“The Gypsy and the Hobo”
October 25th, 2009
“Where do you want me to start?”
Writing these reviews has been a strange experience this season, as the critics are all receiving screeners which means that by the time I get to the episode on iTunes (no cable/satellite provider in my province carries the channel) I’m invariably late to the party. As such, you see that I resisting using perhaps the show’s most “on the nose” final line in its history, as Carlton asks Don who he is supposed to be for Halloween as he takes Sally and Bobby out trick or treating. It’s the kind of line that everyone has already jumped on, to the point where I will simply acknowledge it was a clever reminder of the act he’s been playing for the better part of his adult years and move on.
What’s interesting about “The Gypsy and the Hobo” is that we’re now at the end of October, which means that the series’ handling of the single most important event of 1963 is just over the horizon. What’s most interesting at this point is how concerned the show is with the past during a time when we, as the audience, know how concerned they should be for the future. What the episode depicts is how it is only at a point of desperation, when you see everything in front of your eyes melting away, that you truly turn to the past in a way that is both vulnerable and enlightening. It is only when you see no future ahead of you that you’re willing to open the pandora’s box of the past, or in this instance unlock a drawer.
It makes for an enormously compelling episode that demonstrates how moments you thought would be explosive turn out to be the exact opposite, while moments which may have normally been handled with grace turn into a vase over the back of the head. Such is Mad Men, and such is a pretty damn fine episode.
“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.
“Wee Small Hours”
October 11th, 2009
“I can’t do this all by myself”
Sally’s teacher, sitting in Don’s car in the middle of the night, says that she is going to read her new class “I Have a Dream” on the first day back to school. However, she also indicates that they already know it: I don’t think she’s insinuating that they’ve heard the speech, but rather that there is something in child-like innocence that embraces the image of a dream and of a better future.
The entirety of “Wee Small Hours” is not about civil rights at all, but it is about characters confronting the demons in their past in an effort to move into the future. For Don Draper, a new relationship begins to mirror an old one, and for Salvatore Romano a long-standing response has suddenly put his career into jeopardy. And then there’s Betty Draper, wide-eyed and naive to the point of childhood, and let applying her innocence less to an understanding of Dr. King and more to a petulant child who wants what she can’t have but then doesn’t want it once she has it.
It’s yet another installment in a compelling but slow-paced series of episodes, ones which feel designed to show these characters searching the depths of their emotions and not quite sticking the landing, so to speak.
October 4th, 2009
“But I already did it…it’s over!”
As far as Mad Men episodes go, “Souvenir” was almost obnoxiously low impact. This isn’t to say that the episode was bad, or even uninteresting: rather, instead of seeming like an episode where things are languishing at a slow pace, there are some pretty substantial events (an affair, a trip to Rome) that happen so quickly and naturally in the episode that you almost miss the moment when they go from an innocent fantasy to something entirely different.
There’s a little throwaway line in the episode when we meet up with Joan, when we learn that Greg is searching for a new discipline, psychiatry in particular. The entire episode is essentially one giant lesson in the effects of loneliness, as our our resident emotional (Betty) and emotionless (Pete) protagonists take a leap of faith or two in an effort to find themselves. The result is an intriguing investigation of the summer vacation, albeit from a perspective that doesn’t precisely play to the show’s strengths.
September 13th, 2009
“He’s never where you expect him to be.”
When it comes to Mad Men, titles are often a sign of a major theme in an episode, often the only real quality an episode has (with most remaining light on plot in favour of atmosphere or thematic importance). But I don’t think there’s been a title in a while that has seemed so expansive, so all-encompassing. “The Fog” could mean any multitude of things both in terms of what we already know about character relationships and in terms of new develops in the span of the episode, which leaves us critics fumbling to decide just what direction we’re going to take it in.
For me, I think the moment where the title really connected with me was when Don was chatting with his prison guard friend in the Solarium and tells him an anecdote that a nurse told him when Sally was being born. “Your wife’s on the boat, and you’re on the shore.” And while it was never explicitly stated, there’s a fog between those two locations, and Mad Men is essentially a show without a lighthouse. Betty, stranded out on that boat and struggling through a difficult birthing process, comments in her crazed state that Don isn’t where you expect him to be, that once the fog lifts he’s disappeared or gone off somewhere else. While she views this in some ways as an abandonment, for Don it’s about being restless.
Much of “The Fog” is about Don Draper’s own self-awareness or lack thereof, finally admitting to himself that for all of his problems in the past he is the one on solid ground while Betty, and Peggy, and Sally are out on boats struggling to maintain course in the midst of a growing storm. He’s the one who has everything and who can help guide them safely into the years ahead, but the problem is that he is distracted: by women, by his job, and by his own insecurities buried deep beneath the surface. If he is the one in charge of climbing up the lighthouse steps to break through the fog and win the day, the boats are going to crash on the rocks.
September 6th, 2009
I can relate to Betty Draper.
I, too, am not a huge fan of the discussion of the inevitability of death. I’m not in denial, of course, but I’m not the kind of person who enjoys talking about it, or who can look past the morbid nature of it all to see the value of the conversation. This isn’t to say that I ignore what is being said in such conversations or anything of that sort – rather, I let the piece be said and then carry on, storing it away while pushing it out of the picture since, of course, it will not matter for a very long time. However, life’s sheer uncertainty means that any moment can be a last, and some people won’t get to make their arrangements and everything will become more complicated than perhaps it needed to be.
“The Arrangements” is very much a companion piece to Season Two’s “The Inheritance,” another episode that dealt with both Gene’s worsening dementia as well as the idea of parents and their role in the lives of their children. However, if “The Inheritance” was about children being haunted by the memory of their own childhood and its impact on their own lives, “The Arrangements” is the opposite side of the coin. This is an episode about children breaking out from within the confines of the family in an effort to make a name for themselves and be able to prove their parents right or wrong about them.
What makes the episode work, despite some reservations about its bombardment of less than subtle thematic connections, is that it more sly in how it relates to the season’s recurring image of Don Draper, barefoot and vividly reliving his own birth. There’s a single scene in the episode where Don pulls out a picture of his parents, and that is all we need to see that perhaps the worst fate is having changed one’s name and entirely disconnected one’s self from one’s family, and being surrounded by events which make you question that entire relationship and remain haunted by its memory. While the other characters are able to talk about their situation with siblings, or spouses, Don has no one to talk to.
And in a show about secrets, that’s perhaps the grimmest fate.