Remember Niagara: Mad Men, Bad Choices & The National Parks

TV Reviews Mad Men

Whatever I might’ve been planning to write about Mad Men last week, Ken Burns messed it all up.

Had I not spent the two previous hours watching the first episode of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea on PBS (dork alert: if simply reading that made your eyes roll back in your head just now, go ahead and move along, ’cause it’s only gonna get worse), I might have written something referencing the text message my mom had sent me about a half hour into Mad Men: “Don and Peggy are making bad choices.” The “making bad choices” thing is kind of a family in-joke that I can’t remember the origin of but it especially applied to last week’s episode—which, in a series founded on a bedrock of bad decisions, is really saying a lot.

In short: Don stumbles into the Hilton Hotels account but flips when Sterling Cooper tries to snag him with a contract, goes off on a bit of a bender, loads up on whiskey and loads himself into his Cadillac (PS, at what point does guiltless drunk driving get to stop being an amusing cultural anachronism and start being something these folks should get smacked upside the head for?), picking up some hitchikers and popping a few Phenobarbitals along the way to—well, I don’t even think he knew where.

Meanwhile, Peggy’s new life as an empowered career woman is moving along right on schedule, as she’s skipped right from demanding a raise (though failing) and snagging an apartment in The Big City to confusing sexual advances and professional advancements—which, in this case, means doin’ it with Duck. Which, can I just say, is totally gross. What was wrong with burger boy from the bar a few weeks back? Sure, he lived with his mom, but he was so cute! Or at least kinda cute. And so not slimy. And so not named Duck. Talk about getting some tools in your toolbox, Pegs. Jeez.

Anyway, I was going to write something about all that, and then also probably about how my mom sends me funny text messages, but then Don picked up that young couple on their way to get married at Niagara Falls, and I got cold chills. Hours earlier, in his dulcet tones, Peter Coyote had told me all about that same place, and the parallels between its story and Don’s own, and Peggy’s own, struck me hard. (Elsewhere in TV Land, The Office‘s Jim and Pam are set to get married there this week, but that’s rather beside the point that I’m going to eventually try to make.)

By the 60s, I’m sure, Niagara had become just another benignly romantic American icon, but in the late 1800s it was a bit of a sore spot—a natural wonder laid to waste by developers all looking to make a buck off of what had basically been rendered a schmaltzy, over-commercialized tourist trap. Burns’ series argues that its thwarted beauty was, in part, what fueled the efforts to protect and preserve what became America’s first two national parks, Yosemite and Yellowstone—kind of a “remember the Alamo” approach to conservation.

Except within no time at all, exactly what happened at Niagara Falls was happening at both of the new preserves—despite all the would-be benefits of government protection that national park status was meant to provide—and any hope of a pure, natural park experience seemed lost. And over the years, even after the defiant loggers and opportunistic hoteliers and hucksters were dealt with, there was still the issue of how to preserve the land but use its much-needed natural resources for the most good—roads were built, animals hunted into near-extinction, rivers dammed, names etched on trees and rocks carted back East by exuberant tourists. Some mismanagement was due to sheer ignorance of the delicate balance of nature, which of course we know more about now than ever, but some of it was thanks to lack of funds and even more of it was just simple human selfishness, and so even now many of these conflicts continue.

It’s an eternal war between our own unshakable tendencies and the overwhelming beauty of everything that’s been entrusted to our care, both of which stem from our essential humanness—our ability to destroy and our ability to know exactly what it is we’re destroying, even as we’re doing it. We know, I think, deep down, when to meddle and when to stand back, fold our hands, and just admire the view. But there’s always that nagging potential for things to be better and greater and the accompanying notion that we are just the ones to make it so.

My impulse is to say this is an American problem, because I’m American and so are Don and Peggy, the two people I’m trying to tie this back to, but I’m not sure it stops with us. I think it’s probably everyone, at every level of our lives. After all, as the great Canadian poet Avril Lavigne once said:

Life’s like this
You fall and you crawl
And you break and you take what you get
And you turn it into honesty
Promise me, I’m never gonna find you fake it

We’re all overwhelmed by the simultaneous obstinacy and delicacy of our individual and collective existence every day we’re alive, whether we’re juggling persnickety advertisers or trying to break a glass ceiling or save a reservoir or stave off an(other) affair or protect a precious natural landscape or a herd of buffalo or just get out of bed in the morning, whether we’re doing this in 1960s Manhattan or 1870s Wyoming or today, anywhere. The stakes vary, but the game’s the same.

Which is why, of course, even after its characters display such glaringly idiotic behavior one week—after they make such bad choices, ones that make our real-life mothers tsk-tsk so who knows what their own would say—we tune back in next Sunday night. We hope maybe they won’t, but know they can’t not. And so we can’t not.

(And then we get busy making a magazine and fall a week behind on blogging—apologies. Gonna catch up soon, now that my nights are no longer consumed by dulcet, reassuring narrators and slow-pans over sepia-toned historical documents. Oh, Ken. I miss you already.)

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