Mad Men (Season 7, Ep. 5) – Something is Off
“With such a console in his office, an executive can call for the curves that he needs on the screen; then, by touching the screen with the light pen, he can order the computer to calculate new values and redraw the graphs, which it does almost instantaneously.” (Via HBR Blog)
The IBM System/360 has just appeared in SC&P, bringing with it a scattering of allusions to Kubrick’s 2001, a film which screened a year before season 7’s circa 1969 setting. An additional allusion leaked through to this episode, that being a conspiratorial conversation between Lou and Cutler evoking the same paranoia present in the 2001 Bowman and Poole lip reading scene. Things have always been afoot in Mad Men, and the difference between who is in and who is out a preferred narrative structure for the show. But continuing to track more deeply into the Kubrick script, “The Runaways” abandons this sophistication for the Mad Men equivalent of a bunch of monkeys hitting each other with bones.
One of the more interesting aspects of 2001 is that even though it is such a tightly controlled film in every aspect, there is an intense wildness at its heart. Kubrick’s rigid geometry just barely contains the riot of nature across which the monoliths have been planted over time and space as a map out of the chaos. Mad Men’s similar reliance on the clean lines of the golden age of advertising is starting to fray, I think.
“People would say to me, What’s holding this together? Or, How is this moment related to the opening scene, or the problem you set up on page 15? I don’t know. That’s where the character went. That’s the story.” (Matthew Weiner, via The Paris Review)
Every interaction in this episode was tainted by a slight whiff of insanity. Excepting the case of Ginsberg, who goes quite plainly nuts after his evening with Peggy, a subtle note of unpredictability has entered stage left. It would not surprise me if the remainder of the series just finally indulged this blatant premise of the show: that these people we have been watching are not crazy in the sense that they are mentally unstable, but mad in a much more fundamental, perhaps even inhumane way. Getting used to the way this off-kilter universe works requires us to conform to some version of insanity, which, as Don discovers, is where the language of advertising is born.
The final shot of Don Draper in this episode is one of the most bizarre shots of the entire series. Don has just had an old-school Don-type #winning moment. He slams the taxi door shut on his current nemesis in a burst of faux gentility. The camera pulls back to a medium shot as Don whistles for another taxi. He stands there in something that approximates a macho pose, a stock John Wayne one-sheet stance. But if you really look at him in the frame, there is something jilted about the angle of his body. Anything positive about the look on his face seems forced, lacking that natural arrogant elasticity that once came to him so easily. His extra weight carries oddly in the suit cut a bit short for his height. His arms seem incapable of properly relaxing to his side. He looks simian.
By now, there is dawning recognition that something is just off. Off like a guy at your party wearing stuff that looked really cool ten years ago, but now he just seems to be trying too hard. Off like there is this Bradburyesque whirring and clicking brain machine right there in your very office. Off like the time your wife got high and asked her friend to seduce you. We are starting to discover that as a period piece, Mad Men has been documenting how this sense of feeling off evolves across generations moving from a comfortable set of norms and conversational tropes to something entirely different. You once had your youth and vitality. You were connected to what was current and happening. But after a few too many times closing the bar down you lost that chisel in your jaw and aren’t quite sure exactly what it is that 20-somethings find interesting these days. That feeling, especially for someone in advertising, is a special species of doom. Now those you must consider younger have total ownership over the glossiness of life, with their pot and their clarinets and Vietnam protests. You as an entire generation are now officially off. This displacement is something that Mad Men’s typical visual savvy can’t hide any longer.
We are not quite sure how this is going to play out, as at any given time the probability is equal that Don finds a way to take everyone down with him or he decides to sit at his desk until retirement sipping vodka out of empty pop cans. To paraphrase Weiner, that is “just where the characters go… that’s the story.”