This week on Dear Television:
- "Never Too Late," from Jane Hu
- "Space Station Getzinger," from Phillip Maciak
Never Too Late
By Jane Hu
April 21, 2015
OH MAN, Jennifer Getzinger is in the building — but you know who else is? GLEN BISHOP. The last time we saw Glen was in 2013 (or 1968). He hadn’t lost all of his baby fat yet, but he was old enough to beat up his friend for macking on Sally.
This is how he said goodbye then:
By throwing up peace signs.
That was the last time we’d seen Glen, until this week. Now it’s 1970: Glen Bishop is taller, harrier, more into denim. He’s enlisted in the ongoing Vietnam War (with questionable and confused motives, as we learn by the end of the episode), which perhaps shouldn’t quite surprise us. What can you expect from a guy who flashes peace right after punching his friend? I suspect this is the last we see of Glen, not just because the episode forecasts his probable death in battle, but simply because we only have four more episodes left.
This is how Glen says goodbye in 1970 aka 2015:
Make it mean something, Glen.
Goodbyes are hard. Especially when one is uncertain as to whether they’re truly final.
It makes sense that this season of Mad Men would be especially focused on the theme of partings, though we might recall that the show has always been fairly — sometimes shockingly — capricious with how it exits characters. Sal, Bob, and Joey are only three examples of disappeared Mad Men characters, all of them related, in this case, with the difficulty of maintaining openly homosexual relations on the show.
Both Lili and Phil have written about the anxiety of closure in these last episodes: Lili rightly observes the pressure of so much unfinished business the show finally leaves in its wake (“Is That All There Is?”), and Phil on “Getzinger’s return and farewell” this week explores the director’s aesthetic call-backs as visually thematizing Mad Men’s fixation on repetition — a repetition that, as the show draws to a close, feels at once commemorative and traumatic. Simultaneously a return and a farewell, as Phil put it.
All I know is that when Sally calls Glen to say goodbye (getting his mother instead of Glen himself), she didn’t just end up making Ms. Bishop cry, but many of us as well.
Like many of the phone calls on Mad Men, it’s a one-sided conversation for viewers. And by forcing us to interpret what is being said on the other line, Weiner further isolates the speaker we do hear and see.
Here’s the transcript of what Sally says:
Yes, I’m fine, um—When do you expect him back?
But I’m going out of town tomorrow and I want to say goodbye.
Just tell him I’m sorry, and I want to say goodbye. He has to call me.
I’m sorry; I didn’t want to make you cry.
Notably, Sally never says goodbye to Glen’s mother before hanging up the phone. And we never do witness the conversation that presumably occurs when Glen calls her back — this space of friendship is reserved or preserved as one that cannot be represented on screen, unlike that between Glen and Betty.
“Melodrama offers the hope that it may not be too late,” writes Linda Williams, “that there may still be an archaic sort of virtue, and that virtue and truth can be achieved in private individuals and individual heroic acts rather than [...] in revolution and change.” I sort of like the idea of seeing Glen and Sally’s goodbye as something that doesn’t necessarily have to happen, as something that can happen when either Glen or Sally return home, as something that may not be too late.
How do we say goodbye to what already feels so fragile, ephemeral, and increasingly lost to us? If this season of Mad Men is explicitly about saying goodbye to an era (or at least the myth that there ever was one at all), then wasn’t this true from its very first episode? Hasn’t Mad Men been saying goodbye — and in doing so, also been about saying goodbye — this entire time? Phil is so right that the show has never not been self-referential, but this dizzying recursiveness of course feels different in season seven than it could have in season one. “Mad Men’s preoccupation with its own ending, stretched out now over three of seven final episodes, is actually a fairly interesting and audacious concept for a final season.” Nothing happens. Everything happened.
For these final episodes, we might take Don’s existential question to Ted in earnest: “Do you ever feel like there’s less to actually do, but more to think about?” Classic Don. Classic Mad Men. We’ll probably miss it more than we know.
Though what I’m more invested in thinking about (especially after this week’s startling episode) is not so much saying goodbye to any one character, or the mythic ‘60s in general, but the very atmosphere of Mad Men as its own particular (self-reflective, sparkling, and yet now deeply familiar) thing. The way its craggy textures and slippery tones have slowly been folded into my experiences of serial television watching over the past eight years. Critics largely agree that there’s no certain forecast for how Weiner will present his last shot — maybe Don will enact the opening credits in narrative time; maybe it’ll end with an abrupt and unreturned glance. Bang or whimper; it could go either way. The crucial point is that we can’t know. And, at this juncture, I wonder if it matters all that much. Complex narrative television, largely of the post-Sopranos era, is famous for placing pressure on endings (cf. final montage of Six Feet Under), but Mad Men — ever contrarian and trolling — might very well play up its finale by not playing it up at all. For a show so obsessed with the difficulty of change, any satisfying or culminating conclusion is contradictory at best and facile at worst.
Instead, could we think about the closing in over the course of Mad Men’s final season as an opening up to its past, where the history of all its little goodbyes begin to add up? We all felt a wave of exhaustion when Don made eyes at Di three weeks ago, but this is because we’ve seen women just like her leave so many times before. The show might be repetitive, yes, but repetition doesn’t necessarily cancel itself out. Such is the logic of melodrama. Nothing haunts Mad Men more than Mad Men itself, but to return to Lili’s yearning for all its possible narrative threads gestured at and yet never fulfilled, maybe we can think of all its abrupt partings as generating a larger world than any of these foreshortened plots offer in isolation. If this sounds like too sappy and generous a take, we might recognize that there’s probably no more forgiving set of readers than those of Mad Men. That we’re still all watching so earnestly suggests how fervently we believe Williams here: “Melodrama offers the hope that it may not be too late.”
So many of us love Sally Draper because she promises this hope in her persistence to grow and change, altering and rejecting the narrative that Mad Men’s history logically sets up for her. She gets on that Greyhound with intentions, as she tells her father, to “get away from you and mom, and hopefully be a different person than you two.” How much does this anxiety emerge from the fact that Sally recognizes, as Don reminds her here, that she is in many ways very much like her parents? Don and Sally don’t speak “goodbye” to each other in this scene either, though we might imagine that she does return Don’s wave from the bus.
Earlier in “The Forecast,” Betty tries to offer Sally some maternal advice about unsupervised time with boys on her forthcoming trip. “Well I’m sorry mother,” replies Sally, “but this conversation is a little late.” Then after a beat: “And so am I.” For Sally, the melodrama of being too late is reduced to a joke. Sally desires so badly to inhabit a different story entirely, that she changes the genre of their relationship to one of comedy, dark as it is.
A lot of wonderful things happened here,
Space Station Getzinger
By Phillip Maciak
April 20, 2015
JENNIFER GETZINGER is in the BUILDING! The nature of a short last season for a show with this much creative power behind and in front of the camera is that sometimes victory laps are going to come early. It’s already possible we’ve seen the last of Ken and Megan, and now, it seems, we have to say goodbye to Jennifer Getzinger, Mad Men’s greatest director. With “The Forecast,” her total’s up to nine episodes, but what episodes! “The New Girl,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “A Little Kiss,” “THE SUITCASE.” Weiner hands Getzinger the ball when this show needs to make something happen, and it always always works. Her métier — which happens, also, to be the show’s métier — is the close-quarters, soul-baring, one-on-one exchange. As we saw on ample display this episode, Mad Men characters love to say things that resonate on multiple frequencies. Every line on this show is a double entendre, and one of the things that I’ve always loved — though I know it sets some on edge — is the brazen flamboyance with which this is true. But that’s what makes these close exchanges so striking. This is a show on which everybody’s speaking in euphemisms, but these small set-pieces force them to be direct. What are we really talking about? What are you trying to say? What does all of this mean?
Whether it’s the budding romances of Betty and Henry and Don and Conrad Hilton set behind and in front of the bar at Roger’s country club, Peggy and Bobbie Barrett locked down in Peggy’s apartment not saying things to each other, or the spectacular revelation of Don and Megan’s angry sexual chemistry all over the new white carpet, Getzinger has a hand with these two-handers. This woman shot Don telling a recovering Peggy how to start over and Don telling Peggy, “That’s what the money’s for.” I don’t think it’s too much to say that if these scenes represent something of Mad Men’s truth, then Jennifer Getzinger has produced the visual aesthetic of that truth. There’s an invisibility to her camera here — nothing fancy — but Getzinger brings a kind of romantic exaggeration to the basic grammar of the filmic conversation. For these episodes, we can always expect a full exploration of the way that two people can occupy the same frame. Working within the constraint of the basic head-on two-shot, she exaggerates distances between figures and then closes them, sometimes with iconic, self-consciously meaningful, almost painterly images of physical touch:
The auteur of inappropriate touching! These are moments of transgression — we know that because they begin as moments of rigid, charged formal separation. But they’re also moments of profound truth. These are real relationships, not formal ones. They have meaning for these people. They are expressive of a truth that is not itself expressed through the structural relationships of these characters. Child and adult, married woman and stranger, boss and employee, stage performer and spectator. (This last pair is framed differently to emphasize that particular formal relationship — it’s not about space between so much as the height differential produced by the stage.) These are secret touches that come to seem almost inevitable but that cannot be so at their beginning. They close gaps to show us that those gaps didn’t exist in the first place. This is something like Mad Men’s visual theory of true love, its giveaway that Matthew Weiner believes there are things that unite these characters beyond artifice or lust or convenience. We see these magnets attracting so that we know that the force drawing them together is real. There is order to this chaos, even if it’s only expressed in the wee small hours or in the most intimate exchanges. Jennifer Getzinger’s camera is what truth looks like on Mad Men.
Getzinger’s return and farewell brings us to what seems like our running topic this season. For the first two episodes, we’ve been marveling at/grousing about the way the final season can’t seem to stop thinking about the fact that it’s the final season. The primary mechanism for this, as we’ve all noticed, is the call-back. Not just the return of old characters, but the reproduction of old scenes, the echoing of old conversations. I called it a palimpsest, but that’s a kind of dreamy intellectual way of describing it. Sometimes it feels like a valediction — seeing Jennifer Getzinger shoot Don and Peggy discussing the meaning of life in his office one last time — and sometimes it feels like traumatic re-enactment. Mad Men’s tracing its steps to see where it’s been and where it might be going.
But it would be wrong to think this is new, that this technique is an innovation specifically for dealing with the performance anxiety surrounding the last episodes. As Lili pointed out, this show is always circling back to the beginning when it thinks it’s moving forward, and that means that not only do we have to see the echoes of old events in the new, but we have to see characters see that for themselves. This show is about repetition masked as forward progress and about people slowly realizing that their future looks an awful lot like their past. Joan’s #TreatYoSelf odyssey into sexy Bruce Greenwood, for instance, looks like Joan’s resolution of the problem Bob Benson brought up when he proposed their sham marriage. And maybe it is. But it’s not substantially different from solutions that she’s entertained and rejected in the past. A witty, foxy, selfish, wealthy older man wants to use his largesse to create a life for Joan and her son Kevin. Does that sound like anybody else we know? Even if this does give Joan a new lease on life — or even a lease on a new apartment — it looks an awful lot like Roger Sterling.
Likewise, Peggy wants to be the first female creative director of SC&P. She will be, but that’s not Don’s future, it’s hers. The agency is cold and unfeeling, just like the universe, and its narrative arc is not limited to those of its individual employees. The world doesn’t grow in one direction, it dies and is reborn over and over. Bert Cooper was on this show for so long as a reminder, not of death but of irrelevance. Don’s having so much trouble figuring out what’s next for the agency because he’s asking the question the wrong way. “We know where we’ve been, we know where we are,” he says, and that’s true, but it shouldn’t be in first-person. He can’t tell where he’s going because he isn’t going anywhere. He’s achieved what he will achieve at SC&P — he’s no longer a metonym for the agency. The future is other people. Isn’t that sad? Isn’t that beautiful? Take off your shoes.
So nothing’s new under the sun now, and it wasn’t new in 1960. Mad Men repeats itself, ok we get it. So is there a virtue in this? I’m going to play Weiner’s Advocate here and suggest that Mad Men’s preoccupation with its own ending, stretched out now over three of seven final episodes, is actually a fairly interesting and audacious concept for a final season. Back when LARB was just a Tumblr — you’ve come a long way, baby — I wrote about how narrative is the essential subject of Mad Men. Everything that happens on this show is about the tension between content and form, story and plot, the happening and the telling. So, to that extent, Mad Men is, and has always been, a show about itself.
Why is that bothering us now, all of a sudden? I think Lili’s critique of the show two weeks ago is a perfect reading of the series. I empathize with the fatigue she feels when, for instance, we have to wait three whole episodes before encountering the show’s best character — do I even need to name her…
And I can understand her frustration at the show’s compulsive need to cut away from actual events, actual happenings, to obscure massive paradigm shifts with winky ellipses. But I do not share that frustration. For me, the insecure/audacious beauty of this show has always been its willingness not to show at all — the show parodies this when we see Guy McKendrick’s foot mutilated by witnessing the blood spray on a row of white-shirted onlookers — to articulate its offscreen space. Mad Men describes absence the way NASA can describe a distant black hole by what’s visible in its wake. This is maybe a way of arguing for the beauty and meaning of the mundane (has any show ever attracted more writing about mise-en-scène?), and it’s maybe a way of arguing for what history looks like for the people living in it. Mad Men likes showing how a wedding gets ruined by the Kennedy assassination, not what it was like to be there at the scene of history. I understand how that might be exciting at the world-historical level but maddening at the basic level of plot and exposition, but I admire the commitment.
In any case, all of this seems to be ramping up now, and the absent center is the finale itself. David Chase solved the problem of an ending by not having one. Matthew Weiner is solving that problem by over-sharing about it. The dialogue in this episode is loaded like a baked potato. Meredith essentially repeats the thesis of these episodes when she lists SC&P’s hopes and dreams: “More money, bigger accounts, more awards, international business, and a space station?” In addition to echoing the show’s constant obsession with space imagery as the signifier of both progress and death, this is a statement of the problem. What the hell is next? A space station? Don’s real estate agent tells him, “The emptiness is a problem.” Don tries to sell it with, “A little glamour, a little hope.” He says there’s “less to actually do but more to think about.” Richard yells at Joan, “This is not how I saw things! I have a plan which is no plans!” There are even digs at critics: “Why don’t you just write down all your dreams so I can shit on them?”; “You don’t have any character, you’re just handsome.” And Peggy, for the love of Pete, brings it all home: “I want to create something of lasting value.”
It’s barely even subtext; each of these lines is an expression of the anxiety surrounding ending a long-running television program. Plans, the future, the way we imagine these things, the way we imagine our contributions, what time we have left — Mad Men might be the first television program of the Third Golden Age of serial television to be about the Third Golden Age of serial television. This is, admittedly, annoying. Unlike Peggy, we came here to talk about the meaning of life. Does it cheapen this show’s virtuosity that it all can boil down to Matthew Weiner’s phallic narcissism? Then again, why shouldn’t this show be obsessed with itself? We’re obsessed with it. There’s something kind of extraordinary about a series choosing to modulate its statement in this way. If we’ve learned anything over the past 15 years, it’s that TV isn’t just TV, it’s, well, it’s something better. Or, rather, TV is not the garbage medium it’s so often described to be. And that’s not about a progress narrative of TV production, it’s about what these complex series have done to the public perception of TV as an art form. It’s not that TV has become art, it’s that it always was and we see it that way now. So Mad Men’s self-referentiality becomes almost essayistic here. I’m talking about theses and articulations and historiography. This show is describing itself to us, and it’s saying things about art and commerce and memory and evolution and style and gender and race and money. But it’s doing so by not saying those things. It’s giving us stark spaces charged with meaning. Maybe it’s our job to messily collapse them, maybe it’s not, but the mess seems to be the point. Everything’s a little about trash and a little about the meaning of life. What will this show look like when it’s over? What will we look like when it’s over? What about after?
You can’t go to the pyramids, you can’t go anywhere,
P.S. Apropos of nothing, Hot Glen is this show’s weirdest innovation since Fat Betty.