This is the fourth installment of our “Home Movies” column by Philippa Snow, about what we watch when no one’s watching.
Watched this week:
Enlightened (2011-13) | Mad Men (2007-15)
A few weeks before the lockdown, I began re-watching Mad Men for the second time, so that I reached the final episode somewhere around day five or six when things still felt unreal and spooky. I have always felt the last scene of the show, in which Don Draper meditates and ends up conjuring the 1971 I’d Like to Give the World a Coke campaign, to be one of the ugliest, most nihilistic endings in the history of prestige television: the twinning of advertising with enlightenment, suggesting that there is no higher plane for the show’s alcoholic ad-man than the one where he sells soda and Vicks VapoRub to mothers in the suburbs, is at best bleakly amusing, and at worst a total disavowal of any and all progress he has made in the preceding ninety hours. Mad Men’s ending is the thing that tips it over into genius, a boldly downbeat period on the last page of a long, elegantly-crafted novel about mid-century media, and America, as meaningful as anything by Philip Roth or Thomas Pynchon.
Curiously, I noticed that a still of Draper meditating, dressed in white and looking without context like the very picture of enlightenment, kept reappearing in my Twitter feed in the days following my re-watch of the show. Evidently, Esquire had begun to use it in an article about the usefulness of meditation in the current crisis. The effect of seeing Draper’s failure to connect with any higher power than capitalism used to illustrate a story about inner peace for a luxury magazine is twofold: the image is made both funnier and sadder by its placement. If we judge Don for his inability to clear his mind of advertising, his belief that even racial harmony and togetherness can be marketing tools, we can scarcely claim to be immune to the same pressures, particularly in the age of targeted advertisements and social media influencers. (“So stop buying things,” Don tells his hippy niece, facetiously, when she says advertising is “pollution.” They both know that the suggestion is rhetorical.)
HBO’s Enlightened, a 2011 show about the stark impossibility of balancing a corporate life with spiritual ideals, is in some ways the antithesis of a long-running and universally respected show like Mad Men, canceled after just two seasons and still cult enough to feel like a discovery. The show’s protagonist, a frazzled blonde named Amy Jellicoe, begins the pilot episode having a breakdown; after two months at a woo-woo health retreat, she returns to the world of work with a new outlook. There are warning signs that Amy might not be as placid or enlightened as she seems from the word go, the first sign being a bipolar diagnosis, and the second being the fact that Amy Jellicoe is played by Laura Dern. One of our foremost interpreters of middle-aged female madness, Dern is all tense smiles and frightening, clown-like tears. Where Hamm’s performance as Don Draper relied on a certain stoicism, the ability to frown without much troubling the perfection of his face, she is elastic to the point of possible derangement. David Lynch, I think, was right to campaign for an Oscar nomination for her work as somewhere between three and five characters in his 2007 magnum opus Inland Empire, even if he did not necessarily need to involve an actual cow: few actresses can split themselves with such alacrity, her light and shade brighter and gloomier than most.
“This is either the blackest comedy to hit TV in a while,” a review at Entertainment Weekly shrugged after Enlightened’s pilot aired, “or the most pointlessly histrionic drama.” It is possible that I was not supposed to cry as much or as consistently as I did while watching Enlightened, thinking about how painful it is to remain hopeful in a situation where hope feels ill-fitting or naïve. It might be because for the last week I have been confined to bed with a mild case of COVID-19, feeling increasingly helpless; it might be because for all of Amy’s do-gooding and growth, the show does not forget that there is no real, lasting way to game the system. Amy’s affable ex-husband, Levi, is an addict who does not end up entirely redeemed by the last episode of season two; Amy’s father killed himself when she was in her early teens, and Amy’s mother has been distant and disinterested since. For a long stretch, she has no friends and many enemies, her personality abrasive enough to make her off-putting even after her epiphany. Still, she believes in goodness, a world in which it possible to overcome the terror of existence with sweet thoughts, kind words, wise deeds. “How strange is this life,” she murmurs, in the voiceover of season two’s last episode, “to be born into a body to certain uncertain parents, in this beautiful, upsetting world.” It is hard not to think of Portia, in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”
Portia’s line is most often remembered as referring to a “weary” world rather than to “naughty” one, perhaps because it is more palatable to imagine ourselves living in a world that is not wicked, but exhausted. Abbaddon, the health and beauty company that Amy works for, is for some reason named after the Hebrew word for “the place of devastation,” a detail that would be stupid if it did not somehow chime with the rest of the show’s pitch-black, vaguely surrealist sensibility. A lot of places—sandwich shops and baby showers, cheap motels and clubs and campsites—prove to be places of devastation for Enlightened’s heroine, her anger bubbling over at the dawning realization that half of the people in her life have behaved naughtily, and half are too exhausted by the relentlessness of their misery to care. Enlightened is, at its most desperate, galling, a reminder of the fact that those who seek to change things for the better are invariably fighting against currents nearly too strong to resist. By the finale, Amy has exposed the company’s malpractice, and is likely to be sued for money that she does not have; her efforts to teach Abbaddon a lesson will not, in all likelihood, affect the many other companies committing the same crimes. “You just have more hope than most people do,” her former husband tells her. “It’s a beautiful thing to have a little hope for the world.” It is beautiful, her optimism, in the way a dream is beautiful: difficult to hold on to in the unflattering, unforgiving light of day.
Then again, some people are simply more capable of staying optimistic than the rest of us. It turns out I was wrong about the meaning of the Mad Men ending, or at least about what its creator had intended to suggest with his appropriation of the happy, clappy Coke advertisement. In an interview in 2015, Matthew Weiner expressed a certain sadness at the idea that reviewers had interpreted the meditation scene as bleak, or existential. “It’s a little bit disturbing to me, that cynicism,” he mused:
I’m not saying advertising’s not corny, but I’m saying that the people who find that ad corny, they’re probably experiencing a lot of life that way, and they’re missing out on something… The idea that someone in an enlightened state might have created something that’s very pure… that ad to me is the best ad ever made, and it comes from a very good place.
He remains at pains to point out that for nearly all of Mad Men’s characters, life is a little better at the denouement than in the pilot. People reunite, end up promoted, form new businesses, get married, declare love. It is beautiful, but once again, beautiful in the manner of a dream: nothing is quite as settled as it first appears. Peggy has a new position, where she will no doubt encounter the same sexism as in her previous job; Pete, who might be an actual rapist, ends up back with his ex-wife. Betty is still alive, but knows that she will die within six months. “We leave everybody slightly improved,” Weiner told Variety. But isn’t that exactly what all the best advertising does—promise us a new version of ourselves that’s better, even if it’s only on the outer surface?