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October 6, 2016

Mad Men: Season Five

madmen

We’re still rewatching Mad Men, now midway through Season 5. From here on in, I’ve only seen these episodes once before, never feeling as compelled to see them again as I did with Seasons 1-3 which, it was true, were working on a very different level. I’ve even stopped taking copious notes as I watch because a) why was I taking notes in the first place b) I’ve started winter knitting projects, and I’ve not yet found way to knit and take notes (although I’m working on it) and c) I’m finding these later seasons don’t require the same puzzling-out that the earlier ones did. Characters’ motivations are clearer, the whole sense of the show is more familiar, and perhaps it’s less textured. These later seasons don’t have the same sense of grand wholeness as the others, as though these pieces are all part of a larger, and deeply intricate project. These later seasons get a bad rap too, the general sense being that things went downhill after Season 3. In a way it’s true, yet the show is still fascinating, and even more importantly (and what we were not anticipating): whenever we finish an episode we find ourselves saying, “Oh, that was was so good.”

It’s true that I was always most invested in Don and Betty as a unit, and remained as such for the rest of the series, and even though they’re both so terrible (for themselves and each other) I cherish their moments of connection after their divorce. How Betty calls Don when she learns she has a lump on her thyroid (although I notice this time that she comes home from the doctor calling for Henry, and it’s only when she can’t find him that she calls Don; she’s actually just looking for somebody to cling to, it’s not personal): “Say what you always say,” she tells him, commanding him to promise her that everything is going to be okay.

Megan Draper never really looked for me, not an actual character as much as a cipher, although this time I’m working with that and thinking that this is part of the point of her. I was always bothered by the way she seemed to be a (poorly-written) character whose personality forms as the show goes on, rather than seeming like a human being with a life behind her. But regarding this less as a problem and more of the general scheme of things has been interesting—this might be the one thing she has in common with her husband, actually, and what about her appeals to him. “Maybe I’ll be a copywriter? Maybe I’ll be an actress?” It’s kind of annoying, but I wonder if Don admires that openness, all her possibility. That they are both inventing themselves as they go—but her with such an open heart, the kind of generosity (to herself and the world) that he’ll never be able to conjure.

Ken Cosgrove has become an excellent man, just the way I remember him. The only decent guy of the lot. Shocking to rewatch Season 1 earlier this year and realize that he was thoroughly terrible. But he evolves, as Harry Crane devolves. Seeing Peggy and Stan together is really wonderful—it’s all inevitable. And I admire her character so much, and Joan too. That they aren’t binary characters—the show is so much more complicated than that. And poor Lane Pryce. There really isn’t more on that I need to say.

Season 5 is interesting, but just a little bit boring as Don struggles to behave, the tension there palpable. It’s weird though, his insistence on making this marriage work, because he doesn’t seem all that happy in it. Megan makes him seem old. Next season, it all goes wrong again, and he starts bonking his neighbour, and I might have to start taking notes again, trying to answer what has always been the question: “What IS Don Draper thinking?”

For now, whatever he’s thinking, I’m pretty sure it’s something grim.

May 8, 2014

Unexpected Mad Men read: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing

Don and Bobby DraperI wasn’t expecting a Mad Men read when we started Tales of Fourth Grade Nothing a couple of weeks ago (which is significant for being Harriet’s first Judy Blume). I remembered the stories in the book so well, but I’d forgotten the details, or maybe I just hadn’t noticed at the time. Like how its backdrop was 1970s’ New York City, and how Peter is allowed to walk to Central Park alone to play with his friends when the weather is good, but he’s wary of muggers. “I’ve never been mugged. But sooner or later, I probably will be. My father’s told me what to do. Give the muggers what they want and try not to get hit on the head.” His parents are concerned about dope-smokers who hang out in the park. “But taking dope is even dumber than smoking, so nobody’s going to hook me!”

Tales-of-a-Fourth-Grade-Nothing1Warren Hatcher is totally Don Draper, though I suspect not as dashing and probably not so lucky with the ladies. He works for an advertising agency and, like Don in his more domestic days, is expected to use his status as family man to further himself professionally and win accounts. Because of the antics of his youngest son, he ends up losing the Juicy-O account. When his wife goes out of town for a few days, he brings the kids to the office and leaves them in the care of his secretary, Janet, who seems fine with the amusement of small children being part of her job description. While at the office, Peter and Fudge stumble onto auditions for the Toddle Bike commercial, and Fudge captures the heart of the company’s president. As ever, disaster ensues, but Fudge gets to be on TV. The next day, Warren/Don takes the kids to the movies, even though Fudge is only just three, and he sits Fudge on the end of the row. Unsurprisingly, he goes missing. And even without the disaster, it would have been a very Don Draper parenting move.

He even makes omelettes, which I remember as a Don Draper speciality! His children can’t believe he knows how to cook at all, and he actually doesn’t, because the omelettes are inedible. We finished the book amused by the Don Draper-ness, but a bit disappointed in the gender roles reinforced in the book. But then it was first published in 1972, so what do you expect?

Except that we started reading Superfudge, and it seems that Don Draper is evolving. He’s taking a year’s leave from the agency to try writing a book about the history of advertising and its effect on the American people. The idea is especially appealing to him because he’s looking forward to staying home with his family, to experiencing his daughter’s babyhood when he’d been absent for the other two. He’s even started changing diapers!  No word if he’s cut down on the smoking or the drinking though, or of what Roger Sterling thinks of the sea change.

April 9, 2014

The Canadian Mad Men Reading List

Don-Inferno

Mad Men starts on Sunday! I hope you’re reading up.

March 8, 2012

What loving Mad Men has taught me about loving books and reading

We started watching Downton Abbey last week, and I love it, but we’re only watching it because there is not enough Mad Men in the world (and heaven knows, I’ve tried to make it go further. I’ve watched Seasons 1-3 twice, and saved season 4 for well over a year before finally watching it [and was the wait ever worth it. Season 4 was better than all the others put together]). And I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship to Mad Men lately, about how I love this show and its characters like I haven’t loved another show and its characters since Beverly Hill 90210 and Dylan McKay. By which I mean that I haven’t loved anything like this since I was 14, that age of absolute longing for life and for the world, and I feel  something similar for Mad Men, perhaps because of the nostalgia implicit.

But the show absolutely occupies me too– I finish an episode, and I’m thinking about it for days. We’ve measured them out so slowly too that I have much time for reflection in between. I go looking for extracurricular Mad Men too with my Mad Men reading, and random Jon Hamm google searches. (Look! Books that Made a Difference to Jon Hamm! And also Nyla Matuk has written a poem called “Don Draper”.) I could talk about these characters and their motivations forever, and their dynamics, and I do, because people like to talk about Mad Men, and when I do, conversations often reveal new levels of depth to the stories that I never even considered.

My relationship to Mad Men is so different from my relationship to any single book. See, I love books and reading with an all-consuming passion, but I don’t love television. There is only Mad Men. So that I have more than 70 books on my to-be-read stack (which is actually a shelf. Such a stack would defy physics, I think), but I’ll continue to watch Mad Men over and over again. I watch an episode of Mad Men, and wait a week for another, but with a book, I’m starting a new one before the other is even finished. I speed through my books. I relish it every time I crack open a new one. Mad Men I savour, because there is only so much Mad Men in the world, but my supply of books will never be exhausted. Which is sometimes exhausting.

And it’s something to think about. What if instead of loving books and reading, I just loved one book, and read it over and over, and got so deep inside it? Or one author? To become an expert instead of a generalist? Which is unrealistic of course, and I don’t even want to break my speedy reading habit, but it really is rare that I connect with a book as deeply as circumstances permit me to connect with this television show. (It’s also easier to connect with a television show, which comes spoon-fed and all I have to do is lie on the couch and knit). But it occurs to me that there are ways in which the joy of my book fetishising obsession and love of reading in general come at the expense of how I relate books in their specificity. And that learning from my television habits might make me a better reader.

February 9, 2012

Of Myths and Mad Men: Rereading Joan Bodger's The Crack in the Teacup

It was only two years ago that I first read Joan Bodger’s The Crack in the Teacup, but revisiting it was an experience that was altogether new. First, because my interest in children’s literature has become so much deeper since then (mostly due to what I learned from reading this book the first time, and from Bodger’s other book How the Heather Looks) and also because of Mad Men. But we’ll get to that.

I do think that A Crack in the Teacup might be one of my favourite books ever. I read it over five days last week, and absolutely would not shut up about it. You will see. The beginning is a little slow, if only because Bodger’s childhood is spent at a remove from the rest of the world. Which is what makes it interesting of course, but she examines it in such minute detail, perhaps because these details of a happy time are so much more pleasant to examine than what comes later.

I think it is inevitable that one becomes a storyteller when one can write about her grandfather’s first wife who was killed in a shipwreck in 1877. Really, all the ingredients here are the stuff of storybooks: her mother is English, the daughter of a sailor whose third wife is a quarter Chinese, who grows up in a stately home surrounded by books but no schooling, spends her teenage years crippled after being flung from a horse, and then recovers enough to drive an ambulance during WW1 (without a license). She marries an American at the end of the War, moves across the sea, and has three daughters (with Bodger in the middle). Her husband joins the US coast guard chasing rum runners and leading ships out of Arctic ice after failed polar expeditions, and they spend the ’20s and ’30s moving up and down east and west coasts.

It was a happy enough childhood, rich with stories and lore, but also an isolated one. Bodger’s immigrant mother held herself apart from American society, and that the family moved around so much didn’t help matters. From early on, Bodger had a hard time fitting in, accepting authority, understanding how the world worked outside the Higbee family. There was also so much that was never talked about– her mother’s health problems, father’s infidelities, her own burgeoning sexuality, her yearning for the education her father didn’t feel was necessary for a daughter to have. Bodger and her sisters were being groomed to be ladies, roles none of them would easily fulfil.

Bodger’s college plans are diverted by WW2, she joins the army, and becomes a bumbling decoder (“I put my hand in the grab bag and pulled out a message about a place spelled Yalta. Obviously a mistake! I changed the Y to M.”) She goes back to school once the war is finished, and meets John Bodger, a graduate student and fellow veteran. She’s head over heels, and without a doubt that their life together will be a happy one as he completes his PhD (with her love and support, of course), and becomes internationally recognized as the brilliant mind he obviously is.

Which is where Mad Men comes into play. Apart from a few years in California, the Bodgers spend the ’50s and early ’60s living in and around Westchester County NY, which is Cheever-country, the world of Mad Men. And though the Bodgers could not pretend to be the cookie cutter figures their suburban surroundings suggested, it”s the same backdrop, healthy kids and big green lawns, the war in the past now, educated mothers idle in the afternoons, philandering husbands, cracks becoming apparent in all kinds of veneers. It soon becomes apparent that not all is right with John Bodger: he struggles to hold down a job at all, has to give up his academic aspirations, begins to display signs of paranoia. Joan Bodger makes life-long connections with the women in her neighbourhood, many of whom have similary troubled marriages and dissatisfaction with their lives. But she doesn’t connect with all her neighbours:

“Bette told me that another woman in the neighbourhood was writing a book– a sort of update to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Her name was Betty Friedan. She lived just down the street from us; her little girl was in Lucy’s class. I telephoned her. I felt silly doing it, yet I longed to talk shop with someone. How do you manage to write with kids around? Betty Friedan said she was too busy to talk to every suburban housewife who called her.”

The book Bodger was writing, of course, was How the Heather Looks, the story of a trip her family takes to England in 1958 to rediscover worlds they only knew from storybooks, to make end paper maps come alive. A book whose portrayal of ideal family life belies the real story of her family– John Bodger would be diagnosed with schizophrenia, he and Joan would eventually divorce. Before their divorce, their daughter Lucy would die of a brain tumour, and their son Ian would battle his own demons, with mental illness and drug addiction. And throughout these tragedies, it is Bodger’s faith in story that enables her to survive. And not neat stories either, with beginnings, middle and ends, but rather the dark archetypal stories with no end that occur over and over in cultures all around the world, and which give our own experiences depth and meaning, that help us to understand the things that happen to us in our lives.

But story, of course,  is useful in a more practical sense as well. Eager for diversions after Lucy’s death, Bodger becomes involved in an education program to promote graduation rates for black students in her town of Nyack NY. She realizes that although she lives in the very same town, she knows nothing about the lives of the black people around her. She starts sitting on the steps of a church in the black neighbourhood, armed with candy and picture books to give away (because by this time, she’s become a children’s book reviewer, and has plenty of review copies to spare), ready to make some connections. She quickly discerns that the picture books she’s brought are useless– they reflect nothing of the lives of the children she’s trying to reach, and many of the children don’t know how to relate to or connect with a book anyway. So she starts telling stories instead, and she’s good at it. Eventually a police man contacts her and says he’s concerned she’s going to stop telling stories when the weather gets cold. He’s with the NAACP and they want to help her out– could they get her an indoor place where the children can go to hear her?

Bodger uses what she learns from this experience to set up a free nursery school in the neighbourhood, and continues to learn about what children’s literature can do. She writes about the impact of black children seeing somebody like themselves in storybooks for the first time in Ezra Jack Keats’ A Snowy Day, and about her own conversations with Keats about resisting their liberal impulses and acknowledging the childrens’ race. (“Not until we gave ourselves permission to see their blackness could these children give themselves permission to see themselves.”) Similarly about the powers of books like Where the Wild Things Are and A Apple Pie to encourage children to express their own feelings of rage, anger and aggression. To begin to tell stories themselves, to make the stories their own.

Her husband and son drift far away from her as she becomes more involved in early literacy and storytelling. Eventually Bodger leaves New York and for short time works for the library association of Missouri (where her ability to make waves is less accepted than it had been in New York, and she is eventually dismissed from her job, somewhat farfetchedly, for being “a communist pornographer” [and her second husband would jokingly complain of the false advertising of that title]). She head back east and works in editing and consulting for Random House, though still shell-shocked and heartbroken by the tragedy she’d had to weather: “Just a few years before, I had had a husband, two children, a house on the Hudson River. Wave a magic wand and I’m spending half my life in a one-room apartment in Greenwich Village, complete with cockroaches in the fridge and drug addicts on the stairs.”

On a business trip to Detroit, she sidelines to Toronto to visit the famous Osborne Collection of Children’s Literature. On June 18, 1970 (which was, I should note, thirty-five years to the day before I got married), she was standing under an awning waiting out a sun-shower when a man came up behind her and commented on her reading, which was Stuart Little. He wondered why she was marking up the pages with proofreaders marks, which he recognized because he worked in publishing too. “‘Anyone who would change one jot or title of EB White’s prose, I could have nothing to do with,’ he said.” The man was Alan Mercer, a writer and photographer, and the love of Bodger’s life. Within two weeks, they knew they would be getting married, Bodger resettling to Toronto and the two of them establishing a marriage of much support and love, but also independence. Mercer died in 1985 of cancer, and though the loss would ever be a scar she bore, she would never be as broken as she’d been before she found him. She tells him, “When I met you, I felt as though I were walking around with a gaping wound. You healed me.”

The rest of the book narrates Bodger’s involvement with establishing the Storytellers School of Toronto, and also some of her travels. I found the end of the book less compelling than the middle, though I’m not sure it could have been any other way. And it’s fitting really– Rick Salutin is wrong and so is Diane Sawyer. Stories aren’t about endings at all, but about how they weave our experiences into the tapestry of human existence, and the strands twist and turn in incredible ways, and no connection is without meaning– so that it is significant that Bodger meets her husband on my wedding anniversary, how she connects the narrative of her own life to folk tales, about how her experiences are microcosmic of the mid-20th century with civil rights and the women’s movement. (I suppose it’s also significant that Ian Bodger was convicted of blowing up a police car last month to protest state healthcare cuts. There are no happy endings indeed.)

Another thing that has changed in my life since I read this book in April 2010 is that at least once a week I visit the Lillian H. Smith Library now, where the Osborne Collection is now located and where Bodger scattered her husband’s ashes after his death. (He’d wanted them scattered in the foundation for the opera house at Bay and Wellesley, which they’d be able to see from their apartment balcony on Church Street, but the opera house was never built. When the Lillian H. Smith Library was under construction, Bodger deemed the site a bit too far west, but otherwise perfect.) I finished reading The Crack in the Teacup last Sunday evening, and was under a Bodger-spell when we went to the library the following morning. We got there a few minutes early and went upstairs to the Obsborne Centre before the toddler program started. I wanted to see the lectern where the guestbook is kept, a guestbook I’ve even signed and seen so many times, but whose significance I’d never noted until I read this book again. Inscribed on a plaque upon it: “Alan Nelson Mercer, 1920-1985. He loved a good sentence.”

As Bodger writes of this library that is such an important part of my family life, investing this place with infinite meaning (and this is the stuff of story, don’t you think?):

“…I was finally allowed, after months of committee meetings, to present a Hepplewhite-style lectern where the guestbook would repose. The committee, of course, was kept ignorant of my grander plan: to make the airy, playful, much-used library building into a fitting mausoleum for a man who loved cities, loved book, and words, loved me.”

October 10, 2011

What Sally Draper must have been reading: Virginia Lee Burton and Mad Men

Virginia Lee Burton’s father was an engineer, and her mother was an artist, which is probably a surprise to nobody familiar with her work. Burton’s early books (Choo Choo, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Katy and the Big Snow) are celebrations of man’s power to harness his environment with the use of technology, Burton’s vivid illustrations investing her fascinating machines with life and personality. Even 80 years after the publication of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, that steam shovel Mary-Anne appeals to young readers, and part of that timelessness is that Mary-Anne’s story of technological prowess (she could dig as much in a day as a hundred men in a week) was already about nostalgia even when the book was new. Burton’s work does not become dated, because within it she has acknowledged the passage of time. Mary-Anne was already the relic of a dying age, steam shovels being replaced by diesel-powered diggers, and Burton showed even as she glorified technology that progress did not necessarily lead to better.

But the pastoral age that Mike Mulligan… hearkens back to is a pretty curious one. Children have always loved this book because children are fascinated by machinery and learning how things work (Burton: “Children have an avid appetite for knowledge. They like to learn, provided that the subject matter is presented to them in an interesting way”), but for an adult-reader to understand Mary-Anne as the story’s heroine represents a significant departure from how we in the 21st century have come to understand our relationship to the environment. Mary-Anne who can level hills to make roads for automobiles to drive on, and dig holes to turn grassland into skyscrapers, and is powered by filthy coal– that Burton’s steam shovel continues to be a lovable storybook character is a testament to the enduring qualities of her book as a whole.

Mike Mulligan was published in 1939, and in 1942, Burton published her most celebrated book, The Little House, which won the Caldecott Award that year (whose ceremony, it is noted in Barbara Elleman’s fascinating biography Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art, was attended by Lillian Smith, president of the Children’s Library Association and head of children’s services at the Toronto Public Library). And from these dates and these books’ acclaim, we can only assume that both found a place within the personal library of Sally Draper, who was born in 1955. Unlike her parents, Sally is rarely seen reading (until Season 4 when she’s spotted with a Nancy Drew), so the contents of her early library can only be inferred, but if the connections between Burton’s world and the Man Men universe are any indication, these books should be an essential part of any Mad Men reading list.

Part of the appeal of both Mike Mulligan and Mad Men is our own nostalgia, but the nostalgia already implicit within these works’ conception of modernity makes our own present ring doubly hollow. In both works, the Future is now, and the present is shining, but something essential has been irrevocably lost, and it has been too late to turn back forever now.

Modernity is symbolized by the city in Mad Men, and also in Burton’s work, no more so than in The Little House. In both works, the city is to be escaped from, its edges a pastoral idyll, though in both works, the city is creeping. In Mad Men, this is shown by suburban life’s failure to be protection enough from the vices and sordidness the city entails. Even in Arcadia (ie Ossining NY), there is infidelity, family violence, divorce, and women lock themselves in the house all day, drinking too much and smashing chairs up. The outside world is brought in every night by the dad in his hat coming home on the train, and by the television’s incessant blare.

The creeping is literalised in Burton’s The Little House, which sits contentedly on its hill as the sun goes up and down, and as the seasons change. And then the lights of the city began to seem closer, and roads appear (courtesy of that same steam shovel we know so well from Mike Mulligan, as Harriet is always delighted to point out). There are new houses, and then the buildings around the house grow higher, and a subway is dug underneath, and trams run back and forth, and eventually the house is left abandoned and unloved in the middle of an urban wasteland. (And in this book, indeed, Burton has presaged and synthesized the ideas of Rachel Carson and Jane Jacobs).

But the book’s conclusion is as curious as is Mary-Anne’s status as hero instead of villain. The story of The Little House is resolved when a great-great grandaughter of the man who’d built the house discovers the place in its derelict state, and decides to move it back out to the countryside. Traffic is halted as the house is lifted up from its foundations and placed on a truck, then driven down a big road, then a small road, and eventually the house is settled down on a little hill much like the one it once called home (before that first hill was levelled by a steam shovel). Same apple trees and flowers, and the house can see the sky again, the sunrise in the morning, the moon shining high at night. “The stars twinkled all around her…/ A new moon was coming up…/ It was Spring…/ and all was quiet and peaceful in the country.”

The first few times I read this book as an adult, I figured the moral had something to do with white flight, and the death and death of the American city. Until I realized that Burton hadn’t presaged Carson/Jacobs so much, and then I thought about the book in the context of its own time, and Mad Men’s. The story’s point, according to Elleman’s book, is that “the further away we get from nature and the simple way of life the less happy we are.” It is a story of the environment with man still at its centre, and with this notion of the city as a place to move away from is an understanding that the space “away out there” is infinite, inexhaustible. (See Kathryn Davis’s Hell and the spaces at the back of medicine cabinets for razor blade disposal in the mid 20th century house– that throwing something “away” was to make it disappear.)

In “The Gold Violin” (Mad Men, Season 2), the Drapers retreat further from urban/suburban life by partaking in a rare family outing, a picnic (although they get there in a brand new Cadillac, so modernity has certainly not been left behind). At the end of the picnic (which has involved smoking while horizontal and peeing behind trees), Betty Draper picks up the picnic blanket and shakes away accumulated rubbish, letting it fall down onto the grass where she’ll leave it.

As in Burton’s The Little House, the world away out there is still ours for the taking, to be used and made noble by our relationship to it.

September 26, 2010

Mad Men is either brilliant or terrible: Update

Mad Men is either brilliant or terrible,” I wrote a few weeks back, and then last night we watched Season 3 Episode 11 The Gypsy and the Hobo and there’s no doubt it’s the former.

September 9, 2010

Style, substance, and that something: on the Mad Men conundrum

When I began watching Mad Men earlier this year, my assessment was similar to Karen Von Hahn’s of the show being “all style, no substance”. This was partly because I’d been biased already by the review of Mad Men Season 1 in the London Review of Books,  in which the show’s chief attraction was summed up as our own superiority at watching pregnant women smoke while their children played with dry cleaner bags. Mad Men is good, because at least we get to feel like we’ve come along why, which undermines the fact that we most certainly haven’t.

I enjoyed the first few episodes of season 1, though not as much as I’d anticipated– I wondered if my expectations had been made too high. Soon I’d decided that I’d finish watching the first season, but probably not pursue it beyond that. And I’m not sure what the turning point was, but somewhere along the line not pursuing the rest of Mad Men was not remotely a possibility.

I’m now just about at the end of Season Three. I’m in no hurry to get to Season Four. Though of course I am, but you understand how tragic it would be to one day have no more Mad Men before me. Because I love Mad Men, I do. I love its style, I love when it shocks me (the lawnmower, Betty and the shotgun), I love how I am desperate to find sympathy for these characters who do nothing to deserve it, that I have so much invested in the disaster that is Don and Betty, but mostly I just really love Don Draper. In a way I have never loved anybody, except for Dylan McKay and my high school math teacher. Impossible, lustful, agonizing loves, where you’re fortunate to run into them once in a while in early morning dreams.

It’s not just that he’s good looking– Jon Hamm on 30 Rock really didn’t do it for me, which was sort of the point of that endeavour, but I don’t think we can write it all down to Hamm being such a great actor. It could very well be the suits and the haircut. Or what I’m after might be the elusive Don Draper something that makes him such a magnet on the show. How he’s unpindownable. And when he’s good, he’s not even that good, but I cling to straws– “at least he’s a better parent than Betty”, which isn’t even technically true and wouldn’t be an achievement even if it were. But when he defended Bobby, and when he cooked for Sally in the middle of the night, and when he bought Betty the necklace, and when he demanded that guy remove his hat in the elevator. That he kept Sal’s secret. Fundamentally, he’s a man of integrity.

And when he goes and does something abhorrent, which is usually, somehow I’m convinced that he’s just not himself. That perhaps what he’s really lacking, what he’s calling out for in the dark, is someone to love him properly and that someone would be me. I sometimes wonder what Don Draper could do to have me finally not forgive him. More than he’s cultivated his own self, have I merely cultivated a self for him? Is that what everybody around him has done as well?  Is he the projection of our fantasies (and mine happens to be a good dad, and a kind husband)? Is the point of Don Draper that we want to believe in beautiful people? That we fling our sympathy upon them? Does his charisma come from him being fundamentally empty, and therefore a vessel for anything? Is he all style and no substance, and the entire show is this self-aware?

It’s curious though, the inconsistencies of his character. Of everybody’s character on that show, and it was one of my problems with it when I first started watching. The characters were different people in each episode, not just in a mildly interesting way, but in a way that made me wonder if the show had too many writers. I get the whole “Don Draper is an enigma” thing, but it has crossed my mind from time to time that that hole who is he might just be a clever way of badly constructing a character. And that the other characters who weren’t hatched out of nothing have no such excuse for being wildly fluctuating from one thing to another. Except Pete Campbell. I have determined he’s a psychopath.

I experience Mad Men the way I experience novels, by which I mean that there are often whole passages I don’t understand. And I love this about the show, that there’s more going on than I’m ever supposing, but sometimes I wonder if the problem is not so much that I’ve missed something as much as that that something just doesn’t make any sense. Mad Men is either brilliant or terrible, and I’m really not sure which, but it’s brilliant certainly in that I don’t care regardless.

March 14, 2018

CBC Ontario Morning Book Picks

I have been reading so much lately, it’s totally ridiculous, but it means I had a whole lot to talk about on my CBC Ontario Morning books column today. You can listen again on the podcast; I come in at 38.20. Sadly. I ran out of time to talk about Hysteria, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi, which I read on the weekend, but I would have told you that it’s kind of a thriller but so much more than that, a little bit Betty Draper and Mad Men too, about a 1950s’ housewife whose perceptions are called into question (by the reader and everyone) when she starts seeing a ghostly girl and then her young son disappears. Is she really hysterical, as her husband is claiming, or is something much more sinister afoot?

January 17, 2018

There Will Be Blood

So the post I was going to write last week, before I got all riled up and furious, was a story about flossing, and also about Fargo, the perils of watching too much TV, and how excellent it is that I finally (after a decade) discovered a television show I like as much as Mad Men. And I will situate the beginning of this story about fifteen years ago when I had this fervent belief that flossing was unnatural and even harmful. “I’ve just got an aversion to anything that makes me bleed,” was the way I used to put it, but then I got health benefits, in addition to a lot of cavities, and started a serious relationship with my dental hygienist (seeing her at least once every six months) and now I find I’m putting my money in the pockets of Big Floss on a regular basis.

Basically, this is a story about life in my thirties and the wild incredible risks I take in my every day life. And about how I started watching Fargo in November was immediately infatuated, its characters living large in my mind after each episode ended. I was thinking about Molly Solverson all the time, and how both seasons one and two are partly about being a woman in a man’s world and negotiating with reality on those terms. And also how, like Mad Men, Fargo is a show that throws out the conventions of storytelling, skipping large blocks of time, having important details like weddings happen off-scene. And what I loved best about Fargo was how it doesn’t manipulate its viewers, how we usually know what the outcomes are going to be—who survives and who doesn’t, will they fall in love or won’t they—so that the details that keep us riveted are not those you’d usually expect, that it’s a different kind of tension. Not the what, but how. And how the writers have to come up with different ways to surprise us, hold us, than the usual twists of narrative.

I was also intrigued by the show’s questions and considerations of morality and character, and good and evil, which recalled Mad Men in their complexity, nuance and lack of a clear answer (which is why its all so interesting). The presence of a moral centre made the exploration of evil and villainy so much more palatable and the violence less troubling than it might have been. Mad Men was much less fixed that way—everyone was always selling out someone. (And now I’m thinking about the scene with the tractor in “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency,” and in its gory absurdity it was absolutely Fargo-esque.)

Usually I just watch TV one or two nights a week, because I tend to spend most of my evenings reading, but because the holidays are not for moderation, we got to watch Fargo every day. Which had a downside, because I started talking with the accent and saying, “You betcha” and became more than a little bit obsessed—our children had to ask us to stop talking about Fargo because our behaviour was not just alienating, it was boring. We finished up Season 1 in the week before Christmas, and went straight into Season 2, which was so different but I came to love just as much, although it was Season 1 that hit me hardest. The season finale was so full of tension I could hardly stand it, and kept having to leave the room and get away from the waiting for something to happen (which was never going to be the thing you saw coming after all…).

I’d left the room to get dental floss, because not only have I sold out to the dentist, but also because one of the great pleasures of my every day these days is the experience of going to bed. But I couldn’t stay away too long, not wanting to miss whatever happened next in the show, as much as I couldn’t stand to wait for it. So I came back, floss in hand, and perched delicately on the arm of the sofa, watching the screen over my husband’s shoulder. Dental floss wrapped around my two index fingers, so that my hands were essentially bound, and the floss and my fingers doing their work in my mouth so that I was basically gagged as well—a vulnerable position if ever I saw one, but at least I wasn’t dressed in just my underwear and running away across a barren Minnesota plain in the dead of winter. A season of Fargo had made clear that certainly things could be much worse.

But then I fell off the couch. In a few seconds that stretched out into an eternity in my mind, and I could see it all happening as it did. “This is completely ridiculous,” I thought, as I teetered on the edge, unable to call out to my husband to steady me, unable to reach out for support. Bound and gagged, I plummeted to the floor, landing with a crash that must have disturbed the downstairs neighbours. Free-falling is less romantic than it sounds, and nobody ever writes songs about the landing. It’s been nearly a month, and my wrist and elbow have been aching ever since.

But I continue to be cavity-free.

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