Saturday, August 21, 2010

Off Topic: Positivity and Mad Men

Note: I don't think there are any spoilers here for those who are now up to speed on Season 4, but you never know. If you don't like Mad Men--nothing to see here.

In keeping with the pre-semester theme of positivity I'm trying to maintain, I thought I'd see whether the language of the characters on Mad Men has any words to live by.

Don Draper. Despite the sad train wreck that his life is becoming this season, Don has two habitual speech characteristics. The first is one that's in keeping with his life: "This never happened." As he tells Peggy in Season Two, "You'll be amazed at how much this never happened." This particular idea, like the past, is coming back to haunt him this season, as it's haunting Peggy in her recent interactions with Pete.

The second one is a little less obvious: Don is emphatically positive in his speech; he always goes one step beyond. Example: If someone asks him a direct question, he says "Yes" with no hesitation. Where a simple "yes" would do, he's given to saying things like "I do" or "I am." "Are you meeting Roger for drinks?" "I am." I can't recall a scenario in which he says "I don't know," maybe because he's always got a story worked out in advance. If he doesn't, he just says "This will be fine," as in "There will be good years, and there will be bad years, but it is always going to rain" (to the London Fog people). This may be because he's living a story, but the writers have been very consistent about his speech patterns. They're as choreographed, in a way, as his movements.

Betty Draper. "Go watch tv." "Go upstairs." "Carla! Take the children to the park." Then there's Betty, our Queen of Denial. Betty's about as eager to have her children around her as Henry Francis is to have the dog in the house. I would like to think it's because they distract her from a deep inner life of figuring out what she wants a la The Feminine Mystique or Priss in The Group, which she read a few seasons ago, but they aren't words to live by.

Joan Holloway Harris: "Look at you." All the characters in Mad Men say this at one time or another, but Joan is especially given to it. Joan usually uses it not as "Look at you--you're a mess" but "Look at you--you've finally figured out something that I knew already" (but not in a snarky way). It makes Joan a reflector of others who's so good at what she does that no one else sees it. They all look at Joan in that va-va-voom way, but they don't really look at Joan. It's in keeping with the show's premise that she's not only the heart of SCDP but that she knows more about just about everything than just about anyone--and no one gives her enough credit for it.

Peter Campbell: "What is going on?" Pete is the the forward-looking Cassandra, providing cues to the future that SCDP is slow to comprehend. He has evolved from his chronic foot-in-mouth disease of Season One. He's become more adept at blackmailing (his father-in-law this season versus Don in Season One) and has become more sympathetic as a character. He's still not adept at nuances, though--hence the classic moments in which he turns to someone and asks "What is going on?" or "What are you telling me?"

The other characters have speech patterns, too, but nothing I can pinpoint: we know Roger will say something funny and maybe outrageous, that Bert Cooper will have something pithy and Ayn Rand-ish, etc. Peggy's loosened up and gained a sense of humor this season, too, which is refreshing. But is there anything to carry forward into the new semester? Unlike Don, I'm not sure.


Anonymous said...

We are a not even basic cable household, so I wait for the dvds thus I haven't seen season 4 yet, but your analysis of verbal tics is fabulous: but now I'm curious about Peggy. Is she so complex or evolving that she can't be tagged?

Makes me want to go buy the episodes from itunes now....;-)

undine said...

About Peggy: she's definitely evolving and loosening up. It's all consistent with how she's behaved before (yay, writers!) but she's learned to stand her ground in ways that don't have the beholder "blinded by the earnestness," as Don said of her early in Season One.

Historiann said...

More parties with people wearing giant bear head masks!

Also: spam warning above, Undine.

undine said...

Thanks, Historiann--got it.

More giant bear heads, yes!