even though it wasn’t really acknowledged in this episode, the viewers were led to believe that Alicia was leaving L/G in part because she wanted to get out from under Will (figuratively and kind of literally). She wants to strike out on her own and really fight for the ideals she believes in as a lawyer, because we know that Alicia has often felt ethically compromised at L/G. And her strength as a woman was on display not only through the savvy business moves she made throughout the night’s episode, but also through her sexuality. Sure, she was forced into leaving once Will found out about the new firm, but she was still taking a lot of ownership in tonight’s episode on multiple fronts.

So why, as a regular viewer and as a feminist, did my sympathies lie so squarely with Will? To the point that I was really getting mad at Alicia as I watched, and actively rooting against her and the new firm? I don’t think the show was pushing me that way. This is The Good Wife, after all—it’s her story, so by virtue of that alone, we as viewers should be predisposed to siding with Alicia (which I often do). I don’t think the show was pushing us to take Alicia’s side, but I do think the Kings expect the viewers to celebrate her show of independence.

On the other hand, we also were not pushed to side against Will in this episode. Interestingly, we begin squarely in his head. First we got that long beat where the camera settled on Josh Charles as he let Will absorb the news from Diane, which was a moment that clearly engendered sympathy for the betrayed Will. Then we went right into his head; we literally saw things through Will’s eyes through the point-of-view shot as he approached Alicia. That was an interesting choice, because it put us squarely in Will’s frame of reference. And a great direction note; the POV shot gets the audience right up in a character’s mindset, but it’s also used very effectively in some horror movies, like “Halloween”, to unsettle the audience by placing them in the serial killer’s head as he or she stalks or watches the victim. So in that beginning scene of the episode, we were recognizing Will as a threatening presence to Alicia, but we were also sharing a very intimate moment with him.

Beginning aside, Will and Alicia very much operated in grey areas tonight, so it’s hard to argue that the show took sides. Will’s darkest moment was also literally the darkest moment in the episode, when, barely lit and shrouded in black, he told Kalinda that he would essentially stop at nothing to take the competition down. That was an ominous shot that put him in some shifty territory. But he also had the beats related to Grace’s phone call, which humanized him and gave us a respite from his anger. Alicia also went to some dark places, but she had the wrenching elevator moment. Overall, I thought the show was quite objective, which leaves me questioning my anger toward Alicia. Sure, she did some ethically questionable things while maneuvering out of L/G, but Will has been shady through the show’s entire run. Furthermore, how can I as a viewer not just tolerate but actively root for Don Draper—who is frequently a misogynist pig—and yet actively root against Alicia Florrick as soon as she makes one ethical transgression?

I have to wonder if even I, an avowed feminist, am uncomfortable with the depiction of female power, or of a woman in a morally grey area, a woman willing to make moves for her own benefit. That woman kind of already exists on The Good Wife in the form of Kalinda, but for me I think it’s easy to not react to Kalinda very strongly because 1) she’s such a heightened, over-the-top character anyway and 2) she’s so emotionally opaque that I rarely react to her with any strong emotion, unless it’s related to Alicia or some other character on the show. But Kalinda also doesn’t toggle identities the way Alicia does. Alicia is mother, wife, lawyer, lover, and so on. And maybe part of the discomfort comes in watching a woman really wear all of those different masks; maybe we don’t want to think that a woman has those masks at all. We want to imagine that she is some pure presence—St. Alicia. We can celebrate Will Gardner and Don Draper because despite their transgressions, aren’t these the archetypical American males? Aren’t they—in their well-cut suits, surrounded by  the signifiers of power—filling idealized male roles? And yet when we watch a woman adopt their strategies in order to seize power for herself, there’s a certain discomfort, for me at least. I don’t know exactly what it says about my biases or societal norms, but I am happy there’s a show that’s even challenging me to consider it.