“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.
“The Beautiful Girls”
September 19th, 2010
Based on its title and a number of the discussions which emerged within the episode, “The Beautiful Girls” feels like a particular gesture towards the women who are often central to the series. And yet, because the episode was so fractured, it doesn’t present itself as a sustained glimpse into any of the female characters central to this story. While Joan, Peggy, Faye, and Sally all face down challenges put before them, all of them end up back where they began: trapped in a loveless marriage, apolitical in a political world, face-to-face with tough choices, and a sad little girl living a life she no longer wants to live.
Regardless of the episode’s argument regarding each character’s struggles, the fact remains that the female characters are the heart of this series, and “The Beautiful Girls” comes together as a sustained statement on their centrality if not a substantial step forward in their individual storylines.
“The Summer Man”
September 12th, 2010
“All he knows of the world is what you show him.”
There has always been a disconnect between Don Draper’s external persona and his internal struggle, but this season has largely broken down that expectation. Now, Don is incapable of hiding his sadness from the outside world, lacking the glossy exterior to trick those around him into believing that he is truly a happy man.
“The Summer Man” throws light on this reality by taking us inside Don Draper through what I believe will be a fairly divisive decision to have Don’s journal serve as narration for the episode. By all accounts, including his own, Don Draper is dedicated to changing his current path, but the real test is whether or not those around him believe this transformation – while I would share the reservations that some have regarding the narration, I would ultimately argue that it helps crystallize the episode’s key theme of the difference between self-perception and how Don and others are perceived by those around them.
Critics Unpack “The Suitcase”
September 6th, 2010
It’s pretty much consistent across the board: last night’s Mad Men, “The Suitcase,” was a season and even series highlight. As Todd VanDerWerff put it in his must-read review at The A.V. Club,
This is the kind of episode that, years from now, we’ll think of when we try to remember just what it was we loved about Mad Men, an episode that uses virtually every weapon in the show’s arsenal, yet leaves almost all of its moments and scenes unexpected. It’s so good that I want to call off the rest of the TV season and say this is as good as it’s going to get.
That’s generally the consensus, albeit to different degrees of hyperbole, which would make delving further into the episode myself a bit redundant: I already wrote my rave about the episode, and the week’s reviews pretty much cover everything else. So, instead, I want to spend a bit of time dialoguing with the recently returning Maureen Ryan, who is now the lead television critic at AOL Television (which runs TV Squad). She posted two substantial pieces on the season thus far last week, and then jumped back into the review game with “The Suitcase,” so I figured there’s no better way to welcome her back than to delve a bit further into her commentary (which I’ll do after the break).
September 5th, 2010
“Open or Closed?”
Not writing up last week’s Mad Men was inevitable: I watched the episode in the wake of writing about the Emmys, and then it was my first week of my PhD program, and there were just too many reasons to let it go. I also didn’t feel like “Waldorf Stories” was particularly rife for critical analysis: it was a very good episode, but it was fairly devoid of subtexts. Don Draper continued his self-destructive behaviour, but the episode fairly elegantly laid it out for him, analyzing his behaviour itself and making my job more “pointing out the obvious” than “examining the episode.”
However, “Waldorf Stories” was another strong bit of escalation in a season which is unafraid to be “slow”: a lot of time has passed so far this season, but Don Draper seems to be stuck in a single moment, best exemplified by the scene where Don wakes up to discover someone entirely different in the bed beside him, an entire weekend gone like sand through the hourglass (and yes, these are the days of our lives).
“The Suitcase” is memorable because it is the point at which the show slows down to meet Don’s shattered life: as he lets Peggy into his world, the show stops to capture a single evening in the life of a broken man, an evening where he regains his connection to reality on the same evening where he loses the one connection to his past. It is the moment the season has been leading up to, that moment where Don less regains his previous form and more admits that he is entering a new stage in his life.
And, simultaneously, Mad Men’s fourth season heads into its next stage with a truly stellar episode of television.
“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.
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.
Mad Men the Morning After: Critics get “The Good News”
August 9th, 2010
Things are a bit busier today, and in fact for the foreseeable future, so today’s Mad Men the Morning After will be a little different: there’s one review I want to dialogue with, but I might have to settle with links and quotes for the rest of them, as much as it pains me to not go into further detail, especially since “The Good News” was an episode with a lot of subtext and, as it turns out, some disagreement.
This is actually the format I’m likely to be going with from now on: writing about each review is great in theory, but I just won’t have the time to keep it up: however, I like the idea of the critical dialogue involved, so I think I’ll be finding an hour of my Mondays to collect the reviews in the future.
“The Good News”
August 8th, 2010
I spent a good half hour stumbling over how to start confronting this episode before eventually deciding to sleep on it, and upon waking up this morning I discovered why. “The Good News” is a tremendous episode of television, but it’s an episode of television which confounds how I normally confront these reviews. It’s difficult to write about, for me, because its continuities are largely unrelated to the season thus far: while parts of Don’s story theoretically connect with his behaviour thus far this season, it connects even more with his past as Dick Whitman, and since Joan Holloway and Lane Pryce are getting their first showcase of the season we’re required to dig back into the third season as if this were their premiere.
There are connections between the two sides of this story, but the episode is so clearly divided by Don’s time in Los Angeles (or Dick’s time in Los Angeles, more accurately) and Don’s return to New York that it’s not unlike two entirely different episodes – that it still feels cohesive is a definite accomplishment, but it’s something that makes tackling every minute detail of the episode as I tend to do more challenging.
However, it also makes it entirely possible to address it more briefly while leaving some material for a “Mad Men the Morning After” later today or tomorrow, so let’s get to “The Good News.”
Mad Men the Morning After: “Christmas Comes…” for Critics
August 2nd, 2010
When it comes to critical reviews of AMC’s Mad Men, each week is more about understanding the nuances of the episode than ripping it apart. And this week, with very little from January Jones’ Betty Draper (who is the series’ most divisive character) and a welcome return for a few fan favourites, the critics are largely in holiday spirits outside of their understandable frustration with the actions of one Don Draper.
It may not be quite like Christmas morning, but opening the collection of Mad Men reviews in various tabs is sort of like opening presents, so let’s take a look at what came down the chimney.