on the end of Mad Men (aka: What the hell am I gonna do with my life now? Overanalyze Game of Thrones? Yeah, right. Okay, whatever.)

So that took a few days to digest. I’ve been drinking heavily ever since. I’m glad Monday was a holiday here in Canada.

Naturally, I’ve been pouring over reviews of the finale, unable to really let it go. It’s been a bitch of a hangover. I still have the Coke jingle in my head.

Generally, the initial reaction of the masses to the Mad Men finale, “Person to Person” was positive. But as a few days kicked by, there was a bit of a backlash. The nitpicking started.

This is why we can’t have nice things, Internet.

Going into the finale, I told Husband that with series finales they end up either emotionally satisfying or intellectually satisfying. I was afraid it would be the latter. I wanted closure, damn it. Very rarely we get both.

Emotional satisfaction comes immediately; we get so caught up in the moment, we’re swept away. Intellectual satisfaction takes time; we need to mull things over; we need to parse out the intricacies and give it an in-depth analysis.

But the Mad Men finale was very emotionally satisfying, and left everyone with a stupid grin on their face. I think that’s what prompted the initial good reviews. A thing like that!

640-640x360

The thing is Mad Men is pretty much never emotionally satisfying. We’ve watched people make the same mistakes year in and year out because that’s usually what people are like. That was the refreshing beauty of Mad Men compared to the rest of television.

After few day of mulling it over, the emotional satisfaction was starting to wane and people began to analyze it intellectually. Wait, a million voices cried in unison, Man Men isn’t about happy endings! Mad Men is about the futility of self-betterment, the dying light of hope in a cynical world, and the true banality of existence that lies beneath the nostalgic vision we’ve created of the past! How dare the characters be happy!

I found the ending—a future classic, I believe—to be perfect. Emotional and intellectual. The Coca-Cola Hilltop ad was genius. In retrospect, the show could not have ended with anything else. The reason it was so perfect, to me, was the way it cast a sense of ambiguity over the entire series. It was not meant to mean one thing.

I don’t just mean as in how you interpret it plot-wise. It makes no difference whether or not Don would leave Big Sur and go on to write the most famous ad ever. That’s not the point. What that ad meant thematically, that is the point.

And the theme in this case is a little like the ending of Inception: the fact that we don’t know is the point.

The point is what that ad represented to America in 1971. Mad Men is not a show about people taking action and causing change; it is about people reacting to change. The Coca-Cola ad shows the way the counter-culture of the Sixties became mainstream, and what that means.

BN-IM200_MADMEN_J_20150518163332

What it means, exactly, is up to us to decide. The ad is like a Rorschach test.

I immediately saw it through the eyes of a cynic. I saw it as the ultimate sign that the “good vibes” of the counter-culture had been co-opted by that totality that is The Man: McCann-Erickson, advertising as a whole, capitalism itself.

I was Sally criticising the Moon Landing.

When I talked to my mom on the phone afterwards, she saw the Coca-Cola ad as wonderfully uplifting. She saw it as Don connecting with a human being and passing that message onto the world. She remembers that ad in 1971 and how positive its message was.

Furthermore, she remembers how necessary it was.

As was made so apparent in the previous episode, “The Milk and Honey Route,” America in 1970 was a divided nation. Think of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” playing in the car and Don’s tragic adventures in Middle America. Think of how much the offices of McCann-Erickson reminded you of 1960 Sterling-Cooper. It seems cute at first, as if some people were stuck in a time-warp, oblivious to the changes the world had undergone.

But they weren’t oblivious; they were fighting those changes.

The end of the Sixties wasn’t just the “great wave” clawing its way back that Hunter S. Thompson wrote about. It was people paralyzed by change, not knowing how to react. Peace and love, my mom said, was what Coca-Cola realized everyone needed. That ad was a message of hope. That ad told people not to fear the future. It was a bridge between the divisions in America.

My mom was Don as he told Sally, “Don’t be cynical.”

What kind of loaded symbol is Coca-Cola? In and of itself, as product, it is completely useless. It’s fizzy sugar water, for Christ’s sake. That ad, all by itself—with or without Don Draper—is a one of those potent metaphors that real life occasionally throws out. If you were to put it in a novel, it would be too on the nose. If Mad Men created that ad and it didn’t actually exist in real life, it would be too obvious.

But it did happen. Because sometimes life is like that. Sometimes life is full of symbols and metaphors. Sometimes life is cloying. That may not be “realistic,” but it’s real.

Jon Hamm as Don Draper - Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 14 - Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC
Jon Hamm as Don Draper – Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 14 – Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC

That ad, when putting a cap on the entire series, can be seen as mainstream culture’s final victory against the counter-culture (castrating them by co-opting their message, just like records companies had been doing to rebellious music for years and would continue to do for many more), or it can be seen as mainstream culture at last truly understanding what the counter-culture had been preaching all this time.

So, thus, Don’s story—the lens through which we view Mad Men as a whole—ended ambiguously.

But everyone else seemed to get perfect little happy endings. It was too neat. It was too idyllic. It was like fan fiction. But I disagree.

I think these “perfect little happy endings” were earned. Consider how far these characters have come since 1960.

These endings seem too pat when taking into consideration who these characters are now, but when we consider who they were when their stories began, we realize that none of them got what they wanted.

Instead, they learned what they needed.

In 1960, Pete loved Manhattan and all the entitlements that came with it because of who his family was. He wanted to die in Manhattan.

In 1970, Pete gives up Manhattan for Wichita, Kansas.

Sure, here he’ll be given the royal treatment he always thought was his due, but in giving up Manhattan, Pete is actually giving up very much of what defined him. He’ll be a big fish in Wichita, but that won’t carry any weight in Manhattan. He knows this, and this is why he had to be forced into it by Duck Phillips. This seems to be such a great move for Pete’s career, but what he is really doing is giving up his idyllic vision of Manhattan for something more realistic and substantial.

In the last shot of the Campbells, Pete is the one carrying Tammy. Tammy, who couldn’t even draw a picture of a man, whose father was so awkward he never took the opportunity to say goodnight to her, who never saw her father, is now being carried by him. It’s a small touch, but a powerful one.

AMC_MM_S7B_714_FashionAndStyle-800x450

In 1960, Joan was telling Peggy that the best thing a woman could do in this job is to find a wealthy husband and not have to work at all. Even as late as 1969, Joan insists she wants love over “some arrangement.”

In 1970, she dismisses from her life a rich man she loves because he doesn’t want her to work. Joan knows that her work is a fundamental part of who she is and she will not give it up.

The last shot we see of Joan, she is still in that little apartment she has had for over ten years. Her mother and child are with her, and she’s made her own home her business, a business that represents Joan’s totality: Holloway-Harris. This job is her life.

BN-IM146_joan_G_20150518154551

In 1960, Roger was undergoing a classic mid-life crisis, unable to accept the fact that he was aging. There was always someone older to pick up after him: Bert Cooper. He had his name on the building, a wife and child, but all he wanted to do was have three-martini lunches and cat around with younger women. Remember the twins? Remember the two heart attacks? Then there’s his marriage to Jane, his dalliances with LSD and orgies, and his mother’s death and his terrified cry of “It’s my funeral!”

In 1970, Roger accepts that his name is no longer on the building. After a drunken, organ-riddled night with Peggy—which is both exactly what it sounds like and nothing what it sounds like—he accepts that he is on the “nursing home” floor of McCann-Erickson, he makes an honest commitment to a woman his own age, and he actively starts planning for his death by writing his will.

In Roger’s last scene, he cracks jokes about how old they are, showing his acceptance. He is learning French for Marie, which is a definite sign of commitment. Learning a language is not easy. They are also in Paris.*

IMG_0175-510x284

In 1960, Betty and Sally were at odds. Betty was a naïve housewife, Sally was a child. Think of how wrought with tension and bickering their relationship has been. Think of the Sally who said she’d stay at boarding school “until 1975 if it put Betty in the ground.”

In 1970, they understand one another, and value one another, even if it comes at such a cost. Sally has lived up to responsibility; Betty at last is focusing on herself. But then again, there never was a hint of a happy ending here. At best, we all made peace with it.

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-02h02m44s172

In 1960, Peggy wanted a career. She wanted one so badly, in fact, that she was so focused and single-minded that she didn’t even realize she was pregnant.

Peggy had relationships, but each one was so obviously not going to work out from the start. And Peggy seemed to know this. It was as if she was sabotaging her personal life.

At least until Ted.

Ted was a sign of Peggy’s growing maturity, but not independence. There was a sense that Peggy learned from her relationship with Abe—and its epic conclusion—that she would need to be with someone who understood her job.

And Ted understood her job, but not in the healthiest way. Did you cringe too when he admitted to her that he was in love with his “protégé”? That word choice felt so wrong, like he didn’t truly value her as an equal. Ted was like a shadow of Don, in a way. Peggy saw their differences, and that made Ted attractive to her. He was in a role above Peggy, and she saw value in rising to his challenges. It was tied to her career in the way she thought best: it kept pushing her forward.

But Peggy failed to see the similarities between Ted and Don. She always thought she needed that push for her career, but that push was far too often antagonistic. It never let Peggy separate herself from her career ambitions. This separation wasn’t what she wanted, but was what she needed.

Peggy was never able to let go of Don and the career ambitions he symbolized until her last phone call with Stan. She calls him, worried about Don, but Stan tells her to let him go.

There’s a small moment—a subtle but important one—as she thinks about this and realizes it is true. She needs to let go of the pressure Don has put on her life, and when she finally does, that’s when she apologizes to Stan and he’s at last honest with her about his feelings. It’s a more complicated than a simple lesson learnt that “there’s more to life than work.”

mad-men-7-14-peggy-stan

The previous scene with Stan and Peggy, the fight scene, was important because it set up their differing perspectives. Stan has made peace with the idea that there is more to life. Peggy immediately frames it in black and white: you either succeed or you fail.

The now-famous Steggy scene had been both celebrated and criticized for the rom-com-iness of it. I even said to Husband during it, “This is a total rom-com, but I don’t care, I love it.”

But this scene is not really about Stan and Peggy getting together, or even about our little advertising robot learning to love, it is about Peggy discovering all those shades of grey beyond the black and white of success and failure. Stan is upfront about his feelings. We get a sense he’s known how he feels for a while. But Peggy has to dig it out of herself. That’s how deeply she’s buried any real feelings. We know they’re there, but Peggy represses.

Her emotions always come out in tragic bursts, like the moment she collapses in tears, alone in her apartment. Even in the way she told Stan the truth about the child she gave up for adoption, she even tells the story in third person, distancing herself from the reality, as if it is not her story, but someone else’s.

So, in 1970, Peggy gives up the single-mindedness of her ambition, the shortcut to having her name on the building. Because, as Stan points out, will that alone really make her happy? No, she’s staying the course laid out to her: put in three years with McCann-Erickson and then she’s golden. Because by 1980, as Pete says, she’ll be creative director.

The framing of Peggy’s last shot seemed too perfect, but it was perfect. It’s a late night in the office, not home. She’s typing: working or writing something for Joan, it doesn’t matter. And Stan is— literally and figuratively—behind her. Stan understands her job, but more importantly, he knows not only when to push her, but when to pull her back, or when to just be there.

mad-men-episode-714-peggy-moss-935-800x430

I think, on a larger scale, series finales have changed in recent years. There is tremendous difficulty in having a both intellectually and emotionally satisfying ending. The take-away seems to be that if you have to err in one direction, err on the side of emotionally satisfying.

So many finales that are now infamous were ones that didn’t provide closure on the characters, even if they were artistically astute (The Sopranos), or tried to shoe-horn both the plot and character arcs into a neat package, which inevitably comes off as unfair to the characters and leaves the seams apparent (How I Met Your Mother, Lost).

This is what made Parks and Recreation’s finale so good. It was like the Stan and Peggy scene: it was saccharine, but it felt earned. At the end of the day, the audience cares about the characters and we want closure for them, but we also want the intellectual satisfaction of being able to ponder the subtleties and nuances for the rest of our lives.

Because, what the hell else am I gonna do now? Watch it all over again?

Thanks, Mad Men.

_______________________

*Side note: after Peggy’s date with Stevie earlier this season, I just knew that SOMEONE was going to go to Paris. OF COURSE, it was Roger and Marie.

why do I binge watch seven seasons of a tv show, but can’t force myself to watch a two-hour movie?

This post started as a note in my journal: one of those things that starts crawling out from your head while you’re in the shower, like a worm on the sidewalk in the rain. I meant to write it before the Oscars, because that makes it seem topical rather than tangential.

But alas.

Every year, Husband and I make of game of trying to get through all the Oscar nominees. Usually, some of the films we saw earlier in the year of our accord. These, ultimately and often, end up being my favourites. And, praise be to me, the Academy’s favourites, too. Of the last seven years, the only two “Best Pictures” I didn’t see in theatre way before hand were The Hurt Locker (wasn’t playing nearby) and The King’s Speech (meh).

This year, we only saw one film beforehand: The Grand Budapest Hotel. Boyhood was on our list, too. But it was only playing in one theatre and it was across town. We just didn’t get there in time; it wasn’t in the theatre for long. We we watched it as soon as we could. Richard Linklater has always been a favourite of mine.

I honestly thought Boyhood was going to win the Oscar.

boyhood

We did see Birdman (the only one we got through in our noble ambition). But both thought it overrated and wanky. I could elaborate at length, but I won’t. I can only think now that, as much critical praise as it received prior to awards season, it was probably with the expectation in mind that this film would go nowhere, would never get its due, and would be forgotten. It could take on legendary status as a classic that never got the respect it deserved. Now, with the label of Best Picture, it will probably be remembered as… Best Picture. Really?

I digress.

My initial point was how much fun we always think it will be to go through all these Oscar films – the apparent best-of-the-year – only to have it feel like such a chore. We still have films waiting for us to watch from last year’s Oscars. As I was in the middle of bingeing yet another television show on Netflix, I realized I felt this tug of guilt at spending hours upon hours catching up on superheroes, while perhaps those hours could be better spent.

But did I stop the show and start The Theory of Everything? Hell, no. I watched three more episodes. Guilt is not that powerful with me, it turns out.

It’s not just films, sometimes it’s highly recommended television shows too. I still haven’t started watching The Wire or Breaking Bad. And I probably never will watch Friday Night LightsBoardwalk Empire or The Sopranos.

I know I can’t be alone. Why do we do this?

I turned it over in my head and I could only come to the conclusion that – to paraphrase that ridiculous relationship advice book from ten years ago – I’m just not that into them. I just can’t force myself to care about cops, criminals, or athletes. Even if you tell me they are better than genre cliches. I believe you, but those topics just don’t pique my interest. I can’t force myself to care about yet another gangster anti-hero.

So here’s the kicker:

Watching seven* seasons of a show you love is like going on vacation with your best friend.

Sitting down to watch a two-hour movie you have no interest in is like going on a date with someone you don’t particularly like.

Sure, there might be moments in that vacation where you hate your best friend – where you want to haul off and slug them – but you will come home with fond memories. You will look back on it was a great experience. You will laugh, tell stories about it, have pictures to share, and then try to encourage others to vacation at the same place.

And that date might always surprise you. You know this going in. You tell yourself, “Sure, they seem boring and/or awful, but they probably have great stories about their drag racing days.” It’s a risk, isn’t it? It’s someone you don’t know anything about other than they don’t really seem to have much in common with you. Maybe their politics irritate you. Maybe they’re just really arrogant. But maybe you’ve got them all wrong. You will still dread it because it’s the uncertainty of a stranger… plus the awkwardness.

Television shows are the people in your life: your friends or your family. Even if you miss an episode, you know what’s going on. It’s the world you live in.

Movies are those fleeting interactions: the guy who cat-called you on the street, someone you rolled your eyes at on the subway, or the person you had a meaningful conversation with on that flight you shared from Toronto to Calgary. Movies are what happens in the moments between real life.

I guess – to me, at least – the movies I truly treasure are the ones that bridge that gap. The ones that reflect the world we live in in a meaningful way while also creating their own universe we can be absorbed into. That was what I thought Boyhood achieved.

_____

*arbitrarily chosen number. When I say “seven,” think “many.”

The Cultural Exchange

My husband knows he married a Harry Potter enthusiast. And he, himself, long ago admitted that he once-upon-a-time had been something of a Star Trek fan. “When I was a kid,” he said with emphasis, as if awaiting judgment. But what judgment was I to pass? I was well into my twenties when I spent an entire semester solely on Harry Potter and class ideology. If the internet age has given anything to the western world, it’s the ability to admit to being a fan of Star Trek without fear of wedgies, swirlies or a state of general social outcast-ery.

Then it happened, by complete accident, that Husband had just begun reading the Harry Potter series when I noticed Star Trek: The Next Generation appeared on Netflix. Whether it was a new acquisition or whether it had been there all along, only to magically reveal itself when I truly needed it, I will never know. But alas: I started watching.

As we innocently and individually began our new pop culture treks journeys, we realized what was going on. Seven books = Seven seasons. We didn’t intend on this fortuitous exchange; it just happened. Surely something magical must be afoot? Because otherwise the only lesson to take from this is: if you’re not careful with your marriage, your individual subconsciousnesses grow together into one marital hive mind.

This all began a few weeks ago. Husband has since finished The Philosopher’s Stone, which means if we are going to keep pace, I should be done Season One. But, as he warned me, Season One is a bit of a slog. “Just wait for Riker’s beard to show up,” I was told. Yet, for someone who claimed Season One sucked, he sure can quote a lot of it. Not only that, he knows the name of every episode, all the characters’ names and histories, and fun trivia facts. He even admitted to have all the action figures as a child. The truth comes out.

But here’s the catch: I’m actually really liking it. Yes, even the routinely-mocked Season One. We bonded over laughing at Troi’s melodramatic outbursts. “This gets better?” I said with a grin on my face. I don’t mind camp and ridiculousness in my science fiction, as it turns out.

As we’ve pursued our new fictions, frequent questions have oft been asked of the other, more expert spouse. Our knowledge of the other’s fandom prior to the exchange has been patchy at best. By this, I mean we’ve both only seen the films. And those are NOT. THE. SAME. Husband’s seen the Harry Potter movies, and I’ve seen some of the Star Trek ones. Including the new ones. Ugh. Now I can understand Husband’s chagrin as he whined: “But they’re not Star Trek…”

I am also discovering that so much of ST: TNG is oddly familiar. Repressed memories are welling to the surface. My dad used to watch it occasionally, and I’m pretty sure now that I saw it a lot too. I have vague flashbacks of proclaiming Geordi LaForge my favourite character and sliding my plastic headband over my eyes. I’m sure my younger sister was unsuccessfully beamed up several times.

Our questions and predictions foisted upon the other have ranged from the bizarre and philosophical to the inanely naive. For instance, I pointed out that early in Season One, I totally got the vibe that we were leading up to a big Picard-is-Wesley’s-father reveal, for which I was sufficiently scoffed at. We’ve also discovered just how geeky the other spouse can be about their chosen fandom. We’ve been able to answer pretty much any question the other has thrown out, no matter how detailed. Fun Fact: Troi’s mother was played by Gene Roddenberry’s wife. (Go on, pretend you knew that. I’m sure you did. Honestly. No sarcasm here. I’m just new around these parts.)

Star Trek is something I’ve always suspected I would like, even as the adamant Star Wars fan I was a mere ten years ago. Bah, how foolish I seem now. Star Wars is over for me. I feel like I’ve aged out of Star Wars and into Star Trek. It’s a substance-over-style thing for me. These day, I actively look forward to roundtable discussions of geopolitics rather than shit blowing up. And the Prime Directive speaks strongly to the anthropology student in me. So why have I avoided Star Trek all these years? I can’t say with any certainty, but I feel a significant part of it is this feeling I have relating to genre. It’s not cognitive dissonance, but that’s the closest analogy I can think of.

I have always thought of myself a literary writer and reader. And I am. But there’s something I find so simply fascinating about science fiction. I read all genres really, but if I have to pick one: SF all the way. And more and more of the stories I want to tell are speculative fiction based: from space operas to dystopias to any number of magic realist spaces in between. Yet why does it feel like SF, or any genre really, is at odds with “proper literature”? It feels like I’ve spend so many years harbouring delusions of literary leanings, while consuming SF as a guilty pleasure, an indulgence, even. Like I’m on the Booker Prize diet and SF is my cheat day.

They’ve always felt at odds with each other, like there is a dreaded One Day looming when I will have to pick a side. I go to readings and art-related events and everyone talks about poetry and I feel like a fraud. Sure, I know of which they speak, and I can hold my own in literary discussions, but I can’t banish this dread in the back of my mind that Oh god, they’re going to discover I like genre fiction, and then I’ll be cast out on my ass!

It’s part of why I have two completed novels, one literary fiction, one science fiction, and I’ve been gripped by panic as to which one to try to publish first. Because whichever one it is: that will determine my career… forever.

I think now, at long last, that I know. Now, I could get into long explanations about the pretentiousness of much of the literary crowd, people believing their own hype, yada yada yada, but I think, at the end of it all, I can just stop taking myself so seriously. It’s science fiction for me all the way. Yes, I wrote a novel about pirates in space, and, you know what? It’s fucking awesome. I’ve even actually got an agent on the hook for it. (Truth.)

Thank you, Star Trek (and Husband). I might only be in the middle of your shitty first season, but I love you already.

random train of thought departing from The Grand Budapest Hotel

When The Grand Budapest Hotel opened last weekend, Husband and I missed it. It was only playing in one theatre and it sold out. (Get your shit together, Vancouver.)

One week on, even with a wider release, we barely squeezed into the theatre.

Casting glances around to our fellow movie-goers, I realized that the stereotype of the bespectacled, cardigan-ed Wes Anderson fan isn’t true at all. Every demographic was there: from child to senior, with every Millenial, Gen-X, and Boomer in between. My parents even like Wes Anderson movies even though I suspect they’ve never discovered they are all by the same guy.

Aviary Photo_130400159885519744

Last night’s viewing of The Grand Budapest Hotel wasn’t the usual Friday night blockbuster experience. This film managed to have the varied population of Coquitlam in the palm of its hand. You could hear and feel the audience’s presence the whole time: not just laughter, but gasps, cheers, held breath, and the absence of muttering, talking, and rustling.

Something I suspected after Moonrise Kingdom was confirmed last night: were I to rank Wes Anderson films in order from my least to most favourite, they would run in chronological order. To me, he keeps getting better and better.

Wes Anderson’s skills as a filmmaker have never been in question; from the beginning, his films have always been polished and cohesive with a clear vision. His work is a fascinating conversation with the act of storytelling itself. This conversation has only grown and deepened over time.

The key component of his work has been a wistful sense of nostalgia and how it colours rose the stories we tell. This manifests on screen in everything from his use of title cards to sun-faded and old-fashioned colour palettes to his characteristic shot structure: everything framed centre, dolly shots from side-to-side, all giving the screen the feeling of a diorama.

We, the viewers, are detached from the narrative; we are explicitly watching a performance. We are watching a contrived, universal Past: one bordering fantasy, free of historical specifics and proper nouns. We get Steve Zissou, not Jacques Cousteau. We get Khaki Scouts, not Boy Scouts.

Anderson’s films have always engaged the past with the future in a dialectic, most often in inter-generational conflict. The idealism of youth has always both conflicted with and complemented the idealism of adulthood (best exemplified in the competition between Max and Blume in Rushmore).

The Grand Budapest Hotel turns these tropes into self-reflexivity. The story is framed by a frame, framed by a frame, framed by a frame: a girl is reading a book, the author is telling the story, the author is being told the story, the story is actually happening.

Aviary Photo_130400160256196229Where the engagement with a vague, idealized history has always served a stylistic purpose as part of a heightened reality, here it is explicit and thematically important.

The core of the film is Gustave’s (an excellent Ralph Fiennes) ardent belief in an historic point of perfection. His entire aim with the Grand Budapest Hotel is to capture this ideal (and ultimately nonexistent) moment in history.

But within there are obvious repressed horrors.

The lobby boy, Zero, speaks of the war in his own past, that killed his family and made him a refugee, and of the war to come (territories will be occupied, many will die) as though they were a footnote or even a punchline.

There is a sobering disconnect between the goofy, madcap humour of the story as it unfolds and the solemnity with which F. Murray Abraham tells it. Ultimately, it seems, there are some things too painful to tell stories about. It is Zero’s omissions and Gustave’s nostalgia that reshape history into the narrative we all know.

Anderson thus engages with his familiar tropes on a new level: The Grand Budapest Hotel deepens from his previous work in that it makes explicit reference to what has been left out and why.

This is why The Grand Budapest Hotel is my favourite Wes Anderson movie. At least so far.

mad men is the story of an addict

Perhaps it is rather ironic that the AMC website uses cocktail recipes to market Mad Men, because, when viewed correctly, Mad Men is about the devastating effects of a life lived for alcohol.

Aviary Photo_130301726507582024But it’s subtle, as addiction often is at first. I never noticed it as much on the first viewing. The sheer normalisation of wanton alcohol consumption on Matthew Weiner’s Madison Avenue is what strikes you first. “I’d love to have a bar in my office,” you think. It seems so glamorous and Romantic. These are the kind of people who tip back half a bottle of Canadian Club then smash a glass in a fireplace and make love to Elizabeth Taylor.

But on the second viewing, it takes on a different colour. The fates of Freddy Rumsen and Duck Phillips (the former losing his job after drunkenly wetting his pants and the latter fallen so far from the wagon as to get kicked out of the Clios) are far less humorous when you watch it again. These are two men whose personal and professional lives were ruined by alcohol but are so carelessly brushed aside by those who can still conceal their disease.

The first time through on Mad Men, Roger Sterling is just a bon mot machine with a Gibson martini. That he seems to grow lonelier as he grows older is only a falsehood. Rewatching from the beginning, it is obvious immediately how lonely a man he is. I can’t believe I missed it the first time around. I blame the fact that there is simply so much going on in an episode of Mad Men. You need to see them all a few times to truly digest it.

Roger’s alcohol abuse is obvious. But because he’s a functioning alcoholic, he doesn’t consider himself an alcoholic. He has normalized his dependency:

You don’t know how to drink. Your whole generation, you drink for the wrong reasons. My generation, we drink because it’s good, because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar, because we deserve it. We drink because it’s what men do.

So that brings us to Don. There are so many directions to go, but I want to focus on this: the story of Mad Men is the story of an alcoholic.

The double-life of Don Draper versus Dick Whitman is only the beginning, even if the most metaphorical. The dual personalities of an addict are something anyone who has been around one can recognize. You don’t know which version you are going to get. Sometimes its both in varying shades of grey.

For the first three seasons, we see Don just coping. His alcoholism exists but he’s functioning. The fact that he has a “problem” is barely evident. But his marriage slowly cracks as the other side of him seeps him. Betty discovering Dick Whitman is the turning point. This is the point where the problem cannot be ignored.

After their divorce, Don starts to circle the drain. His co-workers become aware of his addiction. He abuses alcohol incessantly, indulging his weakness because he longer has a reason to keep himself in check. He hits what only seems like rock bottom in his “lost weekend” after the Clio Awards. The dual appearances of Duck Phillips (well and firmly bottomed-out) and Freddy Rumsen (sober and getting his life together) at this time show Don his two possible futures. The devil on one shoulder, angel on the other, if you will.

But recovery is not easy. It is a series of ups and downs, peaks and troughs. Dr. Faye Miller knows Don’s disease. She states explicitly that she is here to help him. Her presence in his life is a wonderful opportunity for rehabilitation. And he even seems capable of change. To her, he can admit his problem. He finally wants to change.

But sometimes the hard work that rehabilitation requires is just too much. Rather than hike that path, Don cheats. (He also literally cheats on Faye with Megan.) He tricks himself into believing that a fresh start with Megan will allow him to simply wipe the slate clean. But he is only replacing one addiction with another: alcohol with puppy love. As Tom and Lorenzo say, “He’s like a dry drunk, someone who’s overcompensating and over-emoting because they’re trying to ignore something.”

And this new addiction seems so harmless. At least at first. But before long, it’s affecting his work. Just like any other addiction. And when the lustre starts to fade, the old demons come back because they were never truly vanquished. When you’re at such a high peak when the fog clears, it’s terrifying to suddenly realize how steep the drop.

And he does drop.

It’s such a sad and familiar tale. How many tragic ends come after it seemed like an addict had finally turned the corner?

As we left Don at the end of Season Six, he was pouring out his booze and cleaning out his office. Will it stick this time? Addiction and recovery is not an arc usually done justice by film and television. It usually ends with the first trip to rehab, as if that is all it takes for a magic cure-all: checking in. But Don’s struggle has been much more accurate, and thus much more sinister. Sometimes it takes years to even accept that there is a problem at all. (Roger Sterling has yet to make it that far.)

And by then, you’re too far in the mess that it feels like its too late to be Dick Whitman again.

a not-so-polite rant about the great gatsby

As I remember fondly from working at a bookstore, every time a movie adaptation of a book comes out (especially one starring a quote – heartthrob – endquote) it creates a certain rush of readers: people who only pick up books with movie posters for a cover.

No judgment. Really. Whatever gets you reading. I guess. Sure. Whatevs. Anyway.

It bothers me, however, when people miss the point. If the best you get from The Great Gatsby is “Daisy was such a bitch to him, ohmygod. But those parties! Squee!” then you better be a teenage girl because otherwise you are a giant waste of literacy.

"Can you believe this fuckery?"
“Can you believe this fuckery?”

Anyway.

The vitriol is thick with me this morning because I am tired and stressed and as I tried to distract myself with some light internet browsing, I wandered into critiques of $25,000 Gatsby-themed parties, comparisons of The Great Gatsby and Fight Club, and parallels drawn between Don Draper and Jay Gatsby and on and on.

Facebook venting to Husband over a lunchbreak has its limits, thus I have taken to the blogs.

I don’t disagree that Fight Club is a 1990s version of Gatsby, per se, but there’s an argument you can make for every work of American Literature since 1924 being an updated version of Gatsby somehow. It’s just so AMERICA in all the classic ways America is critiqued. Its themes are perennial; they are the problem with the American Dream at its very core.

Fitzgerald nailed it. It truly is a “perfect novel.”

Perhaps I just love Fitzgerald too much. He is one of those artists to whom I feel connected. Do you know the feeling? When first reading his work, I just got it. I felt the same with Joe Strummer and Laura Jane Grace and Joan Didion and Upton Sinclair and Edgar Wright and Steve McQueen (the artist/filmmaker, not Bullit, damn you). You feel like only you truly understand their work and no one else can possibly appreciate it like you can. Thus, you feel a sense of ownership and need to defend it from the unworthy.

It’s like watching someone drive an expensive car very badly. You can’t help but cringe and weep for humanity.

some dreamers of the manhattan dream

I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I like to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others—poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner—young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1924)

Aviary Photo_130301736193410557

Don Draper’s New York City is Nick Carraway’s New York City (not Jay Gatsby’s… that would be too obvious).

Discuss.

(Presented as a companion piece to this.)

some dreamers of the golden dream

This is the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew. This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book. This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and return to hairdressers’ school. “We were just crazy kids” they say without regret, and look to the future. The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past.

Joan Didion, Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, 1966

Aviary Photo_130301753491543841

Don Draper’s California is Joan Didion’s California.

Discuss.

Is the development still arrested after all these years?

It’s been how many years now since Arrested Development went off the air? Oh jeez, I’ve lost count. I do know it started about eight or nine years ago, and that’s when I started watching. I’ve also lost track of how many people I’ve introduced it to, of course then needing to watch it along with them. This also means I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen the series through.

Aviary Photo_130301766464428509This past month, my husband (whom I introduced to it, of course) just watched the series through for the second time. And I got to watch him watch Arrested Development. I remember him two years ago watching it for the first time. It was strange how I looped back so quickly to the memory. The two of us – not a couple, but roommates; those days of awkward flirting still ahead of us – and our other old roommates from The Commune, sitting in that old backyard, on that old rickety wooden patio furniture, with my old laptop plugged into an extension cord, watching my old Arrested Development DVDs, and drinking that old stack of booze that one other temporary roommate left behind.

Dr. Roommate was there that night. I don’t know if Boy Roommate Boyfriend Husband’s first time through was her second-time through or third, or even fourth, but I was reminded then, that night, of her first time watching it. That was before The Commune was even The Commune, it was just a dingy basement suite in South Vancouver; and we were really just roommates then: two people who did their undergrad together and thought they might be able to live with each other. Now we’re family. And not just in the we’re so close we’re practically family sense, but in the we are actually related now (by marriage) sense.

Aviary Photo_130301765629651044And now Dr. Roommate is legally a medical doctor. Not just a medical student. Boy Roommate is my husband. No one lives in that house in South Vancouver. Husband and I are moving to England. Dr. Roommate is moving to Calgary.

So it goes.

Life is changing. Life has changed.

I watched Arrested Development with my sister for her first time when her and I were backpacking around Europe. That was five years ago. England actually had an economy. God knows what mess awaits us there now. My sister didn’t even know her partner then. He was a figment of her future imagination in just the same way Husband was in mine. So many other things began – and ended – within those five years: film school, pirates in space, and revolutions. So many people we thought would still be here are gone. And so many small children we didn’t expect to show up are here: conceived, birthed; walking, talking human beings.

Aviary Photo_130301764832843266And all that occurred even after Arrested Development went off the air. When it was still on, things were even more different. It was like two lifetimes ago. I lived in the house I grew up in. I had a different partner. I had a different job. I was happy. And then I was miserable. And then I was happy again. Miserable again. Happy again. And on it went, and on it goes.

Life is evolution. Sometimes it happens so gradually you don’t realize how different the end result is from the beginning until you stop and compare. Other times it’s a stepped equilibrium, with a period of prolonged stasis broken suddenly by radical change. Usually it’s a bit of both. The drastic changes steal your notice away from the small ones.

So when Arrested Development comes back on Sunday, what sort of strange beast will it seem? If we are to pretend that it’s been evolving slowly over the last seven/eight (ish) years, nature would deem it a chimera: some new fantastical creature we barely recognize. Yet if we get the “same again” feeling, it will ring false.

Aviary Photo_130301766109028812Husband and I have discussed at length about how much Arrested Development is a product of the Bush Administration. Explicit references aside, the overall feel of the show, of what it holds to light and what it satirizes, is so tied to an American life that existed before 2008: before Obama, before the recession, before the Arab Spring.

What has happened to that American life now? Where did it go and what happened to the who lived it? How are they still living?

Aviary Photo_130301765179302568I really can’t wait to see that. It will be like flipping through an old yearbook, but one where the candidate voted “Most Likely to Succeed” steps from the page (likely as an animated gif), and speaks with a deeper, craggier voice to say: “I did not succeed as you thought I would, but I redefined success. And that has made the difference.”

am I the only one who doesn’t like downton abbey?

For such a critically acclaimed show, Downton Abbey is pretty crap. What are the problems with it? Those frequently cited include: contrived, formulaic, elitist, and cloying. But others? I think the fact that it is so highly rated is what makes this almost unbearable. Were this show just considered so-so, I’d be fine with it. It would be a guilty pleasure, even. But I can’t handle the idea of everyone thinking it so wonderful. It’s just… not. So what about it frustrates me so badly? In short: it is clichéd and nostalgic to a fault.

There is nothing original about it. I’ve actually laughed out loud at the absurdity of many of its plots and dialogue. Jarring anachronistic speech aside, it falls back on convention so readily I genuinely want to believe it is a satire. But it’s not. Its characters are two-dimensional, either white-hat types or moustache-twirling villains. Its period setting does nothing to make itself relevant; one just gushes at the fancy dresses and swoons over the romance of a time and place that never really existed.

We are total dicks for no apparent reason whatsoever.

As for the nostalgia, it is naive to think that simply by making class visible, Downton Abbey is criticizing the class system. IT IS NOT. If anything, it upholds it. It casts it like a beacon, a museum piece of a bygone era, something to cherish and admire. Where something like Mad Men functions as a microscope, Downton is a pedestal.

Shows like Mad Men are successful because play on our fondness for the romanticized past by subverting your expectations. The unexpected adherence to the “realism” of the times is what provides the critical eye; it underlines what is wrong with those attitudes. For instance, in Mad Men, sexism and racism are dealt with without the filter of modern-day moralizing. This leads us to examine those issues as they really were and how those issues still exist in a contemporary context. Contrarily, by anachronistically altering the world view of that era in order to preserve our modern values, shows like Downton Abbey actually cover up the issues.

Raise a glass to our shared pretensions, shall we?

Actually, it doesn’t just cover them up, it varnishes them with the thick gloss of tradition. Not tradition in a historical sense, but in a storytelling sense. For instance, one of the worst moments in the show is when Maggie Smith’s character (one of the Lady Granthams), reads out Mr. Moseley’s name as winner of the rose competition in the village despite the judges pandering to her social status and unjustly awarding her the prize. Such a cliché in the worst possible sense. Beyond the laziness of that “character building” device, all this does theme- and story-wise is acknowledge that class differences existed back in 1914. Which we all know anyway.

But, hey, the show seems to suggest, it wasn’t all that bad. The upper classes were benevolent rulers who treated their servants like beloved members of the family. And they were just so gosh-darned nice. As Mary points out, Lord and Lady Grantham share a bed, which is weird for the day. Their marriage of convenience turned into one of love and respect. So apparently, arranged marriages are all sunshine and roses, too.

Smugness wears an ostentatiously large hat.

The show started with potential here to work out class issues, especially with Bates and Lord Grantham being war buddies, but it has failed to live up to its promise by engaging in ridiculous soap opera plots. The moment it all turned is when Lady Mary appeared in Anna’s room, telling her that what’s-his-face-the-Turkish-guy, died. His name is something stupid, isn’t it? I can’t remember, he just seems to be The Hot Turkish Guy. A plot point like this sudden, inconvenient death (while functioning as a way to not only move the action forward but to push it off a fucking cliff) has failed to pull itself out of its own absurdity.

And the absurdity continues. Now I’m all for characters having interesting pasts and (as it looks like the upper class characters don’t have much of a past at all) this task will fall to the servants of Downton. But, seriously, do you have to do it in such a hackneyed way? Do you really have to go the long-lost lover come back for some middle-aged romance? The “I used to be a drunk and a thief but I’m a nice guy now” trope? Two evil servants who wants to fuck up some shit with no apparent motivation other than they were passed over for promotion? The secret VAUDEVILLE PERFORMER? HONESTLY?

One of us dances a mean jig.

I’ll give you some credit, Downton Abbey. Beginning the show with the sinking of the Titanic was interesting. Perhaps even inspired. However, a historical touchstone that moved the entire country and shook the foundations of the household so much as to set the entire story into motion should not come to be the most subtle plot point in the series.

I also admire the introduction of the middle classes into a common trope usually focused on only the upstairs/downstairs dynamic. At first it seemed like a marker of increasing complexity, as if to note Hey, it’s the twentieth century. Class dynamics in Britain are not gone, they just splintered into shades of grey. But alas, Downton Abbey, you’re all about the black and white.

It's even been coloured-coded for the lazy viewers.

The complexities of the class system are inherently intriguing. (Before you claim that I am just going all Marx on this show, class is the most explicit theme Julian Fellowes is working with here.) But the class discrepancies have been battered out into doldrums of a soap opera, relying so much as it does on cliché. Where do I even begin? Lady Sybil’s rapid campaigns for suffrage? The bile-ridden banter between the upper class and middle class matrons? How about the Disney-level nuances given to the supporting characters? The humble gardener wringing his hat in his hands? Ditzy Daisy the kitchen maid? The crotchety overweight cook? The chauffeur who is both IRISH and a COMMUNIST? (Oh my god, he wants to read! He must be a Communist!)

That aside, Lady Grantham’s “Americanness” and her vast fortune (that somehow saved the estate) at first seemed like it would raise intriguing insights into Anglo-American relations and financial interdependence. But all it really did was loudly proclaim: “This is great, isn’t it?! This whole class thing. Shame if something were to happen to it.” You see, Matthew Crawley, the new heir to the estate is just so… middle class.

But those eyes....

But we like Matthew. As does Lord Grantham and Mary (Albeit her like of Matthew is rather more complicated. Perhaps the only marginally complicated thing in the whole show.) Even though Matthew is likeable, we are still led to lament the idea that the middle class shall one day in inherit the titles and wealth of the landed gentry. *Cue snooty guffaw.*

We are supposed to think that it is a crying, fucking shame that Mary will not inherit the estate. Even if Matthew was a total dick, our sympathies are drawn to the plight of the acidic Mary because the show explicitly tells us they should be. However, I feel no sympathy for Mary. Yet, Downton Abbey, you tell me I should. Why are no real qualms made as to whether Edith or Sybil should have a right to the estate? So it’s a gender thing, you say, not a class thing? It’s apparently unfair that Mary does not inherit because she’s a women, but it’s no worry that Edith and Sybil are shafted simply because they were born second and third? So, there’s no problem with this part of Inheritance Law.

Ladies and Gentleman, the most interesting plot: these two love each other and if they get married, everyone's problems are solved.

Even though Lord Grantham says himself that he’s just a steward; the estate does not belong to him. By this (frankly odd) logic, are not then the servants (the ones who actually get their hands dirty in the maintenance of the estate) the caretakers? And why the hell does it matter who inherits just as long as they keep the building from crumbling to the ground? I can’t be the only one who thinks Mary would be appallingly bad at this, right? I wouldn’t trust her to keep a goldfish for the weekend, let alone take care of a whole fucking estate. And if she marries, does this not all go to her husband anyway?

Ugh. I’m exasperated just thinking about it. I mean, the show does hit the mark in some small moments, but it is by no means capable of inciting an intriguing premise. It’s essentially pap with the odd interesting idea. Apparently, that’s been enough for critics, audiences, and the Hollywood Foreign Press, but all that does is make the disappointment worse. The expectations were so high. But all it is is Emmerdale a hundred years ago.