White Awake by Daniel Hill, Free for CAPC Members
White Awake brings us back again and again, gently but inexorably, to the truths that we’re so unwilling to face, steadily prying our hands from our eyes.
Each week, Alissa Wilkonson reflects on the latest episode of AMC’s Mad Men.
I’ve been trying to decide—for years, literally—if Mad Men is a tragedy or a comedy.
In classical story structure, a tragedy is best represented by a straight line that declines as it moves along its X-axis. At the beginning of the story, the characters’ fortunes are good, or at least better than they are at the end.By the end of a comedy, while all might not be right in the world, things have been rearranged so that they’re a little more right than they once were.
In a Shakespearean tragedy, they’re probably dead by the end.
A comedy, on the other hand, isn’t classically something that’s primarily marked by humor (even though it might be funny). Rather, it’s represented by a circular line, one in which the final point is near the first, but a little higher up on the Y-axis.
To the ancients, that “higher” point meant that the characters’ situations had changed in a way that put them closer to the perfection of the gods. There was a lot of mess along the way, and people did things they shouldn’t have, but something like grace broke through anyhow.
Comedies can have their sad moments, and tragedies (like Breaking Bad) can be hilarious. But by the end of a comedy, while all might not be right in the world, things have been rearranged so that they’re a little more right than they once were.
Tragedies make us aware of the world’s fallenness; comedies promise us that there is something better in store for us. Both force us to see ourselves as dynamic, changing individuals, and both make us long for a perfected end state, an eschaton.
To be sure, Mad Men is often very sad. People die or get divorced or are just generally awful people. And sometimes it’s downright hilarious, often (but not always) in a dark, dismal, or shocking way. (Sometimes those things intertwine: Roger’s one-liners, or the old unforgettable episode with the lawnmower.)
Call me a nerd, but I’m still obsessed with this genre question when it comes to Mad Men. The real tell will be the ending, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be a little of both. And yet, six episodes from the end, “New Business” seems to indicate the show might be tracking along the comedy route.
Take, for instance, Betty’s kitchen, where Don is making milkshakes for his (rarely seen) sons in the first scene. When his ex-wife arrives back home, they hold a cordial conversation (of course, don’t forget they had a brief fling not long ago). They smile at one another, and it seems genuine, even if Don lingers a moment in the doorway to watch the scene he could have been part of, once upon a time.
That’s about the brightest scene in the episode, but it persists in circling back around to old attachments. There’s a tense (but funny) elevator meeting with Sylvia, with whom Don had an affair, and her husband. (I doubt they’ll be playing any squash any time soon.)
Definitely not cordial: Megan’s interactions with Don, once they get face-to-face. Two episodes ago, in last year’s mid-season finale, Megan ended things with Don over the phone. He told her he’d take care of her as long as she needed; she at first refused, but she needs it, and has apparently been taking him up on his offer.
This episode’s conversation shows that communications have been tense, but friendly enough—that is, until family gets involved. (Isn’t that how it always is?) On Megan’s unwitting behalf, all Don’s furniture is carted away (he’s thinking of selling the apartment anyway, he tells Diana), and the final scene has him standing in the middle of that empty room.
Maybe it’s being back in New York, or probably it’s her blatantly toxic mother and sister, or definitely it’s Harry’s clumsy and offensive advances at lunch. But Megan absorbs enough frustration with the situation to lash out at Don, in un-Megan-ish ways, when they finally arrive to sign the divorce papers. Don’s million-dollar response, though, indicates that he’s grown up. And we know Megan: she will bounce back.
There is actually some new business happening in this episode, too—Pete and Don go golfing, which is almost too funny a scenario to imagine, especially Pete in those pants—but as with everything in this show, that’s barely the point. If “Severance” was about characters cutting off ties to the lives they could have led, “New Business” is about (some of) them clearing away old ties in preparation for something new. Megan’s mother calls Roger again and finally ends it with her philandering, uninterested husband. Stan gets into it with the famous photographer. And of course, Don tries to do the right thing by Megan.
Doing that right thing may indicate that formerly hot-headed Don, once prone to dispensing cutting comebacks to those who attacked him (like Megan), might be growing up. He certainly seems to indicate that in his interactions with Diana the waitress, who is undoubtedly living some kind of tragedy.
With Diana, she’s patient and kind, even as she’s grieving. When Don tells her he’s ready to do it right this time, it seems like he’s not being coy. Don seems done with the three-girls-on-speed-dial lifestyle (a few decades too early). He genuinely regrets hurting Megan. He stays at home and is late to work to hold a crying, grieving woman he barely knows. It could be—just maybe—that he wants to get it right this time.
The thing about comedies is that their circular structure doesn’t necessarily leave everyone happier. They just need to be better, wiser, more mature, perhaps less of a screw-up than they were back in the pilot.
Mad Men is a two-track tale, the story of Don Draper and of Peggy Olson. We meet them the same day, and we watch them walk down parallel tracks for years. Other characters have met with tragedy, comedy, or tragicomedy—witness the fates of Lane, Burt Cooper, Ginsberg, Rachel Menken, innumerable secretaries.
I find this strangely comforting. Mad Men seems to be asking the question, all along, of whether people ever change. It seems like it might be saying that people’s innate desires don’t change—for promotion, for safety, for happiness, for power—but that the way they react to those desires can change. Some of them remain petulant children, like Roger Sterling (though even he’s had his moments); others, however, seem to hit walls and change, even a little.
In Mad Men, though, as in life, change is very nearly imperceptible. You can spend years watching the show before you realize something has morphed or grown. It is the definition of a slow burn, but then again—isn’t life? The very imperceptibility of change gives me hope that the people who watch me live my life may, someday, see the macro change in the micro steps. I’ll always be me—but maybe someday I’ll be a wiser me.
In any case, whether Mad Men ultimately ends as a comedy or a tragedy is up to Peggy and Don, now. Five episodes left. Let’s hope for the best.
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