Mad Men Recap 6.5: Hoping for Eucatastrophe
Michael Ginsberg’s father, Morris, is a holocaust survivor who, in the riotous aftermath of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, is most worried about his son’s perpetual singleness. His bachelorhood isn’t marked by mad philandering, but something more sheepishly innocent. Morris is so concerned that his son find a woman to love that he even sets him up for a blind date without Michael knowing. The date isn’t a total disaster, but Morris isn’t pleased with the progress, or, more pointedly, with his son’s pursuit of the woman. Referencing the sense of dire dread that the city feels following MLK’s death, Morris couches his son’s situation in apocalyptic circumstances: “Now is the time when a man and a woman need to be together the most–in a catastrophe. In the flood, the animals went two by two. Are you going to get on the ark with your father?”
In the aftermath of Mad Men’s MLK assassination episode titled “The Flood,” there was a bit of debate about whether showrunner Matthew Weiner effectively handled the historically significant tragedy. In a show notoriously dominated by white males, did the event strike an appropriately meaningful chord? On the whole, there are two ways of thinking in answer to this question: 1. No, it wasn’t handled well in the sense that it was a botched opportunity for a show that might be criticized for avoiding a more confrontational approach in depicting the racism of the moment, or, 2. It wasn’t so much the concomitant racist downplaying of a historic moment as it was a continued devotion to depicting the perspective of the mad men in the “real time” mode that the show has always operated. The latter camp would say that there’s a kind of realism to the moment which begets characteristic ignorance among the mad men. In terms of what the show might be explicitly conveying as it relates to the problem of racism on Madison Avenue, think of the essential scene in this episode as being Joan side-hugging Dawn in an awkward attempt at consolation that comes off more like unintentional condescension. For an interesting consideration of Weiner’s handling of the assassination and the issue of race in general, see Matt Zoller Seitz’s conversation with Aaron Aradillas.
You might say that the episode unfolds in another telling way: the assassination of MLK becomes about the mad men’s self-interested response to the tragedy. What’s most interesting about how Weiner frames this self-interest, though, has to do with the introduction of Ginsberg’s dad, Morris–again, a holocaust survivor who likens the assassination to a “catastrophe” in which someone to love is like an ark in the middle of the flood. The shocking announcement of MLK’s assassination at the advertisers’ awards gala is intercut with lighthearted scenes from Michael’s date. “I’ve never even had sex,” Michael confesses in a fit of anxious babbling. The admission from Ginsberg sets him in sharp contrast with his Madison Avenue colleagues. A kind of purity and transparency accompanies the first date and its conversation.
And the other characters, enmeshed as they are in their duplicitous sins of infidelity and the like, find in the “catastrophe” and its destructive aftermath an eye opening sense of the disastrous. Typically, their madness is madness by virtue of their blinding self deceit about what’s fulfilling and what’s destructive. When a manner of destruction is made apparent, it’s notable that Don and Pete call to check on loved ones, though it’s also notable that while Pete calls for Trudy, Don calls for his mistress instead of Megan. Either way, Pete remains estranged from his home, and Don can’t reach Sylvia. The point is, though, these sorts of searches for love and comfort mirror Morris’s ark notation about having love in the midst of catastrophe.
Bible scholars like to talk about certain Old Testament events as forerunning “types” of the future Christological event. Which is to say that you might conceive Noah as a type of Christ who rises in the aftermath of the flood and all of its death and destruction. In lieu of Morris’s descriptive use of the word “catastrophe” to describe the assassination and its aftermath–and his sense as a holocaust survivor that love is like a functional ark in its midst–it’s perhaps worth noting J. R. R. Tolkien’s term, eucatastrophe. In his concern with mythology, Tolkien used the term to describe when a story, which seems to be heading for the tragic, suddenly turns so that the protagonist avoids seemingly inevitable doom. As a Christian, he saw this manner of storytelling grounded in the Incarnation as the eucatastrophe of the human race, and grounded likewise in the Resurrection as the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.
Everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad. Don takes his troubled son, Bobby, to the movies where they see Planet of the Apes; a mild shock comes over them in the end of the film when they discover the reveal of a post-apocalyptic earth while Heston yells “damn you all to Hell!”
“The humans blew up New York?” Bobby asks.
“All of America,” Don says.
“Soo, he came back to here?”
“In the future.”
Bobby stares in awe at the rolling credits as the sounds of the roaring ocean play, and, in an unholy profanity that I wish was intentionally, ironically layered, he exclaims, “Jesus.”
In the midst of the apparent catastrophic, Don and the other mad men are self-consciously looking for some loving relief to which they might anchor themselves. And I think what we’re all hoping is that the trajectory of catastrophic madness which these characters have been on might, in the end, surprise us with the eucatastrophic–that, at some point with ever fewer episodes remaining, some burst of life might break through the surface of a show so clearly buried in death. If only they knew the Christ who MLK beautifully and hopefully championed. Maybe then in the flood aftermath there would be a sense of re-creation in which hearts feel as if they might explode from feelings which heretofore were only pretended. L’amour est bleu.
Mad Men Recap 6.6: Why You Should Worry About the Bomb
About midway through the latest episode of Mad Men titled “For Immediate Release,” Pete Campbell–clearly distressed–pops into Ken Cosgrove’s office to unload his concern. The night before, Pete ran into his father-in-law Tom . . . at a brothel. A mixture of awkward surprise and shame washes over their faces. Of course, given that Pete’s father-in-law is in business with SDCP, Pete’s concern has less to do with being caught in infidelity by his wife’s father, and more to do with the prospect of a ruined business relationship. So it’s at this point expected the way Pete frames the scenario to Ken: “I have a high-level accounts question.”
Ken’s advice begins with an anecdote from his youth when he was at an explicit movie where he and his high school teacher saw one another. “We see each other for sure. But . . . we both knew that neither of us should be there. It was mutually assured destruction.”
“So he’s not going to say anything?” Pete asks, seeking total assurance.
“He can’t. . . . It’s why I don’t worry about the bomb.”
The scene that follows this conversation at the SDCP offices is the most entertaining in what is probably my favorite episode of the season thus far–and it’s also the most explosive. With Don looking for Roger after he didn’t show up to a dinner with Herb from Jaguar, and Pete irate that Don decided to part ways with Herb at that dinner, the partners engage in a layered clash that begins between Pete and Don in front of all of the employees and then continues in the meeting room with everyone still outside eavesdropping. Pete is especially all rage because he’s worried that, between his father-in-law at Vick’s and now Jaguar, the company’s once promising opportunity to go public and bank some serious money for the partners is now in jeopardy. Don was initially left out of the conversation about going public and this is the first he’s heard about it.
And Joan . . . well, she’s feeling the burden of her Herb affair being all for naught. What Don has felt about it from the beginning finally sinks in for Joan: it wasn’t worth it, and Joan resents Don for dispensing with the facade of value that Joan procured. Meanwhile, Roger swoops in with the prospect of acquiring Chevy–news that only partly diffuses the situation, because Pete and Joan are more concerned with Don’s manner of doing business. The whole scenario is a question of impulsiveness, both for the characters and for us, the viewers. The mad impulsiveness is what drives the show’s entertainment and what ensures eventual doom.
“Don’t worry, I will win this!” Don, referring to the impending Chevy presentation, assures Joan.
“Just once, I would like to hear you use the word ‘we,’” Joan hisses, and then sarcastically concludes, “because we’re all rooting for you from the sidelines, hoping that you will decide whatever you think is right for our lives.”
During the episode, it’s repeatedly noted that the mad men are growing tired with each other’s “impulsiveness”–that cardinal sin in the absence of self-restraint. Don’s impulsiveness is at the center of the office argument, but when Pete shows up at his father-in-law’s office to try to resolve what he thinks is a crumbling situation both professionally and personally, he uses the same language: “What can I do to bring you back to reality in this obviously impulsive decision.”
His father-in-law will have nothing of it, though, and he makes clear to Pete not only that he’s sickened for his daughter, but that it’s obvious why Pete, in his irresponsibility, hasn’t wanted children. Pete’s taken-aback reaction recalls Ken’s advice: “You just pressed the button, Tom. You just blew everything up.”
And that’s the problem with deterrence: it presupposes at least a baseline, self-interested self-restraint that we often come to find can’t withstand our selfish impulsiveness. As it turns out, we should be worried about the bomb, and yes, Pete responds with his own blast.
And so, in the end of a fast-paced, humorous episode, when SDCP has merged with Chaough, Peggy, and the rest of CGC, it’s not quite clear whether the decision to merge, in lieu of a successful acquisition of Chevy, is a means of bypassing deterrence by joining forces or yet another impulsive decision–another bomb set to detonate.
In a subtle change of word and tone that recalls Joan’s earlier accusation of Don, the latter tells a confused Peggy that “we got it. We won Chevy.” Peggy, who has been feeling drawn to Chaough, is now also back in Don’s life, too–and just as she’s been unsettled about settling into an apartment with Abe. I get the feeling that Don’s change in tone is only on the surface, that this is merely another example of the pursuit of an “immediate release.” I also have the feeling that how the show plays out–catastrophically or not–is tied to Peggy’s fate. Or is it better to say that it’s tied to the kind of opportunities that she makes for herself? Only God knows.