“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.
The mystery phone call to the Draper residence, answered by Sally but turning out to be a wrong number, is like the Telltale heart. For Sally, the phone call is a slight, as if the person on the other end was offending her by refusing to speak. However, for both Don and Betty, the phone call is a sign that their secret affair is entering into their home life despite their objections. For Betty, the call could be Henry Francis refusing to accept the end of their affair, a notion that both terrifies her and excites her (he wasn’t entirely wrong to call her out for using the hangup as an excuse to call him). For Don, meanwhile, the call is his new mistress breaking a code of silence, invading his life in a way that violates his code (to use a Dexter term). However, considering that both Henry and the teacher claim that they were not the one who made the phone call, it remains an unknown quantity, perhaps the most dangerous thing in this universe. While Peggy’s pitch for Western Union implies that a phone call isn’t forever, the ramifications of this phone call somewhat say otherwise.
What was interesting about the other side of the storyline is how it, in many ways, represents the other side of Peggy’s pitch, that a telegram is forever. Don, who leaves the teacher’s brother on the side of the road to fend for himself as an epileptic who can’t hold onto a job, he is capable of taking the paper that represents his past life and sticking it in a drawer and moving on. The scene where he chooses to allow the brother to chart his own path raises a lot of questions about Don’s past, giving him a chance to do for someone else what he wasn’t willing to do for his own brother (who, we know, hung himself after Don refused to acknowledge him), but he also imparts the device that anyone can change. It’s a fact which we know, based on the early parts of this season isn’t entirely true: he’s still as haunted by his past as anyone else, and while he has put it behind him to the point of Roger being able to list off his accomplishments (or not bothering to list them all, really), he still has that shoebox in the drawer that features his true past.
The biggest event of the episode, of course, is Betty finding that shoebox, complete with his marriage license to Anna Draper, the deed for her house in California, both Dick Whitman and Donald Draper’s dog tags, and the photos from his childhood. It’s a sign that what’s on paper is, in fact, forever, and that Don leaving that key in his pants in the washing machine has always been a ticking time bomb waiting to happen. How Don was that careless, we’ll never know: I am actually somewhat skeptical about how this hasn’t happened before, as Betty has been in more paranoid states than her current one, and has even tried breaking into the drawer. What’s interesting is how quickly the episode has Betty going to the drawer, perhaps her own experience with an affair making her more finely tuned for suspicion; there’s no sense of a delay, it was almost instinctual. In the process, we get the scenario we’ve always been waiting for: what will Betty do when she finds out that her husband isn’t who he says he is?
The answer, however, has been delayed as Betty has no idea what to do with this information, and more importantly doesn’t understand it. She sees the photos and the deeds and presumes that he has another wife, and another life entirely, which is somewhat true (he does have a mistress with whom he spends his nights under the guise of Conrad Hilton) but not the result of the box. The box tells about Don’s past, not so much his present, and as a result Betty’s reading of the facts involved is unlikely to be very precise. Perhaps this is why she only pouts, and dresses up for the big event where she has to listen to Don’s accomplishments while silently questioning how many of them were valid. It makes for a fascinating dynamic, a true telltale heart that is rife to tear this family apart.
The episode, in some ways, rushed into the moment so fast that it never really stopped to consider where the characters are. We saw Don really start his affair last week, and now it is as if he’s always been in that relationship, which makes this episode function more cleanly than if he was stumbling his way through it. Betty, of course, isn’t quite as comfortable with Carla having her suspicions about her current activities, but that’s really part of the dynamics of the show that really got boiled down here. However, the episode wasn’t afraid of extending the stories beyond these characters, with Lane and his wife returning to the series and even Kinsey and Peggy getting their own creative story. Combine with the 40th Anniversary raising questions about the role of the past, and you have an episode where things connected pretty cleanly and yet in a way which inspired a controlled chaos that really leads into the final three episodes.
- This is short because I’m a bit busy this week, but don’t take it as a sign the episode wasn’t interesting. We’re just coming to that point in the season where we’re really laying the groundwork for the next few episodes, and while I wish I had time for speculation I don’t think it’s really in my schedule right now. As such, you can check out more detailed deconstructions from the usual suspects: Sepinwall, Ryan, Goodman, Phipps.
- I loved Lane’s “Churchill rousing, or Hitler rousing” more than this quick post can possibly represent.
- Also a comic highlight: Paul Kinsey theatre. Oh, and Peggy burping into the microphone and apologizing to her secretary for it. And Roger’s mother wondering if Mona knows about Roger’s new wife.