Just a completely altruistic, non self-serving reminder that the sequel to a book I wrote is coming out in one month. Which I also wrote. I wrote both, is what I’m saying.
Last time: Solin tried to help the blacksmith, taught an adjunct class on how to use a dolly in excruciating detail, broke some shit, and then ran down the street.
I took a week off because the Walking Dead finale broke my shit, but I’m back.
A block or two later, his heart calmed, and he was sure Jayne wasn’t following. (“Heart calmed” is a nothing phrase – we’re here to evoke emotion. Even a cliché like “his heart stopped pounding” is at least evocative and descriptive. I’d also reorder this sentence – “His heart calmed a block or two later when he was sure Jayne wasn’t following.” Get rid of a few unnecessary commas and bring the action out front.
However, what I’d really do is reorder the sentence as above, getting the subject and verb out front, AND I’d give it more active language with an amusing voice – it was supposed to be a funny scene, after all.
So, something like this: “His heart found its old familiar rhythm three blocks later when he was sure Jayne wasn’t chasing him with a rake.”)
Still, he’d done enough harm to the populace for today. Time to go see ‘ole long face. (The voice is a MESS here. Thinking something like “he’d done enough harm to the populace” is something a robot or a snarky college professor might say. But then in the next sentence it’s “time to go see ‘ole long face.” Folksy language. Voice is important, and this neophyte writer didn’t spare one moment to even think about it).
Solin’s destination was on the edge of town (passive language alert), and so it allowed him to observe Bowen’s Rest in its waking moments. He was not a fan of being up so early, (passive language alert) but between bad dreams and insomnia, it was a time he was unfortunately familiar with. (Not sure why Solin can’t think in contractions – “He was not a fan” “it was a time.” He’s 17-years-old, loosen the collar a little).
He welcomed it, grudgingly. It was a better alternative to the dreams, and the cold air filling his lungs seemed so vibrant and alive. Solin also liked the feeling that he was witnessing something that few people see (Except earlier you said the whole town wakes up early – the problem here is the writer is injecting his own thoughts into the character, whether they’re appropriate or not). Most wake up and the world is going on without them. So early in the morning, Solin felt strangely wise. As if all those who missed the sunrise were left out.
Maybe he did like being up early after all, and grumbled and complained for the sake of others. (This shit is infuriating. In the beginning of the chapter, he said he hated to wake up early. Then, just now, he liked it. Now, here, Solin offers a THIRD OPINION about his feelings about the morning. This is shameful, self-indulgent naval-gazing at its most embarrassing, and worst of all, it’s slapping the reader in the face and saying “I don’t care about your time.”) He shook his head. At that hour, with an angry blacksmith possibly on his heels, Solin wasn’t much for self-reflection. (ARE YOU SURE?! WANNA GO BACK AND READ THE LAST NINE PARAGRAPHS, YOU FUCK?!)
Ironic, considering where he was going and why. (There’s irony all over this sumbitch, but it’s not for that reason). He wondered if sourpuss would be awake. Of course he was awake. He was always awake. (So, everyone in town wakes up early again? Is this early-onset medieval fantasy Alzheimers?)
The cobbled street became dirt, and the buildings to either side blended into rolling farmland. (“…blended into rolling farmland” might be one of the few non-passive, non-forever-taking bits of economical writing in the whole book so far). To his left, on the east side of the road stood a field of golden corn. It looked ripe for the picking to Solin, but he admitted he wasn’t much for farming. That was another trade Solin had attempted, to little avail. He had apprenticed at that very farm. Farmer Yeven had watched him break two plows, a fence, and a mule before asking him politely to “try a different trade.” (This is actually pretty considerate of me to remind you again and again that Solin is a screw-up, because there is a very real chance you, the abused reader, fell asleep during an earlier passage and missed something.)
To his right, on the west side of the road, was grazing land, and a vast fleet of cows roamed across it (I think this sentence needs more commas). Solin was pretty sure a group of cows wasn’t called a fleet, but he didn’t really care either (and neither does the reader).
That land he knew quite well. It was his best friend’s, or his best friend’s father’s, though most in the town knew that Rion ett Morali, the son, pretty much ran the farm by himself. Rion tended the livestock, the small field of corn behind their house, and even dealt with the finances and sold the farms excess. He was well respected, for his hard work if not for the pity most felt for him about his father. (Way, way too overwritten. How about: “Everyone knew Rion ran the family farm, no matter whose name was on the deed” and delete the rest of this paragraph. Maybe the chapter. Potentially the book).
Solin vaulted the low wooden fence into the Morali farm, his boots crunching into the sparse grass (there’s some simultaneous action happening here – if his boots really must crunch, they should do it in their own sentence. This somehow implies his boots crunched the grass in mid-vault, which gravity doesn’t particularly care for). A cow just at the edge of the fence turned its head up toward him, (just “A cow at the edge of the fence turned its head,” no need for “up toward him.” We get that he’s spurring the action, cut the stage direction) and Solin patted the big animal on the forehead. Its large eyes blinked once, and it never stopped chewing. After a moment, it returned to its patch of grass. Solin shook his head and laughed, and wondered if he would have got the same reaction if he would have lit the cow on fire and jumped up and down screaming. Probably. (Some readers might get that this is a joke, but other readers would probably assume Solin is a weirdo or a psychopath. Maybe save animal mutilation jokes until we know the character a little better).
Far off to his right he could see a house, and barn with a silo beside it. (Unnecessary Comma should be the name of my band). Solin turned south, checked his belt, and took off running. (“Checked his belt?” Why include such needless detail? “Solin’s mind sent signals down his spine to his large muscle groups compelling them forward into what could be called a ‘run’ by modern scholars. This was much faster than a walk.”) It was a fine day for it, and the cool air flooding through his lungs brought a smile to his face. His legs pumped, his arms moved in tight lines beside his waist, and he threw his head back to feel the biting wind. (Oh, shit, I got ahead of myself. I really did describe what running is) Solin’s shaggy blond hair caught the wind, and he laughed again as he ran. A cow rose up before him and Solin leaped, catching the cows back with one hand and vaulting over it with all his momentum. He crashed into a roll on the other side, but came up running just as quickly. (He just jumped a cow. What is happening?)
He wondered if he could ever get Cow Jumping to take off as a sport. (Insert audience laughter)
Okay, so that was (pardon my Swiss-German) fucking brutal. We barely made it through 500 words of prose there, and literally nothing happened.
Things Solin thought about: 1) Morning time, 2) Working on a farm, 3) Lighting cows on fire
I’ll see you next week for – GOD WILLING – some actual narrative beats. Maybe. No promises.
Yes, I know – you’re tired of reading “open letters” about the Walking Dead finale.
Trust me, the fans are tired of writing them. This ground is well-tread, and the game trail has been widened into a goddamn highway with repeated use. Yes, we’re pissed. Yes, we’re unsatisfied. Yes, we’re kind of hungry.
But the anger is real. I’m angry. The people who love this show are still angry. I was debating with myself how I would express my particular flavor of dissatisfaction, just to get the poison out of my system, and I’ve come to this:
Stop defending the finale as a cliffhanger. It wasn’t. Or it was, and cliffhangers don’t work. Or, maybe, we all disagree on what a cliffhanger actually is. From their interviews, showrunner Scott Gimple, producer/director/make-up god Greg Nicotero, and even non-offensive “Guy Smiley” Chris Hardwick have their take on “what a cliffhanger is,” and the audience has another.
Why Use a Cliffhanger?
Traditionally, a cliffhanger is used to keep interest going after a story or scene has (or would have) ended. I’m a writer by trade, and I can tell you that we’re encouraged to end every chapter on a cliffhanger. Introduce a new threat, change an allegiance, slap in a new complication, someone’s head falls off unexpectedly, etc.
Now, like any writing tool, it has its function, and a most appropriate time and place for its use. I don’t recommend ending EVERY chapter that way, no more than I would recommend ending every story with a boss fight. Sometimes the best way to introduce excitement for the next chapter is to make sure that THIS chapter tells a great story. Sometimes (editors, cover your ears), a satisfying conclusion makes an audience think to themselves: “Wait a minute, isn’t the story over? How is there a next chapter?”
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Season 1 ended with all of the story lines wrapped up and the Big Bad Evil Guy dead as fried chicken. I remember thinking: “Wait, what is Season 2 going to be about? Where the hell do they possibly have to go?” That didn’t turn me away as a audience member. That DREW ME IN. Because the first season told a complete and satisfying story, I used my cause-and-effect brain equipment to go “hey, do you think they’ll tell another complete and satisfying story in season 2? Oh sheeeet.”
And I watched it. And they did.
What is a Cliffhanger?
Here’s where language fails us, and I have to go off-book. My personal definition of a cliffhanger is “an incomplete story designed to manipulate the audience.” I’ve always held that belief, and I always will.
I would make a distinction, though, between a “sequel hook” and a “cliffhanger.” To me, a cliffhanger is garbage. A sequel hook, on the other hand, is a must in serialized storytelling. A sequel hook gives us a new twist or piece of conflict that HAS NOTHING TO DO with the arc that was set up the entire story. It opens a new road, it doesn’t drop a gate across the road we’re already on.
Gimple/Nicotero/Hardwick and Robert Kirkman have insisted that the end of the Season 6 finale was no different than the ends of other beloved works. They’ve made comparisons to “Empire Strikes Back,” the most recent season of Game of Thrones, and even the famous “Fire” cliffhanger from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
All I gotta say to that is: nope. Nope on fucking toast.
Your Examples Are Bad and You Should Feel Bad
Let’s start with “The Empire Strikes Back” comparison. First and most fore: the Empire Strikes Back doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. It ends on a sequel hook. How can you tell? It’s easy, you just have to look at the story.
A complete story is a question, and an answer. That’s it. Here are the questions asked in the beginning/middle of “Empire Strikes Back,” and the answers that the movie gives us by the end.
Will Han, Leia, and Chewie escape the Empire after the disastrous Battle of Hoth? (No)
Will Luke Skywalker complete his training as a Jedi? (No)
Will Yoda and Obi-Wan be able to tame Luke’s more Anakin-like impulses? (No)
Will Vader be able to capture Luke Skywalker and bring him to his Emperor? (No)
Will Luke be able to face and defeat Vader? (Yes / No)
Is Lando really a dickhead? (No)
That’s it. Those are the questions that are set up and answered. Empire Strikes Back is a complete story, contrary to popular opinion. Are there twists and sequel hooks? Absolutely. But you can tell they’re sequel hooks and not cliffhangers because they ask NEW questions that the movie didn’t ask before. Here are the questions introduced at the END of Empire Strikes Back:
Is Vader really Luke’s father?
Can Han be rescued from Boba Fett / Jabba the Hutt?
Neither of those questions were asked in the beginning/middle of the story and simply not paid off.
If “Empire Strikes Back” was the Season 6 finale of The Walking Dead, on the other hand, it would have gone a little differently. Season 6 has been setting up the Saviors most of the season, and what do the Saviors say at every SINGLE encounter? “We always kill one of you, to get our point across.” Our heroes are plucky enough to escape their first few encounters, but the audience knows what’s going down. That’s called foreshadowing, that’s called ASKING A QUESTION. It’s storytelling. By beating us over the head with “we always kill one of you,” they’ve let the audience know that one of the crew is getting whacked. It’s going to happen, no matter how much we dread it.
The season, of course, ended with us not knowing who got whacked.
The Empire Strikes Back, by Scott Gimple
To continue the comparison, that would be like if “Empire Strikes Back” had a scene early on where Luke is sitting alone and says, “I wish I knew more about my father.” Then, later on, an Imperial officer is talking to Vader, and Vader goes “I know who Luke’s father is. And that shit is going to be surprising.” And then, during their climactic duel, Vader leans in and says, “Luke. Your father is not who you think he is. Your father is really . . . “and then the sound cuts out, and we focus on Luke’s face. Then Luke bellows “NOOOOOOOO” and we cut to credits.
You can say, “Oh, well, the story is actually about whether or not Luke is happy with who his father is,” and then you could say, “Look, Luke is pissed, which means it’s bad. That’s a story.” You can say that, but you’d be wrong.
If that had happened, the movie would have asked a question, foreshadowed an answer, and then not finished the goddamn story. That would be a “cliffhanger,” which is manipulative and cheap. Would people havestill gone to see “Return of the Jedi?” Sure. Would they be majestically pissed that they gave their time and money to go see a movie and then didn’t get a complete story? Bet your ass. Would “Empire” be the beloved film classic it is today? Take a guess.
If the producers of the Walking Dead wanted hashtag social media controversy, they would have had it if they’d finished the story. “Oh my God, Negan killed Charlie Maincharacter. How is Charlie’s wife/husband/brother going to handle this? Does that mean Charlie’s storyline with Jake Sidecharacter is over? Who’s going to fill the role? Do you think Charlie’s dad is going to commit suicide? Become a hardass? How is Rick going to take revenge and gain the respect of his people again? Is Rick a broken man after Charlie Maincharacter’s horrifying death?” You’d get “Remember Charlie” t-shirts and hashtags, and “Rick Will Remember That” memes, and “Official Charlie-Whacker” on the side of toy nerf bats. You’d get it all.
Guess what? People were talking about Empire Strikes Back, I promise you that, and it told an absolutely complete and satisfying story.
Now, to the Game of Thrones comparison, real quick, I promise:
Game of Nopes
Here be spoilers for the last season finale of “Game of Thrones,” obviously.
Was Jon Snow’s scene a cliffhanger? No. Jon Snow’s story this whole season was “can he unite the wildlings and the Night’s Watch to fight the real threat. Can old prejudices be forgotten?” The answer, at least from the Night’s Watch, is a resounding “fuck no, Olly.” And Jon pays the price for his lack of vision. The season ends with him stabbed roughly one jillion times, lying dead in the snow. That ain’t a cliffhanger.
Was Dany’s scene a cliffhanger? No. Her story this whole season was “can she tame and rule her dragons, her man, and the city of Mereen?” No. Her dragon, while it saves her, takes her away and plops her in the middle of the boonies, all alone. Her man is a free spirit that she doesn’t control. And the City of Mereen is lost, at least to her ruling hand. Sure, she ends up in a precarious situation that we don’t know the end of (the Dothraki appearing and circling her), but that’s a sequel hook. It’s an unexpected new twist on the story. If the question of the season had been “will Dany control the Dothraki,” and the season ends with uncertainty on whether the Dothraki are going to hurt her, that would be crap. But that’s not what happened.
Was Stannis’s scene a cliffhanger? No. His god and priestess abandoned him, his army was crushed, and he died. No cliffhanger there.
Was Breanne’s scene a cliffhanger? No. She purposely abandoned her vow to save Sansa to fulfill the vow to kill Stannis. Which she did.
Arya’s scene? No. Because the question this season wasn’t “will Arya’s sight return?” The question was “Can she follow the rules of her new life, or does Arya still exist?” That’s a big fucking “yeah, she exists and her new masters are pissed.” Another complete story (with a sequel hook at the end, surprising and unannounced).
Cersei’s scene? No, she was defeated and humiliated by the Sparrows that she helped create. The question asked at the beginning – “Was empowering the Sparrows a good idea?” – was answered whole-heartedly in the finale.
Will Jaime bring his daughter back to King’s Landing? Nope.
Do you get what I’m saying? Those aren’t cliffhangers, which is why they’re good. A cliffhanger stops a scene in the middle, which is what “The Walking Dead” has been doing all season long. It’s sloppy, manipulative storytelling, and it deserves every ounce of anger it’s asborbed.
Viewer time is precious, and having no respect for it is inexcusable. Having fans is one of the greatest things in the world, and treating them badly is shameful. Replacing good storytelling with carnival barker nonsense is, not to put too eloquent of a point on it, bad and dumb.
Nobody finished the totally-complete Season 1 of Walking Dead and said, “Eh, story’s over, fuck this show.”
EVERYONE came back for Season 2.
You done forgot your roots, guys. And the fans are pissed. Take your lumps like men. Own it, apologize for it, admit it.
Remember: if you have to eat shit, best not to nibble.
Last time: Solin woke up and left his house, which took 1,000 boring words.
“Blacksmith!” Solin shouted. (Good thing Solin said this. I hadn’t mentioned this new character’s profession in at least one (1) seconds).
Jayne raised an eyebrow and leaned across his workbench, “Layabout!” (This is just a good opportunity to point at that “raising an eyebrow and leaning across a workbench” is not a dialogue tag. Turn that comma into a period).
“Don’t fret,” Jayne said, “Nothing personal. Sure could use a bit of help, though.”
(While we’re on dialogue attribution and formatting, apparently I didn’t know how to do it. This is an actual draft I sent to people, too, which is a real shame. “Don’t fret” is a sentence, so “Jayne said” ends with a period. The rest of his dialogue is a new sentence. The only reason to cram that comma in there is if the dialogue tag is breaking a sentence, as in, “We could go outside,” Mister Roboto said, “if we want to get eaten by giant space frogs.”)
Solin crossed the cold cobbles in a heartbeat. He stumbled in the predawn gloom (weird wording, like he’s tripping in a vat of physical gloom) and nearly cracked his head on Nathan Jayne’s anvil. The burly blacksmith (really?) caught him, righted him, and brushed imaginary dust off his shoulders.
Jayne waved it away and walked deeper into his shop. Horse shoes, hoes and rakes, and even a plow blade hung from the walls. Wooden beams crisscrossed just over his head, and Solin wondered how the place hadn’t caught fire yet. In the back, a black forge glowed with the first morning embers the big blacksmith must have stoked. The smell of metal oil and char filled the air.
(This would have been the first, ideal place to hint that Jayne is a blacksmith – Solin, our dull main character, is seeing something physical. Let the reader discover that, give them something to do other than roll their eyes. It’s not a big deal, obviously, but a book can be interactive if you let it be. Readers enjoy deducing things, give them a chance.)
“What do you need? I’ve never made anything before,” Solin said.
“Yeah,” Jayne laughed, “That’s still gonna be true tomorrow. Just help me haul these crates out to the front.”
He indicated two waist-high wooden crates, filled to the top and beyond with what had to be finished products. Tools and the like, work their owners would soon be picking up. (Oh lookie, this backbirth forgot what perspective the book is written in. You can see him/young-me almost going third-person omniscient here. How the hell does Solin know what’s in these crates or what they’re for?) Solin nodded, reached down, and pulled. Something popped in his shoulders, his back, and probably his head. Solin wondered if arms could grow back. The crate, undaunted, remained in place.
“Just warming up?” Jayne asked.
“Nope,” Solin said, “I think that weighs more than my house.”
“First lesson, blondie,” Jayne said, and grabbed a dolly from the wall. He leaned down, tilted the crate, and jammed the hand truck in the gap. The crate came down on top of it, and the wheels creaked. Jayne’s fingers, already dirty, Solin noticed, (unnecessary, obviously Solin is the one doing the noticing, it’s his perspective) wrapped around the handles on the top.
“Tools, right,” Solin said, “I’m getting it, I’m getting it. Put the weight on wheels, not on your spine.”
“Not totally hopeless,” Jayne grunted.
He tilted the dolly and backed out of the narrow passage. Solin pulled another hand truck off the wall and dropped its front metal plate just at the edge of the box. He mimed cracking his knuckles, set his hands on the lip of the crate, and tugged. Leaned back. Shook. Jumped up and down. The crate, bolted to the ground, he was sure, did not move. Didn’t even blink at the assault, actually, a fact Solin found even more frustrating. (This isn’t super-egregious, but it’s an opportunity to be better – don’t tell us Solin is frustrated, like you’re the ring-side announcer. If we’re seeing him trying his hardest to move this crate and its achieving bupkis, we can guess he’s frustrated. Or have him kick the thing. Don’t just vomit the feeling on the reader.)
“Jayne! Jayne I-“
A voice floated back to Solin, cutting him off, “Grab a lever. A pull bar. Right there. On the wall.”
Solin found the described instrument, a long black metal bar with a crook in it. (You can just say crowbar, Solin isn’t an alien). He hefted it, pretended to swing it at the blacksmith’s distant head, and bent down. The tip of the bar fit right under the box, and he shoved his weight down on the bar (delete “on the bar,” redundant and repetitive). A strip of wood at the bottom of the crate broke off and soared through the air.
“What?” Jayne shouted back.
Solin tried again, kicking the tip of the pry bar even further under the box. He crooked the bar, and with only a little creaking this time, the crate rose an inch off the ground. The problem, he realized, was lack of hands now. He stared at the hand truck, willing it to glide under the gap he’d manufactured. But he discovered it didn’t respond to pretend magical abilities. A foresight by its creator, he decided.
Solin hooked the dolly with his foot and pulled. It moved awkwardly, top-heavily, but he nudged it into place. He dropped the box onto the metal lip of the dolly. So far, not bad.
(Okay, let’s take a step back from the nitty gritty and look at the scene – why is this scene happening at all? Why are we infecting some poor reader’s mind with this? At best it’s flirting with being amusing, and SHOWING that Solin is a fuck-up rather than telling us. It’s a good idea in theory, but this scene is never-ending. There are like four paragraphs dedicated to the mechanics of using a dolly – this is self-indulgent fluff of the highest order. Just have him try to lift the crate, knock it over, done. We don’t need a resplendent ode to dolly-usage.)
Solin stood up and got the hand truck fully in place. Underestimating the power of wheels and leverage, Solin yanked back on the top of the dolly’s handle. Also, he didn’t hold the front of the crate in place. Solin turned a dolly into a catapult. The crate of tools bucked up, made half a rotation on one corner, and crashed to the floor on its side. (I’m so relieved you described the exact rotation and orientation or else I wouldn’t be able to understand how a crate could fall over. You’ve saved us all from confusion, thank you.) A hundred tools Solin didn’t recognize crested in a wave (“crested in a wave” is at least redundant, if not outright moronic, which it might be) and rattle-ring-jangled across the floor with surprising power. (Actually not a criticism, I think “rattle-ring-jangled” is kind of a perfect way to describe that noise. Kudos for doing at least one thing right.)
Nathan Jayne walked back into the shop, his face a brand new shade of red. Solin would have been amazed by the sight, that is, if he wasn’t too busy being horribly mortified. (Literally two sentences spent on describing a red face. Two.)
“I’m so sorry.”
“Nnn,” Jayne said. Or he might have said. It was the closest approximation of the grunt bubbling out of his lips. (Brevity, assface: “Nnn,” Jayne tried to say).
“I didn’t think…,” Solin said, the guilty dolly still gripped in one hand, “…that. Wow. Look at all those tools.” (The punctuation makes me want to die. Just use dashes to represent the choppy interrupt, or better yet, just use a comma and let the reader figure out the pacing).
“Wait, I can help,” Solin said.
He crouched to pick up a hand saw. A rake was trapped under it, and when he pulled, it spun and cracked its wooden handle into Jayne’s shin. (The rake has a wooden handle? That IS odd, I’m glad you took time to describe that). The blacksmith howled and dropped to one knee to cradle his shin. Unfortunately, his knee landed on the claw-side of an old hammer. Jayne buckled and fell backwards, his back smacking hard into the stone floor. (“Fell backwards” onto “his back.” “Fell backwards” onto “his back.” “FELL BACKWARDS” onto “HIS BACK.” I’ll cut you).
He stared up at the ceiling for a long moment, his face surprisingly calm.
Solin watched him in horror, too afraid to talk.
“Solin,” Jayne whispered.
“I’m so sorry.”
“There is a back door, Solin. Take it, quickly. If you try to pass by me when you leave, I don’t think I could restrain myself.” (I get the joke, I guess, but this line of dialogue is long and not punchy and certainly doesn’t sound like its being spoken by someone who just fell down and hurt themselves pretty badly).
Solin spun on his heel and bolted for the aforementioned door. It slammed open (On its own, you passive-language using wanker?), and a hinge twisted and cracked (ON ITS OWN? What magical phantom is creating these effects?) and gave the door a maniacal tilt. (I guess Solin has super-strength now? Don’t worry, this doesn’t get touched on ever again. Also “and gave the door” is implying that the maniacal tilt was created in addition to the hinge twisting and cracking. There’s no easy fix without having it rewritten entirely, hopefully by a human with at least a thin slice of brains.) Solin looked back into the shop, his hand over his mouth. Jayne’s head still pointed skyward, but he had clearly heard the sound.
Solin ran down the street.
Overall this is an improvement from last week, where Solin’s most exciting moment was dropping a book on the ground and then picking it up again. The passage also gets a few points for effort, because this young author, still in his salad days, at least TRIED to “show not tell” us that Solin is a lovable screwup.
However, it becomes more obvious as the book progresses that the entire town knows how much of a human disaster area he is, so Jayne conveniently forgetting he’s a screw up so the readers can see he’s a screw up is lazy and contrived. Realistically, Solin should have OFFERED to help – thus establishing him as a good kid – and Jayne should have warned him away with horror in his eyes. That establishes the information WAY FASTER without any ham-handed dialogue or contrived long-ass scenes about proper dolly usage.
Anyway, come back next week for the continuing adventures of “Solin’s Barely Notable Morning Walk.” Maybe he’ll go to the bathroom at some point, or even, oh the excitement, think about stuff.
This Year in Books (2015)
Yeah, I know it’s a little late for an “end of year 2015” list, but I just had a newborn. Cut me some slack, DAMMIT. Sorry, I apologize, I don’t really sleep anymore and it makes me say funny things. Much like Jarvis I do alright for a spell and then I say the wrong cranberry.
Anyway, here’s everything I read last year and recommendations on what you should check out too!
A straight up horror tale told by the rising stars of the Batman universe: writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo. It features the return of the gross, faceless Joker as he tries to make Batman see that the Clown Prince of Crime is the only friend the Bat ever needs.
As you can imagine, he does this by singing songs about it and being a cool person.
It’s a cool book, but damn is it brutal. There are some giant scares (both real and fake out) in this book, and it pulls the uncommon trick of making you think long-standing comic book heroes are actually in danger. Which is really all the recommendation you should need.
If you like magic and you’ve never read the Dresden files, you gotta remedy that situation stat. Anywho, Turncoat is the 11th novel in the series, and boy is it a doozy. I accused the last couple books of being a bit formulaic, but this novel (and the previous one) really started kicking the door down.
Favorite characters, some going as far back as the very first book, are joining the choir invisible left and right. People getting maimed, long-standing institutions blowing up, friendships irrevocably boondoggled. Pacts with sentient islands; it’s nuts. This book also features one of the most terrifying and powerful villains Harry Dresden has ever faced (the Native American shapeshifting demon), and (like Death of the Family up above), the writer does a great job of making you believe long-standing, semi-invulnerable heroes aren’t going to make it.
The sequel to the unique “The Magicians,” (which is being made into a SyFy TV show), The Magician King continues its homage to Narnia and Harry Potter by way of Hunter S. Thompson. I’m not sure if it’s better than the first book, but it does avoid the mistake of rehashing the first story.
There’s a dual story being told this time, one that is a direct nod to “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” (but with more sex and death), while the other is kind of an “Alice in Wonderland” tale told by Clive Barker.
It’s weird and great, and you should check it out if you like your fantasy with a side of darkness and wry humor.
A book I had no prior knowledge of – I saw it on the shelf at Barnes and Noble (yes, they still exist). I dug the cover, and as with every year, I try to mix in some authors and books I’ve never heard of before. Shake myself out of any ruts.
The premise is cool – there are three (or four) Londons sitting right on top of each other, separated only by a thin barrier between alternate dimensions. The main character, Kell, is one of the few people who can travel between them, and serves as a kind of interdimensional messenger boy between the three different kings (and queens) of Londons.
It’s a swashbuckling tale with a cool magic system, and I’d highly recommend it.
Holy bones! I’d heard a crapload of buzz about this book (this was before the movie came out), and I figure I had to check out what people were calling the sci-fi book of the year.
Yeah, they weren’t wrong. This book is incredible. I finished it in literally one day, and it was a work day. The pacing is phenomenal, as is the characterization. Mark Watney is the new MacGuyver, if MacGuyver was a hilarious nerd with the refuse-to-give-uppyness of Spider-Man.
One of the big standouts was how scientific it was. The author never cheated – if it wasn’t something you’d logically have access to on Mars, than neither did Watney. The plot is a master course in fair-play and Man vs. Environment – if you liked “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” “Sign of the Beaver,” or “Call Me Courage” as a kid, “The Martian” is those books on steroids. One person, trapped all alone, refusing to die.
Even if you’ve seen the (great) movie, please check the book out. Some people say it has flaws (dialogue), which it does, but they’re minor quibbles in an amazing piece of storytelling.
Every list of “best fantasy books” you could pull up on the interwoibs has this book sitting pretty on it somewhere. Imagine Ocean’s Eleven meets Kill Bill (set in a fantasy version of a Venice-like Renaissance city), and you’re halfway there.
Locke Lamora and his Gentleman Bastards have been trained since childhood as the city’s greatest con-men. I don’t want to say too much about it, because even discussing the plot beyond that is sort of spoileriffic, but what starts as a fantasy heist book becomes something else entirely.
It was great. Sumptuous world-building is pulled off effortlessly – you never feel like the book is taking an info-dump on you. The characters are all fantastically drawn and memorable, and the action is both swashbuckling at times and grim as shit.
AHhhhhh. If I said the phrase “Holy Bones” in exclamation earlier, I was wrong. This book, the 12th was “holy bones!” times “oh shit!” mixed with “SWEET MARVIN GAYE.”
It all goes magnificently to heck (excuse my language) in this one. One of the plots that is set up in the very first book (12 books ago) is paid off in a spectacular fashion here. To borrow a quote from Eugene of the Walking Dead, “nobody gets to clock out today.” Every single character you’ve been following since the start gets a moment to shine or fail or fight or die, and it has one of the most epic climax battles since Helms Deep.
If this was the last Harry Dresden book, I’d completely understand. It’s a magnificent showing, and I can’t possibly imagine what Butcher is going to do to top it in the actual finale.
The third book in the L.A. Quartet (after “Black Dahlia” and “The Big Nowhere,”) it’s nonetheless the most famous of the bunch because it was made into a Kevin Spacey movie. I almost said “Russel Crowe movie,” but I think he was pretty much a nobody at the time.
L.A. Confidential, like the two books before it, is only loosely connected to the other books in the quartet via side characters and shared background events. Ellroy is a master of turning terse, switchblade language into opera, and for that alone I’d recommend the book.
If you’ve already seen the movie about 1950s police corruption and unlikely friendship, you’re still in for quite a treat. The movie is a damn solid adaptation, but like any flick it has to cut plotlines, characters, and subtle detail. The book shows a messier, wider scope on the tale of Bud White and Ed Exley, making it all the more tragic.
Apparently I was in a noir mood, because it was right into Chandler. I’ve read ALMOST all of Raymond Chandler’s books, and “The Little Sister” represents the second-to-last one for me.
The Little Sister follows ur-archetype Philip Marlowe through a relatively convoluted tale of familial wonkiness, and I’m sad to say it’s none one of his better books. Its great compared to, like, everything else, but in the Marlowe canon it’s strictly middle-of-the-pack. Marlowe always seems tired, but in this book Chandler seems tired. It’s not as bad as “The High Window,” what I consider to be the low mark of the series, but it’s nowhere near the heights of “The Long Goodbye.”
If you like Chandler or noir, it’s a must-read, obviously. If not, no big tragedy.
The sequel to “Mr. Mercedes,” Stephen King follows up his rare unsupernatural, straight murder-mystery with another just like it. Why yes, I did read three detective murder mysteries in a row. DEAL WITH IT.
This one follows up on retired detective Bill Hodges, but only in secondary-character kind of way – the real main characters are psycho literature fan Morris Bellamy (who is basically the flesh-and-blood version of a YouTube comment section) and Pete Saubers, an unlikely kid who stumbles upon the most harrowing experience of his young life. Both become obsessed with the long-lost missing manuscripts of a world-renowned but reclusive writer, and both go a wee bit too far in their zeal to see how he concluded his famous unfinished book series.
While there is murder, I guess it’s unfair to call this one a murder mystery. It’s really more of a “Treasure Island” mixed with “Stand By Me” plus a tiny dash of “Misery.” This whole book is Stephen King’s comment on obsessive fandom and the deleterious effect it can have on creators and their works, and it’s a pretty unflattering statement. Definitely worth a bend, check it out.
December – The Walking Dead: Compendium 1 (Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, Charlie Adlard)
I’m a huge fan of the Walking Dead AMC Series, but I’d never peeped the comics before. No real reason, honestly – I like Kirkman, love zombies, and really dig on comics, but I’d started the show first and kind of just wanted to see how it played out.
However, I figured that with the show now at six seasons, I could safely check out the first volume of the comics (which caps at the end of the prison arc) and not get spoiled for the future.
I got Vol 1 for Christmas (which goes from issue #1 to around issue #44 or #45), and that thing is a brick. A little rough math tells me the book was over 1000 pages of pure black-and-white zombie goodness, and I finished it within about four days. Yeah. The pacing is that good.
As a show-watcher first, I gotta say I do like the show better. I’m not sure that’s really a fair statement, though – I imagine a “first love” kind of thing is clouding my judgement. But I’d argue that those who started as comic readers probably have a similar bias. Another factor is that generally I prefer TV to comic books, so it could be a medium thing.
The thing is, really, the show and the comic are two completely different beasts. While the characters share the same names and (sometimes) the same looks, almost none of them transfer 1-to-1. Show-Michonne, despite having a katana and identical looks, could not be more different from Comic-Michonne in both personality and storyline.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the differences, non-spoiler style:
Pacing – The comic’s pacing is faster, but it’s also kind of exhausting. The show takes a little more time to flesh out the characters and their motives, while the comic is much more “GO GO GO” from plot-point to plot-point. So that’s a personal preference thing. I prefer a more measured pace, and foreshadowing, which the show does much better. Almost every comic book villain, new character, or general threat literally walks up to the group and goes “hey I’m here now.”
Plot – The comic has a tighter plot, and its arcs are much shorter and generally tighter. The comic gets the win here.
Characters – Show, all the way. All the way show. It’s a trade-off thing – having a tighter plot and faster pace almost always leaves the characters a bit high and dry. Don’t get me wrong, I love both sets of characters, but I feel like I knew the TV characters better after the same amount of time.
There are exceptions. TV Andrea is terrible, while comic Andrea is pretty cool. I mean, she’s not really a deep character (tough sniper chick is pretty much as deep as it gets with her), but she’s at least rad, which goes a long way in my book. Comic Lori is much more likable and clearly motivated, where TV Lori just seemed like a drama bomb the writers used to fluff up storylines.
However, Rick, Daryl, Glenn, Carol, and Maggie are FAR superior to the comics, and since they’re pretty much the core of the story it gets the win for me.
Favorite Book of 2015 . . .
This year’s rough for picking a favorite, so I’ll cheat.
Best Characters: L.A. Confidential
Best Story and Pacing: The Martian
Best New World: The Lies of Locke Lamora
So, all told, this was a pretty damn fantastic year. Unlike last year’s rockier list, I enjoyed everything I read. If the low point was a decent Raymond Chandler novel, I call that a banner year. I didn’t read as many books as I’d like (I’m actually down like three or four from last year), but I chalk that up to becoming a new dad. Time just ain’t what it used to be, unfortunately.
I’ll see you next year with even more books! Go and read, it makes you smarter.
Attention! I am trying to win a contest to get a new book published and supported by Nerdist. The top five people who get the most pre-orders will get published, and the winner gets Nerdist support. If the book doesn’t make it, you won’t be charged the pre-order amount. So it’ll only cost you if the book actually wins, and then hey, you get a book out of it.
Pretty please click here to check the book out, check out the premise, cover, and first chapter, and if it sounds like something you wanna read (or you just like my furry face), please give it a pre-order.
In advance, you rock, and your whole face is aesthetically pleasing.
Also I’ll try to spam less and deliver actual blogposts. Thanks again!
The Mad Men Finale Kicked My Ass
I love the ends of things.
As much as I hate to see a story I love go away, I’m always terrified it won’t end. That the story will drag on, teeth growing longer and longer, fatigue drinking away all of the good will reserves I’ve been building for years (coughHowIMetYourMothercough). It’s a fine line, what’s too long for a television show, what’s too short. All I know is that if I’m ready for it to end, they’ve gone too far.
And it’s easy to forget that the end of a story is the most important part, if done correctly. While the journey may be more important than the destination, it’s the final statement in a piece of fiction that tells you everything you need to know about the story. If the final episode ends optimistically, it colors everything that came before – you understand what it was all building toward. If everything ends in ruin and destruction, you realize that the story was about futility, or possibly about the struggle to succeed being just as noble independent of the outcome of the struggle.
Unlike a good essay, the last episode of a television show (or the last chapter of a book, or the last scene of a movie) is where the thesis statement lives. What was the story about?
Who Done It Right?
Sitcoms almost universally fail the test of finales, simply because sitcoms aren’t really about anything. I realize that sounds needlessly dickish, but it’s important to remember – most sitcoms are nachos. Now, in defense of nachos, the Aztec Queso God (Quesocoatl) didn’t make all nachos equal. Some nachos exist as beds of stale chips drowning in cold liquid cheese, the kind that you can also use to grease the guts of an industrial bailer.
Other nachos or more substantial, substrates of chip and real cheese and spiced ground beef, sprayed with onions and little green things and discs of the noble jalapeno pepper.
Dramas have a better time of it, because dramas have themes. Generally. Not like, CSI, but the good ones. Star Trek: Next Generation closed the curtain with “All Good Things,” and contrary to almost all of their season finales, was only one hour long. No two-parter, no epic confrontation with fan-favorite villain the Borg, no big fight with the Klingons or Lore or any number of spectacular villains. Instead, Picard faces an intellectual challenge involving time travel, one that shows him what life was when he started on the Enterprise, where he is now, and where he (and the cast) may someday be.
The climax happens inside Picard’s mind – he has a fantastic leap of logic that saves the day (combined with the teamwork of three time-tossed Enterprises). The show ends how it lived – a beacon of hope for what humans are capable of. What we are now, and what we might become some day with effort, teamwork, and an insatiable curiosity.
The Mad Mens
Let’s get to the brass tacks of it all – last night I sat down with my wife, poured a rye over ice, and watched the series finale of “Mad Men.”
When I bought the last episode on Amazon, strings of tension inside my stomach tightened. When I clicked play, the strings began to play a ballad of fear. I love the ends of things, until I don’t. Mad Men is a nearly perfect show that’s had only one dip in quality that I’ve ever seen (the first few episodes of season six, for trivia), and even then it’s only notable for producing a string of “only kinda great episodes” instead of “utterly wonderful.” I was terrified it was going to be bad, or worse, that it was going to be great but that it would close the show on a sentiment I didn’t want.
Here’s the part where I get into massive spoilers, so beware – if you haven’t seen the ending, this is going to ruin everything. Please only continue if you’ve watched it – if you haven’t, go watch it. If you’ve never seen the show, start on episode 1 “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and come back in six months. The show is too good to let it be spoiled by some internet asshole – I would feel like a jerk for ruining one of the finest shows on television show. Don’t make me a jerk.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way . . .
The Girl or the Tiger
I’ve been watching the show for five or six years now – the night after my wedding, me and my wife’s greatest priority was making sure we caught the season six premiere (which was disappointing, as I said earlier. The wedding was the opposite of disappointing, so that soothed some of the sting).
I’ve had no clue what kind of show it was this entire time. Did Mad Men truly embrace its nihilistic tendencies? Was it telling me about the futility of struggle, of work, of ambition? Was it describing a Randian universe where hard work and dedication leads to victory? Was it about the fall, rise, or death of Don Draper? Was it just a really artful soap opera? What is it?!
The question drove me into shades of Lovecraftian madness, and the show played it coy with the answers. Some episodes were astounding paeans to American zeal and asskickery, others mournful deconstructions of the costs of an era that marginalized women, minorities, gay people, or really any person that wasn’t a type-A-for-asshole whisky-swilling bro in an expensive suit. It flirted with all of these concepts and none, portraying an unflinching look at the good, the bad, the ugly and the oddly artful quality of the ’50s/’60s zeitgeist.
So when I say I felt tension when I started the episode, it’s because I didn’t know. I didn’t know what kind of show Mad Men was, and here, before me, lay the answer. Just 57 minutes later I would know what the last five years were about. I saw the shadow of the massive shape above my head and wondered if it was a cloud or a B2 Bomber.
Person to Person
In those last 57 minutes, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner finally illustrated the theme, at least to me. Obviously any Mad Men episode is a Rorshach test, but here’s what I saw in the inks:
I saw Pete Campbell’s hard-earned inner reflection and hope for the future put his family back together. I saw him get aboard the same kind of airplane that killed his father with a smile on his face – the poison in his past held no more sway over him. His Gatsby-like desire to recapture the best of the past and throw away the worst was actually successful. Pete Campbell was always an enigma – a “what’s in it for me” upstart shark with the incongruous prescience: he saw the Civil Rights movement coming, he made the push to hire African Americans, and he never treated them any different.
Pete’s weakest moments were when he attempted to live up the “American Male” standard of his more successful coworkers – Don’s complexity and (let’s be honest) good looks made his womanizing appear somehow romantic. When Pete cheated on his wife, he was just a scum bag. His attempts to live up to that shell – the “Don Draper” shell – always destroyed him. His sensitive insight, to contrast, always uplifted him. In the end, he let go of who he wanted to be and embraced who he actually was, and he boarded that Lear jet with his family in his arms and a guileless smile on his face.
Roger Sterling is the living totem of “lazy, smartass rich kid who inherited his fortune,” and it’s bored him across the entire show. Roger Sterling is not a businessman – he never was. All of his business ventures were essentially handed to him – his entire worth to the company was based on the Lucky Strike account that his father had dropped in his lap. And his name, of course. Roger Sterling “lived the past twenty years like he was on shore leave,” a fact he lamented. Roger always reached out to try to find something beyond his boredom – drugs, secretaries, the unhaveable Joan.
Roger tried to live up to the “businessman” he inherited from his father, and it always ended shittily. He lost Lucky Strike at the first ounce of trouble. After Bert Cooper (the real businessman and captain of SC&P) died, Sterling tried to step further into the ill-fitting role. He ended up selling the company to McCann to save it from Jim Cutler, which ultimately destroyed the company and sent most of the cast into a death spiral.
With his relationship with Megan’s mom (and now more money then he’d ever know what to do with), Roger found someone who would never make him bored again. She’s as smartass and wild as him (plus she’s got that special brand of French madness), a fellow bon vivant who’s only interested in a life well-lived. Of taboo’s being explored, or drugs and drink and sex. Roger let go of his “businessman” shell and finally embraced who he was – a swashbuckler on the sea of life. He’ll never be bored again with her by his side.
Betty Draper in her kitchen, smoking the cigarettes that killed her, reading the paper, her schoolbooks spread out before her. Sally Draper doing the dishes, handling the affairs. Even Bobby Draper got a clue (for once). Don Draper listened to what Betty said – he respected her wishes by not coming out, by not seeing her fading away, by not trying to shake up the kid’s lives.
In the end, Betty Draper was allowed to live the life that she wanted. She never wanted to grow old, she never wanted to lose her beauty – she spoke volumes about how lucky it was that her mom died when she still looked gorgeous. When Sally Draper told her she loved the tragedy of it, she was half right – Betty doesn’t like scandal or tragedy, but the cancer’s death sentence almost comes as a perverted relief to her. She will die in a beautiful dress with a beautiful face, and no one will ever have a memory of her that wasn’t pretty.
And, in the end, the men in her life finally respected her wishes. She took the power over of her own life, however small. It’s an esoteric happy ending, but once again, we see it – Betty Draper is forced to discard the shell of the perfect housewife or the political foil or the mother (which she never really was), and embrace who she really is. In that small victory, she dies perfectly as herself.
Oh, Joanie Joanie Joanie. In a weird way, her and Don were the two I was most worried about. Both seemed on the edge of failure this season – they were the ones most affected by the move to McCann. They both fled upon contact with that cramped, backwards, wood-paneled factory.
Joan has always been a woman of duality (not that everyone on Mad Men isn’t similarly afflicted). In her, two Joans waged war – the “beautiful trophy,” the one who had the dalliances with Roger, the one who married the handsome doctor, the one who connected so thoroughly with sex-voiced dignity-engine Bruce Greenwood (I don’t remember his character’s name, so I’m going to call him “Captain Pike” from here on out). That Joan loved the way men looked at her, that Joan used her wiles to seduce men, that Joan wanted to be the curvy femme fatale. We’ll call her “Holloway.”
The second Joan, the real Joan, (we’ll call her “Harris” because of what she learned with that name), bristled inside. Whenever Holloway convinced a man with sex (or the promise of sex), Harris recoiled at how men treated her afterward. She wanted the power, she wanted equality, but every time her own desire to play the femme fatale stymied her. The men who knew who she really was (Don, Lane Price, Bert Cooper) respected her for her incredible talent and inner strength – perhaps not coincidentally, all men who didn’t see (or treat) her as a sexual object. And, more importantly, they’re the men she didn’t try to win over with sex.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that Joan created this dynamic. Men viewed her as a sexual being because of the nature of the era, and because men can be real assholes when they’re raised to be believe women are objects. The Holloway Joan was a reaction to the unfortunate time period she was born into – she had to use sex as a weapon, because it was the only weapon they didn’t take away from her. However, living on the cusp of social progress, she realized there were other ways to get power – long after she’d trained herself as a kind of sex assassin.
The Joans wanted power, they wanted equality, but Holloway represented the old way, and Harris the new. In many ways, the American woman’s fight lived inside of her.
Which is why you could call these last few episodes “The Last Temptation of Joan.” Forced out of McCann after she realized that she was born about three decades too soon for a massive sexual harassment suit to get any traction, Joan took the money and ran. She had the perfect adventuring companion (Captain Pike), a handsome, rich, caring, wealthy man who was completely entranced by her sexual wattage and free-wheeling personality – this man loved Holloway, and Holloway could go with him and live happily ever after.
But Holloway is a shell. The real Joan said it best, “I can’t just turn it off.” She can’t shut off her drive to want to build businesses, to have her name on the door, to carve women’s power out of rock. She’d be happy as a world-traveling trophy wife, but she wouldn’t be herself. She’d be embracing the shell. When she finally gives him up in order to start her own production studio (Holloway-Harris Productions, aptly enough), she becomes the real, powerful executive who doesn’t have to answer to men. Her truest self.
Peggy Olson’s transformation from mousy secretary to BAMF (bad ass mother-fucker) has been enlightening. My wife said it best – “Joan is interested in raising up women, while Peggy is interested in raising up herself – her being a woman has never factored into it for her.” Which is true – in many ways, Peggy almost laments being a woman.
Her rejection of motherhood, her rejection of all of her relationships – she’s tossed away all traditional female “needs” in order to pursue her career. In many ways, Peggy is the anti-Joan. Peggy never embraced femininity as a tool, and was punished for it just as harshly as Joan was for embracing it. The two of them illustrate just why women have such a hard time in the work place – if they’re feminine, they’re seen as silly sex-bunnies (Joan), and if they’re masculine they’re seen as cold bitches (Peggy). It’s an absolutely maddening dynamic, and the tension between the two characters springs from it – they both think the grass is greener on the other side.
Which is why Joan’s attempted business seduction was so perfect – the two were trying to meet in the middle. Peggy Olson has always wanted to advance as quickly as possible, because she believes she always deserves – sometimes she does, sometimes she doesn’t, but that’s the curse of the ambitious. She’s never happy where she is, and she believes she’s better than her superiors. She wants to be creative director, like, yesterday. She wants her name on the door tomorrow.
Though I would have LOVED to watch a show about the Harris/Olson Production Company, it wasn’t right for Peggy. Joan’s success is Peggy’s Last Temptation – to embrace the version of Peggy she wants to be, the version of Peggy who puts accolades and titles above the work. The false Peggy. Instead, she decided to stay at McCann and do the work she loved. But also, weirdly enough, to earn the job of Creative Director. She doesn’t want a position handed to her that’s kind of like what she wants. She wants to take it. And by staying at McCann, that’s exactly what she’s doing. Plus, now that she’s become the spiritual successor to Roger Sterling’s “give no fucks” attitude, we know she’s going to succeed.
Peggy, being the anti-Joan, also found the opposite solution as Joan to another problem. Joan had to reject her suitor to become her truest self, so, of course, Peggy had to embrace her suitor to achieve the same effect. For Joan, being the trophy wife was the false persona. For Peggy, being the cold, unsexual woman was a false persona.
Peggy Olson is a very lonely person – she’s rejected romantic relationships as a distraction, forgetting why we have them in the first place. A woman isn’t empty without a man, but people feel empty without someone to love. Colder. Harder. One of the greatest themes in Mad Men is about connection between people, (there’s a reason the last episode is called “Person to Person”) and no one has rejected that connection more than Peggy. And yet, we see her flailing attempts to reach out to Abe, to Ted, to Duck, hell even to the weird surrogate son in her building who just swings by to watch TV.
In Stan, Peggy found a connection that had snuck up on her. The scene where Stan and Peggy stumble upon their love for one another is one of the most brilliant scenes not only in the show, but in TV history. I’ve never felt more like a squishy romantic douche than I did during that short but beautiful moment. Stan and Peggy really were all the other one had, and moreover they’d earned each other’s respect over years of struggle.
It wasn’t about Peggy “finding a man,” but about Peggy finding the version of herself that could be in a relationship without sacrificing her work. Abe hated her work, Ted hated his own work, and Duck was a hot mess who kept trying to pull Peggy away from SC&P. In Stan, she found a partner, a friend, and one of the few people (besides Don) who understands how important the ad game is to her. The artfulness of it, the need.
Peggy rejected her shell (greedy, cold, unloving) and became her truest self – a damned good writer with pluck who was strong enough to make personal connections.
We come finally, at last, to the man. The myth. The legend. No, not Hercules, though he may be some kind of American Hercules, a mythological character of strength and power who’s deeply alcoholic with a lot of mommy/daddy issues.
Don is Mad Men. Every thematic statement on the show flows through him before bouncing to others, like the spell “Chain Lightning” in Dungeons & Dragons. And like Chain Lightning, the first target hit takes the most damage.
The question of “who is Don Draper” has been answered over the last few seasons, but the question “who is Don Draper going to become?” is the one that caused that stomach fear I mentioned in the first few paragraphs of this increasingly lengthening article. Because Don Draper was always the middle stage of transformation, the chrysalis that Dick Whitman crafted with a few well-placed dog tags.
Bert Cooper described Don Draper best when he said that “a man is the room that he’s in.” Don Draper personifies that strange compartmentalization of which (mostly) men are so capable. It’s one of our greatest strengths, and one of our most terrible weaknesses. Being able to kill a man in a trench in war and then go home and work in insurance sales is a powerful tool, but it’s also the same tool that allows a man to stick his schwanz in his secretary at a Christmas party and then tell his wife that he still loves her.
Don Draper doesn’t know who he is, so he’s constantly exploring. That’s why Don gets so fucking weird and nebulous the further he is away from his family or his workplace – those constructs begin to evaporate, and he has to be whoever is appropriate for the moment. It’s also the reason the California episodes always feel like strange fever dreams. If it’s appropriate to do a bunch of drugs by a pool with some naked Europeans, then that’s who Don Draper is. If it’s appropriate to be a test driver in Utah, that’s who he becomes. If he’s the handyman, he’s the handyman.
Don is always the room he is in. If he’s in an ad meeting, he’s pitching those killer Don Draper monologues. If he’s dating a hippy, then he’s going to beat poetry slam sessions and listening to jazz.
The last few episodes have been testing that theory to the breaking point. Who is Don on the run? We see a man unspooling in front of us. At the pitch meeting where he walks out, Don has realized he has no fucking clue what he wants. So, in true Don fashion, he runs away from his problem and tries to hide in the vagina of another dalliance – the crazy waitress (I also don’t remember her name, so let’s call her Esme).
His first move is to embrace the runaway coward, the womanizer, the “start-all-over” guy. He’s been threatening to start all over again since Season 1, when Rachel Menken basically laughed in his face about the absurdity of the idea. But now that he doesn’t have a wife (again), his family doesn’t seem to need him, he hates his job, and he has a shitload of money – Don can finally embrace his fantasy and just get the hell out of Dodge.
His first stop takes him to Esme’s former house, where he bullshits a lie that Esme’s husband immediately sees through. The guy is a Grade-A jackass, but he has Don’s number (probably because he’s so used to his own wife’s bullshit lies and runaway tendencies). Don finally realized that Esme isn’t a romantic pursuit, but a truly disturbed woman. She wasn’t running so Don could chase her, she was running because she’s got a pathological problem. Just like Don.
Don abandons the quest because it’s basically impossible to find her. Here, Don loses another piece – he’s already lost his wife, his job, and even the furniture in his apartment, and now he’s lost his mistress. The pieces that make up Don Draper are falling apart. He’s giving them up so he can continue forward – the whole thing reminds me of Inanna’s descent to the underworld in Babylonian mythology. Not to get too Dennis Miller with my references, but Inanna was forced to give up seven articles of clothing, one at each gate to the Underworld. She stripped her power and belongings away to become nothing, to make the journey.
Don keeps giving up things as he travels, fetishes of the “Don Draper” persona. When he plays the part of the veteran, he realizes he isn’t playing a part. He really was in war – he really did experience horrible things. Though he came the veterans’ fundraiser as Don Draper, he spoke as Dick Whitman. Here, he gave up another fetish – the secret of the war. Don finally admits to one of his greatest secrets, and the other men don’t care. They support him. He leaves that pain on the table. Another piece gone.
With the young, failing con artist, Don gives away his car – the most obvious, potent symbol of his Don Draper lifestyle. His polished masculinity, his slab of Detroit rolling steel, but also his ability to keep running.
Then, Don learns Betty is dying. His perfect wife, his imperfect ex-wife – the stereotypical life Don Draper tried to create. Gone. His daughter rejects him during the call, and during his next call with Betty, she rejects him too. Don’s family, gone. He passes through another gate.
In California, we see Anna Draper’s house has fallen into disrepair – another totem taken away. The house represented his secret, where he kept Anna and his lie.
So Don follows Anna’s niece to the new-agey commune, because Anna’s niece is now one of his last pieces, and it’s tenuous at best. She’s merely an echo of Anna Draper, and when she abandons him it’s almost a foregone conclusion. Lost, bereft, confused and trapped, Don calls Peggy because it looks like he might be thinking about killing himself. He’s reaching for Peggy, yes, but in another way he’s really just saying goodbye – he’s giving her up, his surrogate daughter. He never said his goodbyes when he left McCann, but Peggy was special to him.
Then, she’s gone too. Don Draper is a catatonic man, curled up under a payphone, practically disintegrating. That’s when the fear began to ratchet up, to twist my stomach – ah, this is what Mad Men was about. This show is going to end with Don’s death – everything before this has been leading up to the slow, horrible deconstruction of a deeply flawed, somehow-sympathetic stand-in for the old image of the American Male.
Don has given up all of his clothes, and he’s made it to the Underworld.
Except . . . a woman appears. An old woman we don’t know, one who takes Don’s hand and leads him to the hippy-dippy group therapy session Don had been rolling his eyes at earlier. Don sits like an old Roman statue in a ruined rotunda, being physically present but nothing more, while strangers gush about their problems. And here, Don hears a classic Don Draper ad-pitch from a thoroughly broken man. Except, it’s an anti-pitch – the stranger isn’t selling something, he isn’t trying to create longing. Instead, he’s explaining why he has that longing. This is, in a way, market research for the soul. Don watches the man pour his guts into the circle, and Don realizes what he is. Don Draper doesn’t want to run away. He wants to belong. He wants to be with people. He wants to connect, person to person.
The man says he had a dream that he’s on a shelf in a refrigerator, and that he’s alone in the dark. Longing. And then the door opens, and the light clicks on, and his family, everyone, is looking at him. Everyone is happy to see him. But then . . . . they pick something else from the refrigerator and close the door. The darkness returns, and he longs for the door to open. To be picked.
Don Draper breaks in front of us in a heart-tearing, silent scene. Jon Hamm doesn’t just knock it out of the park with only his face; he knocks the park out of the city, he knocks the city out of the state. Watching his chiseled face melt, watching 7 seasons of pain roar through him . . . it’s almost too much. He rushes to the man and actually hugs him, a move so un-Don Draper he might as well have grown wings and flew out the window.
From there, we see the final montage describing a lot of the events I talked about earlier. But the question still hangs – who is Don Draper going to become? What possible path lay before him now?
In the last shot of the show, we see a Don Draper in the lotus position, doing sun salutation with the Yogi he’d been silently mocking earlier in the show. We see Don Draper in clean white linen, no power suit. No nothing. He’s an empty vessel, or so we think. We think he’s still the room. Don is in a California hippy convent, doing yoga. He seems to be at peace . . . but so is the room he’s in. Don hasn’t grown.
And then . . . he smiles. Not a peaceful smile, an at-ease smile. Oh no. It’s the closest you can get to a shit-eating grin while sitting in lotus position. His eyes are closed.
He has an idea.
The show cuts to the most famous commercial of all time, and one of the most successful ad campaigns in Coca Cola history. The “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” commercial, the one anyone who was alive during the seventies and eighties can sing by heart.
Then . . . credits.
I leaped to my feat, laughing in completely delighted satisfaction. When I managed to get my maniacal laughter under control, I started talking to my wife, running sentences together like a schizophrenic. Explaining what I thought happened, why it was so wonderful . . . and then suddenly, my throat shrank. My voice went gravely, and everything blurred. As I described everything the show meant, everything the show meant to me, I started crying. I couldn’t help it. I kept trying to stop it, but the more I talked the more the emotions slammed into me.
“Are you okay?” my wife asked. Not because I was crying – I cry at everything like a gigantic baby – but because I was grinning while I was crying, which makes it look like there was a hull breach on the Emotion Deck of my human starship.
“Yes! I’m happy. I’m so fucking happy right now.”
Why was I happy?
Why Was I Happy?
Reason 1) Don Draper became. Finally, after all these seasons of uncertainty, he transformed. Not back into Dick Whitman, and not into some future person, but into Don Draper. He didn’t have Don’s car, or Don’s job, or Don’s wife or his house or his pain. Instead, in that “room” I keep talking about, Don was himself. He wasn’t the room, probably for the first time in his life. The room was a Cliffside beach where yoga was happening – it wasn’t a boardroom. It wasn’t in the heart of Manhattan. It wasn’t in an ad agency. Don Draper became Don Draper outside of his milieu. Outside of his affectation. He wasn’t impressing anyone, he wasn’t trying to sell himself to anyone.
His mind, empty of his old wounds and his old worries, crystallized into who he truly was. Don Draper threw everything away to discover himself, and in that moment of clarity, in that “Eureka!” moment of creation, he found that the creative genius version of Don Draper was who he really was. His truest self. Don always found the beauty and the art in what he did – he didn’t think it was bullshit marketing. He loves advertising. He loves coming up with the pitch that breaks a million wallets.
Hell, here’s what a 100% sincere Don had to say about advertising:
“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.”
What Mad Men Means to Me
Mad Men ended on a positive note, and in doing so colored the entire series. Mad Men wasn’t about success or failure, not to me. It was about transformation. Identity. The metamorphosis from who we thought we would be into who we really are. What we want versus what we can achieve, and what’s good for us.
Mad Men just became one of the most important shows I’ve ever seen. I’m not saying that’s true for you, or that it will be true for you. Art, no matter how great, is heavily dependent on timing. On when you discovered it, on what you were feeling when you saw it, on where your head was at.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of my other favorite shows, came out when I was 11 years old, just about to head into Junior High and the High Schools beyond. The transition from childhood to adolescent was upon me, and I’d be a damn dirty liar if I said that Buffy wasn’t my guide through the process. It hit me because it couldn’t not hit me – it was everything I needed, exactly when I needed it. Strength, confidence, humor, tragedy, intelligence, all from characters navigating that weird, hormone-addled transition period. Buffy also ended right as I graduated high school – literally, like, a few days before I graduated high school. It started when I needed it most, and it ended when I was ready to move on.
It’s a creepy coincidence, but maybe it was fate too.
Mad Men, for me, will always be the story of my twenties. As of this writing, I’m 29-years-old, but I’ll be thirty in almost exactly a month. I have my first kid, a boy, coming in October. My twenties are over, and I hurdle headfirst into adulthood. You know, right as Mad Men ended.
If childhood is learning how to be a person, and adolescence is learning how to be an adult, then your twenties are about finding out what kind of adult you’re going to be (and how well you’re going to handle it).
I’ve had trouble with my twenties, fighting between identities. I’ve worked an assortment of oddball jobs, I’ve been up and I’ve been down. When my first book was about to be published, I was working as a high school janitor, emptying tampon boxes and pulling Cheetos bags out of urinals. I’ve worked in museums and theaters, warehouses and bathrooms, and trying to square all that with who I thought was wasn’t always easy. Taking a horrible job to pay rent is a difficult thing, and being so poor that you had to decide if you were losing hot water or electricity that month doesn’t leave many of your self-delusions intact.
It’s only now, at the tail end of my twenties, do I really feel like an adult. I’ve got a handhold on everything (though I suspect the baby about to spring into my life is going to kick at some of those handholds), and I feel like I finally understand. I’ve been through thick and thin with myself now, and I know who I am when the chips are down.
And ever since my early ’20s, I’ve been struggling through my identity right alongside Don Draper. I understood his mistakes, I lamented his bad choices, and I cringed when the world kicked the shit out of him. I got it, because it was all happening to me.
I’m not saying I won’t have problems, or that Don just goes back to McCann, comes up with the best ad of all time, and then just sails off into Narnia. We all have problems, forever and ever, that’s life. But he knows who he is now, and so do I. Storms will come, but now we know what our ship can take. How she handles. How she flies across the water even when the rain soaks our clothes and the wind tears at our rigging.
We’ve also learned how far that damn ship can go.
Post originally appeared on Agents of GUARD, written by B.C. Johnson.