“Picture to Picture”
May 17, 2015
“A lot has happened.”
I spent part of Sunday afternoon watching the Mad Men marathon on AMC. I haven’t written about any of the seventh season thus far, which means it’s been nearly two years since I’ve . And the marathon made me glad for this, in its way: I realized that I hadn’t really properly oriented myself to the first half of the season before diving into the first, struggling at times to connect what we were seeing to the big picture.
That was definitely the biggest issues with these final episodes, which often spurned traditional seriality. The show has always been a balance of episodic and procedural engines, but the jumps in time and the revolving door of characters has made these final seven episodes scattered. However, it has also made them distinctive, such that revisiting them reminded me how much each had connected in some way or another. Although the purchase of SCDP by McCann-Erickson has ostensibly been the season’s arc, we never saw its initial implementation, and when the characters tried to turn it into an arc on the level of SCDP’s founding McCann-Erickson stepped in to tell them it wasn’t going to happen. This wasn’t going to be that season. Don, Peggy, Joan, Roger, and everyone else are not going to ride off into the sunset on stallions—they are more likely to fade into the distance like normal people, living normal lives.
“Hands and Knees”
September 26th, 2010
“Everybody has bad dreams once in a while.”
In a Twitter discussion, Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall had a discussion about the role of theme in Mad Men: to boil it down for you, Seitz suggested he was on the fence about “Hands and Knees” due to it being a “theme episode,” while Alan argued that every episode is a theme episode (while acknowledging that this may be simply because he, as a critic, looks for themes to inform his review).
The distinction I offered is that there is a difference between “theme episodes” (which I would argue “Hands and Knees” is) and “episodes with themes” (which is the majority of Mad Men’s run). The series is too thematically rich to go without themes in any particular episode, but “Hands and Knees” stands apart in terms of actively tying nearly every single story into that theme: instead of one bad dream, it’s a collection of bad dreams that happen simultaneously (insert Inception joke).
What makes it, and all good “theme episodes,” work so well is that the episode itself acknowledges that the consistency of this theme is ridiculous: everything that could go wrong does go wrong in the episode, as if every worst case scenario and everything they want to keep secret rises to the surface. The episode asks us to join Roger in laughter when we realize just how screwed these people all are, while emphasizing that everyone has a good reason to go on pretending as if none of it has actually happened.
It’s a very straightforward thematic episode, though, and writing out the same thing as everyone else seems like a waste of my time – as a result, I’m going to outline my thematic read of the episode very briefly before discussing some of the more ancillary elements of the story which may not clearly connect with the central theme.
Mad Men the Weekend After: Critics accept “The Rejected”
August 20th, 2010
I was without access to a television on Sunday evening, and in the chaos of moving I wasn’t able to get to this week’s episode of Mad Men, “The Rejected,” until yesterday. It was a bit nerve wracking to be in the dark regarding the episode, but this was a particularly strange episode to experience this with: I kept getting cryptic tweets about pears showing up in my Twitter feed, and every time I went shopping I had people asking if I had purchased pears at the store. It created an intriguing sort of mystery, a clue which I figured must be pretty important to have resonated so much with the audience.
Of course, the pears were an oddity, resonating with the audience because of how abstract that final scene seems in relation to the rest of the episode. This is actually one of the most thematically consistent episodes of the series in recent memory, leaning heavily on broad thematic material (in the form of a consideration of the value of marriage) and on our knowledge of previous events (in the form of Pete and Peggy’s divergent paths). It was an episode which rejected the series’ traditional sense that past and present relate to our own time and the nostalgic view of the 1960s, instead reclaiming past, present and future for these characters and their glimpses into the future.
And now, before I end up reviewing the episode in its entirety, let’s get onto “The Rejected” in a bit more detail and see what some critics thought about it.
July 25th, 2010
“It was going great until it wasn’t.”
Mad Men has always been a series grounded in duality, logical since Dick Whitman’s double life represented the central conflict within the series. Very rarely did the series ever move beyond the existential, largely avoiding direct action in favour of short glances, conversations with unintended prescience, and the growing sense that the balance could no longer hold. At the end of the third season, that duality was broken: Don’s secrets were revealed, Betty ran off with Henry Francis, and even the identity crisis at Sterling Cooper – caused by PPL’s influence over the company’s holdings – was eliminated when the pending purchase led to the formation of the independent Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
The third season was Mad Men’s two worlds finally colliding, and the fourth season premiere, “Public Relations,” demonstrates how that collision has never truly stopped. The direct conflict the series has always avoided has become something these characters fetishize and desire, and unfortunately something that has become untenable within the new business world in which they operate. Before, Don Draper was a sly yet self-destructive force operating with what he considered a safety net, and now he’s a sly yet self-destructive force who refuses to change his behaviour despite the newfound risk. And so his entire life becomes a collision, sometimes to his benefit and most times to the detriment of his business, his sanity, and his personal relationships.
However, the benefit of a collision is that you ask yourself important questions, wondering what went wrong and re-evaluating just what you want from the world around you. “Public Relations” is Don Draper seizing the day, choosing to stop running into the same brick wall at every turn and steer the car in a new direction – it’s possible that a collision waits just the same down this new path, but it’s a collision he can control, manage, and perfect.
And until it isn’t, it has every chance of being great.
A Manipulated Medium: Warehouse 13, Covert Affairs and White Collar
July 21st, 2010
Television is by and large a manipulated medium: whether it parcels a larger story into smaller segments, or presents a series of smaller stories, there is a point where craftsmanship is dictated more by convenience than by sheer artistic merit. Writers take shortcuts, use shorthand, and do everything in their power to make sure that the forty minute running time of an episode manages to do everything it needs to do to service the larger story, or create a satisfying conclusion to the standalone narrative being constructed.
I don’t think this is an inherently negative notion, and do not use “manipulators” as some sort of slur toward television writers, a group of individuals I have a great deal of respect for. However, when it comes to this manipulation, there is a time, a place, and a methodology: there are some situations where writers should simply let their show breathe, where manipulating the story in a particular direction will only damage the series’ momentum, and there are also some ways in which you can manipulate your series which transfers the manipulation from the series’ characters to the audience, something that all writers should avoid at all costs.
While manipulation is a problem with high-concept procedurals (like Lost, Heroes or the upcoming The Event on NBC), it’s also present in the light-hearted cable procedurals which have become so prolific, and I want to use it as a theme for addressing last night’s episodes of SyFy’s Warehouse 13 and USA Network’s White Collar and Covert Affairs, as they each represent a different approach to manipulating the trajectory of a television series.
“Time Will Tell”
July 6th, 2010
Warehouse 13 ended its first season on one of those cliffhangers that I generally despise – like White Collar’s mid-season finale late last year (where it seemed like Peter was the series’ big bad), the show ended on a note which implied a huge change in direction (in this case that Artie had been killed in the explosion at the Warehouse’s entrance, and that Leena was in league with MacPherson) but which in reality was entirely inconsequential. Any uncertainty you have about Artie being legitimately dead is ended within a few minutes, and any concerns about Leena are erased when she continues to appear in the main credits.
I’m fine with the fact that a sci-fi procedural isn’t going to make these sorts of huge changes, but my response to the second season was very much dependent on how they used the uncertainty surrounding the finale to its advantage. While it may be cheap storytelling in a lot of ways, Warehouse 13 has the unique ability to explain away sudden twists under the guise of expanding its catalogue of artifacts with inexplicable powers – while I thought White Collar took a few episodes to recover from the bait and switch, Warehouse 13 uses its pre-existing rules in order to leap frog over the initial uncertainty to confidently map out the season to come. “Time Will Tell” is a strong premiere, although in a different way than I had expected, giving viewers one last glimpse at the first season’s highly personal conflict between Artie and MacPherson before replacing it with a more generic, but also more inventive, narrative.
It’s a decision I think works in the show’s favour, going against the common logic of these types of procedurals by through simplification rather than complication while continuing to embrace the quirky, charming potential within the series’ premise.
“I Do Do”
May 20th, 2010
I haven’t written about 30 Rock in a very long time, so you’d think I’d have a lot to say: after all, “I Do Do” actually had a “Previously on 30 Rock” sequence, which is rare on a show that is usually so off-the-wall that it doesn’t need to worry so much about continuity.
However, this was an aggressively plot-heavy conclusion for the series, so it makes sense that we might need a refresher on why Liz is going to three weddings, and why she would go anywhere with Wesley Snipes, and how smart the show was to have Jack dating two celebrity guest stars so that you really don’t know who he’s going to pick. This being said, however, “I Do Do” isn’t really plot-heavy at all – rather, it just sort of revels in the situation that has already been created, introducing new elements and providing conclusions that do a pretty good job of boiling it down to characters.
There are jokes, and there are plots, but even with some fairly ridiculous star power there is no point in time where all of it overwhelms the ways in which the episode plays out as a story about Jack, Liz and Kenneth, which makes it a successful conclusion to both these storylines and the season as a whole.