Slowing the Clock and Losing Track: ‘Orange is the New Black’ Season Five

Season five tries too hard to do too little, and the result is frustratingly dull.

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Orange is the New Black‘s fifth season is going to take place over three days, they said.

It’s going to pick up where season four left off, they said.

It’ll be exciting, they said.

Okay, they may not have actually said that last one, but how could I not be excited?! Season four was one of the most affecting season-long arcs I’ve ever seen! The myriad of main characters were laden with anguish and fury! The prison was so seething with torment it practically grew legs and trampled the town in its rage!

But instead of launching from season four’s catapult into something extraordinary, season five squandered all of that beautifully built dramatic tension. And quickly. But how? How could an established show dismantle everything it built for itself? The answer is glaringly easy: three days in thirteen episodes just didn’t work.

I imagine there were at least couple of motivating factors for condensing time the way they did. We already know OITNB has been renewed up to seven seasons, and if television history has taught us anything, your garden variety narrative drama can’t really sustain itself past a seventh season. If the showrunners are eyeing the end of the series in another two seasons, they don’t have much physical time left.

Let’s use Piper’s sentence as a timekeeper. Even though the show has successfully moved beyond her as the singular lead character, she’s still the reason we were introduced to this world, so it would make sense to conclude the show as she leaves Litchfield. And if that’s the case, they’ve only got about another seven months to cover, since the show has taken place over the course of about eleven months. (Keep in mind that Piper started her 18 month sentence in a September, and using context clues it’s reasonable to believe the show is taking place in summer now.) Ergo, a three-day-long season slows down time a bit to leave room for the last two seasons to take up the remaining months of Piper’s sentence.

Additionally, the events of last season, particularly the last three episodes, carried a lot of that aforementioned dramatic weight and circumstance; most notably Poussey’s death, but also the mistreatment at the hands of incompetent (at times sadistic) guards, deplorable living conditions, and general prison industrial complex woes. So in order to properly address everything, the showrunners may have assumed that pumping the breaks on the passage of time would allow for a thorough examination of all of the characters’ motivations and reactions to the events of season four. And let’s be real, there are more than enough characters to follow with enough kindling from previous seasons to fuel season five’s narrative arcs.

But the self-imposed time constraint forced Orange is the New Black to write itself into a corner, and thus confront the very mechanics of television storytelling. Newsflash: in an hour of TV, something has to happen. Characters have to learn something. Plot lines have to progress. Ideas need to develop and grow. But all of these concepts need to occur organically in order to preserve the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

The problem with season five of OITNB is that little of substance can happen organically when time is forced to move so slowly. The tension of the beginning of the riot can’t sustain itself for thirteen episodes, which is ultimately what the season wants to do. Had the show shoved in constant epiphanies or crises to give the characters something to do, it would have felt unnatural for so much to be happening so frequently. So we were left with the alternative: adhering to the strict timetable, and biding time until a handful of major plot developments unfolded. Season five tries too hard to do too little, and the result is frustratingly dull.

The main reason Orange is the New Black was so engaging from season one was its deftness in juggling multiple lead characters from a variety of backgrounds. It’s an enviable trait that’s done in such a compelling way that it’s hard to find a point of comparison. (There’s a reason we’re reminded of this annually come award season speeches.) I really thought that would be this season’s saving grace. That rich tapestry of characterization woven into the very framework of the show could have been what the writers relied on if the restrictive timetable became overwhelming. But when given more room than ever before to explore these characters, season five’s time stretch made them less empathetic, less sincere, and more irritating than they’ve ever been.

Overt and frequent fan servicing was certainly the most annoying tendency of this season. I imagine it’s a tempting realm to explore; when in doubt, make a character do something you know the audience will luxuriate in. But lean too far into fan servicing and you get something like the empty pool. I guess it’s fun to see Freida using survivalist skills we never new she had. And the bunker was one thing. But it is actually impossible to believe she would create a whole underground world without ever being caught, no matter how long she was in Litchfield. Oh, and there’s a working computer and weed and beer? Even if the plot found a way to legitimize the forgotten underground pool, I was too tired from all the mental gymnastics trying to justify its existence to come around.

The self indulgence only got more ridiculous from there. Why, when given all of the existential grief of season four, did Orange is the New Black double down on silliness? Particularly when silly has never been its strong suit? Red and Flores, once a leader and a strong supporting figure, respectively, were on speed for half a season for minimal payoff. Gloria’s Gotta Get the Hostages to the Poo montage was eye-rollingly nonsensical. And it’s one thing for Leann and Angie (always OITNB‘s goofiest degenerate duo) to find themselves in a heroin-fueled lark, or worshiping a piece of toast. It’s quite another to make them centerpieces of a power trip.

Case in point: Litchfield Idol. An immense and almost insulting waste of time, culminating in a striptease that lasts so long and amounts to so little that I have to wonder if the writers thought that it was something the straight female fanbase was just dying to see.  Were we supposed to be titillated? Think it was funny? Think it was grim? (And remind me why they made that CO finger Leann until orgasm?) None of the above. I was bored and confused.

The “talent show” was not only the lamest thing to ever happen to OITNB, but it also proved how the season’s attempts at trying to make the prisoners into the bad guys was too obvious and messy to be effective. The flip of the prison power dynamic could have been worthwhile if it had the show committed to it. No, it’s not cool for Maria to almost (maybe actually?) probe Dixon’s naked butt on a lit stage in front of several hundred prisoners. Yes, it is unpleasant and problematic for people we’ve grown to care about to do bad things. But the closest the show got to Stanford Prison Experiment levels of control was blowing an air bubble into Humphrey’s IV, causing him to have a stroke. And even that’s unsatisfying, considering Humps’ track record of torment. Season four set up a litany of opportunities for the prisoners to lash out against the guards, but this season didn’t follow through with any of it.

But even done well, subverting the prison’s power structure is mostly a lesson in futility, because we already know these people are kinda bad people. They’re in prison for fuck’s sake. The whole series up until now has been about how to adjust the lens to see how kinda bad people are troubled but misunderstood, or victims of influence, or succumbed to matters of circumstance. You can’t create and establish a show about redeeming antiheroes and expect to land a moral backflip.

A general sense of missed opportunities is season five’s greatest failure, particularly when it comes to addressing the political and societal commentary the show introduced in recent seasons. I hesitate to say that a TV show has a responsibility to make such commentary; in general I don’t think that’s art’s job. However, if a show has taken active steps to comment, as OITNB has done, there needs to be some follow-through.

Some issues were dealt with worse than others, but none of it was done well. The first episode of this season mentions just about every mass shooting in this country’s history, and then went exactly nowhere in examining gun control. There’s various examples of how ubiquitous internet and social media culture is, particularly trolls, but to no certain end. The best it could do with season four’s commentary (and at times even pretty sharp satire) on privatized prisons was to attempt to give Linda from Purchasing a heart. But why lock her in and spend time with her if only to show her backstory, cementing to us that indeed, she is a manipulative sociopath?

Elements of Black Lives Matter coursed throughout last season, culminating in Poussey’s death that was directly reminiscent of both Eric Garner and Sandra Bland. It’s not that that wasn’t dealt with this season, it’s just that nothing came of it. Taystee has been working towards becoming OITNB‘s solid core since season two, so it’s important that she was the one prisoner in power actually trying to make a difference. It’s also important that she was pointedly working to hold Bailey accountable for killing Poussey, however unintentional the death may have been, as is often the real-life struggle to hold police officers accountable for their actions.

But the show took her hard-earned victory away from her. Taystee successfully negotiated all of the conditions, but everything fell apart because she held out for justice for Poussey. That’s not to say that the narrative solution would have been to convict Bailey of murder in three days, but it certainly wasn’t to let him get on a bus to live out his guilt-ridden days in New Orleans. And to have Cindy reduce Taystee’s determination for pride as a way of absolving the breakdown of negotiations was a shitty excuse for allowing it to fall apart. Taystee may have been obstinate to a fault, but I don’t see any way you can view her determination as self serving.

The entire season built up to the last twenty minutes of the last episode, and turned Taystee’s resolve into failure for the sake of tragedy. It’s an unfair and cheap ending for the best character on the show.

The most baffling misfire came in not utilizing the goddamn kismet OITNB happened upon by introducing white supremacists in season four. I’m not sure anyone could have guessed that white supremacists (nationalists, Nazis, the like) would become a common news headline in the year between seasons. It seemed like the tumult of the current American social climate was the perfect breeding ground for further examining Sankey, Brandy, and Skinhead Helen. After all, the white power inmates had nary a line in season four that wasn’t a direct (at times almost too overt) commentary on their hatred, or how a lack of knowledge begets ignorance. I was almost excited to see where the show would take these characters after the year we’ve had.

Instead, OITNB treated them like any other inmates. It asked us to laugh with them, to scheme with them, even to root for them. Any commentary the show may have built around white supremacy was entirely forgotten. And for what? So we can play Fuck Marry Kill? More than any other inmates in a prison, these are ones we do not have an obligation to humanize, particularly with the events of this last year in the rearview mirror. Not only is it tone-deaf for a show that is almost wholly about compassion, it’s actually irresponsible storytelling.

I have other minor gripes:
– The flashbacks were tired and unnecessary. Every single one of them.
– Did they really think breaking Red’s bunkmate’s nose was going to be funny the seventh time it happened? And at what point does she sustain permanent damage?
– What’s with the oddly off-brand homophobia aimed at Piscatella? He can be a bad guy and also be gay, but we do not have to use his gayness as a punchline to undermine him.
– I’m sure that Laverne Cox has a lot going on to justify her near absence from the last two seasons, but it sucks she couldn’t have something heftier to do.
– Why in fucking hell was Coates in the goddamn ceiling the entire season?!

Also, does Orange is the New Black not have a show bible? Taystee’s flashback has her obsessed with Toddlers and Tiaras, when back in season one she had this gem:


Lack of continuity is so frustrating.

And now for a compliment: season five did Piper well. I was worried that after four seasons and a branding Piper still wouldn’t learn her lesson about minding her business. They addressed her compulsive need to be involved, worked through the reasons why. And even when Piper did participate in the goings-on, she was never in the position to become haughty or cocky. She proved herself useful and sympathetic in a newly understated way.

That, at least, was a relief. A welcome, if not thin, ray of sunshine in an otherwise dreary season. Because more than anything, it was just such a bummer to sit through this season. It was a bummer to wait a year only to be disappointed; to not get better moments out of great characters; to not resolve the beautiful intricacies of the issues raised in season four. Here’s to hoping season six gets back on track now that the show is unencumbered from this season’s unconventional but ineffective constraints. Hey, Orange is the New Black writers! Please remember: you’ve got time.


They Walk, We Run: ‘The Walking Dead’ says ‘Thank You’

Denial is the first step on the path to acceptance.

glenn twdIf we’re to convince ourselves that we’re still enjoying the spoils of TV’s second golden age–a dubious claim, now that most of the shows that inspired that view are now as dead as certain fictional Georgia natives–we must remind ourselves to take the good with the bad. The wonderful thing about the blogosphere that has aided in the continuance of the TV renaissance is that it demands–though both its fervor and its sheer numbers–that TV shows be taken seriously as art, as something to be thought about rather than simply absorbed like so much processed food. The frustrating thing about the blogosphere, however, is how often it fails to take itself seriously.

In the late ’70s, a former San Francisco ad man with the unfortunate name of Jerry Mander wrote a book with the unfortunate title of Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. His arguments feature a lot of the expected (though not indefensible) bitching about television’s effects on human health, physical activity, neurology and intercommunication, made even more histrionic by the author’s unabashed environmentalism and a bad aftertaste from his old job in the ruthlessly capitalist advertising industry of the Mad Men era. One of Mander’s key hangups was this idea that the act of watching television constitutes a sort of voluntary sense deprivation: vision is contained within the (comparatively) small box of the screen, which sits at a fixed distance from the viewer’s eyes; naturally occurring sounds are obscured while the blare of the set is kept within a relatively narrow range; the other senses are totally uninvolved. “The effect,” wrote Mander, “is a sort of sensory tease.” Basically, we’re given the impression (through the images on the screen) of sensory stimulus, but since the stimulus is not real, we’re left perpetually unfulfilled. This in turn leads to increased hyperactivity and irritability when the TV isn’t on. “Artificially teased senses require resolution,” wrote Mander, hypothesizing that humans seek this resolution through “aimless, random, speedy activity” and perhaps even violence.

Mander can be extreme in his distaste for the modern world–at one point he questions whether humanity really needs deodorant–but he’s not crazy. Every generation after Mander’s own (he was born in 1936) has been brought up with TV as a constant presence in the households of all but the poorest (or the most self-consciously hip) Americans. Which means, essentially, that almost every functional human alive today operates with a radically different thought pattern than pretty much every generation in history up to those born around 1900. That’s an awful lot of evolutionary baggage to discard for the sake of lying recumbent before a flashing box for an average of five hours per day. So we justify the habit by treating the programs we watch as objets d’art–intellectually and existentially enriching fictions to be debated with as much passion as we can imagine the coffeehouse patrons of former eras debated Kafka and Duchamp and Trotsky.

And for the most part, that’s a good thing. It’s undoubtedly better for a society to both appreciate and hold accountable the programming that dominates our free time than it is to accept and embrace only its most mind-numbing aspects. It’s better to be sensitive to what TV is selling us, both literally in its commercials and subtextually in its core content. I wouldn’t feel good writing about television if I wasn’t convinced that it can be–should be–looked at through the same critical lens as literature and all the other fine arts. There should be no limit to how deeply we can look.

Yet there are cracks in this paradigm. And they begin to show themselves when we traffic in fan theories.

Glenn is dead. He’s dead. He’s as dead as Dale and Andrea and the Governor and every stomping, screeching corpse you’ve ever seen on The Walking Dead. The degree to which you believe he’s dead is unimportant because this isn’t a matter of belief but a matter of fact. His intestines were ripped out and is his blood spilled all over the hot Virginia concrete. But do a quick Google search for “glenn walking dead” and just about every headline you find contains a pregnant question mark. The TWD faithful reacted to Glenn’s demise in perfect accordance with the Kübler-Ross model: denial is the first step on the path to acceptance. And since the “next week on” previews suggest a Morgan-centric 90 minutes coming at us on Sunday, you can bet your bottom dollar the maybes and the wait but whys are gonna be flying around like samurai stars for the next eleven days.

As with any conspiracy theory, the dust mites of doubt have been amplified so as to drown out the troublesome obvious. But wait, say the doubters, their confidence bolstered by the absence of common sense and maybe a personal text from Greg Nicotero reading, Just FYI, Glenn is definitely, totally, one hundred percent dead, and I mean dead as in no longer alive, as in he might be a walker but he will never be Glenn again, because Glenn is absolutely, undoubtedly, very very seriously dead, Love and kisses, G-Nic. But wait, they say: Why didn’t Steven Yeun get a Talking Dead postmortem, or show up in the flesh for his requisite emotional bye-bye? Why did the camera float away before we actually got to see his full-on death? Maybe the cowardly Nicholas fell on top of him and shielded him from ONE OF THE BIGGEST HORDES OF WALKERS TO EVER BE IN ONE PLACE ON THIS SHOW EVER despite our hero’s GUTTERAL SCREAMS OF HORROR, which OF COURSE wouldn’t have attracted the attention of the HUNDREDS OF FLESH EATING ZOMBIES STANDING DIRECTLY OVER HIM. Maybe after the camera cut, the wily Glenn was able to crawl under the Dumpster, miraculously avoiding a single bite, and survive there for, I dunno, however long you imagine it would take for Glenn to be:

(a) discovered by
(b) a group large enough to clear the walkers and get to him before
(c) he gets bitten anyway because walkers can bend down and reach for things, and if a walker wants to eat you, Dumpster or no Dumpster, it will find a way,

…and this is all assuming that there’s enough room under the Dumpster for even a dishrag like Glenn to shimmy to safety while surrounded by decomposing limbs and the gutted carcass of his curly-haired comrade. (A Google image search for “Dumpster” should alleviate your doubts on this one. I’ll wait.)

nicholasListen, I don’t blame anyone for pressing the panic button on Glenn’s death. Glenn was one of the five most important characters on The Walking Dead prior to his unceremonious end (the ranking probably goes something like: 1. Rick, 2. Daryl, 3. Glenn, 4. Carol, 5. Carl, unless the show succeeds in making Morgan happen), and in a show with one of the highest turnover rates this side of Game of Thrones, that’s not small potatoes. He’s also likely it’s best all-around person: never afraid, never gunshy, always willing to risk his neck on supply runs, always the one-man cheering section behind weaker character’s (how often do you think you’ve heard Glenn shout “You can do it!” in desperate action scenes, regardless of whether his intended audience could actually do it?). But more than anything, Glenn was humane to a fault. His sparing of Nicholas–the mercifully suicided douchecock who got Noah killed, left Glenn for dead, lied about it, then tried to kill Glenn again–could only have led, directly, to his downfall. Glenn’s road was always paved with good intentions, which in this world of violence and self-preservation could only have led him to one place. They were never going to get off that Dumpster any other way. Nicholas may have been one of the least likeable characters in a cast laden with steep competition, but at least he was savvy enough to know it was over.

The Walking Dead is valuable because it constantly teases your moral compass. Do you want to help people, it asks, or do you want to escape with your skin? “Thank You” was littered with the fatalities of those who maybe should’ve been left behind, from the merely wounded Annie to the mortally bitten David. The always pragmatic Rick had instructed Glenn and Michonne to leave anyone behind if they got hurt and started holding back the group, but he must’ve forgotten who he was talking to. We all know Glenn’s history of misdirected altruism, but Michonne is a softie herself, no matter what her brooding exterior might argue to the contrary. We know that her Daryl-like persona was crafted as a reaction to the death of her son and her boyfriend in the early days of the outbreak. So of course she relates to David’s tale of cutting himself off from his own humanity, only to be restored by the soon-to-be-widowed bride he has waiting back in Alexandria. Michonne had cut herself off, too, and has been restored piecemeal by her relationships with various members of the Grimes crew. It began, of course, with Andrea, whose very survival (for a little while, anyway) was symbolic of Michonne’s sympathy and goodwill; any other lone marauder would’ve left her to be eaten in the Georgia wilderness. Her treatment of Andrea and Carl as surrogates for her dearly departed has belied a warmth that can’t be smoothed over by a badass facade, try as she might. It was inevitable that she would take pity on the wounded, just as it was inevitable that her kindness would lead to disaster.

We don’t want to believe Glenn is dead because we assume that The Walking Dead must always operate according to a set of predetermined criteria concerning character deaths. We assume that a character’s end should be drawn-out–even Tyreese got that much–and that it should be memorialized by something as facile and metatextual as the actor’s appearance on what is essentially a postgame show. But The Walking Dead doesn’t owe us shit. It operates–and should operate–only by the rules of the universe it’s created. And in that universe, no one is safe. That much should be clear by now. People get killed just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. People get killed by seemingly inconsequential characters. People screw up. The goodwill of Glenn and Michonne can be just as dangerous as the unsympathetic cowboy act of Rick. At episode’s end, Rick’s fate looks no sunnier than Glenn’s. They took different roads and wound up in the same place. But Rick will live, not just because the show needs him, but because a lonesome death-by-walker-horde wouldn’t mean much for his character. The unbelieving text messages I got from a fellow TWD fan during the final minutes of “Thank You” complained that Glenn’s death couldn’t have been real because it wouldn’t serve the storyline. Whether that’s true remains to be seen, but it also doesn’t matter. The Walking Dead doesn’t care about keeping its promises. It cares about twisting your emotional and existential dials in ways you can’t predict or control. Glenn is dead. He died in an alley where no one wil find him. He was killed by a man whose life he repeatedly saved. Rick can go on being a cowboy, but Glenn is The Walking Dead‘s tragic hero.

Killers Within These Walls: Thoughts on the Season 6 Premiere of ‘The Walking Dead’ (“First Time Again”)

morganMy friends and I argue about The Walking Dead far more than we argue about anything important. Part of that is my fault, probably. For one thing I don’t pay nearly as much attention to the news as I ought to, and for another I apply way too much metaphorical significance to zombie-centric TV programs to take them anything other than dead goddamn seriously. I’ve drunkenly shouted my feelings about the moral implications of this show more times than I’m comfortable trying to remember and with more vitriolic passion than I’ve ever had for any sort of political or ideological stance. And still I lose these arguments far more often than I win, mostly because I get so fired up that I promptly stop making sense, but also because I’m still struggling with the same inconvenient truth faced by Morgan in the season six opener, “First Time Again”: that morals were all well and good in the old world, but in the zombie apocalypse they simply don’t fit.

Possibly the greatest point of contention between my friends and I has to do with the Grady Memorial Hospital plotline that brought the first half of season five to a screeching (yet, IMHO, compelling) halt. Many of our disagreements about this diversion–they hate it, I like it–can likely be blamed on the different ways in which we absorb serialized drama in the digital age. Whereas I bingewatched the first half of season five, they watched it in real time, meaning they were waiting a full week between episodes; after feeling the rush of the fall of Terminus and its immediate aftermath, I can see how they’d feel let down by getting dragged off to spend time with a minor character in an admittedly sterile environment. But more to the point is their argument that the hospital story seemed to have no lasting implications for the series, other than the death of Beth (who was never terribly important to begin with) and the addition of Noah (who in turn was killed only a few episodes later). Argue as I might for the pure dramatic merit of the hospital episodes, I never could think of a good comeback for this one. But I think I have one now, though time and my dubious arguing skills will tell whether or not it actually makes any sense.

It seems to me that Rick is becoming Dawn.

Remember Dawn? The humorless frau who ran the hospital with an iron fist and a pair of deluded bug-eyes? I always found Dawn to be the most fascinating of TWD‘s would-be despots. Sure she didn’t have the firepower or the misdirecting charm of the Governor, but it was that very unabashed militarism that made the hospital such a terrifying place. Where Woodbury and Terminus used smiling facades to lure unsuspecting travelers to their fortified chambers of delusion and death, Grady Memorial was a stonefaced den of murder and slavery, where the strong were euthanized (lest they try to fight back against the infallible System) and the weak were kept alive only to be debased into free labor. Dawn’s vision of a brave new world required people like Beth and Noah to exist for the sole purpose of keeping the machine running, and the machine only needed to survive because it belonged to Dawn. “Some people just aren’t cut out for this world,” she once said to Beth, possibly the bleakest view of human life theretofore expressed on the show, and that’s saying something. Even the Ricktatorship allowed for an equal division of labor, as long as everyone learned to use weapons. In Dawn’s view there were two kinds of people: those in charge, and those who could just as easily be cast into the furnace as soon as the need for manual labor dried up.

Now see Rick, the embittered Patton figure, drawn to leadership by his own Darwinian alpha-tendencies rather than any sense of duty. It’s true that he knows what needs to be done–and sure enough the Woodstock-like craterful of walkers gives him an excellent opportunity to wield his tactical genius–but “First Time Again” forces us to see Rick through Morgan’s eyes, and what Morgan sees is a dangerously mixed message. Each of Rick’s forays into questionable moral terrain in this episode happen with Morgan standing not quite apart, like a disappointed and disillusioned angel on our fearless (if nothing else) leader’s shoulder. I’m glad the series didn’t waste time getting Morgan settled and instead jumped right into the mission at hand (though the mission was forced by its very nature to move at the tedious, lumbering pace of the walkers). This requires Morgan to deal with his mixed feelings about Rick’s leadership in fits and starts rather than in well-organized monologues. When Rick dispassionately resolves to leave Pete’s body to the elements–his command that “we won’t bury killers within these walls” sounding very much like the words of a myopic pot to an undefended kettle–Morgan attempts to bring Rick down to earth by reminding him that he, too, is a killer–as is Morgan himself, as are so many people these days so really what’s the point of casting that kind of judgment, especially on the dead? Yeah, that could’ve and maybe even should’ve been a hell of a speech, but it was met by Rick with silence and the slamming of the trunk on Pete’s corpse, because as we know, this isn’t a democracy, and when Rick says the conversation is closed you better believe the goddamn conversation is goddamn closed, moral ambiguity or no.

carterThe Dawn-like ideology of the Ricktator comes to the fore when he shares his own snippet of monologue regarding poor Carter (played by former Oneders bassist and Purple Heart recipient Ethan Embry). It was inevitable that Carter’s big idea for disposing of Rick would deflate itself; not a one among the Alexandrians was interested in his too-simple plan of Rickicide, probably knowing that even if they didn’t crave Rick’s no-nonsense leadership, killing him is no solution at all, what with Deanna Monroe peeking morosely out from Rick’s pocket and the whole Georgia regiment bound together like a marine unit. After Rick comes oh-so-close to killing Carter (who really should’ve posted a lookout) he confesses to Morgan that he would’ve killed him if he hadn’t deduced in that very moment that people like Carter just won’t make it in this world. So we see again Dawn’s division of humanity: the almighty Us, who have earned our place in the new world with battle-hardened machismo, and Them, who can either follow or get out of the way because if Rick isn’t a leader–the only leader–then who is he?

Fair enough, Rick’s “we take care of our own” posturing is nothing new. And the inevitable quasi-mercy killing of Carter that closes “First Time Again” is certainly not the first time Rick’s killed someone for inconveniencing him. Still, his tribal ideology seems to be reaching its zenith in this new season. His bloodlust is no longer the simple cocktail of vengeance and self-preservation it once was. You can defend just about all his prior killings as acts of either necessity or righteous retribution, up to and possibly including Pete. But Pete poses a problem, as does Carter. It’s not just that Pete killed Reg or that Carter pulled a gun on Eugene; it’s that Rick wanted to kill these guys, was indeed waiting with bated breath for an excuse to do so. (The actual killing of Carter isn’t as important in this context as the fact that he would’ve shot him back in Alexandria if Morgan’s judgy shadow hadn’t made him feel guilty.) Protecting the homestead is not nearly as important to Rick as making sure that everyone knows who’s boss. And any twentieth century dictator can tell you that it’s much easier to be the boss when you enforce population controls.

Consider Daryl’s dissent on the subject of recruiting runs. Daryl boasts the most outwardly nihilistic persona, but we all know that he’s a teddy bear underneath that silly angel wing vest and ’90s alt-rock haircut. He’d want you to think he’s as isolationist as Rick, but even Daryl Dixon knows that Alexandria can only grow stronger with greater numbers. He believes in community, where Rick only believes in his community. We can’t blame anyone for having trust issues in the zombie apocalypse, but at least Daryl understands that collaboration is the foundation upon which the civilizations of the old world were built. But a group of survivors serving only its own perpetuation is…well, it’s very Grady Memorial Hospital.

It’s hard to tell what the series has in mind for Morgan. He seemed at first to be the moral compass our group desperately needs if it’s to skirt self-immolation. And indeed he’s clearly struggling with the punishing reality of life with Grimes & Co. But as he stands agape over the corpse of Carter–who certainly was doomed from his bites anyway–we wonder whether he’s appalled at Rick’s actions or simply shocked into a new perspective. Probably a little bit of both, but I hope the show doesn’t place him complacently under Rick’s spell. Rick may be the best at getting things done, but a leader of his stubborn, iron will needs to be questioned. Remember that mysterious noise that closed the episode, luring the great horde of walkers terrifyingly off-course? That was the sound of Rick’s fallibility. You can prepare for everything, Mr. Grimes, until you can’t.

The King Ordered It: The Beginning of the End of ‘Mad Men’ (‘Time & Life’)

The struggle of Sterling Cooper & Partners is a metaphor for the struggles of all its major characters: How can we feel big and important when we are so, so small and insignificant?

betty cokeA woman is served a drink on an airplane. The magical concoction in her hand transforms the aircraft into a flying, hallucinatory soiree with live music and dogs so pretty that even the prettiest boys look awkward and miscast. A young, crustachioed cad in a sharp suit makes eyes at our spellbound heroine, but alas–a shock of turbulence rattles us back to pale reality. The plane is just a plane. The cad is just a common oaf in a cheap hoodie. No dogs are allowed, not even pretty ones. We are prompted to wonder: What if life tasted as good as Diet Coke?

The struggle of Sterling Cooper & Partners–in all its incarnations, from SC to SCDP to SCDPCGC to Ess See Ampersand Pee–is a metaphor for the struggles of all its major characters: How can we feel big and important when we are so, so small and insignificant? We can create the temporary illusion of existential consequence by engaging in compulsive sex (which simulates power), compulsive drinking (which simulates invincibility), or compulsive belittling of our nominal inferiors (which simulates both). But these are merely ways of faking out the ego. Sooner or later the veil is lifted and we are revealed as the puny, ineffectual beings we are, and no amount of sex and booze can alter that universal truth. The only way we can be part of reality is by accepting the universe’s ultimate and irremediable dominion over us. Sometimes we have to be forced into that acceptance by suffering circumstances that cannot be reined in with smooth talk and a fine vintage ’53. That’s what’s happening in these final episodes of Mad Men. Matt Weiner isn’t ruining our heroes. He’s saving them.

SC&P is a fictional company, full of made-up employees who never existed outside our television sets and who themselves are full of problems and opinions and histories that are pure fantasy. But McCann Erickson is very real. To this day McCann remains one of the largest international marketing conglomerates, handling some of the biggest clients on the planet. In the world of Mad Men, they are Goliath, and our Davids at SC&P are running out of slingshot ammo. In “Time & Life,” we saw echoes of the great season three finale, “Shut The Door. Have a Seat”: scrambling in the face of an impending McCann takeover, locking up accounts, quick thinking and boundless optimism. Except this time, our heroes surrendered. Because McCann is big. They aren’t really big, of course; as we’ve established, only the universe is big, and the universe is quick to remind anyone who forgets that infallible fact. But McCann feels big, and Jim Hobart assures our friends that they can feel big too, because Nabisco. Because Buick. Because Coca-Cola.

In his Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Zizek explained that the allure of Coke is built on deception–not just deception in advertising (advertising is by nature deceptive) but in the very chemical properties of the product itself. Once you open a can (or bottle) of Coke (or Pepsi, or whatever carbonated beverage you prefer), there is only a small window of time during which you can properly enjoy the beverage in all its fizzy glory. Before long, your Coke goes flat, gets warm, loses the very properties that made it attractive in the first place. In short, it’s no longer “The Real Thing,” as McCann Erickson once put it; instead, it’s (as Zizek puts it) shit. So goes our desire for the surplus pleasures of a postmodern world: at first sip, the experience is transcendent, but by the time we’re finished, the object of our desire has devolved to something lower than its optimal state, and so our desire remains unfulfilled. This phenomenon prompted Zizek to posit, “A desire is never simply the desire for a certain thing. It’s always also the desire for desire itself.” If our desires were fulfilled, we would cease to desire, and thus, to paraphrase Tennessee Williams, we would cease to be.

draper cokeThe problem with Jim Hobart’s proposal (though it’s really more of an order) isn’t that it doesn’t satisfy the desires of the SC&P partners. The only partner with a name on the door is Roger, and his interest in preserving the Sterling Cooper name was only ever a byproduct of his loyalty to his late friend Bert Cooper. Ted doesn’t care, and Pete and Don are only in this because each perceives himself to be locked in a lifelong pissing contest with the universe. The only partner with a real bone to pick with McCann is Joan, who suffered nauseating humiliation at the hands of the douchebags extraordinaire of the McCann accounts department. But even with her, we can imagine that the absorption of SC&P would land her in such a position at McCann that she’d be able to fire anyone who threw her a demeaning comment. This fight is no longer about a name or a couple of floors in the Time Life Building. It’s about the very title of the series. A Mad Man is not just a Madison Avenue-adjacent advertising representative. Being a Mad Man (or Woman) is all about being high-powered, and it doesn’t get higher than McCann. If the shared ambition of Don and Pete and Roger was to become a high-powered executive in the whirlwind world of New York advertising, then the dream was just handed to them on a silver platter. And there lies the rub.

The problem with Hobart’s order is precisely that it does satisfy the desires of our heroes.

The idea has too often been put forward that Mad Men should and/or has to end with the death of Don Draper. Whether or not that happens is at this point less important than the very simple-mindedness of that prognostication itself. The various in-show allusions to Don’s death (the open elevator shaft, the hashish incident) were not, I think, on-the-nose foreshadowings, but divine warnings about the path he was on at the time. Mad Men isn’t a violent show like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, where the main character’s death is almost a foregone conclusion. But what if Don experiences a different kind of death. I’m not talking about the Dick Whitman-Don Draper bridge here; the distinction is too amorphous and anyway Don seems to have made some shaky kind of peace with his childhood so I don’t know if there’s any reason to go venturing down that road at this juncture. Don’s got plenty to deal with in his day-to-day life without having to worry about getting court-marshaled for desertion. The true symbolic death of Don Draper may occur when his desire to be the biggest, sexiest, most important ad man in New York is finally met. He was always a legend in town, but with the McCann acquisition he’ll be a legend with the backing of a giant. He’ll get to sit up front at the Clios. As his performance review with Peggy in last week’s episode alluded, once you’ve hit all your ambitions, there’s nowhere left for you to go. The perfect end to Mad Men is not death but stasis.

In the Saying Goodbye department this week, we have that old shitbird Lou Avery, whose Scout’s Honor is about to be the next Speed Racer over in Japan. His sendoff was just the right mixture of dickish and triumphant, leading us to remember that Lou’s not really a bad guy, not really. He was a terrible creative director with a terrible cardigan collection, but that doesn’t impeach his skill for narrative animation. We should be happy for Lou, that he finally found his true calling and therefore never need stain the hallways of another advertising agency with his old man smell.

©Ê9_ñ…WRÃåي1óRI$œµI$’JÿÙDid we finally say goodbye to Ken Cosgrove this week? I sure hope not, but if we did he got one heck of a last moment. Pete Campbell, the man who never takes no for an answer, sat there and took the bluntest “No” that Mad Men has ever served up, and out went Kenny, loud-ass blazer and all. By episode’s end, though, the whole Cosgrove Affair amounted to a giant “So what?” The rebel partners of SC&P lost Dow Chemical to Ken’s client-from-hell madness, but the next day we saw Pete–bolstered by having impressed Trudy the old-fashioned way, aka suckerpunching a centuries-old family rival–sealing the deal on Secor Laxatives simply by not making that joke. And even that didn’t matter because Hobart shut down the SC&P rebellion anyway. If this is the end of Kenny, I’ll be really bummed, but it would say a lot about his decision to stay in advertising instead of writing the Great American Whatever. Ken’s soul was in writing, and he could have shared that soul with the world. Instead, he took a job at Dow just to yank Sterling’s chain a bit, and even his chain-yanking didn’t make a difference. There seems to be a message in Ken’s arc about the damaging allure of corporate life, and how the ruthless, sometimes senseless competition it endorses can lead otherwise talented people to act against their best interests. Write that novel, Kenny, because Roger Sterling will never give a shit what you do, no matter how badly you want him to.

These final episodes have undertaken a very precise investigation into Peggy’s attitudes toward family and relationships. Though I’m hesitant to reduce her relationship with Stan to “why don’t they just do it already?” simplicity, there is nonetheless a kind of love between them, a kinship of peers only slightly unlike the student-mentor admiration between Peggy and Don. That Peggy shares with Stan the story of her child is a bigger moment than it felt like; she never told Mark or Abe that she had a child, and she may never have told Don if he hadn’t gone looking for the truth on his own. Maybe all this recent business about dating and children is a final test of Peggy’s Any Rand-ish work ethic. Her libertarian self-concern and her demanding regency as copy chief are incompatible with having a family, which requires sacrifice. It isn’t that Peggy isn’t capable of sacrifice, just that she’s self-aware enough to know that it wouldn’t be fair to sacrifice something you actively want for something that society makes you want to want. She’s worked hard for what she’s attained in advertising; for all intents she really should stay at McCann, where she’ll be able to build a name for herself. In the meantime, keeping Stan on the phone is as close as she needs to get to intimacy. She gets enough of it in small, occasional doses and that’s just fine.

The illusion of power under which all of our partners operate is crushed at the end of “Time & Life.” For the first time in the show’s history, nobody is listening to Don Draper. “This is the beginning of something,” he half-shouts, alluding back to Freddy Rumsen’s words at the very beginning of season seven. (How is Freddy, anyway? Still on the wagon, I hope.) Of course, this is the beginning of something: the end. Mad Men isn’t just approaching the end of its run, but also a seeming heat-death for its main characters. Disillusioned, dissatisfied, and mindblowingly rich–there’s nothing left for them to do. All they can do is fight, because if they aren’t fighting, they don’t exist. Three hours to go.

Fortunate Sons and Daughters: ‘Mad Men’ gives us ‘The Forecast’

‘Mad Men’ is and has always been about one thing and one thing only: the unrequited love between Betty Hofstadt-Draper-Francis and the kid who used to live down the block–the kid they call Glen Bishop.

glenn-bishop-betty-mad-menYou thought Mad Men was about Don Draper? About his perennial identity crisis and the varied ways in which he tries to distract himself from it? You thought it was about an advertising agency struggling to rise above the competition; about the creative team struggling to keep art in advertising; about ’60s people with ’60s problems?


Mad Men is and has always been about one thing and one thing only: the unrequited love between Betty Hofstadt-Draper-Francis and the kid who used to live down the block–the kid they call Glen Bishop.

We know Glen pretty well by now–shit, back when we met the progeny of maligned divorcee Helen Bishop, he didn’t even know how long twenty minutes was. We’ve seen him evolve from a chubby creepster transferring misplaced affection onto the first non-relation to be nice to him, to a still-chubby rebel who hold sacred his friendship with Sally. Only now we come to learn that he was just marking time with Sally, keeping her close by so that he could swoop in and steal more than a lock of hair from his old flame. Carrying a torch for ten years is weird enough in adult life let alone spanning the whole childhood-adolescence bridge, and Glen is now old enough to realize how ridiculous it is to think that he could still have his Betty. Sure, Mrs. Francis was kinda sorta maybe thinking about giving Glen a better-than-average sendoff, and to be sure he’s grown into quite the strapping young lad, absent his baby fat and sporting some sick mutton chops. But just as in their first encounters in season one, Betty registers Glen’s overtures partly as sadorably amusing, partly as a reassuring reminder that her roles as mother and as object of desire need not conflict with each other. She doesn’t want to sleep with an eighteen year old boy; Betty only cheats when she’s got the moral high ground, and in her tenure as Mrs. Francis she’s only ever flirted with other men when Henry was being a real pill. Still, she digs the fact that eighteen year old boys still want to sleep with her. It must feel even better when they prefer you over your daughter.

Glen’s always been a straight-talking, easygoing cat, so we knew right away that he didn’t enlist in the armed forces for the principled reasons he rattled off to Sally. He’s too cool for that kind of dunderheaded patriotism, especially at a time when it was wildly unfashionable. (Did I mention those boss chops?!) And while it’s not exactly surprising that he flunked out of school (did I mention he’s too cool?) it’s a little saddening that he couldn’t be upfront about this with Sally the way he was with Betty. It’s hard to believe Glen would feel the need to posture in front of his longtime pen pal; maybe he was just trying to impress his new girlfriend, but why? He’s deploying in, what, a week? Who gives a shit? At no point in this entire storyline was Glen Bishop thinking about the future. His impending deployment is representative of just how young the soldiers getting killed in Vietnam really were. It was different with Mitchell Rosen; he was barely older then than Glen is now, but we didn’t know him well enough to be invested in his fate (beyond what it meant for Don re: Sylvia). But we’ve watched Glen Bishop grow up. Though he’s taller and thinner and rocking a Mungo Jerry look, we still think of him as the little boy who wanted to rescue Betty Draper from the toil of her pre-divorce life. He still thinks that way too, apparently, which drive the point home even further. Glen’s still a little boy, except now he’s going to war.

At least Glen had the decency to plea for a formal goodbye. We know enough about Mad Men to know that we never really say goodbye to anybody (that is, alas, until the rapidly approaching end of the series) but Sally’s inability to reach Glen by phone before his deployment may be a bad omen. The other goodbye in this episode was less ceremonious: Johnny “Not That Johnny Mathis” Mathis blew it in front of the Peter Pan Peanut Butter People by getting into an f-word contest with Ed (who is indeed growing his hair long!). Mathis did the right thing by asking Don for advice, then did the complete wrong thing by thinking that he could do Don Draper anywhere near as good as Don Draper can. Of course, Mathis still got his parting shot: “You don’t have any character,” he said to Don. “You’re just handsome.” Indeed, one of the subterranean themes of the show is whether or not Don is actually any good at his job. He’s great when he’s on, but that only comes once in a Carousel. More often he’s taking unannounced sabbaticals and skipping work to screw waitresses and insulting clients who don’t like the work. He’s great at client dinners because he looks like a high school football player turned US Senator and because he speaks with confidence, so that everything he says sounds profound if you’ve had a few. Now, Don can’t even come up with a fluffy speech about the future of SC&P, a subject so vague, so abstract that the old Don would’ve knocked it out over a few cigarettes and half a bottle of Canadian Club. But today’s Don is out of ideas, so much so that he tries to trick Peggy into giving him something to write about. He’s not a creative director. He’s just handsome.

mad-men-new-buisiness-image“The Forecast” is Don at his patio furniture laziest. He barely even tries to barf ideas into his dictophone; he solves the Ed-Mathis debacle without even leaving the candy machine; he doesn’t even bother to clean up the wine stain on his carpet before trying to sell his apartment. While taking the long way ’round to his speech assignment, he visits with Ted Chaough (carrying two donuts when he only needs one–hats off to (Bob) Benson!) and asks him, “Do you ever feel like there’s less to do but more to think about?” Of course Ted has no fucking idea what Don’s talking about. There’s always plenty to do where Ted comes from; that guy loves his memos. Don’s problem is that he’s forgotten how to tap into his instincts. The instincts are still there–his encounters with Pete and Peggy and Mathis show that he still knows how to think quickly and solve problems–but he seems unable to use them to his own benefit. His very instinct for survival seems absent. When was the last time you saw Don drink beer? Or eat donuts? He hasn’t even bothered to track down his furniture. The old Don didn’t care, but in a cool way, sort of like Brando in The Wild One. Now he doesn’t even care about himself. Without Megan, without his awesome apartment, and without the cocktail of admiration and intimidation that his presence used to inspire at SC&P, Don has nothing.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. Don still has his kids, which in the context of the show means that he has Sally. (Bobby is too young to have an opinion about his dad, and Gene has yet to become anything but a leftover season three plot complication.) Unfortunately, the love-hate relationship between Don and his oldest child is in the midst of a “hate” swing at present. We know Don; he’s a liar and a cheater and a backstabber and a casual alcoholic, but he’s not a total pervert. He wasn’t flirting with Sally’s “fast” friend Sarah (herself a conniving little schemer) but what would you think if you were Sally Draper and you were forced to witness the creepy display that went on at dinner? It feels like longer ago (thanks, AMC, for your half-season BS) but it was only last season that Sally caught Don in the throes of extramarital coitus. Sally knows Sarah is boy-crazy to boot, but how can she not blame her father for encouraging (or at least not discouraging) the advance? Don is cursed with the kavorka, and Sally’s problem with him is that he treats it like a blessing. (As always, every small choice on Mad Men has meaning packed into it; how fitting that the cause of Don and Sally’s argument was Sarah, who planted the note that led Sally to discover The Fateful Comforting of Mrs. Rosen.) While Don wasn’t aroused by the overt come-ons of Sally’s seventeen year old friend, I’m sure he was amused and delighted in much the same way Betty was flattered by Glen’s more imperative advance. The difference with Don is that he doesn’t need that sort of validation. He’s Don Effing Draper. He gets it every night.

It’s hard to reckon with the daring of Mad Men to keep introducing new characters this late in the game. Out of the blue comes Richard Berghoff, a millionaire real estate developer played by that insufferably handsome character actor Bruce Greenwood. He’s looking for his dentist’s office? Yeah right. Like Don, Joan has her own gravitational pull with the opposite sex, only she’s so used to attracting disgusting perverts like the bros from McCann that she counts it—rightly—as a burden. And what sort of a place is the SC&P L.A. headquarters for meeting attractive strangers, anyway? Could a one-person office populated by a demoted, Sanka-sipping Lou Avery possibly inspire anything in the human body other than fatal boredom? That Avery might actually make some money off his Scout’s Honor cartoon seals the deal on Mad Men’s opinion of Los Angeles: it’s a place where dreams come true, and as Žižek (or somebody) said, a dream come true is a nightmare. Thank goodness the too-handsome-to-be-true Berghoff is buying some property in New York, thus lifting the L.A. smog off of what could be the beginning of a beautiful more-than-friendship. Joan deserves to finally be happy with a non-rapist husband; the only hurdle here is how Berghoff and Roger will react to each other’s presence. Berghoff wants to be in Joan’s life as well as in Kevin’s; it remains to be seen how he’ll feel that the boy was begat with the help of a rival silver fox. We know how Roger will feel, but it’s hard to really give a shit about him right now. He just fired Kenny! He’s going to the Bahamas while Don writes a speech! He’s halfway to being Chester Alan Arthur with that ‘stache! Bring on the comeuppance for Roger Sterling in this final half-season. We love him dearly, but it’s so much fun when he gets kicked in the ass by life.

“It looks like a sad person lives here,” says Don’s observant realtor. “This place reeks of failure.” Are we getting a little on the nose here? Who cares? Even this close to the finish line Mad Men is what it has always been: a series of chance encounters and clipped conversations that go off-course and crash into unintended wisdom, hitting morality, philosophy, family, mortality and identity on the way. Why stop now? The double-entendres that stand in for deep truths will linger over Don Draper’s head until he figures out what the hell to do with himself. There are four episodes left. The man who once had not a care in the world is running out of time.

Henry Francis Drinks Your Milkshake, and other observations from this week’s ‘Mad Men’ (‘New Business’)

How many lives has Don Draper ransacked? His very name is a lie; he’s just a Dick squatting in Lieutenant Draper’s abandoned identity.

donIf Diana the Menkenish waitress hadn’t sent moonlighting travel agent Don Draper packing, how long do you think it would have taken for our dapper hero to discover that his apartment had been gutted bare by a vengeful French-Canadian expatriate? Would the sly, mustachioed silver fox they call Roger Sterling have ratted out his once and future blowjob queen? If Marie’s really defecting to New York, she won’t be able to avoid Don for long, especially if she plans on touring the city’s finest shag carpets with his business partner. And what of poor Megan in all this? All she wanted was a new agent and a reasonable divorce settlement, and suddenly she’s deflecting advances from the slimy Harry Crane and catching her devious mother red-handed and post-coital. No wonder that when the news comes in from her crying sister that Marie has left her father, Megan doesn’t even have the energy to give a shit. Her parents are both miserable assholes; this was for the best.

How many lives has Don Draper ransacked? His very name is a lie; he’s just a Dick squatting in Lieutenant Draper’s abandoned identity. If Anna Draper hadn’t been the understanding saint that she was, Dick Whitman would’ve gone straight to prison. Instead of being grateful for his salvation, Don’s approach to life under an assumed name has been to screw, physically and metaphorically, almost everyone he’s met since moving to New York. We know the affairs and secrets and dick moves that have resulted in divorces and leaves of absence, but between those moments are the smaller, incidental screw-overs that define Don Draper’s day-to-day character. Was Ginsberg ever the same after Don accidentally-on-purpose left the poor nebbish’s art for Sno Ball in a cab? Will Stan ever forgive Don for hijacking the job at the LA office, only to hot-potato it over to Ted Chaough because he felt bad? We feel for Don when we watch him suffer through emotional rough patches–Anna’s death, the Hershey breakdown–but he’s never really gotten his just desserts for his long history of just being the worst husband, father, lover, boss and employee in the known universe. Marie is unpredictable but she’s not wrong; Don does deserve to have his life vandalized, because it’s exactly what he’s been doing to other people since he became Don Draper, and it’s been far too easy for him to get away with it.

It was evident in the episode’s opening scene, when Henry Francis literally drank Don’s milkshake, that the world wasn’t going to continue to bend to Don’s whim. A decade after Don had private meetings with her shrink, Betty announced that she herself will be pursuing a master’s degree in psychology. She’s declaring war on her personal demons by resolving to educate herself in the science that tracks them. Under Henry’s roof, her intelligence and ambition are respected and nurtured rather than belittled. Don’s cynical self-assurance should be threatened by this development. He never believed in the value of psychoanalysis, even back when Betty was on the couch; he just wanted to know what his wife said about him. But in reality, few could derive a greater benefit from a good shrinking of the head than Don Draper. As Betty moves on with her life, Don remains stuck in his well-worn loop of Canadian Club and meaningless intercourse.

A therapist might say that Don applies meaning to his sexual appetite that isn’t really there. He fantasizes that Diana needs him, that they need each other, that their sex is cathartic, bandaging self-inflicted wounds from former lives. But it’s all an invention of his ego and his salesman’s imagination. What Diana needs is to be alone, for only then can she allow herself to feel the pain of what she’s been through and the guilt of what she’s done. Don only lets out his feelings in brief and intermittent moments of self-betrayal (like the Hershey incident) only to show up the following day and pretend like nothing ever happened. He’s more forthcoming with his childhood now, as we saw in last week’s midseason premiere, but telling funny stories about growing up in a whorehouse is not the same as feeling the pain from an old wound. Where he once used an air of mystery to stand as a barrier between himself and his true emotions, he now uses a relaxed attitude toward his past as a shield against the circumstances of his present. Diana’s loss of her child one-ups Don in the unspeakable tragedy department, and though she’s run away from her problems just like Don has, at least she has the strength of character to admit her faults and wrap herself in the sadness. Rather than rationalizing her distractions the way Don would, she sees them for what they are and promptly disengages once their temporary effect has worn off. As the series draws to a close, we wonder if Don will finally take a cue from someone who knows how to deal honestly with her pain.

stanWe may be done with Diana, but the ghosts of betrayals past continue to haunt the periphery of McCann-occupied SC&P. Roger has to skip a round of golf with client because the account man is that old cuckold Burt Goddamn Peterson, the man who never met a merger he could survive. Either Roger forgot or nobody told him that old Burt had been a senior VP at McCann since at least season six, a position he landed courtesy of headhunter extraordinaire Duck Phillips. I’m sad we didn’t get to see Burt in the episode–what does a happy, successful Burt Peterson even look like?!–but the mere mention of his name is enough. Like the situation with Ken Cosgrove in last week’s episode, here’s a man Roger betrayed, took pleasure in betraying, for whom he never felt remorse and indeed would have forgotten about entirely had he not kept reappearing, stronger and more unavoidable than ever. Thank goodness he has Marie Calvet to bail him out of the office for a fun-filled hour or two. Though by episode’s end Marie has left her husband Emile, I doubt she’ll be running straight into Roger’s arms for more than the odd booty call. Marie can’t take shit from anyone; how long could she possibly last with a man who proudly shits where he eats?

One of this episode’s common threads seemed to be men taking orders from and being sexually conquered by women. Stan has a hard time keeping his balls as it is, so the last thing he needs is for the slinky Pima Ryan (Mimi Rogers) to criticize his photographs and make him like it. As is so often the case with wannabe artists, Stan’s initial resentment of Pima stems from envy and a deep desire for her good opinion. She’s a real artist dabbling in advertising; he’s an ad company art director pining for legitimacy, and Pima’s presence both threatens and excites him. Those twin reactions converge during the darkroom rendezvous, and after their intercourse Stan becomes Pima’s property. Suddenly he’s campaigning on her behalf to a copy chief who experienced a similar come-on. This allows Peggy to throw Stan’s weakness back in his face, and he ends the episode seemingly wondering just how many balls he has left to lose at SC&P.

Don’s grand gesture of buying himself out of his relationship with a check for $1 million is part of his patented routine of self-aggrandizement through altruism: faced with responsibility for wrongdoing, he swoops in and provides some life-saving asset in an attempt to finagle himself back into the good graces of those he’s wronged. The last time we saw this move was in season six, when he pulled that fraying string we call Ted Chaough and saved Mitchell Rosen from possibly having to go to Vietnam, and we all remember how that turned out. Not coincidentally, the elder Rosens have a cameo in “New Business,” with Arnold mentioning that they’ve just come from the wedding of Mitchell’s commanding officer. We’re reminded that yes, Don (via Ted) saved Mitchell’s life, but in the end it didn’t get Don out of trouble the way he thought it would. Similarly, after handing over the $1 million check to Megan–what’s a million dollars to Don Draper? He was a millionaire when they met!–he finally comes home to find that he’s been robbed blind. A million dollars won’t buy Megan her youth back; it’s a lovely parting gift, but without some requisite damage to Don’s life there can be no settling of the score. Megan may not be happy with her mother, but she could care less what happens to Don. She doesn’t need to care anymore; she’s rich.

The Life Not Lived: ‘Mad Men’ Hits the Home Stretch with ‘Severance’

Apart from some ill-advised mustachery, the rakish boys’ club of SC&P is a mirror of its early ‘60s glory days. The prostitutes are plentiful, the Benjamins are disposable, and the casting calls are as boner-encouraging as ever.

MV5BMTUxMzgxNjAyNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTU0MDEyNTE@._V1__SX1194_SY611_Have you ever dug a hole so deep you wondered how you’d ever get out? Were you surprised when the obvious revealed itself, that the hole was your own grave, and as you dug deeper and deeper there was room for plenty more? When Bert Cooper said his epic goodbye to Don and to the world, he sang that the best things in life are free. We wanted to believe that Don had learned something from the last ten years, that he had grown mature and humble enough to actually heed the advice of a wizened elder, even if that advice boiled down to a fortune cookie wrapped in a Broadway melody. Bert was the least corrupted person to ever stroll the halls of SC&P, a sock-footed eccentric who lived a long, healthy life and whose good mood was only ever spoiled by the well-worn assholery of Roger and/or Don. Even without his testicles (h/t Dr. Lyle Evans) Cooper was the effective, moral patriarch whose guidance was possibly the only thing keeping the other partners from total self-destruction. Without him, the inmates have full run of the asylum.

In retrospect, the midseason finale (“Waterloo”) could’ve served as a fitting end for the series: the firm was saved, the partners were rich, Peggy had her moment with Don, all wounds were healed. Now, with the home stretch ahead, we find the partners in a sort of limbo where everything seems too chill to be very interesting. Apart from some ill-advised mustachery, the rakish boys’ club of SC&P is a mirror of its early ‘60s glory days. The prostitutes are plentiful, the Benjamins are disposable, and the casting calls are as boner-encouraging as ever. Don’s even loosening up about his miserable childhood, formerly the sorest of subjects in the Mad Men canon. Now, the upset to this equilibrium must come from the ghosts of a more recent past.

Rachel Katz (née Menken) certainly isn’t the first woman Don screwed over—that would obviously be poor Betty—but she was the first side piece who showed an interest in Don that went beyond the purely sexual. She loved the man incapable of loving anything save his own magnetism, and her appearance in Don’s dream (along with the news of her recent death) is a bit of the old “let’s remind Draper about the meaning of life.” As nice as it was to see Rachel again, we’ve been down this road plenty of times. Even forgetting Bert Cooper’s grand exit, who could forget the hash-induced death trip from season six’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” when PFC Dinkins (MIA, lol) gave us a lethal dose of beyond-the-grave anti-wisdom: “Dying doesn’t make you whole.” With Menken, the cryptic line from Don’s dream sequence—“I’m supposed to tell you, you missed your flight”—seems frustratingly tied to the theory floated by certain internet crackpots that Don Draper will turn out to be D.B. Cooper, the handsome gentleman who in 1971 hijacked a passenger aircraft, parachuted from the plane with $200,000, and was never found. I hate that theory, and I doubt Matthew Weiner would be dick enough to lead us down a seven-season primrose path to such an anti-conclusion, but what else is there to glean from Menken’s dialogue? The famously uninformative “scenes from the next Mad Men” hint toward a possible trip to Los Angeles, so we’ll have to wait at least until next week to see what this missed flight business is all about.

More interesting to me is the other bit of business in Don’s dream, when Ted Chaough suspiciously morphs into Pete Campbell. We’ve gotten more than our fair share of narrative out of these two characters, but at present they’re as vanilla as they’ve ever been. Ted’s happy to be back doing busywork, and Pete’s book seemed to slam shut with Trudy’s final words to him in “The Strategy”: “You are not part of this family anymore.” Could Ted’s return to New York lead to a similar future for him? His escape to L.A. was purely a misguided attempt to force himself to stay married; now that he’s back, he can’t avoid Peggy forever. It’s easy to forget that Ted is the last remaining partner to stay married, and as far as we know he’s the only one who’s never been divorced. (I’m absolving Jim Cutler of involvement in this conversation, as we know precious little about his past.) No relationship on Mad Men is stable—even Don and Roger spent an entire season in mutual loathing—so it isn’t hard to imagine Ted falling face first into the Pete Campbell playbook. By series end, he could very well be a broken man without so much as a bowl of Raisin Bran to soothe his pain.

MV5BNjY1MjYzNjc3MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjY0MDEyNTE@._V1__SX1194_SY611_With the end so very nigh, the temptation arises to wrap up some minor arcs. Who among us predicted that the long-awaited midseason premiere would be so heavy on the Ken Cosgrove action? While Don and Roger ruin lives left and right and are rewarded with women and riches and inexplicably resilient livers, the artist formerly known as Ben Hargrove is a walking symbol of what this business really does to people. He sacrificed at least two of his nine lives to Chevy and was chastised for it. Even when he returned to New York for the first half of season seven, he was rarely seen and functioned mainly as SC&P’s heart of darkness, a perennially frustrated piece of loose furniture whose dream of writing the Great American Robot Adventure had gone the way of his right eyeball. Now he’s been fired for what seems like no reason at all, and he finds that writing was never his true calling after all. His real purpose in life was to finally stand up and exact revenge on the people who allowed him to be shot in the face. It would be great to see Kenny succeed as a writer, living on a farm somewhere like a more levelheaded Hunter S. Thompson, but that wouldn’t even the score. Ken’s new position at Dow Chemical might have given him a solid middle finger with which to sign off, but I sure hope he reappears in these final episodes as SC&P’s worst nightmare.

Meanwhile in the land of accounts, Topaz and their high-quality drugstore pantyhose are threatened by the emergence of Hanes Leggs. Hanes has the leg up (sorry) on Topaz not only because Hanes actually exists in real life (Topaz is an invention of the Mad Men writers’ room) but because their product is cheap, resulting in a massive outsell. Enter Team McCann, the newly appointed overlords of SC&P and representatives of Marshall Field’s. Even if Joan and her fellow partners are “filthy rich” from the McCann acquisition, nothing could be filthier than the minds and manners of the Marshall Field account team. This is an antidote to the notion that the McCann acquisition solved all SC&P’s problems; the money is great and everyone’s job has been saved (except Lou Avery, RIP?) but McCann appears to be comprised of the sorts of pigs that Peggy used to fire for breakfast. Every step forward results in two steps back; as far as the women of Mad Men have come in the last decade, it hasn’t stopped raining smug, misogynistic dickheads on Madison Avenue.

Speaking of smug, misogynistic dickheads, it looks like Harry “Mr. Potato Head” Crane didn’t storm out in a hissyfit after all. After finally nailing down the partnership that he undeservedly demanded for the better part of the series, the poor man’s Brian Wilson was beaten to the punch at the last second by the behind-closed-doors acquisition deal and all he got as a consolation prize was Bert’s old office. If Ken Cosgrove is the true face of Madison Avenue’s psychological torture, Harry Crane is its soul, a whining narcissist whose ass just cannot cash the checks written by his loud, stupid mouth. Of course Harry would never quit SC&P; he finally got Jennifer to stop talking about divorce! Perhaps that’s the real reason why he inherited Bert’s office: neither man has any balls.

MV5BMjI1NjA3MzcwMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTU0MDEyNTE@._V1__SX1194_SY611_The strangest part of “Severance” was not Don’s dream but Peggy’s date. Set up by, of all people, Johnny “No Relation” Mathis, the whirlwind evening with the handsome, unemployed lawyer seemed like a strange detour, especially for a show entering its final days. It’s rare even in earlier seasons for Mad Men to ever go the purely episodic route. The show has very few dead ends and even minor characters return in surprising scenarios (Freddy Rumsen, Paul Kinsey, Menken). Mathis’s buddy came and went without giving us much to chew on other than some light, speculative symbolism: Does the swapping of entrées mean that Peggy is tempering her Ayn Rand side? Does the discovery of the passport at the office mean that she essentially lives there, and that she can’t ever be spontaneous if she remains chained to her desk? In “The Strategy,” Peggy lamented having just turned 30, wondering if she had allowed the possibility of having a family to pass her by. The beautiful scene between she and Don sent the message that SC&P is her family; she’s called Stan her brother before, and now Mathis has taken the role of the invasive mother, setting up blind dates and checking in with a dumb smile on the morning after. Peggy might be lonely, but she’s made no room in her life for new relationships. When Stephen Sodheim said that he wished he had had children during his life, he amended his comment by saying that “art is the other way of having children.” Peggy is always caught between her art and her life; this narrative digression merely shows that it’s likely to be an ongoing struggle.

The situation with the diner waitress has Don acting out his relationship with Rachel Menken in miniature. Once again he uses a woman for reasons he can’t comprehend, only this time she tells him outright that his infatuation is meaningless and that she can’t give him whatever it is that he really wants. What I suspect Don wants—in this situation and in life—is an escape from the crushing totality of his sexual power. When he follows the waitress outside, all he has to say is, “I’m Don.” She mounts him immediately. She alludes to having been purchased as a prostitute by Roger’s hundred dollar tip, but the fact is that Don is libido incarnate. He can’t stop being immoral because he can’t stop himself from being attractive and charismatic. He’s a victim of his own positive attributes, which is why he can never be clean. It’s not that he doesn’t want to be Dick Whitman; he doesn’t want to be Don Draper. God (or whomever) made him desirable and persuasive, and his tragic flaw is his inability to reason with his own charms. If this were an English comp course, we could interpret Don’s abilities as symbolic of patriarchal society itself: he fucks his way into and out of every situation because he can. It destroys everyone around him because that’s how suppression works; it destroys him because, whether he likes it or not, he has a conscience. Like the song that bookends this episode, he wonders, “Is that all there is?” He knows it isn’t, but he has no idea how to prove it.

Wolves Not Far: ‘The Walking Dead’ Season Finale

Is it in the best interest of the group to stand by Rick’s side amid the rising discomfort in Alexandria? Maybe the better question is: What even constitutes “best interest” in a post-American nightmare world?

bnockknockEvery community becomes its own kind of cult. We don’t need The Walking Dead to tell us that, but I doubt if any television show has been so thorough in examining how the process happens. Every high school drama and fish-out-of-water comedy relies on cliques and other ad hoc social groups for its conflict, but those groups never seem to evolve; it’s more like they’ve always been there, and their occupants aren’t people but seat-fillers for whatever the communal philosophy happens to be. Even in adventure films like Guardians of the Galaxy, where we see the evolution from ragtag, motley crew to fully functional team, the group is defined more by their goal and their individual eccentricities than any overarching ethos. The camaraderie of shared experience can only explain so much.

We could easily say that the strictly defined groups of The Walking Dead are similarly bound by a single goal: survival. But while that’s certainly not untrue, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Whenever the series becomes dependent on a centralized location to anchor the group—the farm, the prison, Woodbury, Alexandria—the business of day-to-day survival becomes a matter of course. This is how life in the civilized real world operates: yes, we must do certain things to survive, but the relative ease (in general) of survival—the lack of immediate threats, the comforts of a dedicated living space—allow us to spend our energies elsewhere. This is when we develop opinions, interests, beliefs, personal philosophies. The world of The Walking Dead is never comfortable, but there is downtime between its epic battles, and it’s during that time that the show’s intermittently warring factions unconsciously hone their belief systems.

Consider the Wolves, the newest crew of sadistic derelicts to show up in the periphery of our beloved heroes. It would be one thing if the Wolves were simply a nasty-ass group of hunter-murderers prowling the Virginia countryside for new recruits to their army of the undead. That’s bad enough, but the killers also bear the same mark as their prey—the ubiquitous W on the forehead—suggesting that they’ve evolved from a group with a sick way of doing things to a cult that brands its members with Manson-like scars. The Wolves have taken the act of tactical killing to the level of ritual; they’ve allowed their personalities to be erased in the service of the group’s philosophy, what Lacanian psychoanalysts might call the big Other.

This is a shared quality of every fringe group we’ve encountered in The Walking Dead, and we can’t pretend as if the Grimes group is immune. The Ricktatorship flourished in earlier seasons because Rick seized power through the force of his zero-shit-taking personality. This isn’t an unheard of method for establishing dictatorial authority (see: John Fogerty) but what happened in the season five finale, “Conquer,” was more interesting. A good portion of “Conquer” was devoted to Rick’s followers offering testimonials to his righteousness around a highly unnecessary campfire. (We know Alexandria has electricity, fer crissakes.) It was half party convention, half premature funeral. Anyone with enough gumption and weaponry can ascend to office by force; it takes a true dictator to convince the populace of his own holiness and have them swear by it, regardless of their own best interests. (See: Machiavelli.)

crrlIs it in the best interest of the group to stand by Rick’s side amid the rising discomfort in Alexandria? Maybe the better question is: What even constitutes “best interest” in a post-American nightmare world? The havoc and horror have trained our heroes to cut down their reaction time for big decisions. That may have benefited them in the wild, but here in Alexandria things are slower. We have tribunals for open debate and personal living spaces where we can sit with our thoughts without jumping up to kill walkers or being interrupted from our reverie by not-so-distant gunfire. Carol calls the Alexandrians “children,” but the truth is that they simply have more time to think than does our band of traveling survivalists. That means more time to reflect, to develop moral compasses guided by something other than suspicion and paranoia. The Alexandrians are just as adapted to their environment as our people are; the difference is that their environment doesn’t involve constant, immediate danger. Abstract concerns make plenty of sense when there’s little else to worry about.

Despite all the flaws that have been parceled out to our heroes, the show ultimately has little interest in portraying them as anything other than (generally) moral. This is why Rick’s disciples stand with him when his reputation is put on trial. As with all controversies, we know that the point of all this isn’t the accused himself; it’s what he represents in the immediate context. In this case, Rick isn’t just a loose canon, but a defender of the victims of abuse. If his followers were asked to really sit down and think about the dubious virtues of their fearless leader they might have come to some more complicated conclusions, but that isn’t what this is about. A vote against Rick has become a vote in favor of spousal and child abuse. You’d think a politician like Deanna would have seen this campaign strategy coming three states away.

“Conquer” plays with our ideas about crime and punishment so deftly that, by episode’s end, we feel as if we’ve done something wrong. I couldn’t have been the only audience member begging, begging the television screen to let me watch Glenn kill Nicholas, to let me pump my fist as Pete’s brains exploded in the firelight, to at least give me the satisfaction of seeing Gabriel take one in the balls. None of those wishes came true, of course, because this episode was about restraint. We had to be reminded that, as much as we’ve lost on the long road to faux Xanadu, our people still possess the capacity for forgiveness.

Though he was mostly relegated to the role of deus ex machina in “Conquer,” Morgan was the episode’s spirit guide, a stoic warrior who refused to kill even those who would kill him if given the chance. Morgan’s appearance in the episode’s final moments was perhaps the most emotionally grounding moment of the series thus far. Our love for our heroes had previously blinded us to the moral ambiguities of capital punishment; we’d been conditioned to hate Pete and rightly so, but we’d also been conditioned to call for blood before reason because that’s what our steadfast, courageous leader had wanted. Morgan is the pious priest we run into on our way out of the brothel; we don’t feel bad about what we did, but we’re ashamed of ourselves, and the shame forces us to question our dark impulses. We couldn’t even enjoy the moment of Pete’s death; director Greg Nicotero shielded us from the sight of his dead body to show us something even more jarring: the arrival of a person who might have offered a more levelheaded solution.

Morgan’s return offers new possibilities for The Walking Dead going forward. No outsider could ever rival Rick for supremacy within the group, but Morgan’s moral code—or the fact that he even has a moral code—makes him attractive as a possible new guru, a gentle sage whose strength in battle is tempered with humanity, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the life and times of Dale. Morgan may not pose a physical threat to Rick, but his ideology—“all life is precious”—may come as a welcome salve for a group that is war-weary and exhausted. Group lifers like Rick, Carol and Daryl like to believe that their dark sides have aided and enabled their survival, but Morgan has gotten all the way to Alexandria on his own without any such bloodlust. (True, he was far off the deep end back in season three, but that’s also when Rick was talking to his dead wife on a rotary phone.) Whatever humanist epiphany revealed itself to Morgan, it didn’t weaken his will to survive, and the combination of his survival skills with his peaceful attitude might lead him to outshine Rick in future episodes. Rick devotees like Glenn and Sasha found it in themselves to forgive, to treat all life—even despicable, wasteful life like that possessed by the coward Nicholas—as precious. They didn’t know it, but they were part of Team Morgan all along.

“It’s What We Do”: Beginnings and Endings in This Week’s ‘The Walking Dead’ (‘Spend’)

When you aren’t invested enough in the lives of your fellow humans to fight on their behalf—to spot them a bullet or a fist or an improvised mace when certain death is lumbering toward them—there can be no such thing as community.

gabe“It’s what we do,” says Nicholas, whose name I kept mishearing (though not inappropriately) as “dickless” in last night’s episode of The Walking Dead, entitled “Spend.” He’s speaking to Aiden, who’s been double-impaled by thick steel beams and was briefly thought dead. Aiden isn’t past saving, but getting him out of there would be risky, with a horde of walkers closing in and only Glenn and Nicholas there to both carry the badly wounded idiot and fend off the attack. “What we do” is we leave the wounded and vulnerable for dead, and there, folks, is the rub. There’s the darkness beneath the slick surface of Alexandria, the darkness we knew we would find eventually, because after all this is The Walking Dead, where no mini-society is without its horrifying underbelly. Woodbury murdered dissidents, the hospital preyed on the weak and euthanized the strong, and Alexandria leaves its wounded scavengers to be eaten alive. Welcome to Paradise.

This cruel policy of natural selection is, of course, the key to Alexandria’s improbable idyll. The reason our sun-kissed Alexandrian suburbanites are so (for the most part) pleasant and optimistic is because they refuse to engage in close combat with walkers. They haven’t seen the true horror of the apocalypse because they run from it and never look back. Instead of fighting to save their fellow men and women, the Alexandrians shoot at medium range and back off when the zombies get close; anyone who gets closer than necessary is cut loose to fend for themselves. We haven’t yet seen how Alexandria deals with death, but it’s hard to imagine that it has as much impact within those walls as it does amongst our friends from Grimes & Co. Lives are mourned within the Grimes crew not just because of its close-knit exclusivity, but because each life has been fought for by all, and losing those lives after so much struggle and hard work is a tough blow to stomach. Who would’ve thought a few seasons ago that we’d eventually devote an entire episode to the death of Tyrese, and that the sight of a wool-hatted grave would be the most emotionally damaging moment of the entire series so far?

When you aren’t invested enough in the lives of your fellow humans to fight on their behalf—to spot them a bullet or a fist or an improvised mace when certain death is lumbering toward them—there can be no such thing as community. When a group member isn’t willing to sacrifice safety or convenience to save another, there can be no brotherhood or sisterhood among the populace. In a way, the Alexandrian policy of protecting one another only up to a point is contains shades of the reality of living in an American suburb (or perhaps living in any real society). In the introduction to his book I Wear the Black Hat, Chuck Klosterman writes that it’s easy to care about other people in the abstract because we humans like to believe that we’re upstanding and altruistic in nature. But in the specific, we don’t really care about anyone we don’t know intimately. If my next door neighbor died tomorrow, it would not upset my daily routine one bit, and I probably would never know it happened unless someone told me. We care about people only insofar as they affect our waking lives.

In this way, the Alexandrians more closely resemble pre-apocalypse Americans than any other society we’ve encountered on The Walking Dead. What Rick & Co. had in common with all the failed societies they left in their wake was a strict, binary view of other humans; each newcomer was either an asset or a threat. The assumption of the latter could only be superseded by the earning of trust, but once that trust was earned and the newcomer became assimilated, they could count on the protection of the group in any situation, no matter how dire. (Even in the hospital, Beth and Noah were protected and treated as essential, though their safety was only provided in exchange for their slavery.) The Alexandrian Way seems to include a more indifferent view of human life. No one is worth dying for in Alexandria, and those who view themselves as essential avoid the conundrum by staying within the walls. Deanna Monroe won’t be slapping magazines into any Knight’s Armament SR-15s any time soon, nor will her husband Reg, whose mission is directly tied to keeping the wall strong and keeping those inside safe from whatever’s outside. Alexandria may not be as paranoid about possible threats as latter-day Rick, but its people are primarily and unflinchingly self-interested.

carolI try to stay away from the internet on Sunday nights for obvious reasons, but I imagine that around 9:50pm EST, Twitter was a raging chorus of “Glenn should’ve killed Dickless Nicholas!” But of course we know he would never. Of all the surviving Grimes group members, Glenn has remained the most free from sin. He’d do well to employ Carol to do his dirty work. Blue cardigan or no blue cardigan, Carol is not the “den mother” of this or any other group, and her behavior since the arrival in Alexandria might be a comment on the perception of some bloggers and recappers that her standing as the group’s only woman over 35 makes her a default matriarch. She’s terrible to Jessie and Pete’s son, Sam, threatening him once again before realizing that even a tiny glimpse into his psychology can speak volumes about what goes on under Pete’s roof. Her solution—that Pete must die—is arrived at without so much as a shrug, and though spousal abuse is no small matter (especially to Carol), I wonder if she’s becoming too reactionary and militaristic even for the Grimes group. It’s as if Carol intends to send a message to the next phase of humankind that any sort of household abuse will not be tolerated in the new world.

The more reasonable (though less narratively satisfying) solution for dealing with criminals in Alexandria might just be to cast them out, weaponless and alone. That certainly seems like a fitting punishment for Nicholas, who could’ve survived with some moral integrity intact if he’d only given Glenn a few seconds to break the revolving door window (one of the show’s most effective images of claustrophobia). If Nicholas had his way, both Glenn and poor Noah would be dead; if Glenn hadn’t survived, it’s entirely plausible that Nicholas would have killed Eugene to complete the cover-up. But of course, that’s “what we do” in Alexandria, and it’s hard to imagine Deanna will have much sympathy for Rick’s crew when she finds out her son was killed on a micro inverter run, of all things. She won’t believe that Aiden’s death was the result of his own actions, and she certainly won’t believe that Glenn tried to save him—not after Father Total Son of a Bitch Traitor Gabriel compared Rick to the devil himself and his crew to demonic disciples. (Is it worth noting that, excluding Gabriel and the departed Noah, there are now twelve Rick disciples? Does a bear send a fax to Cleveland in the woods?)

The growing power of our group was so obvious that Deanna even mentioned it out loud, after naming Abraham the new construction crew chief at the insistence of former crew chief Tobin. Now, with Aiden dead and Nicholas incapable of playing well with others, she’ll probably have no choice but to draw up a supply-run unit made up entirely of Rick’s people. Rick’s endorsement of the broken windows theory suggests that he’s interested in keeping order in Alexandria from the ground up—meaning he’ll investigate the shit out of every busted owl sculpture within a five mile radius, micromanaging every surface aspect of this improvised hamlet as he goes. It isn’t hard to imagine a coup on the horizon.

Noah’s last meaningful words in the series found him asking Reg to teach him about building, so that he can be part of the team that keeps Alexandria’s walls secure. Reg agreed, and gave Noah a notebook to start keeping a log of important stuff, including but not limited to the ins and outs of post-apocalyptic architecture. “This is the beginning,” said Reg, and lo and behold, it was the end of Noah. Noah would have been the one to create, to build, to fortify, to keep the historical record of a progressive new state, a new start for mankind. That his death was shot up-close, in some of the most gruesome images manufactured heretofore by the series, suggest that we are a long way from a new beginning. This might just be yet another episode in a long, slow, suffocating end.

Hell is Other People: Fox Gets Postmodern with ‘The Last Man on Earth’

This is why the “last person on Earth” fantasy is less attractive to adults than it is to children. To say nothing of our sexual desires, we’d be thrown into the greatest existential black hole there is: What is human life without the context of other humans?

lastman2When I was a kid, I sometimes wondered what I’d do if I, for whatever reason, found myself to be the only living soul on planet Earth. (This was back in the golden ’90s; there wasn’t much to do.) This is an attractive fantasy for children, who spend their every waking moment under some kind of dictatorial attention. I couldn’t even have the house to myself for an afternoon; imagine having the whole entire world to play with for the rest of my life.

But once I got the obvious considerations out of the way (running naked through the streets, screaming at the top of my lungs for no reason, driving cars, causing destruction just because I could) what was there to do, really? There would be no new TV shows. Reading or watching old movies would be pointless, since the value of art is deeply rooted in its reflection of society, which in this scenario is extinct. The illusion that human behavior matters is what allows society to function, and in so doing it essentially sustains all human life. As the cliche goes, it’s what separates us from the animals; our capacities for invention, emotion and philosophical insight have gradually worn down our biological instincts for survival and procreation in favor of those desires that are special to human life: greed, love, friendship, attention, sex for pleasure, etc. The removal of the illusion of meaning sends us back to our animal state, a fate with which modern humans would never be able to cope. We’ve come too far to go back now.

This is why the “last person on Earth” fantasy is less attractive to adults than it is to children. To say nothing of our sexual desires, we’d be thrown into the greatest existential black hole there is: What is human life without the context of other humans?

Will Forte must be a huge Beckett fan, because he seems to think this scenario is hilarious. The Last Man on Earth is his creation (he also stars in the show and wrote its pilot episode) and its premise is brash in its obvious unsustainability: Phil Miller (Forte) is indeed the last man on our home planet, the apparent sole survivor of a mercifully unexplained virus that has wiped out human life as far as our protagonist can tell. He travels the country in an RV, crossing off states on a map as he goes, finding no other survivors anywhere. (That’s American myopia for you: Miller decides he’s the last man on Earth, but he hasn’t even thought to check Mexico.) He leaves messages at state lines that read “Alive in Tuscon” and holes up in an Arizona mansion with a horde of collectibles he’s swiped from our nation’s museums: he wears Michael Jordan’s Bulls jersey, spills beer on a Rembrandt, uses Washington Crossing the Delaware as wallpaper.

Miller is a Tuscon native, which actually makes his decision to return there incredibly weird and sad. He could live anywhere he wants. He could live in the White House if he wanted to, but instead drags the Oval Office rug back to his Tusconian foyer. He doesn’t seem to be holding out hope for any old acquaintances to show up, but still hangs out at the local bar where he once celebrated birthdays. (A depressing scene–not the only one–has the abandoned Miller blowing out self-lit birthday candles in the darkened bar.) It’s a vain attempt to sustain societal institutions–family, community, camaraderie–that are no longer relevant.

It isn’t surprising that, not long after his one-man birthday party, Miller decides to kill himself.

The genius of the pilot is that, outside of its very final moments, it really functions as a self-contained short film. As Phil is about to drive himself into a desert rock formation, he notices smoke pluming up into the sky just over the horizon. As in the days of our cave-dwelling ancestors, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and where there’s fire, there’s human life. A hallucination offers Phil the heavenly vision of Alexandra Daddario, but that would be too gracious a gift for our unworthy, unkempt hero, and when he wakes up he’s horrified to see that it’s actually Kristen Schaal. Not exactly the image-positive message we want in 2015–dreaming about the buxom beauty, screaming in horror at the adorkable non-ideal–but in The Last Man on Earth everything that happens is a critique of contemporary civilization and culture. Phil should be thrilled to see any human life, especially that of the female variety, but he can’t dispel his culturally-enforced concept of the sort of woman he wants to sleep with–nor can he shake the idea that this sort of woman would be falling over herself to have sex with him. (How much do you want to bet there’s a “not if you were the last [insert gender modifier] on Earth” joke on this show? Five dollars? Ten?)

schaal2In theory, Phil’s situation has improved dramatically. Carol (Schaal’s character) may not be Lisa Tragnetti, but if the human race is to continue (well, the American human race, anyway) she has to have sex with him, probably many times to give the species the best possible chances once she and Phil are gone. (As for how the species keeps going after that…well, I really hope some more actors show up is all.) The status of being the last man on Earth is turned from a curse to a blessing, with the opportunity for sex, companionship, and the possible honor of being the Adam of Mankind 2.0. But Phil isn’t First Man material; he’s a man-child, a product of American culture and advertising. He prays to God for a woman–one woman, he says, any woman. Only a spoiled, oafish American male would receive the literal answer to his prayers and still feel gypped. For Phil, it’s like asking for the Dallas Cowboys and getting the Denver Broncos.

The pilot episode, “Alive in Tuscon,” segues into the second episode, aptly titled “The Elephant in the Room.” Here we get a look at Carol’s psychology, and it’s strange terrain indeed. She’s lively, talkative–she seems to be talking for the whole of the human race in its absence. Her respect for the customs of bygone society borders on the pathological. She can’t resist correcting Phil’s syntax, even when the technically correct word order results in unwieldy sentences that no right-minded human would ever purposefully speak. She asks him to please stop at stop signs even though traffic isn’t a thing anymore. When the two venture to a hardware store to address the running water situation, Carol admonishes Phil for parking in a handicap space. She has the audacity to desire working toilets, fresh vegetables, law and order–the stuff of life before the virus.

Of course, Phil finds Carol’s behavior ridiculous. In a world without other humans, laws and traditions are as irrelevant as the wealth and status that Phil absentmindedly mocks by squatting in a mansion and defecating in its swimming pools. He tries to prove his point by pulling out of the handicap space and driving straight into the hardware store, but Carol still demands that modern civilization be upheld and refuses to buy into Phil’s nihilism. She asks Phil if he would burn down a church, and his response–of course he wouldn’t burn down a church–has the bizarre effect of strengthening both protagonists’ cases. To Phil’s credit, yes, traditions have lost a lot of their meaning, but his post-apocalyptic destruction is just as arbitrary. Things like handicap spaces, churches and hardware stores all serve the same basic functions, both practical (offering comfort in times of difficulty) and ceremonial (providing the illusion that convenience/belief in an afterlife/building and maintaining structures can act as barriers against the inevitable). For Carol, institutions aren’t rendered meaningless by the lack of a society to uphold them. She sees herself as a link from one period of humanity to the next, with the power to carry the traditions of the old society into whatever quasi-society she and Phil create together. She’s the real alpha-character here; though her sunny stick-to-itiveness seems corny and, given the context, downright laughable, it’s also the only hope for the future. Phil has already given up; Carol refuses to.

Of course, creating a viable irrigation system is not an easy job, and before long Carol is exhausted and making a fountain-toilet for herself at her adjacent mansion. (It’s interesting that private property is not one of the old-world traditions that Carol strives to uphold; will Phil be okay with raising his kids to be Marxists?) We discover in this part of the episode that, for modern men, the driving force behind production is not survival or a higher standard of living, but guilt and the need to be liked even by people we don’t like. Phil feels bad about not helping with the water situation, so he goes to a local water tower and attempts to redistribute the water to the McMansion development that he and Carol call home. He works in varying degrees of frustration for several hours, finally rigging up a hose system that carries water to Carol’s vegetable garden. Again, it’s a mixed message–the man completes the work that the woman couldn’t, resulting in his redemption and her forgiveness–but we can at least see the seeds of Phil being inspired by Carol’s industriousness rather than being turned off by it. She improves his life and his outlook, if only intermittently.

Near the end of this second episode, Carol opens the door for procreating, but again her old-world mentality rears its head: before she and Phil have sex, they must be married. Since institutions mean nothing to Phil, he’ll do whatever, though he once again rails about the absurdity of Carol’s preoccupation with a social order that no longer exists. (Strangely not addressed in the episode: how do you get married without a priest, or at least a justice of the peace?) Carol seems to want to operate as if God’s always watching–she must take care of His earth and observe His rules, even more so now that the Almighty doesn’t have many other humans to look after. The devastation of the human race hasn’t filled her with terrified piety, exactly, but she does seem to want to be on her best behavior, and she’s got no one to impress other than the Man upstairs and the man next door–and the latter isn’t exactly Jesus Christ.

The Last Man on Earth, like much worthwhile art, takes a common fantasy and casts it into the light of real human foibles. These first episodes are baby steps, and I fear that the existential anguish at the center of the premise will be squashed under the usual sitcom trappings if more people show up. Conversely, the farcical element of the show–the last two people on Earth can’t stand each other–isn’t enough to carry a successful series; if Forte and his writers follow that wavelength, we might be talking this time next year about what a weird, doomed little show this was, and maybe about how it should’ve been a Spike Jonze movie instead. If Forte can play his cards just right, this show could be serialized television’s No Exit–except, you know, funnier.