Monday, May 7, 2012

Megan Draper's Choice

[If you have NOT seen last night’s Mad Men episode, be forewarned that this post contains spoilers.]

Having recently established herself as a rising star in the advertising world Megan Draper has up and quit her job. Megan did get some help from her marriage to Don Draper, but she had proven that she had real talent.

And yet, she had come to believe that she had to follow her dream and pursue an acting career. Given the choice between living her dream and selling baked beans, she chose art over commerce.

Can you blame her?

It depends on your values. If you believe that happiness consists in living your dreams, you will applaud her decision. If you believe that happiness consists in succeeding at what you are good at, you will be dismayed by her choice.

Last night Mad Men dramatized a major culture shift that occurred in America in the mid-sixties. The shift was precipitated by what appeared to be a failed war in Vietnam.

The more it looked like the American military could not hold its own against the Viet Cong, the more it felt to America’s cognoscenti that there was something seriously wrong with a culture based on martial and material values, and something serious right about Communism’s rejection of same.

For reasons that made more sense at the time, America’s value system shifted away from commerce and toward art. Many believed that creativity would save the nation from conformity.

You might ask how a more creative America would have defeated the Viet Cong. It would not have. America’s left thinking people wanted the Viet Cong to win; thus they were happy to see America’s youth give up a futile war in favor of more transcendent values.

In post-World War II America young people chose commerce over art. In Vietnam Era America young people increasingly chose art over commerce.

Last night Mad Men dramatized the culture shift brilliantly. It did so without taking sides, without telling you what to think.

Better yet, the episode brought into clear focus an issue that I have often discussed on this blog. Should a young person setting out in life do what he is good at or should he choose to live his dream?

Does happiness consist in success and achievement or does it consist in fulfilling your childhood dreams? Is success most likely when you are good at something or when you really want to do something?

Of course, some people have real talent for the arts. When they choose a career making art they are doing what they are good at. It might feel like a dream, but they are really following an old, seemingly outdated, system of values. Between us, a career as an artist is very, very hard work.

Today,many of those who feel drawn to the arts do not have enough talent to make it in a field that is extremely competitive and unforgiving. Far too many young people have been directed toward the arts because they think that it’s their dream, and that they are obliged to live it, lest they become terminally unhappy.

To Megan Draper the decision is clear. She loves the theatre; she has always wanted to act. Thus, she quits her job at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to go off chasing a dream.

To her husband and to Peggy Olson Megan’s decision does not make sense. They point out that she has a real talent for advertising. She was on a fast track to success and achievement. They are not overbearing or strident, but they express the old ethic that tells us to develop the talents we have and not pretend to have talents because we wish we did.

After all,  Megan thought up the concept that won the Heinz account—that being: Some Things Never Change. And she worked out the concept for the Cool Whip account that the firm is pursuing. She is more like the old Don Draper than is the new Don Draper.

Megan Draper is an upcoming star in the ad world. When she tried out for a new play she did receive a call back, but did not get the part.  

Perhaps she has great talent as a thespian, but as of now, it seems that she does not. She probably thinks that she will do better if she becomes a full time aspiring actor.

Megan does not care about how good she is at advertising because she thinks that it is beneath her dignity to sell baked beans. She finds something elevating, transcendent, of superior value in the world of art.

I don’t recall her putting it this way, but many members of her generation chose art over commerce because they had come to believe that commerce was superficial and that art was more “real” and more truthful.

To which Shakespeare offered the best rejoinder, from The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

Megan goes marching off into “that good night,” blissfully ignorant of the damage she is leaving behind.

Having gotten lost in a dream, she abandons her colleagues and abjures her responsibilities. She leaves Don staring into the abyss of an elevator shaft. Vertigo, anyone.

Megan quits, on a dime, without any real concern for the consequences. Among the consequences was the lost Cool Whip account.

Megan and Don had put together a great dialogue to pitch the Cool Whip account. When Megan’s stand-in, Peggy, tried to do the same with Don at the Cool Whip test kitchen, the routine fell flat.

Don and Megan had been a great team, a loving couple that did everything together. Last night Megan did not just walk away from her job. She walked out on her husband, leaving him alone for the evening. As a replacement she provided a Beatles album.

When Don put on the song it was not a very good one, harsh and noisy, pseudo-psychedelic.

From Megan’s beauty and intelligence to a failed Beatles song. How do you think that this is going to turn out?

Let’s not ignore the comment, made by one of the other characters, that Megan has the freedom to pursue her dreams because she married a rich man. She can indulge her childhood dreams because her husband supports her. Forget about the part about marrying rich. Shouldn't she remember the text from 1 Corinthians: " When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

Megan is also walking away from her roles as wife and potential mother. The point was tossed off quickly by a numbed Don last night, but it feels strange that a newly married woman in her early 20s has already decided not to have children.

According to the value system embraced by serious intellectuals Heinz Baked Beans are vulgar. Cool Whip is even more vulgar; after all, it’s fake whipped cream.

On the other side of this moral divide, you can’t eat art.

If the wheels of commerce shut down, people will no longer have their trinkets and baubles. Unfortunately, they will also no longer have enough to eat.

This season’s Mad Men takes place in 1966, during the Cold War against Communism.

In 1966 America was getting more deeply involved in a war against Communism in Vietnam.

And, 1966 also saw the beginning of Mao Tse Tsung’s power grab, called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China.

Seven years earlier Mao Tse Tsung had tried to industrialize his nation by implementing a plan called The Great Leap Forward. The result, we now know, was a famine that killed tens of millions of people.

During its short history Communism excelled at starving people to death. Even today people are starving in Communist North Korea while South Korea counts among the world’s more prosperous nations.

You may not think that commerce and industry, free enterprise capitalism are an unalloyed good, but compared to Communism, at least it could feed people.

The success of post-Maoist China was based on agricultural reforms that introduced free enterprise in the food production business. Capitalism has succeeded in feeding China.

Megan Draper is not going to starve. She might even succeed in the acting business. She does not realize it but her willingness to check out of her life has created serious disruptions for the advertising firm and for her husband.

We all ought to understand that undermining business and commerce will make eventually make it impossible for the next group of Megan Drapers of this world to run off in pursuit of their dreams.

After college they are more likely to be moving back with their parents and getting used to being unemployed.


LordSomber said...

>>"Should a young person setting out in life do what he is good at or should he choose to live his dream?"

Make your living by doing what you're good at. Live your dream off the clock on your own time.
(Sometimes these may fortunately overlap.)

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Excellent solution... it's always best when we can find a win/win solution. Unfortunately MD seems to think it's either/or.

JP said...

"You may not think that commerce and industry, free enterprise capitalism are an unalloyed good, but compared to Communism, at least it could feed people.

The success of post-Maoist China was based on agricultural reforms that introduced free enterprise in the food production business. Capitalism has succeeded in feeding China."

Until you reach population overshoot and end back in the world of famine, plague, and war.

I despise Communism due to it's spiritually destructive nature, but the one positive side-effect it seems to have had was to reduce environmental degregation outside of the major population areas because people are contained.

Capitalism is wonderful, but it has absolutely *no* concept of economic or ecological boundary conditions.

On the note of artistry, one of the most satisfied person I know of is a professional actor. He's good at what he does and enjoys it. He's one of the few people I know of who is a wonderful fit for his artistic career. He put a *ton* of work into his career and finally, after 10 years of unending, purposeful toil, he's vaguely financially stable. Meaning that he can pay his rent and eat.

JP said...

Stuart says:

"I don’t recall her putting it this way, but many members of her generation chose art over commerce because they had come to believe that commerce was superficial and that art was more “real” and more truthful."

That's because the boomers are focused on the *spiritual* or interior aspect of humanity and themselves.

Whereas, the GI generation was their opposite. Collective action focused on the exterior. They won the war. They rebuilt the world.

And the boomers entered on their own voyage of self-discovery in the most recent Great Awakening.

Everything that is happening now in the exterior world is driven by the interior impulse of the boomers who have now risen to their apogee.

JP said...

And I will post again.

"We all ought to understand that undermining business and commerce will make eventually make it impossible for the next group of Megan Drapers of this world to run off in pursuit of their dreams.

After college they are more likely to be moving back with their parents and getting used to being unemployed."

This is why the credit cycle is tied into Awakening Eras.

The boomers had the opportunity to be born into a world of credit expansion, where the future could be moved into the present. They had a credit card they could max out for years.

The millenials are moving into the world of a credit bust, where they are no longer allowed to "find themselves" because they have to focus on paying off the interest on the credit card.

This has been happening for many generations in the English-speaking world.

The Ghost said...

all too often today what young people think of as their "dreams" are nothing more than false dreams planted in their mind by the culture and their teachers ...
You are supposed to be an artist or social worker because those are "good" jobs ... good being determined by "helping people" ...

most of it is pure nonsense ...

Midknight said...

I've only seen one episode. The one, I believe, immediately before it where Joan Harris dumps her husband.

To me it's not a sign of good storytelling of the ongoing serial kind when I can predict the major plot beats ahead of time without having ever seen a previous episode.

The attitude entrenched in every main character focussed on was also painfully PC, but then as you pointed out - look where they were living. And is there a guy there who's not a schmuck?

One main plot line caused me to think that no writer on this show had ever known, or been aware of knowing, a career military person. I understand why Joan, in that environment - may not have been convinced, but over the several discussions of Greg going back, neither greg, NOR ANYONE ELSE including several WWII vets, could articulate why he'd elect to go back. Add in his background of rape (I only discovered that in digging around to get the characters names), and it only emphasizes the sadly typical portrayal of the military as a bunch of loser psychopaths.

At that point, perhaps it was "in character" misunderstanding, but the misconception that soldiers in WWII did anything like 1-year tours, much less regularly come back before they were used up or the war was over, was just icing on the cake. Even the injured wanted to go back and help their buddies.

So she throws out her provider, who I also JUST discovered she'd lied to about the status of "his" (not really) son, because he won't bow to her wishes and find a way to stay.

HE is doing what he's good at. She, apparently like many of the other "empowered" women of the series, is making crappy choices.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I think that the characters tend to be very PC, as you say, and that is why I am curious to know what is going to happen to Don and Megan... surely Megan started looking like a PC liberated woman, but, if things turn out badly for her and her marriage, that would suggest that the series has some measure of artistic integrity left. If it all gets resolved, I will be disappointed because the producers will then look like they are skewing the plot lines to conform to their ideology.

Soviet of Washington said...

"Whereas, the GI generation was their opposite. Collective action focused on the exterior. They won the war. They rebuilt the world."

Eventually, JP. But the GI (Hero) generation had to go through an economic crisis (GD) then a regeneracy event (Pearl Harbor) first. Even if the GR qualifies as the economic crisis, we haven't seen the regeneracy event yet.

anna said...

Don married a much younger woman who grew up with wealthy parents who want her to reach her dreams. She was encouraged by her father in a previous episode to not give up her dreams, and I doubt either parent would mind if she left Don for a guy who didn't work in commerce. Her mother is hot for Don, and it seems pretty much anyone who isn't her husband, given the 'head' scene, and her father is in the same age demographic as Don.

She's having her own problems with Don, in that she doesn't want to be defined by him, she didn't want to take off with him for a working class dinner at a highway chain restaurant/hotel, that was too tacky for Megan and the fact that she did it and he ended up driving off without her was possibly the event that told her about her future with Don. It was after her parents visit and the being abandoned experience that she sought out an acting role.

He's handsome but exciting only in the world of advertising, outside that he's not much fun. They have a hot sex life, but how long will he be Megan's idea of a tur-on we don't know, but can guess that for her it will get boring over time, if it hasn't already.

He knows she'll be meeting some new fellows while pursuing her acting career, and whether or not she gets work in that field, she will grow further apart from him. She'll want to go to parties he won't want to go to, and she'll end up going by herself. She had to take an acting class that started right after he got off work? He's lost exciting women before by being too square.

He wants to see her everyday, at work, he's told her so, she's the woman for him, she somehow 'completes' him and he feels better when he can look at her. Don has been searching for the woman from the beginning, the series started with him already tired of his wife, and he thinks Megan's the woman.

Of course if she were 'practical,' she'd stay with the rich guy and work in his business, and then when he realized she's not the one and he found a new candidate, she'd be another ex-wife. More practical would be finding a job in a different agency, but her husband is a super-star and anything she does will likely be judged as unfair advantage. Only Peggy seems to get that she has talents. Hillary started out working for her husband in politics, and however great she did she was seen as the wife of Bill. But Hillary loves public service - they both were attracted to politics and only Don loves advertising. (By the by, why didn't he report the broken elevator?)

Choice remains limited by economics, and there are still women who are poor because they had kids with a man who ended up leaving them. If Megan were in an earlier generation, she might have felt her own identification would come only through her husband's success, and then she'd be like Betty, needing a successful husband even if he's boring.

Megan isn't in that generation, and she feels like there are choices just for her. Perhaps she'll crash and burn, but she'll have taken her chance. It seems she's already growing tired of him, in that she must tell him she loves him as if it's in question, and by his look we can see that he's expecting the inevitable.

But he could have asked her to stay on through the artificial whipped dessert contract, only a few days after all, and he didn't. If he'd asked her, she might have had a change of heart.

That's one thing I really like about this series, you can see the event that changes everything. For Betty it was when she served the imported beers and unknowingly made Don's point, she was humiliated and their marriage did not recover.

David Foster said...

"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."

--John Adams

The problem is that many of those who see their destiny as being study of painting, poetry, music, etc are *really bad* at those things and yet expect the society to support them as if they were excellent.

anna said...

to midknight,

There is history between Joan and her husband.

She kind of found him after she broke up with Roger, who loved her but was married. Her husband was in medical school and she worked to support them both, but he wasn't able to find a residency in surgery - he wasn't very good, they called him ham fisted, and he enlisted without first talking about it with her, because he wanted to do surgery. He also raped her in her office, making tacky remarks about her sex life. She was trying to make it work, by being wonderful and never complaining and always making herself look attractive for him, but he's never shown much interest in her as a person. He's kind of insensitive, sort of a block-head guy.

Her child was conceived by Roger, and last season she considered aborting it, and then changed her mind. Her husband was gone when she got pregnant, but he's so uninterested in her and their family that even though he's now a doctor, he didn't count. He lied to her about going back - didn't tell her it was his choice, and so again he made a choice that impacted on her without first discussing it with her.

He's not really a husband in the partner kind of way, he's more a big kid who will never see her as a partner, and she's right to get out. He won't notice, he's not that into her. Joan is a practical woman without much sentimentality, and she can cut her losses and move on.

Dennis said...

Having been lucky enough to spend a good portion of my life in music I know it is very hard to get other artists to understand that they only do well if everyone else does well. One has to think about the fact of just who is your audience. One ignores their audience, or potential audience, at their peril. Depending on one or two sources of funding means that that funding can go away rather quickly.
The John Adams quote is especially applicable to how any successful society grows the ability to support the arts. One needs sponsors who have the capability through some means to make an art, for that matter this applies to almost every field in the humanities, have the capacity to thrive.
I belong to a professional guild and a lot of what one sees is comment about the lack of gigs. It is a very tough business and should be understood as such.
Pablo Casals, the legendary cellist, was asked why he continued to practice at the age of 90. "Because I thinkI'm making progress." One is never done learning and trying to be better. Into that comes a wife and family that one has to give as much consideration. It is why one finds so many fine musicians, et al working at other jobs. Many times one has to do what one has to in order to do what is best, not only for you, but for those one loves. Very few, especially men, get to have a spouse who can afford to provide you the space to develop your talents. Considering that talent is about ten percent of anything, ninety percent of it is hard work.
Life provides one with a lot of challenges, very few of which are so cut and dried as the commentary seems to suggest. Question, "When your teenage daughters and son need thing how much time does one think about what self actualization as opposed to survival?" One is responsible for their actions and decisions and understand is NOT all about you.
One of the nice things about retirement is that I have the time to spend on perfecting my talent and the only person I have to please other than myself is my wife of 49 years. Despite the agism of some people those of us who are seniors are NOT siting there waiting to die. We actually still have sex and do many of the things we did when we were younger. We cannot get away with beating on our bodies so we develop techniques and correct training to succeed. We are still active functional individuals who have a wealth of knowledge and experience to pass on to those who are younger than us.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

As Anna points out, Megan has her reasons for doing as she did. The development of her character points clearly to her reasons. Perhaps Don feels guilty about his own behavior and thus feel obliged to go along.

Let's keep in mind that by going off to live her dream she has walked out on her professional and personal responsibilities. For that, I assume, she will be held accountable at some time.

I suppose that people do occasionally get away with such important moral failings, but I think that this aspect of her behavior will be the most important going forward.

CatherineM said...

Midnight - What Anna said. Joan has been supporting him and supporting him and he has pulled the rug out from under her over and over again. He never considers her. He wasn't in the military when he raped Joan, he was a surgical intern and he raped her out of jealousy. He didn't join the military because he cares about the guys, it was so that he could, Mr. Butterfingers, be a surgeon.

In other words, Greg was living his dream at the expense of his family. He never once considered how his selfish decisions impacted his family. He was just living off Joan. She finally said, what's the point of being married, you're not a husband or a father. I doubt he will send any financial support either because he is such a selfish child.

So, yeah, don't judge a character by one show. Joan didn't marry a military man out to save the world, she married a jerk out to live his surgical dreams, everyone else be damned.

anna said...

Stuart -

I have been thinking about your comment regarding seeing Megan as walking out on her duties, and then later being necessarily held accountable, and I don't think this is a universal. I mean, being held to account is, but that's about being true to her own desire, or not, a la Antigone, not for making a career choice that isn't on the surface practical. Why does she have a professional responsibility to the advertising business and not to her own talents and interests? How is this not being personally responsible to her marriage (which may come, from either of them, but so far it hasn't).

His fault was in not asking her, just assuming, both that she wanted what he wants, and in not asking her to stay on a few days, for him.

This sounds rather like the obsessional problem, he won't ask her what she wants, or even for what he wants, he has everything, and she's supposed to be filled by him already knowing and not want anything more?

That was clear in the restaurant scene, where he changed her order to what she really wanted (yeah, right) and you could see how weird she thought that was. Joan put up with that stuff cause she knows men, until it was clear that it would always be one-sided. Megan isn't in that generation, she can make her own living, for better or worse.