Monday, September 27, 2010

Mad Men 410

"Do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell?" Those are the lyrics of the Beatles ballad playing over the closing credits. But because it's an instrumental version, they, like most of the truths in this episode, are hidden.

That secrets are the common theme in every subplot in this episode is itself no secret. Early on, Don asks Sally, "Can you keep a secret?" Later, in bed with Henry, Betty says, "I don't want any secrets" while neglecting to tell him, a man defined by political ambitions, that she, his wife, has just lied to federal agents. In their elevator conversation, Pete answers Don's anxiety with "If you're asking if he knows how to keep a secret, he works for the Department of Defense." -- a line which presumes that Pete's friend is more devoted to hiding the truth than to his employer and nation.

If factually informed, as by Doctor Faye's research, this episode might be a tutorial in lying. It's not just that the characters in this episode have secrets. They lie more when they're caught. They lie when they talk about others' lies. Don smiles at his investor's suggestion that he's sleeping with Megan, because that's a scandal he could share with the boys -- and yet it's not true. Joan, anonymous at the abortion clinic, still lies to a stranger and says that she's there for her nonexistent daughter. Pete, who has kept two affairs -- one tinged with blackmail -- from his wife, grouses to her about how liars make life difficult for "honest people" -- a valid complaint, but Pete needn't worry because he doesn't know any.

The news of Lucky Strike's imminent defection is Roger's business-related secret, while Joan's pregnancy is the more immediate of his social secrets. That he suggests that he might leave his wife for her is another. He leverages Lee Garner, Jr., a man with significant lies in his life, into giving SCDP more time by reminding Lee of "all the lies I've told for you." Lee needn't worry too much about the debt incurred when Roger lies for him: Roger's lies come very cheaply. Later, Roger voices sympathy regarding the death of a client while callously thumbing through index cards for his next call. Wishing out loud  -- in front of the man's wife -- that Greg not return alive from Vietnam, Roger shows an almost sociopathic lack of care for anyone who's not him.

Lane has "gone native" in his new home, bearing a Mickey Mouse with red-white-and-blue balloons as a gift, when he expects his son but is met by his father. Lane has a secret girlfriend, who happens to be African-American as well as a Playboy Club bunny. To validate the care with which everyone else guards their secrets, Lane finds out that a cane across the head is the penalty for being found out.

And we are reminded that Don has more than reputation or a caning at stake should his secret past be found out: He is also guilty of desertion, a crime with no statute of limitations, and could face jail time -- in principle but not in practice, even the death penalty -- for a crime. He is rightfully grateful to Betty for hiding his secret. And for following his tactic of further evasion, as Don speaks elliptically once she suggests that they cannot speak freely over the phone. Pete seems to be savvy to this point, meeting Don in person and specifically avoiding the use of the phone. In so visiting, Pete sees Faye departing, and so finds out another secret that he claims he would have preferred not to know. Given the extreme lengths to which he went to find out Don's bigger secrets, this seems itself to be unlikely. Counter-truth tactics are second nature to everyone. Joan and Roger also switch to "code" when she opens his office door. Don and Faye do the same, to cover their relationship.

Finally, when the partner meeting takes place, Pete lies to explain why North American (fictitiously) fired SCDP. Roger, harboring a much bigger lie, berates Pete before giving a thumbs-up to describe business with Lucky Strike.

As the main action ends, Don eyes Megan with obvious intent. Joan's strategy to keep Don from his baser instincts lasted only as long as Miss Blankenship's heart held out. Don is ready to fall again. In keeping with the rest of the episode, this is an impulse than Don keeps, for now, to himself.

All of these private secrets come as second nature to the characters perhaps because their lives are built around secrets. As they propose an approach to advertising for the company that builds missiles ("You never need to say the word 'bomb'"), they scheme up an approach that doesn't mention missiles. The company's report is comically redacted with more black rectangles than it has words remaining. The exec from North American aviation addresses the black rectangles by saying "There'll be fewer black bars as the process moves forward." This prediction, not surprisingly, proves to be false.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Batman: The Casket

Everybody wants it. References to it show up in the forefront and the background of the story. The story gives us clues to its nature, but deliberately holds its exact identity a mystery. The casket appearing concurrently in Batman and Robin and Return of Bruce Wayne is, as message-board poster hellblazerraiser points out, a textbook example of a MacGuffin. There are stories that leave the mystery of their MacGuffin's identity unsolved. Morrison has left mysteries hanging before, but the number and kind of clues suggest that he is going to wrap this one up sometime in the final four issues left in this "season" of his Batman work. What do we know about the casket so far?

The term itself is a bit unusual. In contemporary American English, the word "casket" is most often used to denote a coffin in which a person is to be buried. That meaning is not intended here -- the casket is simply a box, far too small to hold a person -- but the macabre undertones of the word go along with the story's tone.

Because this is a time travel story, the casket has appeared at many widely-separated points in time. The casket has definitely appeared as early as the 18th century and as late as the present-day. What may be the casket has perhaps shown up at the end of time. The known sightings, with exact or approximate years:

c. 1750: Jack Valor places papers with the words of Bruce Wayne inside. He sees a book and a mysterious something else inside. The casket is in the possession of a wealthy brother and sister who are probably Van Derms. (Jack's journal opens with a date of 1734, but he appears clearly more than 18 years older than the adolescent he was in the main events of ROBW #2.)

c. 1860: Darius Wayne holds the casket in a portrait set in the tunnels of the hidden Batcave that Dick finds in B&R. Interestingly, there is a beam of bright light reaching him in what seems to be an underground passage with no exposure to daylight.

c. 1880: In the main events of ROBW #4, the family of Catherine Van Derm is killed for the casket by people working for Vandal Savage and Old Thomas Wayne. They obtain the casket but cannot open it. By story's end, they lose it, and it falls into the possession of Alan Wayne.

c. 1890: In an understated detail to which no dialogue refers, the casket appears in the portrait of Alan Wayne. It is known from his narration that the bat-shaped design of the Garden of Death of Wayne Manor was created specifically to mark the location of the casket, so that Bruce Wayne can later find it.

2010: Dick retrieves the casket from the vicinity of the bat-cowl shrine that the Miagani created. This is concurrent with a source of light and an energy source that interrupts his communications with Alfred.
He has an encounter with a giant bat (as drawn, much larger than the large bat from ROBW #1) which may have been a hallucination. In the fight brought on by Talia's unrelated attack, he loses it to the 99 Fiends. A Fiend with the horsehead / knight insignia brings it to the station where Doctor Hurt's "Mexican train" arrives. Hurt still has the casket, and is unable to open it, as of B&R #14.

The casket itself seems simply to be a box. There are two kind of content: The writings of Bruce Wayne, and the mysterious "something else" which seems to have the larger importance. Of this, we know:

1) It creates the sound of bells, which may be not literally sound but a sort of psychic projection.
2) Jack Valor sees it, but says that he cannot speak of it.
3) Alan Wayne sees it, and says that it is "the sickening likeness of a coffin's lid", with "a yawning vacant grave within, and something beyond that seemed to be all our graves."
4) Bruce Wayne sees it before his jump forward from c. 1880 to c. 1980. Moreover, he takes the book and papers with him for that jump. He may or may not return them to the casket in the future.

What we know leads to a larger chain of suggested clues as to what it may be: Alan Wayne's description is a partial match the Ancestor Box that Darkseid holds in Batman #702, as he hits Bruce with the Omega Sanction. The two references to bell sounds match the Ancestor Box as well. This gives us a strong indication that the "something else" is exactly the Ancestor Box -- no more, no less -- but this is unproven, and would moreover raise the question of how anyone got their physical hands on the Ancestor Box in order to put it into the casket. We never see Bruce doing so, and he would be the leading candidate. If it is the Ancestor Box, was its capture against Darkseid's intentions, or was it exactly his intention?

To add to the exact timeline above, we have the following possible appearances of the "something else":

2008: In a moment that for the "something else" precedes all of its past appearances, Darkseid incorporates the Ancestor Box into his trap for Bruce Wayne. If so, then it apparently goes back to 9,000 B.C. An interesting question is whether it exists normally in time, present in and near Gotham at every moment between then and the Twentieth Century, or if it leaps along with Bruce. However, Jack Valor sees it in a time that Bruce's travels do not involve, indicating that it has been "captured" and put into the regular timeline, either in 9,000 B.C. or c. 1645 in the main events of ROBW #2. This capture, as noted above, is never seen or directly indicated. Is it possible that the tentacles chopped off by Bruce are the contents, referred to by Martin Van Derm as "the Devil" when he writes c. 1670? In any case, it stays on that timeline until at least c. 1980 and the events of the forthcoming ROBW #5.

1765: Old Thomas Wayne, in ROBW #4, when Catherine reports the bells, suggests that he has previously encountered the mysterious contents of the casket when he and others participated in the Barbatos ceremony. This fits easily with the known presence of the casket in Gotham before and after this date, although it indicates that the casket's possession was shared by or exchanged between the Waynes and Van Derms.

The End of Time: When Bruce Wayne encounters his rescue party at Vanishing Point, his presence at the End of Time and his ability to stop Superman and Green Lantern is unexplained. This would likely be within the abilities of an Ancestor Box. He is clearly more knowledgeable about the larger plot than he was in ROBW #3, indicating that sometime after the events that will begin in ROBW #5, he will gain control of the casket, retrieving it as Alan Wayne intended, some hundred years after it has sat waiting under Wayne Manor. At that point, he will cease to be an amnesiac dupe in Darkseid's trap and will begin his counterattack.

c. 1980: The main events of ROBW #5 will show the long-anticipated interaction between Thomas and Martha Wayne and the Black Glove. Bruce Wayne is alive as a small boy and also present as the gunshot victim of Jonah Hex, and will act as a detective, perhaps the same one hired by Martha's family as referred to by the Mayor in Batman #677. If the masquerade ball from Detective #235 takes place in Wayne Manor, it might be in the hidden Batcave, with Doctor Hurt striving to collect the casket which is present. The adult Bruce Wayne might be the one to come away with it, leaving Hurt waiting another 28 years until RIP to try again. Doctor Hurt's presence in Wayne Manor when Bruce is a child would resonate with his words to Bruce in Batman #678, "My, how you've grown." Clearly, ROBW #5 will be a big event in the mythology of Batman.

The facts that Old Thomas Wayne wanted the contents of the casket in c. 1880 so that they could provide him with immortality and that Doctor Hurt still (again?) wants them in 2010 indicate that Hurt is Old Thomas Wayne, bestowed with longevity but not total immortality. (He seems to have aged about 35 years as 245 years have actually passed.) He received his partial immortality in a first contact with the "something else" in 1765. Just as Bruce will be able to use the box's vast powers to travel in time and stop his super-powered friends, Hurt has found a way to use it for life extension but -- for unstated reasons -- only got partial immortality instead of the whole thing.

This would provide one explanation why he wants to get back to Wayne Manor and why he wanted to do so in RIP. Why didn't he obtain the casket in 2008 when he had control of the mansion for about five days? The fresh paint that Dick sees at the Barbatos shrine indicates that Hurt was probably within mere yards of his goal. Maybe he never got through the final wall/gate barriers that took Dick only a minute to get through. The timeline suggests that Bruce Wayne may be the answer: If Bruce took the casket from c. 1980 but it is present again in 2010, then the casket must return at some point. Perhaps Bruce, finally seeing the big picture, deliberately takes it from the End of Time back to c. 2009, so that it is absent from Wayne Manor during the events of RIP but is present again for the current story.

For however many of these jigsaw pieces fit together, more is unexplained. How did the contents get into the casket? Is Doctor Hurt, the curse-casting Devil of RIP just a man who got his hands on some New Gods technology and mistakenly thought them to be instruments of demons, the Devil, and black magic? If so, is Morrison portraying Earth's occult beings as a byproduct of DC's gods and devils? How much of the larger story is known to the Joker, who was a moment from reaching the door of their crypt when he was struck down in B&R #11? However much is clear now, Morrison has more to reveal to us before the story ends next month.


One, I'm adding an image of the casket in the portrait of Alan Wayne. It appears in the extreme lower right of this cropped version of a much bigger panel from B&R #10. Click to enlarge.

Two, the discussion of the casket has to lead into the larger plot of the All Over that Darkseid is threatening. In 1718, the Miagani mention this along with something leaving the Batcave. The Native American Midnight Horse mentions it in association with the casket in ROBW #4. This lends support to the idea that the "something else" was obtained after the events of ROBW #2 in c. 1645. Possibly associated with the chopping off of the tentacles. But was this part of Darkseid's intentions, or something Bruce did to start to overcome that plan? And is it associated with the Joker's "everybody dies" comment or is that a separate parallel threat? There is more to discuss, and I'm sure the comment section below will fill up with the excellent ideas of the people who comment here. The delays in the series provide more opportunities for discussion before the story resumes.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mad Men 409: After The Fall

It's there for the retina -- if not the mind -- to see. As the first shot of "The Beautiful Girls" comes up, an image near enough to the last shot of the credits fills the same shapes of light and dark and it is not plausible that director Michael Uppendahl staged the shot without intending this. The repeated image asks for a reexamination of the much-admired credits, which show a man walk into an office that disintegrates before he can sit. The collapse of the room sends him into a fall to the backdrop of Fifties-seeming advertisement art with a strong emphasis in the subject matter on beautiful women, or as they would have been known at the time, beautiful girls. The man's fall transitions to a shot of him in repose, right arm outstretched. And so we see Don in this episode -- in that pose, just as his destructive negligence of his children and self has been halted. Whether series auteur Matthew Weiner gave his approval or not, the director is telling us that we are moving to a new phase in the series -- what comes after the fall.

How the series begins this new phase is by moving sideways -- Don is still the central figure in this episode, but only insofar as a few, but not all, of the titular beautiful girls are involved in plots that revolve around him. Spanning the range of ages from ten to dead, Sally, Faye, Betty, and Miss Blankenship become plot devices that impact Don's life in suddenly inconvenient ways. An early episode of The West Wing, also featuring Elisabeth Moss, had "these women" as part of its title and focus, but only part. "The Beautiful Girls" suggests that women are inherently enough of a type to group them and make an episode around them; to make an episode about nothing more specific than women is in fact as well as politically objectification.

But there's no mistaking that that's how Don sees the collection of females who complicate his week in this episode. While he sees them as a nuisance to the career and affair that he wants to be having successfully and simply, he is with lies turning away the daughter who has taken a considerable risk to reach out to him. And however much Ida ruins Don's afternoon with her demise, the event certainly inconveniences her more than it does Don. Don's self-centered take on these events, along with parallel insensitivity from lesser characters such as Stan and Harry, call attention to Peggy's less-than-resounding call for civil rights for women.

The strongest of "these women" are weak in this episode: Peggy somehow has to read Abe's piece to be insulted by it, not seeing enough in the reference to Nazism (and the "I was just following orders" defense) in the title. Her efforts to instill social consciousness in the company only make her laughable. Joan, still wearing the pen around her neck that earned Joey's spite last episode, is all too easily wooed by Roger. Faye, who has stumbled into Don's life long on schooling and short on extracurriculars, feels that she has been judged for how she measures up in precisely the endeavor she has neglected, mothering.

The episode comes together in Roger's line, "If it looks like I'm going [to die], open the window. I'd rather flatten the top of a cab." This reprises the culmination of the opening credits' fall and Roger possibly chooses his words mindful of the 1947 suicide of Evelyn McHale whose suicide note lamented that she would not "make a good wife for anybody." Literal ups and downs fill the episode, from Bert Cooper's sadly superficial eulogy noting that Ida died at a higher elevation than she was born (making her, in the era of Program Gemini, an astronaut), to Sally's spill onto the floor.

Is the fall from the opening credits a deliberate topic in this episode? Stan croons with anatomical thoughts that Peggy is going to meet Joyce "Down below..." Megan consoles Sally with "I fall all the time." And the episode's final and signature moment is the closing of elevator doors on Joan, Peggy, and Faye, before they begin to descend. Certainly they are taking a slower and safer descent than Miss McHale's fall from the Empire State Building. And in all probability, with Don's life as the show's utmost focus, their gender's "Mad Men" episode in the spotlight closed along with those doors.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Mad Men 408

"I was blind. And now I see." Miss Blankenship is referring to her cataract surgery. Don has found some Amazing Grace of his own, and perhaps it is enough to save a wretch like him. This is old Don Draper. Bruised a bit and making some risky bets (like eavesdropping and two-timing). But he's not an adulterer anymore, and he's set aside serious alcohol abuse in favor of the existential woes that used to be conveyed with a grimace and now come forth in graceful, penetrating and -- for writers Lisa Albert, Janet Leahy, and Matthew Weiner -- triumphant prose.

Don's career has made him a sprinter among wordsmiths, the mind behind clever slogans half the length of a haiku. Don's journal shows him to be gifted in introspection, at least now that saving himself has proven to be necessary and worthwhile. When we first hear the words of his monologue, it sounds like one end of a conversation with a therapist, but we see that it's just Don, alone with his brilliant mind and his newfound -- or newly revealed -- self-awareness. It's an exercise in salvation. The optimism of the last episode has been borne out, thus far: The best idea does win. At least, a much better idea than waking up badly hungover with the waitress he left his one-night-stand for, and in so doing standing up his own children. Don's arc of personal improvement is obvious at every turn -- he wins an impromptu swimming race at episode's end, and wins the battle with the usurper in his home just by showing up. As another testament to his turnaround, he is invited to more sex than he accepts, and makes his model ex-wife feel insecure upon glimpsing his new life. It's telling that he sends Miss Blankenship away with the alcohol she brought -- the amount that she expected him to consume.

While the B plot brought the series to its full potential as a fraternity movie, the A plot -- Don's plot -- was resplendent, beginning with the long corridor of the swimming lane symbolizing the difficult route ahead. We later see Don submerged like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, in much the same state of disillusionment. But this is an improving Don Draper, who looks a lot like the Don Draper of seasons one and two, standing outside the health club, watching a market basket of 1965's people and styles go by as the Rolling Stones remind us that Don's trade tells us how white our shirts can be and that a man's not a man if he doesn't smoke the same cigarettes as he.

Particularly when last season's episode "Seven Twenty Three" showed Don as perhaps the first member of his generation to be knocked down -- literally -- by a member of antiwar counterculture, we knew that the series has always had the option of a larger historical metaphor, with Don symbolizing the end of Eisenhower America as it slides into decay with the changing times, as season upon season slowly undoes him. But Don came apart quickly and has soon been -- for the most part -- put back together. He's on the rise precisely as the war in Vietnam begins to hold a combat role for U.S. troops. Don may yet see worse than he has seen, but his arc will not rise and fall precisely with historical trends that we already know.

Broadly speaking, "control" underlies all of the episode's interactions, but that is such a general concept that it is either unintended, or is a throwaway. It is true that Peggy and Joan both try to get control of Joey and Stan, and when Peggy succeeds, Joan diminishes her victory as a way of finding the control that she has lost in her home life as well as in her marriage. To chastise the boyish men of the writing staff, she uses the threat of the war as a form of control -- and destruction -- at which they can't and don't laugh. But this is nakedly a compensation for the loss of control that she feels, worried even that her husband has to come in proximity to ammunition at boot camp and leave her without a confidante. In a still more peripheral plots, there was the battle between the vending machine and everyone who tried to use it.

But these parallels are weak and beside the point. Perhaps the meticulously-constructed parallel plots that have appeared in previous episodes this season were beside the point, or a kind of stunt. (In this episode, the most obviously parallel scenes are Don's two steamy cab rides with blondes.) Perhaps Don's rise from the abyss is itself the story arc of a self-help book or an after-school special. But the readings in the journal, and how the accompanying imagery is filmed by director Phil Abraham, delivers the depth and impact of this episode. There is Don, in bed alone, the way he has always wanted to be: Comfortable, rolling to the cool spots, feeling like a skydiver. When he says it so clearly -- and beautifully -- it isn't so hard to see who is Don Draper. Significantly, Don does not derive any particular empowerment in this episode from further openness with Peggy. What bridges the two episodes is that Don has found a voice with which to speak his feelings -- something that Joan also says she needs. We perhaps best understand Don Draper when we see that he prefers to direct his openness to one and the same person who is his bed partner -- nobody else at all.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Batman and Robin 14

With bazookas, poison makeup, drug addiction, slaves, and a crowbar, so begins a three-sided war. The hallucinatory, nightmarish, David Lynch-inspired quality of Batman and Robin #14 is as intense and disorienting as anywhere else in Grant Morrison's sixteen-issue "first season" of the title. It is a carnival of death, debasement, victimization, and not infrequently, of comedy. Nearly nothing goes well for the heroes, at least not on-panel.

The three-headed nature of the struggle means attacks come from every direction. Robin beats, and is beaten by, the Joker, who uses the devices from the utility belt against the police. Dick and Jim Gordon are swarmed by Dollotrons. The Joker blackmails Dick into working with him. Doctor Hurt is caught off-guard by a chemical attack by the Joker at the same time that Batman swoops in, once again forced to fight a swarm of enemies who are dangerous due to sheer numbers. Then an enslaved Jim Gordon hits Dick from behind, showing the total control that Pyg's contagious addiction exerts on its victims. Finally, the Joker plans to use Damian as a weapon against Hurt.

That's a lot of action -- none of it terribly unexpected, at least given the preview that showed the Joker's escape in progress. The story is rich, however, in themes and tone, with a few lines carrying particularly important implications for where the story is going.

The horse/knight theme I mentioned earlier has crept out of the artwork and into the dialogue. The first image in the story is the horsehead in the Wayne Manor library, seen when Alfred goes either to check on Dick or to perform some other important chore in the Batcave. The final words of the issue are the title of #15 -- "The Knight, Death, and The Devil", with the words cleverly laid over the characters they represent: Dick, the Joker, and Doctor Hurt. In between, we see Hurt yell to his adversary, in a chess metaphor, that his knights have been beaten. But who is the audience for that line -- Dick or the Joker? Given that Dick is a knight, the Joker may be the one Hurt is addressing, even though his mouth is close to Dick's ear. It remains unclear if the horsehead on the mantle is a mere symbol or has some real power. Alfred may be looking at it as he passes by. Soon enough, it will be a silent witness to Hurt's gunshot aimed at Dick.

Hurt is getting a lot of practice for that shot. He fires at a pumpkin for no clear purpose early on, and later, we cut to a shot of him holding the smoking gun as a series of watermelons have received similar shootings. This is an intensely odd display of Hurt's behavior, seemingly for no purpose other than to enjoy in anticipation the shooting of Dick Grayson. He's chosen fruits that are roughly the size and shape of a head. That he seems to expect to undertake that specific manner of execution suggests some sort of ritualistic significance, either to fulfill some mystic requirement or because he will derive pleasure from it. It is a divergence from the otherwise stolid behavior we've seen him conduct as he goes about his business, and together with the wearing of the old bat-cowl and hitting Alfred with the champagne bottle, tells us more about Hurt's personality than all of his evil hand-wringing.

There is, however, plenty of that. In describing Pyg, Hurt tells us once again, that he enjoys corruption for its own sake. He describes with "might makes right" a vision of Gotham that matches the vision Lane has in Batman #666, with Lane "praying for a world where the strong are free to exploit and abuse the weak". Speaking to criminals, he celebrates crime, and plans to act on his contempt for the incorruptible, describing it with Hitler's term for a "new order" much as Lane, the Devil's messiah -- at least in his own mind -- dreamt of his version of a "better world". His vision is well underway, with the Mayor, who was shown to be working for Hurt in Morrison's Batman run, in attendance along with criminals and the media.

Other details in this issue point to #666. We see Batman fighting Dollotrons and Professor Pyg hanging upside down in a human inverted crucifix. Hurt's ceremony takes place in Crime Alley, which is apparently the scene of one Batman's death in #666, "the crossroads" where Damian chooses to deal with the Devil. The promised interaction between this story and the potential future of #666 is drawing near, and it is likely that the places where the details don't match (e.g., Damian is now ten, but fourteen when he makes the deal in #666) are to be considered dust swept under the carpet. This probably isn't a dress rehearsal for the real meeting between Damian and the Devil four years from now, but the in-continuity version of those events with, probably, a different outcome when it comes to whether or not Damian agrees to deal.

The ceremony itself, with Jim Gordon as a hostage, resembles the classic Joker story "Dreadful Birthday, Dear Joker!" from Batman #321. But this time the Joker is, if not a hero, an enemy of the villain. Senator Vine, whom Hurt seems earnestly to try to protect, gets Jokerized by a "golden domino" in a reference to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, one of many references to children's literature in the run to date. Vine's earlier concern that Hurt told him that he would keep the Senator "outta harm's way" echoes the lines Black Glove members spoke when things went sour for them in Batman, R.I.P. Meanwhile, that Hurt uses drug addiction to flip Jim Gordon to his side is reminiscent of the very first page of Morrison's run, with a Jokerized Commissioner Gordon falling through the air, and also makes good on Lane's information in Batman #674 that Doctor Hurt makes slaves of good men. And for Jim Gordon, in an act of betrayal that at once suggests Odysseus and the sirens and Jezebel's betrayal in RIP, to succumb shows that virtually no man is too good to escape his grasp.

We get almost total assurance from Hurt's quest for the casket -- and chagrin that opening it will destroy the contents -- that Hurt is, basically, the same entity we saw as old Doctor Thomas Wayne in ROBW #4, and he uses now as then, the line "in the end". Back then, he wanted it to provide him with true immortality -- the mere centuries of life prolongation that Doctor Hurt has already enjoyed may be something short of eternal life. We know from Alan Wayne's estimate of OTW's appearance that Hurt has aged in appearance since c. 1880, so he may be aging at some reduced rate, but still on a path to die eventually. The key point is that his continued quest for the casket is a very important piece of information about Hurt's nature. While it had been surmised earlier that Hurt may have achieved immortality and true devilish nature between the events of ROBW #4 and RIP, the fact that he has the same goal now as then -- along with his aging -- suggests that he is not so very different, experience aside, than he was 130 years ago. It may explain why he exclaimed "Not like this!" at the time of the helicopter crash -- not that the crash itself would kill him, but that it might keep him from finding the casket and thus doom him to an eventual death of old age, or when his Manfred-like deal with the devil ran due.

Meanwhile, as much as those implications make Hurt seem more like an evil man with a dose of immortality than the Devil himself, Pyg bestows the devilish label of a "goat" in Gotham upon Hurt, suggesting Baphomet, a character associated with Satan. Pyg's rants reinforce that he was broken, like an animal in the experiments of Harry Harlow, to become a more perfect servant to Doctor Hurt, as part of a larger pattern (along with Flamingo and the three replacement Batmen from the GCPD experiment) to enslave good men to do evil. Pyg, eager for a PCP fix and to destroy reason, rambles on about his captivity, mentioning the rats in "Rockville" as a possible turn of the fictional asylum Rockland referenced in Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl".

Meanwhile, the choice of Crime Alley as Hurt's chosen location resonates with the Wayne Murder itself, an event whose centrality to the Batman mythos cannot be overstated. Clearly Hurt knows about this event. Quite likely, he ordered it. But with Bruce Wayne absent, it hints at a larger agenda for Hurt to stage an event here, the same location where the event/fantasy that opened B&R #13 took place.

While Hurt goes about his plan, the Joker plans to strike at Hurt, even though the Joker is convinced that he cannot stop the dominoes from falling. The mystery of why dominoes were name-checked by Hurt and used by the Joker continues, although it seems that the Joker is using dominoes to mock Hurt, for whom dominoes seems to have some other role, larger than the plague already sweeping Gotham, which shouldn't bother the Joker all that much, save that he doesn't get to carry it out, since it is similar to his own vision of mass casualties. The Joker's first casualty in this story is Damian, who falls prey to toxins on the Joker's eyelids and/or fingernails, and has his turn interrogating the Joker go terribly sour. Damian ends the issue upside down, much like Pyg, but with his arms at his sides, with an ironic smile painted onto the tape across his mouth. At issue's end, the Joker plans to use Damian as a weapon against Hurt. Clearly, Robin will not resist that idea, although the Joker will have to distance himself from the freed Damian. Later, the Joker uses toxins to attack Hurt's audience, using popcorn (the "catering" he referred to in his call with Dick) as the delivery vehicle.

If there is a single line in the issue that packs more meaning than it seems to, it is Alfred telling Dick that he has prepared the mansion and the cave as Dick had requested. This has enormous implications. Whatever those preparations are, it means that Dick expects the confrontation to move from Crime Alley to Wayne Manor and even down into the Batcave. As we saw in the flash-forward last time, he is of course right. When he hisses to Hurt "You don't get it do you? You're finished." Dick is speaking of those preparations. That line, in reduced lettering that suggests a whisper, is Alfred telling us that Dick, for all his affinity for timing is going to end this scheme with no more help from Bruce Wayne than in having taught his friend that victory lies in the preparation.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mad Men 407

As has been the case all season, the episode has a single theme driving the beat, and this time it was toughness. The client case, Samsonite, featured the only luggage of the day that strove for durability. The current event de jour was the Ali-Liston fight that marked the coronation of the then-23-year-old boxer, known for his toughness in taking punches, though in this fight, he won early by giving one. The distinction between giving a punch and taking one is useful to consider in the episode's main plots involving Don and Peggy. From the pitched football commercial and the bad news that both Don and Peggy suffer to the state of Don's and Duck's respective livers, the protagonists in the episode take punches instead of giving them. That holds true when Don throws a punch and fails to connect. But he takes punches very well episode-long, and is likely in a far better situation by the end than at the beginning. Because in cultivating Peggy as a confidante, Don has done himself the first favor we've seen in a long time. He may even have hit bottom and rebounded towards a happier future, although this is far from certain.

The counterpoint of toughness, (male) weakness, was inevitably on display. Peggy's uncompelling beau, Mark, fasting without his upwardly-mobile woman to the ironically-chosen tune of La donna รจ mobile, was in both senses of the word pitiful in turning the shame of being stood up into a noncommittal breakup. Don wept openly in front of Peggy and bemoaned his life in ways beyond the day's signature tragedy. The alcoholics' vulnerability was a token of amusement for Roger, just as Roger's unintended exposure in the form of the found audiotape was a token of amusement for Don and Peggy. The loss of male power was most literally brought to bear in the form of Bert Cooper's unnecessary orchiectomy, a revelation that explains the previously obscure reference from two episodes ago to "Lyle Evans, M.D." that Roger made when explaining to Cooper the eternal animosity he felt regarding the Japanese race. The weakness of the weaker man was also on overt display in the two lost fistfights of the episode: Ali's knockout of Sonny Liston (still rumored to be a fix with Liston having taken, allegedly, an intentional dive) and Don's laying out by Duck (likely fixed more by alcohol than by Duck's war experience).

The point of this episode's theme was not to show several men (and articles of luggage) swapping physical injuries. It is to peel back the characters, primarily that of Don Draper, to reveal their inner core. We didn't see or care to see if Don ended up with physical bruises. We saw instead the evidence of the deeper injuries -- the best answer yet to "Who is Don Draper?" Injured by the loss of his sole confidante Anna (a loss whose impact on himself he notes; the tragedy in terms of Anna herself, he omits), Don hurriedly replaces her with Peggy. This is a turn of events so beneficial to Don that we might surmise that he forced her into the late night of work precisely to help bring about that end. It is noteworthy that of all of Don's many secrets, only a small number of them are still withheld from Peggy by the end of this: Principally, the occupation of his mother; and, the great ruse of switching identities with the first Don Draper (and the latter fact, remember, is already known to half the partners at the firm). It would be a comparatively small matter now for Don to complete the act of coming clean and make Peggy every bit the insider that Anna was. She's a good choice: smart enough to understand him; moreover, he already knows one of her secrets -- the what, but not the who of her pregnancy. Moreover, we see Peggy suffer in the face of numerous gibes, from Trudy, her mother, and Mark, that she is not as young and pretty as a woman in search of a husband could be.

Running the "toughness" angle between the different subplots gets to the core decision facing Don. He sees the boxing matchup as a same battle between approaches to manliness. He hates "Clay" not because he is threatened by African-American masculinity, as Peggy's father was by Nat King Cole's. He hates him because "He's got a big mouth. 'I'm the greatest.' Not if you have to say it. Liston just goes about his business. Works methodically." Liston, as Don encapsulates him, is what Don chose to be in the interview that began this season -- the interview that didn't work because the firm needed Don to be a visible star. The interview that ended the season premiere had Don selling himself like Ali. But this was a put-on. Don still hates having a big mouth to the point that he hides himself, destructively, from the contact that he obviously needs. He opened up a bit to Faye last week, and much more so to Peggy this time.

It's a tribute to the high quality of the series that this episode can offer, spread across Don and Peggy's several conversations, possibly the most open discussion of the creative process that we've seen, and that that seems like the sidebar to the real interest -- what is going on with this particular bunch of fictional characters. And that it matters less that we see the great adman and adwoman trying to find the right pitch for a product than that we see Don working on a more important item: himself, the self that has been edited and tweaked countless times to arrive at this obviously inadequate, all-too-often drunken man on the verge of collapse.

Roger deftly makes fun of the Alcoholics Anonymous members in comments to Don, who sorely needs that advice. Don may chuckle at Roger's comments, but just going about one's business of vomiting in the work bathroom is losing, not winning. Duck shows us, in a collapse that plays out in seconds over a phone call (and later over Roger's carpet), how much a man with his -- and Don's -- problem with alcohol can disintegrate when he tries to be tougher than his problems. Duck shows us a man who is in his professional and social life like Liston laid out before Ali. Don was on the way there last episode, and he's on the path to this outcome midway through this one.

Don is working out the problem of his life all episode long. He's unintentionally speaking of himself when he says, earlier in the long night, "I'm not so sure about it. I mean, every time we get into this, we abandon the toughness element. Maybe there's something to the elephant." The strong, solitary figure, silently trying to resist all that's outside -- Don is the elephant. And as the night wears down, and Don's weaknesses are exposed, he draws more and more strength from turning to Peggy, eventually giving up everything and placing his head in her lap, not as a sexual overture, but out of need for comfort.

If there is hope for Don Draper it is that as he considers holding onto toughness, in the ad and in himself, that he says "The best idea always wins and you know it when you see it and then it happens." After turning to Peggy, he is the Don Draper of Season One again, mystically fresh, with the winning idea. Whatever their clasped hands mean, Don has gotten closer to the best idea about what he needs to be when Peggy asks, about his door, "Open or closed?" and he answers, about a new self who has a confidante by his side, "Open."