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Posts tagged ‘Mad Men’

Face Off: Breaking Bad and the liberating power of violence

As I’m sure many of you did, I spent yesterday evening watching the season finale of Breaking Bad. As season finales go it was one of the great ones, not least because it managed the often difficult trick of concluding a long and suspenseful narrative arc without either seeming too neat and convenient or fumbling the ball at the last moment. But it also contains one of the most gruesome – and the most exhilarating – scenes I’ve seen on television in a long while.

What follows is going to be at least technically spoiler-free, since I’m not going to describe the scene, but if you’d like to go into the episode completely free of information you should look away. But basically it’s a moment of sudden and surprising violence involving one of the central characters.

The scene was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. One was how brilliantly orchestrated it was. Despite all the scheming and mind games part of the strength of this season of Breaking Bad has been the growing sense of chaos surrounding Walt, and the manner in which his actions have disrupted the operations not just of his family but Gus and the cartels in increasingly dangerous and unpredictable ways. Certainly it’s been difficult not to be aware of the steady escalation of the risk to Gus and his operations as the DEA (or at least Hank) gradually became aware of the possibility that Gus might not be quite what he seems to be.  Yet as the final episode revealed, the season has also been incredibly tightly plotted, not just in the narrow sense of Walt having a plan, but in the larger, narrative sense of tracing out arcs and story lines that converge in a manner that’s both inevitable and surprising (to borrow Cocteau’s formulation).

But what also struck me was the sheer delight of the moment I’m talking about. When it came I quite literally jumped in the air and cried out, not once but twice. And despite the absolute horror of what had happened my reaction wasn’t disgust, it was exultation.

It’s a reaction you only normally get in dramatic forms like film, television and theatre (although there’s a scene in Deborah Moggach’s novel, Tulip Fever, which tends to generate the same response). There are several such moments in The Sopranos (Tony picking the tooth out of the cuff of his pants while talking to AJ’s psychiatrist, Paulie’s mother’s friend catching Paulie in her house, Ralphie’s head falling out of his toupee), but there’s also the lawnmower scene in Mad Men and any number of such scenes on film (oddly the one that come to mind immediately is the moment the shark grabs Samuel L. Jackson in Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea, but there’s also the much-imitated scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indy shoots the swordsman by the plane).

What’s fascinating about all of them is that they’re moments in which the violence or grostesquerie comes as a surprise, and is often designed to elicit something like humour. Yet the sort of surprise they depend upon is often one that goes beyond the surprise that comes with the revelation of something unexpected: instead it’s the sort of surprise that subverts our expectations about the conventions of the genre. We don’t expect that shark to grab Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea because he’s in the middle of giving the big “we’ll fight them on the beaches” speech every action movie needs (and the fact Jackson is a big star and a major character). Likewise the lawnmower scene in Mad Men doesn’t just involve the eruption of violence in a show that’s largely about the workplace, it involves the maiming of a character we’ve been led to believe will be significant. And while the scenes in The Sopranos are less overtly subversive, they exist within the framework of a show which often used violence to remind us of the randomness and chaos of the world as a whole.

But they’re also fascinating because they’re not just about doing unexpected or unpredictable things. Just maiming people at random simply doesn’t work as storytelling, however subversive it might seem. Whether it’s the scene from last night’s Breaking Bad or the shark chomping on Samuel L. Jackson, such scenes tend to jolt our expectations and assumptions within the narrative as well, by revealing the plot is not quite (or not at all) what we’d been assuming.

It’s this part of the process that’s particularly tricky. The director of In Bruges, Martin McDonagh, is also a playwright, and the author of a series of remarkable (and remarkably violent) plays which depend at least in part upon eruptions of violence that are at once shocking and hilarious. Of these the second in his Leenane Trilogy, A Skull in Connemara, is particularly interesting. The plot centres on a gravedigger charged with clearing out an overcrowded graveyard, and involves a subplot about his murdered wife, although as becomes clear later on, none of this is really the point. Instead the point is the bones – and more particularly the skulls – the gravedigger keeps accumulating, and the question of what is to be done with them, a question that’s answered very graphically towards the end of the play when, in an explosion of violence, the gravedigger begins to smash the skulls to pieces with a mallet.

It’s an extraordinary scene, and an incredibly liberating and exhilarating one. The sheer anarchy and release of it is hard to describe. But part of what makes it so exhilarating is precisely that sense of release, of knowing, at some intuitive level, that whatever you may have assumed this moment was the point all along.

The scene in last night’s Breaking Bad shares this quality, because it’s also the moment you realise things have not been what you’d assumed. Yet by releasing the tension that’s built up over so many episodes in such an unexpected way, it transforms something that should be horrible into something that’s exciting and even grotesquely funny. Anthropologists talk about liminal moments, points in time when the assumptions that govern our interactions are suspended, and we enter a state of possibility, and change, and I suspect that beneath the gruesomeness there’s an element of that at play in these moments too, a sense in which the ordinary rules are suspended, and we glimpse something of the possibility of change and transformation that is embedded in the heart of all narrative. And, paradoxically, where our extremely sophisticated awareness of the cultural conventions of genre and narrative (because without that awareness the subversion couldn’t work) also makes it possible for us to encounter the most uncritical feelings of wonder and release that narrative depends upon.

(Diehard Breaking Bad fans might like to check out the first part of AV Club’s four part interview with the show’s show runner, Vince Gilligan)

And the winners are . . .

bsgbloodscalesThe nominations for the 2009 Emmys have just been announced. Unsurprisingly (and deservedly) Mad Men has done exceptionally well, taking four of the five nominations for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, one of the Directing nominations, and a number of other, smaller nominations (including Outstanding Hairstyling – woo-hoo!) as well as a nomination for Outstanding Drama Series.

The other standout drama of the year, Breaking Bad, does less well (how its amazing pilot didn’t get nominations for Outstanding Writing and Outstanding Directing is beyond me) but does pick up a nomination for Outstanding Drama (along with the neglected but brilliant Big Love) and a couple of smaller nominations.

At the other end of the spectrum, Battlestar Galactica has been almost completely ignored once again, picking up only one major nomination, for Michael Rymer’s direction of ‘Daybreak Part 2’. The take-home message? That even when a science fiction show produces episodes of the calibre of ‘Revelations’, ‘The Oath’ or ‘Blood on the Scales’, all of which are, quite simply, some of the best television produced in the last ten years, it’s still not enough to find mainstream recognition.

Not, it must be said, that the literary world is much better.

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Meditations in an Emergency: Some thoughts about Mad Men

mad-menWith two series already in the can in the US and a third well into production, AMC’s multi-award winning Mad Men finally makes it to Australian free-to-air tonight. And, to celebrate, the hype machine has been running hard for several weeks (I hope regular visitors are taking note of my restraint in not going on about the pathetic and disrespectful attitude of Australian networks towards their viewers, but I feel like a broken record on that score).

The most recent – and substantial – addition to the promotional material filling the newspapers is a long piece by Clive James in The Australian Magazine (and which is, I suspect, a repurposing of a piece he wrote for the TLS a while back). Sadly it isn’t online, but if you can lay your hands on the hard copy it’s well worth a look.

James’ piece is constructed around two points. The first is a desire to deconstruct the sociologial significance of “quality” (or what I’d call the “new”) television in general, and Mad Men in particular. James rightly points to the manner in which these shows have been embraced by audiences traditionally averse to what they perceive as the downmarket pleasures of television (and particularly American television).

It’s a point that’s been made before but it’s a valid one (that said, please, please check out Stuff White People Like’s take on The Wire and Mad Men). As James rightly observes, at least part of the appeal of shows such as Mad Men and The Sopranos is the reassuring sense that they are written and produced with the cognoscenti in mind, a feeling that is only reinforced by the fact that much of their success has been driven by DVD sales, which in Australia and the UK at least, suggest one is seeking one’s pleasures away from the great unwashed.

I think it would be naive to think television networks didn’t factor these sorts of considerations into the structuring of their programming. But James wants to tie this argument to a second argument about Mad Men in particular, which is that there is something essentially dishonest about the show itself. Like a number of other commentators in the UK, perhaps most notably Mark Greif, he believes the show trades in a sort of inverted nostalgia, in which contemporary vanities are flattered by the show’s careful airbrushing of the past:

“The media world we live in now has generated mad men, and it’s a high end product, with a sure sense the smart audience would rather find it than be hit over the head with it. Even when they are hit over the head with it by an adroit international campaign of promotion they are still convinced that they are finding it all by themselves. But what they are finding is another illusion, though a remarkable nuanced and fascinating one. The illusion is of a past where even the smartest people weren’t quite as smart as us. There is much talk in the press about how the secret of the show’s appeal lies in nostalgia – nostalgia for a time when a man was a man, a woman shaped like an hourglass had no ambition but to stay home and cook, and everyone smoked like a train, with not thought of ever hitting the buffers. But the show does better than that. It doesn’t make the mistake of presenting life on the avenue as a fairground. Indeed it’s a prison, and young Peggy will have to fight her way out.

“But nobody will think their way out, and the awkward truth is that a lot of them, in reality, were already thinking. They just hadn’t figured out what to do next, mainly because they were involved in a paradox: it was the wealth they produced that would give them the freedom to question their lives. Stuck with the same paradox, we revel in the opportunity to look back and patronise the clever for not being quite clever enough to be living now.

Mad Men is a marketing campaign: what it sells is a sense of superiority, and it sells it brilliantly.”

While I suspect there’s something to be made of the markedly different responses the show elicits on opposite sides of the Atlantic, what’s interesting in James’ argument – and indeed in Greif’s – is the notion that Mad Men fails because it declines to do justice to the vigour and intelligence of the world it ostensibly inhabits. Both argue that its historical account of one of advertising’s most innovative periods is shortchanged by what James describes as its “lingering emphasis upon character”, a failing both also see as intrinsic to its appeal to elite tastes.

The problem with this analysis is that it fundamentally misunderstands the show. Mad Men is not a show about advertising any more than The Sopranos is a show about gangsters. One only has to watch the almost photo-realistic recreation of the fashion, architecture and even cinematography of the period to be reminded of the show’s fascination with surfaces, their ambiguity and, ultimately, their deceptiveness. Not for nothing, I suspect, does the show’s portrait of the 1960s often more closely resemble a film set of the period than the period itself. The stillness of the show, its refusal to spell out meanings, even its oddly static storylines all speak to its fascination with the mystery its characters’ inner lives offer not just to each other, but to themselves.

The mistake, it seems to me, is thinking that the drinking and smoking and sexual anxieties the show depicts in are its true point, when in fact the true point is the fragility of the world the characters inhabit. They might be the Masters of the Universe, but the universe they rule is one the viewer knows is about to be swept away. Not for nothing does the series move in fits and starts forward in time, jumping from 1960 in the first season to 1962 in the second, and on again in the third (this time to 1965 if reports from the set are to be believed) revealing each time the deepening cracks in the facade of the world it inhabits. Seen from this perspective there’s something of the memento mori in the way the characters live, oblivious of what lies just around the corner.

Indeed if the show is nostalgic at all, it’s nostalgic in a quite different way to the one James and Greif accuse it of being. Clive James may remember the early 1960s, but Mad Men’s creator, Matthew Weiner, who was born in 1965 does not, except in the way any of us who were born in the 1960s remember it, which is through the medium of our parents, and our memories of early childhood, childhoods that were lived against the backdrop of precisely the upheavals the action of Mad Men prefigures.

It’s usual, of course, to see the shadow of John Cheever and Richard Yates hanging over Mad Men, but I wonder whether it doesn’t owe more to novels such as Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm. For in some powerful sense it is less about what we see and more about what we know is coming, and about trying to make sense, from the vantage point of the children who grew up in its aftermath, of the dislocation and confusion the 1960s and 1970s engendered.

The children of the 1960s – X-ers – are often accused of being judgemental, even priggish. But whether we are or not, I don’t think there’s anything priggish about Mad Men, nor even what Mark Grief acidly describes as the “whiff of Doesn’t That Look Good” that lies beneath the “Now We Know Better”. Instead there is a ruefulness, a sense of loss. As we watch the world begin to come apart at the seams, we cannot help but anticipate the damage these characters will do to one another in the years to come.

Admittedly this is less evident in the early episodes, which are rather too insistent in their foregrounding of the sexual politics (it’s actually the racial politics, which are largely unspoken, which are more disturbing, presumably precisely because they are pointed out to us less deliberately), and in the constant drinking and smoking. But it is very obvious by the final episodes of the second season, in which Don vanishes to California, and into a sort of Paul Bowlesian fantasy of freedom, and in the deeply uncertain tone of the season’s wonderful finale, ‘Meditations in an Emergency’, which plays out against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Mad Men begins Thursday 16 April at 8:30pm on SBS.

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The idiot box grows a brain

06467884001I’ve got a piece about the new television in today’s issue of the Australian Literary Review. The full text of the article is available online, as is Michael Wood’s excellent piece about Roberto Bolano’s 2666, but print copies are available free with today’s  Australian, and are well worth picking up, not least because only a small portion of the issue is reproduced online.

The idiot box grows a brain | The Australian.

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