Monday, October 13, 2008

Mad Men: 'Jet Set' (2x11)

Last night’s Mad Men takes the show in yet another strange direction with an initially confounding episode that has stuck in my head as one of the series’ best, and most ambitious episodes to date. While still great, the show had been dragging a bit for me since the Bobby Barrett arc ended, but this episode threw everything back into motion, and most importantly, provided a surreal series of set pieces that forced Don to look at himself and wonder about the kind of life that he has to live.

The entire band of European vagabonds plot had the bizarre internal logic of a 60s European art film, dealing as much in metaphor and subconscious experience as in any kind of surface narrative. I watched Pasolini’s Teorema a few weeks ago, and that film reminds me a lot of the way things happened here. Things just happen without much explanation or concern for the plausibility of events. Is it likely that this band of people would just approach Don and take him with them? In real life, probably not, but in the context of the show, it makes perfect sense.

They see a kindred spirit in Don, someone who’s restless and unwilling to accept the rules of society. These people have shaped themselves into the most glamorous, cool aesthetic they can imagine. The Viscount and Joy are invented personas, they’re living as the people they want to be instead of the people they actually are. They’re not actually rich, but they can squat at peoples’ houses and pretend to be. The act of doing something is what matters more than the truth of it. Don Draper isn’t real, but when Don lives that life, he becomes real. And, when he chooses not to live like Don Draper, that persona just crumbles and disappears. It plays a bit weird that Pete isn’t more disturbed at Don’s disappearance, and absence even from their flight home, but it serves to reinforce the fact that Don has slipped out of one life, and could just as easily slip out of this one.

One of the things I loved about the episode is the surreal, slightly disconnected feel that everything has. Don sees Betty in the bar, but it’s not Betty. Does he really want to be back with Betty, or is this just a manifestation of his guilt? I feel like at this point he thinks he has to get back with Betty, that she is so crucial to the self identity he has constructed, left alone he’ll crumble away. But, as we soon find out, that’s not exactly the case.

Joy’s name has obvious symbolic connotations. She could be seen as a devil, a temptress drawing Don away from responsibility and obligation into a hedonistic world of pleasure without consequences. But, the way the show plays it, there’s no moral judgment. Joy asks him why he doesn’t just do the things that would give him pleasure, if he wants to go to Palm Springs, there’s no reason that he shouldn’t. The objectification of Don in the episode is particularly interesting, Joy wants to use him for her own pleasure, and even her father notes how beautiful he is. He loses all control over his life, is totally feminized over the course of the episode. In the context of the cultural shifts of the 60s, Don experiences an idealized ‘free love’ world here, the promise of a utopian existence free from the arbitrarily imposed conventions society forces us all to conform to.

Back in New York, Kurt’s frank revelation that he’s a homosexual ties in to the new world Don goes to. We’ve watched Salvatore sublimate his true desires behind a sham marriage, and it’s shocking for him to see just how easy it is for someone to get whatever they want, as long as they’re not scared of the societal response. Kurt isn’t locked into the old world values that most of Sterling Cooper hangs on to, but Sal is, and he can’t even conceptualize giving in to his desires. It’s something that’s just not done.

On a totally different note, it’s notable the way that shows set in New York conceptualize California and vice versa. On Six Feet Under, New York was Claire’s escape at the end of the show, the promise of a cool place where she could grow up and pursue her art. Here, for New Yorkers, California is representative of a totally different set of values, a world where people spend all their time sitting around the pool, looking for movie stars. California’s image is inextricably tied in to the Hollywood studio system, a place that molded individuals into stars, changing names, background and inventing personal details to back up the image they had created. Norma Jean Baker becomes Marilyn Monroe, a troubled personal life becomes a perfect dream that everyone aspires to. But, with the studio system in decline, those personas crack. Marilyn is no longer a dream to aspire to, she’s a cautionary tale.

Last season, Don got high and found himself unable to fit in with the beatniks. Here, he doesn’t have that problem, perhaps he’s more at home with this old world idea of cool, or maybe it’s just that he’s changed. Cut off from Betty, he no longer feels the need to be the suburban family man. It’s only when he sees two kids that he’s reminded of his old life and has a moment of pause. But, that pause doesn’t last long, he’s soon back to having sex in a pool.

In the end, the entire episode is about Don tearing through the Don Draper persona and finding a piece of his self that he had left behind. Don Draper is a fiction suit he’s been wearing so long, it’s become real, but as he strips that suit off, he finds that something of who he was remains. Who is it he calls at the end, who would still know Dick Whitman? I don’t know, but the real significance is that he would invoke that name, reclaim the self he had left behind.

The episode reminded me a lot of similarly trippy explorations of self identity in The Sopranos’ Join the Club, and Kennedy and Heidi. It’s a kind of storytelling I love, taking place in a subconscious state of being, where the things that happen all comment on the mental state of our troubled protagonist. It’s a kind of storytelling that’s seen very rarely today. Most indie films stick to a tired ‘realist’ aesthetic, as if the greatest aspiration of cinema is to recreate the external existence we perceive with our eyes. The world is so much more than that, it’s a churning mess of feelings, thoughts and ideas all crossing over in our mind, moments from the past and present crossing and commenting on the things we’re presently experiencing. Mad Men is almost always a great show, but this episode went beyond just a great story, it’s great art. This is where the challenging art cinema of years past lives on, and because we’re connected to the characters in a way that we aren’t in most art films, it takes on added emotional significance. This is the best episode of the season to date.

4 comments:

Josh Parisse said...

I've just recently stumbled across your blog, and I must say that it's refreshing to read such an insightful, well-thought body of writing. I encourage (and look forward) to your thoughts on the next two episodes. I hope you review both!!!

Patrick said...

Thanks man, I'll definitely be tackling the last two episodes. I have the feeling it's going to be a pretty out there and challenging finale. We shall see.

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