“In Care Of” and the Narrative Engine of Place in Season 6
June 24th, 2013
“This is where everything is.”
Mad Men began with a spatial divide. In the series’ pilot, we are introduced to Don Draper in Manhattan but only get the full picture when we follow him onto the train to the suburbs, and to the family life he leaves behind every day he travels into the city. The show was invested in exploring the distinct ebbs and flows of those two spaces, and on Don’s ability to travel between them. While we could come to learn that Don had been living a double life for most of adulthood, initially we watched a man live two lives separated by the train ride between them.
The show evolved beyond its urban/suburban divide, adding enough complexity to both Don’s family life and Sterling Cooper as a setting that it would seem reductive to boil the show down to this dichotomy. And yet although Don was no longer traveling to the suburbs since separating from Betty, the spatial divide stuck around thanks to characters like Pete, who began the season in his city apartment that would become his primary residence after he proved less agile in his duplicity than Don was. And as Betty explored the life of young runaways or as Peggy let Abe talk her into living in a nascent neighborhood, New York City was no longer confined to the offices of Sterling Cooper, gaining diversity and perspective as the turmoil of 1968 played out over the course of the season.
Mad Men’s sixth season was far from then first time the show has become invested in the meaning of space and place, but “In Care Of” highlights how central the idea of “going somewhere else” has been to this season in particular. For a season that began in the escape of Hawaii, and jetted to Los Angeles and Detroit and to upstate New York in a very tiny plane, it ends with multiple characters imagining what life would be like away from New York. In the process, we can imagine a final season spread across the country, even if we can also picture a season that remains tethered to the Manhattan Mad Men has over time embedded into the fabric of its storytelling.
March 21st, 2011
There is something hypocritical about the status of Barney Stinson as a character within How I Met Your Mother. On the one hand, he is the character who will change the least: because of his popularity, and because of the broad comedy the character is known for, Barney Stinson will never dramatically alter his behavior. And yet, at the same time, the character is uniquely positioned to engage with more emotional and transformative elements due to Neil Patrick Harris’ dramatic acting ability and the value of having a narcissistic character show signs of selflessness and vulnerability.
Ted Mosby is always on the verge of a dramatic life event, but is never allowed to reach that moment because it would fundamentally change the course of the series. However, because there are assurances that Barney’s essence will not be changed, he’s allowed to do what Ted is not: he’s allowed to meet his father, allowed to confront a potentially life-changing moment on a show which in its sixth season is largely resistant to fundamental change.
The result is a tremendous showcase for Neil Patrick Harris and John Lithgow, achieving an emotional complexity that has been absent from Ted’s story for what seems like a very long time without sacrificing the essence of the character. While there are some who remain frustrated with the lack of momentum on the eponymous story, the show’s sixth season has been quite effective in crafting stories about the other side of the parental coin that have really landed.
Even if they aren’t quite as transformative as Ted’s love life.
January 17th, 2011
Response to “Bad News,” HIMYM’s last original episode, was decidedly mixed. What struck me most was the way the episode-ending reveal that Marshall’s father had passed away became so problematic despite the fact that this is the kind of show which should be capable of handling such delicate matters. I’ll certainly agree with those who felt that there was some potential incongruity between the playful nature of the countdown and the eventual reveal, requiring a sudden gear shift which made the episode considerably divisive.
However, while the series is no so heavily serialized that we need reserve judgment on an individual episode until seeing how it carries over into the next, I would say that “Last Words” is in a position to sort of payoff the buildup offered in “Bad News.” The result, I feel, is an infallible merging of the comic and dramatic elements mashed together two weeks ago – with more time to establish the balance, Bays and Thomas emphasize the way in which well-drawn, longstanding characters offer great potential to take even a fairly rote storyline to a truly emotional place through some sharp writing and some stellar performances.
And that’s the sort of self-actualization the show was missing last season.
“The Mermaid Theory”
December 6th, 2010
“The Mermaid Theory” is interesting in two ways. And since they’re not particularly substantial ways, I’m just going to cut the introduction off here and we can get into the meat of it.
October 11th, 2010
This is precisely the kind of episode which is particularly dangerous for a show in How I Met Your Mother’s position. “Subway Wars” feels like a gimmick from the very beginning, and the show is at a point where it risks seeming unsubstantial. Back in the second season, something like “Subway Wars” might have seemed novel, but in the context of a sixth season it seems almost a bit desperate.
That being said, I think “Subway Wars” ends up working because it quite successfully ties the race towards Woody Allen into a personal journey for each of its characters. By grounding the journey in Robin’s belief that New York is turning on her, and Marshall and Lily’s struggles to conceive, the episode manages to make broad subject matter transition into legitimate character stories without too much difficulty.
It isn’t quite as well-oiled as it may have been four seasons ago, but I think that the risk ended up enough reward to make “Subway Wars” a solid entry.
September 27th, 2010
Barney Stinson is a very broad character, but Neil Patrick Harris has always specialized at emphasizing his vulnerability. Mind you, this vulnerability always disappears, but the series’ emphasis on serialization has allowed for Barney’s arc to avoid feeling too reductive. Yes, he resets every once in a while, but “Cleaning House” quite clearly identifies that there remains a sense of progress in the character.
While the episode wasn’t particularly fantastic, it felt more emotionally honest than the incredulous nature of the story would indicate on the surface. As someone who appreciates this level of emotional complexity, I like what the episode does for the overall narrative and for Barney as a character, even if it doesn’t fundamentally change the character in future episodes.
September 20th, 2010
Look, I was pretty harsh on How I Met Your Mother last season, but it was harshness which stemmed from love: I care about these characters, so to see their individual arcs subjected in order to make way for standalone stories which fought against the series’ greatest, if not only, strength (its serialized elements) was unfortunate.
Now, I’m not one of those people who believes that the show needs to spend more time discussing the Mother: in fact, I am more or less completely uninterested in that storyline, other than the fact that it largely allows “wistful romantic Ted” to emerge and I’ve got a soft spot for that particular characterization. Rather, my issue is that I need the character to feel like they’re evolving, that they’re reaching a point in their lives when they are considerably less aimless than when they began. My problem, then, is less that Barney and Robin split up, and more that they split up and went back to fairly reductive versions of their respective characters.
“Big Days” is an intelligent premiere in that it keeps things decidedly simple: other than yet another future milestone that we can start counting down the days until, the episode creates a small scenario which speaks to the series’ past, present and future without feeling too strained. Nothing it does feels particularly monumental, but the episode nonetheless captures the sense of purpose that the show was missing for the bulk of last season.
Which, if it holds, will be a welcome return to form.
“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”
August 22nd, 2010
Ted, the Don Draper-equivalent over at rival agency CGC, is not in Don Draper’s league: he is neither visionary nor genius, and yet by virtue of his insistence that he is a competitor he has been elevated to Don’s level. It’s the ultimate example of self-definition, of putting something out there (in this case, to the New York Times) and then turning it into reality. It doesn’t matter that Jai Alai went with another agency because its owner is delusional, or that Clearasil was a conflict rather than business lost: as it would appear to the outside world, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce lost two accounts and CGC (under Ted’s leadership) gained both of them.
“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” is filled with various examples of situations where appearance becomes reality, to the point where it even becomes a meta-narrative when the series’ positioning of Betty as a child-like figure becomes rendered in three-dimensions. It’s not the most pleasant or subtle of episodes, but it ends up making some fairly interesting observations regarding Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as an agency, as well as the series’ general approach to simulating the past.
April 28th, 2010
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What strikes me about “Ted” is that it was entirely possible that the story within the episode could have been real. Being that this is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and not Buffy the Normal Teenage Girl, we presume that Ted is some sort of demon, and that his sudden intrusion on Buffy’s life as an unwanted father figure is some sort of dastardly plot. However, the less-than-malevolent stepfather figure is both a real circumstance and a fairly familiar trope independent of the supernatural, which means that for much of the episode we’re wondering whether this could really just be Buffy and her mother being victims of an angry, abusive man rather than a robotic Frankenstein monster obsessively trying to recreate his creator’s wedded bliss.
It results in the right kind of standalone Buffy episode, one which captures a unique tone that differentiates the episode from the rest of the series while still fitting into some ongoing storylines and the dominant themes of the season.
April 18th, 2010
You may have noticed this, but Breaking Bad’s third season is effectively a long string of meetings.
This isn’t entirely new for the series, but there isn’t the same level of action and reaction that the show is used to: while previous seasons seemed to build in altercations, or create circumstances where Walt and Jesse need to clean up a mess or solve a particular problem, this season is focused almost solely on characters having isolated and personal moments of reflections which come into play when they meet with another character on the show. These aren’t all formal meetings, but whether it’s Skyler and Ted meeting up in the bathroom post-coitus, the White family meeting for dinner, or Gus and Walter sitting down to discuss their future together, there is this sense that things are playing out in slow-motion. While the first season was about how quickly things can escalate, and the second season demonstrated the challenges which faced any sort of expansion, the third season is about choices, and so escalation is replaced by contemplation.
“Mas,” like “Green Light” last week, demonstrates how challenging it can be to make difficult choices, and how particular choices will create consequences that you may not be able to understand. Watching these characters come to grips with where they’ve come to, some more slowly than others, is proving just as compelling as anything else the series has done, languishing just long enough within each character’s struggle in order to give us a sense of what perspective they bring to the next meeting.
Which, considering the trajectory of these characters, may not be a pleasant one.