I’ll miss the way you smile as though it’s just for me

I love Mad Men. And I love companies that use blogging as a tool to promote their content, interact with their fans and get good SEO cred. (Why? Because I work in marketing) But AMCTV’s Mad Men blog pitched me a wingding this week:

Can’t get Peggy’s rendition of “Bye Bye Birdie” out of your head? Why should you? But while you’re humming that tune, check out the following online extras:

Those of you who saw “Love Among the Ruins” in Season 3, Episode 2 should already have your jaws on the desk. If not, I may have to spoil a bit.

Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss) is the only female copywriter in the 1960s Madison Avenue advertising firm Sterling Cooper. In this episode, she’s assigned to draft a commercial for Pepsi’s new diet drink, Patio, inspired by Ann-Margret singing the title of “Bye, Bye Birdie”:

In the brainstorm Peggy argues that, while Ann-Margret’s veiled sensuality certainly appeals to the males in the audience (and let’s be frank, there is something kind of sexy about the open pleading, the bit lips, the shaken head, etc, I don’t need to spell it out further, do I?), Patio is targeted at women. Women don’t need to be seduced by Ann-Margret. The other men in the room dismiss her criticism and her boss, Don Draper, shuts her down with restrained impatience.

Rebuffed, Peggy wonders if she’s missing out on something. Peggy’s character arc through the first two seasons veers between Career Professional and Sexual Creature, two identities she can’t wear simultaneously in the 1960s. So, in “Love Among the Ruins,” Peggy reconsiders her path for a moment. Is that really all men want, she wonders? Not someone intelligent with whom to share a life, but someone kittenish and accessible?

And there’s a heartbreaking scene, halfway through the episode, where Peggy stands in front of her bedroom mirror in her nightgown and does her best Ann-Margret impression. And it’s just not good.


It’s an example of how great Mad Men is at capturing vulnerability: the unguarded moments when our professional mask slips. It’s raw and poignant and embarrassing and rewarding.

Can’t get Peggy’s rendition of “Bye Bye Birdie” out of your head? Why should you?

Can’t get Mr. Blonde’s rendition of “Stuck In the Middle with You” out of your head? Can’t get Buffalo Bill’s rendition of “Goodbye Horses” out of your head? Can’t get the Radiator Lady from Eraserhead‘s rendition of “In Heaven” out of your head? Why should you? They’re only meant to haunt you about the civilized veneers we plaster over our primal insecurities. Snap your fingers, tap your toes.

(N.B. Things don’t end bad for Peggy. She gets dolled up, goes to a bar, picks up a college student, goes back to his place for a one-night stand, then sneaks out at about five in the morning. Critical reaction to this was mixed, but I saw it as a tremendous step forward for Peggy. She tried her hand at the Don Draper seduce-and-destroy lifestyle, enjoyed it, decided it didn’t work for her, and went back to work none the worse for wear. She didn’t get a hysterical pregnancy or sit weeping on the floor of her shower. Sex is great; glad I had some; la dee da)

Anyhow, moral of the story: make sure the intern writing your blog has actually seen the episodes they blog about.


shut the door; have a seat

Monster post on Overthinking It today, overthinking Mad Men Season 3, which just wrapped this past Sunday. Preview:

Mad Men is a story about men and women searching for meaning. Mad Men can tell this story because it’s set in an ad agency. Consumer capitalism, which really came into its own following World War II, sells products that add meaning to people’s lives. If Americans don’t believe that their choice of cigarette will make them happy, or that a slide projector can restore the innocence of youth, then Don Draper and his crew are out of a job.

The language of advertising transforms products from the utilitarian to the spiritual. You don’t stay in a Hilton Hotel because of price or convenience. You stay in a Hilton Hotel because it brings the comforts of home to a foreign setting. Pepsi can reinvigorate our tired routine; AquaNet can capture the man who’ll provide for us; London Fog can take us on stimulating romantic adventures.

Most of the characters in Mad Men started 1963 with a brand in lieu of a soul. Roger Sterling was the silver fox with a trophy wife; Hilton was the golden treasure that every ad agency sought to claim; Don Draper, the genius with his finger on the pulse of culture. But we discovered that the brand and the product behind it don’t always relate. Roger is more of a lost boy than a dignified man; consider his Kentucky Derby party, or his growing feuds with his new wife. Conrad Hilton turns out to be a cranky, implacable eccentric. And Don? Behind the mask, what is Don Draper?

Share and enjoy.

it is not dying; it is not dying

I Still Like Him Better Than Steinbrenner
For my Don Draper costume, I had to shave my sideburns off for the first time in at least six years. This took considerable effort, as attacking six years’ growth with a disposable razor will, and left the skin underneath a little raw. But it looks fine now. Shaving since then has been disconcerting, however, since I typically start at my ear line by muscle memory alone and have now had to start cutting even higher.

I put little effort into the costume itself (nicest suit I had, dress shirt, conservative tie); the accessories made it work. I showed up at the office Halloween party with a highball glass full of “scotch” (ginger ale) and a cigarette dangling between my fingers (unlit; borrowed). Most people identified me on their first or second try.

Full Dance Card
Counting work, I hit up five Halloween parties this weekend, including:

  • 90s Night at Common Ground, which gave away $100 for the best 90s costume. Logistics proved an issue, as management couldn’t convince Allston’s drunkest hipsters to circulate before the judge’s table, parading their wares. A horde of kids surged at the DJ booth, waving their hands and squealing like teenage zombies. I thought the kids in the Nickelodeon GUTS outfits had it locked, but Carmen Sandiego stole it.

  • Joanna and Brian’s Halloween party. I knew which subway station they lived nearest, but didn’t know if it was on the Cambridge or Somerville side of the border. I guessed Cambridge at first. My GPS promptly led me to a Jewish dorm outside Harvard.

  • Katie and Sylvia’s Halloween party. I wore a different suit for the Don Draper costume – double-breasted, even less period than the first. But people still got it, especially after I borrowed another cigarette. Half the party circulated in the kitchen, eating delicious sweets; the other half planted in the living room, watching The Craft. Remember those quaint days when Wiccans and goths were exotic?

  • The Gorefest cast party. I congratulated the players on another successful and blood-drenched show. Our host baked a plate of monkey bread – essentially, a massive pile of butter, cinnamon, sugar and dough. We picked at it like savages until Paul challenged everyone at the table to eat one last piece and then stop. An hour later, three people were sitting on the floor with chunks of butter-soaked dough clenched in their front teeth (but not swallowed) and there was a pot of sixty dollars. Let no one say improv people don’t know how to party


The Patriot Marked for Death is Hard to Kill Under Siege
After a brief hiatus, I returned to the Overthinking It podcast last night. We planned to talk about Halloween costumes, haunted houses and the cultural rituals surrounding scaring each other. Then someone brought up Steven Seagal. Guess what we spent most of our time discussing.

you told me again you preferred handsome men

And Who Are You Supposed To Be?
How good was this past Sunday’s episode of Mad Men (“The Hobo and the Gypsy”)? So good that I don’t know if I want to go as Don Draper for Halloween anymore. That’s how good it was.

I probably will, anyway, as I’ve reached that point in my life where I pick Halloween costumes by cheapness and the breathability of the fabric. I already own an appropriate suit: I just need to shave my sideburns, slick my hair into the part I wore for the first quarter century of my life, get a pocket square and walk around with half a glass of scotch. And I already do half of that the other three-hundred and sixty-four days of the year. You know I’m all about the pocket squares.

“The Gypsy and The Hobo” put me in such a mood that I not only questioned whether I want to adopt this fictional protagonist as a costume, but what I’m doing with my life. But that’s what happens whenever I watch a good TV show, or a well-framed movie or a really moving song. Good art has the power to throw me in profound and unexpected moods. I’m a blank slate on which media gets to draw.

Which is ironic, because not only is that what Don Draper’s about (advertising and shaping the popular consciousness), but that’s what “what Don Draper’s about” is about. Jon Hamm’s character is popular because he looks like an alpha male who gets to drink all the time, screw around, dismiss his underlings with casual contempt, and luck his way into the halls of power. Every guy wants to be That Guy. Don Draper is selling an image. Matthew Weiner, producer of Mad Men, is selling Don Draper. So I applaud this fictional character’s ability to sell because I myself have been so thoroughly sold.

All that aside, dressing as a tormented ad executive for the company Halloween party would be too meta to pass up.


I’m Not Here to Tell You About Jesus
I got my opportunity to play Don Draper at an on-site meeting for TVClient in New York yesterday. Our travel arrangements required that I be up by 5:00 to catch the Acela Express from South Station by 6:00. I’ve taken Amtrak several times in the last few years, but never the Acela Express, with its unfolding business class tables and spacious cafe car. The four of us did some rehearsing for the work presentation, then shared war stories for the rest of the ride.

My role doesn’t put me in regular contact with the clients; I’m more akin to Ken or Peggy than Don. But I still speak in meetings, and yesterday I spoke to a conference room full of website developers on how we could work better with them. I fielded some technical questions, improvised my way through some new slides, and avoided stammering. Things to work on: eye contact, not clearing my throat.

Our cabbie from TVClient to Penn Station murmured something under his breath the entire time he drove us. Every ten seconds, he would click a handheld counter that he cupped in his palm. Prayers? Pedestrians he refrained from killing? We’ll never know.

The Acela Express seats aren’t quite tall enough to support my head and don’t recline far enough to let me slump. I slept with a stiff neck on the train ride back. When I got back to Davis, the sky was as dark as when I’d left.

when your broken heart has learned its lesson

Mad Men: I’m one of the few people I know who defends Betty Draper.

(NO SPOILERS, though I may reference events in the episode “Wee Small Hours” in an oblique way)

Not to suggest she’s not a terrible mother. She lets television do her parenting for her, is completely oblivious to her children’s needs – especially her daughter – and throws tantrums when she doesn’t get what she wants. She’s not la mere terrible that we’d recognize from horror movies or Gothic romances, beating her weeping child for using wire hangers. But in some ways, this makes her more terrible. The audience recognizes her neglect as more plausible; that’s what makes it hit home.

So, she’s a bad mother. But am I the only Mad Men fan who views her through any lens other than that?

“I can’t believe someone could act so childishly,” my dad said of Betty at the end of Season 2. “Really?”, I replied. “You mean, ‘as childishly as Don’?”

Betty is a child, emotionally. She lives a child’s life: she plays house every day, pretending at raising a family while Carla does all the work (and in the most recent episode, “Wee Small Hours,” Carla’s silent looks say volumes). She even gets to play dress-up once in a while, hosting parties for other grown ups. But when she doesn’t get what she wants – the governor’s office sends a lacquered old maid to address her fundraiser – she pouts. Note how she introduces the governor’s aid: stomping across the living room with her arms straight at her sides, the way Sally might march off to bed if scolded.

But Betty is a child because she’s never had to be an adult. We’ve never had the X-ray look into her childhood that we’ve had of Don’s, but we get the idea that she was emotionally repressed. Emphasis on the proper time and place to show emotions built her into the perfect model and housewife. But, as her therapy sessions in S1 indicated, there’s more to her life than that. Or at least she thinks there is. “What do you want?”, someone asks Betty, point-blank, in “Wee Small Hours.” When’s the last time someone asked her that?

Betty catches the eye of an older man with power and class. What does she do? She starts writing letters to him. She craves, more than anything, not a sexual outlet or a source of male attention but someone with whom to share her uncertainty. The letters don’t have much substance to them, but in them she speaks more honestly than she has in years. Sadly, the correspondence doesn’t seem to last very long.

Betty Draper’s not a great parent, and probably not even a very whole human being. But she’s a tragic figure, not a villainous one.

And of course, there’s plenty more to say about “Wee Small Hours.” The civil rights movement makes its presence felt in upstate New York, albeit only through the radio. Even the most liberal characters on the show treat equality before the law as a gift to be handed to children when they’re mature enough to accept it. And for every public battle for rights, there are several quiet battles whose casualties we never count (“…you people”). It’s a beautiful weaving of historical events into narrative parallels, the kind of thing Mad Men excels at.

Mad Men remains my favorite show on television today. For aspiring writers or actors interested in well-delivered melodrama, it’s a feast.

that’s why I say hey man, nice shot

A drive-by media blow at high speeds:

The Confusion: I liked this more than Quicksilver, its predecessor. Perhaps because it dealt in greater depth with two subjects that fascinate me: the growth of credit markets and pirate swordfights. It introduced the same baffling array of characters as the first novel did, but gives us more convenient hooks on which to hang our memory: El Desamparado, Bonaventure Rossignol, Jean Bart, Lothar von Hackhleber, Edouard de Gex. Stephenson also proved himself a sport in tidying up several loose ends I thought he’d wait until the third novel to resolve: Eliza’s vengeance upon the men who enslaved her, for one. I enjoyed it tremendously, and hope The System of the World continues in the same vein.

Invader Zim: A delightfully subversive cartoon. Masquerading as a 12-minute zany about an alien invader who disguises himself as a 10-year-old boy in order to conquer Earth, Invader Zim has more depth than its sponsors – Nickelodeon, and thus Viacom – could have expected. It’s really about the secret fear of any adolescent: that the private fears and ambitions he nurtures make him an alien. Zim speculates constantly about what the “Earth filthies” might think of him, even as he plots to subjugate them. Consider particularly Zim’s fears in “Bestest Friend” or “Parent Teacher Night.” But beyond adolescence, Invader Zim also comments on the suburban willingness to conform, ignore the unusual and buy the oddest things.

Plus there’s GIR.

Mad Men: “He’ll never golf again.”

I won’t say anymore (though feel free to bandy about spoilers in the comments), except that Season 3 has been my favorite season so far. This holds true for so many of my favorite shows: The Simpsons, The X-Files, 24, The Wire, etc. A good show needs two seasons to build its characters up and place every piece on the board. Then, in Season 3, it gets to change all the rules.

he’s in the place, but I get no joy

Mad Men S3 Premiere (SPOILER-FREE): A gentle easing back in to America’s favorite ad agency. Aside from certain exciting developments in the lives of Messrs. Cosgrove and Campbell, no real plot developments here. But I’m okay with that (which is perhaps an inconvenient bit of hypocrisy, considering how much distaste I directed at stories that favor talking over doing, but if inconvenient hypocrisy turns you off, then sister, you’re at the wrong store already). Mad Men has such a superlative cast and visual feel that a glance, a pause or a well-timed exit can advance a relationship by volumes. Consider Don’s glance at Sal during the London Fog onsite, or Cosgrove’s exit from his last conversation with Campbell. Pristine, artistic television; I will never tire of unpacking it.

My one regret: the cast has grown so large and deep that we didn’t get to spend too much time with any of our other favorite characters. Peggy was on screen perhaps twice; likewise Betty, likewise Roger Sterling. But we saw substantially more of Salvatore than we normally get to, and we got introduced to some of the new British overlords. I question their increasing presence on the show, though. Every major plot change in Mad Men seems to stand for some broader social trend: Peggy getting her own office, the two “hep” young guys brought on in S2 to market to the youth. Is the presence of the English guys a clumsy stand-in for the “British invasion”? Because the Beatles and the Kinks had a loosening, youthening effect on America, and Hooker and Price seem to tighten everyone up. Nobody’s comfortable around them.

I watched this at a Mad Men premiere party at Noir in Harvard Square, with Marie C. and Jarret I. Roughly 90% of the men and 100% of the women dressed in their approximation of period garb: dark suits with vests, swooping dresses with crinoline. I showed up in T-shirt and jeans (fcuk fashion; it was hot out). I leaned against a wall and watched the show for the first time with a crowd. It was enlightening: I laughed at things I wouldn’t normally laugh at, because of the audience, and cheered more openly at things I would otherwise nod at without a word. Don’t know that I’d do it every week, but I had a good time. I’ll get there earlier next time, though.

Burn Notice S3 Mid-Season Finale (SPOILER-FREE): Dark and intense, certainly, but not quite as dark or intense as the episode prior (which took a gut-wrenching turn when Michael had to slap Fiona). And I’d worry a little about the two-steps-forward, one-step-back resolution of the overarching metaplot – Michael’s continuing quest to resolve his agency status – were the show not so fun. But it’s still fun. The plot in this episode surprised me with plenty of twists. Things got heavy (as they always do when Michael has to put a bullet in someone). And we got some backstory on Fiona, which I never noticed how much we missed until today. But she has a history! And family! Who knew?

The Hurt Locker (SPOILER-FREE): One of those amazing, fraught little movies that I don’t feel the need to ever see again. Well cast, well acted, well shot – excellent in every aspect of the film language. Even the few moments that I anticipated well in advance (“that guy’s going to die, isn’t he?”) were carried with such aplomb that I didn’t mind. And the no-name cast, augmented by the occasional big star cameo, never let me down. That being said, I nixed my plans to see District 9 the same afternoon as this movie, as I stumbled out of the theater with a knot in my stomach. At first I feared food poisoning from the burrito I’d had for lunch, but it was a caesar salad burrito. Perhaps the dressing?, and then I stepped into the 88 degree sunshine and still felt cold. Ah, I diagnosed, adrenaline shakes.