Programming note: No live-blogging of Mad Men tonight at newcritics because of the holiday. But I've cross-posted this over there so feel free to use it (at either place) as an open thread on tonight's episode, "Maidenform."
I was an altar boy from the time I was in fifth grade until just about halfway through my first year of high school, when getting up at six o'clock on a Sunday morning became as physically impossible for me as levitating. During those four and a half years our parish had five or six young priests rotate through, none of them more than a half dozen years out of the seminary. And by the time I hung up my cassock and surplice for good so had all but one of them.
Not all of those young men left to get married, but all of them were married not very long after they'd left the priesthood.
In the decade after Vatican II priests gave up their vocations by the drove, and fewer and fewer young men heard a calling at all. The seminaries and the rectories became emptier and lonelier places. Convents too, even more so.
Two weeks ago on Mad Men, in an episode titled "Three Sundays," Peggy Olsen developed a friendship with a new young priest at her parish that, as all Peggy's attempts at friendship with men seem to do, immediately overstepped the bounds. Father Gill's collar didn't seem to inhibit or intimidate her any more than Pete Campbell's wedding ring or the fact that Don Draper was her boss.
Peggy isn't a seductress---at least I don't think she is; Peggy is a difficult character to read, and I'm not sure if it's the character who's opaque or Elizabeth Moss' performance.---but she is eager for male company and male approval. This isn't surprising, given her ambition, the ad world is a male world, and Peggy will succeed only to the degree that men let her. But it's also not surprising given the henhouse she grew up in, with both her fussing mother and her domineering sister clucking over her all the time. The only man around is her brother-in-law, who when we meet him is prostrate on the couch, ostensibly from back pain, but really from a metaphor for his own weakness and irrelevance within the family circle. Whether she's looking for a father figure or a surrogate brother or just a friend who is not like her mother and sister and who can see her as a grown woman is another open question; but whatever it is, with Pete, with Don, and now with Father Gill Peggy immediately has moved in too close, opened herself up too fast. Draper, because he's wary of all intimacy anyway, pushed her away almost immediately. Pete, because he's weak and selfish, waited until he'd had sex with her before he remembered what was right and proper. For most of last week's episode, Father Gill seemed to be trying to have it both ways, looking for a way to become more intimate with her without giving in to the temptation to kiss her.
Peggy, who is in the most ambitious and driven of all the younger characters, can also be the most passive. It's actually one of her strengths. She rushes in where angels fear to tread but then she pulls up short and waits to take her cues from whatever devils she's barged in on. She can out-wait anyone. The next move is up to them. She let Pete make the first move, and the last one, and she was willing to wait for Father Gill too.
Unfortunately for her, Father Gill had more willpower than Pete Campbell, and more to lose, and he turned out to be pretty good at the waiting game himself. The two were headed for trouble, but neither one was in a hurry to get there, and while they were dawdling, Peggy's meddlesome sister had time to meddle.
Father Gill found out about Peggy's baby or, rather, what he found out was that Peggy hadn't told him about the baby. She lied to him by omission but he probably could have understood and forgiven that if...the fact didn't make him face what he himself was doing. Up to that point, Father Gill was probably still telling himself that all he was looking for in Peggy was a friend. When he learned that Peggy hadn't always been the good Catholic girl he took her for he had to wonder if she was one yet. If she had slept with one man outside of marriage, might she be looking to sleep with another, even if that other man was a priest? And what if that man was more a man than he was a priest?
In their last scene together, Father Gill makes sure Peggy knows that he knows about the baby and he does it in a way that makes clear that from here on their relationship is going to be that of priest to young mother.
We'll see if that resolve of his lasts. Colin Hanks, who plays Father Gill, is scheduled to appear in two more episodes. I hope that producer Matthew Weiner won't be bringing him back just to have an affair with Peggy and that he will use Father Gill to try to explain what happened to those young men who used to be the priests I held the cruets and rang the bells and carried the crucifix for.
In other words, I'd like to see Weiner tell a very 1960s story.
But that's not my point here. My real point begins with this. I was surprised to read that Father Gill would be coming back at all. His part in the story---Peggy's story---felt over and done with to me when he handed Peggy the Easter egg and told her to give it to "the little one."
Peggy is Mad Men's other great self re-inventor. Don Draper has constructed a whole new identity to inhabit. Peggy is at work on a similar project, she just has to go about it in a different way and for slightly different reasons. The Dick Whitman Draper used to be was limited by his family's craziness. Peggy is limited by her gender and the limited expectations people have of her because she's a woman, and that includes her family. If Peggy had had the chance to "kill" Peggy Olsen the way Don "killed" Dick Whitman, she'd have done it, but she'd still have had the problem of being a woman in a man's world. She'd also still have had the "problem" of having once had a nervous breakdown, that is, of having been and possibly still being crazy.
In ceasing to be Dick Whitman Don Draper could tell himself, Now I am free to be the real me, the person I was made to be. (That he is not "free" as it turns out is another problem.) But while Peggy is working her way to not being Peggy in the sense of not being the helpless and dependent woman-child people expect her to be, she cannot trust the real Peggy inside her the way Draper could trust---or thought he could trust---the real Don inside him. So she has two problems that she can only solve by relying on other people, preferably strong men, to help her with. Draper just has to tell people he's Don Draper and he's done the job of becoming Don Draper in their eyes. Peggy needs them to help her be the Peggy she wants to be. She needs them to let her have a career, and she needs them to take her seriously as a person, and for that to happen she has to enlist them in the re-creating of that person.
It's not enough that men like Draper and Father Gill believe her lie. She needs them to believe in it enough to help her keep it going. For this to work, they have to both help her fool herself and fool themselves. Fool probably isn't the best word. But she needs these men to tell her how to be an independent career woman and then she needs them to react to her as if they weren't the ones who told her how to be the person they're reacting to.
Draper is willing to go along with this because he understands what's driving her and because she's got talent. Father Gill, however, doesn't know or understand and her talent is actually irrelevant to him. That she could give him advice on how to punch up his sermons was the excuse he needed to cross the boundary that should have existed between a priest and a young single woman. When he pulled up short and retreated back to the other side of that boundary and let her know he wouldn't be crossing over it again, at least not in this episode, he was telling Peggy that there was always going to be a limit to the extent she could expect other people to help her invent a new self for herself.
In the end, when she's handed that Easter egg---an ironic symbol of new life--she's forced to confront the fact that the self she's trying to escape and replace isn't going to disappear quietly. It's a very crushing and lonely moment for her. The Peggy she wants to escape, the Peggy she's afraid is her true self, is going to keep coming back to haunt her, if only to make it impossible for her to love honest and decent men like Father Gill, and that the only way she can have a man like Father Gill in her life is to make him dishonest, which is what she was trying to do. Peggy is left alone to contemplate the fact that her new self may be, and may have to be, a bad person.
End of story. Peggy's had an epiphany.
Watching the first season of Mad Men, I was frustrated by the show's writers' unwillingness to conclude their story arcs or to hurry them along. Episode after episode appeared to set up crises that never came to a head and conflicts that had no pay-offs. Plot threads didn't get tied up, they unraveled or, like the love affair between Paul and Joan, were dropped before they'd been followed any real distance and then picked up again well after they'd reached a conclusion.
Some of this is due to bad writing. But by the last couple of episodes of the first season I'd begun to wonder if more of it was due to my own mistaken idea about what kind of TV show Mad Men is trying to be.
I kept thinking that because Matthew Weiner worked on The Sopranos, Mad Men was meant to be a show like The Sopranos, that is a novel for television. But that model, which is also the Deadwood model, the Battlestar Galactica model, and---although I'm less sure this is the case the way this season's gone---the Weeds model. The Wire followed a slightly different model, being more like a cycle of five short novels than like a single epic told over five seasons. These shows told many stories but they were all offshoots and subplots to one encompassing story that was always intended to reach a conclusion.
But there are still other models for serious, adult drama on television. One of those models is MASH and I think that might be the best one to start judging Mad Men against.
My thinking here may be colored by my conviction that Weiner pretty much shoved the MASH influence in our faces with Don Draper's Korean War flashblacks, which looked to have been not just filmed in the same hilly locations as MASH was but to have been shot in a way that recreated the look, the light, and the style of MASH in its first seasons.
I could, and probably will, spend a post on the MASH parallels and thematic echoings, starting with Don Draper as a kind of dark double for Hawkeye Pierce, but the main comparison I want to make now is the most banal---MASH wasn't a novel for television. It was just a television show. It finally did come to a conclusion but there was nothing novelistic in its ending the way it did. Its eleven years worth of episodes were not written with that final episode in mind. Just about every episode was written with only itself in mind. As innovative as MASH was in other ways, it followed the model for TV shows of its day. Every episode stood on its own, telling a story that had a beginning, a middle, and an end in the time allotted.
Actually, in MASH's case, episodes often told two or three or even four stories. That was one of its innovations, multiple story arcs within a single episode. Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere, Barney Miller, Cheers, Seinfeld, all followed MASH's lead. And this is what Mad Men seems to be doing and may have been doing all along. The plot lines that won't complete themselves aren't narratives as much as they're motifs. They are the givens that connect one episode, and stories within episodes, instead of a plot. So Don is always hiding his identity and struggling not to let the normal life he's created for himself drown him, Pete is always on the make, Peggy is always trying to put her past behind her, Joan is always breaking in a new girl, and Sterling Cooper is always failing as an ad agency the way Hawkeye was always at war with the Army, Frank was always angling to take command, Klinger was always trying to get a Section 8, Margaret was always torn between her passions and her misguided sense of duty, and the war wouldn't stop and the wounded kept coming.
Every episode tells a short story that's connected to the other stories thematically more than narratively. One story picks up from where another story left off, but not necessarily to continue it.
Mad Men, like MASH, isn't a novel for television. It's a short story collection for television.
I keep coming back to literary models and influences for Mad Men, particularly to Richard Yates' novel Revolutionary Road. But it's Yates' short stories that may have the greater relevance here, especially his collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, one of the two or three best short story collections in American literature. (The other two are Lost in the City by Edward Jones and Hemingway's In Our Time. Go ahead, fight me on this.) The best short story collection, period, Joyce's Dubliners, may be another influence. Mad Men may be Matthew Weiner's attempt to write Manhattanites.
So I'm going to stop waiting for Mad Men's story arc to move forward anymore, because I don't think there is one. There are just this week's stories. In "Three Sundays" we had the story of how a young woman determined to escape the self everybody expects her to be learns that to do that she'll have to erase her past in a way that may not be possible, but we also had the story of a man who would like nothing better than withdraw from his family watching in horror as his wife seems to be doing just that and learning that it's left to him then to hold the family together. And in last week's episode, "The New Girl," in Pete and Trudy's visit to the fertility doctor we were told the story of how a young wife learns that her selfish, Peter Pan of a young man does in fact want to grow up, he just doesn't necessarily want to do it with her by his side and in Joan's attempt to teach the new girl Jane the ropes and Bobbie Bartlett's The Woman Who Came to Recover act, taking over Peggy's apartment for a few days after the car accident, we get the same story told two different ways---the story of a no longer as young as she needs to be woman who confronts a version of her younger self and learns that she doesn't much like the self she has become.
That nothing much dramatic will follow from any of these revelations is besides the point. In real life people often learn lessons that they quickly forget or that they can't follow through on. That the learning of these lessons within the shows isn't very dramatically presented is a problem. No great confrontations, no big speeches end these stories. Instead we get small gestures, soulful looks, meaningful poses. I admire the writers' restraint, but it's risky having every episode finish with an epiphany rather than a catastrophe and relying on the audience's ability to read faces and body language.