I had a very brief e-chat with Colorado Susan this morning. Where she is, the roads are icy. I am currently working with an author of an article that will appear in the summer issue of my journal who is writing about the state of affairs of higher education in Japan. He has told me about the weather where he lives and it sounds very similar to the weather Colorado Susan describes to me. In fact, I joked to him, “You live in the Colorado mountains of Japan!” The thing is, in my head, at first, Japan always looks like a gorgeous woodblock print of peaceful summer beauty—just like my standard image of Colorado, until I visited the state to begin MFA work, looked like a stock photograph of the Rocky Mountains under a bright blue sky.
I’m thinking I’m not the only one with these default settings in my head—go-to images the brain pulls up when a certain word is mentioned that is part advertising poster, part preference, part experience. Such images aren’t always harmonious or cohesive, and there’s the inevitable conflict between what you assume and what you learn via direct contact. In the end, “wherever you go, there you are,” so it’s something to work past.
Lately, however, I’ve changed my position on this and decided that this mental repository of stock imagery is something I must draw from rather than battle. There seems to be very divergent opinion on it, but Sunday’s premiere episode of the new season of Mad Men is nothing if not stuffed with symbolic imagery.
Critical pieces I’ve read about the episode react to the overwhelming darkness flooding Don Draper’s world, but Don is more adrift than ever—how much more lost can you be once you’ve stepped into the bright clearing of redemption and then plunge willfully back into the dark and complicated woods?—so I’m not sure what the television critics were expecting. As an elderly Old World neighbor of mine once said to me about marriage many years ago: “Not every day is Valentine’s Day.” It isn’t always sunny anywhere every single day (even paradise).
And I’m not only talking about Don’s marriage to Megan, or any of the other Mad Men characters’ relationships, I mean the inevitable arc of experience and the passage of life. Once you go through a door and see what’s on the other side, you can’t “unknow” what you’ve discovered. Knowledge may be power, but it also ages us.
Don Draper is still overbearingly handsome, but he is becoming a dinosaur. He is a magnificent room in a museum (I think Bert makes an understated comment of that kind to Roger about his mother’s house during that fantastic “It’s My Funeral!” scene.) In other words, Don’s slick and suited time is passing and the new longhaired, wild-bearded time of the younger advertising executives has stormed ashore.
As much as this premier episode is about death—the physical death of the body—I think it is also about “the middle way,” the “x” marks the spot location you arrive at when you have reached middle age and recognize your reign will not last forever and that you must now face your decline and your mortality.
Upon reflection I think this inevitability is wonderfully embodied in the blue of the tropical drink delivered to Megan at the episode’s opening as she and Don sun on the beach in Hawaii. It is the sky poured into the drink—and that drink represents life itself and how we human beings gulp it down to inebriation. We get drunk on life—but we also drink to forget that life doesn’t last forever.Scoff at this interpretation if you will, but what I like most about the scene is that young, firm, eager, ambitious Megan takes the drink—not Don, who is reading Dante’s Inferno—and it’s made clear that she isn’t any more exempt from life’s inevitabilities than anyone else, she just doesn’t know it yet. I find sorrow and comfort in that.
That awareness is a place where art occurs. It’s rocky terrain and the weather’s unpredictable, but it’s inspiring.
The image of Megan’s tall and icy blue drink is the one that has stuck with me, more than any other from this symbol-packed episode of Mad Men (apart from the offense of weasely Pete’s attempt at sideburns), and it’s an image that in one sip embodies what I think is its real layered and nuanced theme: You can’t outrun Paradise.
p.s. I applaud the willingness of Mad Men’s creators to follow Don into the dark woods of middle age. It’s a lot easier and more fun—and more easily consumer friendly—to watch a ball rise into the air and envision the home run than it is to watch what happens as and after the wave crashes.