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.
In short, “The Rejected” is about marriage: it becomes the sole topic of discussion during the focus group, it excludes Joan from that focus group, it tempts Peggy, proves an asset to Pete, and its absence continues to haunt Don. That final scene shows an old married couple arguing over pears, but it also shows the future that Don bought into, and the future it seems that he misses now that it has escaped his reach. For Pete and Peggy, meanwhile, the value of marriage changes with each moment. Peggy desires marriage when she remains passive, or when she thinks about what would have happened if she had kept Pete’s baby as her own, but when she becomes part of the underground counterculture the thrill of it all draws her away from such traditional ideals. Pete, meanwhile, viewed his family connection with Tom as a blessing when he grabbed Clearasil and made partner, but then viewed it as a curse when he had to drop it over a conflict, until eventually realizing that his marriage (and the baby which has now resulted from it) could be leveraged in a much more substantial fashion.
Marriage has always been a bit utilitarian in Mad Men’s world: this is not to say that Cosgrove is, for certain, marrying for money, but it would fit with the general pattern. The majority of characters on the show get married in order to fit into society’s expectations, Don and Joan in particular, while other marriages (like Roger’s) seem designed to prove a point, as if marriage is a way to take control of your life. Marriage becomes a tool for these individuals, not unlike how Faye suggests using marriage as the central focus of the Pond’s campaign. It’s intriguing that marriage becomes such a universal subject of discussion after the series’ central marriage comes to an end: you’d think that three years of a complicated and in many instances destructive marriage would have made a definitive case against the institution within the series, but “The Rejected” did a really impressive job of emphasizing just how each character struggles with those institutions and expectations.
I’ll post some clips from a variety of reviews below, but I want to single out Michael Z. Newman, who has been doing some instant academic analysis of the show this season. His post this week was particularly insightful, focusing on the multiple levels of irony at play in the series and breaking down how our previous knowledge of Pete and Peggy’s S1/S2 storylines plays into our enjoyment of the episode.
And in the end they exchange these meaningful glances, which those of us who have been watching all along fill in with all of our accumulated Mad Men knowledge. We see these characters acknowledge one another, wordlessly recognizing all that has gone on between them, showing that they are in on the ironies we have been catching throughout. It’s like the show is congratulating us for getting it, but with such subtlety that the forceful emotional impact of this resolution to the episode narrative is totally undiminished.
In advance, some were comparing the episode to “Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency,” and I wasn’t particularly sure why when I first watched it: yes, there’s some great humour in both episodes, but it seemed like there was a stronger emotional core to this story than in that Season Three highlight. However, in both cases the series takes moments which take you out of the story (the shock of the bloody carnage, and the meta-lines which wink towards our knowledge of Pete and Peggy’s past) and manages to deliver a meaningful and cohesive narrative regardless. Michael’s post really captures the pleasure of this sort of discourse, and how effective the episode is at merging that with the episode’s comedy (Peggy over the wall? Genius) as well as its fairly widespread character development, so I highly recommended checking out his piece.
The other piece you should definitely read, if you haven’t already, is Alan Sepinwall’s interview with John Slattery, who directed the episode. I was aware going into the episode that Slattery had directed it (as Alan posted his interview on Twitter before I had an opportunity to see the episode), but it’s meaningful that I forgot about it once the episode began: learning it was his first time directing anything blew my mind a little, as it was a really strong episode visually and required a sure hand with the comedy as well as the dramatic material.
“Matt has a very distinct vision about what he wants, and it’s very specifically written . But within that structure, there’s room to interpret, and you can get some shots, if you have time, that are going to contribute to the whole thing. There are some funny scenes, there are some very funny people, but when you get in the room, you want the unexpected to happen. Like in the hallway at the party, when the guy in the bear suit walked by at the right minute. Stuff happens. Happy accidents, they happen.”
I love this observation because it shows that Mad Men is not entirely enslaved to Weiner’s auteurism: his decision to place himself as a co-writer on every script has been somewhat controversial in the past, but hearing that the director still has wiggle room with the script and can play around with scenes like Peggy peeking over the wall is important: that the show can still be spontaneous even while being so composed is a key to its success, and happy accidents will only make for a better series in the long run.
However, there was more writing about the episode this week, so if you’re looking to revisit “The Rejected” before Sunday’s episode, here’s a few links:
Allison’s very public rejection of Don as her boss was the latest example this season of a Don Draper who isn’t very good at being Don Draper anymore. The drinking continues to be a problem – as is his smoking, in times of stress like the Lee Garner Jr. phone call or the possibility of Allison confessing during the focus group – but even worse is the fact that so much of his dirty laundry is being aired for the world (in this case, the world=the firm) to see.
By saying things aloud (or even writing them), we give them power. It takes courage to admit the truth, which is something that Don can’t do. Hell, he can’t even take the time to write Alison an actual letter of reference when she decides to leave…
More intriguingly, it situated most of its events within a mode that rarely gets sustained over the course of a whole episode: light farce, with a sprinkling of social satire. Slattery, in other words, directs like he acts: skillfully but without evident self-satisfaction.
- Totally thrown for a loop when Marshall Gregson’s teenage beard Courtney (from United States of Tara) showed up as a 20-something editor. Zosia Mamet, the actress in question (and David Mamet’s daughter), doesn’t have an age on IMDB, but the fact that her mother and Mamet split in 1990 leads me to indicate she was playing young on Tara. Either way, she was great as Joyce, and I look forward to seeing more of her.
- Should be back on schedule for this week’s episode – DVR’s already set and everything.