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Beautiful and Claustrophobic: MAD MEN’s Inferno

Television
by Arielle Bernstein
June 19, 2013 8:35 AM
2 Comments
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When I started taking classes in creative writing, one of my teachers told our class that all we had was one story we would spend our entire lives rewriting. At the time I found the prospect of this frightening. In a home of Cuban-Jewish refugees I had grown used to two concepts: the impermanence of material things and the permanence of loss. Both themes were ones I strove to break away from. I nurtured an intense fascination with born-again Christianity. There seemed something glorious to me about the idea that you could start again, fresh in the world, free from the past. 

The longing for rebirth is a motif, which dominates our literary imagination and our spiritual and emotional lives. The rebirth narrative is often constructed as a narrative of resolution. We long to read about characters who are constantly making choices which propel their life forward and we love reading about heroes and heroines who are brave enough to make the choices that will ultimately lead to some kind of change. In real life we are creatures of habit. We love a routine, because it makes an unruly universe seem manageable and safe. In fiction we open a box in one scene and in the next we close that box for good. In real life, we keep—consciously or subconsciously—reopening that box.

Mad Men, which at first glance seems to be a period drama, has actually proven to be a drama that explores how every rebirth is a repetition. When I first started watching, I’d feel a deep, overwhelming sense of dread with every episode. Ever swig of a martini, every suck on a cigarette, every fuck behind another spouse’s back filled me with great anxiety. On Mad Men, no character (except, arguably, Peggy Olson) is ever able to change, even as the world is rapidly changing around them. Our desire to rebuild our lives is shown to be just as much of an illusion as anything else Don Draper or Peggy or Pete Campbell tries to sell to a client. Both Don and Betty Draper repeat patterns from their old marriage in their new ones. The new ad agency may look different from the old ad agency, but the same ugliness that hid beneath the surface of the old polished veneer is there under bright lights, mod fashion and art deco design.   

In many ways, Mad Men’s insistence on denying us the pleasure of resolution is the secret to its success and the reason so many of us are hooked on it, despite being frustrated that nothing ever really changes, time and time again. Repetition of experience is electric. It grounds us in the past and connects us to the present. We think what we seek is an experience, which is new, but what we really want to feel connected to is an experience that makes us feel happy and safe, in a way we once felt happy and safe before. All addictions are nurtured by our love of repetition, a need to feel as high as we once were, as loved as we once were loved. Don’s continuous cheating has always had a somewhat addictive quality to it. In every case Don wants the simultaneous thrill of the new, along with the comfort of the old.           

The repetition of familiar collective memories and period fashions has always given Mad Men a kind of warm intimacy, which is strange because many of its most fervent viewers haven’t personally experienced the 60s. In an article for Vanity Fair, “You Say You Want a Devolution,” Kurt Anderson claims that this yearning for the past is a peculiar development of the 21st century, which he claims is a reaction to constant technological newness. In Anderson’s view we would rather rehash the past, rather than create anything new at all. We watch television shows that are episodic, where characters continuously revisit experiences, and we live in the age of the remix, where we borrow snippets from the past as a way to reinvent the present.

But, in reality, I don’t think that our desire for repetition is anything new at all. There is something very human about our love of patterns. Our obsession with the past is more than just fashion. It is built into our bones. We harvest food according to different seasons. We pray for different purposes at different times of the day and different times of the year. Ceremonies like graduation and weddings are built into the very fabric of our culture, in both religious and secular settings. Poets and lyricists have long been seduced by repetition. You can find the repeated word or line in a classic love poem, and you can find it in contemporary songs. We sing song refrains ranging from, “Hey Jude” to “Mmm Bop.”  The repeated onomatopoeia word can be sing-songy, as in children’s songs, or visceral and raw. Kanye West’s brutal album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is often about obsession and addiction and its most brutal, harrowing lines are repeated words. When Kanye West sings “bang, bang, bang, bang, bang,” so icy and perfectly metered, on his new album, are these words the sound of a gang-bang or a gunshot? The more we hear a word repeated, the stranger it sounds and the more we re-think meaning.

Anyone who has participated in a writing workshop knows that there is a danger in treating art as personal therapy. Often, especially for beginning writers, we do repeat the same story over and over, until we reach the sense that we have finally get it “right”—we’ve made sense of the motifs we were continuously drawn back to.  My writerly “coming-of-age” was no different. In grad school most of my writing focused on two relationships: my relationship with my mother and a romantic relationship that broke my heart in two.  

One story resolved. For months after the relationship was over the repetition of words from my ex’s poems would drift through my brain at odd intervals, like a song I knew all the words to, until one day, I didn’t remember many of those words at all. At that stage I no longer loved this person any more and it felt like what it had become: a tiny, tender loss, wholly different than the dramatic poems I wrote when I was still angry and passionate about a love I didn’t want to see die.

In contrast, the relationship with my mother evolved. We learned to understand each other. I’m not sentimental by nature. I don’t obsess over pictures. When I move I throw stuff out. My mother is the opposite. She takes forever to get rid of anything. Whenever I go back home, my room is a museum of me, except it isn’t a museum of me at all: it is a museum of the girl I was when I was 15 years old. Whenever I go home I am stunned at how much I’ve changed and how I haven’t changed at all.

Repetition reminds us of that gap within each of us: between that part of us that stays constant and that part of us that is willing and able to evolve. It reminds us that if everything is ephemeral, repetition is all we have. It reminds us there are lovers we will leave behind and mothers we will love forever.

The opening image of Mad Men shows a man falling to his death; in reality, the path down is a spiral rather than a straight line, which means it is ultimately going to take a longer time to bottom out.  This season the space between Don's domination of Sylvia and his tiny voiced “please” begging her to stay is getting narrower and narrower. This season’s first Mad Men episode opened with a scene on the beach and Don reading The Inferno. It ended with an ad that Don created: the image of an empty beach, bare tracks in the sand, discarded clothes, the open ocean. For Don this was an image of escape. For his clients it was an image of a suicide. Escape and suicide have always been dangerously close throughout the series, but this season, we are reminded over and over how it is impossible to only love the beginning of things, when everything that begins is ultimately going to end.

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at George Washington University and American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review, and South Loop Review, and she has twice been listed as a finalist in Glimmertrain's Family Matters Short Story Contests. She is Associate Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.

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2 Comments

  • Rosie | July 9, 2013 4:40 PMReply

    Arguably is right. Peggy has not changed that much, despite her rise in fortune.

  • Karen Knauff | June 19, 2013 10:58 AMReply

    Now I regret dodging Mad Men fever. This essay, Arielle, is beauty and catharsis and darkness somehow wrapped into one.

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