YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

May 18, 2015

Matthew Weiner’s MAD MEN and the double audience

Don Draper meditating on California coast

Don Draper meditating on California coast

(Spoilers ahead). In all my years of watching television, I have never been so flummoxed as I was by the final season of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men that purports to trace the ups and downs of its primary characters in a small NYC advertising agency, “Sterling Cooper” through its absorption into McCann Erickson. The series was set  during the late 1950s through the early 1970s, a period of great social upheaval.

I have written about the show before, arguing that it was odd for television writers to worry about the sponsors of the shows that they write, given that they purport to represent the real world uncontaminated by its corporate sponsors. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/10/24/mad-men-and-the-jewish-problem/.)

It never occurred to me until I looked up the definition and history of “irony” that the series had perhaps a double audience: one that would see it as a highly produced, realistic soap opera faithful to the period; while another would “get it” as standard {Jewish?] left-liberal self-hatred and anti-Americanism. (On the double audience for “irony” see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irony.)

For the last episode, eagerly anticipated by its fans, looked as if Don Draper, the dark, alcoholic, chain-smoking, womanizing genius adman (played by Jon Hamm) was going down, down, down, along with the American Dream, viciously portrayed in prior episodes such as the one with “milk and honey” in the title. Instead, Draper found at least a temporary reprieve at, of all places, an Esalen-type setting in the vicinity of Big Sur that persistently asked the question “How do you feel about your feelings?” Don, bottled up since his miserable childhood and perhaps on the brink of a heart attack, is suddenly redeemed by the confession of a depressed, unloved stranger in an encounter group, and goes on to embrace some kind of ersatz Indian religion installing him in a chanting hippie-garbed assembly, then to write a great Coca Cola commercial that not only unifies Draper with the mostly successful and “strong” female characters but affirms international groupiness. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/03/06/groupiness/, and https://clarespark.com/2013/07/02/groupiness-group-think-and-race/.)  On the commercial see http://www.coca-colacompany.com/coca-cola-unbottled/cokes-hilltop-featured-in-final-scene-of-mad-men.

Don Draper is literally and figuratively unbottled at last.

During my radio days of chronicling the fights in the art world, I used to know several New Yorker writers of fame. One or more complained to me about the ads for luxury goods that they felt compromised their ostensibly daring liberal stories and reportage. Similarly the artists and critics I met during the 1970s viewed themselves as hugely radical in both form and content. They loathed their bourgeois patrons (“Merde!”), pretty much as did the artistic vanguard that emerged before and during WW1.  I suppose that these artlings (not one of whom was a disciplined Red, by the way) comprise the peanut gallery that has praised Mad Men for the last seven seasons. They will “get it,” unlike the high-end consumers who fall for such arrant trickery.

As for myself, at the very end of the finale, I shouted out “Real or Fake?”

My outburst remains a radical query, and I don’t know the answer. I read once that irony was an unimaginative  excuse for an oppositional stance that failed to undermine or transform repressive cultures.

Then I thought about the venom hurled by Chomsky and his followers toward Walter Lippmann for encouraging the “spinmeisters” who “manufacture consent” (https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/): magicians and puppeteers like the fictional Don Draper, archetypally a Jewish liar.

irony

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