Tag Archives: The Daily Beast

Popular culture goes all Walter

As someone interested in the state of contemporary culture, I’m on the look out for evidence that things are changing…or at least that precedents have been established and long standing rules are no longer inviolable.

So I love this passage from AN ESSAY by Andrew Romano in The Daily Beast.

“Television is historically good at keeping its characters in a self-imposed stasis so that shows can go on for years or even decades,” says Breaking Bad’s creator, Vince Gilligan. “When I realized this, the logical next step was to think, how can I do a show in which the fundamental drive is toward change?” So Gilligan designed Breaking Bad to transform its hero into a villain—or, as he put it in his early pitch meetings, “Mr. Chips into Scarface.”

This breaks the contract that TV once fashioned with the viewer, that heroes were enchanted and protected from harm.  (The hero in Castle is always in harm’s way but will never come to grief.)  To visit a world in which heroes could go “all Walter,” we were obliged to abandon popular culture for art and literature.  (And no one wanted to go there.)

It’s also worth pointing out that as TV gets better, so does the criticism.  See this essay by Romano and the Chuck Klosterman’s GRANTLAND TREATMENT of Breaking Bad which explores Walter’s transformation with real intelligence and touch.

The trouble with Klosterman, for me, is that he works fearlessly, making a point, and then making all subsequent points depend on it.  There’s no modularity.  He doesn’t seal off sections of the argument.  He could care less about damage control.  He just keeps building and in no time, it’s all or nothing.  Naturally, many of the points are so good and so original that this carries the argument.  But in fact argument is shot through with discontinuities.  It has broken down and what we get (and like) is a kind of serialized illumination.  But, hey, I wish I wrote this badly.


Tom Asacker for pointing out the essay and the passage.

on social climbing and the royal wedding

As the Royal wedding approaches, there is a Tsunami of Kate Middleton coverage headed our way.

Much is being made of her social origins. Not grand enough, apparently.

Indeed, Kate is being called a climber.

“Kate and [sister] Pippa were dubbed the Wisteria Sisters
because, as one wag put it: “They’re highly decorative, terribly
fragrant, and have a ferocious ability to climb.”” [Daily Beast]

But this made me think of the wonderful comment someone made about Eton, that it was not so much a school for gentlemen as their fathers.

Britain has always been a place of status mobility. Despite the 16th century claim that it takes 5 generations to wash away the “taint” of commonality, people would rise much more quickly, sometimes make the transition in two generations.

The English are very good at two things. Theatre and History. And they are particularly good at using the first to reinvent the second.  If you can act the part, mastering the codes of behavior, clothing, housing, language, all, you may rise. Efforts will then be made to “paper over” the speedy ascent, and Bob is no longer your uncle. Now his name is Robert.

It is just possible that the industrial and consumer revolution happened in Britain because Britain allowed upward mobility in a way that France and Spain would not. And so was a contradiction managed: a status system intertwined with a meritocracy.

Go, Kate, grow.


Pearson, Allison. 2011. Citizen Kate. Newsweek/Daily Beast. April 11.


Image of a ruler is from the Noun Project at http://www.thenounproject.com.

Ida Blankenship R.I.P.

Ida Blankenship died on Sunday.  At her desk at the advertising agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  She will be remembered as Don Draper’s secretary. As one her colleagues put, it "She died as she lived–surrounded by the people she answered phones for."

The good news is that Ida is a fictional character.  Her death was therefore a fictional event. No mourning is called for. Unless of course you had grown to love her contribution to Mad Men, as many of us had.  

(It tells you how absolutely, effortlessly creative the Mad Men team is that they could kill off Ida so casually and so early. Most TV shows would thrill to have a character half as rich and funny.  Having created her, they would have given her up only with the greatest reluctance. The Mad Men team evidence a certain arrogance.  As if to say, "Oh, there are plenty more where she came from.  She was easy as anything.")

That Ida is a fictional character didn’t stop the Daily Beast from running a eulogy for her. Which is pretty charming.  I think.

For starters, it plays out the Mad Men fiction.  It pretends Ida Blankenship were the real thing.  It’s a small act of cocreation.

But it’s more than cocreation.  It’s witty.  It attributes the honor given real humans to a pretend human.  "Ah," we think, "clever."

Lots of wit has this quality.  We take the properties of one thing and we assign them to another thing.  When we say Roger, the family poodle, is considering an advance degree in opthalmology,we suppose…  Well for starters we are acting as if Roger has a first degree. This is a cultural act of transposition or relocation.  We are moving cultural meanings around.  We are reassigning them.   (Witness relocation, kinda.)  

We may also think of the Ida eulogy as simple play.  It’s a little "what if."  As in, "what if we treated Ida is if she were a real person."  As in, "let’s act as if Roger isn’t a dog."  And this gets us a little closer to the mechanics of the transposition.

This movement of meanings is successful when it fails.  If we attribute something to Roger that does work, "Roger is a good doggie woggie" for instance, it’s like "so?" It’s only when we say Roger is a) thinking , b) about an advanced degree, that we begin to get somewhere humor wise.  

This cultural act is designed to make a small buzzer sound in our brain.  It designed to forces us to say "that doesn’t go there.  Roger is a dog."  It’s only when we think of Roger otherwise that it’s drole (drool?).

I’m surprised.  Apparently, we don’t mind it when meanings are reassigned.  Apparently, we actually quite like when culture is corrupted.  (Well, not stupid people.  Stupid people get confused and then they blame the rest of us for their confusion.)  But the rest of the world, and that’s most of the world, love this kind of play.

Maybe this is just the kind of thing that bothers an anthropologist.  (It is after all only linguists who do not groan at puns.  They just fall into a reverential silence.)  I guess when you spend your life looking at how we build culture up, there is something astonishing at looking at the pleasure we take when someone ever so briefly tears it down.   

It could also be that I am writing this at 31,000 feet courtesy of American Airlines and Go Go In Flight.  It’s the oxygen debt talking.  But it is weird.  No?  Just me?  Ok, it’s just me.  


To Pam DeCesare for giving me the head’s up on the Daily Beast article.  

To Randee Heller, the very gifted actress who helped invent Ida.  


Anonymous.  2010.  A Eulogy for Don Draper’s secretary.  The Daily Beast.  


Sapir, J. David, and Jon Christopher Crocker, editors. 1977. The Social use of metaphor: essays on the anthropology of rhetoric. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.