Time to Get a Grip on ‘Mad Men’

By Karen

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Every time I read another Mad Men analysis and wonder if I watched the same program, I’m reminded of this William Carlos Williams poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and English teachers who commanded me to “Dig deeper. What and how much depends on that red wheel barrow?”

For me, it was the chickens’ birdbath, and one of the lamest poems ever written. Williams himself said he saw the wheel barrow in some old fisherman’s backyard. Period.

Just as reams of drivel have been written about that stupid wheel barrow, so has speculation about Mad Men. But Shakespeare nailed it, hundreds of years ago…

“…it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Macbeth (Act V, Scene V).

Creator Matthew Weiner conceived an intriguing story about advertising in the 1960s, with compelling characters fortuitously played by perfectly cast actors.

And now everybody’s killing themselves looking for the meaning beyond the meaning.

Season 5 just wrapped, and the talking heads are drawing a parallel between the finale and Season 1, where Don Draper sat alone in a bar, about to pick up a woman. In Season 5, he even ordered an Old Fashioned (hint, hint!).

Weiner’s getting credit for brilliantly placing these moments five seasons apart in some grand design (ignoring the post-Season 4 contract dispute that threatened to kill the show altogether — why would he waste time plotting future seasons for an iffy paycheck?).

I think Weiner sees Draper as a womanizer who haunts bars. And now Weiner’s being swept along on this wave of analysis, humoring fans who think they have “insight” by pretending it’s all by pre-ordained plan.

Yes, it’s fun to guess what might happen next, but this endless dissection of each character’s every utterance, movement, and expression has completely jumped the shark.

People, it’s a good story, well told. Get a life.

Even Anthony Bourdain succumbed the other day, tweeting “Pete Campbell arc veering deeply into Cheever territory.”

OK, so maybe Weiner’s evoking some Catcher in the Rye, The Merchant of Venice, The Sound of Music, whatever. That’s what writers do. They soak in, reinvent, and regurgitate.

Watching Mad Men for obscure references so I can wax profoundly about it sucks all the fun out of it for me.

“But what did Lane Pryce’s suicide really mean?” you ask. “Did Weiner name him Pryce because he knew Lane would pay the ultimate ‘price’ with his life?”

Here’s another one for you: Does Don Draper’s name mean his last scene will be in a coffin, “draped” with a flag because he’s a veteran? Will it signify that all “Mad’ men” are soldiers in suits, serving a mission to win the American war of the wallet by selling people stuff they don’t need?

The silliness could go on and on. But let’s not.

I’m waiting for some character to actually recite the Williams poem, sending all the gazers into Don Draper’s navel into a tailspin of speculation.

Meanwhile, Matt Weiner is laughing all the way to the bank — but what is he really laughing at? The fans, or their weird need to morph Mad Men into something much bigger than he probably ever intended it to be?


14 Responses to Time to Get a Grip on ‘Mad Men’

  1. adele says:

    Karen, I think you can watch Mad Men however you want; there’s no proscribed way to watch a TV show, and first and foremost TV should be entertaining.

    Weiner may well be laughing at all the semi-scholarly discourses written about MM, but he and his writers have painted such a rich canvas that there’s room for plenty of interpretation.

    You probably know that I comment on the recap that Nelle Engoron has been doing for Salon. Nelle tends to view things more through the lens of gender than I do, but I find her thoughts and the thoughts of most of her commentors interesting, and spotting the literary references (whether Weiner et.al. intended them) just adds to my enjoyment of the show as does the generally spot-on depiction of the times. I was 19 and 20 in 1966-67, and just remembering all that happened in the summer of 1966 makes me shudder and makes me nostalgic. (And as Don Draper told us, “Nostalgia is the pain from an old wound.”)

    I view the Mad Men discussions as kind of a book club, and just as people in book clubs have different takes on the same book, there are a lot of opinions on each Mad Men episode, Cudos to all who made the show and all the discourse about it possible.

    And that red wheelbarrow — I had a hard time seeing what my Englis professor wanted me to see, but I have a perfect mental picture of the red wheelbarrow that’s stayed with me since 1966. I think that’s worth something.

  2. Bacardi1 says:

    Well, you have absolutely no worries whatsoever that I’ll ever get analytical about a television show (or movie, or book). I’m simply not that deep, & enjoy reading, the theatre, tv, & film strictly for entertainment.

    That said, I must say that I was SEVERELY disappointed in the “MM” season finale. I think it definitely wins the prize for most boring episode of any season – or at least in the Top 3. It was like watching paint dry; a waste of an hour of Meghan whining (I’m starting to get pretty tired of her), the usual bickering over accounts, & (drum roll, please. . . ) Sally beginning to menstruate in the bathroom of the Museum of Natural History. They should have ended with the previous Pryce suicide episode.

    Deeper meanings or not, I can only hope that next season begins with something at least mildly interesting.

    Oh – did you notice that Jon Hamm (“Don Draper) is now listed in the credits as the “Producer” of “Mad Men”? Wonder if that has/had something to do with the contract disputes.

  3. catsworking says:

    Adele, I guess that’s why I don’t belong to any book clubs and changed my major in college from English to Human Resource Management. I NEVER felt writers were being as deep and mystical as my teachers (for the sake of job security) were making them out to be. Analyses of Hemingway used to particularly drive me up the wall.

    I wasn’t picking on Engeron specifically. She’s just one of many MM analysts and and easy link to an example. I wasn’t aware you comment there because I don’t often read them. I only read her pieces because I usually watch MM on delay and like to know what to expect, since I’m obviously too shallow and stupid to grasp all the hidden derivations and symbolism.

    I think Mad Men has gotten too full of itself and the writers are now going overboard with the double meanings and literary references to keep the speculation churning. Good marketing on their part. Early in Season 5, I was finding it pretentious and hard to follow and considered giving it up.

    And if you’re holding on to a mental image of a stupid wheelbarrow with a bunch of chickens standing around it, you’re wasting precious brain cells. 😉

    Bacardi, I’m with you on Megan. She’s getting all this hype as Don’s savior and being wise beyond her years, but I think she’s a manipulative pain in the ass, and her mother nailed it when she called her an “ungrateful bitch.” She uses her looks and sex to get whatever she wants. And now that Peggy has been kicked to the margin like Betty Draper, I’m in a quandry. The show started with Peggy and I’ve always thought it would end with her, probably rising to the top of some ad agency and realizing there’s nothing there but air. Now I don’t know.

    I did notice Jon Hamm listed as a producer and wondered if his name had always been there. I don’t usually pay much attention to the end credits because they usually go by too fast to read.

  4. Bacardi1 says:

    Nah – the producer credit is definitely new. I was gifted with a couple of seasons on dvd, & he wasn’t the producer back then – not even a little “executive producer”(of which there are several) – which is why I wondered if perhaps the contract negotiations (which of course had to do with $$$) required him to kick some of his own cash into the series in exchange for production credit.

  5. catsworking says:

    We’ve got a few seasons of MM on DVD floating around the family somewhere. Gave them to my father and he refused to watch because all the hype he read in newspapers and magazines convinced him it’s total crap. That’s how he thinks. I gave him the John Adams series on DVD starring Paul Giamatti, which I thought was EXCELLENT, and he won’t watch it either. Somebody said it was good so it must be terrible.

    I didn’t pay any attention to the contract negotiations on MM, nor do I know if the terms were ever published. It’s one of those thing I couldn’t care less about. No matter what any of them make, they will now get opportunities from just being affiliated with the show they never would have had. Even that no-talent January Jones, who has reached the peak of her fame as Betty Draper. I’ve seen her in a couple of other things, and if she’s not playing a frigid Grace Kelly lookalike, she’s just awful. She’s lucky Kiernan Shipka (Sally) can act circles around her and cover for her most of the time.

  6. adele says:

    I noticed this year that Jon Hamm was listed as producer — I’ve never understood exactly what producers do, but don’t they help raise money? Maybe he puts some of his own bucks into the series and is like a part owner, receiving more royalties later.

    The finale did have the feeling of just tying up loose ends. Previous seasons have either had something pretty momentous happen — like Season 3 starting the new agency or Season 1 where Don gave the fantastic pitch about the Carousel projector. The critics I read were pretty split on whether they really liked the Season 5 finale, although that back view of John Slattery brought out the dirty old lady in me.(I don’t always look for deep meaning).

    I can’t imagine that Peggy will be marginalized for long — she’s too important to the story, and there’s no character like her. I can’t imagine that Elisabeth Moss isn’t coming back; this is the role of a lifetime for her. And Megan — I was willing to suspend disbelief and for a few episodes believe that she showed surprising depth for her age, but she sure ended the season looking childish and manipulative. Time will tell.

    In any case, I cant wait until Downton Abbey comes back (talk about short seasons). Summer Sunday nights don’t look that interesting TV-wise.

  7. Bacardi1 says:

    From what I understand, the “Producer” is responsible for gathering together all of the components for the production. For example, “YadaYada” has an idea for a program/film, etc., etc. “YadaYada” shops the idea around to various “producers”, until he finds one willing to finance the deal. Said producer then starts gathering together the $$$, little people, & interviewing/fielding for the perfect “director”, “casting director”, cast, etc., etc. The lower level “Executive Producer” (of which there can be dozens credited), are less involved. Here’s a link with a basic gist:


  8. catsworking says:

    I’m not sure what producers do, either. My sister knows. Maybe she’ll check in and enlighten us.

    John Slattery looked surprisingly good naked, I must agree. But even after 5 seasons of MM, I still think of him as the politician who wanted Carrie Bradshaw to pee on him in Sex & the City.

    I read something where Lane Pryce (can’t remember his real name — Jared Harris?) was asked if they gave him a big farewell party, and he said no, because too many people were leaving. What???!!

    I don’t think Weiner knows exactly what to do with Megan. Having her start out the opposite of Betty painted him into a corner because she was quickly boring. Now he’s got her throwing things and having tantrums like Betty would, and it seems completely out of character. Season 6 may start with Don divorced again and Megan off the show. She hasn’t been around long enough for viewers to be invested in her future, so who cares? Maybe they’ll have her come back for one more episode where she’s slaving away in the chorus and Don attends the show — with another gorgeous woman, of course.

    I miss Downton Abbey, too. The next season is supposed to air in England in the fall. Maybe I should move.

  9. Bacardi1 says:

    Just a little trivia aside – I just discovered that Jared Harris (“Lane Pryce” on “Mad Men”) is the son of the late great actor Richard Harris. And of course now that I know that, I can see it in his face.

    Was surprised to also fortuitously see him in an old episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” yesterday as an extremely creepy serial killer.

    Hope he continues to pop up here & there. He’s a very good actor capable of doing different personas.

    I’m sort of sorry of his end on Mad Men – was in a way kind of hoping he might end up with Joan, even though he definitely wasn’t her type.

  10. adele says:

    Too many people leaving??? I can’t imagine the show without Peggy. You may be right about Megan — even if she and Don don’t immediately split up, she may end up in a traveling company of something.

    I’m sorry to see Jared Harris off the show as well — I knew he was Richard Harris’s son, but his step father was also a famous actor; I’m having a brain cramp and can’t remember who. I saw him on a talk show, and he looked way more like Richard than he did on Mad Men; I think he wasn’t wearing his glasses.

    I have a hard time getting John Slattery’s SATC character out of my mind as well. The cast of Mad Men was on Inside The Actors’ Studio, and Slattery said that that was a hard role to live down. But Roger Sterling is a great character, and Slattery plays the hell out of him.

  11. Bacardi1 says:

    Yes – the illustrious Rex Harrison was his stepfather.

    As far as John Slattery – aka “Roger Sterling” – I agree. The writing for him as well as his delivery of it is spot-on & so funny nine times out of ten.

    Although I must say that my favorite episode involving him, which was early on in the series, was when he made a pass at Betty while having dinner at the Draper home, & the next day Don took him to lunch, plied him with dozens of Martinis & platters of raw oysters, bribed the office-building elevator operator to claim the elevators were out of order, which then had the 2 of them climbing up dozens of flights of stairs. Roger walks into the office in front of new clients (the Richard Nixon election committee), & promptly pukes all over them. That was priceless!!

  12. catsworking says:

    OMG!! Jared Harris is Richard Harris’ SON? I never would have guessed (because I’m in a time warp and think any kid of Richard Harris would be in his 20s). I will miss him on MM.

    I’m something of a Rex Harrison scholar, and that would be right, too. Rex married Richard’s ex-wife Elizabeth and did the stepfather thing for a few years in the ’70s, but he wasn’t a fatherly kind of guy and it didn’t sit well with him so he moved on. I’ve got a picture of him somewhere sitting on the floor with Elizabeth and all her kids.

    Bacardi, that’s my favorite Roger Sterling episode as well.

    Adele, I felt like Don walking away in a black and white foreground from Megan in her Never-Neverland technicolor world on the set was the last glimpse we’d get of her — ever. If we want to get all literary here and evoke L. Frank Baum, it was like he chose to stay in Kansas (and reality) while she went off to see the wizard.

    Weird concidence. Just last week I removed a picture of Richard Harris from my hallway. He was King Arthur in Camelot (which I saw him do live TWICE, and he was lousy both times, singing off-key and walking through it). I replaced him with a painting I bought in the Bahamas. The frame was perfect.

  13. Zappa's Mom says:

    Karen,steal back the John Adams set and re-gift it! It is excellent.Paul Giammatti surprises me in every role I have watched him play.Meryl Streep’s daughter did an excellent turn as his daughter that developed cancer.
    As for as this season of MM,I hung in there,but what a snore. Lets see Pete Campbell’s suburban mistress get her electric shock therapy and the busty redhead slowly poison all the partners and take over the agency and re-hire Peggy who becomes a smoking,drinking,whoring female Don Draper;

  14. catsworking says:

    ZM, I may steal back John Adams for myself! I love Paul Giamatti, too, going back to Sideways.

    Yes, it looks like Pete’s back to square one with girlfriends after the shock therapy zapped him out of his mistress’s mind. That’s got to have him wondering about his prowess in bed.

    I’ve always thought Joan and Peggy would come out on top in the end, so your scenario of Joan taking over the firm and bringing Peggy back would work nicely for me.

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