Mad Men’s Greatest Narrative Invention

Jon Hamm as Don Draper - Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 8 - Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC

As the Mad Men series ends, the hype is overblown; sure, it was fun TV, but I’m not placing it in the pantheon of great art. Much of the series was enjoyable diversion, with plenty of routine office politics and a delightful splash of soap opera. I loved all those mid-afternoon Scotches and the constant cigarettes.

The show’s greatest narrative inspiration was Don’s backstory: the poor boy, born to a prostitute, who goes off to war and (accidentally) kills his superior officer – and in that very moment he decides to assumes the dead man’s identity.

We don’t learn this until we’ve seen Don as the consummate ad man, able to conjure suburban mythos around a routine brand of soap. When we learn his self-creation story, we realize that this ultra-handsome demigod of Madison Avenue was just a scared buck private when created his greatest image: himself. This central act echoes all of our lives. We are all, to a certain extent, creating ourselves, spinning ourselves, inventing our personhood out of the materials at hand. We’re all doing some branding, selling something fabricated, woven a bit more from cotton candy than we care to admit.

So we root for Don; hey, you’re inventing a greater self for yourself? We want to see you succeed; maybe that means we can succeed, too. But after a certain point in the series, Don always seemed to be falling, pulling us in with the pathos, his tumble from business grace or his struggle with some kind of hollowness. His bag was existential angst; his efforts at happiness never spun gold for very long. An early season ended brilliantly on this note. He sat alone at a bar, and a shark-like brunette with sex in her eyes approaches. She asks, suggestively, are you alone? Don turns toward her, facing us full in the camera, and we see that his depth of aloneness is so clearly beyond the romantic.

The show’s other fascination was its glimpse of how far we’ve come since the 1960s; in those days, women got coffee, with a few, very notable exceptions – Peggy’s and Joan’s upward trajectory was the show at its most encouraging. As a period piece its glance in a distant mirror flattered us enormously, allowing us to feel thoroughly enlightened. Things are so far from perfect today, but Mad Men let us know they’re a damn lot better than they were. I’ll drink a midafternoon Scotch to that.

Ex Machina — Deep and Entertaining

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Hip and funny and futuristic and philosophical and really pretty tippy — yeah, I really liked Ex Machina. The movie’s theme of humans building sentient conciousness isn’t new. HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey famously intoned “I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that Dave.” But Ex Machina feels fresh in that it explores what, exactly, comprises human consciousness. Empathy and self awareness and sexuality and (on the dark side) the ability to manipulate another – these separate us from a programmed machine. Or, as the movie asks, is this enough? Is there something else? The film has fun as it teases its profound themes. Topping it off: actress Alicia Vikander as Eva. She brings a magic to the role, playing the knife edge between what might be really human and what’s merely a machine parroting its creator. The viewer does, of a sort, love her, or at least feel enchanted – which is necessary for the film to work. This movie will be remembered.

Night is Falling…

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Market and Fourth Street, Saturday evening, about 8:30 PM. Everyone’s on their way somewhere….

Which Candidate Does Hillary Fear the Most?

Chuck Todd surveys the Republican field and claims one young senator is Hillary’s biggest worry. I don’t agree — I think her biggest threat is Jeb Bush. Plus: In New Hampshire polling, Chris Christie is actually trailing The Donald. Ouch!

The Importance of the Mid-Life Crisis

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If not for the classic mid-life crisis, how would the manufacturer of this car stay in business? Sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar.

Oh Yeah

GrandLakeTheater

I love neon at night. Oh yeah.

Ellen Degeneres’ Tweet Heard ‘Round the World

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It was a rich moment: Ellen Degeneres snapped an impromptu selfie as she hosted the Oscars, and requested that viewers retweet it with the goal of breaking the record for most retweets. The Twitterverse responded with a frenzy. I’m trying to decode the meta-meta layers: a performer, photographing herself as she performs on live TV, then asking viewers to, in a sense, rebroadcast her yet again by tweeting it furiously, after which everyone tweets about the fact that they tweeted it; a great moment in the history of the self-refrential. About the photo: I like the mix of expressions; these usually most posed of performers all appear to be at their most human and real.