On Mad Men: Season 7, Episode 2
THIS WILL BE OUR YEAR
by Tess McGeer
If I were to assemble a list of the best and most important episodes of Mad Men, nearly all of them would be those which include a prominent role for Sally Draper—and not just because I love Kiernan Shipka’s eyebrows, or because Matt Weiner won out incredibly huge when he cast a round-faced little seven-year-old with a lisp to play his lead character’s daughter all those years ago. Sally’s presence raises the stakes of any episode because she is, at once, the show’s one truly hopeful figure and its rawest nerve. Sally is Don’s one real shot at redemption, and so, in turn, her gaze magnifies all the worst of him. I’ve said a million times that I only care about Don because I care about Sally, but I don’t know that I’ve made clear just how much she makes me care for him. Jon Hamm is at his best opposite Kiernan Shipka, in part because Sally disarms Don in a way that no other character can, but really because she is such an exceptional reactor. There is a power both tender and wise that she brings to scenes in which she is largely silent, being talked at.
Even in this episode, where Sally is more active and confident in conversation with her father than we’ve ever seen her before, it’s the shades of shame, betrayal, and forgiveness moving across her listening face that have the most impact. This more vocal Sally also offers us more chances than ever before to watch Don react in quiet confusion to her, and it turns out it’s very refreshing to see him look surprised. The pair have such chemistry, emotionally engaging a part of me that Mad Men, in all its stylized cynicism, seldom hits.
It’s lazy and kind of uninteresting at this point to draw a line in neon yellow and announce that the main takeaway from this show is that Don Draper doesn’t realize how much he hates women, but that doesn’t make it any less true. To transform, in his mind, “I lied to her” to “she LET me lie to her” is classically Don, but when wielded against his fifteen year old daughter, the one woman we know he loves, it is so much more sinister. When Don has done this in the past (and he has, and he has, and he has), he was actively attacking. Hurting others so as to deny his own hurt. “You let me do this.” It erases blame, replaces it with disgust at the weakness in these women he has mistreated. If they let it happen it’s not his fault. I do not believe that Don wants to hurt Sally; it’s just that same old instinct to lash out at any woman who has peered beneath his lacquered surface and seen the monstrosities lurking there.
Sally is no longer the little girl who ran away from home to make her daddy french toast while wearing his undershirt, but she has yet to move quite so far from his grasp that she would nod in agreement as her mother says, “that poor girl. she doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.” (And Betty doesn’t get nearly enough credit for her ability to see Don for what he is, or for anything, since Weiner is intent on keeping her moments as a dynamic character so few and far between. But, part of what makes Sally so much her father’s better is the way the cool composure he wears like a meticulously pressed suit runs in her (nordic) blood.) Betty was talking about Megan there, ostensibly, but she was talking, too, about herself, her old self, the girl in a yellow bikini that Don could tear down so easily, casually cruel for his own sake. And, because this is Mad Men, she was talking about Don, Don and any faceless woman in a revolving door of need to turn his nose up at.
Season 7 Don isn’t on the offensive the way he once was. This Don who is pretending he wasn’t pushed out of his job, pretending his young wife hasn’t purposefully distanced herself from him—and not just by switching coasts—this Don with nothing left but a fancy apartment and a good jawline, he isn’t running away, chasing after the next bright shiny symbol the way he used to. This Don is sad and scared and grasping at the tatters of his life, trying to act as if they are the splendors they once were. I think what he wants most from Sally, in the moment, is for her to choose to forget his trangressions, this hollowed Don would like her to choose the weakness he so detests, now that he is the one who needs it. He doesn’t really want to be understood, or accepted, even if he does give her a glimpse of something honest in that diner scene where he admits that losing his job was his own fault, that the lies were because he was ashamed. He does not yet have the courage to want anybody to come that close.
What he wants is to play make believe, like the young woman looking at him with heavy eyes is still the little girl in a silver dress gazing up at him as if he were that hero at the awards dinner she was so thrilled to be included in. Perhaps he has forgotten the way she’s read him for what he was all this time, even back on the couch in the old Ossining house. “You say things and you don’t mean them. And you can’t just do that.” She was little then. She let him off the hook. And Sally is soft, but soft and malleable are not one and the same. There is forgiving and there is forgetting. There’s eating the patty melt he buys her and there’s swallowing more of his bullshit.
Sally has always been smart and bold, but she’s just a kid, and she wants a dad that she can love. She is resilient enough—be it through naiveté or bravery or some combination of the two—to keep trying. That clipped “I love you” she graciously gifts him with as he leaves her back at school, though, is bittersweet at best. The vulnerability of the child, the woman—the maturity to expose that knowing what she does. She says it, but she closes the car door immediately, before he can respond, or fail to, embarrassing her either way. She says it, but then walks away without looking back, walks away as her father leans physically forward into the space beside him she has just abandoned, as he follows her every step further away. She can love him and she can leave him; she can do both at once. Don, for his part, who had been trying so hard for the entire trip to win back his daughter’s affection, looks stricken when she finally gives him a taste. Like he can’t believe that she means it, that inside her months of fury there could persist a love. That a child could know her own heart and mind so much better than he has ever known his. (“I’m so many people,” she sighs.)
Additionally, when Sally’s friend told her that they’d hidden the new sandals she bought in the city in the back of her closet by her cleats, I immediately added Sally Draper: Chain-Smoking Field Hockey Star to my ever-growing list of dream Kiernan Shipka-driven spinoffs. Because, I mean, it has to be field hockey, right? The times, they are a changin’, but plucky brats with high ponytails (i.e. me @ sixteen) will still spend their formative years carefully rolling the waistband of a plaid skirt to dress-code violating lengths under the guise of “sport.”
Tess McGeer was restocking paperback mysteries at work this weekend while her friend ran into Kiernan Shipka at Coachella.
Free essay from our new issue: Andrew Root on Magnolia
(artwork by Justin Reed)
A Film in a Minor Key: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia
by Andrew Root
In the Bangkok Post, May 26th, year 1967, there is an account of a concert pianist, a piano, and the pianist’s wife: the humidity of the climate produced a swelling of the felt pads within the piano, causing several of the keys to stick. The wood slowly expanded, warping the strings and changing their pitch and timbre, and what had begun as a performance of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D-minor” finished as “Fantasia and Fugue in G-major,” much to the annoyance of the American pianist, Myron Kropp, who departed the stage in an unexpectedly collected manner. Kropp returned shortly thereafter to destroy the piano in front of the shocked audience using an axe that had been hung backstage in case of fire. Several ushers, the house manager, two stagehands, and a passing police officer eventually succeeded in disarming Kropp and dragging him off stage, but not before he had pulverized the temperamental piano. The Baldwin Concert Grand, generally regarded as a fine instrument, has been noted to be particularly sensitive to its environment, and while many blame the humidity for the instrument’s strange behaviour, others point to the attitude of Kropp himself, who – that very evening before the performance – had murdered his wife with a handgun upon discovering an infidelity. The aforementioned police officer stumbled upon the body of Kropp’s wife and her lover – a man named Gregory Sanford Baldwin – upon returning the pianist to his hotel room to calm down. While the exact cause of this acutely bizarre series of events may never be known, the inextricably interconnected nature of the players in this drama – be they human-to human, human-to-instrument, or instrument-to-climate – bears mentioning. Relationships, in all their forms, are powerful things.
The trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia (which Anderson insisted on personally directing) sells the film–and its multitude of relationships–thusly:
There is the story of a boy genius; and the game show host; and the ex-boy genius. There is the story of the dying man; his lost son; and the dying man’s wife; the caretaker. And there is a story of a mother; and the daughter; and the police officer in love. And this will all make sense in the end.
Paul F. Tompkins (who plays Chad, the “Seduce and Destroy” operator) has remarked that the film has a phone book sized script, and the plot of the movie is that “everyone in the phone book starts talking to each other.” With a cast that features Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards, Philip Baker Hall, Melora Walters, and William H. Macy—among dozens of others, all of whom have a distinct storyline which criss-crosses nearly every other character’s—it’s an apt description. Each character is introduced in a self-contained manner; this is a parent, this is a child, this is a genius, this is a misogynist, this is a drug addict. When you first meet these characters, they are striking in their completeness. Cruise’s Frank ‘T.J.’ Mackey is a force of nature as undeniable as a thunderstorm as he leads his “dating” seminar to a packed room of grunting dudes. Walters’ Claudia Wilson-Gator is hopelessly broken, bringing random men to bed in her drug-filled, bed-sheets-for-curtains apartment. Hall’s Jimmy Gator is a charming, beloved tv host. Robards’ Earl Partridge is a cranky old man. Hoffman’s Phil Parma is a nice guy. You can pick them out as easily as notes on a scale. This is a C, this is an F, this is a B-flat.
I took piano lessons for six years, and my favourite pieces to play were always in a minor key. These songs could be haunting, or threatening, or melancholic, and they could contain moments both soft and dark, all depending on the relationships between the notes – a single semi-tone one way or the other could transform a phrase entirely, taking it from joyous and celebratory to mysterious and contemplative. At the height of my ability, before I lost interest in the classical standards that were being provided, I once transposed The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” from major to minor (you can hear a similar exercise here). A simple change in the relationships of the notes gave the song a new emotional resonance; what was once a song about helping a sad child come into the sunlight became the tale of a kid on whom it never stops raining. Every lyric became bitterly ironic, the final chant becoming a jeering taunt. The song still felt valid, neither better or worse.
There are a lot of people who are stuck in the rain. There’s a regretful, absentee husband who lies dying of the disease that killed his wife; there’s a boy genius who was betrayed by his parents; there’s a father who wants to confess all of his sins, but not that, please no, I won’t speak of that. There’s the story of a man who pressure moulds a lifetime of grief into a domineering need for control; of a daughter whose self-medication speaks to her stripped ability to trust; of the nicest person you’d ever want to meet who has the saddest job in the world. And these things happen all the time.
And then frogs fall from the sky. And the piano re-tunes itself. And these are also things that happen. Because we may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us. What we’ve done and what’s been done to us informs our present moments almost entirely; an old man wakes up and sees his estranged son before he dies, allowing the son to confront a lack of control he’s been avoiding for years; a police officer realizes that helping people is more than just his job; a man who has a deeply buried secret is denied the chance to take his own life with his crimes unspoken; and an exploited child regards the chaotic storm with serene calm, perhaps knowing that while some things in life just happen, many more things are distinctly in his control.
How do we take part in a world in which things “just happen?” Comedian Tig Notaro, a regular at the Los Angeles nightclub Largo—also frequented by Paul Thomas Anderson— recently endured a string of things which “just happened” (chronicled on her album, Live). She contracted pneumonia, followed by a life-threatening intestinal infection called “C. diff.” A few days after she was released from the hospital, her mother died unexpectedly. She broke up with her girlfriend, and was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts which required a double mastectomy. This lifetime’s worth of tragedy took place over just four months, which caused Notaro to remark that it was difficult to hold a conversation without sounding like a “total drama queen.” She concludes by saying that she still can’t quite make sense of it all, but she’s hopeful, joking about a dementedly self-assured God who is sure she can take a few more hits. In one of Magnolia’s most striking sequences, the characters – each lonely, broken, confused and at their lowest—sing Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up.” They’re dying, and betrayed, and so uncertain of what lies ahead that the repeated line “it’s not going to stop” feels like it’s referring to their respective misfortunes.
The song’s final line (“so just… give up”) feels like a particularly crushing blow, but giving up isn’t always a defeat. Giving up, giving in, giving over to the flow of events that life sends your way can be freeing. The joke is that it’s all a joke; life is painfully funny. And life goes on; things keep happening, some planned, others not so. You lose your parents, and you have a child that you love more than anything. You hurt people that you love, and maybe they forgive you. You work in a job that strains you more than anything because it helps people. You can feel the weight of every bad decision you’ve ever made, but you use the regret to make things better. Life isn’t going to stop raining frogs on us, so just… give up. Give in. Give over. And if the past isn’t through with us, then we need to use the present to do good. (It’ll be the past soon enough.)
The account of the pianist Myron Kropp is actually an urban legend, though the murder of the pianist’s wife was my own addition. Similarly, the stories of the murdered pharmacist, the dead scuba diver in the tree, and the suicidal teenager noted as an accomplice in his own murder which are featured in Magnolia’s opening are also urban legends (with various details added by Anderson). When I think about Magnolia, I first think about the cosmic improbability of the relationships featured therein, and a quick story about an equally improbable set of relationships helped me approach and unlock this film that I’ve been returning to for over a decade now. Perhaps I can’t say why Magnolia made such an impact on my filmic landscape. Maybe it was coincidence, or chance; maybe it “just happened” that I first saw it in a darkened dorm room at the rare invitation of a group of older students, but watching the stories of these characters made me feel like I was leaving one part of my life behind and entering into a new phase. It felt like so much more than coincidence.
In 1997, Paul Thomas Anderson saw his father die of cancer, a condition which sadly seems to “just happen.” The loss of a parent is a downpour of frogs, and can’t help but be a defining moment in a person’s life. Graduating from high school and moving away from home might only require watching a movie to help make sense of it, but for something on the scale of the loss of a parent, sometimes an intense philosophical reimagining is required. Sometimes we tell stories to help understand moments like these. Magnolia’s trailer promises that this will all make sense in the end, but the trailer itself ends with Frank Mackey, sitting in his interview chair, asking “was that unclear?”
“Kind of,” replies Gwenovier, the interviewer.
“Oh, god,” says Frank, twisting his mouth in mock apology. This is Anderson winking at us—his film is going to be complicated, and it’s going to be difficult, and it’s going to be in a minor key. And this is true not just his film, but also of the experience of life itself. And if you’ve ever seen the video of the director horsing around behind the scenes with Philip Seymour Hoffman, being an absolute goofball while filming a scene directly inspired by one of the most tragic events of his life, you know that he gets the big joke: it all makes sense in the end, even if it makes no sense at all.
Andrew Root is a professional part-time job holder, and a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. He lives by a creek in Peterborough, Ontario.
This essay currently appears in the April 2014 issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room Magazine. To read the rest of the issue, download the Bright Wall/Dark Room app to your iPhone or iPad for free, or purchase a copy of the issue for just $1 and receive full access to the issue online.