“The Color Blue”
October 18th, 2009
“The faintest ink is better than the best memory.”
Mad Men is many things, but I think the attribute most apparent in “The Color Blue” is its meticulous attention to thematics. One of the things that has been missing in some of the recent episodes, as great as they are, is that sense that everything is adding up, that Sterling Cooper campaigns and character interactions will all add up to something, or more accurately multiple things that have ramifications to both past, present and future in the show’s universe.
What’s interesting about this week’s episode is how they manage to juggle multiple different storylines, weaving characters like Lane and Kinsey back into our storyline while nonetheless providing some substantial character work for both Don and Betty. I like when the show really focuses on a single character, but there is something that much more impressive about a small Kinsey story turning into a theme that has meaning beyond the walls of Sterling Cooper. After a season where some felt things were moving too slowly, things are moving at an enormously fast pace, and the show is actually opening up its world rather than narrowing it in response.
The result is a really intriguing hour of television, changing the game by taking hidden feelings and putting them on paper.
“Wee Small Hours”
October 11th, 2009
“I can’t do this all by myself”
Sally’s teacher, sitting in Don’s car in the middle of the night, says that she is going to read her new class “I Have a Dream” on the first day back to school. However, she also indicates that they already know it: I don’t think she’s insinuating that they’ve heard the speech, but rather that there is something in child-like innocence that embraces the image of a dream and of a better future.
The entirety of “Wee Small Hours” is not about civil rights at all, but it is about characters confronting the demons in their past in an effort to move into the future. For Don Draper, a new relationship begins to mirror an old one, and for Salvatore Romano a long-standing response has suddenly put his career into jeopardy. And then there’s Betty Draper, wide-eyed and naive to the point of childhood, and let applying her innocence less to an understanding of Dr. King and more to a petulant child who wants what she can’t have but then doesn’t want it once she has it.
It’s yet another installment in a compelling but slow-paced series of episodes, ones which feel designed to show these characters searching the depths of their emotions and not quite sticking the landing, so to speak.
October 4th, 2009
“But I already did it…it’s over!”
As far as Mad Men episodes go, “Souvenir” was almost obnoxiously low impact. This isn’t to say that the episode was bad, or even uninteresting: rather, instead of seeming like an episode where things are languishing at a slow pace, there are some pretty substantial events (an affair, a trip to Rome) that happen so quickly and naturally in the episode that you almost miss the moment when they go from an innocent fantasy to something entirely different.
There’s a little throwaway line in the episode when we meet up with Joan, when we learn that Greg is searching for a new discipline, psychiatry in particular. The entire episode is essentially one giant lesson in the effects of loneliness, as our our resident emotional (Betty) and emotionless (Pete) protagonists take a leap of faith or two in an effort to find themselves. The result is an intriguing investigation of the summer vacation, albeit from a perspective that doesn’t precisely play to the show’s strengths.
September 13th, 2009
“He’s never where you expect him to be.”
When it comes to Mad Men, titles are often a sign of a major theme in an episode, often the only real quality an episode has (with most remaining light on plot in favour of atmosphere or thematic importance). But I don’t think there’s been a title in a while that has seemed so expansive, so all-encompassing. “The Fog” could mean any multitude of things both in terms of what we already know about character relationships and in terms of new develops in the span of the episode, which leaves us critics fumbling to decide just what direction we’re going to take it in.
For me, I think the moment where the title really connected with me was when Don was chatting with his prison guard friend in the Solarium and tells him an anecdote that a nurse told him when Sally was being born. “Your wife’s on the boat, and you’re on the shore.” And while it was never explicitly stated, there’s a fog between those two locations, and Mad Men is essentially a show without a lighthouse. Betty, stranded out on that boat and struggling through a difficult birthing process, comments in her crazed state that Don isn’t where you expect him to be, that once the fog lifts he’s disappeared or gone off somewhere else. While she views this in some ways as an abandonment, for Don it’s about being restless.
Much of “The Fog” is about Don Draper’s own self-awareness or lack thereof, finally admitting to himself that for all of his problems in the past he is the one on solid ground while Betty, and Peggy, and Sally are out on boats struggling to maintain course in the midst of a growing storm. He’s the one who has everything and who can help guide them safely into the years ahead, but the problem is that he is distracted: by women, by his job, and by his own insecurities buried deep beneath the surface. If he is the one in charge of climbing up the lighthouse steps to break through the fog and win the day, the boats are going to crash on the rocks.
September 6th, 2009
I can relate to Betty Draper.
I, too, am not a huge fan of the discussion of the inevitability of death. I’m not in denial, of course, but I’m not the kind of person who enjoys talking about it, or who can look past the morbid nature of it all to see the value of the conversation. This isn’t to say that I ignore what is being said in such conversations or anything of that sort – rather, I let the piece be said and then carry on, storing it away while pushing it out of the picture since, of course, it will not matter for a very long time. However, life’s sheer uncertainty means that any moment can be a last, and some people won’t get to make their arrangements and everything will become more complicated than perhaps it needed to be.
“The Arrangements” is very much a companion piece to Season Two’s “The Inheritance,” another episode that dealt with both Gene’s worsening dementia as well as the idea of parents and their role in the lives of their children. However, if “The Inheritance” was about children being haunted by the memory of their own childhood and its impact on their own lives, “The Arrangements” is the opposite side of the coin. This is an episode about children breaking out from within the confines of the family in an effort to make a name for themselves and be able to prove their parents right or wrong about them.
What makes the episode work, despite some reservations about its bombardment of less than subtle thematic connections, is that it more sly in how it relates to the season’s recurring image of Don Draper, barefoot and vividly reliving his own birth. There’s a single scene in the episode where Don pulls out a picture of his parents, and that is all we need to see that perhaps the worst fate is having changed one’s name and entirely disconnected one’s self from one’s family, and being surrounded by events which make you question that entire relationship and remain haunted by its memory. While the other characters are able to talk about their situation with siblings, or spouses, Don has no one to talk to.
And in a show about secrets, that’s perhaps the grimmest fate.
“My Old Kentucky Home”
August 30th, 2009
“It’s a mistake to be conspicuously happy.”
Roger Sterling is a man trying to find happiness, but discovering that no one particularly wants to share in it. His daughter and his wife, as we saw last week, want nothing to do with the new woman, and here the employees of Sterling Cooper view their swanky country club soiree as a work obligation more than a chance to celebrate. There’s a fantastic moment during the party where Pete Campbell and his wife Trudy take to the dance floor and show off some admittedly very impressive moves. However, watch Pete’s face: while Trudie is getting into the music, enjoying herself, Pete spends the entire time smiling and glancing at Roger to see if he’s impressing him, to see if he’s got his attention. All social events have a sense of obligation, but this particular one feels more than all others like an event where people do as Pete desires and start handing out business cards.
“My Old Kentucky Home” is very much about the ways in which happiness is a negotiation, a struggle between individual desires (and therefore personal happiness) and the desires and hopes of everyone else around you. For Roger Sterling, his new marriage pits him against the world, having broken the cardinal rule of not romanticizing or idealizing one’s affairs. For Joan Holloway, her knowledge of the world and the customs of society place her at odds with the role her husband believes she should play. For Peggy Olsen, her own self-awareness of her position and her ability to navigate the complex world of a male-dominated business are questioned by those who have seen it all before and who know that it’s not that easy.
And for Don and Betty Draper, happiness is an act, a coverup for hidden desires and hidden secrets which can never be revealed so long as they continue to play charades. In this quasi-musical of an episode, we discover the consequences of being conspicuously happy, but also the consequences of avoiding happiness and finding one’s self just as lost as you would be if you were at odds with society’s expectation.