Bob Schwartz

Tag: Don Draper

Mad Men: This Is the Way the World Ends

The Real Thing

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Eliot
The Hollow Men

Readers and viewers know whether they like or are satisfied with the way a novel or movie ends. But they may not recognize the burden of creating those endings, not just to short forms, but to sagas and epics, where possibilities are exponential, and where those dutifully following the tale and trail may be looking for those elusive treasures: resolution and meaning.

It is not surprising that the final episode of Mad Men was written and directed by the show’s creator Matthew Weiner. How could it have been otherwise?

Mad Men is a work of literature disguised as a television show. There are a number of hallmarks of literature and art, including the engagement of those who see and hear. But maybe even above that is coherence, holding together as a work, from one corner of the canvas to another, from the first to last note of the symphony.

Mad Men doesn’t fit it into any particular artistic category: impressionistic or expressionistic, realistic or fantastic, Freudian or Jungian. If anything, it delves into magical realism, where ghosts are real and real people are ghosts and anything can happen and make sense.

Or not make sense. The story of Mad Men in essence begins with the death of the original Don Draper in Korea. Over time, others die, couples come together and apart, people have sex, families are raised, business are started and bought and sold, jobs are lost and found, money is made and spent, some are miserable while others are happy, some grow and all just grow older.

All of it makes just enough sense to be a story. None of it makes enough sense to defy reality, gravity, or time. What more could you ask for? Meaning? What more were you expecting? It’s just the real thing.

Mad Men and Kabbalah

Don Draper - Broken Vessel

“I keep wondering, have I broken the vessel?”
Don Draper, Mad Men, Season 7, Episode 1, Time Zones

Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men show is not about Kabbalah, or so it would seem. It has, though, frequently touched on religious and spiritual matters. In the first episode of the new Season 7, for example, Roger Sterling’s daughter appears to have had some sort of enlightenment experience that allows her to accept her father as he is and to forgive him unconditionally. And at the end of last season, Don Draper’s hitting bottom included his punching out a Christian preacher in a bar. There have been Catholics, Jews, Hindus, and all manner of beliefs in the mix.

And then, in the latest episode, Don grows introspective and candid with a beautiful stranger on a plane. He admits to being a terrible husband, and then assesses his own responsibility: “I keep wondering, have I broken the vessel?”

For some, the image of the broken vessel instantly brings Kabbalah to mind. According to some traditions, God created the world by sending emanations—holy sparks—encased in ten vessels. Had all the vessels arrived intact, this would be a perfect world. But the force was so powerful and the vessels so delicate that a number of them shattered. In an imperfect world, it is our mission to gather up the holy sparks that have scattered, and thus to make the world better.

One of the first people to make Kabbalah popular and accessible in recent times was Rabbi Herbert Weiner. His book 9-1/2 Mystics: The Kabbala Today (1969)  was the introduction for many to the subject. By coincidence, Rabbi Weiner died almost exactly a year ago at the age of 93.

None of that is much to go on. There is no known connection between Matthew Weiner and Herbert Weiner. And as strange as Don’s dialogue sounds, he has said plenty of strange things before, he is an unlikely Kabbalist, and sometimes a broken vessel is just a broken vessel. Still, Mad Men has taken us places we never thought we’d go, so why not? After musing about the broken vessel, and after refusing the advances of his new friend, Don turns to the plane window and opens the shade. Bright morning sunshine washes his face. Not much to go on. But if there is some message there about Don’s awareness of a duty to gather the broken bits of light and heal his world, Kabbalah or not, that would certainly make Mad Men fans happy.

Speed Men

Don Draper on Speed
Definition of Phantasmagoria
1. An exhibition of optical effects and illusions
2. A constantly shifting complex succession of things seen or imagined
3. A bizarre or fantastic combination, collection, or assemblage

The latest episode of Mad Men, Crash, is not the first to involve a car crash or the use of drugs. But it does use both as a device and as prefiguring of what is down the road for Don Draper and company.

Previously on Mad Men, besides the limitless consumption of alcohol and tobacco, in this late 1960s era there has been the increasing use of marijuana, and a few LSD experiments. This time, though, the drug of choice is speed.

Chevy is the agency’s new and prized client. Ken takes the Chevy guys out for a booze-fueled night, and drunken speeding results in a crash that leave’s Ken’s leg injured. Chevy is placing impossible demands on the agency, and so a weekend of work is ahead for the creatives and the account people. A sort-of doctor is brought in to inject the senior staff with a sort-of “stimulant”—a combination of vitamins and speed.

Speed heaven and speed hell break out. People are racing each other down office aisles and over desks, playing William Tell by throwing sharpened pencils at each other, wanting sex, talking nonstop. Don has two distinctive reactions. On the mental side, he seems  on the brink of a breakdown. His mind flows back to his growing up in a whorehouse, where we learn the possible origins of his sex addiction and other problems. He loses track of time, something that has happened before.

On the creative side, he has a breakthrough, the kind that speed can convince you (often falsely) that you are having. Don is obsessed by an old agency campaign for soup that he is sure holds the key to Chevy. He ultimately finds the ad, though it is for oatmeal; the soup is from his memory of a prostitute who nursed him back to health and was his first sexual experience. The headline says, “She Knows What You Want”.

But when Don calls everybody in to announce his creative triumph, the speed speaks, pontificating that, no, he hasn’t solved the Chevy puzzle—he has solved the big puzzle of life itself.

Events in and out of the office keep spinning. The speed has apparently “cured” Ken’s injury, as he throws away his cane and starts tap dancing. Don has left his children alone in the apparent, and an older black lady who calls herself Don’s Grandma Ida breaks in, confronts Don’s daughter Sally, and steals some of Don’s watches. Sally doesn’t believe Ida is Don’s grandmother, but since Sally doesn’t really know anything about Don’s real background, anything is possible.

The speed crash comes on Monday, and it is different than any other of the post-drinking hangovers that Don has ever suffered through. We can’t tell exactly what has gone on in his head, or what combination of murky and clear is operating, or whether he has really figured anything out. But he does something he has never done before, because being creative—making things up—is what his adult life has been about. He relinquishes creating for the Chevy account, and says he will only serve as creative director, managing what others come up with.

At this point, as he has a few times before, Don is seeing that if he keeps moving the way he has, he will crash. But he thinks that if he stops moving, he is dead. Of course, Don Draper is dead, killed accidentally and indirectly in Korea by the young Dick Whitman. Just as Draper’s suicidal younger stepbrother Adam Whitman was killed indirectly by Don, as was Draper’s suicidal partner Lane Pryce.

If it doesn’t stop on its own, maybe the uncaring laws of life and physics will take over. Maybe there will be a much more serious crash.

The Great Gatsby and the Great Draper

Gatsby and Draper
At this point, the reviews of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby are mixed, which isn’t surprising. His love of over-the-top spectacle is not to all tastes, and has a tendency to obscure story for fireworks. (His best movie may be his first, most personal and sweetest, the little and lovely 1992 romantic comedy Strictly Ballroom).

Literature to film goes in all directions. Small gets bigger as even the shortest stories are adapted. Big gets smaller, given the need to cut out sometimes huge chunks of narrative. Big gets bigger, as in Gone with the Wind. Big stays big, trying to preserve and show everything, as in Peter Jackson’s still-not-completed Tolkien opus.

The Great Gatsby is a little book. You can read it, even out loud, in a few hours. What has made it endure as one of the great novels is how much Fitzgerald packed into it. Word for word, it is one of the best fictional descriptions of a moment in history; not just that critical moment of the early 1920s either, but maybe every time the country is changing radically, as fortune swings in a blink between good fortune and bad.

Gatsby is not about the parties or the mansions. You can argue that the colorful wildness and glamour and licentiousness make the tragic end starker, so that when narrator Nick Carraway announces that the party is over, we get it. But we can miss the point.

Gatsby is a touching little story about a lost soul in a lost time. The only two ways to tell this story on film are to keep it small, or to actually rewrite and expand the story beyond its outline, to hours and hours of film.

The expanded story is already being made, by Matthew Weiner. Mad Men is the extended, history-spanning story of a fatally charismatic and ambitious man, so ambitious that in keeping with the dynamic times he lives in, he sheds his entire early life and identity to become a successful man of mystery. But he never stops trying to fill the holes that he knows are still there.

Every man wants to be him, every woman wants to have him, nobody knows him. The only difference between James Gatz/Jay Gatsby and Dick Whitman/Don Draper is that so far Draper has managed, somehow, to outlive his younger manhood to reach his middle years without crashing—but coming close almost daily. So just in case the Baz Luhrmann Gatsby doesn’t prove satisfying, don’t worry. The murky madness and capriciousness of Gatsby’s go-and-stop American dream is on view in the epic of Mad Men.