Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Chop wood, carry Sponsors: the MAD MEN Finale

This weekend's TV was momentous with AMC's crown jewel ending at the beginning of the glorious Free to Be You and Me 1970s. Don Draper finally hit bottom and was in the right place at the right time to surrender, couched in the loving heart of the American 12-Step share. After sneering through the consciousness-raising retreat center, ambling after the niece of his fake wife, the closest thing to a mother or lover he has left, and finally driving her away through his last straw / drowning man clinging. He's along for the ride, she splits on him, leaves him there, but it turns out he's the one who's finally ready. At last, utterly beaten, he's able to rise up and hug a shlemiel in a group therapy session. And that frees him. Dude, it happens. Don't quit before the miracle and the miracle only comes when you're so near quitting. When you get down so low you can finally launch yourself up from the bottom, and crack off the last few shreds of your toxic ego and rise, humble, beautiful, drenched in loving tears, the blood of the lamb. I been there!

So it was good omen that led immediately to what he had been looking for (unbeknownst to him or us), the perfect Coca-Cola commercial, one that would define the decade itself: a seamless interweaving of the mainstream popular plastic packaging, post-Aquarius encounter group openness, commercialization and open collar freedom, it offered a freedom beyond the boy's club sexo-alcoholic escapism of the Don Draper sixties. It offered a freedom that understood no one escapes oneself for long, and the minute you stop trying, start moving towards yourself in others, then joy comes dropping down like a cartoon anvil. Hugging the shlemiel (Evan Wood, below) is the first truly free thing Don's ever done, to release seven seasons worth of accumulated stress, of the Don Draper mask, the alpha male swagger, collapsing like a globally warmed iceberg and just hugging it out with a weak-chinned balding charismatically challenged schlub, the kind I used to be always mean to, fearing if I was nice they'd hang around and try to poach foxes, embarrassing themselves, chasing off foxes and cramping my style by association. Learning to recognize myself in them, to love even them unconditionally, was the biggest surrender I ever had to make. Part of me always knew it and hated to be reminded.

And just when you thought things were getting kind of wholesome, pure, believing the Aquarius line, it comes in fully with "I'd like to teach the world to sing" extended length commercial, played in full. Watching, transfixed, still moved, I could remember hearing that song everywhere in the 70s as a kid and when I was getting sober in 1998, detoxing at home alone, bawling to the "Thank You" video by Alanna Morissette, which was on constantly in the last days of music video-playing MTV. As she sang, I could literally hear and feel the iceberg in me finally melting enough that it just split and cracked open and dissolved, right in the midst of an AA meeting on a late Friday afternoon in 1999, triggered by my self-imposed humiliation over walking in late with squeaky shoes, toxins and sweat, laughter and tears and rose-tinted waves of gratitude all pouring forth like the incoming warm ocean. And the guy qualifying was just some old bitter ex-GI, ranting about how his true self is a crotchety old bastard. But he broke me. My true self could be a bastard too, and it was all right.

The Nordic Aliens bring their universal message

And to this last episode's credit there were no little montage vignettes woven in during the Coca-Cola commercial, no carousel pics of Betts and Don at the dance, or forward to Roger's third wedding, or Don getting the Clio for the ad. It's not even clear for sure if he came back to McCann and pitched his revelation, or ever went back at all, and someone else pitched it. And that's the genius, for in committing to meditation all that stuff ceases to matter --it's a new day, beyond duality.

And to me, my interpretation, he did pitch it. It's his career capstone. Because if he did, then the entire show from beginning to end makes a post-modern socio-historical Guy Debord meets Alcoholics Anonymous kind of sick sense. And it's so glorious to see how the show really understands these kinds of breakthroughs, as of course no actor is worth a damn unless they've already worked through a lot of it. And moments like these remind us that being able to act deeply emotional 'true' stuff hinges on such unrelenting self-honesty. And that's how fiction ends up being truer than truth. How Don is as a fiction is truer than any real person can be. I know it sounds corny, but I'm getting weepy just thinking about it.


And most unique to the 70s too, we were all--the entire nation--into that song. We all knew and know all the words, not that there's many. Because irony didn't exist in the popular media; we were too open-hearted and there weren't enough channels or options to separate us, no other devices on which to watch things. In the 70s we all had to endure each other's programming and the kids never got first draft choice if dad was around, but we were always in the same room, seeing the same things. Bored as hell as Meet the Press droned on Sunday mornings, for example, though dad might let us see Sesame Street later, because he thought it was pretty cool, good music. It left us all with a cross-generational water cooler currency woefully missing from today's everybody on their own screen post-nuclear familial structure. That's how that Coke commercial crossed the generations, it bonded the entirety of the nation in its moment.

TV was a shared language in the 70s but it was the EST and therapy groups and encounter sessions that brought us closest. Even if your parents didn't go, some couple they knew did, and the message of openness and being 'perfect in the now' crossed from that couple to your parents and outwards in a loving pink energy ripple effect. Parents knew how to treat us like people rather than dolls, to not hold on tight or try to align us to their thinking, not to live through us or rather evaluate their worth as humans via what daycare we tested into. They were them and we were us and all were okay. This kind of encounter group wildfire helped prep me for later yoga classes, acid, and eventually AA. Don's encounter group scene's tremendous cathartic power comes from that same rippling love wave, the time when yoga and meditation were brand new to the west. There was no arguing with the resulting slow burn awakening as the news of inner peace's availability spread (like that 70s Faberge Organics shampoo spot: "tell two friends / and they'll tell two friends / and so on / and so on").
It's the same with Don's mountain retreat moment, as we say in AA, "your own best thinking got you here" - which has about two dozen dual meanings. To be able to commit to a meditation class without smirking, or judging, being able to take instruction from a young hippie kid in the lotus position, to get the message rather than let your ego--like a jealous rival--convince you to hang back and judge the messenger, to sneer at such naked emotional simplicity rather than leave that jealous ego in the dust, to shiver in the naked heat of the sun rather than run back to the iceberg re-freezing warmth of the bar. But looking at the entirety of his seemingly haphazard journey west, we see how every little incident led to this moment, from the invite to the Veteran's fundraiser to giving some snotty thief his car, all step by step, like a careful opponent making sure all his enemy's (i.e. ego's) avenues of escape are blocked before springing the iceberg break coup de grace. If he had his car he would have quit before the miracle (as we say in AA), if the guy speaking had been attractive, or young, or old, or somehow different enough to be either desirable or a threat it wouldn't have worked, if that mopey bitch in that first encounter group hadn't cross-talked about being abandoned by her mom, then his ride wouldn't have bailed, and so forth.

Don was hugging the shlemiel not because he heard, as we say in the rooms, his own story, or recognized the dawning of the commercialization of the Age of Aquarius. But because he saw beyond himself, and knew this person was him, and was Jesus, and the dying Betts, and his children, and whore mother, and brother he drove to suicide, all wrapped into one flag-draped coffin of a rainbow child. But Do is an ad man to his core, and even there in the crucible of surrender, lurks the next gold ring. For him they are inseparable but that's the thing you go into the wilderness of Self but if you don't bring back a present, a souvenir we can use here in the communal house, you just wasted our time telling us about it. We're conditioned to accept that from popular culture, so maybe it doesn't even get our French theory noses in a twist when right after the credits comes a car commercial with Jon Hamm voiceover. The average critic writing about the show doesn't mention that, doesn't see it in the context of the show itself. But any acidhead huckster would note, that's SYNERGY too!

It's because I'm a Pisces and a child of the 70s that I can both scoff at astrology and yet know it's true, and it's because I have seen the land beyond duality that I know duality is beautiful as long as you know it's fiction. And I know that fiction is far truer than reality in depicting reality, and I've hallucinated enough to know never to believe my own eyes or ears so when skeptics say they need such evidence to be convinced of flying saucers I snort derisively. I feel waves of selfless gratitude and secretly mock those I deem less humble and I get that irony and yet prefer to laugh at myself rather than try and change it. And I know I can cry and feel bad about pollution all I want, but that never helps things. I can donate $ or volunteer without losing the joy or sense everything's okay. I know I should meditate and feel joy and love and put it out there to those who need it, not who's hot or deserves it, to effect change. Not for nothing Jesus washed the feet of the lepers, not the supermodels. Don's phone call to Peggy clearly indicates he's planning a suicide, and the ego is so entrenched it needs a bomb threat to leave the building. But that's how it is. You gotta get low to get high. But fuck that, bro. I knew even in my awakening of spirit that I'd have to be nice to ugly idiots to keep the buzz alive, and instead I ran and ran. By the time I stopped it was ready it was the 90s, and too damn late. Now there was the internet, and SSRIs. My hair was not on fire so I was no longer willing to dive into the well.

I'd like at this juncture to thank those who got me here. God, my sponsor, my therapist, the makers of Effexor, Wellbutrin, Neurontin, Robert Duvall in The Apostle, and Helen Slater (left), this wizened broad (aptly, her first role was in 1984 as Supergirl!) eyes tired but serene with the gaze of one who's come through the inferno to the light of forgiveness and unconditional love and who brings Don to the point of his. She reminded me of the cool people who kept me coming back to AA in the very very beginning, the ones who barely said a word other than 't'sup?' after the more overt and smiling welcome committees scared me off time and time again. Slater's wizened woman says and does the same things these t'sup people did to keep me coming back and give me the final gentle push through the breakthrough door (see: CinemArchetype 11 - The Wild Wise Woman) rather than trying to drag me through like a stubborn mule.  She comes to him not as a future conquest, or yet another mother on the run from her child (his favorite brand) but as merely a gentle guide who knows, as so many did for me, that anything more than almost nothing was too much. There's a moment before the shlemiel takes the talking chair where she looks and smiles over at Don as if inviting him up but doesn't coax, sensing his inner ice already beginning to break and not wanting to push him. And when he stands up walks over to him she just gives the faintest of smiles, not the 'I made this happen' thing, but the joy of the truly enlightened upon seeing the course of dharma in action and gratitude that they've been blessed with being awake enough to pick up on dharma's plans like it's some kind of subatomic benevolent Dr. Mabuse. That's her gift and as the lighting cues ever so perceptively shift, we realize with her help the episode's stealthily gone from inviting us to sneer along with Don at all the new age claptrap to weeping at being once lost and now found, in the same moving way Clark Gable did in Strange Cargo! Or Billy Bob Thornton in The Apostle!

Helen Slater, showing she always had a way with reticent buds (Supergirl, 1984)
And that's how it happens, to we who have had the terror of death's visit and the post-ghost Scrooge satori, who've walked in late to an AA meeting with super squeaky shoes, and went--in a final cracked dam buckling we can actually hear in our soul. I felt like my older brother ego finally passed the joystick after banging around the same game level for 30 years, and my inner little brother picked it up and effortlessly opened six new levels, including the exit. Freedom. Ugly or old, fat or anorexic who cares, bro? You're a child of God. I love all things scrooge satori merry xmas you old building and loan. I love you all as I used to think I loved myself, but only a sick sadist would treat someone he professed to love so harshly as I treated me. "Self-seeking will slip away" is one of the AA Promises that does come true, it's the 'slipping away' part that intrigued me when I'd read them up on the wall, as if it wasn't something done consciously, it just happened on its own, like baby teeth falling out. When the egoic whipping boy construct of self is gone, the collapse of the persona illusion of difference falls soon after. What remains? Only Love.

It's what makes a Subaru a Subaru.

So we mustn't think of these events we've seen in Mad Men as fake, or either cynical (the 'Coke Meditations') or sincere.  Having lost both my parents recently and neither one of them much for protracted death scenes (my mom lied to everyone until right up to the last minute, so we wouldn't worry or try to come visit). I also was moved by January Jones' own melting frostiness. She showed in her one telephone scene that her frosty stiffness over the previous seasons was not just because she was a bad actor (and --especially with her wooden acting in X-Men--we wondered). But it all pays off for this one beautiful scene on the phone, the one final moment of these two emblems of the 60s, each accustomed to the social order elevating them by virtue of charismatic superiority, each clinging to the tenets and terms of their social personae until they finally in this moment break and they can surrender to their real feelings (a mirror to the telephone making intimacy possible too in the conclusion of the Peggy arc). But it doesn't matter at all- it still counts, the phone; these moments of redemption are what makes all the bullshit not just necessary but worth enduring. The longer the climb the better the sledding, and what other reason for reaching the top is there than to sled? Behold a white horse. And the man that snorted it was Death. But first, Coke added life, and was the real thing. And he rode it.

Until the fuckin' 80s, man. Don't get me started...


  1. Oh thank god! Finally! Exhale...

  2. Yes! Good Lord Yes! I was really kind of bugged by the internet's immediate linking of Don's Om Face to the ding of the singing bowl to the commercial. Like, No, well, yes, okay, but not like that! Not instantly like that, not in the lotus. Sigh. What a delightful payoff. I loved it from beginning to end and when i had my shoulder replacement last summer, watched it like I was talking a class on it. I thought the Forgetful Schlemiel was a kind of call back to the spiel Bob Phillips was making about the Specific Man in Ohio, or Wisconsin, who has a lawn mower...The spiel that made Don just have to walk out. That was a big deal. Typing those together, the deep down inarticulate disgust with research statistics, and then this sweater guy telling his truth, and it sounding so much like what he was being targeted to sell lite beer to. Part of it anyway. You know? It was just so beautiful. Really moving. He grabbed on and let go. To go from the Bonneville Salt Flats at 130 mph to sitting still. Bravo.

  3. I watched most of this series because others who I spend time with loved it. I liked iti, but it never felt like anything happened in it to me (leading o0thers to say I "didn't get it."

    I was never sure whether I was supposed to like the characters.

    I did like the ending, though.


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