Monday, October 18, 2010

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Don...

...but oh, how I love watching his roller coaster of a life! This season of Mad Men has been absolutely stunning, and I can finally say it fully won me over (a small part of me had still been uncomfortable with the show's apparent sterility and too-perfect demeanor; I just wanted to muss up its hairstyle a little bit). Quietly complex story lines, pitch-perfect performances, that barely contained anguish... Needless to say I had been simultaneously dreading and salivating over the season finale since last Sunday. When it finally came around, I got comfortable in my pajamas, barricaded myself in front of the TV, and made sure I could watch it undisturbed. And about two thirds into it.....

“I'm in love with you, Megan, and I think I have been for a while.”

(*wipes vomit off face*)

Of course, TV's Emptiest Marriage Proposal Ever came as no surprise, as the episode did nothing but foreshadow it all along, from Don's idyllic family vacation with Megan, to the saccharine “perfect mommy” moments of which she promises a lifefull, to the conveniently timed inheriting of Anna's engagement ring and those subsequent shots of “pensive Don” in the hotel; you can practically see him drawing the pro and con list on a mental legal pad—really, Mad Men, how very uncharacteristically... obvious of you. As obvious as the irony of Don Draper's ring sealing the deal between Dick Whitman and Megan, the woman who makes him feel “the way [he] always wanted to feel,” namely, like the fantasy of Don Draper himself—the man he always struggled to become.

Yep, I knew the proposal would happen just as surely as I knew that Betty would do something despicable to reverse any modicum of sympathy I may have mustered for her this season. Because well-written, realistic characters, much like real people, don't change. But still I hoped. I hoped that this would be the season that Don Draper would change, that he would become that better man we've all been hoping for since the show's inception—the man worthy of those panty-dropping looks of his. But, in retrospect, Don has been slowly morphing into Roger Sterling this entire season, so really, the whirlwind engagement to the beautiful young secretary should not have surprised me one bit. My own fault, that.

And yet I still feel it wouldn't have been totally unreasonable to expect Don to choose Faye, or hell, neither woman, instead of Megan. After all, Faye, Peggy, even Betty all experienced some form of shock and dismay upon hearing the news. Only Joan in her infinite bombshell wisdom was unblinded by Don's appealing veneer and sees him for what he is: just another dime-a-dozen executive who married his secretary. Even though the entire season up to this point has seen him contemplating and re-evaluating his life. Even if he was on the road to self-improvement. Even if hypothetically, Don's entire post-divorce journey could have been setting the stage for a real breakthrough.

In the end, while I am fresh out of respect for Don Draper, I must award a barrel of it to Matthew Weiner and Co. for not succumbing to what I can only imagine were entire sacks full of fan mail begging for a "happy ending" to the season (although arguably, the season does see a kind of happy ending, what with Don's impending nuptials and, thanks to Peggy, SCDP's newfound stability). Mad Men, thankfully, has never been the kind of show that caters to its audience's wishes over its needs, and, hand to God, I hope it never turns into it, no matter how much I may have rooted for Dr. Miller and her possibly redeeming love. After all, I'm just a silly romantic cynic with a silly romantic streak who rooted for Ross and Rachel, and Pam and Jim, and House and Cuddy, and look how boring all those couples turned out. It is this brutal honesty and refusal to conform that may well be making this show more superb with each passing season. They certainly made for a superb finale, from Joan's and Peggy's brief moment of camaraderie over their shared disgust with Don and office politics, to Faye's scathing parting shot to Don.

But don't feel too bad for Faye, folks; she will be fine without her Mad Man, not that he's some big prize in the long term. As for our ever-fickle protagonist, no matter how much we the viewers might root for him—and we will—we should remember that he will always be the kind of character whose cowardly decisions will repeatedly leave us, like Betty, disappointed yet ultimately unsurprised. Still, in the words of Liz Lemon, “that whole Disney prince thing” sure is confusing.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Glee-ping the Faith

It doesn't really need to be said, but not all Christians are anti-science, sexist homophobes. The intelligent among us know this. We believe it. And yet, I find myself compelled to point out this truth on a semi-regular basis. The liberal media—including many publications I respect—as well as friends and acquaintances remind me all too often of the many ways in which people of faith—and thus, faith itself—fall short when it comes to open-mindedness and acceptance. And so, even though most of us know that we cannot and should not pigeonhole an entire cultural group, we still slip into the prejudicial mentality that, ironically, has been attributed to, not directed at, the religious. This is why I was impressed (and a little surprised) by this week's Glee: because even though the wrongness of this stereotype, too, should be implied, many liberal Americans still get a bad taste in the mouth at the mention of religion. I can't quite say I blame us, but I can't quite say I don't.

I admit that I have something of an ulterior motive in writing this, as I had exactly the kind of upbringing that normal (read: non-religious) people imagine when they hear the words “prayer meeting” and the lesser known “Christian music bonfire” (OK, this last one is but a nod to my beloved Arrested Development). The brand of religiosity present in my childhood and adolescence was not malicious or violent in any way, but subtly ostracizing and unwittingly sanctimonious? You betcha. I've since toyed with everything from religious humanism to agnosticism, because that is what you do when you are a thoughtful, liberal 18-year-old with “Devout Protestant” on your birth certificate and scared shitless of being labeled a narrow-minded science basher like “all the other Christians.” Lately, though, I've been getting a wee bit defensive—thank you, adulthood—because try as one might, it's not so easy, this business of denying thy father (heh), but I suppose that's my cross to bear (heh, heh). Don't get me wrong: I still have a chip on my shoulder so big and resilient I'll likely never be fully rid of it, but I like to think I am relatively comfortable with the complexity of my faith at its current state, namely, that while I might not know definitively what I believe, I do believe in God (on most days), and even though I am skeptical about any one too-specific mythology about the divine, it is this skepticism that I am ultimately grateful for, and even though this makes me about 5% afraid for the state of my soul, I am about 95% willing to ignore that fear in favor of my definitions of goodness and morality, in spite of the slight possibility that they will cause me to one day die an eternal and fiery death, though I'm almost positive this is not likely. To skim the surface.

But back to Glee. Sure, this season has been somewhat disappointing and the “I'd like to share my feelings through song!” method of segue into said song is wearing thin (I mean, seriously, Papa, can you hear yourself?), but I enjoyed this episode on the basis of sheer guts; it's not easy to broach a controversial topic to begin with, let alone doing so on a show known more for schtick, less for depth. (Also, the music was fantastic, although a song as awesome as REM's “Losing My Religion” did not deserve to be associated with a plot point as ridiculous as Finn's disillusionment with his grilled cheese Jesus.) And yes, part of me was happy to see a public discourse about faith on non-conservative programming, more specifically, a discourse that neither exalted nor denigrated religion, because God knows I'm sick to death of those. Did the episode reveal more than an occasional trace of the after school special? Of course. But we have to remember we're dealing with Glee, and this rainbows and unicorns stuff is their bread and butter.

The primary conflict this week was between Kurt and the rest of the gang, over their offers of prayer for his ailing father and Kurt's deliberate refusal of any and all faith-based help. The reason the episode worked so well was that it absolutely did not attempt to provide an answer to the “To pray or not to pray?” question—nope, no moralistic agenda here, folks. Instead, it simply pointed out what we supposedly already knew: that in a crisis, some will pray and some will not, and that the faithless can be just as close-minded as the faithful. Kurt was wrong to alienate his friends and they were wrong to pressure him, end of story. Most importantly, he did not go from atheist to believer during the course of an episode, and that's a trap a different show could have easily fallen into. He merely realized that a principle has no place in the simple matter of a friend who, to paraphrase Kurt (and Lennon/McCartney), just wants to hold your hand. And that's something we can all agree on. Not that it needed to be said.