In Barrelhouse Television Workshop, fiction writers look at the way we tell stories across media, the way those "fiction moves" work, and why they may or may not work in certain situations. And most importantly, they'll be making themselves feel real good about watching so much television.
Killian Czuba is Barrelhouse's art director. She makes comics and fiction and daydreams about being mad swole and/or a detective. She recently founded the interdisciplinary collective @apiary_life, and co-created and illustrated an anthology of adventure stories by rad lady writers (The Egret's Crossing). She subsists primarily on tv and twitter and gifs of baby fruit bats. For a good time, follow @killianczuba.
Erin Fitzgerald is Online Editor at Barrelhouse, and an associate editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. Her stories have appeared in fine publications such as Salt Hill, PANK, and the anthology Gigantic Worlds. She lives in Connecticut, and on Twitter as @gnomeloaf.
Dave Housley is one of the founding editors and all around do-stuff people at Barrelhouse. His third collection of short fiction, “If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home,” was released in January 2015 by Dzanc Books. His previous collections are “Commercial Fiction” (Outpost 19) and “Ryan Seacrest is Famous” (Impetus Press, Dzanc Books eBook Reprint Series). Sometimes he drinks boxed wine and tweets about the things on his television at@housleydave.
Steph Post is the author of the novel A Tree Born Crooked. Her short fiction and poetry has most recently been published in Haunted Waters: From the Depths, The Round-Up, The Gambler Mag, Foliate Oak and Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics. She teaches writing in St. Petersburg, Florida. Check her out at www.stephpostfiction.com and follow her on twitter at @stephpostauthor.
Caleb Michael Sarvis is a Maryland-spawned, North Florida-bred writer currently residing in Jacksonville where he teaches high school English. He is the author of the story collection Broken Record Nostalgia and the co-founder of www.benchpointsblog.com, a sports blog. His fiction has appeared in Empty Sink Publishing and his tweets have been favorited by himself. When he was seven he shit himself at a water park and that's all the explanation you'll need. You can read other such nonsense @calebmsarvis.
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Mad Men, “Lost Horizon.” (Season 7, Episode 12)
Don is rewarded for his work; Joan butts heads with a co-worker over an account.
Caleb Michael Sarvis (CS): Are Don's repeated looks out the window all that significant or Weiner's way of dicking us around? Also, Bert's ghost seemed a little heavy handed. Was there a reason for that?
Steph Post (SP): The window scene reminded me of another motif that has been occurring throughout the season: the opening and closing of doors and the scenes revolving around being on different sides or a door. Of course, thematically this is a little obvious, but the way it’s been done, only through cinematography and not dialogue, is interesting. In a short story or novel, the descriptions of so many doors would be almost symbolism-overload, but I think it works in the medium of film/television.
CS: Don's always been the kind of guy to win those around him on a whim. He thrives under pressure, so maybe that's why he always engages in self destructive behavior. That scene with Miller Beer, where everyone had a pamphlet and no pitch was necessary, it was too comfortable and just the right kind of ease to send him looking for Di(ana). That view of the Empire State from McCann's office was sick... But what does it serve. General day-dream escapism or does the plane flying by only lend to the D.B. Cooper theory?
Dave Housley (DH): I was thinking about the D. B. Cooper theory, too! I think Weiner is fucking with us with that window thing. Pretty good one. I was focusing on Don’s face in the early part of this: Jon Hamm does an amazing job of fake smiling, and the first 15 minutes of this one, all the “white whale at McCann” stuff was all fake smile stuff. Pretty amazing. It morphed in the pitch scene, which is where I think this one segues into short fiction territory.
Killian Czuba (KC): Ugh, I want the D. B. Cooper thing to be true so bad, but I think it’s all Weiner sass. I want to make a joke about chemtrails, but I can’t put it together. I would like to contribute my husband’s theory that each character in this bit represents the different stages of grief--a theory on which an undergrad could probably write a paper.
Erin Fitgerald (EF): I keep on thinking about how Weiner has said that he’s always known the ending...but don’t showrunners always say that? How much of “knowing” is thinking one knows, versus writing directly to that point? I’m always suspicious of the latter.
DH: I’m a little suspicious of that, too, the idea of knowing how the thing ends and then driving to that point. But this season, as good as it’s been, has been a little “on the nose,” I thought, in terms of the theme of “is this all there is?” or “be careful what you wish for” or “fairly standard middle-aged white guy disappointment.” Michelle Dean, who is great to follow on Twitter, tweeted “Don is doing the full Richard Yates” last night and I think that’s a pretty good summary of where this season has been taking him.
But then he steers West -- total short fiction move. Actually, maybe too much of a total short fiction move? Any of us kind of groan when that happened? Would you do that in a story? Or does the “turn” have to be more surprising than that? On one hand, I like where this took the story. On the other, it’s a little bit of a standard move, right? The character takes the other exit and then ____ ensues?
CS: The turn was very short story. I like that Diana is proving to be much more purposeful in Don's arc outside of advertising, but I didn't groan when it happened. When I heard him say Wisconsin, I didn't think Diana. I thought about the Miller Beer pitch. I was thinking "Oh he's going to find out what a Beer-Belt guy is really like, blow everyone away with one last Draper moment and then quit!" And then Bert brings up Diana. I was happy for that and I dug the "on-the-nose" feeling of it (and this season). Mad Men is so much about all the things they never say, and it makes sense that everyone is starting to say them. (Megan to Don, Peggy to Stan, Bert to Don, SALLY TO DON) I would have been upset had the show ended without any real change. The vocalization, the recognizing the moment, that's a solid change.
KC: I immediately thought ‘Diana’ when he said Wisconsin. On The Road is a good reference point in that scene--I loved that book when I was seventeen, and still love it nostalgically, but to have a middle-age male character revere it shows that we’re dealing with a character in a state of arrested development. Don has always lacked some measure of maturity, especially in relationships. I think even without seeing other episodes, the writers make that clear.
CS: I think the series of events from Don introducing himself (Don Draper for McCann Erikson) through that meeting where he felt unnecessary and safe and his drive to Wisconsin, all of that was very short story arc. Obviously Don is lost in a sea of white shirts and cropped/comb hair, and finding Diana gives him purpose. When he says "I was worried about her. She seemed so lost." It's some clean - cut irony considering Diana is clear reflection of him. "You think you're the only guy to come looking for her?" Imagine Betty saying the same to some girl who'd come looking for Don.... What I've noticed about this last season is the humanization/deterioration of Don. The first line of this second half was "Look in the mirror. You like what you see?" Diana is that mirror, the men at McCann are the mirror, and no Don doesn't.
EF: If I’d been in workshop for that story, I’d have said “The drive from Rye to Cleveland is NOT seven hours!” I don’t feel like that was an intentional error.
DH: Maybe when you’re dream-driving, the laws of space and time don’t apply the way they do when you’re awake-driving?
EF: I can live with that. But one of the perennial complaints about Mad Men seems to be that it moves too effortlessly from anal retentive to acid trip. Maybe it’s just one of those pesky real life things that’s difficult to depict in storytelling.
CS: I'm okay with the effortless transitions to acid trip. I mean isn't that how life is? When we're alone the world is so much different than when there are people there grounding us in the present. Don needs the present.
DH: I think you’re right, Erin, and it was a slip and not a purposeful thing. Which is odd given how much attention to detail they do spend on this show. I think the acid trip things, and the non-traditional exposition, are one of the reasons we’re doing this writery roundtable here -- those are some of the things that really make the show different, and take it into something that maybe does feel more literary than a lot of other shows. The moment where Peggy is roller skating and Roger is playing the organ and that brief scene was some kind of transformative in a way that’s not given to us in exposition, but with Peggy transformed and walking down the hallway like she’s Jackie Brown (can a TV show about the 60s and 70s reference a movie from the 90s that purposefully uses almost all 70s movie references?). We don’t have to watch it or even really understand on a moment-by-moment basis to feel what happened there, and that’s what I think a lot of us are going for when we write short fiction. That’s what I feel when I read Flannery O’Connor stories: there’s a movement that I feel but maybe I don’t quite intellectually understand right away. I think that’s what Mad Men does that not a lot of shows ever try to do, and then it does it well it’s when the show works best for me.
KC: Did anyone else also get a little Flannery vibe when Diana’s ex-husband--with his gangly limbs and tiny head--started talking about Jesus?
SP: Flannery O’Conner vibe- absolutely. The theme of ‘old-time religion’ came in with Roger playing the organ as well. I’m not sure exactly where Weiner was going with this- it seems out of place in the usual context of the show- but I like it.
DH: I’m also wondering about the visit with Betty. Why is that part of this arc? He goes there first, after he leaves the office. There’s the thing about how he’s supposed to drive Sally to school, which didn’t really make sense with anything else happening in the logic of the story, but that seemed to me like an excuse to get him in the kitchen with Betty, to rub her shoulders and smile his real smile and call her “Birdie” one last time. Is that what that was? Or something as simple as plot? Or something else, you think?
SP: This scene between Betty and Don reminded me of the scene earlier in the season, when Don is in Betty’s kitchen making milkshakes. It could have been a scene from the very first season- even down to the outfit Don was wearing. This hit home for me on a theory that I’ve been thinking about this entire season: it seems as if the characters are going backwards in many ways. Don, as far as his relationship with women and his own lost identity- Betty with her own self-worth (remember she was a model and proud of it, now she’s going back to school and proud of it) and then there’s Joan and Peggy. Though they are completely badass in this episode, the spotlight on gender issues this season has been glaring. Both Joan and Peggy are treated like secretaries multiple times in this episode- almost as if they are going back to their roles in the first season as well. Anyone else notice this reversal pattern? It would be simply the show coming around full circle, but I feel like more is going on.
CS: There was a similar scene like that earlier this season when Betty reveals that she's getting her master's. It felt like we were there just to get Don's second glance as he walked out and Betty's educational pursuits were an excuse to get us there. Betty seems like a loose end Weiner doesn't know how to tie and this scene might've been that first bunny ear of the laces.
KC: I was watching this episode and constantly evaluating how certain scenes would play out on the page, and I feel like the scene with Betty just felt flat in comparison. I’m also a bit weary of the car travel sequences. I enjoyed the scene with GhostBert, but when Don is just driving? Meh. We’ve seen it before, so many times. And if we’re looking at this episode on its own, I don’t think the driving scenes earn their keep. I think most of it is just to keep Don in mind because he’s the protagonist in a pretty big ensemble cast. (Also, why does the car seem so much like a stage prop on those interior shots?? Is that supposed to be an indicator of his altered state? <--I ask, giving the director way too much credit.)
SP: I do like the car scenes here, because they’re straight-up noir. I think the idea of the car being a prop is deliberate here to evoke this specific genre.
KC: That’s an interesting point. Don is definitely a lone-wolf character, so the noir theme fits there, but I don’t really read the show as noir. I wonder why that is? Is the show/story trying to be too many things? It’s one thing to play with genre and pay homage to literature past, but doesn’t it feel confused or overloaded with too much of that? (actually, reading later comments, I think Steph and I are on the same page here. See “Also, there’s the scene of Betty reading Freud’s ‘Dora…beneath”)
CS: "Who the heck are you?" Even though he's asking for Diana reasons, this works every time someone utters it. I think utilizing Don/Dick's identity issues as unspoken tension is a very writerly-move. Short fiction is all about the underlying conflict, a question like this hits hard every single time.
Peggy and Roger
DH: There's definitely a space theme happening, as in physical locations and what they mean, how you bring parts of yourself to the new ones and leave parts behind. I loved Roger and Peggy in the old offices, playing the piano and roller skating, and then Peggy moving in like a badass as Joan limps out.
EF: I think Peggy’s remaining in the SC&P offices for almost the entire episode is also a short story move. She thinks she’s alone in the empty office, she hears a noise somewhere down the hall, she has an encounter, something changes. It happened several times over, with that badass roll down the hallway at the end. A collage story with an arc, and a satisfying end.
Also, I'm just going to leave this here:
SP: Thank you. This image, this scene, made the episode for me….
EF: Me, too. Scenes like this make me envy TV writers.
CS: *D.B. COOPER THEORY ALERT* Didn't Peggy look like an airplane when she was gliding across the screen on her skates?
SP: Just to play off of this… with Don watching the plane through the window while in the Miller meeting...
KC: ^^ A+.
I loved the scenes with Roger and Peggy, especially the roller skating. It was trippy in a very poetic way--like you wouldn’t be surprised to read that scene in a Roberto Bolaño story. Or Italo Calvino, or something playful and Russian like Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I mean, it’s also super Twin Peaks David Lynch, but, you know, short stories, etc.
DH: There's a real gender thing happening, obviously, with Joan. That was one of the main parts of this week, and I think it's actually kind of interesting in that there may not be much for us to talk about there, because it was maybe the least "writerly" part of the episode. It was great -- really well done, heartbreakingly realistic and historically accurate -- but is there much for a bunch of writers to talk about, other than the dialogue, maybe? That might be one area where traditional television and the kinds of things we're here to talk about kind of diverge, but I'll just throw that out there and see what you all think.
EF: Stephen King says this is the worst kind of horror: “When you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there.” In this episode, Joan’s the last in the room to turn around. The situation requires that terror.
DH: I think the visuals were really interesting -- the cramped, close-in McCann offices and especially the big, empty, shambolic SC&P offices, which are make for fantastic visual metaphors and roller skating surfaces.
SP: I LOVE the Stephen King terror reference…. that anxiety is a huge part of the vibe running throughout the entire narrative arc of the seasons.
DH: Perfect epilogue for this episode: “Well I guess that Sal Paradise was right: boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.”
KC: Mad Men is a weird, nihilistic show that glamorizes The Sexy Olden Days. I’m glad (a) that the scenes showing Joan being stepped on and then not backing down were in there, and (b) that they were saved from being too preachy. The way this show works is that everyone ends up miserable. If Joan won straight-out, it would be a betrayal of the premise.
Just Straight-Up Literary Illusions
DH: I love that Don has the dream of Bert Cooper, and they talk about On the Road. I still miss his beatnik girlfriend Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt) from the first season! I've been kind of hoping to see Don drift toward the counterculture all along here, even if that clearly doesn't fit where the show has wound up. There are two straight up literary allusions happening in this episode: one where the head of McCann says “You’re my white whale” and the other when Don makes reference to “On the Road,” when he’s sleep-driving (!) and has the dream about Bert Cooper. I was thinking about the distance between those two: in one, Don is the white whale, and he’s been landed. In the other, he’s Jack Kerouac out on the road with this hippie dude, heading for St. Paul (Bob Dylan is from Minnesota, right?). Actually, he’s driving so he’s Neal Cassady, which is even better, since he was on the bus with Ken Kesey and he’s much more of a 50s/60s/70s bridge character.
SP: Also, there’s the scene of Betty reading Freud’s ‘Dora.’ I do think that the straight out literary references in this episode were a bit much. While the English teacher in me was excited to be able to pick out references- they were way too obvious. Either the writers are being so obvious on purpose for another reason, or it’s a little sloppy for a show that usually has so many layers. It felt a little like a first year fiction student trying to drop names into a story to prove that he’s read the syllabus of his other classes. I know that’s harsh, sorry! I just think that the writers can do better (or are doing better, it’s just buried beneath…)
EF: They have done better. The New York Public Library has been keeping track.
SP: Nice list!
How Do We Do That in Fiction?
SP: One other thing I wanted to bring up was an element of the set design. I noticed in this episode how long lines were continually used to frame the space of the shot. This happened quite a bit in the empty SPC offices and then also in the narrow hallways at McCann. The same exact visual repeated itself yet again when Don picks up the hitchhiker (through the framing of the telephone poles/wires). I’m not sure what the significance of this is, but it made me think: how do we do this in fiction? How do we subtly express themes or motifs through visual-only references, when we have to use narration or dialogue, instead of images, to create a scene?
DH: I’m eager to hear what others think about this, because I think I’m probably one of the least purposeful writers around. I think we can do this in a lot of ways. Place is the obvious one to me, or the way place is described, how it can filter through the lens of that narrator. That’s an advantage we have over a more visual medium, I think. I really like fiction best when you’re looking through that lens, and maybe that lens is sad or weary or crazy or self-deluded.
It’s hard, or at least it’s really hard for me, to attach that kind of significance to a visual, or an image, or a thing, without coming off super hokey and just basically showing my hand. Most of the stuff that I think is clever, like really really clever, on a first write or second read turns out to be something that, if I’m smart, I’ll wind up editing out over time. I wrote a story about Jake from State Farm a month back, and it started out with this paragraph of him and the shirt he’s wearing and how he had to buy that shirt from State Farm, and I thought that was really deep at first. But then every time I read through it, it just sounded hokey, like me telling you what to think about this damn shirt, and eventually that paragraph got edited and edited until it’s finally two lines that I’m happy with: “Jake regards his own Dockers and red State Farm shirt. He lifts the shirt and smells.” That’s me being aware of my own bullshit as a writer, I think, and being careful to edit out the part that tells you what to think and keep in the part that’s kind of weird and specific.
I’d be curious to hear what the rest of you think about Steph’s question. Now that I hijacked it to talk about me and Jake from State Farm, that is.
Steph -- your book is really steeped in Florida. Did you approach that in a really conscious way? The way they’re framing those shots in Mad Men?
SP: I’m not sure that the Florida setting of A Tree Born Crooked can relate to what I’m talking about with framing- but I certainly do scenes this way. I think I tend to write in an extremely cinematic way (even more so in the next book)- I see a book play out in my head as if it is a television show or film. So, as I write, scenes in the manuscript are comparable to the way scenes in a show play out- which is why they are usually short in my work. And why I tend to shy away from too much narration, if I can. So I definitely approach the ‘setting up’ of a scene as if it were being done by camera angles. I think about the position of the characters in a room, how the angles would work, etc and what would that mean in the story. (usually, this sort of analysis comes in near the final drafts, though)
KC: Have any of you guys watched videos by YouTube user Every Frame A Painting? I love watching his videos and thinking about how to translate particularly compelling cinematographic techniques into comics (easier) and prose (harder). The Akira Kurosawa videos changed how I watch literally everything.
EF: At least once an episode, the agency’s set makes me think of Daniel Orozco’s short story “Orientation.” It’s also set in an office. The care that happens in that story -- the adjusting levels of subtlety, the use of other senses -- is happening on the show.