November 13, 2018

‘Mad Men’ comes out of the (Jewish) closet

Here’s a line I never thought I’d hear on Mad Men: “I’ve always thought Jewish women are the most beautiful women in the world.”

Even more surprising, it was uttered by Roger, an account executive best described as a blustering, insecure WASP. Nevermind that he was trying to impress the owners of Manischewitz, who, on the show, are seeking to expand their clientele with the launch of a new (non-kosher?) wine. Or that the comment was made also to seduce his soon-to-be ex-wife, who is beautiful, young, heartbroken and Jewish.

While Jewish themes have appeared on Mad Men since its first season, sometimes disguised, sometimes overt—but then, always in the context of the “casual anti-Semitism” creator Matt Weiner coined—it still seemed as if Weiner was carefully keeping his Jewishness in check. References to Judaism came in spurts, sub-plots,and usually in small quantity like sprinkles or icing. But now with “Mad Men” in its fifth season, it’s flowing forth in steady stream: The new talented copywriter at Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce is Michael Ginsberg, who speaks in that rapid-fire, witty New York tongue Jews know well, and whose father speaks with a Yiddish accent. When Ginsberg got the coveted job at the agency, his father gratefully recited the priestly benediction in Hebrew. Which prompted to declare Ginsberg “too Jewish”.

Elsewhere on the show, Peggy’s live-in journalist boyfriend is Jewish, a serious socially conscious fellow, and foil to her troubled Catholic past. All the recent references are somewhat surprising, like Weiner has just realized his show is a hit, he no longer has to conform his creativity, and can showcase his own skin.

Yet even as he plays with broader tribal tropes and types, he won’t mess with Jewish women.

Mad Men’s Jewesses are often perched on pedestals. Remember department store heiress Rachel Menkin, who was too worldly and wise for the otherwise irresistible Don Draper? That, coupled with the aforementioned pronouncement that Jewish women are the most beautiful in the world (a line heretofore unlikely to have ever been uttered in the history of Hollywood-produced television and film) is a sign of the increasing ascension of ethnic specificity. The more creators feel comfortable focusing on their own ethnicity, the more it makes room for others to integrate their ethnicity into mainstream culture.

Though it’s a tad ironic that Weiner’s praise of Jewish women comes to the fore as Mad Men’s other celebrated female characters fade deeper into the background. Even with a spotlight this past week, January Jones’s Betty has appeared in maybe two episodes this season. Of this last episode which focused on her wallowing and weight loss, Time’s James Poniewozik wrote, “‘Dark Shadows was possibly fans’ least favorite episode of the season. And while I can’t speak for everybody, it seemed as if a major reason was the episode’s focus on Betty.” He added, “The problem is not Betty but the way Mad Men treats her now: since the divorce if not earlier, the show seems to have lost her thread and any ability to empathize with her.”

Betty’s storyline is not the only one audiences (or Mad Men’s writers) have lost interest in. Christina Hendricks’s Joan figured strongly in episode one, with her visiting mother, newborn baby and derelict husband. Though she quickly disappeared behind her desk. And Elizabeth Moss’s Peggy seems to have stagnated; first in the face of Don’s new wife, Megan (Jessica Pare), “one of those girls” who can do it all, and the more talented copywriter Michael Ginsberg.

But maybe it’s not concern for a particular character than a larger malaise that is settling over all Mad Men’s characters. Betty’s misery as an unfulfilled housewife is symbolic of all broken dreams, how life’s possibilities seem to narrow with age and transformation becomes harder to realize. As Poniewozik writes, “What if life is going to continue–pretty comfortably, in a relative sense, for these folks–but it won’t continue to improve the way it did when they were younger? What if they’re just going to keep getting older and fatter while the rest of the world advances? What if that’s all there is?”

If career advancement is the thing, at a certain point more success hardly satisfies as much as the early success. But there are other ways Mad Men is changing: A show whose cultural center pivoted around the office, has in its elder years become more fascinated by the home. Certainly for Don, a former philanderer reformed, he has found his match in Megan. She is the woman he wants, the woman he needs, the woman who knows how best to love him.

She is a more realized woman than his first wife, who does all the things Betty did but with aspirations of her own. She cooks and cleans, speaks more than one language, possesses native intelligence and a knack for advertising. She kisses Don’s kids goodbye even as their mother is more concerned with their manners. She is the matriarch, the life force, the woman of valor.

Wonder where Weiner got that idea.