Mad Men and the Excuse of Truth

The Times‘s City Room blog had a post earlier this week that I found fascinating, from a writer’s perspective. It concerned the season debut of Mad Men; specifically, a scene in which ad execs from Young & Rubicam dump water on civil rights protestors. In reaction to this indignity, one of the protestors says, “And they call us savages.”

Many critics found the line clunky, but the words were taken verbatim from the Times report about the real-life 1966 incident that the scene mimics. About this particular line of dialogue, the show’s creator, Matt Weiner, said, “His story was such that I thought it inviolable.”

Now, Weiner has created one of the most critically acclaimed shows of our era, while I have written three as-yet unpublished novels and way too many words about Edgardo Alfonzo. However, I have to raise a slight objection to this line of thinking. Because as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to writing, nothing is “inviolable.”

This attitude comes from a lesson I took from my MFA study, one that I always try to keep in mind when writing. Often in workshops, if a story was very personal, it came dangerously close to being critic-proof, as if to criticize the writing was to criticize the writer’s life. The more a story was based on Real Live Events, the more a student would get defensive about criticism thereof. (And I was no exception.) If a reader couldn’t quite understand some aspect of a story, if they wondered why a character did Thing X instead of Thing Y, the writer would huffily respond that the character did Thing X because “that’s what really happened.”

During one such critique, the workshop leader said something I’ll never forget. (Though for the life of me, I can’t remember which workshop leader this was, though I desperately wish I could.) S/he said, “The truth is no excuse.”

You can take inspiration from real life. You can even hew closely to Actual Events, whether they happened to you or are historical facts. But whatever you write must survive not as a documentary, but as writing. Because if it fails as writing, history can’t bail you out. It can’t bestow profundity or meaning onto a story that otherwise has none. In the case of drama, it can’t make your dialogue sound any less stilted and inhuman.

One of the things that has made Mad Men such a smart, mature show is that it portrays its era with as little modern influence as possible. It doesn’t give the modern viewer the out of having a Righteous White Guy who echoes our sensibilities, who comforts the discriminated-against Oppressed Person and assures us that not everyone in this world is horrible.

The truth was, if you weren’t a rich WASP male in 1966, your life was some shade of terrible. Nowadays, everyone thinks they were tolerant back then, in the same way that “everyone” was in the French Resistance. And most people were tolerant–by the standards of the time. What that translated to was not actively discriminating against people while obeying the unspoken divides between classes, races, and genders, while also looking at those few weirdos who did march for civil rights with more than a little suspicion.

How many people tried to make things better? How many people spoke up for the downtrodden? Relatively few. By showing characters who aren’t all-around terrible people but who fail to be good in the ways we expect them to be good, what Mad Men says is, If you lived then you’d probably be like this, too. And you’re probably this way right now, in ways you can’t quite grasp.

This is why the “savages” line fell so flat. It felt like something from a well-meaning-but-heavy-handed mid-1960s drama. (It’s so clunky, in fact, I suspect the original “quote” was actually manufactured. It has the decided scent of “print the legend” wafting off of it.) It reassures us that the horror of the time is being articulated in a way that it really wasn’t.

The line is also a broad brush used to paint starkly drawn heroes and villains. The ad execs become racist monsters instead of blind, unthinking products of their time. The protestors become unassailable knights in shining armor, even though we can imagine their ranks including a bygone character like Kinsey, whose avowed liberalism has some rather rigid limits.

Now that I know the “savages” line is taken from something real…it still falls flat. The knowledge adds nothing to my enjoyment of that scene or that episode. If there had been a footnote crawl at the bottom of the screen saying THIS REALLY HAPPENED, it wouldn’t have made the line fit any better.

When it comes to this incident, few people, if any, remember it, and even fewer are familiar with that quote. So why not fictionalize it completely? Why not transpose the incident to Sterling Cooper? It seems odd to not do that, as if you’re saying, “This specific ad agency that exists in real life, they were racist jerks, but the guys you know and love are a-ok.” I doubt that was Weiner’s intention, but it was the effect.

When it comes to writing, poetic license excuses a lot. The truth, very little.

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