[This essay—part personal storytelling, part appreciation of a Mad Men episode—was first presented on October 1, 2012, as an introduction to Drew Goddard's 2011 film, The Cabin in the Woods. Posed an experiment in "ultra-spoiler-free" writing, the essay introduces the themes of the film without any direct reference to its story. Indeed, this piece makes no mention of The Cabin in the Woods at all.]
I'm sorry, I always forget that nobody wants to think they're a type.
—Faye Miller, Mad Men Season Four, Episode 2: "Christmas Comes But Once a Year"
Nightmare the First: A Sinister Experiment
When I was a child, I occasionally contemplated the possibility that other human beings were evil robots. I can’t say at what age this idea took hold of me, because I frankly can’t remember with any precision. Nor can I say exactly when the notion finally diminished from an unlikely-but-still-conceivable scenario to a mere silly fantasy that I had once entertained. Indeed, I'll concede that a mischievous sliver of my mind still ruminates on the evil robot hypothesis, if only as a dime-store thought experiment. Like a Rubik’s Cube, it's good for thirty seconds of exasperating self-amusement before it is inevitably cast aside.
The idea was fairly impressive in its sinister complexity, perhaps too elaborate to have sprung from the imagination of a child without some manner of outside influence. But if there was a specific inspiration for the sinister scenario I imagined—some work of fiction, say, or the words of a particularly perverse adult—I have long ago forgotten it. The idea itself, meanwhile, is stubbornly resistant to the erosions of memory, and I can recall it to this day with tremendous clarity.
This is how my child-mind postulated it: What if, beneath their apparently human skin, everyone around me were nothing more than steel pistons and electrified circuitry? If the construction of these androids were of high enough quality, if the illusion were sufficiently skillful, how would I be able to tell the difference between a real human and a false one? What if everyone only seems to be going about their routine, but is, in actuality, following a cold-hearted program? What would the purpose of that program be, one might reasonably ask? Why to trick me, of course. To deceive me into living out the role of a normal Midwestern white male, to follow a path that had been predetermined by a bevy of malevolent researchers hidden somewhere just out of sight.
It’s notable that this robot-suspicion extended not only to deserving targets of childhood scorn, such as the strict teacher or the playground bully, but to everyone whom I encountered on a daily basis. Everyone: The girl for whom I harbored a desperate crush, the mentally retarded boy in the back of the class, the clerk at the corner convenience store, the bus driver, my little brother, even, yes—horror of horrors—my own parents. Absolutely every individual was an accessory to this conspiracy, which I at some point mentally labeled Project Android.
That this secret suspicion was unbiased in its application seems the clearest indication that it was not born of petty resentments, but of pre-adolescent alienation, as well as a fairly sophisticated recognition of the limits of my own knowledge. Sophisticated for a grade-schooler, at any rate. For even the most cursory follow-up questions revealed the flimsiness of the whole notion. Why would such vast effort and financial resources be brought to bear in order to deceive an ordinary if bookwormish boy from South St. Louis? Who would fund such a diabolical yet profoundly pointless experiment? Who were the hidden, presumably white-coated chess-masters who were nudging me this way and that with their cybernetic creations? What exactly was the point of tricking a child into doing the things he very likely would have done anyway, had he been surrounded by flesh-and-blood parents, teachers, and schoolmates?
Ah, but that was the fiendish genius of it all: Because the experiment was perfectly seamless, there was no way to determine which of my own behaviors and thoughts were normal and which were the result of robotic manipulation. That Project Android permitted such ever-deeper rabbit holes of paranoia was not a bug, but a feature. It permitted me a way to pass the time as I endured the weekly school chapel or lay in bed at night waiting for sleep. However, it doesn’t speak much of my creativity or sense of self-importance that this scenario never led to more fantastic conclusions. Why would manipulating a child into a relatively banal existence be so vital to the experiment’s creators? Was I special in some way, perhaps a superhuman being who had to be kept docile? A cluster of extraordinary potentiality who must be never allowed to blossom to his true purpose?
In a word: No. In my young mind, the deception was the motive, and so Project Android was my crude version of Descartes’ Evil Demon, a malicious, omnipotent entity that manipulates the thinker’s perceptions because it can. This, incidentally, is the essence of modern philosophy: Providing a credible academic framework for the insomniac musings of an elementary school student.
Nightmare the Second: A Very Uncomfortable Christmas Party
A couple of years ago, I found myself ruminating on Project Android for the first time in what seems like ages. This revisitation of a ludicrous childhood fantasy was prompted by, of all things, an episode of Matthew Weiner’s television drama Mad Men, which is set in a Madison Avenue ad agency in the 1960s. The episode in question is the second of the show’s fourth season, entitled “Christmas Comes But Once a Year,” and is, as one might deduce, a Holiday Episode.
As with any installment of Mad Men, quite a bit happens in the space of the episode’s forty-five minutes. The office of fledgling agency Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce scrambles to organize a deliberately “wild” Christmas party for the benefit of their most valued client, the president of Lucky Strike Tobacco, Lee Garner, Jr. (Darren Pettie). Copywriting wunderkind Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) weighs whether to concede to her boyfriend’s whining regarding their stalled physical intimacy. Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono), a consulting psychologist who studies consumer behavior, introduces her work to SCDP and receives a doubtful reception from creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm). Don himself spends an unhealthy chunk of the episode drinking to excess and brooding about his first post-divorce Christmas. This leads to a downward spiral that culminates in an ill-advised couch-screw with his capable yet naive assistant Allison (Alexa Alemanni), after which he heartlessly tosses the woman aside.
The episode is admittedly one of the lesser lights in a strong season of a phenomenal show, but it is memorable for exploring one of Mad Men’s most significant themes in a quite forceful and characteristically multi-pronged manner. That theme is pointedly expressed in Dr. Miller’s pithy summary of her work: “It all comes down to what I want versus what’s expected of me.” The struggle between the desires of the true self—if there is such a thing—and the demands of others is one of the foremost preoccupations of Mad Men. And it’s a theme that strangely summoned memories of Project Android when I first viewed the “Christmas” episode in 2010.
If there is an adult, non-fantastical version of the manipulative robot anxiety, it is the fear that one’s real identity will be swamped by the expectations and demands of external parties. The self-conscious dread of contemporary life is that there are no thoughts or actions which are free from the influence of others. At every turn are currents that pull us to and fro: the command of the authority figure; the approval of the parent; the request of the lover; the preference of the taste-maker; the dictate of the advertisement that shrieks CRAVE and CONSUME. Where, one can justly ask, does my true self begin? Where is the real me amid all the roles I am asked to play, all the identities I am required to assume? This is the nightmarish reality that is repeatedly insisted upon throughout Mad Men: We are playing out a complex script that is being inked in real-time by a committee of writers.
This reality is embodied in a scene in “Christmas” that is among the most absurdly unsettling in the entire run of the show. Roger Sterling (John Slattery), the silver-haired tomcat who is both a founding partner of SCDP and its head of accounts, is urged to don the office Santa suit by prize client Lee. Never mind that the acerbic, sharp-dressed Roger is perhaps the most ill-suited member of the agency to play the Jolly Old Elf. In the space of about thirty seconds, Lee’s joking request gradually and remorselessly evolves into a domineering command. Roger, who is irreverent to a fault but loathes being told what to do, slowly realizes that Lee is dead serious. To Roger's dawning horror, the future of the agency at that moment depends on him playing a dancing monkey for the amusement of this contemptuous creep.
The fact that this extremely uncomfortable situation is thrust upon Roger is less terrifying than the punchline: He of course, does put on the Santa suit, because he believes that refusal is not an option, given the agency's precarious financial position. The result is a sight as oddly horrific as any slasher film massacre: A dapper late-middle-aged man sweating and grimacing beneath a crimson suit and white polyester beard, forced to pose for photos as his employees take turns sitting awkwardly on his lap, all the while straining out pained bellows of “Ho Ho Ho!”