Mad men: counting stars

mad-men-counting-stars
Don Draper. (Justina Mintz/AMC)
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Starlee Kine

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Pete is losing touch with his identity. He’s forgetting details from his past. “Who’s Tom?” he asks, disoriented when he hears his father-in-law had a heart attack. No one called him to tell him about it; the connection would’ve kept breaking up. The voice of Burger Chef’s mascot, Paul Winchell, built the first artificial heart. When he died, his surviving children weren’t called either. They’d stopped speaking to him by then.

Don’s back at work. He ascends in the elevator, alone in another room, a smaller box. Facing forward, nonetheless, the thin, black line where the two closed doors meet intersect precisely at the middle of his head, splitting him down the center. The doors slide open and he’s greeted by more closed doors, the opposing elevator across the way. Its shape is rectangular, its color black, much like a gaping abyss or a pool of black tar or yes, a monolith.

The monolith discovered in 2001: A Space Odyssey was built by alien beings whose purpose was to foster the development of other species that they deemed worthy. Millions of years before, they’d decided the human race showed some potential and dropped a monolith amongst some apes in order to accelerate their evolutionary process. “The throbbing grew louder, more insistent. Presently the man-apes began to move forward, like sleepwalkers, toward the source of that compulsive sound… Totally entranced, they gathered round the monolith, forgetting the hardships of the day, the perils of the approaching dusk, and the hunger in their bellies.”

Hanging in Peggy’s office is a framed print of the numbers zero through nine, in an out-of-order jumble. The one is sandwiched between the six and eight. The seven hovers in the center. It looks like a clock an alien would build, after seeing versions of ours here on earth. Peggy assigns Don and Mathias 25 taglines each. When Don doesn’t do his, Mathias gets 25 more. What Peggy wanted was 50, what difference if they’re from one man or from two?

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“This machine is intimidating because it contains infinite quantities of information,” says Lloyd. “The IBM 360 can count more stars in a day than we can in a lifetime.” Lloyd smiles, the definition of toothily. There are certain types of faces that you associate with another time and he has one of those. “Yeah but what man laid on his back counting stars and thought of a number?” asks Don.“He probably thought of going to the moon,” says Lloyd. Don laughs and then, as Peggy opens her door, spins on his heels and retreats back inside.

“Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in” episodes ended with the Joke Wall. Various cast members would pop open their little cubby hole doors, covered in psychedelic flower drawings and tell gags, often laughing so hard themselves that they barely made it to the punch line. The atmosphere was so chummy and warm that it felt like this is where the actors spent their real lives. The cameras would turn off, the lights would go dark and they’d curl up in their little cubbyholes until the next day when they’d get to do it all over again. In the mornings you’d find some of the boxes empty and others filled with two people now instead of one. As each door popped open, clouds of pot smoke would waft out, as though the wall itself was exhaling.

“Laugh-in”was so popular that the creators were given free reign to make whatever other show they wanted. They did some math and realized that satire diminished in direct ratio to the size of an audience. The more people who watched, the smaller the scope became, since the comedy had to reference only subjects that everyone knew.

They decided to create a show that appealed to the younger generation, viewers with short attention spans. It aired on February 5th, 1969. It was a series of skits shot on a white stage and was shot in a way that the actors had no shadows. The effect was as though they were moving in space. They could be standing at different points on the stage and still appear to be next to one another. The hosts were two computers. There were over two hundred and sixty sequences in the half hour premiere. The average length of a scene was two seconds. If you blinked, you missed three jokes. The celebrity guest star, Tim Conway, wandered from sketch to sketch, in the role of a man trying to kill himself.

Audiences felt like their senses were being assaulted. They called into their stations. In some states, it was yanked off the air before the episode was finished. In Cleveland it lasted eleven minutes. Word of the negative reactions spread at the same rate as the dipping sun and so by the time the show was set to air in the west, the network had already cancelled it. One critic described the problem: “There wasn’t any identification with the audience, just a bunch of strangers up there insulting everything you believe in.”

Last week Don briefly held the center square. As long as he remained physically on his spot, he thought no one else could take it. What he didn’t realize was that the game board itself could make a move. “The machines are frightening to people,” says Lloyd. “But they’re made by people.” “People aren’t frightening?” asks Don. Harry Crane told a lie and then came clean and is now winning the game. When Don did the same, he was banished. Honesty is only noticed when it hurts instead of helps. In the novel of 2001, which was published concurrently with the film’s release, Hal can’t figure out how to both relay accurate information that the astronauts asked of him while continuing to follow his original orders, which were to withhold the true purpose of their mission. The two tasks were too much at odds and so he comes up with what he considers the most logical solution: to kill off the crew so he wouldn’t have to lie to them.

Harry doesn’t know it but last week, he briefly became extinct. Cutler brought his name up his name in the meeting about Don. “He’s gone,” says Roger, “Anything else?” In the blink of an eye, Harry Crane existed no more. Another blink and he was brought back to life. Spoken language is losing its power. It’s only written text that registers now. A Wall Street Journal article gets the creative lounge ripped out. Lou writes a number on a scrap of paper and buys Peggy’s loyalty for a hundred dollars, her worth lowered since the days when Ted pulled the same trick. An orphan who grew up in a whorehous studies Portnoy’s Complaint for instructions on how to deal with his Jewish maternal figure fetish (I keep wondering this season, since he’s spending so much time alone, if Don ever jerks off). Roger brushes Mona off when she’s physically sitting in his office but obeys her when her words come by telegram. A list of rules is slid across a table to Don that have the same effect as putting an electric collar around his neck. A felt pennant with the word “Mets” is pinned to a wall and causes one of the greatest upsets in baseball history. In July 1969, The New York Times wrote of their incredible comeback in the World Series, which they would go on to win: “For the second time in a week, the eyes of a nation will stray from moon countdown… to a puzzling phenomenon – the sudden rise of the New York Mets from baseball urchins to heroes… How could the Mets long cherished as losers suddenly become winners?”

The problem with paper is that it’s too vulnerable to the elements. Just one lick of fire and it’s all gone. Don pops his door open and Lloyd sets up the joke. “Do you got a light?” “The perils of technology,” deadpans Don. “It’s 1969 and you’re unable to make fire.” The better punch line, though, is that Lloyd’s the Devil and yet he still needs lighter fluid to make his Zippo work.

“You go by many names,” says Don. “I know who you are.” The Devil has to come for Don in a familiar form: himself. A light is what Dick Whitman asked of the real Don Draper, before dropping his Zippo and blowing that Don up. Zippos have a lifetime guarantee. If one breaks, the company will replace or repair it for free. What’s the fine print, though, if the lighter is used to bring your lifetime to an end?

Lloyd doesn’t own a TV but believes in technological longevity. IBM keeps trading their models in for newer, shinier ones, while Lloyd has trust in the old machines. If a liar trusts something, does it make him more honest or the product more flimsy?

Lloyd’s job isn’t to innovate but to profit off the accomplishments— and weaknesses—of those who do. It’s the oldest way of making money in the world and so naturally, others are doing it too. He seeks out the agency’s older model, Don, and asks a question: advertising, does it work?

He wants to know how ads could be used to help his company stand out. His competitors, says Don, “don’t haveYOU.” “Very nice,” says Lloyd. The smile is back. He can see the effect the conversation is having on Don, which is what he’s after. He’s selling Don on the act of selling, tempting him to flame. Giving him what he’s been thirsting for, all these weeks as he paced around his cage.

They volley back and forth, two co-hosts doing their opening bit, setting up the other to make the gags land. “At this point, I usually ask how you got into this business,” Don lobs over to Lloyd. “Well, I worked at IBM for a few years…”

Don laughs more this episode than we’ve ever seen him but it’s only with outsiders. Freddy’s suddenly his best friend, the only person he feels safe enough to call. He’s clawed his way up from rock bottom but that leaves him still only on the ground floor. “There’s always a hierarchy, believe me,” Roger informs his daughter. Immanuel Kant believed in a hierarchy of intelligent life forms spread throughout time and space. The further away a planet was from the sun, the more perfect its inhabitants. Residents of Mercury and Venus were “grafted too fast to matter” while those on Jupiter and Saturn were far more advanced than us humans, incapable of sin. Humans populated the middle rung. “Earth is located between the two most outer limits of perfection, equidistant from both,” he wrote, “If the idea of the most sublime classes of sensible creatures provokes the jealousy of human beings and discourages them with the knowledge of their own humble position, a glance at the lower stages brings contentment and calms them again.”

Humans have the hardest time imagining experiences outside of their own. We think that because we spend time thinking about ourselves as we do, others must too. We click on the photos of people we love or miss or envy and forget that the Internet is a one-way mirror. Peggy and Don are separated by just one thin wall and it’s not even a real one. Outside their doors the construction workers are daily reminders of just how impermanent a barrier can be. Neither of them, though, can see the situation from the other’s side.

Peggy thinks Don’s blowing off the work he owes her to go have a good time at the baseball game. For weeks he’s been doing all he can to not appear like his exile is getting to him. He shows up to work on time. He’s still handsome enough to make his receptionist swoon. When Peggy calls him into her office and asks if he needs a drink, he answers, dryly, “It was a long walk. But no.” It’s a line the old Don would’ve made, the one who was a bit of a dick but was also the smartest guy at the agency and intolerant of bullshit. But she’s forgotten that what you see is not always the whole story. Cans of Coke might be full of Vodka. A secretary might be too busy ogling her boss with her eyes to hear him admit to being lonely with her ears.

The film 2001 came out a year before a man first walked on the moon, supplying the world with visuals for the concepts we already knew. Lou doesn’t like storyboards because they cost money to draw and yet his bottom-dollar ways could inadvertently push things in a more imaginative direction. Sometimes visuals box you in, take too tight a hold of your thoughts. It’s impossible to read a book after seeing the movie that was based off it and not picture the characters as the same actors. Upon landing on the moon, the crew of Apollo 11 told Arthur C. Clarke that they were tempted to radio back to Earth that they’d discovered a monolith. Even in the awesome presence of the real thing, they still referred to the movie version.

In From the Earth to the Moon three men are shot from a cannon into space. Two of them are members of a gun club and the third is a French poet, inspired by Felix Nadar, who took the world’s first aerial photos. Kubrick gave us images of the moon while Nadar showed us what we looked like from above. The cannon is launched from Tampa, Florida, which means “sticks of fire” in the language of the Native Americans who first settled there. On their voyage back home, Neil Armstrong described the scenery out the window to the people listening at home, beginning with, “A hundred years ago Jules Verne wrote a book about a voyage to the moon. His spaceship Columbia took off from Florida and landed in the Pacific Ocean. It seems appropriate to us to share with you some of the reflections of the crew as the modern-day Columbia completes its rendezvous with the planet Earth and the same ocean tomorrow.” They had just accomplished the most epic of firsts but they already considered their vessel to be second-hand, the kind of machine that’s Lloyd’s stock and trade.

“They’re dragging us underground,” says Stan, who once dreamt of working among orange groves. “They’re trying to erase us!” shouts Ginsberg, whose people know a thing or two on this subject. Harry, who’s enjoying his position as destroyer, sees Don talking with Lloyd. He doesn’t realize there’s an endless demand for souls and so feels uneasy. He pokes his head into Don’s office, “You were going to give me the name of a good key punch service.” A reporter writing about IBM in the sixties described the companies office life: “Whatever seething passions, empathetic opinions or strong emotions may lurk just beneath the surface, the IBMers I met appeared as bland as an ulcer diet and as placid as the suburban meadows outside their windows.” Even the repairmen wore white shirts and dark suits. They used briefcases to carry their tools. “I used to think the country was lonely,” says Marigold to her dad. “ Now I realize the city is.”

Roger lies on his back and stares up at the stars. “Every little boy wants to be an astronaut,” he says though that actual job title didn’t exist when he was young. When you’re telling time off a paper clock, the past and present become one. His daughter uses the sun and moon as her watch, like her ancestors the apes. Her name is Marigold now, one of the easiest and most versatile flowers to grow in a garden. Roger can’t believe his “Princess and a Pea” has become so adaptable. The thing about marigolds though, is they are often used as a garnish, an added bit of color on the full meal. What happens when communal living becomes tedious, when the young and beautiful begin to grow old? “Laugh-in” was eventually cancelled, the Joke Wall disassembled like so much firewood. Marigold’s ready to abandon her son for a literal roll in the hay but it’s not her romantic partner that comes looking for her after she’s drifted off. It’s her parents. Before Hans Christian Anderson, who wrote the Princess and the Pea, died, he left instructions for the music that he wanted played at his funeral: “Most of the people who will walk after me will be children, so make the beat keep time with little steps.”

While Arthur C. Clarke was working on script revisions for 2001, he dreamt he was a robot being rebuilt. The great threat of machines was that humans would be made obsolete. Robots would take all of our jobs. We’d never be able to count enough stars. Technology pioneer John Diebold was making predictions about computers as far back as the ‘50s. He tried to convince people not to be afraid of the future. He envisioned a utopia, with cars that diagnosed their own problems and refrigerators that knew how to order their own groceries. Once humans were unburdened of the more banal aspects of daily life, their minds would be free to pursue more stimulating avenues.

All the while there was a darker threat lurking in the shadows, one represented by its lack of shadow. It wasn’t only our jobs the computers would be vying for but our attention.

Roger and Bert don’t care about their creative sides anymore and Don isn’t allowed to. All three men confine themselves in their respective offices, reading their papers. They hear the whirring of the machine being installed outside their doors. The monolith is already changing things. They’re evolving without realizing it, the paper clock fast forwarding in time to our present day, the age of the Internet.

After all that time stuck at home alone, Don thought anything would be better. He didn’t realize it would be the same at work, only in a smaller room. He lies on his back on his office couch and stares at the drop ceiling. He no longer dreams of taking those panels out and seeing how high up he could then go. He built a company out of nothing and it’s only made him more isolated. He’s finally fighting for happiness and it’s just making everyone angrier with him. He so thoroughly convinced them that he was invincible that they refuse to see how vulnerable he’s become. How could the man so long thought have as a winner become a loser?

Sometimes the best part is the waiting and hoping and imagining all the ways your life is about to change. Everyone’s so excited at the idea of men landing on the moon. They don’t understand that once it happens, they’ll have to accept the reality of the experience: that it will hardly change their lives at all. Instead of packing their bags and moving to mars, they will soon become more stationary than ever, in thrall of the computer screen. Maybe that’s why there are so many people who refuse to believe we ever walked on the moon at all. They’re just not ready to give up the dream.