Re-visiting Mad Men

For the last few weeks, I’ve been selling things off to help pay the bills. You start off listing things you’re happy to part with, or that are surplus to your needs. As time goes by you begin to advertise things you’d rather not sell. That’s where I’m at now. The other day I listed my blue-ray DVD player, a beautiful Oppo unit I paid a grand for back in the days when I had money. It’s a lovely piece of work, but I rarely play DVD’s anymore, so…

The auction for the Oppo is due to finish tomorrow. As a kind of last hurrah, I’m trying to eke out every penny’s worth by catching up these last couple of days on my DVD watching. In particular, I’ve gone back to Mad Men.

When the final ever episode of Mad Men aired earlier this year, I had a sense of loss. Never would a new episode grace the screen, and Don Draper was lost to me. Sometime after that, I decided I would go back and start from episode one at some point. I’ve got the boxed sets of series one and two of Mad Men, so it was there waiting for me.

Next week it’s likely I won’t have a DVD player anymore, so it was now or never.

I watched the first episode late yesterday afternoon, and the next episode straight after. I watched episode three this morning.

There’s a lot of predictable emotions. There’s nostalgia. There are things you remember. There’s a time evoked which you recall now from when you watched before. Things are different now too.

You watch now with a full understanding of where the show – and Don Draper – is destined. That’s a good thing, and the reason you should always re-visit these things. With that knowledge comes a depth of understanding and perception that wasn’t possible watching the first time around. You watch knowing where Don Draper is going and knowing pretty well who he is. Suddenly there are clues everywhere you didn’t pick up before.

The other thing that struck me is just how unlikeable most of the characters are – particularly the men. I would have noticed this before, and in fact, remember marvelling at the cultural dissonance. It really was a different world in so many ways. This time around it’s not just the difference I notice, but the ugly aspects of it – the rampant sexism, the casual racism, the sense of entitlement (perhaps not different, but represented differently), the easy acceptance of adultery.

I’m used to the cigarette smoking and the endless drinks in the office – it’s the behaviours this time that stuck in my craw. I wonder if it really was as bad as that? I accept that a Madison Avenue advertising agency probably epitomised that, but seemingly even in the suburbs similar attitudes prevailed.

Don, in fact, was one of the more likeable characters. More ruthless and less open than everyone else, he was also more honest. In a way that was always his appeal. He was an outlier in perverse directions. He was a more serious character than most – there’s a lot of juvenile men in these first few episodes – and with that more manly.

By now, we know his background and what formed him. He’s a serial philanderer, and partly that’s the zeitgeist of the times – everyone’s looking for something on the side seemingly. But there’s an aspect to that more complex too, relating to his upbringing – which makes him more honest as well, or at least more simple. He is often blunt, but never weaselly or conniving. Because he came from nothing and knows what it is to struggle, he has little of the boyish self-indulgence of many about him. He has re-invented himself, literally, and in the process become both very focused and impatient with frivolity.

He will change as the series progresses, and will become more self-indulgent, but Dick Whitman is always in inside him. The series charts an era and a way of life, but mostly it’s about Don – the battle for his soul, his odyssey.

Cheers Don

And so that’s that, Mad Men is done.

It’ll be no surprise to regular readers when I say I’ll miss the show. Most particularly, I’ll miss Don. The end of a series like Mad Men is like a death in the family: all you have left is memories. It hits you at some point that there’s nothing more to come.

In my case it’s an apt analogy. I tweeted something last night about how Don was a drinking companion, someone I’d shared stories with and had adventures. He was always like someone I might easily know, and knowing, might find some common ground with. As I’ve written so many times, there is so much in him, his character and personality, his story, that I could relate to. That’s why I connected so deeply to the show. It was more than just entertainment, more than just an intelligent, highly articulate depiction of a time and place – it was something I could feel personally.

In the last couple of episodes Don hit the road, as he was in the habit of doing. It’s not something I’ve done in the same way, but something which I understand instinctively (how many times did I yearn to do that last year? And, even so, an urge that is never far away). I watch episodes like this and feel the push/pull of life, the civilised normality versus the independent and freewheeling anarchy. It’s one of the great dilemmas in my life, possibly the great dilemma. Drawn to the normality my friends exhibit, with all the attendant quiet pleasures, I’m also drawn irresistibly, and consistently, to risk and adventure, to experience in all its heady glory.

I’m in between, and have spent a lifetime veering one way, and then the other. I’m sympathetic to Don, but we are different people. I’m less irresponsible than he is. I have better control over my emotions, and am less impulsive (and self-destructive) as a result – yet I find myself yearning for the same wide open spaces, which are as much intellectual as they are physical.

I look about me and in my world there is no-one like that, except perhaps Whisky (another person to whom ‘things’ happen – which is no coincidence). It’s normal for people to live the conventional life without any real consideration of the alternative – because the alternatives are so innately foreign. I’m sure there’s a great vicarious entertainment factor in watching the trials and tribulations of Don Draper, and not a little moral superiority at times. He is separate from them, and at the end of the episode they change channel to another program. For me, and for the likes of Whisky, it’s not so easily switched from. There are enough parallels in Don’s life to our own to make us pause and wonder and reflect, and often to remember. The best art opens things up, and Mad Men for me was always great art.

Now after seven series, and a decade’s worth of Don’s life, the show is done. I’ll go back to it again, will watch at some stage from start to finish, and possibly more than once, but it will never be the same again. The wonder at what was coming next and the general mystery surrounding Don’s life will be dissipated. I can’t unsee what I’ve seen, can’t unknow it – though hopefully in forgetting bits and pieces there will be little moments of pleasurable discovery, all over again.

It will be different, and there won’t be the same excitement, but that’s not to say the experience will be much less. Just different. It’s like reading a book for the second time. You read with knowledge, and absorb it differently. Perspective alters with an understanding of the full arc of the story, and moments that slipped by unnoticed before become significant in re-reading knowing what they will come to signify. It can be a very rich experience, which is why there are books in my life I read again and again.

There are TV shows and movies like that too, though the experience is not always as satisfying. I think it will be with Mad Men though. I’ll watch again at some point in the future, and on-screen Don will live again. They may be memories, but these are memories you can re-live again and again.

Wayward journey’s

This is another post about Mad Men. I don’t think there’s another TV show I’ve ever written so much about. For me, and for many, it’s a seminal piece of work.

We’re now in the final season, the second half of it having begun again after a mid-season hiatus. On Monday I sat down to watch as it began again.

I’ve tried to explain many times what this show means to me, and why. For whatever reason I’ve always identified with Don Draper, even though in many regards we’re quite different. Where we’re alike though, is in the ways that really count.

I watched on Monday with what they call bated breath. It’s not uncommon when I watch the show. There’s a kind of pent-up tension as I watch expectantly, that only get’s let out at the end of the show.

The reason for this is because Don is one of those people who things happen to. It’s a TV program, entertainment, so you don’t expect a dull character. Even though he’s a fictional creation, he’s true to a certain type. There are people who always seem to be in the middle of things, whether they be overt and external or, often, within. Don is one such character.

He is a man living an eventful and dramatic life. But he’s also someone who lives a rich internal life, notwithstanding his external bravado. He’s a sensitive character, often at odds with it. Life would be easier if he were not so sensitive. He’s a man with a past, which periodically weighs heavily upon him.

Mad Men is rightly lauded for the attention to detail in how it evokes a time not so far away, but in many ways different, from our own. It’s a fascinating cultural study, and the narrative is a ripper. At the heart of it is Don though, and what truly mesmerises is his journey – his battles, his flaws, dealing with family, friends, and ultimately his inner self. It’s the journey most of us make, but in him, and in others, it is richer and deeper because there is more space inside of him. It reverberates and echoes, and plays an active part in how he lives his life.

I hold my breath because I find myself in the description. I think I too am one of those people things happen too. Much of that is an outcome of personality and character, as it is with Don – we enter into more situations, take greater risks because that is our nature. Things happen, and sometimes things fall off the back of the truck.

It’s innate too in the sense that some people create waves by their presence, whether it be in their behaviour or in the persona they present to the world. They create reactions, which often have a domino effect.

Like Don I feel myself deeply sensitive, and occasionally haunted by the things I’ve done and the experiences I’ve had. I pick up on things others don’t, am receptive to things that others are oblivious too. So does Don. Maybe that’s why I write. And maybe that’s why Don is in advertising. Both are creative outlets for that sensitivity.

I watch the show and know it, and feel it, and inspite of the differences between us, feel myself in Don as he continues on his wayward journey.

Why some shows are different from others

The last few weeks they’ve been playing a couple of episodes a night of Californication from series one on. I’ve sat on the couch watching. Though I’ve watched it all before – and some episodes several times – it’s been a favourite daily activity. I love the show, and Hank Moody. It has great entertainment value, but I also find much in it I can relate to, as I’ve written here before.

In my mind there are TV shows you’re indifferent too – the great majority; TV shows you like or even love, but purely as entertainment; and the TV shows you love because they are entertaining AND because they transcend entertainment. These shows are few, but stick with you because somehow they react directly with the person you are.

There are plenty of shows I like plenty like Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, and so on. I’ve just started watching an excellent Oz program called The Devil’s Playground that I find both fascinating and entertaining. I relish watching these programs each week. They’re a part of my schedule. They divert me for the allotted period, and will often leave me thinking about them afterwards. They aren’t personal though. I can relate in general terms perhaps – for example I’m fascinated watching the Australian period detail in The Devil’s Playground because I lived in that environment – but they don’t touch directly upon one of those tender spots inside. Seinfeld, perhaps was similar – a show that I utterly related to because we lived and talked like that back in the day (it’s a show that created its own eco-system), but most of it is surface.

Then there are the shows you watch and feel as you do as if something is unravelling inside of you. What you see on screen in some way feels like you, or your life, or your felt experience. You can laugh, say, at what you see in screen, but at the same time and on a deeper level feel some kind of relationship to the events portrayed or, more often, the characters portrayed.

I’ve written many a time about Mad Men in the past. There’s a show – and a character – that get’s to me. On the surface it maybe shouldn’t. Much of the show is set in a time before I was born, and in a very different milieu. Culturally it is different, though there are cultural signposts throughout I have some historical relationship to (as we all do), such as the assassination of JFK, or the landing on the moon. Perhaps I can imagine a little of my parents in this program, particularly my dad, who I think worked his way up the corporate ladder in a similar sort of environment.

End of the day though I relate to Don and his perpetual travails. They may be set within an epoch, but they are universal, free of time and place. Ultimately Don’s journey is informed by his environment, but spring from deep inside him. The things that spring from him might be common to anyone because they are but one variation of human experience. They feel common to me specifically because, as I’ve described ad infinitum, because I’ve asked the same questions, sought the same answers, made the same mistakes, been driven by the same demons and desires. I’m not Don Draper – we are different people – but I understand his experiences, which is why watching Mad Men seems always such a personal experience.

It’s not quite the same with Californication and Hank Moody – who is a very different character from Don Draper. Line me up against Hank and we might be happy to sit down and have a drinking session together, but I’m a much more responsible, adult, and organised character. I share aspects of behaviour and attitude with Hank, but am in general a very different person. Still, I find whenever I watch the program something tugging at me.

When I think about it what Don and Hank share is a vulnerability. That’s a condition of human nature, but it is their brand of vulnerability I find myself responding to. They share a self-destructive streak, the hard-drinking, hard fucking sense of nihilism. Hard drinking and hard fucking are both generally enjoyable activities, but I also think there is an aspect of self-abnegation in the act.

Why do we fuck (and let’s forget about the orgasm)? Desire is the obvious reason, and though it’s true it’s also awfully simplistic. Often we fuck for the same reason that Mallory climbed Everest – because it’s there (or because we can). It’s awful fun, not just the act but the lead-up to it, but so much of it is habitual. Speaking for myself, I’m pretty well always on. It goes beyond that though. It becomes a validation of the man we present to the world. If a pretty woman deigns to have sex with us then we must possess something of value. She accepts the narrative we spin, not just to her, but to ourself. It’s affirmation in those moments that we are desirable, even loveable, and certainly fuckable. We can go away re-assured of our self-nominated place in the world.

The obverse of that – with which it happily co-exists – is the sense of oblivion in sex. As a man, and as a woman for all I know, there is that sense of burying yourself in the act. The world outside ceases to exist for a period of time, or to be important anyway. In the brute and physical act of lovemaking we express ourselves in ways that go beyond the everyday conventional. Our bodies cry out in the synchronised act of satisfying act of satisfying another. Much of our conscious mind slumbers. Those sensual, primitive parts of ourselves come to the fore. We are body that knows without knowing, a primal thing that responds on an instinctual level. For a little while we leave our busy mind behind, and escape from ourselves.

Now I’ve used sex as the best example of that, and relevant as it is a theme in both Mad Men and Californication. Men are what they do, much more than women are. We are driven to do because that’s how we find out who we are. We fill in the blanks by acting. Evidence Don Draper and his identification with his work, and his ambition – supplementary to, or substitutes for, a bereft childhood. All men are greater or lesser degrees of that. For me it is great, similar to Don, and for all I know for similar reasons. We seek our worth in the life we live and the projects we embark upon.

So I’ve been watching Californication and feeling it resonate in me, more obliquely than in Mad Men, but nearly as deep. Hank is the good-hearted hedonist, the muck-up with a heart of gold – and talent. What is it that touches me in him? I see myself in elements of his behaviour, that fuck it attitude and willingness to plunge in. I believe in so many things about him, even if I could never be him. I’d be glad to party with him, and in my memory find much I see him doing that I have done, or similar. It brings a wry smile to my face. It’s been a while though, and I think it would be no bad thing to get back to come of that. My life is unbalanced, by my standards anyway, and it’s time I indulged the pleasure-seeking sensualist inside me.

I suspect each of us have a different set of TV shows that somehow define who we think ourselves to be.

Something to live up to

I’ve just caught up wit the final episode of the most recent season of Mad Men. Something about it made me ache.

Don is near breaking point. His past haunts him. Aspects of his life have spiralled out of control. His daughter despises him. And there’s some self-contempt in him.

In many ways he appears the same in-control Don Draper, still the strong, often brusque personality. But there are signs too. The frequent absences. The reliance on alcohol, and the shaking hand when he tries to give it up. Then there is the unexpected admission to Hershey’s about his past as it becomes too much. He is enveloped in the past he cannot escape – and so he returns to it, as we see in the last scene of the show.

One of the things I always liked about Don Draper is that he is the best. That’s what a lot of people like about him I think. He personifies an ideal. He’s the Madison Avenue creative director admired, respected and occasionally feared. He knows he’s good. That’s a big part of his personality. He’s been driven to become this person in an attempt, we learn throughout the series, to blot out, overcome, or usurp a past he has lied about and is ashamed of. That’s his big, dark secret that he bulldozes by being Don Draper. He’s numero uno, and everything is secondary to that.

Of course, it’s not as easy as that. And that’s why the show is so compelling, and why I relate so closely to it. I don’t have that dark secret. But I have the same desire to be the best, not something close to it. And to partner it I have a bunch of my own flaws I have to attend to. Talented, but complex.

As I sit and watch shows like this thoughts slide through my mind. I find myself conjecturing, wondering, feeling at the same time as things unfold on screen. In shows like Mad Men I see so much that reflects back to me. It’s different things at different times, but put together it adds up to something. Today it was the insight about Don needing to be the best. I understood that. A desire like that becomes an attribute of personality. It’s not just something you are, but something you can’t understand except in that one way. In all honesty I don’t see any other point but trying to be the best. Perhaps that’s easy for me to say. I have the wherewithal to be good. If it’s in my capability to slam dunk, why lay up? Rephrase then. Why would you not what to be the best you can be? What point to life other than that?

That’s all very valid, but to get to the nub of someone like Don Draper, and me, being the best we can be is secondary I think to being the best, full stop. There’s a quantitative measure there. Being an 8 is insufficient. We want to be leaders. 10 is it. We have to be more. You can figure out the fragile psychology of that for yourself.

That’s how I live, strange as it may be given my circumstances. I want to be superior. I say that to people in describing my aspirations and my capabilities, but I say it in lower case. I write it down, how important it is to over-deliver, to do it just as it should be. They’re clichés really, but in my case they’re true. That’s how I feel it. I can’t imagine settling for mediocrity. I want to squeeze every drop out, and I’m confident there’s a lot to be squeezed. You can say it’s ego, and I guess there is a fair dash of it, but it’s ego become philosophy. The overman.

How incongruous it is then, to be in the situation I’m in. Almost a mockery of all that. I swallow that lest I choke on it. I can wallow, or I can go on. I may not be the best now, but I can aspire to return to that again. It feels a part of who I am, or meant to be.

All this goes through my head, much quicker than I’ve written it here, but extrapolating from that starting point, and sensed as much as thought. That’s going through me and I’m watching the show with rapt attention and as I watch wisdom dawns on Don. For all he has, for all his achieved, for all the best he is, he’s failing. It’s moments like that which redeem him as a character, and bind us to him. His life is toxic for all the glitz and approbation. California beckons.

I almost sighed. It hit me, bang. How I knew that. Again. That’s my big mental out. Take off somewhere, reinvent myself, if nothing else works – which seems close to reality. Except I can’t really do that. I’d happily end up in some place like Tokyo or Amsterdam, except it’s unlikely, and doubly so because of the mutt. The best I can contemplate is a place in the bush or by the sea – and it is alluring.

Then it comes at me: have I been pitching myself at the wrong target? Don imagines a different life in the sunshine of the west coast, a smaller office, a new beginning. A break from what has been. That thought lingers in me. My inner eye searches, for wisdom, understanding. Have I led myself down these wrong paths because I could? Am I so competitive that whatever I turn to I need be best, or something like it, even if it is the wrong thing? To date that has been business of some sort. But maybe it shouldn’t be. Question mark. Maybe I’m just throwing myself at this because that’s what I’ve always done; and maybe because of my dad.

I’ve been good, but how many times have I thought that this is not what I’m made for? Though a lot of me gets used up, its always felt as if some of the best parts of me don’t get a look in. One day, I tell myself, and put it out of my mind. Anyway besides, this pays good, when it pays.

So suddenly the whole new leaf as a concept is in my head, like it is for Don. It intoxicates. Maybe I should just read the tea leaves I think, and move on. And if I have to move then to something more in sync with who I am today. I’m torn, but it’s something to think about.

The show ends. I wonder how I’m going to manage the time till the next series. I get up from the couch. I pour myself a Scotch – something of Don has rubbed off on me. I wander into the study to check my email and there I find an unexpected and interesting message. Someone has a proposal for me. They want me to join their association. I’m referred to as a “recognised leader in Business Process Re-Engineering industry in Asia-Pacific”. Hmm, I think. Really? And I’m back to square one.

Hoping for another season

Laying on the couch yesterday afternoon I realised that watching Mad Men was a bit like chicken soup for me. It had been another tough day in a succession of tough days. I needed to take a break from it. The solution was firing up the iQ and watching a couple more episodes of the last series of Mad Men, patiently sitting there for occasions such as this.

As always I found myself quickly slipping under the spell of the show. I was transported back to that different time and place. It’s an alternate world I am drawn too, but even as I am seduced by it I never lose sight of where I am – and that’s somewhat the point. Though it’s a piece of fiction, and in a world set far my own, there is much in it I can reference back to this time now, and in many ways, my situation.

This is something I’ve commented on before. I’ve written at length about the character of Don Draper. He’s such a complex, enigmatic character that there is no end of fascination as he goes about his life. On the surface he seems so much in command, an object of desire and occasional reverence. He is often glib, dismissive, arrogant, but scratch the surface and revealed is the deeply flawed, often very troubled soul with much more than his share of baggage. It’s that contradiction and conflict, that yin and yang of self that makes him so compelling, and which I find myself drawn to every time.

The story lines play out in different times, but much of the drama is pretty commonplace, staples of entertainment for centuries. They are entertaining – I especially enjoy the insights into the advertising industry – but it is the characters that take us in. I’ve come to realise that my sense of fellowship with Don is less about the common themes in our lives and behaviour – though there are many – and more simply based upon the complexity of his being. For all his male force he is a man who is acted upon. Things happen to him, and things develop, much so than for others, because of the dark complexity of his personality. We may be complex in different ways, but what I feel, and am drawn to in his character, is the knowledge that we both battle onwards subject to these hidden things within us.

I’m going through a scary, torrid period of my life. Sometimes it feels more than just a period. It feels as if this is what my life has come to, and I don’t know how to change it – though I battle mightily. This has permeated my blog in recent times, which is only reasonable – but what I write here is a fraction of what is occurring. No matter, some have commented on the tone with concern, and fair enough.

I don’t have any answers having watched Mad Men yesterday. It was a couple of hours of great entertainment. It reminded me of the things I have described above. The one thing it did do for me, momentarily, is give me some perspective. I’ve watched Don wrestle with his internal contradictions and weaknesses for seasons now. You realise that they will never be properly resolved, and realise that’s life really – managing all the elements, internal as well as external. We are those things.

I’m those things too, different in me than in others. Right now I am struggling with a huge and forbidding situation. For all my resistance and fight I will likely succumb to it. The situation now is that seems 95% certain – I’m still working on the 5%. For now it is overwhelming, and somewhat terrifying. Watching a TV show might seem a strange way of dealing with it, but Mad Men works for me. I see something of myself in Don. And in his struggles year after year, season after season, I am reminded that I am not done yet. He’s navigated one crisis to the other, and returned each time for next years season. Sure, I know, it’s a piece of theatre, not real life. There’s truth in it though to. Time flows. It has no regard for what we wrestle with. It’s indifferent to our angst. It drags us forward with it as the backdrop shifts and the sets change. There are things that come before, and doubtless things that will come after. Bottom line: I’ve got more seasons in me.

Me and Don Draper

235/365: August 23, Oh Don DraperImage by snacktime2007 via Flickr

I was catching up with my Mad Men watching last night laying on the couch when I figured that Don Draper and I have similar lifestyles. Sure we're 50 years apart in time and half a world in distance, and while we share some key attributes we have different personalities, but…some things never change.

Some of it is superficial, we both like a glass or two and despite the cultural differences then to now have a laissez fair attitude to much that is indulgent. Like him I have women going in and out of my life constantly. I often wonder in quiet moments where so and so got to, or remember a distant redhead I had forgotten, but those moments are few if only because – for good or bad – there's pretty much a revolving door.

I'd like to think that Don is a little more casual and offhand in romantic/sexual matters, but I often find myself surprised after the event how dispassionately, even ruthlessly, I have conducted myself. It's very much a need for him, as it is I think for me – searching for and being with women is a central part of who I am. I may settle on one eventually, and I hope I do, but I couldn't imagine a life without any.

In a way that relates to the next connection. Don Draper is arrogant and often brusque. There is a mystery at the centre of him, and despite his harsh ways something decent. He is strong enough to live by his own lights, without reference to the prevailing whims and cultural mores of society. He is a fascinating character.

I get called arrogant though I dispute it, and while I'm not brusque I can be very blunt. He's opinionated, as I can be, but he's also a throwback in the way of the times, when I am just the opposite. I believe in doing the right thing, though that is not always clear. I'll pay little heed to public opinion and will often find myself happily in opposition to it. I'm not always an easy man, though many think I'm charming. Despite my flaws I think I am a good man. There is more to me than surface appearances.

It's perhaps the last connection which resonated most loudly with me. We are both self-made men. In itself that lends a certain way of being to a man, a slightly different worldview I think. On top of that we are now both on top of our game. He has that easy surety of knowing all the answers are at his fingertips. It is arrogant, but it's also impressive.

I'm more affable I think, and while I know most of the answers are anywhere but to hand I apparently give that same easy impression. In part that comes from confidence: if I do not know then I'll find out. I'm done it before and so I'll do it again and there is nothing beyond me…

I've not made 'it' – nor has he – but knowing you have it in you, that you're striving toward it, gives you a certain sense of entitlement that is hard to deny and, sometimes, hard to disguise.

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