Thursday, May 21, 2015

Mad Men: Matt Weiner Doesn’t Get to Tell You What the Ending Means

Matt Weiner recently clarified his interpretation of the ending to Mad Men. Here’s a good summary of the relevant comments courtesy of Vulture:
The series finale of Mad Men ended with Don Draper achieving a moment of peace he had been searching for this whole time, and then using it to come up with perhaps one of the greatest advertising campaigns of all time, Coca-Cola's 1971 "Hilltop" commercial. Many viewed this ending with cynicism — that a man who has gone through everything Don has experienced in life would finally find enlightenment, only to result in him using it to sell some soda. This wasn’t Weiner’s intention. "I'm not saying that advertising's not corny, but I'm saying that people who find that ad corny, they're probably experiencing a lot of life that way, and they're missing out on something," Weiner said. "I felt like that ad in particular is so much of its time, so beautiful, and I don't think it's as villainous as the snark of today thinks it is."  
For the record, my reading is pretty much the same as Weiner’s. I say this not to pat myself on the back (well, maybe a little...) but rather to establish my credibility when I caution people to think twice before treating Weiner’s word on the subject as authoritative.

Statements of his intent aside, the ending of Mad Men is quintessentially ambiguous. Yes, there are hints and clues that point in certain directions. But because we never actually see Don pitch the Coke ad, there’s nothing in the text that says definitively he did. The current diversity of interpretations is indication of this textual ambiguity.

And that’s a good thing! Some people seem to think any work that doesn’t spoon feed you all the answers is somehow deficient. But lot of the best art leaves room for those experiencing it to decide for themselves what happened and what it all means. Debate over these questions keeps art alive and vibrant, allowing it to stand the test of time.

That’s why a part of me wishes Weiner had just kept his big mouth shut. Privileging his answers threatens to strangle what has actually been a fascinating debate over how to interpret Don’s literal and figurative moment of Zen. In so doing, it undermines the whole purpose for leaving the ending ambiguous in the first place.

Then there’s the whole question of author reliability. The simple fact is artists have been known to lie about what their creations mean -- for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it’s by necessity. (Anyone really believe Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds had nothing whatsoever to do with LSD? Me neither.). Sometimes they’re just having fun.

Even where creators don’t lie consciously, moreover, they can still be unaware of all the meanings they embed in their works subconsciously. Freud may have been wrong about most of psychoanalysis. But he was clearly correct subconscious desires drive a lot of what we do. Artists are no exception -- quite the contrary.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting Weiner’s being deceptive, whether consciously or subconsciously. My point is just that he doesn’t get to say authoritatively what the ending to Mad Men means. For reasons both lofty and practical, the artist’s interpretation is simply one of many.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men: They Stuck the Ending

It's been a while since I updated this blog. I've been too busy writing my own stories to comment on the work of others. But I couldn't allow the brilliant finale of Mad Men pass without comment. Weiner and Co. stuck the ending like an Olympic gymnast winning gold. For a couple of reasons.

First, the ending was incredibly economical. Think about how much information was communicated in those final few seconds. The obvious implication is Don creates the famous Coke commercial for McCann. But that also means Don goes back to New York. Back to the agency. Back to Betty. Back to his kids.

Efficiency isn’t typically the hallmark of great art, but in this case, it was crucial. As a friend of mine pointed out, Weiner could have shown us all that. But it would have taken a lengthy parade of maudlin and melodramatic scenes. The kind of stuff we’ve already seen so many times before, not just on Mad Men but elsewhere.

Second, the ending crystallized the themes of the show perfectly. There were lots of hints in these final episodes that you can’t go back. One of the clearest was Don’s attempt to “fix” Stephanie’s problems. Ironically, even his speech about “going forward” was a throwback to the past when he delivered a similar speech to Peggy. Classic Don Draper.

That Don died at Esalen and was reborn. The old Don would never have spontaneously hugged that crying man in the workshop. Old Don wouldn’t have done meditation in the morning sun -- at least, not voluntarily.  And he probably wouldn’t have come up with a commercial that captured the changing times so perfectly.

In the end, Don didn’t just go back, he went back a changed man. And that change makes all the difference.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Breaking Bad: AuGUStavo Fring

I personally think Gus and Max were gay lovers. But whether or not they were is really irrelevant because I believe Gus took Max under his wing for a different reason.

Specifically, Gus was showing the same kindness that Augusto Pinochet showed him as a young man. I believe Gus was the Chilean dictator's protege many years before, which is how Gus got the nickname "Generalissimo". When Pinochet was ousted in 1988, those close to him changed their identities to avoid prosecution.

Augusto's protege adopted the name Gustavo as a covert homage to the man who showed him such kindness. That's why there's no record of any Gus Fring in Chile prior to 1989.

EDIT: Someone noted elsewhere that Hank mentioned finding records of Gus Fring's entering Mexico in 1986. If so, perhaps Gus went there as an emissary for Pinochet, who was reportedly involved in drug running. Either way, I suspect Gus adopted the alias as an homage to his benefactor.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Breaking Bad: Open House

I absolutely adored the first two episodes of S4. In fact, I thought this season was off to the strongest start since S1. But the third episode ("Open House") was like Don Salamanca's watery deuce.

I just don't care about Marie or her kleptomania. I also find it ridiculous that Skyler would risk faking an EPA inspection, when one phone call to the agency would reveal her deception. All the moreso after her lecture to Walt about not taking unnecessary risks.

It just didn't work for me. At all.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Torchwood: The Master

What if the Master is behind Miracle Day?

For those unfamiliar, the Master is an infamous villain from Doctor Who, the show that spawned Torchwood. He time travels using a machine called a TARDIS that's bigger on the inside than the outside.

I know Russell T. Davies has been insistent that Torchwood should never overlap with Doctor Who. But ever since it was revealed that PhiCorp's warehouse was bigger on the inside like a TARDIS, I can't shake my suspicion the Master is involved.

Miracle Day seems beyond the capability of PhiCorp. More likely, they're being exploited by someone more powerful for some purpose besides making money. Many, myself included, have wondered if the real motive is finding a way to kill Jack.

The Master has good reason to want Jack dead, particularly if the latter is the Face of Boe. In the Doctor Who episode "Utopia," the Doctor discovers a character is the Master in disguise thanks to a cryptic warning delivered by the Face of Boe.

I'm guessing the Master has realized that Jack is indeed the Face of Boe, and that killing him is the key to rewriting a timeline in which the Master suffers a series of humiliating defeats by the Doctor.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Falling Skies: Occupation

It seems like the aliens are bent on occupation, rather than genocide. Against that backdrop, their actions make some sense. For example, many have wondered why the aliens only attack at night. But what's the first thing occupying forces usually do? Impose a curfew.

Another big question is why the aliens only attack large groups. Perhaps such groups represent the threat of a large-scale uprising, which the aliens want to avoid. Not because they couldn't suppress such a revolt, but because doing so would require killing too many people.

The aliens harvest the children. Any accompanying adults are killed under the assumption they're parents who might try to take back their kids. But the aliens can't kill too many adults because that would mean no more children. They're following sustainable hunting practices.

This may even explain why the aliens are collecting scrap metal. Despite the EMP, some radios will have survived or been repaired by now. There were suggestions of this in episode 3, when the Colonel mentioned pockets of resistance across the country had made contact.

At some point, the aliens will need to use another EMP to prevent the resistance from coordinating. And when they do, their own electronics will have to be shielded. Perhaps that's why the aliens want aluminum roofing.They're building the mother of all aluminum foil hats!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Fringe: The War Between the Universes Was Inevitable

A lot of fans seem confused how there could be a war between the universes if Peter never existed. After all, wasn't he the whole reason Walter originally crossed over? And didn't his conversation with young Olivia cause Walternate to figure out about the Blue Universe? The answer to both questions is yes. But I think were still meant to infer that the war between the universes was inevitable.

In "Peter," Walter said Belly was always urging them to cross over to steal more technology. We can assume, therefore, that the two would have done so at some point regardless. Also, Walter alluded to a "mistake" in "The Day We Died," suggesting the first crossing may have been an unintended error.

Once you assume the crossing was inevitable, then so was Walternate's discovery of the Blue Universe. Indeed, it seems odd to think Walter would be able to discover the Red Universe while Walternate would remain oblivious to the Blue. At a minimum, he would have figured out what was up once his universe started collapsing. Also, we know Belly approached Walternate at some point, presumably to get more technology.

So, the war was inevitable, too, it was just a matter of time. By removing Peter from the timeline, however, the Observers made the conflict less personal between Walter and Walternate, setting the stage for their future cooperation.