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.
Michelle Dean is at work on a book about women intellectuals called SHARP. Her writing and reporting has been published online and elsewhere at the Guardian, the New Yorker, Slate, and the Awl. Follow her on Twitter@michelledean.
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 5/10, “The Milk and Honey Route”
Don has a hard time sleeping; a taxing friend blindsides Pete; Henry arranges a family reunion.
Dave Housley (DH): “I know you think you know how to hustle, but this is a big crime stealing these people’s money. You keep it, you have to become somebody else.” Mad Men is always about identity, but I thought Don’s part of this one was especially short story-like, even down to the pacing. It was a good, 5,000 word story. So...let’s talk identity!
Caleb Michael Sarvis (CS): The episode opens up with a dream. Don is pulled over and the policeman declares "you knew we'd catch up to you eventually." I hate starting with a dream, but it set the tone for the rest of the night. This show has always been about identity, I'd like to see it end with it.
I thought Don had a golden opportunity to start fresh while he was stuck at the motel. The owner asks him his name and I was caught off guard when he said "Don." Did anyone else expect him to say Dick? Did Weiner make the right move there? Maybe.... if only because Don ends up leaving, and reverting back to Dick should be reserved for a much more permanent affair. But he's at a bus stop in the middle of Oklahoma, where are you taking us Don?
Also, the fundraiser / vet dinner was an awesome scene. The moment they ask Don his rank and where he served, the scene was set, the tension established. Someone had to have been in Korea too... And sure enough, someone had. "Let me see your face" was such a good line there and I could feel Don's resistance. My head was stuck to the screen just like his seemed stuck looking forward. I'll let someone else talk about Don's admission, but I feel like any time Don is on the verge of being found out, the show is at its best.
Erin Fitzgerald (EF): I really liked the VFW banquet ‘short story.’ It was a very well-executed window into those lives, and how haunted they all were. But I’m not sure that framing it inside yet another one of Don’s identity crises was a good choice. Every move -- the shady motel employee, the fistfight, the charmed then angry innkeepers, the quotable life lessons from one conman to another, even Don handing over the car keys -- felt utterly predictable. Don shed of most of his possessions, sitting on a wooden bench in the middle of nowhere at the end? That didn’t feel new or illuminating, either. And all of it suffered even more from being juxtaposed with Betty’s and Pete’s stories, which did have novelty. All of that said, I need to see what happens in the finale before I can know for sure. I’m hoping there’s a substantial time jump, and that this episode is, therefore, an end of sorts.
CS: I'm hoping for a time jump too. Last week's episode left us with a sense that more was going to happen, but this week I feel too closed off. Don's going to hop a bus, yeah, but he doesn't seem to matter anymore. Sally will be busy with Betty, McCann is moving on. Joan is gone and Roger and Peggy seemed to have found each other in a way. What impact/effect does Don have on anyone other than the strangers he meets? Bring on next week.
Killian Czuba (KC): It’s funny, because we’re not “supposed to” open short stories with a dream, but it works all right here. And I think this whole episode could, in fact, be a short story--we get enough background on every situation to orient ourselves. Really tight work. But back to Don, in particular: I think the tension in the VFW banquet was awesome, too. And this is a weird small thing: Don is a super hottie, right? But they always make him look sweaty and haggard and when he’s drunk. It’s surprisingly honest of a tv show to make the hunky protagonist look that sad and disheveled and straight-up drunk. That greasy look feels very prose fiction to me--a little detail that speaks volumes about a character’s vulnerability.
And then there’s that genuine, cheeky smile at the very end of the episode. Bliss like we’ve maybe never seen on his face before (maybe with the exception of when he was visiting the original Mrs. Draper in California--in both cases, we get to see Dick shining through).
Steph Post (SP): The smile at the end was a perfect move here. All along, Don has been shedding, well, Don. His identity as an ad man, his possessions, now his car. He’s sitting on the bench without any ties to the world. It’s a moment of innocence and of being re-born.
Michelle Dean (MD): I thought there were parts of the short-story that were well executed and other parts that felt like a poor VCR capture of Salinger or even some kind of Midwestern Faulkner. I was surprised when the men returned to the motel claiming the money had been stolen, for example, but not surprised in a satisfactory-story-device way. They also let Don get away too abruptly, and with barely a mark on his face, for me to quite understand what the function was here. To underline the fundamental violence of men? To tell us that even when he breaks down and trusts others with his true story, Don will always be betrayed and must journey alone?
That shot of him at the bus stop, like a Christ-figure, suggests the latter of course. To me that’s becoming the ultimate disappointment of the show. In its later seasons Mad Men has suffered from what I suspect are ultimately Matt Weiner’s inabilities to see Don’s faults. In these last episodes his alienation is treated so romantically, in an almost adolescent way. Feeling alienated from everyone around you is a common emotion, and I understand that there is a powerful pull to identify that. But in its earlier seasons, it felt like the show was better at showing us what Don’s alienation cost, both in terms of his own self-image and that of the people who depended on him (Peggy, Betty and the children). Sending him off alone at the end… to me it’s been the wrong dramatic decision.
SP: I’ll admit, I have some issues with the writing of this episode. I not only didn’t like the dream sequence at the beginning of the show, I didn’t understand its point or placement. I don’t like dreams in fiction, film, television, etc. I think it’s a technique that is usually a cop-out. I don’t think it served that purpose here; I just think it didn’t have a purpose. At this point in the final season, everything needs to succinct and meaningful. I understand that Don is lost is here, reverting back to Dick, and so on, but a lot more could have been done with his character in these crucial remaining episodes.
CS: I just want to bring up the scene at the swimming pool (and others below) in terms of function. There's that moment where Don eyes the attractive brunette at the pool and we're thinking "Oh, this again" but some children show up (like Sally that one time) and stop the show. Is this a reflection of Don's family being on his mind? Does he feel guilty? Could Weiner have cut this and it'd be the same episode? I think so, but I'm not entirely sure.
Also, the Coca Cola machine. Coca Cola was the account promised to him at McCann, and the presence of one of its vending machines is an obvious call back to what Don left behind. So thinking about this and the pool scene... Is Weiner giving us clues that suggest Don's return to New York City?
SP: The Coca Cola machine lined up perfectly with the rest of the obvious Americana happening in the episode. The mention of Friday night high school football, church revivals, drive-in movies. The VFW scene, the woman in the red bikini, the road-side motel. Though it was laid on a little thick, I appreciated the inclusion of all of these references. It’s classic in a way that is very self-reflective. Mad Men has all along been a commentary on American culture through the changing times. To bring up this Americana iconography at this point in the season brings this point home.
CS: Pete may end up the happiest guy because he realized what Don and Roger never could, or at least, never would acknowledge. "Why are we always looking for something else? Always looking for something more?" Pete's always wanted prestige, power and respect, but now, in a position where he's being courted by another company, he seems to have realized that success is nothing if there isn't anyone to share it with. More than prestige and power, Pete wants someone to be proud of him, and even more importantly, Pete has always had a concrete understanding of what he wanted.
MD: The thing is, though, what Pete wants is not an adult picture. Domestic bliss in Wichita, that’s a fantasy! It’s not going to happen! I felt like this tangent was more of a comedic relief than anything else though -- no one in this storyline seemed to have much of a handle on themselves, Pete and Duck competing for the most desperation and self-delusion -- excepting that last moment with Trudy. Whose capitulation is not hard to understand, given who she has always been and what kind of life she’s been living.
SP: Honestly, I wasn’t impressed with any of Pete’s storyline in this episode. I know that the writers need to wrap up his story, as they have been doing with the rest of the characters, but I thought more could have been done. His character was portrayed as too simple here. I agree that in many ways it was just comedy, but I’m not sure that’s how Weiner intended it to be viewed.
Also, I don’t think anyone bought Trudy’s reaction at the end. In writing, and particularly in the editing stages of a story or novel, I have to constantly ask myself if I’m being true to the character. Every character. I may want the storyline to go a certain way, and may have to push some issues to be contrived to end up at the necessary plot points, but it still has to be believable. I think Trudy’s character was written off completely in the last scene with her and Pete and this was disappointing. Even minor characters deserve development and fidelity.
DH: Totally agree about Trudy. It just didn’t match up even to what she was saying earlier that same day. She has this great, really cutting line that she’s actually jealous of Pete’s habit of remembering things with a kind of nostalgia, but “I see things how they really were” when she’s rejecting him the first time. I loved that. It was a lovely, cold, realistic line and how I would have preferred to see Pete Campbell huff into the sunset.
If we were in a fiction workshop I think the word we’d use would be “earned.” Pete’s happy ending doesn’t seem necessary earned, to me, and neither does Trudy’s probably-not-happy ending. I also think there’s a chance it could all be just drunk Duck fucking with Pete, and they’ll have to figure out how to move forward when it all turns out to be an illusion in the final episode, and that decision, however it comes out (really, it’s Trudy’s decision) would feel much more earned on both sides, I think. We’ll see.
Betty and Sally
CS: It was a matter of time before someone got lung cancer... But Betty? I'm not sure why it caught me by surprise, but it certainly did. Ever since she had that spat with Henry over having her own thoughts politically, Betty's seem to have been fighting to be her own person. I didn't really take her educational pursuits seriously, but seeing her dressed and ready to go at the end of the episode, I was proud of her. "Why was I ever doing it?" A few seasons ago, Betty may have broken down, cried for days screaming "why me?" But here she's accepting and even at peace with it. It's a sad end for Betty, but a dignified one, no?
EF: The scene where Betty tells Sally that accepting an ending is a gift? I’ve been waiting for AMC to post the episode online so that I can watch that scene again specifically. It was put together so well. A great bit of acting and cinematography....but the dialogue is what’s driving that bus. As for the final two Betty-centric scenes themselves, the letter and the staircase...even though Sally is the person who’s lost two of the people she’s closest to this season, who will have to become the matriarch far too soon (because if Henry can’t be trusted to find a dress in a closet, how will he or anyone else even remember that Bobby and Gene exist?), we’re still led to mourn and pity Betty the most. And I can’t help but think that’s something that hasn’t changed since a few seasons ago, even though the task has been lifted from Betty personally.
KC: Yeah, let’s talk about Sally here, too--Sally has always been the adult in the family. Betty is, in many ways, a child (as is Don), and Sally has always been the voice of truth through defiance. It really was a beautiful scene, between the two women. Again, this episode could work as a short story in every regard, I think. The characters just come through so cleanly, so completely. Some good lighting choices, too--Henry haloed in light as he cries in Sally’s room, Betty illuminated by the hall light as she says goodnight to Sally. And both times, Sally is out of focus, the constant support.
SP: Just to add to the cinematography here- the scene in the doctor’s office when Henry is being told of the diagnosis and Betty is just straight ahead. I think it was very smart to shoot her in profile like that. In a way, I think that moment gave a lot of dignity to a character that is often the butt of jokes or not taken seriously by other the characters.
MD: Formally-speaking, I thought there were actually some false steps here. The scene where Henry tells Sally didn’t quite work for me; too quick clapping of hands over ears, the artificiality of dialogue like, “My ears are still ringing,” a thing teenage girls I don’t think said in the 70s any more than they would today. And later too, there was overscoring of music as Sally read that letter of instruction to herself. The simple lines of the letter were more or less perfect; Betty’s matter of-factness against dials back the potential soapiness of a cancer diagnosis. I wish they’d just let well enough alone there.
It had been clear for some time that Betty had nowhere to go as a character and killing her off, just as she’s reached a point of light openness to new experiences -- the college degree, the sudden understanding of Sally, a daughter whose rebelliousness had always seemed awful to her in the past -- makes a kind of beautiful sense. Because in truth if Betty had come to some kind of self-understanding in the series I think I would feel dissatisfied. Lots of people are like her, frustrated and trapped by the circumstances they see themselves in, and they go on and on that way and never get beyond it. Strangely that’s what I feel like, as a fictional consumer, I want from her; I want her to go on being human in that impossible, infuriating way she has.
CS: I understand Betty's death in terms of her own arc, but I'm still wrestling with its overall function. I mention above that the pool and the coca-cola machine may be hints that Don is actually returning to NYC. Betty's death + Henry's lack of obligation to those children suggest to me that Don is going back. (Sorry, DB Cooper). If Don doesn't go back... Then did we need to kill Betty off? Will that decision ruin or justify past decisions?
SP: Betty’s letter at the very end was the best part of the entire episode for me. Her frankness, the directions about her lipstick and her dress- here the writers were being true and honest to a character. There was such a poignancy in those small details. As details often make a scene for me, I particularly appreciated that these were included in the letter. It would not have worked nearly as well if the letter had been an emotional send off.
DH: Pete and Don both deal with the ongoing ramifications of choices made in the past. Well, that’s pretty much always happening in Mad Men, but it was especially prevalent in this one. It actually seems like Pete gets to un-do, or re-do his choices. Is it possible that Pete Fucking Campbell is going to be the one character who gets a happy ending on this thing?!
Don’s past looms over the Legion outing even more heavily than usual. And then he finally comes clean and then nobody seems to care. “You do what you have to do to come home.” They don’t know, of course, that he also stole the man’s identity.
KC: I think it’s foreshadowing. Pete gets his happy moment, so now he has to be hit by a car, or…see my DB Cooper notes :0
EF: The only person we see actually talking about Pete’s dream job is Duck, who’s in drunk mode for this episode. I’m...concerned. (But also fascinated by the fact that I’m concerned, because I hated Pete for so long!)
SP: I agree. Though I also am not the biggest fan of Pete, I’m worried for him. If he’s on such a high note at the end of this episode, will Weiner really let that note ride out? With only one episode left, one final chapter, if you will, I’m not sure how much attention will be given to anyone but Don. I think the smart move would be to bring Pete down somehow- Trudy backs out or something along those lines- but I’m not sure there’s enough time left to address this. So I’m worried that Pete will end up in a quick tragic end, or he’ll end up blissfully happy. Either way, I don’t think it will be fulfilling.
CS: I really enjoyed the line that was something along the lines of "You hate this place now but wait til you can never come back to it." Despite running from his past, Don has always been homesick. There's a reason he's drawn to sexual encounters with brunette women and why Diana got to him so badly. They remind him of home. Nostalgia is a "pain" he said, a "twinge in the heart" because his homesickness hurts him everyday. Had Don not been accused of stealing the money, I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd stayed at that motel for awhile, repairing broken things for years.
KC: I have a personal hypothesis that every compelling story is driven by nostalgia. Every problem, every choice, comes to pass because we’re trying to get back to a time that we miss that was never even real.
The lights turning off for Don and Pete in scene succession was interesting (well, for Don it was the TV turning off mid-program, and for Pete it was the dining room lights)
SP: The power going out in both scenes was perfect. Again, it’s wrapping everything up. The show is over, the curtain is closing, it’s time to go home. This might have been too obvious, and seems to be happening an awful lot, but I think it worked well here.
The DB Cooper Theory
DH: Down to the last episode and the DB Cooper theory still seems viable (although I didn’t see the typically meaningless scenes from next week). I thought there were a few interesting things that supported that theory this week: they kind of went out of their way to remind us that Don left all that money when he walked out of that meeting. There was a lot of talk about money in general. Don’s also nicely sliding toward a criminal kind of element, with the dream in the beginning and then actually helping that young grifter kid advance his grifting career and get out of town. He also wore the DB Cooper sunglasses a lot. The pacing and plot make sense if that’s how the show is going to end. If it’s not, they’re really going to have to pull something out of their hats. It’s starting to look to me like the biggest argument against the DB Cooper theory is that Matthew Weiner doesn’t seem like somebody who would end the show with something that somebody like me is talking about as a possible end to the show. Maybe I’m playing right into his hands! Or maybe Don is DB Cooper.
EF: Matthew Weiner addressed this directly on Conan last week.
CS: I wrote a few notes regarding this and my first one was "Wyoming to Kansas to Oklahoma." Unless that bus is going to take him to Oregon, I'm not sure we're heading the right way physically. I'm also split on his phone call with Sally. He doesn't seem to be hiding at all or putting himself in a position to just disappear. Then again, Sally is the only person he's spoken to and their relationship is built on sharing secrets. But I was really aware of all the money too. There was a brief moment when I thought that the grifter kid was actually DB Cooper but realized he's too young and probably hasn't served, which DB Cooper is said to have. However, doesn't Duck work for an airline? I don't know if he's still fucking with us, but there was a lot of air travel talk with Pete and his new job. I couldn't ignore it.
KC: CONSPIRACY ALERT: WHAT IF PETE IS D.B. COOPER
So much talk about private jets going on...just saying.
MD: If the show ended with Don as D.B. Cooper I think I would throw my television out the window in disgust. First of all, it would feel like a capitulation to this continuing online chatter about it, even if Matt Weiner swore for the rest of his life (contra that appearance on Conan) that it had been his plan all along. Do we really want fiction that teleological? I don’t. Some concept that strait-jackety on the show would ruin what dramatic punch it has left.
People complain that nothing “happens” on Mad Men and I suppose this would solve that problem for them, but the thing is -- and this is where Weiner has cribbed so directly from David Chase’s far more fine-tuned work in the Sopranos -- the indeterminacy of events on Mad Men is what give it the feel of more “serious” fiction. I use the scare quotes advisedly, of course, but I guess what I mean is that to me it’s fine if the show ends without a solution for the riddle of Don Draper; the point should be that he’s no more of a riddle than any of the rest of us. Including to himself.
DH: I think what you’re outlining, Michelle, is a much more “literary fiction” or short story-like ending, and that’s more where I imagine this is heading -- the ending of a Raymond Carver story more than an Elmore Leonard novel. A nice Manhattan of dissatisfaction mixed with the ramifications of the choices you made for the wrong reasons in your past, topped off with a twist of the realization that it was all bullshit all along. Mmmm, good. That’s kind of where I think this will wind up, and nobody will be happy but us fiction writers.
CS: I'm not rooting for the D.B. Cooper theory to be true, though I don't want it to be disproven either. Regardless of Mad Men's ending... Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could argue for the rest of our lives about it? That would be so much better than any concrete proof/disproof. Also, I briefly suspected Pete as DB as well... But Pete doesn't have the mechanic handiness necessary.
KC: This is an aside, but can we talk about music in fiction? So we’ve got Mad Men, which is a show that very religiously sticks to its time period. Then we’ve got shows like Peaky Blinders, which go more of a Sofia Coppola route with historical context and a bangin’ contemporary soundtrack. Then we’ve got comics like Chynna Clugston’s Blue Monday, which has little asides with songs from Blur, New Order (obvs) , etc--and then books like Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. You see it much less often in prose fiction. It’s interesting how much modern cinema/tv relies on music for mood. Mad Men would be a totally different show with a contemporary soundtrack. Also, everyone still overuses opera for EPIC MOMENT times.
Ok, maybe there’s not much point to this, I just like thinking about how all the different pieces and choices work together. It’s like choosing POV--or maybe something more subtle, something like vocabulary.
EF: I’m guessing some of the lack of music in prose is thanks to the constraints of publishing -- reprint too much of the song, and pay out. Meanwhile, I know plenty of fiction writers who rely heavily on music. Book Notes at Largehearted Boy is one of my favorite substitute reader-moves. Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” was an interesting choice to close with this time around. Usually the song is closer to the actual time period, isn’t it? We’re nearing the end of 1970 on Mad Men, and that song came out in...let’s see....1958. A message to everyone who’s hanging on for the very last episode, that we’re a little closer? A reminder of how Buddy Holly died, big wink to the DB Cooper Illuminati?
Warning you all now: If the show ends with “Bridge over Troubled Water,” over the credits, I am not responsible for my actions. I don’t think it’ll happen, but I did think we’d get to see Pete and Peggy’s baby, so…
KC: ^^HA! Omg, I will throw mine out, too.
DH: And the episode opened with the dream about the cop and “Okee from Muskogee,” which is another really interesting choice. A song from 1969 that really wound up on the wrong side of history on about every topic -- Vietnam, marijuana, the hippie movement’s ability to spread beyond San Francisco, the preference for “holding hands and pitching woo” over “makin’ a party out of lovin.” With the possible exception of leather boots still being in style for “manly footwear,” the song turns out to be wrong on about every point it makes.
It’s an especially interesting relic given that Merle Haggard is generally thought of as an “outlaw country” artist and mentioned in the same breath as Willie Nelson. Again, the song is just wrong about where this is all going to wind up, which is with outlaw country loving Okees from Muskogee who look and act much more like those hippies Haggard is shouting down than the straight-laced people he describes. The song was also co-opted by a number of those hippie bands, who may have thought it was funny, or may have just liked the song (I like to think the Grateful Dead wouldn’t make fun of Merle Haggard, and it remains a great song, for sure).
So anyway, as something to open a show that’s largely obsessed with identity, it’s an interesting choice, and one that has all kinds of identity issues of it’s own.
SP: I just wanted to bring this up and I have no idea what the answer is, so chime in! Why is Don readingThe Godfather in the motel room? Other novels showed up- The Andromeda Strain, The Women in Rome, Hawaii (I think?), but the camera lingers on The Godfather. Is this a nod to Don’s ‘criminal’ past? Or are these books featured just as pop culture references? Are they props or do they have meaning? Thoughts?
EF: The Godfather -- the novel -- was a huge commercial success in 1969-1970. The book led to the movie in 1972, which led to other books, movies...and to, well, The Sopranos. There’s no way that isn’t a deliberate wink on Weiner’s part to his last employer. But I think the book works on a literal level, too...in a few different ways. When any of the Corleones wanted to shake their usual roles and live in another skin for a while? Like Don, they always sought rustic, bucolic places. The women in both worlds have power, but only in very prescribed roles. The Godfather brought the world of organized crime to collective American awareness. Mad Men has brought the world of its era -- cocktails, fashion, design, attitudes -- to that same awareness. Michael Corleone? Tony Soprano? Meet Don Draper. He’s a lot like you.