TV Minus the TV: Mad Men, The Comeback, and Game of Thrones
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“Don Draper and Valerie Cherish: A Pitchman and a Performer” by Charles Bramesco
Don Draper and Valerie Cherish: A Pitchman and a Performer
by Charles Bramesco
Even with a whopping eighty-five episodes to its credit (and the final seven-episode stretch only just begun), the most chilling moment in Mad Men came all the way back in season two.
Ascendant career gal Peggy Olson lays groggy in a hospital bed. Roughly one hour prior, she gave birth to a son she didn’t know was coming, the bastard child of an ad executive dipping into the secretarial pool. Her boss Don Draper, patron saint of repressed personal trauma, flies to her side in her hour of need and gives her the following horrifying advice: “Listen to me. Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you, how much it never happened.”
The Comeback made good on its own name last November when it returned for a second season after a nine-year hiatus. It ran for one magical season on HBO in 2005, but died quietly in a world predating the sort of coordinated fervency of online fandom. The Comeback’s fanbase grew in size and visibility, finally muscling a second season into existence after nearly a decade of amassing cult adoration.
It grew a lot in that interim; the showbiz mockumentary plumbed darker fissures than it did during its first go-round, none moreso than in episode seven. Struggling actress Valerie Cherish has eroded her marriage nearly to the point of divorce in her dogged pursuit of fame. For her gravest slight against long-suffering husband Mark, Valerie allows the documentary crew taping her life to join her for what was supposed to be a private spousal dinner. When Mark sees the hidden cameras and discovers that Valerie’s wearing a wire, he’s outraged. In a last-ditch bid of desperation, Valerie begs him to join her on the red carpet for the Emmys. She needs him, she says — but not for love and support, to maintain the illusion of a healthy family life in the public eye. Shocked, Mark asks her: “Are you even in there anymore?”
Genders apart, decades apart, worlds apart — all that notwithstanding, Valerie Cherish and Don Draper share one fundamental defect of character: They’re both hamstrung by self-awareness, constantly mediating their behavior down to the tiniest mannerism — Valerie’s trademark faux-humble bowing gesture reeks of Hollywood phoniness, Don’s every hair falls perfectly into place — in order to project a carefully crafted illusion. Don and Val are hollow in the middle, and they try to fill that void with sex and stardom, respectively. To them, their world only exists insofar as others perceive them. Everything else, whatever’s happening on the inside, can be pushed down.
Don and Valerie are both performers. She’s the only one who’s made a career of it.
They both enact a carefully constructed public persona for audiences that they think they need; Valerie welcomes a camera crew into her home in the hopes that it will catapult her to the top of the A-list, and Don learns in the first stretch of season seven that life outside the walls of Sterling Cooper does not sit well with him one bit and has no choice but to continue perpetuating the elaborately wrought lie that is Don Draper.
Ever since a prostitute’s son named Dick Whitman swapped dog tags with Donald Draper in Korea, he’s been playing a role of his own design: Don Draper, the impossibly suave man who has everything. The central hook of Mad Men is that Don Draper’s the perfect pitchman because he’s the perfect pitch. He advertises himself, outwardly affecting the appearance of the man every man wants to be, his perfection impossible to attain in that it is a fake.# To watch Don Draper talk a barmaid into bed is to see Shakespeare as it was meant to be played because Don, like Valerie, is constantly in perforative mode.
This behavior results in a nifty little irony though, especially for Valerie in particular. During the taping of her reality program, Valerie constantly filters her every word and movement. She attempts to scrub away the uneappealing aspects of her personality for the camera — her self-absorption, her marital struggles — but remains blissfully unaware of her most brutally awkward gaffes. She knows enough to pretend to care about Darfur in front of the camera, but she remains completely clueless in basic human interactions. When the unit supervisor on the fictional show-within-a-show happens to be wheelchair-bound, Valerie leaps onto every conversational landmine in her interactions with him. It’s odd, really; in a way, she has both an excess and total lack of self-awareness.
Groundbreaking as these shows may be, precedents exist for this exact sort of behavior. Don and Valerie aside, that imbalance between how the self is perceived by others vs. actual self-perception has previously been theorized by Jacques Lacan. If you’ll indulge the “nerd” half of Random Nerds for a brief moment…
Lacan posited opposing psychological forces called the innenwelt, which encapsulates mental interiority, and the umwelt, which covers the self’s existence in the physical world. Lacan wrote of the ‘mirror stage’ in mental development, in which the infant recognizes its reflection in the mirror and realizes that it exists as a separate being outside of its own mind. The individual then spends a lifetime attempting to reconcile an idealized version of what life should be with the way they truly are, chasing a self-actualization that can’t be caught.
Don and Valerie follow this pattern with complete fidelity. After a childhood of abuse, abandonment, and the occasional rape, Don set out to assemble the vision of domestic comfort the early ‘50s sold him. # Stars cloud Valerie’s vision, convincing her that fame and fortune must be the goal of her life’s efforts. In both instances, they begin with an ideal they feel they’re supposed to have and attempt to work backwards, proving to everyone else that they’ve made it. It doesn’t matter if meeting that standard leaves them feeling empty on the inside. As long as everyone else believes it, it’s as good as real.
Which cuts to the core of Valerie and Don’s abiding, chronic unhappiness. They’ve got it all backwards: They believe that becoming the person the umwelt expects them to be will bring them satisfaction and fulfill the innenwelt, not realizing that fulfillment must necessarily originate from within. Affecting the appearance of someone who has it all together doesn’t miraculously make it real any more than pretending it never happened will un-birth your bastard child.
Living life from the outside in doesn’t solve anything; you’re hardly even in there.
A Chess Game in the Middle of a Wrestling Match
by Bryce Rudow
The main talk around the first two episodes of Season 5 of Game of Thrones has been that finally, after years of patience and several multiple homicides, it looks like these disparate characters we’ve watched incubate in their own worlds for so long are going to start mixing it up, Royal Rumble-style. However, like any good pro-wrestling fan knows, Royal Rumbles, despite their entertainment value and notoriety for upsets, always end the same way: with the two people left standing going toe-to-toe until there’s one left. When the dust settles and the dragon fire is put out, there’s room for only one ass on the Iron Throne.
It’s going to be interesting to see who it comes down to in the end — my personal bet, having not read the books, is that Arya, Bran, and Jon Snow end up reuniting and kicking all kinds of ass, leading to Arya being named Queen of the Realm# — but it ultimately doesn’t matter. The true winner of the Game of Thrones World Championship Belt, ironically, isn’t going to be any of the warriors in the ring, no matter how hard they fight and what breaks go their way. It’s going to be one of the two people smart enough to never even get in the ring in the first place, the two people playing chess in the press box, far removed from the violence below.
Remember how Lost, in a desperate effort to find meaning for itself, decided at the last minute that the whole show was really about the battle between two diametrically opposed forces who loved playing symbolically-rich board games? Well George R.R. Martin was smart enough to drop hints throughout the series that that’s what’s going on with Game of Thrones. There was that Season 1 tete-a-tete between the two that first raised some flags, and we even started really sniffing the trail in depth back in Season 3 after its episode “The Climb,” possibly because Martin threw it right at our faces:
Varys: A thousand blades, taken from the hands of Aegon’s fallen enemies. Forged in the fiery breath of Balerion the Dread.
Baelish: There aren’t a thousand blades. There aren’t even two hundred. I’ve counted.
Varys: Heh. I’m sure you have. Ugly old thing.
Baelish: It has a certain appeal.
Varys: The Lysa Arryn of chairs. Shame you had to settle for your second choice.
Baelish: Early days, my friend. It is flattering really, you feeling such dread at the prospect of me getting what I want.
Varys: Thwarting you has never been my primary ambition, I promise you. Although, who doesn’t like to see their friends fail now and then.
Baelish: You’re so right. For instance, when I thwarted your plan to give Sansa Stark to the Tyrells, if I’m going to be honest, I did feel an unmistakable sense of enjoyment there.
Baelish: But your confidant, the one who fed you information about my plans, the one you swore to protect… you didn’t bring her any enjoyment, and she didn’t bring me any enjoyment. She was a bad investment on my part.
Baelish: Luckily, I have a friend who wanted to try something new. Something daring. And he was so grateful to me for providing this fresh experience.
Varys: I did what I did for the good of the realm.
Baelish: The realm. Do you know what the realm is? It’s the thousand blades of Aegon’s enemies- a story we agree to tell each other over and over, until we forget that it’s a lie.
Varys: But what do we have left, once we abandon the lie? Chaos? A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.
Baelish: Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, given a chance to climb, they refuse. They cling to the realm, or the gods, or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.
Two adversaries talking about their differing views on the game they call life and how that affects their strategizing; Varys with his fairly convincing pleas for peace, Littlefinger embracing the freedom of chaos, both acknowledging that, like in chess, the kings are the weakest pieces. Could be two guys sitting at Washington Square Park.
But two seasons removed from that fateful conversation, whose got what on the board and where? Let’s break it down:
WWE introduction style…
In one corner, coming in at 188lbs of castrated baby fat, we have the The Eunich, The Spider, The Masters of Whispers…
Personal motto: “I don’t believe in saviors. I believe men of talent have a part to play in the war to come.”
Here’s what Varys is working with…
Daenerys Targaryen (et. al) – A queen with dragons, no matter how uncontrollable they are, is still a queen with dragons, Sons of the Harpy be damned.
Tyrion Lannister – We can talk all day about how great it is seeing these two wonderful actors play off each other, but the applicable meat of this scene is that it not only lays out Varys’ cards on the table, it officially brings Tyrion (plus his father’s instinct for politics and his compassion) into the fold. Something tells me The Imp and The Mother of Dragons are going to be one hell of a tag-team, even if Tyrion is kind of…depressed.#
“Mutual Friends” – Varys’ anonymous buddies sure do make life easier for him. For example…
Illyrio Mopatis – The merchant with those mostest. He’s got a great waterside pad to crash at and he always seems to be a guy you can rely on to get things done.
Brienne of Tarth – The knight, a potent offensive force but destined to move two steps forward, one step to the side in her pursuit of Sansa’s ‘captor’ Littlefinger. She may not even be on Varys’ radar at the moment, but the enemy of your enemy is your friend, and she’s a good friend to have.
I’d say I’m dying to find out how this ragtag team comes together, but I feel like everyone wants to hear the future until they know it.
In the other corner, weighing in at 135lbs, we have the Lord of Harrenhal, Protector of the Vale, the Brotheling Bully, the Creepy Uncle from the Little Finger…
Personal Motto: “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder.”
So what does Littlefinger have up his raven-noted sleeves?
Cersei Lannister – Their alliance may be shaky considering he’s currently helping Sansa flee her grasp and Kevin is straight up calling out the Queen Mother for her lack of authority, but a Lannister is still a Lannister, Grand Maesters be damned.
Sansa Stark – “The gift of a great name, sometimes that’s all one needs.” Plus, she’s family now. However, I should note that for my ‘Queen Arya’ prediction to work out, Sansa has to be not alive. “Remember that, Sansa, when you come to play the game.”
Ca$h Money – He may not trust the people around him, but he pays them well and they see what happens to men who disappoint him.
Harrenhal – Gifted to him by King Joffrey for helping arrange the Lannister-Tyrell alliance. Great steal by Littlefinger.
The Vale of Arryn – Procured with some of the most dastardly, heart-breakin’ politicking you’re ever going to see, but don’t worry about Robin Arryn. “Robin, will be safe.”
Brothels – As the man himself says, whores are a better investment than ships because whores can’t sink.
Overall, this a pretty nice arsenal for a man who claims to want everything.
So there we have it, the Game of Thrones chessboard as of the applicably-titled “The House of Black and White”, sprawling mess of in-fighting that it is.# We’ve got a long way to go before the final showdown, but that’s what makes this show so wonderful. As Varys reminded Tyrion, “Any fool with a bit of luck can find himself born into power, but earning it for yourself, that takes work.”
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