“Six Month Leave”
September 28th, 2008
“Some People Just Hide in Plain Sight”
On the surface, Marilyn Monroe was the picture of grace and beauty, living the Hollywood dream and conquering the globe in the process. Of course, inside she was emotionally distraught, and her suicide rocked America in August, 1962. In the world of Mad Men, it rocks the secretarial pool at Sterling Cooper, sending them to the kleenex boxes and making them all question, at least a little bit, the value of life.
But that quote, coming from the elevator man of all people, is the driving force behind this series, particularly for Don Draper: he can’t actually hide away from everyone, he needs to be out there and available even while hiding pains as deep as his traumatic family past and as recent as his separation from Betty. Peggy may have hid in the months after her pregnancy, but now she’s back at work and having to act as if none of it is there, struggling while all eyes remain on her in her new success.
But this episode is all about those people who can’t hide in plain sight, who based on either inexperience or circumstance are no longer able to (or desiring to) hide something about themselves. In the case of Freddy Rumsen, our zipper musician extraordinaire, his habits have long been known by those in the office, but there comes a time when you get too comfortable and what was hidden becomes clear to too many people or, more accurately, to the wrong people. In the case of Betty Draper, she’s been so used to hiding her feelings that she has no idea how to express her displeasure, unsure of what she wants other than to be left alone and allowed to take care of her own life for a change.
While a less careful show might be running dangerously close to hammering this home a bit too hard at this point, “Six Month Leave” has more than enough moments of emotional discovery to feel like a new step into this particular subject, one of the show’s (and my) favourites.
“A Night to Remember”
September 14th, 2008
Describing Betty Draper to the representatives from Heineken, Duck Phillips identifies her as “well off and educated.” Now, in the context of the scene, we breeze right by it: they’re selling this pitch, so it’s not like anyone’s going to put on the brakes. However, let’s be frank: to this point, and even after the events of the episode, would anyone really consider Betty Draper to be educated?
This isn’t to say that she is not intelligent, or that she is not capable of achieving great things, but rather that her tragic flaw is her ignorance to the outside world, to the world that she is constantly being surrounded by. When she becomes the punchline of Don’s pitch to Heineken, she isn’t necessarily just reacting to Don’s use of her as a tool: rather, it’s that he knows better than she does what her role is, what demographic she’s in, and what she’s likely to buy when she goes to the grocery store.
But that’s Don’s job, as it is Peggy’s: it’s their job to tell people what they want. It’s just that, as both found out in this episode, you need to know your audience: whether your wife or the Catholic Church, there are certain rules that need to be followed if you’re going to let your role in the ad game dictate the rest of your life decisions. And, as seen with Don, Peggy and Joan, the balance between these two sides of one’s life, in whatever form they take, will eventually get the better of you.
And when that happens, as it did to Betty Draper who doesn’t even have a single role she could really latch onto in her lowest moments, it will serve as…well, you can read the title of the episode, you know where this is going.
“The Gold Violin”
September 7th, 2008
Ken Cosgrove is a man of letters, a published writer who sees everything around him as some type of story, some type of allegory waiting to be turned into words. Having such an interpretative individual in a TV show is an interesting mirror for the audience, as when he suggests that an after hours trip into Cooper’s office to view a photograph would make a good short story, we’re in the process of watching a television show about an after hours trip into Cooper’s office.
Really, though, his story of the gold violin, perfect but unable to play a single note, is really more about the rest of the episode than it is about Cosgrove as a character. It’s not a new theme for the series, but the idea of things being entirely for show, form over function, is nailed home with a group of characters who make decisions or take life paths which will eventually come back to damage them.
But there is just something irresistable about a gold violin: as Cooper himself puts it, people buy things to realize their aspirations. The problem, of course, is when their aspirations are as complicated as Don’s emotional stability, or when they are as confused and ultimately misguided as Salvatore’s decision to get married. Really, the only purchase in the entire episode that isn’t an equivalent to the titular instrument is the painting that everyone presumes is such a prized possession: Cooper’s only in it for the money.
And if everyone else was only in it for money, Betty Draper wouldn’t be throwing up in the front seat of Don’s new cadillac, would she?
August 31st, 2008
During this busy period in my personal life, Mad Men is a bit behind schedule, and what thoughts I do have about this week’s episode will be truncated (by my standards at least). The episode is a lot about mirrors, and I just wrote an entire post about mirror universes in regards to the Middleman, so I’m just going to list some of my favourite moments.
First off, Duck’s entire storyline is a very strongly guided image of a man fighting alcoholism while another man takes the life that he lost due to that battle. I don’t know if I have been so emotional about a Mad Men scene as I was when Chauncey (The beloved family pet who now only reminds him of his family) was sent out to the streets of Manhattan to fend for himself since Duck couldn’t stand to have the dog watch while he fell back into his old habits. These storylines are signs that, no matter what direction the show takes, it is in very good hands moving forward.
“The New Girl”
August 24th, 2008
Don Draper is not a man who likes things. This seems strange to say, but it’s true: our protagonist is a man who desires things, who thinks he deserves things, who certainly feels things, but he is the type who has totally disallowed himself from liking things in a normal sense. He is a man who avoids more than he gravitates – he defends against his past while indulging in desire, deciding what he doesn’t like before he ever decides the other way around.
So, while the episode spends a lot of time struggling to discern what Don likes, it’s really through his actions that we are able to understand what he likes, or respects. Of the thing he lists to Bobbie, only movies seems to be true, as we saw him use it a few weeks ago as his work escape unrelated to his affairs. What he really likes is people who are reliable, people who are there for him and to whom he can reveal parts of himself others don’t see. In this episode, he runs into one of them and it sends him into a downward spiral; when he needs to escape it, he turns to another, one who owes him a favour.
What it boils down to is a discovery of how, precisely, Don Draper decides to live his life – and, like all good Mad Men episodes, it says as a little about everyone else on the show too, although the episode was less interconnected than others. With a glimpse of the past and a look to the future, “The New Girl” does manage to say a lot…even if I still am not sure who the title refers to.
August 17th, 2008
When Father Gil (Guest star Colin Hanks) stops by to the Olsen household for a dinner party, he is asked to say grace. He gives a short little moment of reflection on the meal in front of them, and Peggy’s Mother commends him on the fine words and asks if he’s going to say grace now. He quickly breaks into the traditional verse.
Roger’s daughter, meanwhile, is engaged. Her mother wants a wedding, a big gala where all of their friends can come and enjoy, but she isn’t on the same page: the young Ms. Sterling does want to feel like she needs to prove her love to anyone in some grand ceremony after only two months of engagement. Eventually, it seems settled: like it or not, a big wedding is simply unavoidable.
We shouldn’t be surprised by any of this: as my brother (who just finished the first season) noted, the 60s is a decade of change and Mad Men is a show about people of an older era. While this is not yet the time when there is an active war between these two generations, the battlegrounds are being drawn: as Don himself says, “We have a lot of bricks, but we don’t know what the building looks like.”
But, slowly but surely, the bricks are falling into place; and over these “Three Sundays,” a lot happens to lay a foundation.
August 10th, 2008
After a busy day of moving, there’s nothing better than sitting down with one of the most satisfying dramas on television and just letting its quality suck you in. But, to be honest, it wasn’t grasping me at first: maybe it’s being tired, maybe it’s just that the show is finding a slower pace after a couple of really quick episodes, but there was something about “The Benefactor” that wasn’t clicking.
But then all of a sudden everything starts clicking – what seemed like a strangely slow subplot for Harry Crane turns into a sudden revelation of its broader impact on his life (And Peggy’s for that matter). It’s one of those examples where something initially so isolated has this ripple effect, showing in tiny small moments how one thing impacts everyone else.
And even though the episode is slow to start for Don and Betty Draper, they end the episode both with extremely twisted views of their current marital detente of sorts: as they both continue to struggle with embracing their new roles, it is clear that their expectations for happiness are quite different. When Betty cries in the car on their way back from dinner, they’re inexpicable tears of happiness, her bar set so low that being used to flirt with an unruly comedian is her new calling.
But, I guess this is normal: for her, Don is really just a Benefactor, although a slightly more benevolent one these days.
August 3rd, 2008
If last week was about the dueling crises of Betty and Don Draper, the sophomore episode of Mad Men’s second season is all about how the show’s other two primary characters are dealing with crises of their own own. Pete and Peggy’s fates are no doubt intertwined in this series, from the premiere’s tryst to the finale’s birth, and while they share only a brief conversation and one long look during one of Pete’s lower moments, their connection is apparent throughout.
Mad Men is all about reactions: to the times, to the people, to tragedy, to triumph, and everything else in between. We don’t see Flight 1 crash into Jamaica Bay, but we see the reactions of the people at Sterling Cooper and through the impact it has on Pete’s family. Much like the second season from a conceptual level, the show isn’t about showing us every event, but rather slowly pulling back the curtain on the ways that those events change these characters. It’s a show where a plane crash is never just a plane crash not because of some sort of electromagnetic field, but rather due to the show’s ability to emphasize the widespread impact of events both big and small on the characters it knows so well.
“For Those Who Think Young”
July 27th, 2008
The breakout success of Mad Men has been a huge surprise – when I started watching the show last summer, it was a cable show from a network that didn’t do such shows. It had the pedigree of Matthew Weiner, and it had some positive kudos from the critics, but what person would have predicted sixteen Emmy nominations, two Golden Globes, and a cultural firestorm so powerful that it even compelled the Canadian networks with the rights to the series to air the second season premiere before the first season has even completed airing?
But the time for kudos, set visits, really fancy DVD sets and excessive hype is over: while last season’s finale seems like ages ago at this point, it’s time to see whether the emotional resonance of “The Wheel” can be rekindled as the show picks up fifteen months later and in a whole different critical context: once a show without expectation, it has become perhaps the most closely watched sophomore session of the year.
And the series is showing its age, to use the opening episode’s central theme: it is a show that allows its characters to feel all of their insecurities in a way that ages them. If we look back to each character’s trajectory, and the series’ central transportation back to another era, a lot of it is about time and the way it changes people: whether it’s Betty Draper looking back to her modeling days or Roger Sterling having an affair with Joan, the voluptuous secretary, it’s all inevitably about returning to a younger self, a younger identity.
As the show begins its second season, it strongly and intelligently hits on this note, framing a story of a Valentine’s Day where “Young” is in and where those feeling time slipping away from them are hoping to hang onto everything they can. With a large ensemble cast and a number of emotional cliffhangers to deal with, the jump forward in time brings new facial hair, new jobs, and new rumours; in the process, it’s a new season of one of television’s finest dramas.
Season One, Episode Six
In the world of Mad Men, normalcy is the goal: for Don Draper, it’s bringing his wife breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day. Of course, as he travels up the stairs, he losing his footing and everything smashes around him. Cue the flashback to his brother’s birth, and another sign that Donald Draper’s life is a giant lie just waiting to be smashed like the falling breakfast tray.
Yes, the opening of “Babylon” is not exactly subtle, but this is an episode that is all about the hidden becoming revealed, the secrets becoming part of common knowledge. The central attempt to commodify Israel into a tourism destination for Americans is about taking a secret and turning it into common knowledge, but there the ad men get to put their spin on it; the facts are one thing, but with the right treatment they can become something far more profound. This episode is about the people who need to spin their own lives, and the one person who’s about to start spinning for others.
And in the meantime, you’re stuck in exile; and as a series about people who find themselves searching to avoid such a position, Mad Men flourishes.