MasterBlog: Voice, Sound, Ownership and Intimacy

I’ve come to organize my ideas on sound (and how we hear) into two lines of thought: that pursuing pleasure through sound is an active mechanism, and pursuing truth through sound is an automatic mechanism that is constantly confronted. Of course, sensual pleasure and truth/positive identification are related, but like Freud says, they arise separately and are later conflated. I’ll get to truth later, but first I wanted to engage the concept of aural pleasure.

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MasterBlog: The Cinematic Apparatus

I’ve decided to start posting some of my work as I happily plod my way through the Masters in Cinema & Media Studies program at UCLA. It’ll be a lot of dense theory mixed with my usual manic fangirl stuff. I’ll list all my references, films, TV, etc at the bottom. Enjoy!

At first glance, Christian Metz’s analysis of the cinematic apparatus appears to engage Lacanian psychoanalytic theory in a straightforward way; he begins with the child conceiving of himself (and all that makes him human and corporeal and cognizant) through gazing at his own reflection in a mirror. But the amount of “perceptual wealth” that Metz describes in audiovisual media, particularly film, requires an apparatus with far more nuance than the child’s first mirror. Metz really deconstructs the very nature of watching fiction in “The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and Cinema” – and the important distinction which serves as a jumping-off point is that the viewer (unlike the child) identifies himself as the character, not the spectator. S/he not only views a film as a passive appreciator – like a museum-goer – s/he essentially jumps in, seeing her/himself within the action of the world and seeing him/herself seeing the film. Metz’ audience is hyperaware of filmic fiction’s need for an audience, to function and to be comprehensible. “At every moment, I am in the film by my look’s caress.”

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We Were All Rooting for You: The Gorgeous Grotesque in ANTM

Tyra Mail! It says…

If a model falls on an abandoned runway in the middle of an empty stage, does she make a sound? And when Tyra Banks falls while no one’s watching, does she just slip quietly into unsmizing nothingness?

America’s Next Top Model has been canceled after 12 years and 22 seasons, and it’s really okay that you do not care. If you do feel something, like I do, it’s probably just the sad sensation of time passing and culture changing. Just as the end of American Idol made barely a pop culture ripple (despite its massive impact on the TV landscape), ANTM probably won’t be recognized as a watershed program with a long-legged legacy. For my money, it deeply altered the possibilities of the reality genre – and, at its accidental best, was an incisive magnum opus of female psychology. Tyra the Creator knew she’d birthed something amazing in Top Model, and over the next few years she methodically destroyed it.

So let’s take a moment for America’s Next Top Model…a love-hate letter to beauty, with a singular viciousness and vision.

There’s really two stories being told during every episode of ANTM: the petty day-to-day existences of the model-contestants and the larger godlike arc of Tyra Banks herself. As a transcendently perfect but savvily commercial supermodel, Tyra was perfectly poised in 2003 to launch a show like Top Model. As creator and curator, she brought industry cachet and as host, she brought built-in ratings and popularity. To watch ANTM‘s first cycle – Tyra’s known for compulsive branding-by-renaming, so her “seasons” are “cycles” – is to watch a fascinating exercise in first-time showrunning. Everything about ANTM 1, from production to casting to editing, showcases Tyra’s charming self-empowerment and zeal. There’s a sweet earnestness, an openminded experimentalism, to cycle 1; mundane moments like the girls’ first bikini waxes, cigarette breaks, a judging chamber that’s clearly a hotel conference room. Tyra imbues her presence with a self-conscious approachability, showing up at the tiny models’ hovel for dinner in a velour sweatsuit. No one seems to have expectations about being on a reality show. The girls are incredibly diverse: Adrienne is a rough white-trash urchin, Robyn is a conservative Christian caught between skinny and plus-size, Elyse is the elegant smart-ass who is allowed to actively bash the idiocy of modeling on-camera (and remain a front-runner till the end!). The judges have real credentials, and painfully differing opinions (I miss you, Janice Dickinson). It all seems possible in Cycle 1. Legitimacy and enduring fame seem very real. We see all the ugly boring parts of beautiful, these glimpses of the modeling experience (and the female experience) that we never see again after the flagship cycle.

However, most of the hallmarks that make Cycle 1 truly compelling continue to exist and morph over the next few cycles. Fans and detractors alike can’t deny that Tyra had an eye, even early on, for world-building. She parlayed her skill sets in modeling and public performance into an expanding vocabulary for fans (and the media): “smizing,” “tooch,” “H2T.” Tyra’s ANTM is an auteur’s funhouse, a paradise of sirens, a place where the beauty industry finds transcendence beyond its boundaries. Big girls, strange girls, dark girls, they all stand a chance. In the beginning seasons, she had a savvy eye for casting girls who echoed her physically and in personality, and these girls were consistently rewarded (look no further than Cycle 4’s supremely bland Felicia, who lasted four episodes too long). These ideal contestants became disembodied walking signifiers of Tyra herself, scattered amongst the latest crop, reinforcing her omnipotent and omniscient presence as the Author-God of the ANTM universe. She hooked us in with a phenomenally clever and suggestive tagline: “You wanna be on top?” And as dystopian and weird as Top Model gets, its first few cycles are bursting with startlingly astute observations about what happens to women when they’re isolated from the male gaze but haunted by it, devoted to it. Every single episode has the same naming convention: “The Girl Who…” The Girl Who Cheats. The Girl Who Everyone Thinks is Killing Herself. The Girl Who is a Visual Orgasm. It’s an unabashed commentary on culture, and meta-commentary on reality culture. Each cycle becomes more and more claustrophobic, even as the contestants’ living quarters are upgraded to sprawling estates that the Cycle 1 wretches could never have dreamed of. Every successive cycle shines a burning spotlight on a tightly monitored, hermetically sealed powderkeg of women – and we, as the audience, quickly got that the goal wasn’t really to be the best, the most beautiful, the most superhuman. The goal was survival.

And in Tyra’s dogged pursuit of her own legend, her own legacy, she stumbled on the show’s most iconic moment, what I would argue is its beating heart and the key to its twisted vision of womanhood. Sandwiched in between the naturalistic early cycles and the bloated, vapid later cycles is Cycle 4. Tiffany.

Tyra’s epic freakout on the hapless Tiffany Richardson is by far the most-quoted clip of ANTM, and it elevated the show out of its creative niche into mass reality entertainment. On the surface, it’s basically just a host berating a participant for not taking the competition seriously enough. Beyond the scene’s histrionic trash-TV value, however, it also exposed Tyra’s endgame all at once, in a shocking reveal of her pathetic vulnerability and maniacal control of not only the Top Model project, but her own narrative. Tyra’s speech is absolutely littered with the charred remains of a real female human being. It’s a coded story about the way the beauty industry’s been Dementoring her since her childhood. “When my mother yells like this, it’s because she loves me,” Tyra spits, hitting a hysterical sound outside pitch on the word “love.” “When you go to bed at night and you lay there, you take responsibility for yourself, ’cause nobody’s gonna take responsibility for you.” How many beds do you think Tyra Banks laid in all by herself, surrounded by identical beds filled with identical women vying for her life? “You have no idea where I come from,” she tells Tiffany, apropos of nothing. “You have no idea what I’ve been through.” Perhaps most telling is the indelible phrase “We were rooting for you, we were ALL rooting for you! How dare you?” The amount of context contained in that vitriolic indictment is incredible. Every woman is rooting for you even when she hates you, even when she’s against you, Tiffany. You owe HER your successes and your failures, even when you’re selling your face and your body to men. LEARN something from this!

In taking this tack, I obviously am showing my hand a little. I think Tyra Banks is a sympathetic figure, but also an absolute psychopath. The vision she built with ANTM is a danger to society – but in both the straightforward anti-feminist way AND the subversive-to-patriarchy way. Sometimes it’s hard to want the misery that these women want; sometimes we want to kill them for wanting it. ANTM certainly does encourage us to hate beautiful, ambitious women, to despise their delusions of grandeur and gaze-greediness. I could write a whole separate blog post on Jade Cole, who is hands-down the most interesting contestant in ANTM history. She’s a reality addict’s dream and was definitely Tyra’s nightmare, as she expertly (and self-reflexively) played to camera and became Cycle 6’s breakout star, the emblem of all that was insane about model ego and and ANTM specifically. “This is not America’s Next Top Best Friend,” crowed Jade, framing the decorative wall letters “A N T M” with her hands. She was right; she just didn’t know yet that those letters stood for “America’s Next Top Meme.”

I would argue that Cycles 1-8 are the meat of Top Model, the oevre we’re really talking about when we dissect the importance of this show. Because Tyra is the auteur and Tyra is insane, the show slowly but surely begins to crumble after the mild but still accessible wackiness of Cycle 8 (whose standouts included the heavily-accented first Latina winner Jaslene and the mail-order bride Natasha). The winner of Cycle 9 was rumored to be pre-fixed by Tyra. Contestants were forced to film “viral videos,” which anyone familiar with the internet knows is a comically absurd proposition. The judges were cycled in and out at a rapid pace until Tyra had assembled a panel of sycophants – empty and under-qualified personalities, most of them not even of the fashion world (i.e. the universally despised “PR Maven” Kelly Cutrone). By the time the first “gimmick” cycle – 17, the All-Star season – rolled around, ANTM was not ANTM anymore. It was Top Model only in name, and that dream was a farce, evidenced by the complete professional invisibility of almost every past winner. The death gong tolled around Cycle 18, the first cycle to pit teams against one another (British and American) and Cycle 21’s inclusion of male models was simply a phallic stab into ANTM‘s long-cold corpse.

The full lifespan of great TV is really quite poignant: when a show becomes successful, it’s immediately pumped full of creative and stylistic hormones that overstrain its heart. Then when it experiences brain-death, it’s kept on life support. And when it finally dies, almost no one comes to the funeral. They’re at a party with the show’s hot younger siblings. That’s the story of America’s Next Top Model. And even if ANTM‘s demise as a show isn’t unique, its legacy is.

Never before did we get to watch such a vivid portrait of mean. Never before did we get so close to the bleeding scalps and swollen toes of America’s most beautiful women, or see them cry and routinely be crushed despite their model faces, their model smiles. Never did we get front-row tickets to dozens of closed rooms like this, studies in female group dynamics engineered by one of its seminal victims, a mastermind who both kept us at arms-length and desperately tried everything she could to hold our attention. America’s Next Top Model is over forever, but we all still wanna be on top.

→ Day 13: Eleven States and The End

STILL ALIVE! DO NOT PANIC OK??

In fact, I’ve been so alive for the past week that I’ve blogged 0 times. I kept being like, “This would be a good time to write and post pictures,” but then America would whisper in my ear, “Hang out with meeee.” But now it is time to dump out my brain basket; here’s EVERYTHING that’s gone down from Sunday to Sunday!

6/28: Topeka, Kansas

Before my drive to Topeka, I was a far more innocent human being, with hopes and dreams and a chance for a better life. Then those 8 hours of fucking hell happened. About 540 miles of dull, plain plains under endless grey skies. A lot of wind turbines, powering nothing except more wind. I realized quickly that I would only be taking boring photos today (see below). I left from Denver too late in the afternoon and by nightfall, I was zooming around pitch-black bends in the highway, fingers white around the steering wheel, preparing to accidentally annihilate a wayward Bambi.

That night in Topeka was a blur. I entered my AirBnB, frightened my elderly host, fell asleep and did not dream.

6/29-7/1: St. Louis, Missouri

This is where it starts to get good. This is also where it rains through the rest of this post AKA the next 6 days of the trip. Anyway, I peeled away the dank experiences of the central U.S. and set out with renewed vigor for The Lou. This was my second Very Real Destination after Colorado – because my bitch lives there and my other bitch was due to fly in a couple of days after my arrival. Two bitches at once? It truly was an embarrassment of riches/bitches!!

strolling/melting at The Grove today. save a rocket, ride an #atomiccowboy 🚀 #stlouis #thegayborhood

A photo posted by Leah Steuer (@popmitzvah) on Jun 30, 2015 at 3:16pm PDT

First I swung by Left Bank Books in the heart of the citay, to visit my Midwest dream girl Wintaye at work. When she got off, we grabbed some din and I got to see her adoooorb new place right across from Tower Grove Park. She’s got mad gardens outside the window and everything. Watched some teevs, got some gelato, brunched, etc etc. Will forever remember the chorizo eggs at Half & Half. Finally washed my clothes. Dubsmashed all our favorite things. Saw Jurassic World (which was a lot more fun than bad reviews had prepared me for). Ate RIDICULOUS barbecue. Also hit a bunch of bars downtown (to middling partytime success).

we’re back. 👩‍❤️‍💋‍👩 #CABSHERE #sluttyassbitch #jerseyshore

A video posted by Leah Steuer (@popmitzvah) on Jun 29, 2015 at 6:59pm PDT

Then my squeeze Nick stomped into the picture for ONE NIGHT ONLY. This was the exact moment when my roadtrip playlist began to play “You Are Not Alone,” because he’d be with me the rest of the way to New York. The three of us climbed all the things at the City Museum, which is literally the most dangerous destination I’ve brought  my body to, including the Grand Canyon. The children, they just…hang from metal open-air structures.

tesseract life 🌀 #citymuseum #nodownwardspiral #theclimb #nicholascaged

A photo posted by Leah Steuer (@popmitzvah) on Jul 1, 2015 at 3:26pm PDT

Also noshed, wined, shopped at cheap superstore Five Below, chilled, and survived a crazy torrential storm.The sadness I felt at bidding Wintaye goodbye in the morning was mitigated by a severely delicious roadside donut. Oh, I’ll miss you St. Louis, you damp, beautiful piece of work.

7/2: Lake Hope, Ohio

Next stop was a campground inside Zaleski Forest of Nowhere County, Where Are We, USA. Our journey was broken up by a super surreal visit to a giant Walmart that seemed to sit in the plain like an ugly mirage. Got our camping sundries and made it to our site by sunset. This was actually my first time camping, eva eva! I was already feeling so rough that roughing it came naturally. Can I please tell you we decided on as “sleeping pads”? Can I tell you that they were inflatable kids pools and they weren’t half-bad?

Nick erected the tent and we spent the eve getting buzzed and bitten. One fruitless attempt to build a fire later and we went to convene The Midnight Society under the flaps. I was (tritely) in love with sleeping in the quiet woods. Even if we were to be mauled before dawn, it’d be worth it. A little.

back to the garden 🍃 #pitchintents #woodyourather #logladies #FLIESTHERE #howmany

A photo posted by Leah Steuer (@popmitzvah) on Jul 3, 2015 at 2:00pm PDT

 The next morning, we attempted to find coffee in the INCREDIBLY FRIGHTENING nearest town of Zaleski, OH (population 1 killer). Insert my classic “Zaleski burned down…20 years ago…” here.

After some gas station brew, we got back into the YASmobile. To civilization!

7/3-7/4: Philadelphia, PA

At the moment we crossed the city line into Philly, I felt the comforting, crushing weight of the REAL East Coast on me. There was something about verdant flatlands giving way to belching industrial monsterscapes that felt so…RIGHT.  And you know what else felt kind of momentous? My valiant Honda hitting 100,000 miles!!! I would drive 100,000 miles if I could just…see…you…cheese steak. *piano cadence*

Once we’d navigated the very Tomorrowlandish structures of smoke and grime that surrounded the city, we made our way to Spruce Hill, the neighborhood containing my friend Janna’s cozy apartment and our new temporary bed. Everywhere we walked, the sidewalks were cracked by the roots of huge leafy trees, and shrubs and vines strained out of fences to touch the passersby. Philly is so RICH and GREEN. It was a slightly more packed version of St. Louis, with all its stately old houses and excesses of flowers and roadside garbage. At this point, I was thankful for the on-and-off rain, because it paired perfectly with all the foliage and erased the smell of street cleaning gone wrong. Literally just put the trash in the cans, guys.

with you, with you now 🎉🇺🇸 #phillymeup #bluntfourthtrauma #independencebae

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Our sole full day in PA was the Fourth of July, which was so wet that most of the fireworks fizzled from dawn till dusk. Didn’t matter, we still touristed expertly! Did the farmer’s market in the morning and killed some delicious pierogies, and I also saw the most amazing Scary Stories tattoo of life (pic below). We then lost ourselves in the glittering holey grotto they call The Magic Gardens. It’s a crazy mosaic of stairs, tunnels, and valleys (with more than enough boob/peen-painted tiles to keep adults interested in the finer artistic details). Again, the constant mist made it twice as beautiful, glittering.

in case you were wondering 🌀🌀🌀

A post shared by Leah Steuer (@popmitzvah) on

After a beer, we steeled ourselves for the last long dramatic event of the day: a blocks-long “party” down the parkway culminating with fireworks above the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Weirdly, the weather seemed to have drained the batteries of everyone around us and the energy at this thing was super low. We entertained ourselves with endless games of gin rummy and Heads Up on the damp grass, but finally couldn’t take it anymore. The clouds were blocking the ‘works anyway. We turned around, went home, and read tarot cards as the sky exploded around us with thunder and illegal firecrackers.

7/5-Right now: New York, NUUUUU YORK

It only took us about 2 hours to make it from Philly to New York. Home rose up around me so fast; as soon as we crossed the George Washington Bridge we were THERE.

SHADY’S BACK TELL A FRIEND 🗽💯 #honeyimhome #boroughedalive #newyorkminute

A photo posted by Leah Steuer (@popmitzvah) on Jul 5, 2015 at 10:41am PDT

It felt completely different from every other time I’ve returned to NY from LA, and the feeling was hard to put my finger on. Eventually I kinda realized that it was the absence of a plane flight: the surreality of six hours in a box, the impersonal watercolor glimpses of all the country in-between, and the first sudden breath of dank, smoky air I’d get at JFK. When I fly back and forth, it’s like my destination cities had never even existed before I touched down. It makes me feel so crazy that, usually, when I get back to NY, I feel supremely disoriented and time-traveley for a full 24 hours. This time, the transition had lasted two weeks, and the transition itself had MATTERED. I’d navigated every mile, all three thousand of them, to my home place. I’d watched it gradually materialize in front of me, at the end of the road – and when I made it, it’s like New York had been waiting (impatiently).

First thing we did when we got to Nick’s place in Queens? Pizza, sleep, ANTM. Same as it ever was.

So I guess…this series is officially over! I’m going back to Long Island today to wash off the remnants of America and visit my old barista. My birthday is in two days and I have some refreshing-up to do before I’m ready to take on 26 in a celebrity death match.

Thank you sooo much for reading these travel thoughts. It’s actually been a #blessing to have a place to store all my observations, photos, and whinings, and I really hope they entertained a little bit. All in all, I drove through SIXTEEN STATES, including eleven in the course of this post alone. And I’m doing it aaaaaall again in August – NY back to LA by way of the South. REVERSE, REVERSE! See you then.

→ Day 7: Denver to Topeka

AND WE’RE BACK. I am writing to you from a Starbucks, forever my oasis in the unfamiliar desert. I walked a mile and a half here before 9 AM on a Sunday, dragging my sorry self from the car repair shop. More on that later.

I have spent the last few days immersed in family time between Boulder and Denver (and one night/hungover morning in Arvada). It’s been JAM PACKED and kind of amazing. I just ker-plunked myself in the middle of everyone’s lives and ended up running through the rain with a pack of 4-year-olds, slamming Cherry Bombs, strolling through a bonsai garden, and generally collecting rich snapshots of the lives I’m usually so disconnected from. My uncles and aunts are all really fascinating human beings and are raising their families in utter mountain paradise; plus, got the bonus of quality time with my cousin Olivia, who’s close to my age and moved here relatively recently. It was pleasant and a little disorienting to have people offering to make me comfortable; these 4 days have left me slightly spoiled and have added a pound or two (worth it).

I rolled into Boulder in the late afternoon on Thursday. That night, and most of Friday, I got to enjoy my preternaturally chill Aunt Robyn and Uncle Dan, and my brilliant and dangerous little cousin Lil. She is a firecracker of life, so smart and intuitive, and overflowing with charm. The first night was generally tame – dinner, ice cream downtown, lots of trampoline time, an extended visit to the novelty toy shop where Lily transformed into a frightening and majestic hybrid:

found this CREATURE in the colorado wilderness #mylittleunicorn

A post shared by Leah Steuer (@popmitzvah) on

Much relax, so family, very delight. A nice transition to the chaos of Friday.

Chaos in the good way, though. In the morning, I joined Robyn and Lil’s whole daycare class for a field trip to Chautauqua Park – we bussed up to the park and saw a quaintly cute orchestra perform “Peter and the Wolf” for a lot of squirmy kids. These 4-year-olds were SO INCREDIBLY CUTE (I am, of course, biased: Lily is the cutest one and there’s no contest). I ended up becoming an extra pair of supervisory adult hands as we herded the small army of children into a gazebo to wait for the shuttle. Minutes turned into more minutes and rain began to fall. Lily dug her little paws into my hair and created a bird’s next to pass the time. An hour passed before Robyn finally called the po-po to complain about our stranding and demand bus service. Rescued!

After that, the three of us went to see Inside Out, which was…kind of devastating. I thought it was an absolutely gorgeous movie, one of Pixar’s finest artistic achievements, but it boldly went to the saddest depths of human emotion. Not since the 2D experiments of my youth has a kid’s movie felt so dark: at points it was frightening at Brave Little Toaster level, and as depressing/profound as The Iron Giant (which I’ll never watch again due to trauma).The only counterpoint to the really heavy stuff was the visual style; there’s an INCREDIBLE sequence set inside the “abstract mind” that took creative animation to new levels. The central conceit of it is so ambitious: What if feelings had feelings? And in what way do they form us, in the moment and forever? The story of the personified emotions inside one girl’s head – Joy, Disgust, Anger, Fear, etc – has such high stakes because it’s not about the characters, it’s about those concepts. And how they prepare us for the biggest loss we’ll ever experience: growing up. The loss of our innocence and, inevitably, even parts of who we are. Precocious children will love this movie for years to come.

After the movie, I drove separately from the Boulder Steuers to convene with the Denver Steuers for a BBQ (and the start of my short Denver leg). Then, TRAGEDY STRUCK.

On the way there, my car stalled out with no warning!! One moment I’m at a stop sign, the next I’m creeping over to the shoulder with my hazards on and a pounding heart, hissing out a litany of fucks. I kept telling myself that car trouble was “bound to happen,” but I didn’t really think it would actually manifest in my reality. I eventually booted her up and was able to take her to my uncle Gary and aunt Sophie’s place with my grumpy face on.

Save the stall, Friday night in Denver proceeded in EXCELLENT fashion. I finally reunited with my cousin Olivia, who is truly one of my favorite human beings. She just started her life here in Colorado after college and is a source of hilarity, kindness, and endless family gossip. Also squeezed the life out of my other tiny cousin, Esmé, who has one of the sweetest dispositions ever created on this earth. She’s also whip-smart and knows more about fashion than I can ever, ever hope to. Along with Olivia’s friend Ally, the 9 of us enjoyed a super delicious home-cooked dinner and sunny warm time on the patio. And Olivia and I (of the June/July birthdays) both got candles in our ice cream and presents! Yaaaaas.

TOGETHER ❤️💜💛💚 #cousins #reuniontour

A post shared by Leah Steuer (@popmitzvah) on

That night, I pretty much raged with my cuz and bar-hopped a bit in downtown Denver. How I love pulsating beats and rude girls in long lines. Just like the social evenings of my recent youth. Drank, danced, met some very strange guys from Liverpool while we waited for our Lyft. One of them had just gotten a salmon tattooed on his groinal area, which he readily opened his pants to display (twice). Once we got back to O’s place in Arvada, I legit died on her couch in all my clothes and slept like the grave.

Did a nice eggy breakfast the day and then headed back to Denver to spend some time with Gary, Sophie, and Ez. We did Cheeseman Park and the botanic conservatory, where we beheld some really weird-looking plants and lots of gorgeous greenery. Ez is eminently fashionable, and cuts a very adorable figure in a garden. After that, had an INSANELY DELICIOUS dinner at a place called Shells & Sauce. I love a place that puts its strengths on display. I was so hungry I didn’t even bother to snap a food pic, which is very serious for me. Esmé introduced me to the wonders of caperberries (what a palate on this one!). It was such a fun night, felt like I walked off a little bit of that heavy cream sauce afterward (though not much).

This morning I woke up at the crack of OMG NO THANK YOU to take my car to the only place in Denver that was open on a Sunday. Turns out my engine’s got mad problems; fingers crossed that they can fix it quickly and without too much agita and extra $$. Of course, being up this early and without a vehicle made my feet start walking towards The Bux. They know and understand me here, and have wifi.

May end up having to stay an extra night in Denver if my auto-troubles are that bad – if not, I’m setting out today for beautiful (?) Topeka, KS (I changed my destination from Wichita after I realized it’d take an extra 2 hours from there to St. Louis). Please keep your fingers crossed for me and my beleagured Civic!

→ Day 4: Grand Junction to Boulder

I slept in this morning and woke up to warm sunlight and the smell of fresh lavender. First thought: Have I died and gone to heaven? Second thought: Do they have bagels here? BOTH WERE TRUE. Grand Junction is a magical gift.

My host, Claire, greeted me with coffee, breakfast, and some fresh-picked cherries for which she traded her organic lavender. What?? Where have I gone wrong, that I’m not trading my farmed flowers for fruit on the regular?

I did have a fun day yesterday, though by the end my brain felt frazzled and overcooked. On the ride from Flagstaff to Moab (picturesque as always), I passed through some very small clusters of civilization in Utah. Saw a very creepy-looking sign for a Dinosaur Museum in the town of Blanding, and on an impulse I turned off and decided to have myself a side adventure.

i had to; the closest i can get to #peeweesbigadventure 🐉🚲

A post shared by Leah Steuer (@popmitzvah) on

Seriously the oddest place I’ve been to yet. It was almost fully deserted, so all I had for company were the life-size dinosaur replicas, clinging to dusty fake vegetation and prowling the fluorescent corridors. I was so tickled by the fact that they had an “exhibit” of posters for dinosaur movies. It’s nice to see someone else agree that The Land Before Time should be preserved for future generations. Once I’d taken in all the information (including a description of a creature I am SURE is made up, the “Supersaurus”) I hurriedly purchased a postcard and hopped back in the car.

Stopped in Moab briefly to gawk at the red rocks and the Arches and snap a few pics. A very beautiful place, but I was a little bit tapped out by this point, so a half hour walk was all I could muster.

I also had the unique terror/pleasure of driving through a summer storm as I crossed into CO…please note my haphazard dashboard photo of the oncoming black cloud. It was a refreshing blast of cool humidity and splashy, fat raindrops that SPLATTED with such a satisfying sound. The rain continued all down I-70, for almost 90 miles. Kept my windows open for the clean soaked-earth smell and it was pretty much my favorite part of the drive. Also, to my delight, Spotify decided at this moment to shuffle up “Sunshowers,” one of my ultimate summer pick-me-ups:

Once I got here, the gale-force gusts in Grand Junction kept me inside for most of the night – I had the whole house to myself, complete with the ghosty sounds of wind through the door cracks. Was deep asleep even before my body hit the bed.

My next update will probably take a few extra days, because today I meet up with my family in Boulder/Denver!! Can’t wait to put my cabin fever on hiatus and spend some EXCELLENT vacay time with my two uncles and aunts and three flawless cousins. Let the bonding and hiking and gossiping begin.

 

→ Day 3: The Grand Canyon to Moab

What’s up? I’m just over here sitting on a Wonder of the World. CASUAL.

IMG_0218

 

Currently writing this from the back porch of the hostel, where many other travelers have gathered to eat their toast, salute the sun, and light their morning cigarettes. I actually don’t understand smoking at this altitude, much less breathing? My lungs have been shocked by my sudden transition to a 7,000 ft lifestyle and are working through their feelings of betrayal.

Sooo yes, I experienced the ultimate nature yesterday! The Lord’s Pensieve, aka The Grand Canyon! It was a craymazing day, and it lasted an absolutely insane 11 hours.

I’d originally planned to do the whole trek/visitor’s center thing on my own, but the hostel offered an all-inclusive tour and I thought, “Maybe someone experienced in the outdoor arts should guide my survival.” Plus I’ve met a lot of really nice people here already and welcomed the opportunity to share the view with someone new. My group ended up being comprised of Patricia (a Colombian agronomist who’d never tasted a Frappuccino), Annie (a social psychologist with great leg stamina), Dan (a British adventurer who’d been traveling around the world for 15 months), and our leader Dylan (who had flawless taste in bluegrass and knew everything about all the plants). Everyone was good-natured about my “getting stranded in the canyon and having to build a society” or “Which of us would win the Hunger Games” comments. Probably because I was most expendable.

After we drove through the Painted Desert and peeped a little bit of the vast Navajo reservation, we pulled up at the Little Colorado River Canyon, which Dylan kept calling “the tiny one.” Having not beheld the GC yet, I was already overwhelmed by its baby brother. It’s a deep, majestic crack through the earth. Vultures swooped around us in the shimmery heat as our guide casually explained that rescuers have to “leave the bodies down there.” Took a teetering selfie anyway.

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After that, we headed to the Desert View Watchtower, stunning tribute to Hopi history. I had no idea about the tense historical relations between the Hopi and Navajo (Navajo means “skull crusher” in Hopi?!) and found the monument/artwork absolutely incredible. There’s something about touching a chair someone made in 1870 that feels even more sacred and timebendy than touching some frillion-year-old igneous rock.

The watchtower was visible from almost every point we traveled to around the Canyon rim – well, the .0006% of the rim we were able to cover, because the entire thing is almost 800 miles around and we’re only human beings, damn it. We drank in views from Lipan Point (hazy and verdant), Moran Point (mostly grey) and the Grand View, which is the classic postcard view with all the spikes, peaks, red rock cliffs and valleys. It was actually kind of an overcast day, which worked in our favor. Less sun (fucking finally, said my skin) and a greater and more subtle variety of colors in the Canyon. We also hit some Hopi ruins, preserved since the 1100s, and ate lunch right next to them. Conversation topics included the shady economy of the Grand Canyon tourist industrial complex and Harry Potter fanfiction (which, UNBELIEVABLY, I didn’t even bring up first). Such a wonderful band of misfits with lots of experiences to trade amongst us.

One of our last activities was a hike down (and up) the Kaibab Trail, which ended up both killing my body and yielding some choice photos. It was kind of mind-melting to actually descend into the Canyon, even for a couple of miles, and watch the sharp cliffs rise up and up around us. Also, we walked past a kid who was running, guardian-less, without shoes on. Ghost? Maybe. Probably. Another body the rescuers were too lazy to grab.

Once we’d clambered out again, Dylan took us to a small store and we each grabbed some libations for an epic sunset-watching session. Dan taught me about the heady concoction of beer, hard cider, blackcurrant juice, and vodka…I will never understand why the British do what they do, but it sounded pretty tasty. Patricia tried her first IPA and deemed it “spicy.”

Our walk down to the final vista was incredible and relaxing and chill as hell: just strolling along the lip of pure wonder, sipping cold brews, basking. It was one of those extended moments when my vibrations of neuroses start to mercifully get slower, and then stop, and then I just feel lucky and good. We plopped ourselves down on an outcropping over the edge of the world and watched the day end.

unforgettable.

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Absolutely ridiculous. I think I’m going to start a cult around the hoax of the Grand Canyon, because I suspect it’s a green screen. It really doesn’t seem real; it’s a vastness my brain has trouble processing, and it’s QUIET, quiet like nature is concentrating. That sunset was honestly unreal. On the drive home, we stopped in the darkness to check out a clear night of frosty stars, and I was like, enough already. I don’t deserve this beauty. We listened to “Moonlight Mile” as we navigated the long dark and it was perfection.

Pictures below – I edited down as much as I could, and there are still many.

And that is that for the Canyon Grande! About to pack up my stuff and get on the road to the great red arches of Moab and the smallville goodness of Grand Junction, CO…where I am staying with a lavender farmer. Yus.

 

 

 

 

→ Day 1: LA to Murderville to Flagstaff

You said, “Let me know you’re alive once in awhile during your road trip.” I said, “You know what, why don’t I just BLOG about it?” And then you were like, “That’s not necessary,” but I didn’t hear that last part over the sound of AMERICA’S HEARTLAND!

This jabroni here *points thumbs* is driving from Los Angeles to New York for the next two weeks. So this is the start of a travel project, a.k.a. me combining my cross-country driving adventurethoughts with pop culture reflections (in keeping with the genre of this blog).

Here’s the itinerary – not including The World’s Biggest Rubber Band Ball or The Lost Cat Colony of New Mexico or whatever happens to tickle my fancy with well-placed road signs.

June 22-23: Flagstaff, AZ and The Grand Canyon

June 24: Moab, UT and Grand Junction, CO

June 25-27: Boulder, CO and Denver, CO

June 28: Wichita, KS

June 29-July 1: St. Louis, MO

July 2: Lake Hope, OH

July 3-5: Philadelphia, PA

July 6: New Fuckin’ York

(What goes East must go West – the end of August brings Part II: The Return).

This is definitely the biggest car trip I’ve ever undertaken, and about half of it will be solo. I won’t encounter any familiar faces till Boulder, and won’t pick up a travel companion till St. Louis. I’ve armed myself with a behemoth of a playlist, podcasts, and a small group of people who have begrudgingly agreed to take my calls. And luckily, as it happens, my singing voice is absolutely breathtaking in the acoustics of an empty vehicle. Here’s to discovery and the possibility of meet-cuting with new friends in random cities.

SO. I left this morning around 7 AM, bidding one last farewell to my barista and the city I love so much. Los Angeles, it’s late June and you were just getting good: sweet breezes and California sun that left me burned to a crisp this past weekend. It was a weird feeling to fight my way through Monday morning traffic down the 405, teething at my venti coffee like every other commuter, but actually ADVENTURING. LA was just trying to suck me back in with car congestion, tryna keep me from manifesting my destiny.

I was finally able to slam the pedal to the floor around Norwalk, where the freeway opened up to pleasant but underwhelming hills of dry brush. This was the case from So-Cal all the way to the Arizona state line, where the mountains finally started to get excited and sprout some proper forest. Honestly, I leave the city so rarely that any unpopulated landscape strikes me as God’s handiwork; today’s views were no exception and I never got tired of staring awestruck out the window, smiling, and wondering, “How many bodies are buried behind that majestic boulder?”

SPEAKING of the dead, I happened upon Ludlow, CA about 4 hours into my trip when I needed gas. It is a super scary and desolate ghost town with naught but an abandoned cafe, crumbling ruins, and a couple of burned-out vintage cars for good measure.  I stretched my legs for awhile and desperately looked for tumbleweeds to fulfill my desert road trip fantasy. No luck. Just lost souls and scrub.

On my next gas stop, I stumbled across some quaintly named restaurants in Seligman, AZ (see pictures below), as well as an EXTREMELY old woman who sang “Spice Up Your Life” at me as I crossed the road. Keep in mind that I was wearing a Spice Girls shirt, but, ya know. I startle easy. Also drove past a car towing a small boat titled (I kid you not) the PRETTY PUNZ. Still regret not snapping a pic. Perhaps one day I shall sail a P.P. of my own on the ocean blue…

Seven and a half hours after I set out this morning, I concluded today’s first leg in the incredibly dry, hot, and sassy Flagstaff AZ. This town is basically like if half of Seattle was abducted and woke up in an enclosure in the middle of the desert, and then had to make do. Very colorful, artisanal, charming. Have spent the last couple hours strolling around downtown and sampling the local iced tea and ice cream selection. I’m a big fan of the Grand Canyon International Hostel, where I’m staying tonight and tomorrow night. So homey! My bunkmate Rebecca was moisturizing when I got back, and we just had a nice conversation about moisture, and lotion, and how important they are. I smell a new friend, and she in turn smells like shea butter.

Here’s my fave playlist selection, blasted today into the searing wind. “OH MY GOD I CAN’T BELIEVE IT, I’VE NEVER BEEN THIS FAR AWAY FROM HOME” is a great travel battle cry.

Tonight I’ll probably turn in early and watch the rest of True Detective, which I abandoned mid-episode last night. Guys, it’s not a good show. The ingredients on their own are wonderful: strikingly written single lines, sumptuous cinematography, performances that are visceral and dark and dragged from the best hidden corners of every actor (Vince Vaughn is really holding his own, who knew!). However, together…TD is television compost. All of HBO’s cast-off artistic garbage in an overwhelming heap that we all think is good for the environment. It takes itself very seriously and adds nothing innovative to the already heavily populated crime genre. Moreover, it’s all I have on Sunday nights now. Curse you, McConaughey! I think I need to start House of Cards finally, so I have something to return to on the road in moments of boredom and reflection.

Tomorrow I hit the Grand Canyon and find out how many licks it takes to get to the center of the earth. Good evening, friends!

 

Mad Men S7BE1: “Severance”

“Is that all there is?”

Peggy Lee, you said it. This premiere episode was a tough nut to crack – a lot of unsteady philosophical meandering leading to a casual ending. It was a visually dazzling hour (What color! What mustaches!) but…inscrutable. What just happened? What does it all mean? How is this episode going to set up the finale? Is that all there is?

I have oodles of faith that the rest of Season 7B will be vastly more enjoyable. The Mad Men premieres have always been weird and uncomfortable and slightly creaky under the weight of theme introduction (remember “The Doorway”?). So let’s talk about this strange episode – its fast-paced structure, strained dialogue, time-jumping, and sense of cheerless nostalgia.

“Severance” followed four major storylines: those of Don, Joan, Peggy, and Ken. Let’s start with the big D.

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The opening scenes give us a full blast of voyeuristic discomfort, without the usual pleasure that used to come with watching Don go all Draper on some girl. It’s an audition for a fur campaign, a very intimate roleplay – and, the camera reveals, it’s happening in front of a roomful of other men. At this, I admit my heart sank. After the tenderness of the 7A finale, I wanted to believe we’d advanced past Don’s super gross side. He’s always needed to dominate and decorate women in order to define himself; this first scene is meant to prepare us for a disappointing Don rewind. It’s an interesting way to begin the half-season; a faithful callback to what we first loved about our protagonist. But now, in 1970, in this clinical brown office, it’s not so sexy anymore. It’s a regression. It’s pathetic and it’s sad.

Don goes through a lot of back-cycling during “Severance.” It’s an episode that interrogates the way he’s built an identity through sex and intimacy, a cobbled-together Perfect Man built from the dreams and projections of so many women, so many loves, so many first kisses.

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Two women from his past confront Don in a compressed period of time. One of them is Rachel Menken – we all remember her from Season 1 (and I screamed out loud when we first saw her because I’d missed her so much) Rachel was the first woman in the series whose emotional magnetism truly prompted Don to consider abandoning his facade and starting anew. She’s a powerful symbol of nostalgia in Mad Men, as it was Rachel’s presence that brought out the Don we first came to love – his iconic poeticism (“Love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons”) and his wild romanticism.

But Rachel’s already dead by the time she reappears (in a dream sequence which, no matter how beautifully it’s done, always makes me feel betrayed). Her avatar in Don’s mind is pretty on-the-nose – she smiles mysteriously, glimmers in her fur, and tells him, “I’m supposed to tell you you missed your flight.” She wasn’t his only chance to live passionately and authentically, but she might have been his first. When Don attempts to reconnect, inspired by his vision, we find out that she’s only just succumbed to leukemia a week before. The cosmic devastation throws Don off for the rest of the episode. He attends shiva at her apartment, struggling to make sense of the loss, staring at her young children knowing that in another life, they could have been his. He’s frightened and needing answers about the coincidence of her reappearance in his subconscious. She was gone as quickly as she returned. Is that all there is?

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Don’s assisted in his existential crisis by a sad-eyed waitress named Di (I mean, talk about on-the-nose). He’s convinced he knows her from somewhere, and they share a soulless quickie behind a diner. Di does look like a lot of girls Don’s pulled over the course of the series – she’s got the hawkish beauty of Midge, the mysticality of Rachel, and the uniform of the dozens of waitresses he’s winked at for decades. For God’s sake, Don’s already shtupped a random flight attendant during the course of this episode! He’s deep in the throes of dark neediness, repeating his romantic cycle. Don doesn’t know Di, but he knows how this starts and how it ends. He’s fucking a memory.

It’s an extremely depressing setup for the rest of 7B.

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Another character who’s grasping for a do-over is Ken Cosgrove, who makes a really welcome return in this episode. The title alludes to Ken’s unceremonious firing by Roger and the head honcho at McCann. Said honcho is an Irish brute named Ferg, who’s long had a professional vendetta against the company-hopping Ken.

Kenny has always been a unique character on which to map the war between creativity and pragmatism. He’s a rare kind soul amongst his colleagues, who hid his idealism and writerly spark in order to advance in the accounts department. Although he’s Head of Accounts, his wife thinks he ought to go back to penning beautiful science fiction novels and leave the ad game altogether. And just as he’s made the decision to bow out gracefully and follow his dream, he’s canned by McCann. Ferg is cruel about it and Roger is cool about it, and both approaches fill the normally level-headed Ken with bewilderment and rage.

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“The life not lived” is Ken’s succinct restatement of Don’s problem (and Peggy’s as well, but we’ll get to that in a moment). Ken could just walk away from this sour turn of events and begin to build the existence he always wanted – a farm, a family, a writing career. But it turns out that for Ken, the best revenge isn’t living well, or living differently. It’s just revenge. His corporate maneuvering provides the absolutely high point of the episode, a fun bit of comeuppance that’s quick and lively and a phenomenal hint of a very amusing storyline to come.

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Let’s move on to Peggy and Joan.

First of all, Peggy’s on a bit of a backslide as well. She’s back in a mental place of ennui and self-pity – single but too busy to mingle. She’s set up on a date with her coworker Mathis’ brother-in-law. WHO IS BRIAN KRAKOW. PEGGY’S ON A DATE WITH BRIAN KRAKOW. I know the rest of the internet shares my delight.

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It’s a cute storyline, but frankly not one I feel like spending much time on. Their chemistry is easy and fun, and Stevie (that’s his actual name) seems to like Peggy for all her stubbornness and brilliance. It’s nice to see Peggy’s flirty side, because both she and we have forgotten that workplace satisfaction isn’t quite the same as happiness. Her “life not lived” is the life of a girlfriend, a mother, a second fiddle – and although that’s never going to be her style, Peg seems to enjoy roleplaying once in awhile.

Peggy’s trouble in “Severance” stems from the fact that she’s unable to be spontaneous and fly off to Paris with Stevie at a moment’s notice (because her passport is in an office drawer, surprise surprise). She finds every excuse in the book not to trust this stranger or the genuine connection she’s made with him.

It’s hard to be sympathetic towards Peggy, though, because of The Elevator Scene. A watershed moment for the episode.

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Some background: Peggy and Joan are tasked with pitching Topaz pantyhose to their superiors at McCann, who are a bunch of sexist assholes. Their crude jokes are nothing new to these two, but this is the first time they’ve been working together as a team in a professional setting.

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Unsurprisingly, Peggy handles the toxic atmosphere much better than Joan does. She’s been in conference rooms for years enduring similar blows to her dignity, and has learned to emphasize her “masculine” side to cope – more conservative dress, a harder exterior, swift judo chops to halt any small talk.

But that’s simply not the way Joan is built, so to speak; Joan thrives off her own sexuality and finds power in deploying her femininity and emotional instincts in business dealings. We, as fans, love to see Peggy and Joan find common ground and use each other as lifeboats in their male-dominated war ground of an office – but this is 1970. This is not a time when women lived their personal truths in the workplace and lifted one another up. And Peggy and Joan’s heated conversation in the elevator as they leave that meeting is a short, terrible microcosm of that. Peggy basically calls Joan a slut, and Joan tells Peggy she’s too ugly to even be a slut. It’s a saddening interaction that recalls their Season 1 relationship in all the worst ways.

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As a coping mechanism, Joan engages in a little retail therapy – playing up her assets rather than taking Peggy’s harsh advice to hide her curves and bury her sensuality. In this scene, Joan also shows us the narrow gulf between her life and the life she could have lived – as the salesgirl points out, Joan’s spending thousands of dollars in the same dress department she once managed (forced, by her rapey ex-fiance, to quit Sterling Cooper in disgrace). “You must have me confused with someone else,” says Joan coolly. No one’s going to write her story, ever again. Is that all there is? If so, she’s damn well going to be dressed to the nines for it.

Loose ends…

  • I mustache you a question, Roger…WHY?

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  • Ooh, Pete’s former secretary Clara is now pregnant out of wedlock! Juicy.
  • Speaking of Pete, he’s living a new/old life too. He’s back in New York, and says of his long and lovely LA vacation: “At the time it felt so real…”
  • Ken’s father-in-law Ed (who memorably once told Don that he’d never get hired again after he screwed Philip Morris) has an amazing advertising voice. He could sell me Pop Tarts any day.
  • Stan. Looks. So. ’70s. Hot. That beard is BITCHIN’.

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So, what did you all think of “Severance”? Did you feel confused and kinda bitter (like I did, and apparently the rest of Tumblr)? Did you love the episode? What DOES it all mean?

The End of an Era: A Guide to Mad Men’s Final Season

Whether or not you’re ready for Mad Men to end (you’re not), tonight is the premiere of Season 7B: the second half of episodes comprising the show’s last season. They have the potential to be some of the best aired on television, period – and you know me, I’m not usually prone to histrionics. Here to debrief you on this once-in-a-lifetime cultural phenomenon is myself: public Mad Men debater, obsessive, and recent rewatcher of Season 7A. Let’s ride this zeitgeist together. Do you want some ice in that?

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Different TV shows call for different modes of analysis and enjoyment. You have to set your mind at a certain frequency in order to really GET a show (this is why I had such a hard time on Sunday nights in 2013 – very difficult to shotgun Breaking Bad followed by The Real Housewives of New Jersey). The thing that I find most groundbreaking and mesmerizing about Mad Men is that it operates on many more levels than the average TV narrative – even The Sopranos, to which it’s historically been compared most often. Like SopranosMad Men is a series of complex interweaving character studies. They’re both period pieces. They’re about male anti-heroes. And they’re epic poems – full of rich allegories and cultural callbacks.

But there’s something very special about Mad Men that really differentiates it and makes it so of-the-moment: it’s art about making art. It’s more meta than any television drama that’s come before it, with perhaps the exception of Six Feet Under. But while SFU only occasionally touched on the creative process, Mad Men‘s an ode to it (and if it’s taught us anything, it’s that advertising is the most romantic and important creative outlet there is). It’s an excavation of the creative mind and the human impulse to weave and consume fiction.

I think it’s an extraordinarily special piece of work – and I really mean piece of work. It takes a metric fuckton of brainpower to absorb Mad Men in all its glory. So let’s reset our minds to Season 7A. Here’s a review of where the last half-season’s going to pick up:

Themes to keep in mind…

The first half of Season 7 took us in a (blessedly) new direction from a strange, frightening, and often aimless 6th season. 7 had a few core themes that sewed it together and began to steer the show into its final harbor.

  • Sentimentality. From Bert Cooper’s touching musical farewell to Peggy’s Burger Chef epiphany about family, the show played up what has always been one of its greatest strengths. The ad work, and the characters, were at their best when they spoke from the heart, and Don and Peggy’s strained relationship was seemingly resolved with one tender slow dance. 7 started off sad and ended up kind of triumphantly sappy. Mad Men believes in love.
  • Cycles of change. Back in Season 4, a man from Heinz told Don that “food is cyclical: there’s a time for beans and there’s a time for ketchup.” In Mad Men, there’s a time for dreams and a time for fuck-ups. Season 7 has deeply explored the way we helplessly repeat ourselves (i.e. Don blowing up his marriage to Megan in the same spectacularly slow, coolly cruel way he did Betty) and also how the mistakes of the old echo in the lives of the young (Sally is now, psychologically, a frightening composite of Betty and Don). Talk about a carousel.
  • Time. Probably the most crucial theme of the entire show. Mad Men is a hyperreal depiction of aging, learning, growing, and dying – for everyone, not just Don. From the commonplace time jumps to the more recent aesthetic markers of Season 7 (Pete Campbell’s bitterly receding hairline) it’s clear that this last season will deal with the inevitable march. Death is this show’s sexiest and most interesting recurring bedfellow.

Where are they now?

In case you haven’t caught up (even though Season 7A is now on Netflix, FYI), here’s where we left the primary players and various bit characters.

  • Don is back as SC&P’s de facto head of creative, after a demeaning season of writing coupons for his replacement Lou Avery (and a hurt, vengeful Peggy, who memorably served as his direct superior for most of 7A). He briefly struggled with a relapse of his ever-latent alcoholism, connected with the collapse of his bicoastal sham of a marriage – and a long struggle to rebuild his professional relationships after the infamous Hershey Pitch of Season 6. Don found his groove by the end of 7A, his creative zest sparked by the emotionally overwhelming moon landing of 1969, shown in the finale. This half-season humbled him greatly, and his Wild West iconoclasm of earlier seasons has given way to a practicality and a Dick-Whitman-like commitment to hard work. He now seems to fully support Peggy as the heir apparent to his crown, and in a show of maturity, agrees readily to a deal that will make SC&P a subsidiary of their long-hovering rival agency McCann.
  • Peggy spent a lot of 7A fighting Lou Avery’s poor leadership of the SC&P creative team. She’s now Copy Chief and thisclose to pushing out one of the Creative Directors – my money’s on Ted, considering that the half-season ended with Don convincing a very reluctant Ted to keep his job. Peggy also struggled with a lot of working-woman insecurities, exemplified by her attachment to her young neighbor Julio and her tearful admission to Don that her single, childless status makes her wonder “what she did wrong.” I’m not a huge fan of this trope with Peggy, but whatever. This is a recap. Peggy is otherwise starting Season 7B with sizeable power and confidence: she absolutely murdered the Burger Chef pitch, with a performance that evoked Don’s classic conference room magnetism. The show is beginning to figure out that Peggy’s journey towards finding her voice has less to do with the novelty of her female perspective in a male-dominated workplace, than with the fact that she’s simply a genius.
  • Roger took a bit of a backseat this season, offering his usual workplace wit without much growth or character development. He experimented with free love (it was 1969, after all) and spent a confusing, sad 24 hours with his lost daughter at a commune upstate. His most notable role was as office peacemaker, arranging for Don’s return to SC&P and eventually brokering the deal to join McCann and eliminate his rival partner Jim Cutler. Bert’s death hit him hard. It’s my belief that he and Joan will be endgame in 7B.
  • Joan continued to soar to new heights in her relatively new position as partner. She’s a little older and wiser and has largely outgrown the corporate missteps that plagued her after she sexed her way into the job (as evidenced by a quick scene in which she mistakes a financial expert’s proposition for a, well, proposition). She spares no love for Don, angered by his disregard for the consequences of his actions, which constantly “cost [her] money.” Thrillingly, Joan completely transitions out of her role as office manager towards the end of 7A, handing off the job and the awkwardly placed cubicle to Don’s secretary Dawn. She’s essentially the new Lane now. Personally, however, Joan’s starting to exhibit a hard edge and a panic in her romantic life – she turns down a desperate marriage proposal from her Gay BFF Bob Benson. In one of her most beautiful and vulnerable moments on the show, Joan declares: “I want love…and I’d rather die hoping that happens than make some kind of arrangement.” Seriously. Joan and Roger are endgame.
  • Pete spent most of 7A finding inappropriate places to sex up his smokin’ real-estate-agent girlfriend, a perk of his lucrative work as SC&P’s dedicated LA account man. He’s evolving into an ever-savvier, ever-seedier character: he now sports a deep tan, a growing bald spot, and a lascivious twinkle in his eye. In my opinion, Pete has experienced very few narrative missteps throughout the entire show – his evolution into a rich sad sack has been steady, sure, and blackly humorous.
  • Megan is (hopefully) beginning to be phased out of the main narrative, as of the conclusion of 7A. We left her at an uncertain moment in her acting career – not starving but not even close to famous – and she’s visibly hardened as a result of the slow but inevitable decline of her marriage to Don. A mechanical threesome involving her actress friend, and a jealous rebuff of Don’s niece Stephanie, were not nearly enough to salvage the wreck of romantic idealism that the two of them created. Megan is not a mystery anymore, nor is she a fantasy or a blank creative canvas. She’s a girl who’s had a very rude awakening, and has been left to muck through it alone in the Hollywood Hills.
  • Betty and Henry are useless. I’m sorry, but they are. It’s not really Mad Men‘s fault, when there are so many more interesting characters and places to be than Senator’s Manor. Betty is still a terrible mother, keeping the Season 5 weight off but plagued by food issues. Although she occasionally chafes at her role as Henry’s gorgeous Stepford political wife, she’s still as well-adjusted as we’ve ever seen her.
  • Sally has grown into a beautiful cipher, the mutant superhuman you’d expect when you combine two slightly sociopathic and very attractive parents. Her jaw-dropping teenage debut in 7A – all short skirts and cynical, morbid digs at her mother – was coupled with a welcome character evolution, separate from her relationship with Don. We spent a lot of time with Sally at boarding school and at home, getting some fascinating insights into the cultural and sociopolitical uncertainty that molded baby boomers (what Sally is destined to be). More and more, she has been presented as the embodiment of the passage of time, indicating that her role in 7B will be crucial and probably disturbing. She’s very much in the throes of darkness and budding sexuality.
  • SC&P players like Harry, Jim Cutler, and Ginsberg had a lot of great spotlights in 7A. The season saw the introduction of an office computer, a huge and humming behemoth that many employees interpreted as a harbinger of doom and the automated destruction of creativity. The computer drove all three men to distraction: Harry used it as leverage to change the face of SC&P’s media division; Cutler drove it as a wedge between himself and the rest of the partners; Ginsberg tipped over the edge with his latent mental illness and made the computer his enemy. Ginsberg’s descent into madness was frightening and poignant, concluding with him handcuffed to a hospital cot, being wheeled out of the workplace that fostered his talent and broke his spirit. At least he managed to coin “Free The Nipple” before his departure.

Moving forward…

So yeah, I’m pretty goddamn excited for 7B. There was so much going on in 7A, and yet it retained the tightness and emotional immediacy that had really made Mad Men great in the first place. The show has returned to its groove with a vengeance, and Matthew Weiner’s writing and direction has been reassuringly confident so far.

Can we expect lots of twists and turns in 7B? Methinks…yes and no. Based on old flame Midge’s very satisfying episode arc in Season 4, and Paul Kinsey’s surprising return (as a Hare Krishna monk!) in Season 5, I’d put my money on one or two more familiar faces showing up for Mad Men‘s swan song. Like I said, Mad Men is both a narrative and a meta-narrative, and the theme of sentimentality includes you and me as viewers. I almost don’t want to jinx the return of Sal Romano, but it’s a callback that I’m really hoping for and that would delight all of us, a small nod to the more buttoned-up and quietly poignant days of the show.

But Mad Men (to quote Paul Kinsey/T.S. Eliot) will end not with a bang, but a whimper. It’s a show that, for all its abrupt and disorienting time jumps, and philosophical flourishes, and weirdness – moves at the speed of life. The best things in life are free, and simple. Laughter. Sorrow. Love. Hate. And so on. Mad Men‘s legacy was transforming the soulless – the advertising industry – into the very vessel and medium of the soul.  It began as a stylish drama, but has evolved into a genre-less manifesto, a kind of microcosmic portrait on the modern condition. Season 7B will have things to say about capitalism, but it will also tell us about the feeling of watching ourselves decay. Mad Men is a snowglobe, and when we look into it, we see confused normal people who don’t know they’re beautiful, and crucial, and indelible. Whatever happens in Season 7B…we are going to feel it, and so much of it.

Starting tonight, let’s start living like there’s no tomorrow. Because there isn’t one.