Televisual Meditations on a Literary Emergency
The study of the adaptation of literature into moving images has become mired in a pedantic fixation on how poorly film and television does in capturing the greatness of their written forebears. The fascinating AMC televisual drama, Mad Men provides an opportunity to theorize more complex relationships between the moving image and literature, moving beyond fidelity to the source as the sole criteria of analysis. Created by Matt Weiner, Mad Men is set in the 1960s, following the lives of several advertising workers on Madison Avenue in New York City. The show focuses on Don Draper, the established head of the creative division and Peggy, an up and coming young female talent. As such, Mad Men is a kind of reworking of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit from film and Bewitched from television. However, the show’s numerous encounters with literary texts nuance the critique of post-war American life in unexpected ways.
In his book, Meditations on an Emergency (1957), poet Frank O’Hara informs us, “Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again.” O’Hara’s exquisitely beautiful words capture post-war American masculinity in its full crisis, decimated under the weight of the phoniness of the American Dream collapsing on top of human frailty. This is Don Draper in a nutshell: he is a quintessential post-war American figure, confident, talented, yet in full-blown existential crisis. His adulterous affairs and his business shenanigans repeatedly force him to confront that his flight from his horrible stepparents has not resulted in the fulfillment and happiness that he so desperately seeks. The first episode of the second season finds Don reading O’Hara’s book. In the season’s penultimate episode, “The Mountain King,” Don finds his copy of the book in his friend Anna’s house in California. The season finale, itself entitled “Meditations in an Emergency” demonstrates that the referent emergency is two-fold, both Don’s wife Betty finding out about his adulterous nature, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Don’s reunion with the estranged Betty, at which she shocks him with her announcement of her pregnancy, takes place as American warships steam to intercept Russian vessels attempting to run the American blockade. Thus, Season Two in its entirely is a kind of adaptation of O’Hara’s book, but by no means one confined and limited to its literary concerns, and one that does not impinge overly on the first season before it, or the ones which come afterward.
From the narrative structure of an entire season to one individual episode, creator Matt Weiner spins literary encounters in different directions. Toward the end of the second season episode entitled, “The Jet Set,” the morning after having sex with yet another beautiful young girl, Joy, while hiding out in Los Angeles, Don wakes up and makes a phone call. For the first time in the show, he calls himself by his given name, Dick Whitman. Through flashbacks, we learn that after returning home from the Korean War and having taken the identity of Don Draper, a fellow soldier, Dick befriended the dean man’s widow, Anna. As Don talks with Anna on the phone in Los Angeles, he writes down her new California address on the only paper available, Joy’s copy of The Sound and the Fury. Earlier, Joy and Don lie in bed. He asks her if the novel is any good. She replies that sex is good, but Faulkner is just OK.
Don mutilates Joy’s copy of The Sound and the Fury so that he can go visit Anna; he writes her address on the white space on the last page. On that last page of Faulkner’s novel, the decaying Compson family is left to self-destruct. The ne’er-do-well patriarch Jason, screams at Luster, one of the family’s few remaining African-American servants, for taking mentally handicapped Benji to the left around the town square, instead of the way he is used to going, the right.
The inversion that infuriates Benji is visually presented at the end of “The Jet Set” episode of Mad Men. As Don sits on the couch in Joy’s house after finishing talking with Anna on the phone, he stretches his arm out to the left to relax. This mirrors the image that ends the show’s familiar but nonetheless glorious credit sequence in which Don falls out of his skyscraper office, tumbling through advertising images on the sides of the buildings, only to land comfortably on his couch, his arm stretched out to the right holding a cigarette. The mirrored image registers a vital transformation that has occurred over the second season of the show: Don has been revealed as a charlatan, an advertising creation built by Dick Whitman out of another man’s identity.
The end credits music that begins during this sequence allow us to read the meaning of this transformation through yet another literary filter. We hear “What’ll I Do,” the haunting 1923 song by Irving Berlin used as the tragic centerpiece of the 1974 Robert Redford version of The Great Gatsby. The song invokes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel as a heretofore invisible secondary intertext for Mad Men. Like the poor Jay Gatz’s transformation into nouveau riche Jay Gatsby in wake of World War I via the hiding of his prior identity, Dick Whitman returns from the Korean War to fashion himself a post-war identity built on advertising fraud.
In short, one of the profitable ways of reading Mad Men is through a literary filter. However, the typical literary approach to film and television, charting the direct transformation from one fictional source to moving images pales in comparison to an intertextual method which celebrates how a wide literary field fuels the construction of an equally valuable televisual experience. Mad Men’s maneuvers with literature find a middle ground of referencing that lies productively between the trivialities of Jeopardy! ($2,000 for knowing the factoid that Frank O’Hara was a member of the New York School in the 1950s) and the arcane specializations of academic literary studies, pouring over William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury like a bunch of pedantic Talmudic scholars. Mad Men finds me as a critic where I want to be, tracking the wide referential flows of great ideas, about literature, about the 1960s, about the American Dream, on the shores between the written word and the moving image. Don Draper is caught in the oceanic void that is American masculinity, leaving me as a spectator, also caught in that void breathless at the power of literature and television to use Weiner’s story about Don to help me navigate.
– Walter Metz