The one piece I’ve read this week that won’t leave me alone is “On Coming Out as Transgender in Trump’s America,” by Emily Todd VanDerWerff. It has sent me down an unexpected path of rewatching Mad Men, pondering womanhood, and most of all, thinking about writing.
Emily VanDerWerff has been writing some of my favorite television criticism since I learned what television criticism was. In 2010, reviewing Mad Men’s “The Suitcase,” she wrote: “This is the kind of episode that, years from now, we'll think of when we try to remember just what it was we loved about Mad Men, an episode that uses virtually every weapon in the show's arsenal, yet leaves almost all of its moments and scenes unexpected. It's so good that I want to call off the rest of the TV season and say this is as good as it's going to get.” She was right, of course; we look back not only on Mad Men but on all of the 21st century’s television so far and “The Suitcase” rises to the top. In July of 2018, pop-culture website The Ringer published a list of “The 100 Best TV Episodes of the Century,” with Season 4’s “The Suitcase” not only representing all of Mad Men but also coming in at no.2 overall. Why it lost to Lost’s “The Constant” I can’t say, but then again I was never terribly interested in Lost anyway. Not that “The Suitcase” appearing on this list proves anything definitive about it, you understand, except for the fact that VanDerWerff was right about it: years after its initial air date, we are still thinking about it, and it still rises to the top of what we recall about Mad Men and its very best qualities. For The Ringer, Amanda Dobson makes the case (if you scroll allllllll the way down) that “The Suitcase” is, in fact, a high point (the high point?) of the Golden Age of Television: “[it’s about] the finished concept, the open door. The possibility of connection—of briefly getting through to someone else—all contained in one night, on one set. In one episode. It’s the most basic unit of television, and Peak TV is still trying to live up to it.” How does it feel, I want to know, to know how right you were back in 2010 about a cultural artifact as beloved as Mad Men?
What I liked about VanDerWerff’s reviews during Mad Men’s run was their willingness to be bold and definitive like the “Suitcase” review. The words seemed confident and bold, even in the case of inscrutable episodes like Season 6’s “The Crash” (VanDerWerff’s piece unforgettably begins: “What the ever-loving merciful fuck?”) where there’s no way to really know whether you know what you’re talking about. By that I mean, her writing contains a seemingly endless supply of instructive insight about a show that truly contains multitudes, but it never crosses the line into self-satisfied or totalizing: the wonder VanDerWerff expressed in regards to the accomplishments of Mad Men left room for speculation and uncertainty without sacrificing its poise and self-assuredness. “The Crash,” as she writes, “is sort of the ultimate Rorschach test episode, where literally anything you detect going on in it is probably there, because that’s what you were thinking about while watching it. It gives the audience any number of possibilities and invites said audience to start dissecting. Yet I keep coming back to Peggy’s wisdom about loss, to her bruised connection with Don, and the more I look at this episode, the more I find an aching core of loss, love, sadness, and regret. So, in other words, this is just another Mad Men episode.”
All of this is a long way of saying that when Emily VanDerWerff changed her name and avatar on Twitter and announced (but really, what a basic and inadequate word) her transition, I knew that I was going to need a quiet place and a contemplative mind to sit down and read her piece in Vox. I tried to pace myself but I inhaled it, every word. Naturally, her road to transition is paved with beautiful reflections on television, specifically Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and its understanding of womanhood. “In season three,” she writes, “The Handmaid’s Tale tends to favor shots that track through the sterile environments of its theocratic wilderness. They serve to connect the women in the show’s universe in ways that have perhaps flattened them into their gender in exactly the same fashion that Gilead does, but that have also caused them to see and acknowledge one another with a fierceness unrecognized by the men around them.” Typical of her best TV writing, she connects the minute and the concrete to the sweeping feelings and sensations that a really well-crafted episode of television creates for the viewer who pays attention, only this time she is scrutinizing her very self, its surface level and its subtext. I’ve now read this piece, VanDerWerff’s song of herself (she would probably never issue a phrase so grandiose, but this feels worthy of the grandiose to me) three times, and each time I step back from it feeling more inspired. I’ve actually never watched The Handmaid’s Tale, partly out of a fierce love for the novel that makes me afraid to see it adapted and partly out of a total lack of desire to ponder how close to our current reality it feels. But in this piece, VanDerWerff evokes its Gilead with piercing exactness, depth and color, to an extent that its crucial role in her story needs no explanation. I don’t need to have seen it to feel its weight in the context of her story. “The effect [of Season 3’s sterile tracking shots] is a kind of dawning consciousness of what it means to be a woman, of being seen as just that — “a woman” — and nothing more. Even the women who persecute other women on this show are signal flares for a community not yet realized but understood.”
I love good writing so much.
I went back to the A.V. Club’s repository of Mad Men reviews and immediately searched for “The Suitcase.” The reason this episode made the Best 100 list on The Ringer is because of the famous conversation between Don and Peggy (the “that’s what the money’s for!” conversation), and VanDerWerff’s review offers some thoughts on that inarguably essential moment - it couldn’t not. But of course there’s more to the episode than its top-line dialogue: how about the scene between Peggy and Trudy in the bathroom at SCDP, as Trudy casually reflects on the experience of being pregnant, Peggy pretends to be interested and simultaneously pretends she isn’t thinking about how she, too, had a baby (whose bio father is Pete, Trudy’s husband) that no one but Don knows about? There’s nothing soapy or dramatic about this very brief exchange despite all of the subtext, and it’s probably somewhere near the bottom of the most-memorable-scenes-in-s4ep8 list: how could it possibly contend with Don finding Roger’s taped notes-to-self? The showdown over the phone with Mark at the restaurant? Peggy and Don sliding from the diner to the bar after seeing a roach? Duck literally trying to take a shit on Don’s chair (but failing because it’s actually Roger’s chair)? Peggy and Don standing side-by-side in his office as he takes her hand, just for a moment? ALL IN THIS ONE EPISODE. Trudy and Peggy in the bathroom are unmemorable because the interaction perfectly underplayed (Trudy to Peggy: “You’re witty - I always assumed but now I see that it’s true” - eesh): the platonic ideal of a Mad Men scene. How did anyone ever figure out what to write about this show? How did anyone ever do it with the kind of precision and verve that VanDerWerff did, especially with the expectation that each review would post within a few hours of the episode’s airing?
And then, at the end of her review of “The Suitcase,” VanDerWerff offers one final reflection on Don and Peggy (keep in mind that she is writing this about a midseason episode from somewhere squarely in the middle of the show’s run): “These are people who long to escape who they actually are and become someone else, but the world carries them ever forward. Over your life, you will become many different people, and the journey from one person to another is one of discovery and excitement. But there are also moments and places where you'll long to return, memories you'll wish to fold up and place in a bag next to each other. And then someday, you'll find yourself no longer who you were, really, and that bag of what you wished to hold on to will be all you have left. And you, too, will head off into the unknown.” I wonder if she thought back to writing this when she wrote “On coming out as transgender in Trump’s America” and of course I don’t know, but the literary critic in me is grinning ear-to-ear and maybe even tearing up a little in revisiting this thought. Beautiful things - art, if we want to think about it that way - give rise to piercing thoughts, thoughts that make you itch for a pen so you can write them down because the fear of losing them is so great. We need thought if the vitality of our inner lives is to survive in this world. I love television because of the thought it inspires - mine and others’ - and I love that there are people in the world willing to share the conversations with art that unfold within themselves, personal though they may be. We need good criticism just as much as we need the art itself, both because it illuminates the beauty that isn’t always immediately visible and also because sharing these conversations makes all of us feel less alone. I do not want to live in the world of Mad Men, but I want to live in the world where Mad Men gets made and discussed and never stops resurfacing in my mind. Good criticism makes that possible.