Mad Men the Morning After: Critics get “The Good News”
August 9th, 2010
Things are a bit busier today, and in fact for the foreseeable future, so today’s Mad Men the Morning After will be a little different: there’s one review I want to dialogue with, but I might have to settle with links and quotes for the rest of them, as much as it pains me to not go into further detail, especially since “The Good News” was an episode with a lot of subtext and, as it turns out, some disagreement.
This is actually the format I’m likely to be going with from now on: writing about each review is great in theory, but I just won’t have the time to keep it up: however, I like the idea of the critical dialogue involved, so I think I’ll be finding an hour of my Mondays to collect the reviews in the future.
As always, a quick glimpse at my own review to establish context.
Despite being a broadly “entertaining” episode in its final act, and despite taking place during a holiday break where many of the normal storylines were on a break of sorts, “The Good Ones” is not just a distraction: just as Don’s ways of distracting himself are telling about his state of affairs, this episode delves into how each of these characters is preparing to cope with their identity crises in a new year, and the result seemed like the most diversely representative episode of the series since “Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency.”
I obviously quite liked the episode, but of the week’s reviews one in particular did not: Matt Zoller Seitz called the episode “the show’s first flat-out flop of an episode,” an opinion which most critics didn’t share. However, since Seitz purposefully designed his “dissenting” opinion as an opening to a larger discussion, I want to dialogue with his review for a bit. While I disagree with some of his observations, I agree with one of his primary concerns:
The dialogue was on-the-nose expository even by the worst standards of “Mad Men,” an astutely-written series that can’t resist periodically underlining and boldfacing its themes…Don to the niece, in re her enrollment at Berkeley: “Are you sitting in?” Stephanie: “I agree with what they’re doing, but somebody’s got to go to class.” More gems from Stephanie: “No one knows what’s wrong with themselves, and everyone else can see it right away.” “A self-made man. What’s it like taking off your suit and returning to the wild?” “I’ll be right back after this brief message from Jan and Dean.” Really, “Mad Men”?
I had the same issues with Stephanie’s dialogue, especially the “No one knows what’s wrong with themselves” line – it didn’t feel like something she would say, instead very much resonating as what Matthew Weiner wanted us to be thinking. She’s an interesting glimpse into youth culture and Don’s relationship with it, but she seems explicitly designed for that function, and her short stay in the episode means that any point Weiner wanted to make with the character has to be made incredibly quickly, leading to these shortcuts. However, because she is such a fleeting presence in the episode, I felt as if the character’s punctuation of various statements didn’t damage the episode as a whole: Don’s trip to Los Angeles is supposed to be disarming, and what’s more important is why he runs. Although, Seitz has some issues with that as well:
And it missed out on the big, messy, raw, feelings that would have poured forth had Anna—perhaps the only character Don has ever had an honest relationship with—been aware of her fate from frame one and decided to (a) initially hide it from Don, then relent and disclose it, or (b) hide it from Don throughout while we watch the clueless ad man persist with his sad-eyed Alpha Male swagger. I usually refrain from slagging a work based on what I personally wish it had been as opposed to what it actually is, but I’m making an exception here in order to set up a larger question: Has the series become too attached to its “we all keep secrets from ourselves and each other” motif?
To pick up on Matt’s larger question, which I think is certainly worth asking, my answer is “No,” primarily because I don’t think this episode is attached to it. I think the whole point of having Anna’s cancer remain a secret is so that Don is running not just from the idea of losing Anna but also the idea of Dick Whitman’s life during into a web of lies not unlike Don Draper’s. The episode isn’t attached to that motif so much as it offers a commentary on its impact, arguing that Don has kept so many secrets that he can’t bear to keep another one – it’s why he runs as quickly as he does, and it’s why he returns to New York instead of vacationing in Acapulco. I agree that the show can no longer layer secrets in the way it once did for fear of becoming stale, but this episode was about people reflecting on those secrets (Lane letting Don in on the situation with his wife, for example) rather than accepting that particular reality, and I think that the episode deserves some credit for that. The series can’t outright abandon this motif considering how much it informs Don’s past, so this sort of investigation seems like a good way to acknowledge the transition away from a life of secrets and how that affects Don when confronted with the secrets motif in the environment which used to be his refuge from it.
Seitz’s review is also particular interesting in that he expresses a general disinterest in Joan’s storyline (if not Joan as a character), which isn’t exactly common. Addressing why this might be, he offers that
Part of the problem might be that, with certain explosive exception…the Joan scenes and the Peggy scenes seem uncomfortably similar in function, verging on redundant. (Joan’s Roger is Peggy’s Duck; Joan’s abortions echo Peggy’s secret pregnancy, and so on.) And the writers aren’t doing enough to differentiate the issues vis a vis the character’s social status, aside from conspicuously framing Hendricks in profile from the ribcage up so that her out-of-focus, Maidenform-capped bosom juts into view like the prow of a decommissioned battleship.
While I appreciate the turn of phrase in describing Joan’s assets, I’ll admit to being a bit baffled by this: I do think that the two characters are on relatively similar paths, but I think that there is a dynamism in their relationship to one another that could be witnessed in this very episode. I love how Joan presumes that Peggy will be out on the town with her girlfriends, almost judging her when she learns that she’s spending it with her boyfriend instead; she doesn’t understand why Peggy would need to tie herself down when she has a career, and in some ways she is jealous of how Peggy was able to get out of the Secretary Pool without having to sacrifice that freedom. Joan is in a job where she has her own office and doesn’t have to file things anymore, but before that happened she chose to buy into the societal construct of marriage, and there’s a nice tension there which makes the redundancy Seitz observes functional. I’d also suggest that Joan’s abortions seem clinical and controlled compared with Peggy’s obliviousness to her pregnancy, while Peggy’s relationship with Duck was sad and pathetic compared with Joan’s legitimate connection with Roger. I don’t think that any of their stories which are similar on paper have resulted in similar observations about their characters, and if anything they help to differentiate how each one is facing similar challenges which would face them both during this time period.
Seitz wasn’t the only one writing about Mad Men this week, though, and the rest of the reviews are generally more positive on the episode (even if I think they somewhat gloss over some of the issues which Seitz looks at), so be sure to do your weekly reading.
When he tells Lane that he learned the hard way about giving advice in these situations, he’s alluding to the Roger/Jane/Mona mess, which was one of many instances of Don trying desperately to keep everyone at the office from knowing anything about him. Here, he lets kindred spirit Lane see the real him – a particularly dark and sad version, but him nonetheless – and both men seem to feel strangely better afterwards, like at least they know there’s one other man in that office who feels something similar to what they do.
When he moves to stitch up her sliced finger, Joan has the same reaction I’m sure many of us did—that Greg, a surgeon so unskilled he has to flee to a war zone to practice, wasn’t up for the job. To her surprise, Greg knows what he’s doing, but that’s all he knows: His thoughtless remark comparing his job to hers (“For me, this is like filing papers is for you. I do it all the time.”) just proves how little he cares to learn about her. If there’s one thing connecting Don’s story to Joan’s this week, it’s the need to be around people who understand the real you.
…it was a revelation to see Jared Harris show us the wild man who’d been stoppered up for so long in that proper English bottle, as Don took him out for a boys’ night of monster movies, comedy and whores. There’s something almost childlike about Harris’ performance as Lane—he’s like the class prefect excited and grateful that one of the popular boys has given him a night to be bad.
Because, while Anna might be capable of loving someone and standing by them, no matter what, Don isn’t. He simply can’t stand to be the one person who’s there for her. He can’t handle the intensity of the situation, and refuses to help her through whatever comes next. Like her sister, Don may tell himself there’s no point to letting Anna know, but ultimately he’s just being selfish.
It’s said that we’re alive so long as those who knew us carry us in their memories. The impending death of Anna Draper–to a cancer that she doesn’t even know she carries in her bones–isn’t just the passing of a confidante and friend. It’s the passing of Dick Whitman, of the one person who knew just who Don Draper was and who loved him all the more for it.
And then it happens. The stress gets to her and Joan actually breaks down into tears. Even when she was being raped by her husband she was able to look off and not think about it. But this is all too much for her to deal with and the pain from the knife wound plus the pain in her life mix together in that proverbial (if overly generalized) spaghetti. It was a little uncomfortable.
It’s a testament to the writing and especially Jon Hamm’s performance that after all we’ve seen Don do and how much most us surely hated him after last week’s episode, it’s easy to get lost in the sadness Don projects when he’s in Dick mode.