Here’s one way to tell the story of the corporate arts in the United States of America in the twentieth century: Every reigning medium—the printed word, way back in the early 1900s; the movies in the Vietnam years; television, closer to now—has a beautiful crisis just when it is being replaced by another. I want to call this crisis “stage nine” in a medium’s life. That’s what the little fat man in the cork sun-helmet hollers through his megaphone at the beginning of Nathanael West’s great Hollywood novella, The Day of the Locust: “Stage Nine—you bastards—Stage nine!” Stage nine is almost the last stage, but it isn’t quite. In fact, it’s a little reawakening, a second youth. Oedipus is in the city, but the king isn’t dead yet. He still has a few tricks left. As the old medium tries to adapt to the demands of a new one, it conducts experiments. It makes strange, sometimes lovely versions of itself. It seems to me that Mad Men, in the season before its last one, has discovered stage nine. It’s becoming a show about the beautiful death of television.
Meanwhile, one thing doesn’t change much. In a patriarchy like ours, every crisis is a masculinity crisis. The king might be dying, but not without feeling sorry for himself, and not without letting it rip a little. He’s like Walter White; he’s going to do some damage on his way to the boneyard. This is the way a media world ends—cooking up a crystal that’s both perfect and a mournful blue. After that, it’s stage ten, a long slumber in obsolescence.
Print, the medium that ruled the nineteenth century, knew that it was doomed when radio and cinema were born. The result was literary modernism. Some writers tried to make peace with the new media. They read their poems on the air, or they sold their plots to Hollywood. Other writers turned experimental, making works of such intricacy that they could only be literature. Picture William Faulkner in the 1930s, absurdly out of place in a California “bungalow,” trying to crank out scripts for MGM. His real profession was drinking whiskey and dreaming up the endless sentences of Absalom, Absalom!
And then there were a few writers who brought the conflict between the text and the new mass media right into the stories they told. West’s Day of the Locust is a good example. The little book is written with a burning, toxic hatred for the movie business and its people. The pathetic hero, Tod, is a painter trained at the Yale School of Fine Arts. Hired by a studio, he lies around Los Angeles pining, impotently, for the actress Faye Greener. She won’t sleep with him because he isn’t handsome, won’t marry him because he’s poor. The suburban landscape depresses Tod. He looks around at the lost souls and thinks, “They had come to California to die.” Nathanael West, born Nathan Weinstein in New York, died a California death in a car crash when he ran a stop sign in in El Centro. The Day of the Locust reads like it was written by a desperate man, and it probably was. In the 1930s, writing was a desperate art.
As for Hollywood, everybody knows that American cinema had its stage nine in the 1970s. The postwar economy installed a television in every middle-class living room. People stopped going to the movies so much, and the studio system collapsed. Hollywood got fantastically weird. Days of Heaven, Taxi Driver, The Godfather, and cinema’s black-and-white elegy for itself, The Last Picture Show—the decade produced dozens of stage nine classics, with dying patriarchs and nostalgic desperadoes.
The movie that brought the crisis to the screen in the most hostile way was a movie about television, Sidney Lumet’s Network. Maybe you’ve seen it. You probably remember the death rattle of the angry white man, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Network is a prophecy. It chronicles the corporate takeover of television, especially the transformation of the evening news into an entertainment commodity. The agent of this sell-out is a ruthless young businesswoman called Diana. Faye Dunaway is ice in the role. While she goes to work, the wounded lions of the old establishment sit in dark pubs, telling war stories. One of them, Max Schumacher (William Holden) strikes up an unhappy romance with Diana. When they go to bed, she gets on top. He doesn’t like it. “You’re television incarnate, Diana,” he tells her. He’s speaking for the movies, unmanned.
These days, the days of the internet, television is going through its own stage nine. The best shows from the medium’s best decades have all reimagined what the medium might do. And most of them have told the stories of threatened patriarchs. Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, and Walter White were kingpins in the business of crime. Don Draper makes his money through the crimes of legitimate business, but we are beginning to see that he belongs in the company of those grizzled hoods. In the early seasons, set in the mid-sixties, Mad Men played the Oedipus to old movies. It took on Hitchcock and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It remade The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. In those seasons, the show was looking back at cinema to invent itself as something new, the television art drama.
And Don Draper–he was coldly, deliciously on the make, too. He had his demons. He was still tethered, by some invisible but unbreakable ligature, to a self that he had tried to bury. But the charm of the show was in how masterfully he was composing a new one. His trauma gave him just as much sentiment as he needed to anticipate what the masses of consumers might need to be told, to imagine his way into our weaknesses–but he wasn’t one of us, not anymore. He was a new kind of creature, the perfect ad man.
Now, in the season just before its final one, Mad Men is anticipating the end, and it is not that interested in the movies, anymore. It’s worrying, instead, about what comes after television. A massive computer is being installed in the middle of Sterling, Cooper, and Partners. The corporate department called “Creative” is kicked out to make room for the big gadget. And our man Don sees the writing on the wall. His second wife, a television actress out in California, isn’t listening to his sweet talk. After he lets his nostalgia for eating Hershey’s chocolate come spilling out, awkwardly, during a pitch to clients — a little too much child-like neediness in the conference room — his partners at the firm put him on a leave of absence, then impose a humiliating demotion as a condition of his return. Worst of all, when he gets a new assignment, Peggy Olson is his boss.
Midway through this season, in the episode called “The Monolith,” the stage nine shit hits the fan. Peggy gives Don a copywriter’s task. Mortified, he goes into his office and guzzles a bottle of vodka. But it it’s when he’s stumbling out, toward the elevator, that he looks into the eyes of his real enemy, the engineer who’s installing the computer. This bland dude is the internet incarnate. Don Draper recognizes the reaper of souls.
Caleb Smith: Is working on a solo project.
Image courtesy AMC