Monday, April 29, 2013

Mad Men, Mortality and Morality

I had a novel reaction after watching last night's Mad Men episode, meaning that I had a thought that was new to me, though not necessarily unique.

Watching the show's characters react to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I realized that I have lived a certain amount of years and that I am a long way from the millennium into which I was born.

I felt my age, in starkly temporal terms, and thought of how my life has intersected with world-changing events.

I felt rooted along the continuum of human history, leaving a footprint at a particular moment.

At the same time, I acknowledged that I belong to something larger than the present.

And in so doing, reached beyond my life span, thinking of my legacy.

Two years past the fifty mark, I thought of that great expanse beyond the parameters of my own life and wondered how what was happening now would appear to denizens of the future.

I was grateful for this Mad Men episode in which neither Don nor Pete nor anyone else betrayed their spouse. I was relieved that Joan's bosomy bitchiness was constrained. I was annoyed at the (once-again) cliched portrayal of Ginsberg's meddling yet good-hearted, Yiddish-inflected immigrant father.  I found myself nastily hoping that Don's crucifix-wearing Jewish doctor's wife mistress Sylvia would get killed in a race riot in Washington, DC after Dr. King's assassination.

I'm not certain what the writers of Mad Men want us to think of their characters. While the show has entertained me -- and previously even charmed me -- I find myself lately wishing to bolt from the America it depicts.

Several seasons in, the characters have grown shallow, dismayingly selfish and graspingly ambitious.

After some sparky, creative campaigns and empire-building, the tensions, transactions and dramas of the advertising world now seem especially inconsequential. Watching the mad men and women at work, I am filled with despair. Even the admirable Peggy seems a slave to a soulless system.

Is that the point? 

Maybe I am spoiled by the moral absolutism of Carrie Mathison from Homeland, which I began watching obsessively with HOBB a month ago, pigging out sometimes on double episodes in order to get catch up with Season Three. Even with her insane and unethical entanglement with Nicholas Brody, the woman is driven by a grand and greatly important ambition. She is heroic in her own deeply flawed way because she has a purity of purpose.

Mad Men has no such character. I pinned my hopes on Ginsberg for a while, but he has become generic and undistinguished after a few chutzpah-fueled outbursts last season. Right now, Trudy Campbell, who threw her cheating husband out of the house, seems to be the only one with backbone and integrity.

But I know it's unfair to compare Mad Men to Homeland.

Stalking terrorists is a far more noble pursuit than selling ketchup, shtupping your neighbor's wife or bossing around terrified underlings at your workplace.

And despite the precious, intellectual scribblings about the show's subtext -- especially regarding the season premiere's numerous allusions to Dante's Inferno -- the dark broodings of Don Draper do not count for anything transcendent. A season back he held some promise but now, who really cares about this lying, hypocritical monster?

Instead, the America that Don Draper is building together with Roger Sterling and company is the America that 21st Century madmen are hellbent on destroying. I can see how the Sodom and Gemorrah-like morals of Madison Avenue, as depicted on Mad Men, justify America's designation as Big Satan in the minds of religious extremists and ideological purists.

It's not such a stretch from Mad Men to Homeland, after all.

Knowing the seismic events that ushered in the new millennium, I keep wanting to encounter a character in Mad Men who is capable of seeing beyond him or herself into the near future and understand something critical about the time in which they are living, have a meta-moment about the consumerism they are aiding and abetting, see the impact that the world-shaking events of their day will have on those of us living in the 21st Century, send us a message from the late 1960's in America.

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