Jon Hamm is sitting ten seats down from me in a downtown L.A. theater. I know that there are ten seats because I counted them. We’re watching the final episode of “Mad Men,” and by “we,” I mean Don Draper, Megan Draper, Sally Draper, Roger Sterling, Bert Cooper, Harry Crane, Ken Cosgrove, Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell, Matt Weiner (“Mad Men”’s creator), and I. The show’s cast, crew, and a few hundred other lucky members of the public are in attendance of the screening of the final episode of the final half of the final season of “Mad Men.” I have no reason to be here, other than the fact that my best friend entered her name in an online lottery and won the chance to buy the tickets, which we did, hurriedly, no, actually frantically, in a panic of excitement.
We’re “Mad Men” superfans, and we have a tendency to obsess. We’ve spent countless afternoons on her outdoor patio in West L.A, sipping tea, watching drought-dried palm trees blow in the wind against highly sun-reflective Century City skyscrapers, philosophizing about the cultural phenomenon of “Mad Men,” the deep psychological disturbances of the characters, the broader historical circumstances of the turbulent 1960s, and the sociocultural impact of the show’s no-holds barred themes on today’s society. But sometimes, we just want to be simple-minded and gossipy about the show.
“Things are really unraveling for Megan and Don now that she’s in L.A.,” I tell Gina.
“You can say that again!” Gina replies.
“What do you think she should do?” I ask.
“Divorce Don and enjoy her life in L.A., baby!” Gina giggles as she turns her head up, basking in some more sunrays on yet another gorgeous L.A. day.
My best friend, Gina, is a trained art historian and a specialist in contemporary Chinese art. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of a lot of things in her field, including most of the entire global art catalogue through centuries, any Eastern religious icons involving the Buddha, and major moments of East-West artistic collaboration across oceans over time. She carries this talent for meticulous cataloguing into all other arenas of her life, including most remarkably, into the “Mad Men” arena of life. If there’s ever a style snapshot, a single quote, or the slightest gesture from any character on the show that you want to reference, Gina could tell you the exact episode it came from, the title of the episode, what scene it occurred during and what the context of that scene was based upon how specific or broad an explanation you want. It’s incredible, and if I could submit Gina into some kind of talent show that recognized and rewarded this gift of hers, I would. Perhaps she just needs to compete on Jeopardy.
But Gina’s not the only one who could pass the entire day intellectualizing “Mad Men.” So could I. As opposed to Gina, I’m a cultural anthropologist. At least that’s what I went to grad school for, so any time ideas involving race/ethnicity, class, gender, cultural understandings of travel, leisure, work, life milestones and/or ritual come up, I get giddy. Really really schoolgirl-like giddy. This is the fuel and the fodder for afternoon tea “Mad Men” analyses with Gina, what’s become, over the years, one of the greatest of our own rituals.
We are indeed “Mad Men” superfans, worse yet, “Mad Men” superfans armed with decades-long liberal arts educations, thus, superfans on steroids. It’s hard for me not to view Gina’s online ticket lottery win as a kind of cosmic karma prize, acknowledging the two of us for our years of unwavering devotion to the show.
So tonight, as I look ten seats down to my right for Jon Hamm’s reaction to Don Draper scenes, though I know I’m no AMC drama actress, no crew member or show producer, I feel as though I’m in my rightful place.
For the record, Jon Hamm sat stoically with his left hand perched on the left side of his face for the entire episode without shifting an inch and seemingly without batting a single sexy little eyelash.
I started watching “Mad Men” in 2011 when I was living in Tokyo as a grad student. I was late to the “Mad Men”-worshipping party, but I’d been out of the U.S. for so long that it took a few years for the show to hit my radar. It was in 2011 that the Tohoku earthquakes and tsunami struck northeastern Japan. The Fukushima radiation fallout caused such sheer and utter terror for most Japanese citizens that many people, including myself, needed a kind of psychological escape from a very real, dire situation we could not physically escape. It was in these conditions that “Mad Men” entered my life.
I began watching slowly at first, sitting at a writer’s desk with a Mac laptop and a glass of water, then in large doses, voraciously devouring as many episodes as I could while laying on my bed, Mac laptop propped against my thighs, screen tilted down toward my face, box of sugar-laden “kinoko no yama” mushroom-shaped chocolatey snack crackers in hand.
Not too different from Megan and Don, my relationship with my Japanese fiancé Makoto was unraveling in the aftermath of Fukushima (he wanted to stay in Japan, I wanted to gtfo), and I needed some sort of intense distraction from the demise of life as I knew it in Tokyo.
From our closet-sized apartment in Tokyo, I watched Betty Draper cook spaghetti and meatballs, drive a big, bulky Ford Country Sedan down wide boulevards to an oversized suburban home, and (arguably) take care of a child, then children (plural). All of these moments, while being presented as the most natural things in the world in the context of the show, seemed like far and distant fantasies from where I was sitting … or laying.
Spaghetti and meatballs? I hadn’t had a good plate of that since my mom cooked it for me as a child in Nebraska. Big, bulky Fords? My grandma drove one of those and had the Betty Draper-like beautifully-manicured nails and the nasty cigarette habit to boot. Wide boulevards and oversized suburban homes? From densely packed, ant colony-like Tokyo, that Ossining, New York bubble seemed to be more appropriate as an object of study in my cultural anthropology education than lantern-lined Tokyo alleys did. Now here was a foreign, exotic, and obscure culture! And that real-life child known as Sally Draper? From a country whose birthrate had dropped to an irrevocably insignificant number, where society couldn’t create babies fast enough to keep up with an increasingly geriatric population, the thought of having your very own live, blinking, breathing child within a nuclear family structure appeared not just archaic but impossible.
“Mad Men” became my ultimate fantasyland. It made me nostalgic, like it did for most people who came to yearn for the 1960s, a particular time, but for me, it made me more nostalgic for the place: America. I was never much of a patriot, but years of living in insular Japan, no matter how much of a Japanophile I’d become had the effect of making me crave the outside world with deep, visceral pangs.
I barely even recognized myself as I began to glorify my distant homeland into a kind of global cultural force (It was no longer a hegemony in my mind, just a “force”), a country where civil rights movements happened because there was diverse enough a society to merit one and yeah, there might’ve been rampant sexism in the workplace, but at least gender equality had advanced even a little bit since the 1960s. While the reality of sexism in the workplace in America was still serious, at least we’d instituted laws that made aggressive sexual harassment not just faux pas but illegal, I told myself.
Here in Japan, there’s an actual word for the office ladies (OLs, yet another Japanese office term), like Joan, Jane, Megan, and Peggy at their lowliest of office positions: shokuba no hana or “office flowers,” the ladies who dress pretty, talk pretty, and serve tea pretty in an office. These ladies effectively became amateurish office geisha, running around performing menial tasks, speaking in a genteel manner to the male showrunners while delicately serving them hot tea. Like the women of “Mad Men,” there was little hope of ascension in a company. Your best bet was to marry out of your drudgery. Better to land a husband while you’re young. Under 25 is ideal. After 25, you’re moving into old maid territory. And this is 2011 we’re talking about.
The traffic is so bad on Broadway in downtown L.A. the night of the finale that my boyfriend drops me off two blocks from the theater, and I walk from 7th to 9th Street on a sprained ankle. This is no joke, folks; it’s the “Mad Men” finale party, and no injury, major or minor, will stand in my way. The line to get into the theater wraps around the 8th Street block as I pass it and approach the front entrance.
“Steph! Steph!” I see Gina waving at me. She’s standing near the red carpet and begins to move toward me. Her eyes are wide with glee.
“You just missed Jessica Paré on the red carpet! She just arrived with her family!”
I looked down at the “Zou Bisou Bisou” album I carried in hand. Jessica Paré, as Megan Draper, gazes wistfully away from the camera wearing a flowy red chiffon blouse, red dangly earrings, and bright red lipstick to match. She clutches a gold-trimmed champagne glass.
Damn, I think to myself, I really wanted her to autograph this. Maybe I won’t see any of the cast tonight. Maybe I won’t get any autographs.
Though I’ve lived in L.A. enough over the years to not get very starstruck for the most part (save for that one night I saw Jpop idol Utada Hikaru at Hollywood and Highland), tonight’s an exception. My boyfriend has given me a “Zou Bisou Bisou” album, a Sharpie, and a mission. I’m now unabashedly carrying a Sharpie out in the open with me as I move through the event crowd, a crowd that took the event invitation cue to dress stylishly, sophisticatedly, and chicly 1960s very, very seriously.
The women have coiffed themselves with updos swirling on top of their heads, wear fitted dark dresses that hug their derriers, and stand on understated heels accentuating their perfectly pedicured feet. The men wear black suits and ties, their hair neatly combed to swoop in all the right angles, their shoes shinier than I remember shiny shoes being. It’s hard to tell who’s cast, who’s crew, and who’s random audience member in this sea of ‘60s fashionistas.
I, however, am a dead giveaway. I’m dressed in a loose-fitting 1970s-reminiscent movement-filled fluorescent green top, flower-patterned white spandex bell bottoms, gold dangly earrings, and chunky brown boots. My style icon is Megan Draper as she moves into the 1970s. She lives in a cute (and now multi-million dollar) bungalow in Laurel Canyon where she throws house parties for bohemian friends who later may or may not bone her husband Don while he’s “on vacation” from New York. Tonight, I look like I missed the memo that this was a 1960s soiree. I’m the only budding flower child in the house. But that’s no matter. I have a Sharpie and a mission.
Katie Roiphe, in an essay from In Praise of Messy Lives once proposed that “Mad Men” had become such a hit because it was the perfect antidote to contemporary society, especially in the undeniably privileged and esoteric community she rolls with in New York City. Roiphe describes certain modern NYC residents around her as being so precious and hygienic about the quality of life they’re giving themselves and their children that they’re basically unable to fathom a life without life-long monogamy, strictly organic baby food, and designer baby strollers. Watching the various characters on “Mad Men” as they intoxicate themselves before noon, roll around in the hay with colleagues and strangers, and smoke cigarettes while clearly in one’s second trimester of pregnancy is the stuff nightmares are made of. In fact, just reading these words could cause a Park Slope-dwelling mom to feel short of breath.
“Mad Men” had many modern viewers wondering “What am I doing?” “What happened to fun?” “Where’s the spontaneity?”
To most, these were rhetorical questions, to which an answer wasn’t really needed. Life would continue to be squeaky clean, predictable, and within post-modern society’s Whole Foods-centric norms. Throwing a handful of Nestle’s sweetened chocolate chips in your morning kale smoothie would be considered gettin’ wild in these parts, no?
Betty Draper is the anti-Christ to Whole Foods. Don Draper is the nemesis to the normcore dad. Roger Sterling is the ultimate insider to the 1960s ad man set, meaning he’s the ultimate outsider to today’s corporate responsibility lip service-loving tech industry set.
Bert Cooper is The Art of War– studying yoda, a feng shui-attentive adman, functioning on his own plane of existence, making him seem more in step with the Mount Fuji Instagram shots of the hipster generation today than the alpha male adman Roger Sterlings of yesterday.
As Gina and I enter the Ace Hotel, we squirm through huddled cocktail swingers and schmoozers, approaching the theater, where not two feet away from the entrance, I run into Bert Cooper (Robert Morse). “Hello!” I say, as if I’m greeting an old friend I haven’t seen in years. “We’re huge fans!”
“Thank you,” he replies, bringing his hand to my chin and pinching it like a jolly grandfather would do to a wide-eyed granddaughter. Paternalistically, he squeezes Gina’s hand and gives her a warm smile. Robert Morse genuinely appreciates his fans. We, in turn, genuinely appreciate him back.
“Should we find our seats?” Gina asks me.
“Sure, let’s find them, but then we need to come back and circulate some more,” I tell her. There’s no way I’m gonna sit idly at my seat during one of the greatest moments of a “Mad Men” fangirl’s life.
In the months before the “Mad Men” finale, I began consuming large amounts of “Mad Men”-related articles online. Episode-by-episode style breakdowns, thematic theses, cast interviews, including a most memorable essay by show creator Matthew Weiner. The article, called ‘“Mad Men’ creator Matthew Weiner’s Reassuring Life Advice for Struggling Artists,” came to me via email from Gina.
“Ummm, this was awesome,” she wrote above the link. “Who knew Matt Weiner could be such a life-advice guru?”
The article is revealing. Matt talks about the tendency of artists to hide their brushstrokes, in other words, to allow their success to shroud their process getting there in mystery. He vows that he’s not one to hide brushstrokes and proceeds to tell the story of a not-very-easy-at-all-rise in the Hollywood machine.
He couldn’t get a paying writing job. His wife supported him. He became lazy and embittered. In fact, he only got his first paying job in show business at age 30. No networks wanted to pick up “Mad Men,” believing it to be too uncommercial for TV. But Matt eventually would get a break when AMC took an interest in the show. “Mad Men” would go on to become one of the most successful shows in television history.
Matt Weiner is standing in the center of a crowd in the same row as me, about twelve seats down. I know it’s a crowd made up mostly of his family because I see the creepy Glen character played by Weiner’s son. His hair’s crafted into a wavy mini-mohawk. He’s grown up to become quite a handsome young man, I think. I’m sure Betty Draper would agree. As Matt makes his way through the crowd of congratulators and well-wishers, he nears me, and I know it’s probably the only moment I’ll have to say something to him.
“Mr. Weiner,” I lead in. “Congratulations on your success. If you had one word of advice for a young writer, not a screenwriter, but a writer, what would it be?”
“Keep on writing,” he asserts and smiles as he walks to the front of the stage, but not before he gets a Sharpie and a “Zou Bisou Bisou” album handed to him.
In an Indiewire article entitled “Why ‘Mad Men’ is Really All about Being Jewish,” Eric Eidelstein argues that showrunner Matt Weiner uses his own Jewish identity as a base for exploring the characters’ struggles for “whiteness.” They feel oppressed and alienated, whether that’s through the embodied experience of race, ethnicity, class, or gender.
While Weiner is hesitant to make a “sweeping generalization about the show,” he does confirm that “it’s the story of how we all feel like outsiders.” Well, most of us. He continues, “The only insider in this whole thing is Roger.”
It amuses me to no end that one of the most tender moments we get from Roger on the show is when he gifts Peggy deceased Bert Cooper’s framed octopus porn Japanese illustration known as The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. The events leading up to this show the company being acquired by McCann and moving out of SCDP offices. In the chaos of the move, Roger and Peggy find each other amidst the ashy rubble of war-torn SCDP headquarters.
Bert Cooper had once told Lane Pryce (who later committed suicide) that he admired the painting “for its sensuality, but also, in some way, it reminds me of our business. Who is the man who imagined her ecstasy?”
Among others, the man who imagines her ecstasy is Roger. “An octopus pleasuring a lady,” Roger says as he hands Peggy his late friend’s treasured piece of art. Leave it to Roger to imagine the woman’s ecstasy.
Shokushu goukan (触手強姦) or Japanese tentacle porn pieces are known for their depiction of women being fondled by sea creatures, the fine line between pleasure and rape sometimes obscured and apparently totally overlooked by Roger. The woman in the illustration, like Peggy, is robbed of individual agency, best case scenario relegated to hedonistic tramp status, worst case scenario raped in multiple orifices.
“You know I need to make men feel at ease,” Peggy says, staring down at the painting Roger’s just given to her.
“Who told you that?” Roger responds.
We can read this in two ways. One interpretation is that Roger is epically not getting what it’s like to be a female professional in the ad world, so much so that he’s this oblivious to why Peggy might feel she needs to have a comforting “feminine” presence. The other read on the scenario is that Roger just gave Peggy the best advice of her life.
“John! John!” I call out to the end of the red carpet in the theater’s lobby. John Slattery, AKA Roger Sterling, has just strutted into the building. He tilts his head down, looks over his sunglasses at me and smirks, confidently grabbing my “Zou Bisou Bisou” album and Sharpie. He signs, smiling more obviously as he hands them back to me.
“Thank you so much. I really appreciate your artistry,” I tell him. I’m blushing and embarrassing myself. I’m like a 14-year-old girl who’s just encountered her first celebrity. Even I can’t believe what a juvenile state I’ve reverted to. Any minute now, I’m gonna start asking people to come over and play: hopscotch, Barbies, My Little Pony. Their choice.
“Thank you,” he responds. John’s charming and gracious. He’s like a Roger Sterling without the ego to fill up a room. Or a whole Manhattan office floor as the case may be.
“Of all the people you’ll meet tonight, I’ll bet Pete Campbell will actually turn out to be the friendliest,” my boyfriend Dean tells me as we make our way up the 405 to the finale downtown.
“Why is that?”
“I bet he’s really different from his character,” Dean says. “You know, like the guy that plays the biggest asshole isn’t really an asshole kind of thing.”
“That’s very possible,” I say.
“And he’s kind of a secondary character on the show. He doesn’t get as much attention as Jon Hamm.”
“That’s true. In fact I don’t even know his real name,” I say as I type “Pete Campbell” into Google on my iPhone. “Vincent Kartheiser,” I read on Wiki. “Oh yeah, that’s right. I’ve read about him before. I hear that he rejects the Hollywood lifestyle in favor of a simpler one, where he doesn’t even watch TV and lives in relative modesty.” We don’t even watch TV either, with the exception of “Mad Men,” of course, and our domestic modesty is a product not only of lifestyle choice but also of the recession. “Seems like a pretty interesting guy,” I add.
We pull up to the intersection of 7th and Broadway, stuck in snarling traffic. Typical L.A. Dean gives me a kiss. “Find Pete Campbell. He’ll definitely give you an autograph,” he reminds me as I get out of the passenger seat and close the car door shut, ready to run toward the theater.
Vincent Kartheiser is swiftly walking down the red carpet. He has no smile, no visible expression, no lightness to his aura as I thought this supposed Hollywood renunciant might. He reaches the end of the red carpet. There are no screaming fans, for him or for anyone else. In fact, the only person who’s met with roaring cheers and applause while walking into the event is Matt Weiner. After all, this is shaping up to be a big cast and crew wrap party more than a fan-centric finale. I go to approach Pete, I mean Vincent, but the other dude in the venue interested in Pete’s autograph has reached him first. He holds out a “Mad Men” poster and a Sharpie. Pete signs.
“Vince! Vince!” I call to him, flashing him my adoring fan doe eyes.
He turns around and looks me up and down, then up and down again. It’s the Pete Campbell-sizing-you-up-and-ready-to-attack look. I’ve seen it plenty of times before. It’s the look he gives Ken Cosgrove as they argue about who accounts belong to (Me! Me! Me!). It’s the look he gives Don Draper as he announces his intention to claw his way up the ladder, at any price. It’s the look he gives Peggy Olson as he judges her increasingly large, unbeknownst to him pregnant-with-his-baby body while alongside other male office hecklers. It’s the look he gives Trudy, post-separation, as she returns home to a home he doesn’t inhabit from a presumed date with a suitor. It’s that look that Pete Campbell gives me, deflating my little balloon of celebrity-fueled excitement with his needle prick glare.
“Only one, guys! Only one!” Vince yells. He walks off, leaving in his wake one disappointed 31-year-old girl, I mean woman, and her Sharpie.
“Did you see that?” I turn around and ask Gina, who’s demurely standing behind me.
“That was crazy,” her eyes widen, and she laughs. “That was such a Pete Campbell moment!”
“I wonder if he knows he can retire the character now!” I say. With my hyperactive chihuahua tail now firmly planted between my legs, we retreat from the red carpet and return to our theater seats.
One of the more despicable “Mad Men” characters is without a doubt Harry Crane. Sigh. Good ol’ Harry Crane. He was bad enough when he contributed next to nothing to Sterling Cooper, tried to glorify himself by becoming the resident Hollywood guy in the office, and weaseled his way into making partner. But then he had to creep on Don’s ex-wife, effectively telling her to sleep with him for more acting roles, and then covered his tracks by informing Don of Megan’s “desperation” to do anything for another acting gig.
“I can’t believe Don threw you away,” Harry tells Megan at their meeting. Something tells me the making-a-girl-feel-like-trash approach isn’t gonna work, Harry. Try embittered Jane if you’re gonna move in on anyone’s ex-wife. The “you’re-like-a-piece-of-trash” approach might have more appeal with her.
Harry was the guy that had us all wondering, “Why are you here?” No, really. “What is it that you do?” “Why are you here?” “Are you solely here to harass women and make an ass of yourself?”
“Rich, would you mind signing my ‘Zou Bisou Bisou’ album?” I ask Rich Sommer, who plays infuriating Harry. I’m calling actors by name like we’re all best friends, and as such, on a first-name basis with one another.
“Sure, I’d love to,” he says. He takes my Sharpie in his hand. The man’s cherubic face is gentle and soft, demonstrating all the qualities that I want Harry Crane to possess but doesn’t in each insufferable moment of entitlement on the show. Shit, Rich Sommer is a freakin’ delight, I realize.
“Really love your acting,” I say.
“Thank you,” he nods. He means it. He’s genuine.
“Surprises left and right,” I tell Gina, who’s still faithfully following me around on my autograph quest, like only a true friend does. She’d never intentionally spoil my 8-year-old-like enthusiasm.
“Indeed!” she asserts.
We walk back into the theater, and I swear I’m gonna stay planted in my chair this time.
“Megan is the best. She’s one of the few people who knows how to let loose without needing five cocktails to do it,” I tell Gina. We’re drinking fennel chai tea on her patio. The second half of Season 7 has started up, and we’re going over all the highlights from past seasons to bring ourselves back up to speed.
“I know! She’s the best! She’s one of the few pleasant characters on the show,” she says.
“But people love raining on her parade.”
“They sure do.” Gina and I are die-hard Megan defenders. We’ll read nasty comments made about her both as a character and an actress and rail. “But she’s so genuine! She’s sincere!”
“Like the whole ‘Zou Bisou Bisou’ performance. Rather than just appreciating it as a woman showing her affection and sexuality to her husband on a major occasion, she had to be made into this object of ridicule and shaming. Why was it necessary for people to run through the office making fun of her the next day to Don!?” I ask Gina.
“And not just at the office… at the party right after it happened, too! People could hardly bring themselves to let loose for even a second before going right back to bitching about work and hating on each other!” Gina adds.
“It’s just awful.”
“It is!” Gina’s intensity feeds off of mine.
“Well, at least Megan knows how to have a good time.”
“She does. Megan is very French Canadian to me. A woman clearly from Montreal in the way she conducts herself,” Gina notes. I remember that she went to university in Montreal, speaks French, and probably knows what she’s talking about. Gina’s one of the few people I know who observes and people-watches as much as I do.
“How so?” I ask.
“She’s very much in touch with her womanhood, in control of who she is, confident, unafraid to express herself, enjoys herself even,” Gina says.
“God forbid!” I reply.
“God forbid,” she chuckles.
If it feels like we’re talking about some kind of alien creature making a very brief visit to Earth, we can’t help it. We’re in West L.A. Within a five-mile radius of us is any number of plastic surgery-addicted Beverly Hills housewives with maxed out Visa black cards and painkiller problems. In fact, the house right next to us serves as a covert clinic for young women with eating disorders in the city.
“I would’ve danced right along with her if I were there at ‘Zou Bisou Bisou’ night.”
“I would’ve too!” Gina says.
“I know you would,” I smile.
“I know you would too,” she says back to me. We’ve finished our first pot of tea.
“More tea?” Gina asks.
“Oh, it’s Jessica Paré!” I tell Gina, who’s sitting directly behind me in her seat. The lottery seating split us up, but it only makes the story all the better that she’s sitting in the same row as Paul Kinsey, Henry Francis, Harry Crane, and Ken Cosgrove, and I’m sitting in the same row as Matt Weiner, Megan Draper, and Don Draper.
Jessica Paré’s wearing a chic black dress, complementing her recently child-bearing curves; she’s confident, like her character. There’s no need to hide and no need to be flashy either. Jessica is who she is. She doesn’t want to convince you that she’s #winningatlife because she’s just winning at life the old-fashioned way. That is to say she’s just living. I repeat, just living. Not too many people know how to do that anymore. We need a selfie to prove to everyone that we came, saw, and conquered.
I walk around the back side of the theater and make eye contact with Jessica. “Hi Jessica,” I say.
She’s just finished showing baby pictures on her iPhone to Matt Weiner’s mom.
“Congratulations!” I tell her.
Her dread-headed husband looks upon her with devotion. It pleases me to no end that Jessica Paré’s life, from all appearances, has nothing to do with Megan Draper’s. The woman looks happy, healthy and damn it, for as much as I’ve seen of Megan having to suffer through bullshit office politics, Don’s shady past and present, her mother’s criticism of her art and decisions, and all the other #haters, I’m thrilled to see the woman, in real life, having a better go of it.
“Hi! How are you?” she asks. Inquisitive. Soft. That’s right. That’s my Megan. I mean Jessica.
“I’m great! Actually, you were my style inspiration for tonight,” I say, lifting my arms to reveal the full extent of my loose hippie frock, shaking an ankle to show her the full bulge of my bell bottoms. “Those Laurel Canyon parties with bohemian friends,” I wink. “Gotta love ‘em.”
Jessica laughs. And I gather she’s still trying to ascertain whether she should know me or not. I’m speaking to her, as well, as if we’re old friends, I realize. If I were a friend on the show, I’d have met Don at one of those legendary parties, stayed the night, and had a ménage a trois with her and Don at the end of it all.
“I’m just a fan,” I let her know, “not crew.”
She nods again, apparently able to understand now that I’m just a trekkie not a space crew member. In the Star Trek fan world, I’m just throwing up a Vulcan salute to Spock. I hand her my Sharpie, surely the most promiscuous Sharpie of the evening, and the “Zou Bisou Bisou” album with a striking photo of herself on it. She signs.
“Thank you so much!” I gush.
“You’re welcome!” There’s so much sincerity in the air, you could bottle it up and sell it to Hollywood for millions. It’s a damn rare commodity in this city.
“Ommmmmm … Ommmmmm … Ommmmmm …” Since I moved back to Southern California from Japan, I’ve thrown myself wholeheartedly into spiritual pursuits. Earthquakes, radiation, panic, and PTSD have been replaced by yoga, meditation, periodic pescetarianism, and prayer.
In my adopted hometown of Long Beach, free yoga sessions are held twice daily on a seaside bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, nestled in-between purple flower-blooming jacaranda trees. I’m deeply aware of how lucky I am to be where I am each time I go to this grassy nook. I look over my arm out at the water. I’m in warrior pose, and I’m feelin’ it. Hard.
Carlos Santana once said, “Maybe clichés aren’t really clichés at all. They’re just divine utterances. That’s why everyone says them.” He’s often teased for his spiritual take on life, mocked as “Cosmic Carlos” among some.
But if that’s what having enlightenment and perspective ends up being labeled as, then color me cosmic. I’ll unironically contort myself into any kind of sun salutation, crow, canine, or feline-related pose any day of the week. I’m in my death-emulating shavasana, and it feels damn good.
Cynicism, be dead. Darkness, be gone.
Love, be here. Light, be present.
I often wondered why the “Mad Men” characters just couldn’t seem to dig a little deeper into themselves. Why were they so often floating on the surface of life? Why were they so shallow? Couldn’t somebody, I ask, drag these people to a yoga class? We could use some introspection up in this mo fo! Hadn’t Paramahansa Yogananda already brought the message of yoga to the West? Sign these people up for one of his lectures. Stat!
Don, perhaps of all of the characters, might’ve been the worst on this front. The man was so lacking in self-understanding that you could hit him in the head with a book that read “Self-understanding” on the cover, and he still wouldn’t know that word had hit him. He’d look at the book and say, “What’s this?… Hmmm… a book… Interesting…” put it back down and go about his day.
But unlike the leagues of Don haters out there, I don’t hate Don. Not even a little bit. Nor do I harbor anger or disgust at Don. In fact, I root for Don. Yes, I am as continually disappointed by his character as everyone else is, especially each time he engages in yet another extramarital affair that he’s dishonest about. But I see Don, like I see myself and others, as an inherently flawed human being. I once nearly got in a Twitter feud while live tweeting through one of the last “Mad Men” episodes about this.
At the close of the episode, an unnamed live Tweeter wrote, “#MadMen summarized: People making terrible decisions.”
I replied, “In other words, people being people :).”
He fired back seconds later, “People being terrible people.”
Reluctant to get into those cyber feuds I’ve heard about where people say nasty things about each other’s families and wish death upon each other, I responded, “Hard to disagree!”
But what I really wanted to say was actually, no. I don’t view Don nor most of the other characters as terrible people, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, even Harry Crane. I view them as people: complex, insecure, sometimes irresponsible with themselves and others, sometimes anxious, and sometimes alcohol and depression-prone. Such is life.
The writer Junot Diaz once said, “Has anybody tabulated my full account of cruelties toward people?… I just think that, in fact, none of us, we don’t know anything about anybody.” So despite the fact that I still have to work out my full range of emotions on Don, I ultimately won’t allow myself to jump on the Don-bashing bandwagon. I view him as a multi-faceted man who, like the rest of us, just needs to understand and own himself better.
That was more or less the moral of the final episode for most of the characters: understand and own yourself. Joan asserted her professional worth. Peggy asserted her desire for love. Pete and Trudy got back together and peaced out for Kansas. Betty prepared to die. And Don, heeding my long-standing “find-a-yoga-class” advice, found meditation and in turn, found himself, if only for a moment.
Don, forever an adman. This, I didn’t and still don’t view cynically. When the bell tolled in the final scene and Don smiled to himself, he had a heartfelt Omm moment. In that space, I believe that Don connected with himself and his real identity for the first time, perhaps, well, ever.
He may not have been destined to become a lifelong yoga devotee and happy little hippie living in Southern California. He could never be satisfied with a sleepy life in San Pedro convening with fellow Boddhisattvas at Buddhist meditation retreats perhaps, but Don now understands, through his yoga, that what he is is an adman. That’s his life. That’s his identity. That’s where he thrives. He no longer has to feel that he’s committing self-betrayal. He finally understands himself.
That’s an extremely liberating thing. And nobody even had to throw a “Self-understanding” book at his head, (getting clocked in the face with a backcountry phonebook doesn’t count).
I look over at Jon Hamm who is, I remind you, sitting ten seats down from me. I want to see how he reacts to his own scenes. He’s without a visible reaction. And I’m without a drink! “Mad Men” had a way of making you want to drink a Manhatten even if you weren’t a drinker and especially if you were. Those clinking ice cubes in fat glasses at the office and the amber tint to the alcohol they imbibed was perhaps the best advertisement of all the advertisements on the show.
I get up from my seat and go to the bar not once, not twice, but three times for yet another rum and coke. This is the end of an era for sure, not just the end to the era of the 1960s on the show, but the end of the “Mad Men” era for viewers like me. And I’m not gonna let this era end without a proper alcohol-rich celebration. So three rum and cokes into my drunken viewing experience, as Don Draper had a moment of epiphany mid-ommm on the cliff, I ve a moment of inebriation. This is a strange role reversal.
Perhaps most of us, in this New Agey Age we’re living in are shifting back and forth along the yogi-drunk spectrum, some of us lying closer to the yogi end, some of us lying closer to the drunk end. But these days, I’m closer to the yogi end, and I don’t mind at all.
“Mr. Hamm,” I say to Jon Hamm, while holding out my “Zou Bisou Bisou” album and Sharpie. Something about his heartbreaker status makes me feel like it’s more appropriate to call him “Mr. Hamm” apparently. “I’m very inspired by your work. Would you mind signing my album?”
He flashes a warm grin and signs. This guy gets it, I think.
I recall watching Conan O’Brien interview Jon Hamm on the Late Show once. Conan asked him about his days as a waiter and struggling actor in L.A. This prompted “Mr. Hamm” to tell a story about getting so many parking tickets in L.A. his car was impounded. He wouldn’t pay to get the car out, so he started a period of rollerblading to work and around the city. He tells this story with such deadpan, level-headed delivery that you begin to sense that the guy’s got a lot of what others are often lacking in this town: perspective on his recent Hollywood success. He seems to see it as random, fleeting, ephemeral…
And all of this only serves to make the man that much more attractive.
The theater screen where the credits roll is now blurry and even Jon Hamm has become nothing but a hazy patch in my cocktail-goggley vision. Sharpie back in hand, I retreat for my seat, not stumbling but thoroughly intoxicated, free of inhibitions. And at the same time, not so free that I jump Jon Hamm as most red-blooded sane heterosexual women would be tempted to do in my shoes. I’ve done enough research on Jon Hamm that I know about his perfectly unusual long-standing relationship with Jennifer Westfeldt. It’s such a respectable relationship that this much booze can’t even make me flirtatious.
I speak in jest about my “Mad Men” fanhood because I know, in the big picture, that what has happened here tonight at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, is meaningless. In the larger cosmic snapshot, none of this really means anything. Celebrity is meaningless. Hollywood is meaningless. Shows like “Mad Men” are meaningless. Mr. Hamm’s sexiness is meaningless. And yes, my life is meaningless. This is not said fatalistically, rather, with great reassurance. It can be hard for us to admit our own meaninglessness because we’re so caught up in the daily human drama that plays out both in our lives and in those ubiquitous multimedia screens we’re increasingly glued to, but it brings me great comfort to know that tonight’s events mean nothing. The great yogis and spiritual masters have told me that it’s exactly because life is without any defined meaning that I can find meaning where I want to find it.
Life is like a merengue dance, a seemingly simple two-step in which we shift our weight from foot to foot, moving between formlessness and form, consciousness and action, working through the details and stepping back for the perspective. So given that all of tonight and the entire “Mad Men” show is meaningless, I can go back to examining where the meaning is.
Katie Roiphe is right. There was something so spectacularly fascinating about the particular brand of self-destruction that the “Mad Men” characters engaged in that we couldn’t help but watch the train wreck, even if it was a slow, painful one. The times exhibited before us were indeed a far cry from our responsibility-filled, self-helpy Eckhart Tolle “A New Earth” era.
It was a shock to see young, pregnant women sipping on Mai Tais instead of probiotic smoothies, a shock to see a time when Benedictine and Brandys trumped beet juice, when torrid affairs topped couples therapy as acceptable solutions to unbearable situations.
That there was ever a New York City that was only beginning to get a taste of the fully cutthroated nature of advertising was incomprehensible. That yoga was not an immediate go-to activity for the imploding lives of those at Sterling Cooper Draper Price offices and beyond was just that, beyond us.
But for all of the mixed feelings we experienced in watching “Mad Men,” (Are these redeemable escape mechanisms? Is Don Draper really that bad of a guy? Is Betty justified to drink, smoke, and screw through her multi-tiered emotional issues? Is Joan doing third-wave feminism right by playing up her sexuality, or is Peggy doing it right by playing it down?), we’re allowed to say that the 1960s solution (that of basically no solution) had its limitations. Just as we’re allowed to say that the 2010s solutions have theirs. Having a fake social consciousness-leaning profile for Facebook likes is not any better. Performative yoga for Instagram followers is probably not any better either. And no, being a dogmatic raw vegan purist and dietary pusher definitely doesn’t win you enlightenment points either.
So perhaps there’s that middle ground, somewhere between Lululemon-sporting yogini and scotch-swinging adman/adwoman where we can find a little bit happier a place: a place that’s a little more grounded in acknowledging human weakness, where people occasionally indulge in the poison of their pick before steering themselves back on track to a place of a bit less self-loathing, dishonesty, and cynicism and a bit more legitimate self-acceptance, kind-heartedness, and love.
If that’s still too rooted in the thoughtful, balanced approach we so value in these uncertain millennial times, take a trip to Shanghai! You will find that slap-you-in-the-face indulgence, sexuality, and excess are still very much alive and well here on Planet Earth.
“Do you think that we’ll forget about ‘Mad Men’ now that it’s over?” Gina asks me.
“Yeah, probably. It’ll just slip further and further away from our memories with each passing day. That is unless they decide to resurrect it for Nick at Nite reruns or whatever channel functions as a nostalgia-feeding tube into our guts someday.”
“We can do like my grandmother and make ourselves a martini with our Nick at Nite reruns.”
“We could. Who knows if we’ll be drinking martinis or chamomile tea with dinner by then…” I say.
“Yeah, who knows…” Gina agrees. “Speaking of which, would you like some tea?”
“Yeah, let’s have it outside on the patio,” I tell her. “We need to discuss candidates for our next TV obsession.”