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Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

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John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

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Entries in mad men (45)


In Which We Dance With The One Who Brought Us

Catch Up


Mad Men
creator Matthew Weiner

The devil has joined Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in the form of Bob Benson (James Wolk). Last week he stood in an elevator with Don long enough to make the hairs rise on the back of my neck, and Sunday night he bought toilet paper for Pete Campbell. I'm not sure what it is about him, but anybody who seems squeaky clean and has no function in the narrative except to take notes in client meetings and make other characters raise quizzical brows in his direction is scary enough to make me run in the other direction. 

Honestly, it would not take much to give us the jitters at this point; the discomfort introduced last week only grew in this episode, garnished with two well-placed allusions to North Korea. That Mad Men evokes our contemporary struggles has been apparent from the beginning, but the distance between then and now was obliterated with Dr. Rosen's wry, "No one took Fidel Castro seriously," right before he rushed off to another surgery. It's an old trick, confronting our fears in fiction. Is learning blind better than observing a lesson and ignoring it?

Similarly, we sense that it is Bob Benson who will watch and take notes as the agency goes up in flames. I half expect to see him slinking around corners with his legal pad and pen, sitting on left shoulders and whispering in ears. He'll be an enabler, opening windows for others to jump out of, pouring that extra glass of whiskey.

Sorry for all the doom and gloom, but how could I think otherwise? Two brief flashbacks to a young Don Draper unveil a lurid fragment of his piecemeal past. That he was raised for a time in a brothel seems too simple an explanation for his relationship with women. I would be more tempted to blame it on a desire to compensate for the many awkward years he spent in homespun with a bowl haircut. Just when it was getting so easy to hate him, they throw this curveball! I had a few teary moments remembering that he watched his father and mother die, that he saw his uncle demand sex from his stepmother for rent money. Childhood is one thing that should be kept absolutely sacred. (I also cried during a Purina commercial, so let's take all of this with the requisite grain of salt.) 

Although Don told Dr. Rosen's wife, Sylvia (Linda Cardellini), that he didn't want to sleep with her anymore in the new year, their liaison only intensifies. No lost love between neighbors! If he felt any guilt before it was feigned; Sylvia's own intense shame stems from her Cathollc girlhood, and it is this part of her that Megan appeals to when she confides to Sylvia about her recent miscarriage. The irony behind Megan trying to convince Sylvia to watch her TV show isn't lost on us and certainly isn't lost on Sylvia, who's cooking up enough drama in the Draper marriage to fill an Italian opera. When both of the women in your life are at breaking point, Don, the choice is obvious: go for the one who doesn't want to have a baby. 

It's a shame about Megan, because right before we find out about her miscarriage, she's firing the maid and is incandescently hilarious about it. Let's not forget that not so long ago, Betty also resorted to firing the help when she was at her wits' end. We get the feeling that Megan won't be around for long, but that she'll remain a face on the screen, present whenever Don is hungover in his second sad bachelor pad and turns on the daytime soaps.

Affairs and betrayals continue to be at the forefront of the episode as Pete and Trudy Campbell flirt their way around their suburban neighbors. Pete is the only one who goes through with it and invites one of the blonde neighbors for a tryst in his apartment in the city. Like all of Pete's women, she's much too innocent and trusting for her own good (e.g. "I'll park my car in front of the driveway instead of in the driveway so you'll know I'm thinking about you"). When she gets pummeled by her husband, she runs to the Campbells for help. Trudy, we find, had no delusions about her husband's fidelity, but she also won't be made into a fool in front of her neighbors and throws him out, but only so far. She is determined to ruin him, but refuses to divorce him. This may have been the first time I admired Trudy Campbell, but I'm sure it won't be the last. 

At the agency, things have taken a turn for the comical; Jaguar's sleazy salesman Herb (Gary Basaraba) wants more local ads as opposed to the glittering national campaign, but Don won't give it to him; why is it that I foresee Joan paying for this obstinance? The Heinz Baked Beans client brings in his colleague, who's in charge of Ketchup, for a visit, but reveals that he doesn't want Don and the crew to do anything for Ketchup because he's got a chip in his shoulder. Stan foolishly reveals this new development to Peggy, who in turn reveals it to her boss, who in turn wants to seduce Ketchup over to Cutler, Gleason and Chaough.

I'm honestly surprised Peggy didn't see it coming, as beautifully cutthroat as she has become in this business. When her secretary reminds her that she should be kind to the writers who work under her, it's a bittersweet moment; we realize that, as much as she has come to resemble Don, she's still trying to please. 

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about Mad Men. She twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Singers and the Endless Song" - Iron & Wine (mp3)

"Caught In The Briars" - Iron & Wine (mp3)


In Which This Is Our Funeral

New Don


Mad Men 
creator Matthew Weiner

We left Don Draper in a bar making eyes at two women over an old-fashioned, a scene that is now as familiar to us as pretty much everything else he does. Yet this was a significant moment. Up until those last few minutes, Season 5 was a loop of repetitive images: Peggy feeling underappreciated, Megan crying, Betty eating, Roger bribing everyone to do his bidding, and the drinking. Oh, the drinking. But then Peggy quit Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. And Lane hanged himself. And Don, who had been frighteningly faithful to Megan all season long, suddenly slipped back into his old familiar skin. We don’t know for sure whether or not he cheated that night, but that isn’t the point. The point is that the pattern broke.

It sucks a little bit when you realize that even your favorite shows have their limitations. It isn’t that Sunday’s premiere was boring, but I will say that I would have preferred if the entire thing had been a shot of Sally sassing her mother over a half-consumed jar of Smuckers in the Francis family mansion. Sally, who in her pre-teen bloom resembles nothing as much as a young bloggeur, calls her mother by her first name now and twists phone cords around her finger. She is the only one, at first blush, who has absolutely nothing to worry about. Even baby Gene should have some residual anxiety about his lack of screen time, especially since everyone still thinks he’s a baby. Shouldn’t he be at least 8 by now?

Matthew Weiner makes a point of concealing what year it is, but judging by the hairstyles and Jetson-esque costumes the ‘70s are right around the corner if not upon us. It is Christmas. Carols surf the radio waves in Hawaii where Don and Megan are vacationing. Of course, it’s for business: Sheraton wants SCDP to sell their latest hotel experience. Only Don seems to understand that success in an advertising career depends entirely on the amount of pleasure you experience on a regular basis. He’s reading Dante on the beach while Megan gets asked for autographs. Obviously, times have changed. Everyone looks older, but Don just looks tan.

If his series of reinvented selves have driven the series thus far, then it's his inability to change that closed last season and opens this one. The people who once tightly surrounded him have scattered. When he isn't writing the script, he hasn't got much to say, which is why we have to listen to Megan talk about how much better sex is when you're high for the first fifteen minutes of the episode. She is radiant and he doesn't give a shit. Like Betty and Peggy, she has moved so far out of his line of vision that when he looks at her, he's only looking at a past version of himself that he is no longer interested in embodying. What Don hasn't figured out, but what we're beginning to understand, is that none of this is about him.

I'm so proud of Peggy, even though I like her a little bit less with each season. Is it sacreligious to say that? She's kicking ass and taking names at Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, but it seems like she is still unhappy. I am waiting for her to become who she is instead of who she thinks she wants to be, that is, a female rival/foil for Don, who literally doesn't even remember her. Her boyfriend Abe lost last season's leather jackets in favor of a bad Jesus or John Lennon impersonation, but he's the muse behind her work and brings her sandwiches, so I suppose he can stick around.

Altogether the crew at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is a little shaggier and saggier. Stan has become a pothead which isn't any great surprise to anyone. Kenny's hair is parted differently, and Pete has sideburns. They appeared to repeat the same lines from some previous episode. When Don chides them for trivializing the word "love" in an ad for oven cleaner, I miss Peggy so much it hurts. They've replaced her with an older woman whose name I didn't catch, but here's hoping they give her more camera time than baby Gene.  At least now there is a grand staircase leading to a second floor and so many employees that Don can't keep them all straight. Business is booming, but for how long? A sense of unease filters through even the most idyllic vistas.

It's not just the riots, the misunderstood hippies, or Henry Francis' awful Christmas sweater. Peggy and Don can't pitch the ads they want to pitch because their best ideas are all suddenly about death. Vietnam is sending men home in bags. When Don suggests that Sheraton capitalize on the idea of shedding one's skin on the shores of Hawaii and launching off into the great unknown, the clients aren't the only ones thinking about suicide.

Lane Pryce's death last season was just the beginning. Underneath the luster of success looms impending doom. Don and Megan's doorman has a heart attack which he barely survives. Roger Sterling's mother dies, throwing him into the only version of an existential crisis he is capable of experiencing; the women in his life file by. He weeps when the man who shines his shoes also ends up dead. When Don stands by his office window and recalls the shores of Hawaii, I keep thinking he's going to jump. If the opening credits are any indication, he has a big fall coming. 

He's having another affair. It's with his downstairs neighbor, Dr. Rosen's wife, which wouldn't be so bad except that we spend the entire episode thinking that Don and Dr. Rosen have developed a friendship. I'm not sure I really want to watch Don anymore. He has moved to the periphery of the room, has had too much to drink on an empty stomach and sleeps through the most important parts. Betty just became a brunette and she's big and bold and I'm sure Sally has a picture of a boyfriend or an unfinished novel hidden in some girlish sock drawer somewhere. Megan is gracing a soap-opera screen four nights a week and Peggy is inspired. His end is just their beginning. 

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about .gifs. She twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.


In Which The Past Is Dead To Us



Magic City
creator Mitch Glazer

The pilot of Magic City ends with a corpse floating through the ocean, perhaps the dumbest cliché in crime fiction. That the offending dead body is the head of a powerful labor union is no panacea on this insult to my intelligence. I lived through the sixties twice, well, three times if you count the four hour brunch I had with George Lucas where he said "In those days" over 450 times.

Nostalgia for the past permeates almost every aspect of society. It is the defining characteristic of a declining civilization, and it is all the more pervasive in the midst of technological or industrial revolution. I hate this attitude, that things were better before x, unless the x you're referring to is the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones. Thankfully, Starz's new series Magic City is so completely overwhelmed with ridiculous cliches that it's difficult to imagine anyone wishing to return to the Miami of 1959.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan's ever-expanding neck (on loan from Tom Hanks, who presumably no longer requires the device) portrays Isaac Evans, the manager of Miami's Miramar Hotel. His backer Ben Diamond (Danny Huston) is a member of organized crime, and the remaining details are copied verbatim from Martin Scorses Casino.

Isaac has two sons and a daughter by his first wife Molly, and he remarried a Gentile woman his daughter disapproves of and his son creepily observes sunbathing in the nude. Since there is no XBox, his eldest son spends the vast majority of his time having unprotected sex, In the pilot alone there are three blowjobs received, all by men. Actually, it is grammatically correct to refer to a blowjob as a "bowjob" if the sexual act in question has occurred thirty years or more in the past. Once in Magic City a woman tries to give another woman a bowjob, but it all goes so predictably wrong.

the ice queen

It gets to the point where you're actively praying for a powerful female character to enter the mix, with the brains and bravado of my wife Lynne and the prominent forehead of an Angelina Jolie. It happens near the end of the second episode, and when you find out she's a tall, icy blonde you just sigh. After striking union members toss Isaac's wife's poodle off a hotel balcony, he doesn't even even respect her enough to tell her the dog died. He just replaces it with a new snarling poodle. This is what amounts to comedy in Magic City.

the abused mob wife

I made a list of the show's clichés so they can fix them:

- Cranky old man with a secret heart of gold

- Bowjob while driving a convertible and the car crashes

- Purportedly religious politician is actually a corrupt buffoon

- Witness has to be intimidated but ends up killing himself anyway

- Young girl has a bat mitzvah and chooses a Judy Garland theme

- Insensitive rich woman can't hold onto a man to save her life, they don't "deserve her"

- Vicious and heartless mob boss uses elaborate metaphors copied from episodes of Bones to suggest depth of field (watching him relate the story of the Frog and the Scorpion with a straight face was more painful than getting a new heart)

- Peggy comes up with a campaign and Don takes credit for it

- Girl tells boy not to call her by pet name, later reveals she prefers the nickname

- LeBron James is afraid of commitment

Don Draper was able to ever so briefly be interesting because of how ridiculous every single word out of his mouth and woman he slept with was. The writers of Magic City have tragically misunderstood the fact that he is meant to be ironic. The officious Isaac is never funny, he does not joke, he simply ribs, like the backup quarterback on a football team. He has no friends, not even his boss or his wife. He gets along with his father, but only because he needs help disappointing the labor unions of the world.

Don's shame at his mysterious origins was obviously a light parable of the Jewish self-hatred of Matthew Weiner, and of course Don really had nothing to fear. Isaac, who is an agnostic Jew, endures slurs and various difficulties related to his ethnicity, but he himself and his family make Ace Rothstein look like David Ben-Gurion. There should an inset displayed during the show of Jeffrey Dean Morgan's circumcised penis as verifiable proof he is what it seems he isn't.

the maid

Isaac's younger son, law student Danny, is infatuated with one of the hotel's maids. As Frank Sinatra prepares for his New Year's Eve concert, Danny sends his intended the gift of a lavish red dress. (Her massive eyebrows are nicely set off by the gown's elaborate fringe.) Women are either servants or whores, and there are about 20-25 prostitutes in the pilot alone. It's a woman in 1959, what else could she be?

Isaac's eldest son Stevie Evans starts an illicit affair with Ben Diamond's tragically abused wife Lily Diamond. At first the sex is completely unprotected and fun, but after the fifth time, she says, "Can you please just hold me Stevie?" To kill time takes a bunch of indecent photos of them having sex. Over seven times she asks, "Did you burn the photos?" If I have to tell you the answer, you don't yet understand the familiar appeal of Magic City. It's like slipping into the second asshole where David Chase forced Terence Winter to put all his bad ideas.

Alex asked me to review the second season of Game of Thrones ("You won't believe what happens to Tyrion!" Fuck you.) I said no. He asked me to review The Hunger Games. I said no. He asked me to review Magic City, and I said, "Only if I can use the word shiksa over twelve times." I must simply be getting old. The past and the future both seem equally boring. All around me in the real world I see things that have never existed before, that are never described in our art or media. I turned this disaffected feeling into a screenplay titled Vaginal Space Program. It has a huge part for Holly Hunter and it was purchased by a savvy executive at Paramount. Look forward to that. What else is there to look forward to?

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording and the former vice president of the United States. He is a writer living in an undisclosed location. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

a prostitute

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