Thursday, August 20, 2015

Retro Review: Alan Moore's Swamp Thing

The Revolution

In 1984, when Alan Moore began writing Swamp Thing, Barry Allen was the Flash; Superman was edited by Julius Schwartz; Batman's canonical origin was from The Untold Legend of the Batman; the Justice League lineup was mainly intact from the Sixties; and Justice Society stories took place on Earth Two. In 1987, when Moore's run on Swamp Thing ended, Barry Allen was dead; Superman was under the creative control of John Byrne; Batman had been reimagined by Frank Miller; Max Lord ran the Justice League; and, the Multiverse had been wiped away by Crisis on Infinite Earths. Moore's work on Swamp Thing was not the cause of these changes, but it played a significant role in setting the creative tone and direction of DC Comics while these momentous changes took place. It directly begat the Vertigo imprint, the home to some of comicdom's best works for over two decades. Moore's Swamp Thing greatly influenced Neil Gaiman's later Sandman series, which itself is one of the genre's finest works.

In the midst of his Swamp Thing run, Moore wrote other stories of outstanding quality, including the Batman-Joker classic, "Killing Joke," the Superman stories "For The Man Who Has Everything" and "Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?" and the Green Lantern story "Tygers," which revealed sinister reasons behind the death of Abin Sur. Concurrent with Moore's last year on Swamp Thing, his landmark work Watchmen appeared as a miniseries, and later as one of the best-regarded graphic novels of all time.

There was, in short, a revolution in progress, and Moore's work for DC played both direct and indirect roles in that revolution. Perhaps Watchmen was the climax of Moore's work for DC, but Saga of the Swamp Thing (later retitled simple Swamp Thing) was where he began, where he honed his skills and is, by page count, by far the greatest portion of that work.

A Lab in the Swamp

Swamp Thing neither is nor was, one of DC's most celebrated properties. This was a double-edged sword: Stories about Swamp Thing do not reach as wide an audience as Superman or the Batman, but with an obscure feature, the writer has greater latitude to make unconventional creative decisions. Swamp Thing was, in effect, Alan Moore's laboratory out in the swamp, a dark, dirty, almost forgotten backwater where he could make strange and wonderful decisions, and let them take root and grow. This could never have happened with Moore writing Green Lantern or the Flash, but with Swamp Thing, Moore introduced elements of mystery and horror that had never before been seen in a DC superhero comic.

Indeed, he pushed the boundaries of acceptable content beyond what the Comics Code Authority would allow, and near the end of his first year, that label was removed from the cover. While Moore frequently brought DC's occult characters such as the Spectre, Etrigan, and Deadman into his stories, he also used characters such as Batman, Adam Strange, and the Green Lantern Corps but still incorporated sex, drugs, and brutal violence in a way that was completely at odds with the tone of those lighter works. Perhaps the defining difference in tone was that Moore had innocent victims suffer heinous injustices that were never avenged. But even the manner in which his villains suffered was darker than the DC superhero titles were accustomed to showing. Month by month, Moore put darkness and horror into the obscure title that he wrote, and month by month, it seemed like the sort of thing that other writers might want to put into other titles.

The Saga of the Swamp Thing

Moore's greatest change to the DC superhero culture might have been in the construction of sprawling storylines that spanned about a year each. This could not have worked in a more popular title, whereupon DC wanted readers who skipped an issue or two to be able to return to a title without having missed too much. By telling long, intricate plots, Moore made his work something suitable for adults rather than kids in ways besides the infusion of sex and violence.

In Moore's first year, Swamp Thing faced an escalating series of demonic menaces, which escalated with rescuing Abigail Cable from Hell itself. To top this, the second year's "American Gothic" storyline brought forth evil incarnate on a march that might culminate in the destruction of heaven but for an understated conversation between Swamp Thing and Evil. The final year of the run had Swamp Thing in exile, pining for his love Abby while he teleported from one world to another until, like Odysseus, he returns home.

For all of the journeys on Earth, space, and other realms, the greatest changes happen to the character of Swamp Thing. In a momentous redefinition, Moore has Swamp Thing learn that he is not the man Alec Holland transformed into something else, but is, rather, a plant creature that never was Alec Holland but that had gained his memories. Given that very unreal situation, Moore, a gifted writer, gives the creature anguish that feels real, and is more human than other DC characters even as, ironically, he finds that he has never been human at all.

Perhaps the most far-reaching of Moore's creation in this run is John Constantine, a cynical, chain-smoking mystic who eventually earned his own series and two live-action renditions. Constantine dominates the second season of Moore's Swamp Thing run as a mysterious manipulator/faciltator of the crucial battle against evil, and is more generally established as an important cosmic player in his own right. Moore would later make John Constantine the central figure of his unwritten Twilight of the Superheroes proposal.

One tactic that Moore plays to elevate the stature of the obscure character headlining his series is to demonstrate his superiority to more popular characters, most notably when he upstages the entire Justice League by defeating a global threat led by the Floronic Man, Jason Woodrue. Later, he is more successful than the Spectre in confronting the center of all evil. Less impressive but more theatrical, he wins a very uneven fistfight against Batman. Near the close of the run, Swamp Thing accomplishes, in short order, a journey to the Source, succeeding where New Gods like Metron and Darkseid cannot. These and many other demonstrations of Swamp Thing's power elevate the character in terms that are always important to the superhero genre – sheer power.

For as much as Moore does to overturn conventions of the genre, it is, in fact, curious that he sticks so often to the conventional playbook by making his hero unfailingly moral when he is able to aid innocents. He is less than magnanimous, however, when confronting those who have made him their enemy, as he lashes out in rage against the officious sadists in the U.S. Government who torment him at the beginning of the run and later those who exile him from Earth in their effort to destroy him. Swamp Thing is in those cases willing to kill without mercy, and with a touch of sadism in deaths delivering his enemies poetic justice. Moore plays a middle route when Swamp Thing besieges all of Gotham City with an overgrowth of plant life, and his rage affects millions without discrimination, yet Moore implies that this attack yielded almost as much benefit as harm.

A recurring theme, natural to the subject matter, is alienation, with Moore focusing relentlessly on selecting something as "The Other," then narrating from that alien perspective for several panels or even an entire issue. Frequently, he effects a role reversal between plants and animals, with plants thinking, moving, and eating, while animals become still and their prey. Elsewhere, Moore observes both sides of the boundary between the living and the dead. People become aliens as seen by the cutesy swamp animals in an issue devoted to a Pogo homage. Spiritual planes, human society, and fictional alien civilizations alike become the strange backdrop of some narrator or another who walks us through fear, confusion, and wonderment.

A confession: I read Neil Gaiman's Sandman before Moore's Swamp Thing, and so only later realized the breadth of the influence that Moore had on Gaiman. Moore mixed the DC superheroes with Cain and Abel from the DC titles House of Mystery and House of Secrets; later, Gaiman did this. Moore had his hero go on a mission into Hell to rescue a woman he loves; later, Gaiman did this. Gaiman uses John Constantine and Swamp Thing himself in cameos. Most tangible, Gaiman uses Swamp Thing's friend-become-menace Matthew Cable as a recurring character. A second confession: I am uncertain how readers detected and accepted that the reincarnated raven Matthew was precisely the Matthew from Swamp Thing. This is correct, but it's not quite spelled out anywhere that I found. Perhaps someone can offer their answer in the comments?

Several of Moore's inventions were later tapped by Geoff Johns. Characters such as Sodam Yat and the entire plotline of "Tygers" were brought into Johns' "Blackest Night" epic. Johns used Moore's Black Mercy in a story where it attached to Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen. Some have commented that this borrowing highlighted the very high degree of inventiveness-per-issue that Moore showed in comparison with Johns and other writers.

One of many innovations in the run is the use of metatextual storytelling. While dreaming, Abigail Cable visits the House of Secrets, and finds out that her lover, the current Swamp Thing, is not the first Swamp Thing. She learns this as we see the origin of another, quite similar version set several decades earlier. This was, in fact, the first Swamp Thing story, published in 1971, while the second story, published over a year later, reinvents the character – slightly – by changing the characters' names and retelling the origin in the present of 1972. For Moore to make an alternate version into its own, distinct story, is an early version of the metatextual techniques that he later uses in his briliant run on Supreme.

More than anything, the run should be judged by its artistic merit, and here it's on a high, but not the highest, level. Some of Moore's horror plots are lifted from elsewhere. This is perhaps the case when ghosts of a slave-era crime with sexual overtones possess people in the present, making them walk entranced through a reenactment of a murder; this is the plot of a minor novel, Night Stalks The Mansion, recycled in Moore's issue #41. Moore utilizes the themes, dynamics, and even names of H. P. Lovecraft creations to the point that it is debatable whether he is engaging in homage or imitation. And, in perhaps the most shocking moment of the series, when a young boy-turned-vampire says, "Oh, mom," and kills his mother, this is tremendously new and shocking for a DC Comic, but is lifted right out of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. The Brujeria, who kill and torment before they unleash the forces of evil are wonderfully horrible, but they're not Moore's invention, but from a book by Bruce Chatwin that Moore quotes. It's clear that Moore is very well read and draws well from his sources, but his 46 issues of Swamp Thing, remarkably good as a run of this length, doesn't quite match the issue-per-issue or line-per-line creative excellence of his other DC work, which is at essentially the highest level the genre and medium have ever achieved. A list of Moore's 16 best issues of DC work might arguably contain the entirety of Watchmen, his two Superman classics, and the story of Abin Sur's cursed visit to Ysmault without an issue of Swamp Thing displacing any of that sterling output.

But the run does have its moments. Perhaps none is better than the alienation-driven introduction he gives the Justice League, across two issues:

"He called Morgan City… and Morgan City called Washington… and Washington called the Justice League."

And, the Joycean:

"There is a house above the world where the over-people gather."

These sparing words work a small miracle in making the reader forget that the Justice League's existence is a basic fact of DC stories, and force us to consider them in terms of our real world, with their tremendous power made alien and almost frightening when their superiority is described with no mention of their benevolence. This is a level of virtuosity of which few comic book writers have been capable; it is seen, if rarely, in Moore's Swamp Thing.

Blues for a Green Planet

Among the many innovations in Moore's Swamp Thing that make it more suitable for older readers – or, at least, unsuitable for younger readers – is the prevalence of sex, drugs, and violence (violence with brutal consequences) that lost the title its Comics Code Authority seal and began a major shift in the tone of superhero comics. This began in issue #29, with a plot that involved serial killers, torture, rape, and incest, all wrapped in a layer of supernatural horror. Once the CCA was removed from the cover, there was no going back. The title went on to murder its innocent victims, delving into the details of sexual activity by established characters such as Zatanna and Adam Strange, and spend large portions of several issues exploring, such as a comic books can, drug-induced states. Swamp Thing became the first in a wave of works that achieved critical and commercial success while blending the superhero genre with content regarded as taboo in 1983. Whether that success depended on the taboo content is subject to debate, but the medium was unquestionably changed.

Whether this was a positive change for the medium as a whole is also subject to debate. It is interesting to note that Moore was writing a series that he considered to be in the horror genre, and felt that the series' goal was to "scare its readership."  Though he felt that that horror had permeated the culture "to excess," he was soon incorporating horror elements, as well as social and political commentary, into his stories about Superman, Batman, and the Watchmen. The roots of his other work were often found – literally – in Swamp Thing: "The Man Who Has Everything" has a plant feeding on Superman, disgusting little blood drops going airborne when the Black Mercy is pulled off of him; plants feed on people several times in his Swamp Thing run. Watchmen has a giant mutant octopus devastate New York; in Swamp Thing #46, as part of his Crisis crossover, we see a large octopus in the middle of a city over a year and a half before Watchmen's conclusion.

This was clever and powerful material, but if he felt that horror was found in culture to excess, he contributed to its spread, as soon thereafter, writers like Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, and John Byrne followed Moore's lead by scripting torture and sexual violence in successful works starring Superman and Batman.

What Moore began was a tectonic shift in the genre, with DC, under Moore's editor Karen Berger, spinning off the Vertigo imprint that carried much of the darkness and occult themes with it, leaving the rest of DC's lineup certainly not as dark as the Vertigo titles, but still considerably darker than DC superhero works had been before Moore. In my view, allowing such themes certainly offers opportunities for excellent horror and excellent gritty (often urban), potentially realistic crime drama, but is also used as a crutch for weak storytelling, with gratutitous sensational imagery appearing in the place of more compelling ideas.

Many of Moore's works highlight the destruction of superheroes and their fictional worlds, with Moore's plots taking previously invincible, previously sacrosanct paragons of virtue and breaking them down, psychologically, morally, and physically. An early and pure example of this is in Swamp Thing #32, when, in an homage to Walt Kelly's newspaper strip Pogo (like Swamp Thing, set in a swamp), Moore scripts a tale in which aliens resembling Pogo's characters arrive on Earth seeking a new home. "Pog" and his compatriots are fleeing the hunters who drove them from their home planet, and find a potential sanctuary on Earth and a friend in Swamp Thing. Their hopes turn to tragedy as they find that the people of Earth are just as bad as the hunters they are fleeing, and one of them is heartbreakingly killed by terrestrial alligators whom he thinks might be his friends. This in many ways encapsulates the darkness of Alan Moore's superhero work: He takes characters that are lovable and cute and subjects them to treachery and violence, destroying them. It's powerful, it lingers in the memory, but it's inherently horrible, and part of the "excess" that Moore himself calls out. If it is excess, he added to it as few others have.

The Roots of Modern Comics

In my Retro Reviews, I put the spotlight on some works of notable impact in comics history. Many of these appeared in the mid Eighties or later and changed the entire genre of superhero comics that came after them; many of these owe, in turn, a debt to the comparatively brief, but brilliant, DC work of Alan Moore. While some of these, like Gaiman's Sandman, draw directly from Moore's Swamp Thing run, even more refer to Moore's other DC work, which, in turn, draws on that base that began with his 46 issues of Swamp Thing.

Reading, as I did, Moore's Swamp Thing run after I'd read so many things that drew upon it, I didn't find it to be particularly compelling as the first reading of a great work usually is. So much of what he did was digested and repackaged by later writers, it wasn't new to me. And in other regards, it wasn't all new when Moore first wrote it into Swamp Thing scripts, which contain ample support for the adage, "…great artists steal." But it was certainly brilliant at times, never less than good, and is crucially important to comics history. It was a valuable experience for me to read Moore's Swamp Thing now, thirty years after it appeared. A valuable experience, but not scary, and not – in comparison to the undeniable importance of the work – all that entertaining.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

History of the DC Universe: 1986-2015

My earlier post, History of the DC Universe: 1935-1985, breaks down how DC Comics became committed to a shared and (relatively) consistent continuity very gradually over a period from about 1952-1969. But once a shared universe began, inconsistencies from older stories were left unresolved and new ones were being made all the time. In 1981's Green Lantern #143, writer Marv Wolfman answered a letter from a fan who asked about why a character from Kamandi's universe had recognized Hal Jordan in a sprawling crossover in Showcase #100, but claimed not to in a recent issue of GL. Wolfman's answer acknowledged a need for some sort of clean-up wherein editorial powers would make it clear which past events were part of the main (Earth One) continuity and which weren't. At about the same time, some creators at DC began to perceive that the idea of a Multiverse was too confusing for new readers, and some features, such as Superman, seemed to be in need of a major overhaul. And thus, DC's first housecleaning event, Crisis on Infinite Earths, was conceived. It would finally be published in 1985-1986, and created a new, simpler, better DC Universe.

But if a shared, moderately consistent DC Universe was only about 15 years old when Wolfman saw the need to simplify it, it took much less than that for the need to arise for another clean-up, event, which was followed by another, and another. The post-1985 history of DC Comics is most aptly summarized by recording these reboot events, and what effect they had. They are as follows:

1986: Crisis on Infinite Earths
1994: Zero Hour
2006: Infinite Crisis
2011: Flashpoint

Each of these events restarted or revised the timeline of the DC Universe, enabling them – in principle – to change everything. In practice, none of them led to a completely new continuity. COIE and Infinite Crisis performed radical surgery on the Multiverse, with the former reducing the number of alternate Earths from "Infinite" down to just one, and the latter event increasing the number from one up to 52. Infinite Crisis made a modest number of changes to the continuity of the main Earth, while Zero Hour performed some extremely limited clean-ups. Below, I break down in more detail the changes that each reboot ushered in:

Crisis on Infinite Earths

In principle, Crisis rebooted everything. A new timeline began, and the Multiverse never existed in this timeline. In practice, many features were rebooted with new origins while other features were affected only slightly.

• The Multiverse of many alternate Earths was replaced by just one positive-matter universe with a past history that consisted primarily of a modified version of the Silver Age continuity of the Justice League and other Earth One features in its recent past and distant future, preceded by a modified version of the Golden Age continuity in its World War Two era. A smattering of heroes from other Earths were added to the modern age of post-Crisis Earth.
• Superman and Batman lost their positions of prominence as among the first superheroes on both Earth One and Earth Two. Instead, the JSA era had no versions of Superman and Batman at all, and they became first heroes of the second wave, but reserve members of the JLA instead of founding members.
• Superman's history was completely overhauled, with the Byrne Superman constituting a significantly new version of the character.
• The original lineup of the Justice League became Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, and Black Canary. Superman and Batman existed at that time, but did not join as full-time members of any version of the Justice League until later.
• Wonder Woman was, in time, retconned to be two people: Diana's mother Hippolyta as a member of the JSA and Diana coming along much later as a member of the third lineup of the Justice League.
• Characters such as Captain Marvel of Earth-S, Blue Beetle and the Question of Earth-Four, and Lady Quark were added to the current era of superheroes.
• The Crisis itself became part of post-Crisis Earth's history, but as an attack by the Anti-Monitor on the one and only positive-matter universe. Barry Allen died in this Crisis, but Supergirl, who had never existed, did not.
• Many characters, including Donna Troy, Power Girl, and Hawkman, were eventually rebooted at least once, in an effort to provide them with histories that were consistent with the new, unified Earth.
• Because the new Superman had never been Superboy, the Legion of Super-Heroes were inspired by the Superboy of a Pocket Universe that was created as part of a nefarious plan by the Time Trapper. A sequence of timeline reboots taking place in – and affecting only – the Thirtieth Century created more than one new, distinct version of the LSH.
• Because certain features, such as Wolfman and Perez's own Teen Titans, were not rebooted, the post-Crisis continuity of these features was added on to pre-Crisis continuity, which eventually became very lengthy and complex.
• Justice League continuity eventually included six considerably distinct lineups: The Year One JLA, the Detroit JLA, Justice League International and Justice League Europe, the new Big Seven with Kyle Rayner and Wally West, and a new JLA led by "the Trinity" of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, which eventually turned into the Robinson JLA with Donna Troy, Starman, and Congorilla. This slate was wiped clean only with Flashpoint.
• The ranks of youths who served as Robin eventually included Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown, and Damian Wayne. This sequence of Robins has never been reset at any point from 1940 to the present.

Zero Hour

In principle, Zero Hour also restarted the timeline, and modest retcons affected some features, such as Batman, but no flagship features were fundamentally altered. A fold-out in the final issue included a timeline of the DC Universe.

Infinite Crisis

Infinite Crisis became the third event to reconstitute DC continuity. The villains' effort to remix pre-Crisis Earths to their liking was thwarted, resulting in a haphazard reordering of continuity of no one's design. A few major changes resulted:

• Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were once again made full founding members of the original Justice League lineup, replacing Black Canary in that capacity.
• DC once again had a Multiverse, rather than only one dimension. The new Multiverse, however, was not revealed for almost a year after Infinite Crisis ended, and has only 52 Earths rather than the thousand (or "infinite") Earths before COIE. These were initially identical, but tampering by Mister Mind made them all distinct. Many of these Earths were described only in very brief fashion until nine years later, when the Multiversity Guidebook provided an overview of almost all of them.
• In general, Infinite Crisis left more things the same than it changed, but it gave writers latitude to make modest changes that they could explain as having happened as a result of the event, or of Superboy Prime having altered reality while punching the walls between dimensions. Consequently, many small changes were revealed months and years after the event ended.


Only five years after Infinite Crisis, Flashpoint changed DC Comics in more radical fashion. In contrast to COIE, which was published long after the concept was considered, Flashpoint apparently occurred as a matter of some urgency, interrupting many creative projects mid-stride. This was perhaps most evident in the Dark Knight title, which ran only 5 issues in a Volume 1 before being rebooted with a new #1. The New 52, as the post-Flashpoint DC Universe was called, made dramatic changes in the publication format as well as fictional, creative changes within the story:

• DC began distributing new comics digitally on the same day that print versions were released.
• Every title, new or old, was relaunched with a new #1, including the venerable Detective, Action, Superman, and Batman, which had not previously been renumbered since their 1937-1940 inceptions.
• Most flagship characters received a new costume, in many cases raising the collar, creating a 3-D armor look in place of skintight fabric, and eliminating the "underwear on the outside" look that had traditionally added an extra splash of color to the uniforms of Superman and Batman.
• The timeline of the main Earth, Earth 0, was rebooted in significant ways, although those have not yet been entirely explained. Most notably, the Justice League was rebooted with a new origin depicting the first meeting of most of the various pairs of heroes, including Superman and Batman, but not Flash and Green Lantern. New origins were told for many characters, including Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, but significant elements of their pre-Flashpoint history appear to be intact. The main heroes are now shown as almost a decade younger than in their pre-Flashpoint versions. Details of how much pre-Flashpoint history is still in continuity continue to emerge as new stories are published.
• Earth 2 was radically reimagined, replacing a version in the image of the Silver Age Earth-Two which had been seen only occasionally after Infinite Crisis with a new version stricken by bloodshed and catastrophe. A relentless series of attacks by Darkseid first eliminated the new Earth 2's versions of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, then almost the entire population, and finally the physical planet itself. The survivors now live on a new planet along with superheroes loosely based on the members of the Justice Society.
• The rest of the Multiverse is presumably unchanged since Mr. Mind created it at the end of 52. Most of this was seen rarely or not at all before Multiversity in 2014, so there was no creative reason to change any of the Earths besides Earth 0 and Earth 2.

Five Versions of History

In, all, DC has had about five major company-wide versions of continuity in their main storytelling world, and countless parallel worlds, alternate timelines, and lesser retcons. To describe the full history would occupy an encyclopedia, but a quick summary can be provided by listing some of the major superheroes of the era in approximate order of introduction, and the various incarnations of the "J" teams (Justice Society / Justice League). Other features, other reboots, and the tangled history of the future and past are beyond the scope of this summary. 

Golden Age (1938)
Superman, Crimson Avenger, Batman, Sandman, Flash, Hawkman, Hour-Man, Spectre, Doctor Fate, Green Lantern, Atom, Justice Society, Aquaman, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, Seven Soldiers of Victory.

Silver Age (1952)
Earth One: Superman (first as Superboy), Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Arrow, Martian Manhunter, Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League, Atom, Hawkman. After many years, original JLA replaced by Detroit version.
Earth Two: Retroactively declared to fit the Golden Age stories, with considerable revisions made or implied. The JSA returned from retirement and younger heroes began another team, Infinity Inc.

Post-Crisis (1986)
World War Two era: Flash (Jay Garrick), Sandman, Green Lantern (Alan Scott), Wonder Woman (Hippolyta), Hawkman (Carter Hall), Doctor Fate, Atom (Al Pratt), Black Canary, Justice Society.
Second era: Superman, Batman, Flash (Barry Allen), Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, Black Canary (II), Justice League (with Black Canary but without Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman). Detroit Justice League. Flash (Wally West). Justice League International and Justice League Europe. Wonder Woman (Diana), Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner). "New Big Seven" Justice League.

Post-Infinite Crisis (2006)
This timeline inherited most of the Post-Crisis timeline, but with the original Justice League reset to the Silver Age lineup with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman instead of Black Canary. After Infinite Crisis, a new JLA lineup included several Silver Age JLAers along with Red Tornado, Black Lightning, Vixen, and Arsenal (Roy Harper). This later gave way to a JLA lineup including several former Teen Titans, Congorilla, and Starman (Mikaal Tomas).

New 52 (2011)
Earth-0: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern, Cyborg, Justice League.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Men 714: Person to Person

Don Draper dresses better, talks better, works better, and plays better than anyone you'll ever know. Paired with that blessing is his curse: He makes more and bigger mistakes than anyone you'll ever know. We knew that in Season One, and it's carried him through to the finish. We've seen him fall down, pick himself up, and fall again. It's a credit to writer-creator Matt Weiner and his team that the cycle could stay fresh enough that Don standing on a cliff in the show's final minutes could tease the possibility of a leap and turn into something completely different.

Everyone got their send-off. For some it was love; for others it was career; for Betty it was the grave. That plot seemed to set up Don's fate: If the Draper kids were going to lose their mother, maybe Don would become a full-time father. As Betty saw it, that's not a role the otherwise omni-talented Don Draper can fill. And so, his high-speed dash across the desert led him not East, to home, but West, to the house of the original Don Draper, whose name Dick Whitman stole. There, he found Stephanie, whom we last saw a year ago, pregnant and broke, sent packing to Oakland by a lie told by Megan. Stephanie was far from a major character on the series, but here she filled a particular role: Her abandonment of her child, and the shame she feels for that put a focus on Don having abandoned, at one time or another, absolutely everything. Faced with this, Don offered to become some sort of partner in her life, a ludicrous misplacement of the energy he'd withdrawn from all of his existing responsibilities. Stephanie runs from the resort (clearly filmed at, and representing, the not-named Esalen Institute) and leaves Don with a temporary transportation inconvenience and a hole in his conscience big enough to swallow him inside. Don's frustration ends with the outburst, "People just come and go and no one says, 'Goodbye.'" He's far too intelligent not to see his own sins in that line.

The title of the episode, "Person to Person," is a manner of billing telephone calls that no longer exists. The episode has six telephone calls, most of them showing modern technology as a way to keep people apart when they really should be together. The fragility of telephone conversations is demonstrated in the first call when Sally ends her call with Don and he can't do or say a thing about it. (Incidentally, a similar but more futuristic kind of "hanging up" victimizes Jon Hamm's character in the Christmas episode of the BBC's Black Mirror in which he starred.) Soon, Don – who placed a call to Peggy to try to make up for his own coming and going without saying "Goodbye" – inflicts the same punishment on her, cutting off their call and leaving her worried for his sanity and his safety.

That was the episode's fifth phone call. The one before that was one that ended a relationship, with Joan choosing to talk to someone distant, about business, and shut out Richard, who is present, about love. And so she loses him, for better or worse, for richer or poorer.

But the episode's final phone call goes the opposite way. Stan and Peggy start by talking about business, but soon, and stunningly (and probably with too little build-up) pledge their love for one another. Stan realizes the absurdity of a phone taking the place of human contact, and runs down the hall to kiss her.

In a show about modern media (print, radio, or television) blasting opinions unilaterally into people's brains, the telephone is an apt metaphor. It's another form of long-distance communication, although it works in both ways instead of just one. In that sense, the old landline more closely resembles its mobile offspring that have more completely taken over our world than anyone could have foreseen in 1970, mediating our interpersonal relationships as well as serving up corporate ads. The Mad Men finale may say more about the devices that keep us apart in 2015 than it does about 1970.

But Stan is twice the voice of reason in the episode. He also realizes that Don's flight and escape are temporary. "He always does this, and he always comes back," Stan tells Peggy. He's exactly right.

Steve Jobs was vocal about alternative forms of consciousness having enhanced his creative powers, and there's some of that in Mad Men's final two scene. Don, having shed the New York coat and tie for a meditation circle on the Pacific coast, hums "Om" the last time we see him. And then, the gut-punch ending is the 1971 Coca Cola television ad that anyone who lived in America in the Seventies saw countless times, and we realize that Don's epiphany along the Pacific was not an escape from work, but ultimately just an inspiration for his greatest success, as he went on to return to New York and write that ad, the single most prominent television ad of all time. Don Draper gets credit for the commercial, "Hilltop," that belongs in real life to an ad man named Bill Backer, and in so doing, achieves the fame that he always had the potential to achieve.

In the first episode of Mad Men, Don sits across a table from Rachel Menken and, en route to winning her as a lover and a client, tells her, "I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one." And now, the show is over, and for Don Draper, there isn't one.