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September 6, 2011

Straight from a Jewish psyche: The ‘Mad Men’ episode that could win an Emmy

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/striaght_from_a_jewish_psyche_the_mad_men_episode_that_could_win_an_emmy_20/

Photo

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) escorts Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) from his office. Photo by Doug Hyun/AMC

In a scene by scene analysis of Season 4’s “The Suitcase” with commentary by “Mad Men” creator Matt Weiner and lead actor Jon Hamm, The Daily Beast’s Jace Lacob gives us insight into “a classic hour of TV” which has been nominated for an Emmy.

It is indicative of great art when a work can be dissected and analyzed from various angles to probe the deeper meaning presented on the surface. And while “Mad Men” may fit more squarely into the popular culture genre than the medium of great art, it is a testament to the show’s skill that it is layered enough for even the sharpest criticism, as Princeton scholar Daniel Mendelsohn demonstrated in his scathing takedown of the show last February.

If it seems an overindulgence to devote four internet pages to one “Mad Men” episode, the following is a choice excerpt. It struck me because it seems emblematic of a larger Hollywood Jewish theme which has to do with escaping identity. Weiner, of course, is Jewish and although his show is mostly about the most WASPy of gentiles, with some “casual anti-Semitism” (as he calls it) sprinkled in for good fun, there are underlying themes that seem to come straight from a Jewish psyche.

During one scene in “The Suitcase” Don Draper has the closest thing a macho, consummate womanizer can have to a breakdown. He is overwhelmed by the dissolution of his marriage, the breakdown of his family, the loss of a woman who knew his true identity and the corporate transformation of his professional life into something he feels less control over. Naturally he sobs. But what Hamm had to say about the scene, as told to Lacob and Weiner, strikes as insightful and prescient:

Hamm: [The breakdown] doesn’t come out of nowhere. It comes out of watching the last five years of this guy’s life and how his family has imploded and his work has shifted so dramatically and his personal life is really in shambles. The one counterweight to all of that was California. Every time he went to California you could see that something changed in this guy. His hair was looser. His back wasn’t so rigid. It was just a completely different vibe when he was there. It was the one true connection to his past.

What happens when a person tries to suppress that which is integral to their identity? The sense of belonging that is deepest, truest, most ingrained. The answer Weiner is giving us is that one cannot really hide. Suppress what is true and it will percolate through your skin. Deny your identity and compromise your soul. Don is ashamed of where he comes from and thus reinvents himself as an American ideal in pursuit of an American dream. But no matter how successful he is, the further away he moves from what is true about himself, the more he crumbles.

Likewise, in the fictionalized biopic of French pop star Serge Gainsbourg, “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” the artist is haunted throughout his life by the apparition of a grotesque Jewish “mug”—an anti-Semitic rendering of the Jew in WWII France that becomes his alter-ego. Gainsbourg is taunted by this specter, and reminded in the grossest terms, what being a Jew represents. Judging by exteriors, only Gainsbourg’s name—and maybe his visage—would indicate his ethnicity, but on the inside, as the film depicts, he was tormented by the consequences of Jewish existence exacted by 1940s Europe.

The name Don Draper is less revealing than misleading, as Don is really Dick Whitman but adopts the name Draper as part of his transformation (another distinctly Hollywood Jewish trope). “What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked; well apparently, everything.

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