Joachim Trier’s latest film opens with a scene reminiscent of a fairy tale: a father takes his small, fragile daughter across a frozen lake and into an otherworldly, snowy woods. Her red coat and pink hat stand out against the landscape, framing her as outsider in a world devoid of color. They are hunting; he carries a rifle. As the father regards the deer he is about to kill, he shushes the child and she stands as still as the innocent animal, as he takes aim. Slowly then, he turns the rifle towards his young daughter’s head and she becomes the prey. Several moments pass before he turns the gun back towards the ostensible target. The answer to the riddle of why the man would murder his own child unfolds over the course of the movie, Thelma. This father and daughter’s complex and sinister relationship continue to build until the film’s haunting and beautiful climax.
When she goes off to college in a large city, Thelma will begin to have a series of what appears to be epileptic seizures, but aren’t. She becomes attracted to Anja, a beautiful female student at the university, and her sexuality is then connected not only to the seizures but also to a series of supernatural events. Birds fly into windows to approach her. Structural lights in an opera palace begin to quake when Anja places her hand upon Thelma’s bare thigh. Thelma will seek refuge in the prayer and Christian dogma that her father has indoctrinated her with; she will seek his advice and punish herself for this desire, while flashbacks reveal her mysterious powers. Eventually, Thelma will discover that her father has medicated her grandmother into a coma to prevent her from using the power she also possesses.
The film is sensuous, rebellious, and gorgeous. Trier paces Thelma’s discoveries to a perfect pitch, and the climax of a mysterious scene at a Modern Dance performance reveals both Thelma’s desire and fear of it, wordlessly. Here, the patriarchy and religion fuse seamlessly as a force of determination and will. Thelma’s very existence is still in danger. Her abilities certainly color her as a witch figure, and her deeds are terrifying, but she is still the hero of this visual metaphor of a fairy tale. Fish and fowl, fire and water, matter and energy, serpents and seraphim all do her bidding, called from her subconscious into being. Called by Thelma and her inexplicable powers. In Thelma, Trier has created a stunningly beautiful film about female otherness, and one that skillfully employs both mythology and its haunting Nordic landscape.
Matthew Weiner pulls out major iconic pop music for the endings of his most significant episodes, and Sunday’s “Lost Horizon” is no exception. Matched in intensity and meaning, “Lost Horizon,” which features Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” is second only to “Lady Lazarus,” which left us with The Beatles’, LSD-fueled “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Both signal major changes in protagonist Don Draper’s life. In “Lady Lazarus,” (Season 5: Episode 8), Don stares into the abyss of an elevator shaft. In “Lost Horizon,” he looks skyward and is sent into a fugue state by the vision of a plane crossing the airspace of the Empire State Building, the chrome and deco symbol of New York City, if not America. He takes off in a silver Cadillac, in the middle of the night, and into the middle regions of America. A place he is called to imagine by the overlords of his new agency, right before he picks up his box lunch and leaves his chips on the table.
Perhaps saying “Don Draper of McCann Erickson” leaves a bad taste, or more likely the drab environment, lies, and herd mentality of that ad company has. Don Draper has been searching for himself in an era of identity politics and unrest since Mad Men hit the airwaves. We learn that he assumed an identity as false as Dean Moriarty, and in “Lost Horizon,” this discontent calls him to the Road. In search of a female doppelganger whose Bible-thumping, ex-husband claims has left a number of broken bodies behind her, much like a tornado, and much like Don. With a “Bye Birdie” after a brush off from Betty who is more engaged with Freud’s Dora than a backrub from her ex-husband, our hero drifts out into the night, where the ghost of Bert Cooper imbues him with a vision of Kerouac’s America. But that is an America in flux, lost and searching for identity, and kicks. It is not strange that Don should take Kerouac as a guide, for much like the writer, he is a man of the 1950s and has always been at a bit of a loss to possess the 1960s. Think of Don backstage at a Stones concert, or telling his daughter Sallie not to be so blasé at the moon landing, for that is the stuff of legends.
And while Don heads out in a silver and red Cadillac to follow the gleam of that airplane over the skyscraper, Roger, as usual, a man of the 1940s, provides the key to humor surrounding the loss of their advertising empire. “What a great ship this was” he tells Peggy in the shards of Sterling Cooper, in the shambles of the very site where their vast IBM computer dislodged the offices of “Creative.” In a Phantom of the Opera homage, the lone inhabitant in the temple of his familiar, Roger plays “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” on an organ left in the office suite. Sung by Leslie Caron in the 1953 movie, Lili, the lyrics go, “A song of love is a song of woe / Don’t ask me how I know / A song of love is a sad song / For I have loved and it’s so.” With only Peggy left to drink with, the two stage a wake that involves Vermouth and roller-skating. Roger has been pushed from his ship and now he pushes Peggy out of the nest with a pornographic painting that belonged to Cooper and a badass attitude. As Don has surely discovered “A song of love is a song of woe” Roger radiates a similar melancholy, knowing his domain is lost.
“Lost Horizon” is mostly about the women of Mad Men; make no mistake. The painful misogyny and sexism directed toward Joan is infuriating, and this is one of her finest moments when she invokes Betty Friedan and Second Wave Feminism. Joan is also a character who once stood outside a hotel after a tryst with Roger, holding a bird in a cage that he gave her, perhaps the most symbolic gift in all of Mad Men. And yet, not but a few episodes ago she looked at Peggy disdainfully and told her that she will never be taken seriously if she doesn’t change her style of dress. This is, however, one of the primary reasons Joan will never be taken seriously by the sexist pigs of McCann Erickson. She is a partner because she had sex with a key player—and she is talented; while Peggy, strutting her pornographic painting and making a drunken entrance into the new agency, got there by sheer determination and talent. Not to degrade Joan’s abilities, but we see Roger advise them to two different paths: take command, and cut and run. The 1970s do not start off in a better place for women than the 1960s—and Weiner is making sure we get this message.
“Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” begins, “On every tree there sits a bird / And every one I ever heard / Could break my heart without a word / Singing a song of love.” “Lost Horizon” is a heart-wrenching episode for Mad Men fans who have adored these characters from the very beginning. Joan is crowed out of her job for the worst reasons and takes a giant step back in time. Don is no longer needed by any of the women in his life, including Betty and Sallie. And here we are, two episodes from the very end.
We long for a longer plot arc, a happy ending, a sense of closure and hope for these familiar and surprising characters who have led us back in time. And yet it is obvious that none of that is possible given the very nature of this narrative. So here is one thing we should learn from “Lost Horizon,” a very clear message: The transition from Sterling Cooper to McCann Erickson takes us from the most beautiful workplace mise-en-scene ever created for television, to the most drab. The giants of McCann are not Bert Cooper, with Japanese pornography in the closet and a Rothko on the wall, and Roger Sterling with his penchant for daring, loyalty, and LSD. It is not a mad house full of creativity, kooks, booze, and formidable personalities. It is not a place where women can come into the full bloom of their talent and agency, or where great minds create art, enticement, and sentimentality from psychology and the components of capitalism. No, McCann is the opposite of what the 1960s created, and Weiner has dropped us there. Don has checked out and Peggy has checked in. She is the female version of Don Draper with all his potent pride and talent. With the drive to see her name on the door, the ambition that Don has all but abandoned. And they are both sides now, two opposite sides of the same coin. You could flip it right now and find the ending.
Numerous critics have hailed Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Only Lovers Left Alive, as an heir to Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance. No wonder it is my favorite movie of the year, since Performance is my favorite film of the 60s. Inhabited by Jarmuch’s sensibility and pacing, however, this film moves darkly into humor as it progresses. And while Performance’s Turner and Pherber seem to live as vampires, they are not, unlike the central characters of Only Lovers Left Alive, Adam and Eve, who are. Performance’s protagonists find enlightenment with amanita muscaria, while Adam and Eve merely admire it in their garden, for they consume nothing but blood—which is their drug. They do not seek enlightenment for they are ancient; their quest is to embrace immortality, which unfortunately breeds entropy.
Only Lovers Left Alive contains many familiar tropes about vampires as beautiful, poetic entities who know more than we do, and who move through the night comparing cultures and centuries. But it also proposes our civilization is a postmodern wasteland poisoning itself with pollution and disease. At its heart, the film regards ennui and creativity. It is also a film about collectors—and heaven knows if you had been alive for four centuries, you might want to collect one thing or another.The chic, bohemian couple collects hardbound books in all languages and from all cultures, vinyl, and musical instruments. Adam is a beautiful, moody, and Byronic musician, while Eve seems to appreciate every moment of her odd, intellectual existence. Adam fulminates in a decomposing Detroit, while Eve flourishes in the ancient city of Tangier, closer to the cradle of civilization: the beginning of society, not its conclusion. Yet, both environments share the same cryptic coloration at night and afford Jarmusch a visual segue between countries when the couple converges. Detroit’s brown block factories in the yellow glow of streetlights become the rectangular façade of the late night, artificially lit drive into Tangier.
Yes, they are vampires, but this seems a plot point and not the point of Jarmusch’s slowly paced, sensual film. Night walks and night drives take the viewer into a magical realm of disuse and decay. In Detroit, the backdrop is a landscape of striking and forsaken structures such as an abandoned Packard factory and the Michigan Theater, a Renaissance Revival performance space built in 1926 and turned into a car park in the mid-70s, with its rococo ceiling and projection booth intact. Compared to Detroit’s derelict grandeur, Tangier is ancient, warmer, bleached, and unadorned. The dusty, desert town is pale and blonde like Eve, while the dark space of a ruined Victorian houses Adam’s mess of dated recording equipment and instruments. Like Performance’s Turner, he creates his melodic wail with a mid-century mixing board and reel to reel. When Eve calls, he has to cobble together what looks like an 80s phone with a 50s television to see her. Eve merely uses her iPhone. Unlike Adam, who seems to live for each new vintage guitar he purchases, Eve is less bogged down with the world in her pocket.
Much like Turner in Performance, creative Adam is lost without his partner, who is the one in control. Adam is the feminized half of the couple and must be rescued by Eve’s powerful will and joy of life. In one of the most luminous scenes of the film, Eve counters Adam’s suicidal ideation by making him dance to a Denice LaSalle 45. And whether it is the spell of her physical presence or her logic, he begins to long once again for longevity. Not only does the film glorify rock and roll and soul music captured on vinyl, and the lush body of a Gibson or Silvertone, it also embraces the literary. We are told that Adam has partied with the Romantic poets, but Eve’s closest friend in Morocco is the undead Christopher Marlowe, who declares himself the author of Shakespeare’s work. “I wish I had known Adam before I created Hamlet,” he opines. However if “brevity is the soul of wit”, then perhaps the flight without his stash of tapes and instruments, is part and parcel of Adam’s revival. And on the other side of the ocean, a taste of mortality arouses his need to be immortal.
In Performance, Mick Jagger’s Turner must pass through death to become alive, but in Only Lovers Left Alive, all Adam must do is want to live. In each narrative, strong female protagonists never waver, leading their partners toward some greater understanding of existence. Yet ultimately, Jarmucsh’s film is a vehicle of style and dark humor, which encodes a deeper question. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are perfect as his undead lovers who wear their hearts on their sleeves and negotiate a liminal space between the ancient and the contemporary. But the oldest questions of existence never waver. And if you had to live for a thousand years, what would you live for… knowledge, music, forbidden pleasure, treasure, love? In Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch answers this question.
Miller’s Crossing is Ethan and Joel Coens’s third film—and like all of their other work, the film takes on a Hollywood genre, in this case the gangster film. Set in the 1920s, it features a convoluted plot full of twists and turns, cross and double-cross that examines loyalty, love, and power. However, in typical Coen Brothers fashion, genre is always convoluted and disrupted. Miller’s Crossing presents a classic gangster motif, but one that turns around two conflicting love triangles: one heterosexual, one homosexual. Borrowing from both film noir and the detective novel, the film’s production notes acknowledge Dashielle Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929) and it has been compared his The Glass Key (1931), whose protagonist is the aide de camp of a crime boss. Like noir, the dialogue here is literate and the banter is comic. Gabriel Byrne’s Tom is sly and subdued, evoking Bogart’s Sam Spade, while Marsha Gay Harden’s femme fatale, Verna, like all Coen Brothers female leads is strong, savvy, and punches back.
Atmosphere in Miller’s Crossing is created by its darkly lit interiors and Carter Burwell’s original score, which references traditional Irish folk ballads. The establishing shot reflects the film’s mood and color palate; we hear the crisp clink of ice dropped into a glass framed by backlit bottles of amber, browns, and green. To the right of screen, Byrne’s shadowy figure slowly advances into the foreground as a dark blur, while a conversation between mob bosses takes place. Albert Finney’s Leo enters the film as one of the Coen’s favorite tropes, the patriarch behind the big desk—while Jon Polito’s red-faced, Johnny Casper bemoans the lack of friendship, character, and ethics in their world, the bond between thieves.
The film’s main action spills back and forth between urban and wooded spaces, and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfield recreates the interior color palate of the film’s mise en scene by finding outside locations with corresponding colors—and by switching from Kodak to Fuji film for scenes in the mysterious woods, in order to capture them in a muted brown and green tone. Filmed in New Orleans, Miller’s Crossing also takes on the strange ambiance of that city, which in 1989 looked much like it had in the 1920s. Additionally, the Coens wanted the ominous light of winter without risking snowfall.
The ensuing action is rife with violence that is by turn, comedic, grotesque, and sublime. Tom is beaten, buildings are exploded, riots erupt, gangsters are assassinated, and bullets rain. And in one of the most beautifully timed, shot, and executed moments in any Coen Brother’s film, Albert Finney’s aging gangster defends himself with a Thompson gun in a scene of remarkably choreographed violence and beauty—which builds to its climax during a diegetic playing of “Danny Boy.” This version was recorded by the Irish tenor Frank Patterson while watching the film, in order to match his timing and emotion to its pacing. And, a scene of John Turturro begging for his life in the forest is a gruesome evocation of Snow White and the woodsman. It is one of his best ever performances.
Yet for all its drama, the film is still often hilarious, and reflects the Coens gleeful, dark humor. A ladies room scene features Albert Finney in drag, the Coen’s mentor, director Sam Raimi, is killed in a hail of bullets which resembles a macabre tap dance, and Tom is often beaten merely for the comedic gesture of being handed back his hat.
Tom’s hat is also the central symbol for the film. The opening and closing credits feature it, a hat blowing into the woods, the re-creation of a dream Tom shares with Verna. Halfway through completing the screenplay, Ethan and Joel developed writers’ block. Frustrated, they took three weeks off to write Barton Fink and then returned to the more complex narrative… therefore Tom Reagan lives in the Barton Arms. If the point of Barton Fink, however, is to examine the life of the mind, Miller’s Crossing leaves us with only a vague symbol of its convoluted reasoning: a dream, something lost, recovered, and then lost again. And yet at its heart, Miller’s Crossing ultimately is, a film about friendship, character, and ethics.
Given the state of modern America television, who would have expected a new network serial drama about country music to feature some of the strongest female characters this side of HBO? Knowledge of Nashville’s most famous export, however, helps to broaden an exegesis of this particular text. In the country music industry, cash is king, or perhaps in relation to Nashville, “queen” would be a better term. Characters Rayna James and Juliette Barnes are divas dueling for the cash and devotion of their audiences, but this is also a plot line as enduring as the competition between Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette utilized by Robert Altman as a plot device in his 1975 film of the same title. The tradition of empowered women in country music, however, goes all the way back to Kitty Wells and in particular, Patsy Cline, who had her first hit in 1957 with Walking After Midnight and became a cross over pop idol, much like Juliette Barnes. Cline’s songs came from the repertoire of rising male songwriters such as Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, and Willie Nelson who were anything but mainstream patriarchy. And recent collaborations in Nashville between Loretta Lynn and Jack White continue this tradition, as reflected by character Rayna James’s collaboration with rock producer Liam McGuinnis. Nashville must also be viewed in the context of its cultural location.
Country music arises from indigenous American folk and bluegrass music and in many ways is the language of poverty, struggle, and desire. From its industry inception in Nashville, there was never any question that female artists carried the passion and bravura of this genre in a way that opened the gates to the citadel of the patriarchy for them. Women vocalists sell country music and that fact has always empowered them in the market. Films such as Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and Walk the Line (2005) also show us determined, powerful women who know how to get their demands met. Nashville producer and writer Callie Khouri grew up in West Kentucky and is no stranger to this culture. Country music is class-based and rises from rural settings. Fighting to authorize their vision and careers—the women of Khouri’s tale do indeed reflect the lives of those women who rose through the ranks of the Nashville music industry to call the shots. And the sparring between James and Barnes is also indicative of class warfare—their difference reflects youth and middle age, but also old money, new money, ethics, and education. However, one couldn’t expect any less from the mastermind of Thelma and Louise.
Nashville is also a metanarrative. It gleans information from the local music scene, from the current state of the industry, and of course from the genre of soap opera, to synthesize a guilty pleasure and high form of entertainment for those of us who get to see our local color synthesized for national, and now, international consumption. Both Deacon and Scarlett “live” around the corner from my house, the show employs many friends and acquaintances, and it is one of few American television shows actually filmed on location. And if for no other reason, Ashley Spurgeon’s hilarious recaps in the Nashville Scene every Thursday morning are a treat: http://www.nashvillescene.com/countrylife/archives/2013/05/23/nashville-recap-ill-never-get-out-of-this-world-alive.
For those of us who live in Nashville, the show is a guilty pleasure and a reflection of our hometown that is an absorbing, ironic drama laced with actual facts that are familiar to both the country music novice and professional. Most importantly, Nashville has intelligent and strong women characters at the very heart of its drama. You might have noticed that the primary male players of this narrative are all damaged, unethical, or delusional, while the typical female character is not only a powerhouse but also a nurturer. And the show is close enough to the real thing that there isn’t one true Nashvillian among us who ever doubted Rayna James’s ability force the male CEO of Edgehill Records do her bidding. That’s just how it works down here.
Star Trek Into Darkness: The Trouble With Drones
J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek Into Darkness is a rollicking good ride; an old-fashioned Action/Adventure flick based on a beloved TV series from the 1960s. Today, as we inhabit an America socially closer to the 23rd Century where the Star Trek narrative is set, we are also nearer to the equality that only existed aboard the USS Enterprise in the America of 1966. The crew of the Enterprise is composed of both men and women, and its flight deck includes multicultural and multinational representatives who look as if they have been recruited from the United Nations—with even a likeable Russian, Chekhov, and this at the height of the Cold War. Of course, anyone born after the 1960s still has exposure to the era, through history books, cinema, pop culture, and even modern television such as Mad Men, and knows that chaos was inherent, perhaps rampant, in the era. Civil unrest, as well as violence over Civil Rights, Women’s Right’s, and soon after, Gay Rights, was all part of the zeitgeist of Star Trek’s tenure. Not to mention that one of the most controversial U.S. Foreign Policy decisions ever made, The Vietnam War, was at its zenith.
Star Trek Into Darkness entwines modern cinematic plot structures with plucked out bits of back story, original characters, and plot points from Star Trek’s illustrious past—both film sequels and the original series—to construct a meta narrative, as well as a CGI spectacle, which aspires to be pleasing to both trekkies and novices. What I find most interesting, however, is its thematic attempt to echo some of the original anti-war motifs of Gene Roddenberry’s series. Specifically, in this latest sequel to the Star Trek legacy there is the matter of the photon torpedoes, which relate to a very particular aspect of current American foreign policy: drones.
Roddenberry stated that he intended the series to be the antithesis of Cold War politics, with its multinational crew and mission to explore not conquer. Critics have speculated, however, that like many other popular media texts, the hero of his tale reflects the state of the nation as well as traits and attributes that exemplify the most cherished qualities of American heroes. Critic H. Bruce Franklin proposes that the plot of the television series shifts gears in 1968 and goes from episodes which supports the colonialist attitude that the U.S. is saving the world from communism, with Klingons encoded as the big, bad savage villains of the universe—to the idea that something has gone terribly wrong with the American Way. In earlier episodes, when the Enterprise arrived on planets in conflict, they threw their might or knowledge onto the side they saw as “right.” In the episode “City of the Edge of Forever” Kirk and McCoy are transported through a time warp to American in 1930. Kirk must let a woman he has fallen for die in an accident because her message of pacifism would have spread in America and allowed the Germans to win World War II (“Star Trek in the Vietnam Era”). This episode is seen as a justification of the war in Southeast Asia. But by 1968/1969 Franklin posits that the conflicts on other planets symbolize a dismal view of war as a futile struggle that leads to years of entrenched violence. Furthermore:
Like other Americans, SF writers were profoundly and bitterly divided about the Vietnam War, and in early 1968 more than a hundred and fifty of them took out rival advertisements supporting and opposing continuation of the conflict … in the March issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction … Among the 82 who signed the ad that stated “We oppose the participation of the United States in the war in Vietnam” were Star Trek scriptwriters Jerome Bixby, Jerry Sohl, Harlan Ellison, and Norman Spinrad as well as Gene Roddenberry himself. (“Star Trek in the Vietnam Era”)
The attitude of the show had shifted.
Author Henry Jenkins states, “Kirk continually intervenes. He continually disrupts and destabilizes governments. He seems to embody the Vietnam-era idea of America as a policeman that interferes in other peoples business”(“Star Trek: Klingons and Commies”). But it would also seem that if Kirk is the typical American who is brutish and brave, charming and dangerous—his antithesis could be found in the other crew members, especially Spock, who seems to balance Kirk’s rash bravura because he isn’t American. At all. Spock is something Other—than human. His creed of logic always seems to veer toward pacifism and the Prime Directive, the doctrine of non-interference.
And so it is with Star Trek Into Darkness. Blind with rage against a federation rogue, John Harrison, who has attacked Starfleet Headquarters and killed, among others, Kirk’s father figure, Christopher Pike, Kirk begs the Starfleet Admiral to be allowed to track down and capture Harrison. Things seem fairly straightforward: Harrison is hiding on the Klingon plant of Kronos and the Enterprise is sent to find him. This is all good and well until 72 photon torpedoes are delivered to the Enterprise and Kirk is told by the good Admiral Marcus to use these to hunt down and destroy Harrison without loss of life to the crew. Easy. Fine. Only the bad guys dies. However, this idea is abhorrent to all the major players except for Kirk.
Spock finds it illogical and unethical that a criminal be destroyed without a fair trial. The chief engineer, Scott, resigns because the torpedoes are sealed and he is not allowed to inspect them—yet he realizes they contain enough radiation to interfere with the ship’s warp drive. And Uhura and McCoy just think it’s bad business to kill someone in secret; that a face-to-face conflict is better than well, cheating with the torpedoes. Therefore, the Enterprise has a drone problem.
Kirk, is convinced to do the right thing and goes after Harrison with a search party—which almost gets them killed by barbarous Klingons, and gives Lieutenant Uhura a chance to show the guys what a real woman can do in terms of guile and bravery. But in the end, the film’s initial ethical conflict reflects the current state of American warfare, just like the original did way back in the day.
It’s the job of popular narratives to reflect our nation state and Star Trek Into Darkness does its job skillfully. Not only does it turn out that the drone-like, radioactive torpedoes are unfair weapons, they also harbor what is left of an ancient race. Following Kirk’s blind faith the crew would have used weapons to an unethical purpose, wiped out an entire race of people, oh, and disregarded the Prime Directive of non-interference which Kirk is always ignoring—to reshape a balance of power—all too familiar territory back in 1966-1969. And typically, the nefarious plot is set in motion by a mad man with an ulterior motive: war.
How far have we come? Well in my opinion, much of that rests with Nyota Uhura who is black, female, logical and emotional, and an Amazon warrior all in one: Beam me down on that flying unmanned space craft and let me at that super-human villain who’s after my man! Let me go out there and talk reason to an uncivilized group of angry Klingons! This is the character I most want to reflect my nation state. And Uhura, she is also one sure sign that our national narrative has changed in the last fifty years. Still, Star Trek Into Darkness carries the storyline that Roddenberry envisioned into a new age: a post Cold War, postcolonial, and postmodern twenty-first century—unfortunately with most of its original questions about war and ethics still intact.
“Star Trek: Klingons and Commies.” BBC, 1 July 2013. Web. 1 July 2013.
Franklin, H. Bruce. “Star Trek in the Vietnam Era.” Science Fiction Studies, 62.21
(1994). Web. 30 June 2013.
Tonight is the Season 6 finale of Mad Men—and as we edge closer to the less-than-five hours-away from the conclusion of Season 6 and another interminable wait for the next, which will conclude the series—how can you but help but wonder what all the clues and encoded symbols this season, well, mean?
Perhaps Season 5 was about resurrection: Megan’s self reliance, Peggy’s individuality, Roger’s brush with psychedelics, Peter’s affair and consequent existential angst, Don’s transformation into a reliable husband just as Joan enters single life, and of course an episode entitled, “Lady Lazarus.” Yet most of the speculation about Season 6 has turned to supposition of someone’s death. How can we not, when we have a season that begins with the death and revival of a doorman in the lobby of Don’s building right under the horrified gaze of himself and Megan—and luckily Arnold Rosen, a heart surgeon who leaps into action. The other witness to the encounter is his wife, Sylvia, who also turns out to be Don’s latest conquest.
The episode begins in Hawaii where Don hatches an ad scheme which is reminiscent of suicide, and the season’s plot arc amounts to A Season in Hell for Don Draper, as reflected by the opening shot of Don reading Dante’s Inferno. There is a near death in the lobby, Don’s near drowning in episode 11 and of course, the internet rumors of Megan’s Draper’s impending death a la Sharon Tate, which Weiner himself had to step in to dispel, stating: “I don’t want to spoil anything for people, but after Lane… It’s just not part of the show… No one’s going to die. This season.”
And of course, we now have the added attraction of Ted Chaough, the new ad man who flies a small aircraft with several of our main characters on board, as well as the creepy Bob Benson. Those facts, coupled with the backdrop of 1968, has given us a Mad Men season with the constant background chatter of the Vietnam daily death counts, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the Chicago riots—as well as a diagetic soundtrack, a plethora of encoded symbols for death (including Sharon Tate’s t-shirt on Megan), and a haunted, backsliding, miserable Don Draper. All of this makes for nerve-wracking suspense and speculation.
So what will happen? Don has had a vision that Megan is pregnant, perhaps she is. And as my friend and mentor, Dr. David Lavery has pointed out, Sylvia tells Don that if her husband learns of their affair, he will “kill us.” Perhaps he will. Or as Lavery also reminds us, Matthew Weiner is the writer who put Tony in a coma for most of the final season of The Sopranos. Perhaps Don will wake up in Hawaii, or perhaps in jail given the cops in the background on Mad Men’s most recent poster. Or perhaps he will merely wake up in the lobby mirroring the season’s beginning. However, Episode 13, which airs in a mere few hours, is entitled “In Care Of,” a phase that carries the meaning “through someone or by way of someone.” Who could that be? What could it mean?