Originally published in The Worcester Journal on June 7, 2016
As a film student who's also an English major and deeply narcissistic in all the usual ways, one of my biggest and most sincere questions coming out of my undergraduate education is: why are there not more movies centered on college-aged protagonists?
I realize this is basically asking "Why aren't there more stories about me?" but, seriously, there is no shortage of (wonderful, predictable, cheesy, reassuring, warm, fuzzy, upsetting, relatable) high school stories and, lately, just as many on that later-twenty-something part of life when you really should have your shit together but need all your adult friends and siblings to show you the light and guide you into a happy medium of staying true to yourself while also becoming a somewhat respectable member of society. That part I'm totally prepared for, thanks to movies like I Love You, Man (John Hamburg, 2009), 27 Dresses (Anne Fletcher, 2008), Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013), and the more recent Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre, 2014) and Trainwreck (Judd Apatow, 2015). Even some of the latest films with plots revolving entirely around their collegiate settings, like Liberal Arts (Josh Radnor, 2012) and Admission (Paul Weitz, 2013), tell stories from the perspective of the adults on campus who, of course, have some growing up of their own to do. Both of these coming-of-age variations dominate the realistic fiction segment of Hollywood's unrealistic vision of what goes down in modern America–which is why I'm somewhat baffled that the crucial, exploratory time between ages 19-22 is largely underrepresented in mainstream cinema.
Maybe it's because, to the young people who go to the movies but don't go to college, or to the adults who are now too far removed from the American education system to understand the nuances of the contemporary angst it brings, watching a bunch of privileged kids be confused and dramatic while walking around the most boring-looking set possible isn't a particularly alluring cinematic experience. (And honestly, I can get behind that on the level of the aesthetics alone.) It's common knowledge that universities keep students living in a bubble of safe spaces and like-minded folks for four years, a period which can be not only illuminating in many ways but also potentially damaging. Maybe the college age is often skipped over in film because, just as the bubble keeps us students largely oblivious to the way things work outside our ivory towers, it also keeps those outside the bubble at a distance, forcing them to squint and make their best guess as to how those inside interact with one another.
The best illustration of college life I've witnessed onscreen thus far is easily Noah Baumbach's Mistress America (2015), a delightful comedy on the nature of storytelling made exponentially funnier when you can understand with a visceral empathy the aggravation of sitting through a class where that one person cannot seem to help responding with completely unnecessary aggression to everything anyone says; or the agony of seeing that guy you like walking with another gal and consoling yourself by sitting alone in the campus bistro at night with a tray of forlorn fries (or pizzeritas, or late-night mac-and-cheese grilled cheese) in front of you to soak up your misery.
Though classics like Rudy (David Anspaugh, 1993), Legally Blonde (Robert Luketic, 2001), Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant 1997), and A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001) ought not to be forgotten here, it seems that the university narrative has shifted considerably in the last decade and, as amazing as those movies are, they're undeniably sensational, telling the most remarkable stories about the most unlikely heroes and touched up with that optimistic Hollywood gloss. Pitch Perfect (Jason Moore, 2012) is probably the best example of a recent movie that hits the right notes (sorry) as far as establishing a recognizable and even resonant, ordinary university setting, and then turning certain elements of that setting up to 100 for that dramatic, satirical effect, finishing off with a nice clean Disney Channel Original Movie feeling.
I find this apparent lack of unsensational college and/or typical college-age-centered stories in film noteworthy because (again, based on my own Googling and pragmatic conclusions) there very well may be no narrative more inherently dynamic, no life more determinedly dramatic and peppered with normal and bizarre supporting characters that also happens to be a microcosm of the capitalist, American-dream-seeking, Hollywood-ready system of elite education than that of the 19-22 year old college student. This may be partially because there is likely no other demographic more convinced that they are the star of their world's film than this college student, particularly now. (I'm not even going to begin getting into the Gen X versus Millennials versus Gen Z discussion, but I don't think I need to remind anyone how ardently the Baby Boomers have labelled us "the selfie generation" among a number of other equally patronizing and aggravating media-safe slurs highlighting our exponentially increasing youthful narcissism.) In a way, even the most ordinary college encounters are experienced with a heightened sense of importance–even the most average students are living the most sensational lives. Melodrama is the norm, and every ordinary moment simply builds on the comedy and tragedy of it all.
I'm also aware of the role privilege and choice play in this phenomenon–of course, not every high school graduate will go to college, and not every 19-22 year old will have graduated high school. In this light, I suppose it makes sense for filmmakers to focus on the more universal experiences of high school and what happens a decade later (according to The Atlantic, the number of high school graduates who then immediately enroll in college has been slowly dropping over the years, falling to 66% in 2013). Okay, so, sure, if you want to get technical about fair representation in the movies, then go ahead and skip that part of life when you decide whether or not to pursue higher education in search of financial success and personal fulfillment–but, I ask you, when has Hollywood ever cared about fair representation before? I’ll tell you when: never. This is certainly not meant to defend the decades on decades in which the film industry has relentlessly focused on white heteronormative narratives rather than including and normalizing those of the many (many) gay, lesbian, trans, genderqueer, black, Asian, southeast Asian, Hispanic, disabled, elderly, and otherwise Other lives that also comprise our nation’s best stories (if not our movies or politics), or that baby steps toward progress aren't being taken (I heard Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014) was good!), but simply to point out that even the most average college student's story is pretty much a pack of mini cupcake mix ready to be thrown into the Easy-Bake Oven of Hollywood's top-secret three-act formula. In fact, with the number of parallels between the systems of elite education and the film industry, I'm fairly shocked this demographic and their (our) stories haven't been seriously capitalized upon already.
But maybe it isn't as unforgivable as all that. Because I, like John Cusack's character in High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000), tend to take refuge in my pop culture obsessions to escape the anguish of modern life and romance, I often think of his character's essential line: What came first, the music or the misery? The same logic applies to movies–do we watch movies because we are miserable, or are we miserable because we keep watching movies? Hard to say, but I'm inclined to believe a lifetime of cinematic consumption must contribute in some significant way to a later life of seemingly unstoppable disappointment. When you grow up preparing for your time at Cape Elizabeth High School with Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess, 2004) and Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004) in mind, such disappointment is inevitable, as I'm sure it will be in a few years once I've been a lonely Type-A bridesmaid 27 times and do not, in fact, find the love of my life in a cute and snarky journalist who happens to write wedding announcements on the side.
Was it better, then, to go through these last four years with no real (or unreal) idea of what to expect? With no clue how to instigate a respectful yet casual conversation with professors? With no idea how on earth college students spend all their time in libraries while taking only four classes? Without knowing how many times I would change my mind about who I am and what to do, only to end up agreeing to disagree with me and my many selves? Maybe we should thank Hollywood for providing us with all the uncertainty and anxiety that makes college students such fascinating characters and potential protagonists, by virtue of denying us any other unrealistic expectations (on top of the ones we're already frantically trying to manage).
But this character and this narrative are remarkable, too, for the fact that this student may not always feel she is the star of her movie. College in America in 2016 is a magical place where one glorious moment might make you feel like The Chosen One and the next makes you wonder if this is what Luna Lovegood's life is like when she's not with Harry; if all the instants when the spotlight seemed to hit you were really just proving to all the real stars what a quirky supporting character you've been, and how your funny little side plot has really just functioned as a way to work some interesting details into the main storyline.
Maybe the real, uncut, unedited college student is simply too dynamic to work as an effective protagonist. Maybe things change altogether too often for a coherent narrative to be shaped around those four years where the plot points and characters and sets and music montages are so densely packed that each passing semester feels like a lifetime ago–and yet I can't help feeling like these are exactly the reasons why university students are such ideal subjects. Minor goals and motivations shift and turn until the greater desires reveal themselves under the rubble of whatever's leftover each time you change your mind. People who were once important move to the periphery, just as you move to the periphery of people you were once important to. Everyone changes as often as trends, and even if we wanted to truly move forward and step away from who we used to be and all the things that made us that way, we all still study in the same library, walk the same stairwells, use the same bathrooms, go to the same bars and check the same mailroom. The past variations of ourselves bounce around campus like ghosts in the subjective memories of all the people we scrutinized and who scrutinized us, who saw us change, who either respected us or didn't. Maybe real college in the movies wouldn't be so great after all–not like I would know or anything, but maybe the real story doesn't start until the ghosts are only in our heads and not physically surrounding us at every corner–and maybe it still won't be a real story yet, but it might be a better one, at least.
Originally published in The Worcester Journal on March 19, 2016
From the moment you walk into their apartment, you begin to understand more about who Sleepovers is and where the band’s sound comes from. Plants pepper the place—dead and alive, on the floor and on the walls—and the coat rack in the corner has transformed into a plush kind of tree on its own, stacked at least fifteen coats deep. The art on the walls looks like the type that could be in a gallery—or maybe one of them just made it the other day. Maybe it was one of their friends.
Made up of housemates Marina Khananayev and Hannah Corbin, along with the recent addition of drummer Jacob Folsom-Fraster, Sleepovers began in a Worcester, Massachusetts bedroom, and that’s exactly how they sound. Even when screaming about dumping your boyfriend, there’s an authentic intimacy in both singers’ voices which conjures the soft quiet that must have made them want to scream. In the same way that they somehow create warm melodies out of bleak subject matter, one of the most striking elements of Sleepovers is how the band is able to uniquely capture the feeling of feeling alone and yet deliver this feeling to us with reassurance. The close friendship between the lead vocalists is particularly palpable in songs like “I Wanna Start a Band” and “Hot Dog Song,” but is also felt, even in their solo songs.
With just two EPs on Bandcamp and a couple of local performances under their belt, the group has already managed to win over an impressively devoted following of listeners. When I first saw them in December, it was just Marina and Hannah playing “Whiskey Song” to a stunned and silent audience in their own living room; then the full trio of Sleepovers was booked as the opening act at Clark University for New York project Eskimaux and opened their set with the same song—this time with a full floor of standing fans singing along to every word. With lines like “Don’t have a crush on you” “I like getting high” and “I’m not anybody’s rock” among perhaps the loudest in the repertoire of audience favorites, it’s easy to see why Sleepovers is quickly becoming one of the most popular local bands in the city of Worcester. Known to friends and fans for their unassuming honesty, uncomplicated language, and utterly endearing onstage dynamic, the band and their music already has a reputation for treading the line between heartwarming and heartbreaking, often invoking both at the same time.
As an early fan of Sleepovers, I was thrilled I had the chance to talk with them personally about their project and methods of making music. Though our interview was a first for both parties involved and (at least, my) nerves were bouncing off the walls, the carpeted floor of Hannah’s bedroom began to feel familiar as our conversation floated on and away from Hollywood Street, beyond Worcester and back to other bedrooms—for, as Sleepovers reminds us, there is perhaps no better place to think about first times and new things than on the carpeted floor of your best friend’s bedroom.
So you write most of your songs in here?
Hannah and Marina: Mhm.
Do you write most of your songs together?
M: Not most of them, but a few of them we’ve written together.
Do you like working together better or is it easier by yourselves?
H: I don’t know, ’cause there’s some stuff that I’m like ‘I don’t know what to do, I need help with this’ and then some stuff that I’m like, ‘Oh, I wrote this’ like it just happened, I didn’t need help, it just came out.
Yeah, so do you guys ask each other for help, or like if you’re writing songs together, how does that happen?
M: I think it usually happens like one of us says, you know, ‘I wrote this guitar part’ and then you’ll start singing something, or the other way around, or something like that, and then we’ll just sit there and—I don’t know, trade off singing lines. We also just sing a lot of shit and then we’ll be like, ‘Oh write that one down.’
H: Yeah. Yeah we’ll just like sing a bunch of lines, like random things, then write it down later and decide later what’s good to keep.
On the addition of Jacob
How did you come into the Sleepovers project?
Jacob: Well, a kid put a drum set in my basement, so then a bunch of bands started practicing there. So then, I don’t know, when [Hannah and Marina] would practice I would just come down and play the drums for fun. I don’t really play the drums, I kinda just started messing around ’cause there’s a drum set in my basement.
That’s really cool. And you played for them we you opened at the last PEC show?
J: Yeah, ’cause I don’t know, you guys were thinking you wanted drums and I already knew all the songs, so…
It was a really good effect, people loved it. The drums added a lot.
H: We practiced so much for that show [laughs]. ‘Cause [Jacob] had just started playing with us that week before. You were like, ‘Me? Really?’ [laughs] ‘Are you kidding?’
J: I’m like, the worst choice.
H: I feel like you are the best choice though, because I feel like we’re all the same level of instrumentation at this point, where we’re all kind of figuring it out together, so it’s cool to like—I don’t know, I feel like I’d be intimidated if there was someone who was like, mad good at drums, like shreds. I’d be scared to play.
On their show in February
What was it like opening for Eskimaux? I heard they were one of your favorite bands.
H: Yeah, we saw them a few months ago. On my birthday, actually. We went to go see Girlpool and they were opening.
I just started listening to Girlpool and remember thinking they reminded me a lot of Sleepovers.
H: Definitely, yeah. I like Eskimaux way more now after opening for them, just ’cause she was so nice.
M: And also at first when I was listening to their music, I was like, ‘Oh, you know’ but I listen to it all the time now, like ‘This is really good songwriting.’
H: Also just knowing someone in a band—okay, we don’t know her that well, but like meeting her and talking to her—we texted each other—just makes the music so much more enjoyable. I don’t know. For me, at least.
Did you guys get to talk to her after?
H: They had to leave right after the show, but we chatted for a bit.
M: It was nice. She told us about her first show ever, and it was like this really hilarious story about some bubble tea place and she couldn’t see anything because— [laughs]
H: Because she scratched her cornea.
M: It’s not funny. [laughs]
H: Yeah it was really nice, and she was so supportive, and just meeting someone who’s like, famous, and having them tell you they like you--
M: It was really cool.
H: I freaked out a little bit. I also had a flash of like, ‘I’m gunna quit school. All I’m gunna play is music from now on.’
On actually starting a band
So what was the moment you decided to start a band? Like, when do you decide to do something when you’ve only been thinking about it?
M: I don’t know if we ever decided.
H: I wrote a song--
M: Yeah, [Hannah] wrote a song--
H: And I liked it—which had never happened before.
M: Was it the cat song?
H: No, it was “Philly.”
M: Yeah, you wrote “Philly” and I was like ‘damn, this is really good!’
H: Then I was like, ‘we should start a band’ and you were like ‘eh’ and I was like ‘please.’ And [Marina] was the one who didn’t want to start a band, and then Jacob was like, ‘all these people are playing at my house.’
M: Oh yeah, they had this like Sunday music festival thing at their house during the day, and Hannah was like ‘let’s
do it! Let’s perform there!’ and I was like, I don’t think we’re ready. We had “I Wanna Start a Band” and “Philly” and those were the only songs we’d ever written. We wrote them like two days before the show and then we were like, ‘shit, what do we do?’ Oh! And I had just bought that bass, too. I bought a bass from our other friend--
So you didn’t play bass before?
M+H: No. No no no.
M: Well, it’s kinda similar to guitar, so it wasn’t too difficult.
Yeah, I think about that too, like ‘I can definitely learn bass, probably.’
M: Yeah, it’s just a little harder to push down. [laughs]
H: But anyway, we played at it and we messed up a lot, but I mean, people came up to us afterward and said, like, ‘great job!’ and it just felt good. It just felt—I think both of us realized ‘damn, this feels good.’
On Sleepovers’ sound, name, and aesthetic
To me, it’s so clear what you are, just based on what your music sounds like and what your house looks like, and it’s so interesting that you manage to get that into your music. As someone who’s trying to write songs and failing miserably, I’m curious as to how you make songs that sound like you?
H: I’ve been trying to write songs for a really long time and I wrote a song that I like for the first time this year. I’ve also written a bunch of songs we never play because I’m not in love with them, but I just needed to like, get shit out so I just wrote it. But it’s like a keep-away.
Save for later.
H: Yeah. Or for never. [Laughs] Or just to like, have expelled from you. I kinda appreciate you saying that though, because I don’t really know, like–I have a hard time describing our band to, like, relatives and friends from home that ask, ‘What’s your music like?’ Like, eh, I don’t know.
I also feel that, because I’ve also been asked to describe your music and I’m like, ‘Uh, it’s kinda—uh, it’s soft I guess, but it’s like rock, uh, I don’t know.’
H: I just hate the word ‘indie’ and being like, ‘it’s indie.’ Because that doesn’t say anything about what it sounds like, it’s just like, ‘independent’? Okay, like we don’t have a record label? So what does that—that’s so many artists! What a stupid term.
J: [Sleepovers’ music] makes you feel happy and sad at the same time.
M: Yeah, you said that to me once.
To me, it feels exactly like a sleepover. It reminds me of sleepovers in like, fourth grade, and it’s so specific but for some reason all the details are right just in the way it sounds and the words you choose and, I don’t know, the vibe you give out. It’s all very cohesive.
H: That’s awesome. It’s funny you say that because that name just isn’t—like it wasn’t intentional at all. We were so frustrated trying to pick a name.
J: There were like, six different names.
H: Yeah, there were so many different names, and like, I liked one and Marina liked the other, and we were just sitting in here--
M: Every day we’d text each other being like, ‘what about this? What about this name?’
H: Like I’d walk down the street and see a package with like, ‘mermaid’ on it and be like, “Mermaid should be our band name.’
M: [Laughs] When did you see a package--
H: I don’t know! It was just like you’d see something and you’d be like, ‘this should be our band name.’ But we were sitting in here, in these exact same spots one night, and we had just finished writing a song and we were feeling loopy, and Marina was just like, ‘Sleepovers’ and I was like, ‘cool, that’s our name.’ It was like—boom. And we haven’t talked about it since. [Laughs]
M: We didn’t even deliberate or anything, like ‘Should that be it?’ We were just like, Sleepovers. Done. Don’t wanna think about it anymore.
What are your musical backgrounds like?
M: I’ve been singing in choir all my life, pretty much, and I took piano lessons for a while. My family’s pretty musical, I’d say, it’s not a huge thing about them, but just singing all the time I guess, just any chance I could get. I was in a Renaissance singing group in high school where we dressed up in Renaissance clothes and sang around the community. [Laughs]
M: You have to watch the videos. It was awesome. You know, haters gonna hate but it was so much fun. We’d go to like, old folks’ homes and sing for them.
They loved it, I bet.
M: They loved it! We looked like nerds, but whatever. [Hannah’s] been in a band before.
H: I was in a band but I was like a novelty. I was in the band to be the only girl in that band, you know what I mean?
Like a token girl?
H: Kind of. I also have a really hard time singing in front of people and I didn’t do it until this year. Like, at all. So this is a pretty new thing. I didn’t sing before this, really, but I’ve played guitar since I was 13. But only like—not real, like initial ‘I’m learning how to read music and play chords,’ I was like ‘teach me this Green Day song!’ [Laughs] I just wanted to learn songs that I liked.
And what about [Jacob]?
J: I feel like I’ve always been surrounded by music but I was never that serious about playing it, like I took piano lessons in third grade--
Right, because everyone does.
J: [Laughs] Yeah, and like I took guitar lessons in middle school, memorized some songs, still know ‘em and don’t know anything else. But my dad is a sound engineer, so until I was in third grade, he was on tour most of the time, so we would go visit him and I would go to shows. And my parents’ group of friends are like, all these musicians that were playing in Boston in the late 80s and 90s, like this band Morphine.
H: I know Morphine!
J: You know Morphine? Yeah, they’re like my family friends. [Laughs] I don’t know, at family gatherings there was always music, just—music everywhere in my house.
H: I have one thing to add, just ’cause it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done: when I was in high school, I was in an all-female rap group that would only play at parties at the end of the night called Red Lips Big Hips. I just wanna let you guys know that ’cause it’s the best name I’ll ever come up with.
On their best song
I’m interested in what you guys think is your best song, just because someone behind me at your show—right when you started playing a song—was like, ‘This is the best song they’ve ever written’ and I’m interested to hear what you guys think it was.
M: Ooh, we have to guess? Hmm, I don’t know.
H: Wait, do you wanna know something kinda funny?
H: At our last show, our roommate was there and afterwards, she was like, ‘The guy behind me just kept being like, ‘The blonde one’s really hot’ [laughs].
M: [Laughs] I was so pained and proud at the same time. But our best song…I feel like the songs we write together, in the moment, are our favorites to play.
H: Also, every time Marina—we’ll send each other things that we’re working on by ourselves, and every time Marina sends me a song, I’m like, ‘this is my favorite one you’ve ever written.
M: [Laughs] That’s how I feel about yours!
H: Every time she sends me a new one. I hope that sentiment doesn’t like, lose its value cos every time I’m like, ‘ah, this is the best one.’ But I do really—I love your songs.
M: Aw, thanks.
H: I don’t play anything on “Hot Dog Song” but I think it’s my favorite one to play because it’s just so fun.
It is! It sounds a lot like First Aid Kit to me, just in terms of the vocals.
M: Oh, yeah, I do see that.
H: Also, I hated playing “Philly” because I was just so over it until we added the yelling part.
M: Yeah, I think the most fun to play, for me, is “Hot Dog Song.” At this moment in time. [pause] What about you, Jacob?
H: Yeah, what’s our best song, Jacob?
J: Well, fun to play is different from the best. I think some of the best songs are the ones where I do the least. [Laughs] But um, hmm…
Or, what’s your favorite?
J: I don’t know, “Too Nice Outside”? That’s always been my favorite. That song gives me the chills.
M: Oh, wait, I actually retract my answer for most fun to play personally—it’s “Dark Thoughts” because I get to play the xylophone.
I love that song, it’s one of my favorites. Honestly, it’s a tie between that one and “Neighbors” for my fave on the new release.
H: Really? I never wanna play “Neighbors”!
I really liked it!
H: Shit! Thanks!
Was that real?
H: Yeah, I was here alone one night and our next-door neighbors were having a really loud, sad breakup, and I was playing music already and just like, ‘these are two chords and here are some words…’ [Laughs]
Yeah, I really like that one. The one that the audience member behind me said was your best was “I Wanna Start a Band,” which I also think is tip-top.
M: I think that’s the first song I’ve written that I’ve ever showed anyone. And then we finished it together.
H: We did finish it together.
M: The last verse and then the yelling part.
J: That’s the anthem.
The yelling is really good. And it sounded really good with the drums too.
M: The drum really changes the game.
It does. It was a game changer.
H: The thing too is like—keeping rhythm, we didn’t worry about it when it was just the two of us ’cause we’d just be like ‘this part’s fast, this part’s slow’ but then Jacob came in and we were like, fuck. [Laughs] “I Wanna Start a Band” was so hard to learn ’cause there were so many changes.
Yeah, I love when songs go through tempo changes though. My personal favorite of yours would have to be—I just have “Whiskey Song” stuck in my head all the time. Like, since I first heard it.
H: Written on this floor.
M: That was the first song we wrote together.
H: Marina spilled whiskey all over my floor—look, there’s a stain right there.
Oh my god, the stain!
H: The stain! And then we wrote that song together.
Originally published in The Worcester Journal on July 1, 2015
The older I get, the more I see how watching TV can be like reading a poem. Only a few shows have struck me in this way – despite my deep affection for Gilmore Girls, Parks and Recreation, and other shows, their poetry is not as resonant as that of, say, Lost or Breaking Bad, or even The Office (for a little while). Of course, not every sitcom will be a “Road Not Taken,” and not every drama can be a “Howl,” but when each episode rings so truly to the humanity of its characters and is equally if not more potently beautiful when perceived as part of a larger story, the poem becomes more visible. When each rewatch further embeds into your subconscious how we are it and they are us, and with each revisit, these realizations slowly guide you towards something like an answer to a question you hadn’t yet asked, the poetry becomes clear. Maybe nothing strikes you at first, but maybe when it’s over the sheer richness of what you come away with overcomes any sense of an ending, the fullness of the story somehow leaving just enough blank space for you to look forward to one more careful reading.
Some shows are like this for me; now, I’m thinking of Mad Men.
“It’s the real thing!” The final statement of the series looms over its ninety-two episode arc in retrospect, casting the light of a question over everything we’ve seen before; what is The Real Thing? The dichotomy between real life and the life advertisements would have us believe is attainable has always been one of the leading forces of Mad Men; Sterling Cooper, as a glamorized beacon of the in-between state, where its troubled employees inspire manufactured ideas of happiness for the rest of us to consume, is a purgatory for Don Draper and the others, who come face to face with their ideals every workday (and sometimes weekends) and yet find themselves unable to produce such fulfillment in their own lives.
This fundamental failure to connect the dots between the flaws of reality – sexism, racism, rape, and cancer, to name a few – and the impossible dream of perfection pervades the life of every character. When modest co-heroine Peggy, whom we’ve seen climb from secretary to copy chief, deems Stan a “failure” for being content with his work instead of trying to find something better, we – particularly my generation, I believe – are uneasily reminded of ourselves, of the need to try harder, score higher, and make more, which unconsciously determines perhaps one too many so-called “life-changing decisions,” even when we are convinced we make such choices ourselves. Her realization that there’s more to life than her job reminds overachievers everywhere that sometimes good is good enough.
The impossible quest for perfection, however, is far from the pursuit of happiness – it’s being able to tell the difference that finally releases most characters from their self-imposed suffering. Betty, for instance, was quite the opposite of Peggy in this regard: whereas Peggy valued her work above any expectations of her gender, letting opportunities for marriage and motherhood fall behind the prospect of a career, Betty tried and failed for most of her life to believe that marriage and motherhood was enough. When an old friend forces her to question how satisfied she is with everything she once wanted –“I thought they were the reward”– she starts thinking more like Peggy (who, incidentally, starts thinking more like the unexpected workplace feminist Joan, who has always been capable of thinking for herself but is now free to think only for herself). The attraction to an ad man like Don is obvious, for Betty is nothing if not the ideal consumer, always living just the life ads said she should – she married a handsome man, mothered three kids (when the housekeeper went home, of course), wore the right clothes, smoked the right cigarettes, and maintained the image of charm and grace she thought every woman should.
But there’s a danger to “shoulds” – as Don learns in the final episode – and this is ultimately what the show teaches us; there is no right way. Even the folks at Sterling Cooper know it, they’re just doing their job by trying to sell it to us under the guise of what it is we really want – which the finale title, “Person to Person,” articulates in its most basic terms. In the significant mid-season-seven pitch to Burger Chef, Peggy recalls the remarkable feeling of knowing that, during the moon landing, while she and Don and the rest of the team were watching on TV in their hotel room, everyone else she knew and didn’t know was watching their TV too, sharing the experience and “doing the same thing at the same time.” She notes the “pleasure of that connection,” and that they were starved for it.
This rivals only one other pitch on Mad Men for its potent authenticity; as with Don’s nostalgic approach to selling “The Wheel” in season one’s finale, Peggy here taps into an undeniable truth and a basic human anxiety — to sit down to dinner, for example, away from television or music or anything that isn’t the people sitting right in front of you, then look them in the eye and share a meal and conversation – Peggy herself wonders, “Does this family exist anymore?” The question is still relevant, and the connection is one we still starve for. When the IBM supercomputer suddenly becomes part of the Sterling Cooper company in “The Monolith,” it is this connection that is threatened, and this threat which eventually drives some of its employees insane; when a father first sees his child do something that makes him mean the love he thinks he is supposed to have, as Don realizes with his young son Bobby, it is this connection being formed; and with every phone call made to daughters, lovers, and friends (brothers, clients, and nieces), it is this connection we are aching to imitate – but it’s not The Real Thing.
Don Draper ought to know this more than anyone, but he’s the last to figure it out. His crucial struggle to relate to those around him has never been more clear than when, in a group exercise during his climactic retreat to California, he is instructed to simply express how he feels towards another human being. Looking around the room with utter blankness, his partner finally pushes him out of frustration which leaves Don only more bewildered. Taking cues from a number of similarly confused and isolated protagonists from major Italian directors of the 1960s – it’s no coincidence that Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961) is mentioned at one point as Don’s favorite foreign film – Don grapples with his inability to accept himself throughout the series, as his Dick Whitman past continues to haunt him in spite of his apparently tried-and-true “move forward” strategy. (Indeed, Don looks more and more like the man he might have been as his season seven road trip goes on, until he’s finally seen in a flannel and jeans, having shed everything external that made him Don Draper.) In the same vein as Red Desert’s Giuliana (Antonioni, 1964) and 8 ½’s Guido (Fellini, 1963), Don’s emotional moment of epiphany centers around his ability (or rather, inability) to love and receive love.
Although the finale makes this clearer than ever, Don’s fundamental sense of detachment is foreshadowed as early as the very first episode, in a remarkably revealing conversation with client-to-lover Rachel Menken. “Mr. Draper,” she says during one of their earliest exchanges, “I don’t know what it is you really believe in but I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. There’s something about you that tells me you know it too.” While Don manages to brush the moment away and their relationship (both business and personal) is short-lived, it is obvious why Rachel, of all the many, many women in his life, is the one who reappears to him during one of Mad Men’s signature surrealist moments in the final season’s opening scene. Rachel isn’t the only woman to have Don figured out over time, but she is arguably the one who is both most and least like him. Her ability to empathize is striking to Don, but not something he can name or learn himself until much later, for although most of Don’s life has been spent “in another man’s shoes,” so to speak, he has never put himself there for the sake of understanding someone else, only to hide further from himself.
“I don’t think I realized it until this moment,” Rachel tells him in the same conversation, “but it must be hard being a man, too.” Bringing gender into the exchange – another one of the most important facets of the show – Rachel also presages the arrival of Leonard, a stranger and crucial character seen only in the finale. Leonard is a foil to Don in many ways (invisible, whereas Don is used to turning heads) yet both face the same essential struggle – the one Rachel articulated ninety-one episodes before. Though much of the series rightly focuses on the realistic sexism and mistreatment of women at the time, Don and Leonard’s group therapy session proves how right Rachel was; for all the shortcomings of the privileged (and probably white) male, there are arguably few demographics who are more emotionally repressed. We see this in Don’s gradual decline, and Don sees it, and himself, in Leonard. No longer forcing the belief in his individualism or trying too hard to project or create the connection he craves (as he did with the enigmatic waitress Diana), Don genuinely relates to this stranger and finds himself uninhibited, for the first time, in his physicality; hugging Leonard in a moment of sincere empathy, Don finally sees The Real Thing.
Perhaps your twenties are supposed to feel this way, or perhaps it’s because my generation is among the most lonely and confused there has ever been, that I felt I understood Don Draper so much – for he, of all tragic and redeemed anti-heroes, is most certainly lonely and confused. These are some of the most significant feelings of Mad Men, explored kaleidoscopically through the nuances of each character as he or she struggles through separate and intertwined journeys. Through each of the show’s seven seasons, these perpetually shifting impressions of the cycle of isolation and reconnection take many forms, and existential notions of identity and purpose are subtly woven throughout the narrative more and more until the finale’s spiritual peak. Fans like me who initially took interest in the show for its notable 1960s setting will be satisfied to see evidence of the era’s counterculture (an infrequent but always welcome visitor for viewers as it enters, interrupts, and edifies the lives of Sterling Cooper’s staff) in full bloom at last as we get a final glimpse of our anti-hero in the company of his fellow human beings. “People just come and go, and no one says goodbye,” he laments in frustration near the end of his journey – an obscene hypocrisy, considering the vast number of people and places Don himself has left behind – but he knows this already, that “people can come and go as they please,” that they will and they do. With nothing left but the possibility of a new day and new ideas, the poem of Mad Men closes out its final stanza, and leaves us to turn off the TV and sign out of Netflix, to see ourselves and those around us – face to face, person to person.