8.14.2020

All These Images of Time: On "Mad Men"


I could begin anywhere. For instance, with the persistent theme of the "return of the repressed" — the way Don's and America's pasts make themselves known as they disrupt the shiny glean of a consumerist now. Think of Don's "meltdown" in the Hershey pitch: he just can't tell that narrative of the happy childhood they need so badly to sell their chocolate. Instead, they get Don talking about a darker America, born in violence and neglect. The return of the repressed is a fold in time, a past rearing its head in the now, often indirectly and always according to the ways of this or that person.

But I choose this one scene — Megan singing Zou Bisou for Don's surprise birthday party — precisely because it's so well known and yet the drive of its drama is complex, exceeding the casual thumbs up and down, the offhand, "She looks so great...." And so I ask you this: What is the drama of this scene?

We could say it's Megan's lack of propriety, that she's so socially oblivious and self-absorbed that she can't read the room and becomes a clown — a kind of Michael Scott (from the American version of "The Office"). But that doesn't seem right at all; Megan has none of Michael Scott's pandering insecurities fueled by a sense of propriety gleaned from mass discourse, making him oblivious to his immediate situation. The comedy in "The Office," which is dark, is someone so desperate to belong but the only way he knows is from watching movies, making for so many mishaps. That's not Megan.

Nor is it the architecture of this scene — or show. There is no fixed ground here, no Jim mugging for the camera with that unbearable, knowing smirk. "Mad Men" is fundamentally decentered, free of a ground that knows once and for all. So while the drama of this scene does indeed turn on modes of propriety, it is not a matter of her obliviously breaking rules while the rest of us look on in horror. Rather, the drama these temporal trajectories refusing to coalesce, these modes of becoming moving along lines of different speed, rhythm, and intensity. In this scene, we are witness to all these different times at once expressed in faces around the room, each a different image of time lived through — Bert Cooper, the British Pryces, the gay black emcee. These modes of going inevitably intermingle as they do and will every day in this living — coalescing, clashing, folding, and sometimes just passing each other, each oblivious to the travels of the other. What makes this scene so poignant is not that one character is acting without propriety; it's that we see all these different ways of going that don't as much clash per se as yield shimmering dissonances.

Megan is not oblivious. She simply, or not so simply, inhabits a mode of becoming that is different. Of course, that's possible in any social setting. I spend much of my life inhabiting a different mode of becoming than those around me, making for tragic-comic events all the time. But what this scene, and "Mad Men" in general, gives us are these disjunctures of, in, and as time. It's not just a case of different propriety, a spatial matter of two different modes occupying the same space. No, it's the dissonance of rapid change among these varied modes of becoming, each with their own distribution of sense and propriety, all under conditions of rapid change now known as "the 60s."

We know this experience personally from dealing with our families — parents but also grandparents and sometimes great grandparents, although, as we spawn later and later in life, fewer and fewer of us get to enjoy great grandparents. My great grandmother died at 101, in Co-Op city in Bronx, NY. My mother had her three children by the time she was 27;  I was the last. We'd go to great grandma's little apartment in this housing development where she inevitably made kreplach which my mother always described as delicious but such a potsch!

My point is not that we all live with different customs because, well, duh. I'm saying we live in different times, different temporal trajectories that distribute time as they distribute bodies and mores. There's a Jerry Seinfeld joke that whatever parents were wearing at their last great moment becomes what they wear all the time as time slows to a near halt. I felt that that in that little, kasha scented apartment in Co-Op city: of all the places in the world this Jewish woman from Poland had been, time dragged to a halt here. And so of course she made kreplach for everyone.




Now, more often than not, time is presented to us as spatial, something people live on rather than as. Think of "All in the Family." Archie is from one univocal time; Meathead from another; and so they fight, like warring nations. In that show, time is a place one inhabits. Conflict is the most common mode but there's nostalgia, too, à la "The Wonder Years." In both cases, time is a place we visit, not something we are.

"Mad Men" gives us a show about the 60s that takes a whole other tack, proffering a fundamentally different conception of time. It doesn't give us a show about conflicting modes of going but of changing modes of going. It's focus is not inter-generational conflict, even if that arises here and there, mostly between Peggy and her mother. No, the show is this experience of rapid change in which said change happens at different paces in different ways for different people. The ensuing swirl is the very stuff of the show, its drama and pathos.

In "Mad Men," time is not external to living. On the contrary, time is all these lives happening at once, each in its own duration, rhythm, and intensity. If in "All in the Family," characters are either then or now — here or there — in "Mad Men," they are distinct temporal trajectories playing out this change according to their circumstances and metabolism — what Henri Bergson would call their duration.

Take Roger. He drops acid and has orgies with young hippies. But it's clearly not that Roger has left his own land and moved into this new territory. After all, Roger refuses to work with Honda because it's a Japanese company — and his friends died in the Pacific theater, dammit!  Look at the scene below: he's an acid in the roaring 60s but what does he see? The 1919 World Series. Time, here, is a fold.


Change, "Mad Men" argues, is not a uniform progression or march forward (or backward). Most of Roger's cohorts do not drop acid. Change, the show argues, is a process of different strata moving at different speeds, folding temporal trajectories at odd angles. These strata, these different layers and streams, flow through us; we are this assemblage of these flows, each of us multiple times just as we are time. Roger is not old or new; he is this time, Roger-becoming.

To wit, Roger's old school decadence folds neatly with the 60s drug infused free love, even if an abyss yawns between them as they get it on. It's not that Roger now lives in the new world of swinging hippies, saying yes as Meathead does in "All in the Family." Rather, Roger's particular mode of entitled decadence meshes with these aspects of hippy play, forming local harmonies while never quite merging per se. He is multiple; time is multiple. One stream of his multiplicity — his landed wealthy decadence — flows well, to a point, with newfound hippy decadence (which is itself a going backward as it goes forward, a return to Eden and even further back for, as Joni Mitchell tells us, we are billion year old carbon and we've got to get ourselves back to the Garden).

History, the show tells us, is lived through. It's not something that happens outside us; it happens as us. Each of us bears history in our own way, in our own time. Picture Pete's old money, his inherited entitlement, and his father's disdain for the new world of advertising just as Pete falls in love with LA and sideburns. Or Betsy's adamant clinging to a way things were — even as she begins taking psychology classes. Take the Heinz ad from Megan: beans spanning back to the Stone Age and on to the moon. And the moon, again, where Hilton wants to be — capitalism as spatializing time, all the better to occupy it. Betsy's father dies and returns, in the eyes of Sally, as her little brother, Gene. Joan wants nothing but a husband and, in the end, chooses business over a would-be marriage. It's not that she's liberated; it's that the possibility of this way of going finds expression in her, with her, as her. And, of course, Don — a man so thoroughly haunted by his past that he's never really present but as a symptom.

Such is history. It's not continental drifts and tectonic shifts — from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and beyond! No, it's these different speeds and modes, all these rhythms and trajectories, at once.

The brilliance of "Mad Men" is that it breaks with the all-too-familiar narrative of the 60s in which we're all supposed to be catching up with this newfound enlightenment, even as some cling to their Dark Ages mentality (and even if Manson is a warning). I've been watching "The Great" on Hulu, a show about Catherine the Great, and while it is beautifully produced, the show has a position it doesn't question: the Enlightenment is good while the brutish, sexist, violent ways of the past are not. "The Great" is grounded by and with its assumption of Enlightened liberal good will which is a uniform march, a new land you either live in or don't. "Mad Men" offers no such thing.

The show doesn't have a position. It's not arguing for or against newfound sexuality, the 50s mode of child neglect, or racial integration. It is simply, or not so simply, following these different temporal flows as they play out. The show doesn't offer a fixed perspective; this is not a tale of humanity's progress or regress. Like the "Sopranos" on which he worked, Matthew Weiner assumes complexity as the basis of character and story.

"Mad Men," however, is much more complex in its relationship to time. "Mad Men" takes on Tony's return of the repressed — via Don but also via America — and offers so many other streams and trajectories, so many other temporal distributions and folds. For "The Sopranos," morality is lived through, local and complex, as fits its explicit subject: the mafia. "Mad Men," meanwhile, is nominally about advertising — and what is advertising but narratives, organizations of time, of cause and effect, stories of the past, present, future, and how this product and your desires fit into that tale, that temporal organization?

"Mad Men," with seeming ease, presents the complexity of time as ever multiple and lived through. It doesn't just give us a changing "culture" to which characters react. Rather, it present us characters as individuals becoming as a certain speed, rhythm, and intensity of time, of change. Culture, it argues, doesn't happen to us; we are as much agents as constituents. We are time, each of us, in our own time.

The French philosopher, Henri Bergson, argues that time is not exterior to matter. Which is to say, there is not first the world of three dimensions to which time is added. Matter is four dimensional (at least) to begin with: it occupies space and time in such and such a way — length, width, height, duration (which includes rhythm). Clock time is spatial, the movement from this notch to that. But Bergson's time is all these durations at once, enduring as they do and will. All these images of time.

This is the great brilliance of the show: time is not an external term that characters react to. Time is their various and shifting modes of behavior, their embodiment of time and time as their embodiment. "Mad Men" revels in the complexity of time, the shifting speeds of change that each character embodies and performs.



This all makes me think of the achingly brilliant "Deadwood." Like "Mad Men," the series presents us a time of great change, namely, the imminent statehood of the Dakotas. But, like "The Sopranos," "Deadwood" focuses on the ethical strata and complexity of its situation — frontier America — and all the ways people can and do interact when there is no clear top down order, when accepted propriety holds little water.

But then, 13 years after its third and final season aired, we watch "Deadwood: the Movie" and see that David Milch has changed the terms of the image from ethical to temporal complexity. To watch that film is to endure so many times at once, dripping with all the attending pathos (I, for one, cried throughout, time all so much to bear). I'd call it all unspeakable were it not for Milch's demand and gift for the effable. The film is something to behold — all these times lived through by characters we've come to know and now see again, time passed in such and such a way for each. As Jonathan Englander writes, "with the few scenes he could spare for each character and storyline, [Milch] delivered a pointillist meditation on time — all the great, yawping changes it brings, all the things that stand immutable, and pretty much whatever lies in between."

The time image is not a flashback. All too often, the flashback is linear, univocal time: I am here but remember that over there. It's a spatial pointing to. No, the time image is duration itself writ on screen, as screen, a living through of each element in its own time, even within the same image. The time image is an assemblage of time, all these durations at once.

Look at pretty much any scene in "Mad Men" and you'll see all these times in their own speeds and rhythms. It's bewildering, a temporal kaleidoscope. Such is time, history, change: always multiple, always lived through. We are, all, images of time.

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