Paige and the Peril of Coming of Age American

On The Americans‘ season finale,  Paige breaking her parents’ confidence was one of the series’ most damning depictions of the American project in series so far.  And yes, I do remember the episodes on CIA in Central America, but this time the series  opened up space for critically reflecting on what American culture–not just its military industrial complex–yields and what we found is not heartening.

As Paige dialed that phone to call Pastor Tim, the show again played on one of its most interesting features: the tension for viewers about who, after all, we are rooting for.  Initially the show took hits from critics who felt that by making the Jennings our protagonists producers encouraged viewers to root against America in the Cold War.  Fans of the program are likely to find things far more complicated than that, however.  There’s no doubt that we come to care about Philip and Elizabeth, that we root for their marriage and cringe during shoot-outs in hopes of their survival.  But we’re likely to prefer Philip–at least in season one–as it becomes clear that he has come to enjoy and internalize certain parts of America far more than his wife.

Paige’s indiscretion about her parents true vocation is a step toward American victory in the silent war being fought with KGB “Illegals” on American soil.  It is also the sympathetic, literal cry for help of an average teenage girl–perhaps a better than average one–faced with too much adult responsibility, too much moral quandary, and too many lies to handle on her own.  We get it, Paige.  We do.

And yet we don’t.  Or at least I don’t.  Watching Paige pick up that receiver, I felt something in me recoil from her (and a tinge of disappointment that the writers went this slightly more predictable path with her character).  My disgust with Paige wasn’t triggered by any pinko leanings; no amount of Putin Olympic agitprop nor episodes in the confidence of the Jennings has produced sympathy for the Communist cause.   It was activated by the sense that Paige, the born-and-bred American, ultimately operated in a world of thinner choices, of too clean edges, of too much desire for simplicity to handle herself in the high-risk, consequence-laden world her parents brought her into.

Continue reading Paige and the Peril of Coming of Age American

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Don Draper Fades to Black

Mad Men just wrapped its penultimate season having spent a notable amount of screen time fleshing out the story of Don Draper’s coming of age. The show has always been premised in part on Draper’s need to hide his true past, still the convention of his dark secret has perhaps never been so visually explored as in this past season. Light and dark “twins” abounded: there were two Dons on this season’s promotional art, two wigs for Don’s wife Megan’s soap opera role playing twins, and even two creative directors at the office—figured as doppelgangers by fair-haired, former rival Ted Chaough and the darker Don. This season the dark past returned in frequent flashbacks of Don as an adolescent named Dick Whitman growing in a whorehouse. When Don’s past caught up with him in the present, however, it was embodied by black characters.

This begs the question, Why is Dick Whitman haunting Don Draper in blackface? Continue reading Don Draper Fades to Black