Sex And Death

Recently on “The Real Housewives of New York City,” (please don’t run away -- this is just a hook to allow for a few belated “Mad Men” musings!) the “girls” were filmed on a “getaway” to London. This included the activity (not-at-all-contrived!) of  sitting around in their luxury hotel suite, tipsy from wine, answering personal questions about sex as part of a card game.

One such query was on the order of “If you could get any wish you wanted granted by sleeping with someone, would you?” Aside from the importance of major Botox usage, it was probably the only thing that the Housewives have ever all agreed on. “Yes!” they immediately responded. (Ten impeccably manicured thumbs up!) And it was probably one of the few things on the show that was real.

It made me think of Joan -- poor, now rich, Joan from “Mad Men,” and the shocking scene in this season’s Episode 511 when she dutifully agreed to service the head of the Jaguar dealerships in return for a full partnership at the agency and 5% of the profits. 

At the time, I found the deal both sickening and horrifying. I was screaming at the screen in frustration, mostly because of the heightened, operatic way the story was staged. Joan was like a lamb to slaughter as she delivered herself to the guy’s hotel room. He greets her in a blood-red robe. 

This scenario, based on Pete’s manipulation, brilliantly illuminated how a lie gets embedded in the fabric of a corporate body, and rises in the power structure.  The stain then never goes away; it becomes part of the organizational DNA.

But show creator Matthew Weiner really didn’t see what the big stink was about. “People tell me their stories, ever since the show went on the air,” he told the New York Times Arts Beat blog. “And the stories that I’ve heard of women doing this or some form of this were in the triple digits, seriously. Over 100 stories. They did it for a lot less, that’s the part that’s fictional.” (Actually, Joan probably would have done it for a lot less. But Lane pushed her to demand that deal out of his own self-interest.)

Weiner added, “I really do believe that if I had not used the word prostitution, I don’t know if it would have occurred to the audience that it was anything other than something really disgusting... And I think she’s a very powerful person for making that decision in the end.”

I don’t think that the decision came out of power.  Joan’s alcoholic mother, Gail, raised Joan (actually stunted her) to use her body to be “admired.” Gail acted metaphorically as her madam. Now installed in Joan’s apartment to take care of the baby, Gail deferentially ushered Don into the apartment and held his hat on the night he came to “save” Joan. The mom’s actions seemed to suggest that she wanted to bring him straight to Joan’s bedroom, too.

Joan was merely using the tools available to her, just as her mother did in getting the plumber to fix the busted refrigerator. Other than being financially provided for (we hope!), Joan seems to have learned nothing in the self-esteem area. She cries about Lane’s death and thinks aloud that she might have prevented it by giving in and servicing him, too. Now, with glasses hanging off the end of her nose, she feels she has to play Lane at partner meetings. Wonder what that augurs?

Otherwise, “she’s not a girl who misses much,” as the Beatles put it in “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” on the White Album.

Clearly, the use of music throughout the series is masterly, and I regret that I didn’t get to spend more time on it. Matthew Weiner made no secret of his Beatles’ obsession, and with good reason.  The Beatles exploded in the U.S. just after the Kennedy assassination.  The band’s constant, sped-up need for self-reinvention both mirrored and set the tone for the U.S.’ nonstop cultural tumult at the time.  And those perfectly observed cultural changes of the 1960s strengthen the show’s spine. 

The linkage between the Beatles and “Mad Men’ goes much further than Weiner’s celebrated shelling out of $250,000 for rights to “Tomorrow Never Knows” from the Revolver album, played at the end of episode 508. Megan tells Don to listen to it-- it’s the most innovative and revolutionary track on the album, or ever. Tellingly, Don turns it off halfway through and goes to sleep.

I also wanted to mention a fascinating meme floating around the Internet from Emily Viviani at Yi News that Weiner used the album Sgt. Pepper” -- structurally, lyrically and thematically – as a template for season five, with each track standing in for an episode.

The most persuasive lyric, of course, is “He blew his mind out in a car,” from “A Day in the Life,” which is what Lane hoped to do.(But he was thwarted even in attempting death in a non-starter of  a Jaguar.) Still, it doesn’t take any special sleuthing to see that all of the Beatles’ music informs “Mad Men,” especially all the songs on Revolver. There’s no better way to illustrate Lane’s pain than “The Tax Man,” which includes the line “Now my advice for those who die, declare the pennies on your eyes.”  (Lane’s gray, bloated death mask of a head is an image I can’t get rid of .) And  of course, “I know what it’s like to be dead,” from “She said, She Said” also hits it on the head.

And I guess it’s a remarkable testament to the “Mad Men” crew that while the Lane storyline somehow seemed super-poignant and personal,  that, too, was based on an actual event.  “There was a story about someone in an ad agency who had hung themselves in their office and they couldn’t get the door open. From the beginning, I was like, we’re probably going to end up using that,”  an unsentimental Weiner told the Times

Actually, the recent celebrations of folk singer Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday put me in mind of Don’s hellish farm boy background. Guthrie was born in 1912 -- so he was about 14 years older than Dick Whitman. But as with Dick’s, Guthrie’s life as a kid was unrelentingly grim. Before Guthrie turned 15, his family lost its money, his sister died in a fire, and his mother was committed to an Oklahoma insane asylum with a mysterious disease that turned out to be Huntington’s. And though he was a genius musician and brilliant celebrator of the common man, accounts show that Guthrie, who had several families, was a difficult husband and neglectful father.

Unlike Woody Guthrie, Don bought into the dream of materialism.   “I was raised in the ‘30s – I didn’t follow my dream. My dream was indoor plumbing,” Don says at one point.

The series ends with a fadeout, and Nancy Sinatra singing “You Only Live Twice.” Lane got to live only once. Let’s see what Don does in the second part of his second life.

There are perhaps lots of bad bargains ahead. Ask the Housewives -- they know all about it.

Tags: mad men
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5 comments about "Sex And Death".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , July 18, 2012 at 12:02 p.m.
    As always, you are so excellent.
  2. Dean Fox from ScreenAngels Networks LLC , July 18, 2012 at 8:04 p.m.
    Barbara, your thoughtful comments and references are a pleasure to reflect on, but seriously, as brilliant a storyteller as Mr. Weiner may be, MadMen ain't Shakespeare, Twain, Steinbeck, Faulkner, etc., etc. I found this season less coherent and the plots less imaginatively interwoven. The depth of the characters and the actors portraying them are amazing, but something just didn't sit well for me. So while I want to respect the obsessive analyses from you and others for their thoughtfulness, I remain deeply dissatisfied with the majority of Season 5.
  3. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , July 18, 2012 at 9:48 p.m.
    Dean-- I agree with you that the season was much more disappointing than previous ones. It got messy, repetitive and too obvious at times. But some stuff has stayed with me, and I find that I lose some of my dissatisfaction as time passes. For example, the whole thing with Rory Gilmore and Pete seemed stilted and ridiculous to me. But on reflection, I think she was an interesting character-- and people were going in for shock treatments then. I feel like we got Megan forced on us, but the whole modern apartment as a basis for new life was pretty exciting. Increasingly, however, Don's love life is bound to get more desperate, and I doubt that will be fun!
  4. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , July 19, 2012 at 5:56 p.m.
    Everyone's least favorite season garners more Emmys than ever!!! See below: Mad Men, which reigns as the only television series in cable history to win the Emmy® for Outstanding Drama Series four years in row (2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011), continues to be the most Emmy® nominated drama series on television. This year the series garnered 17 nominations, including Outstanding Lead Actor for Jon Hamm, Outstanding Actress for Elisabeth Moss, Outstanding Supporting Actor for Jared Harris, Outstanding Supporting Actress for Christina Hendricks, Outstanding Directing for Phil Abraham and three Outstanding Writing noms, making it the most nominated basic cable drama series ever.
  5. Vanessa Coates from Engelbrecht Advertising , July 19, 2012 at 7:19 p.m.
    Barbara-yet another very insightful column. I wish Mad Men were on all year just so I could read what you thought afterwards. I just noticed your Emmy post and I was delighted to see that Elizabeth, Jared, and Christina all received nods. I knew Jon would get one so that was no shock.