Monday, September 27, 2010

Of Secrets, Playboy Bunnies, the Military Industrial Complex, and Taboo Love: Mad Men's Episode, "Hands and Knees" Reviewed

Black folks have been obligatory bits of window dressing in the last two episodes of
Mad Men. Question: Which is more problematic, African-Americans center frame as giant negroes (last week) or as Playboy Bunnies (this week)?

The theme of Sunday's episode was secrets--secrets revealed; secrets confessed; and secrets at risk. As one more example of the sharp writing and Easter eggs aplenty in Mad Men, the closing musical cue of "Hands and Knees" was the Beatle's song "Do You Want to Know a Secret."

Mad Men has revolved around this theme since its first episode. Don Draper's secret is the life that is a lie, one adopted from a dead G.I. in Korea. Peggy's secret is her love child by Pete. Sal's secret is his life as a closeted gay man. Joan and Roger's secret is their love affair. More generally, the secrets of Mad Men are a polite wink to the lie that is advertising (for isn't the word "secret" just a polite cousin to deception?). By extension, Mad Men is at its heart a show about desires, wants, and greed--of the characters and of the mass public--as they are manipulated into being pliant consumers and self-perpetuating happiness machines.

But what to do when the wheels threaten to fall of off the machine? When the secrets we hold will be revealed to all? Or the Ponzi scheme, the house of cards the American economy is built upon (as The Great Recession has made clear) all threaten to fall down? Apparently, the characters of Mad Men delayed the inevitable in this episode, but at what cost to their souls and lives?

Per tradition, here are some questions and observations:

1. Got to love the clothes. The torpedo bra on Toni, the maternity teddy on Trudy. Question: Am I a deviant because I saw Trudy's playful garb, rotund belly, and come-hither look, and immediately said in my best Robocop/Smash TV voice that "I'd buy that for a dollar!"

2. One of the story arcs of Mad Men is the rise of the military-industrial complex and the national security (and now national intelligence) state. These companies employ hundreds, if not thousands of lobbyists, public relations personnel, and other consultants to sell the American people on the necessity of spending trillions of dollars on guns and not butter. As offered by "Hands and Knees," the Northrop Grummans, Lockheed Martins, and General Electrics of the world propagandize going to the moon, but never discuss the dead hand or MIRVs.

With good reason: The Consumer's Republic is now almost inseparable from the military-industrial complex because both are addicted to the technological marvels produced by this union, and to talk about destruction instead of pleasure would not fatten the bottom line. For example, the Internet, the personal computer, cell phones, and many advanced medical technologies are a product of the tax payers' subsidy of the military and its iron mongers. Question: are we talking to ourselves? Does Joe Q. Public even care about this problematic relationship and how it subverts democracy?Was anyone even listening to Eisenhower's prescient warning?

3. We know that Don Draper is going to bed Megan (can you blame him?). He is self-destructive and runs from the real intimacy offered by Faye. The latter is a keeper of secrets by trade, want, and character. Once Don takes his prize, will Faye reveal his secret in a moment of scorned love?

4. Random thought: Is Don a coward? Does he secretly want his secret out? (got to love that Oscar Wilde word play) Will this reveal and its resulting chaos complete Don Draper's story, one where he is a semi-tragic, anti-hero?

5. Apparently, Hugh Hefner was a civil rights visionary, the Rosa Parks of poontang. As the documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel suggests, Hugh was a firm believer in the equality of the races and was sympathetic to the fight of Black Americans for full citizenship. Famously, Playboy magazine featured cutting-edge interviews with Malcolm X, Alex Haley, Miles Davis, Martin Luther King Jr., and Muhammad Ali. Less well known is Hefner's official policy of racial non-discrimination at his Playboy Clubs.

This is one more bit of smart writing on an already brilliant show that rewards close viewing. To point: is Mad Men's introduction of Toni a triumph over racism, because women (apparently, despite the color of their skin) are consistently treated as objects by the men around them? Or is Toni's character (a quasi-sex worker) rendered even more problematic because of how race and gender are configured on her body? What would womanists have to say about this one?

6. Charlie Murphy! No, not really. But Lane's father hitting him upside the head with a cane was worthy of Chappelle's infamous sketch. What reading did you take away from Lane, crumbled, on the ground, his father Robert hovering over him like a lord of the manor? Was Robert more upset that his son's lover is a black woman, his "chocolate bunny," or that Lane will not get a divorce and comport himself with more respect?

7. At the end of the episode Don was left a broken man. The cool operator, the iceman, cracked and was brought down so low by a panic attack that he curled into a ball, fetus-like, to be comforted by his lover. Does Don become all the more compelling because the lower he falls, the higher he seems to inevitably rise?


Historiann said...

Great recap, Chauncey. This is true: "Black folks have been obligatory bits of window dressing" on Mad Men from the start, when they're on screen at all. It seems like the writers are trying to get credit for critiquing racism without actually employing any black actors--just like most other TV shows, only with a pious attitude about race.

I don't know what to make of Lane's relationship with Toni or his father--but love your "Charlie Murphy!" reference, which makes as much sense as anything. It seems to me like the father's disgust is directed both at Lane's interracial romance as well as his unwillingness to end the duplicity w/r/t his wife and child.

Historiann said...

I'll just add that it seems like the show is using black characters--the women in particular--to say something about the white characters. For example, Toni is the second black girlfriend we've been introduced to on the show. (The copywriter who was kind of beatnik-y had a black girlfriend too, but she was used as an accessory to fill in information about the white male boyfriend, like his marijuana ciggies and jazz records). Will Toni be more than just a symbol of Lane's personal transformation? We'll see, but I'm not optimistic.

chaunceydevega said...

Isn't that the trend? Even when decentered whiteness somehow prevails--I am seeing this alot in my classes when racial formation and whiteness come up.

Speaking of which I think that is post worthy!


Thelonious said...

Don Draper is America. He has acquired power, wealth, and prestige based on lies, exploitation, hypocrisy, and outright theft. When the fraudulent basis of his success is exposed, he obfuscates the truth and deflects accountability. Just like the powers-that-be in America that shape the debate. Don't think this is exactly what Weiner had in mind, but that's the mark of great television, the ability to be relevant on several different levels.