“Love Among the Ruins”
August 24th, 2009
New York is in decay.
Don Draper’s trip to California was highly transformative on an individual level, but as an ad man it appears to have affirmed what he knew before. In California, he tells the people from Madison Square Garden, everything is shiny and new: it is a land of progress, one where people are seeing things as brightly as ever before. And yet for New York, as Don quite rightly pointed out, it is quite the opposite. It is buildings being torn down, and the “priceless” artifacts being torn down in favour of trying to capture that sense of the new while a vocal minority fights for the ruins of the past. When Kinsey spoke earlier of the Roman ruins having been torn down, he was arguing for why Penn Station needed to remain; when Don evokes the same sense of decay, he sees it as a catalyst upon which change can be sold. When the artwork for Madison Square Garden arrives, it evokes Metropolis, and the entire concept is sold as a city on a hill.
“Love Among the Ruins” is, like so many Mad Men episodes, about the act of selling a lifestyle, but in this episode we see very clearly people attempting (and somewhat failing) to live inside of it. For Don, it becomes an attempt to life within decay, to embrace his father-in-law’s growing dementia in an effort to appease his wife and allow for a continued sense of control within a volatile situation. For Peggy, meanwhile, her life as a copywriter becomes separated from her life at home, where her cynical distaste for an ad campaign brings to the surface personal insecurities stemming from her rather eventful relationship history. The rest of the episode kind of falls into place around them, spending less time establishing the season’s various plotlines and more demonstrating how these two central characters (and to a lesser extent, Betty) are handling the decay of their surroundings.
“Meditations in an Emergency”
October 26th, 2008
“We don’t know what’s really going on; you know that.”
While there have been a lot of meta-critical statements made by characters in the universe of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, there is perhaps none more simple than this observation Don makes about the nature of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The entire series hinges on secrets, on facts hidden to everyone but a select few who are concealing something that is potential volatile. For the most part, these secrets are more dangerous to those who hold them than those who are in the dark: for others, not having secrets when you know that others do can leave you desperate for something, anything to identify with them.
The genius of “Meditations in an Emergency” is the emergency itself, the Cuban Missile Crisis which suddenly made the Cold War very real. Kinsey notes how everyone is looking at people in a different way, suddenly terrified that they’re a spy and that they’re helping to organize some sort of attack. For our characters, however, this culture of fear and concern is less a motivator to run for the hills in search of safety and more an opportunity to face what is truly inside of them. If there is a single unifying factor in our main characters, it is that none of them show any signs of running away in the face of this struggle: instead, they all run closer than ever before to that which has paralyzed them, that which has confused them, or that which has been causing them to question themselves.
What we get in this fantastic season finale, then, is a series of actions: letters written, confessions given, power plays made, acts committed, and feelings confronted. The end result is, without question, the ultimate test of these characters: it is a question not of whether we value their actions, but rather their choice in making them which defines who they are, and why they matter to us as a viewer, to Weiner as a writer, and to this series as a timepiece of a period of social and personal change.
“The Mountain King”
October 19th, 2008
A week after watching the penultimate episode of Mad Men’s second season, I still have more to say than I expected. There is something simultaneously disarming and welcoming about the episode. As Don Draper slides further into a life away from his job and the family that we’ve come to know, we see a side of him that in reality we like more: a man who is comfortable, open, and who finds passion in things that are not so much digressions as true directions in life. As Peggy Olsen begins to finally start advancing at Sterling Cooper based on her talent, we see that perhaps her fellow employees are starting to dig into their inner prejudice as she moves ahead of their own status.
And yet everything else we see in the episode is so comparatively vile, the unravelings of everything good in this universe in favour of what is, in fact, totally awful. Whether it’s Pete’s family life falling apart, or Betty searching desperately for some place in her life, or Joan, who I don’t even want to talk about right now in fear of becoming too frustrated with human nature, it’s hard to feel too hopeful when everything is distintegrating rapidly. I won’t have time tonight to discuss everyone, but let’s focus on at least a few key elements.
October 5th, 2008
Pete Campbell has inherited a lot of things from his parents, but one of them might well be his fundamental lack of humanity. As he greets his mother before a short meeting, they embrace by touching each other’s faces: not with any sort of kissing motion, but this awkward greeting that’s not a hug but rather just a proximity that seems to indicate that they are happy to see one another. But it is this coldness, that his mother seems to share, which makes Pete so incapable of handling the financial crisis she is in, and the own family drama that plagues his home life.
Betty Draper inherited from her mother her looks but also her fragile nature. She has many of her mother tendencies, and even has a housekeeper who appears to have raised her much as Carla is raising Sally and Bobby for most of the episode. It is these qualities, then, which make her so unable to deal with the reality of her father’s ailing health, and why her family didn’t even tell her about his failing in order to help continue her shield from the cold reality around her.
Whereas Don Draper has spent decades resolving his relationship with his father (although last week indicated he still sees that side of him), the inability to handle what they’ve inherited from a generation past is what holds Pete and Betty back, what keeps them from becoming fully realized members of society. What “The Inheritance” becomes is less a mediation on any pivotal moment in either of their development, but a demonstration over a number of days of their reactions to these ideas being tested, of their innocence or coldness rising in opposition to something that needs to be said or done.
The result is an episode that doesn’t quite hit as hard as the past few episodes on an emotional level, and feels like it doesn’t really add things to our story; that being said, it also feels distinctly like Matthew Weiner and Co. moving pieces around in preparation for something larger.
“Six Month Leave”
September 28th, 2008
“Some People Just Hide in Plain Sight”
On the surface, Marilyn Monroe was the picture of grace and beauty, living the Hollywood dream and conquering the globe in the process. Of course, inside she was emotionally distraught, and her suicide rocked America in August, 1962. In the world of Mad Men, it rocks the secretarial pool at Sterling Cooper, sending them to the kleenex boxes and making them all question, at least a little bit, the value of life.
But that quote, coming from the elevator man of all people, is the driving force behind this series, particularly for Don Draper: he can’t actually hide away from everyone, he needs to be out there and available even while hiding pains as deep as his traumatic family past and as recent as his separation from Betty. Peggy may have hid in the months after her pregnancy, but now she’s back at work and having to act as if none of it is there, struggling while all eyes remain on her in her new success.
But this episode is all about those people who can’t hide in plain sight, who based on either inexperience or circumstance are no longer able to (or desiring to) hide something about themselves. In the case of Freddy Rumsen, our zipper musician extraordinaire, his habits have long been known by those in the office, but there comes a time when you get too comfortable and what was hidden becomes clear to too many people or, more accurately, to the wrong people. In the case of Betty Draper, she’s been so used to hiding her feelings that she has no idea how to express her displeasure, unsure of what she wants other than to be left alone and allowed to take care of her own life for a change.
While a less careful show might be running dangerously close to hammering this home a bit too hard at this point, “Six Month Leave” has more than enough moments of emotional discovery to feel like a new step into this particular subject, one of the show’s (and my) favourites.
August 10th, 2008
After a busy day of moving, there’s nothing better than sitting down with one of the most satisfying dramas on television and just letting its quality suck you in. But, to be honest, it wasn’t grasping me at first: maybe it’s being tired, maybe it’s just that the show is finding a slower pace after a couple of really quick episodes, but there was something about “The Benefactor” that wasn’t clicking.
But then all of a sudden everything starts clicking – what seemed like a strangely slow subplot for Harry Crane turns into a sudden revelation of its broader impact on his life (And Peggy’s for that matter). It’s one of those examples where something initially so isolated has this ripple effect, showing in tiny small moments how one thing impacts everyone else.
And even though the episode is slow to start for Don and Betty Draper, they end the episode both with extremely twisted views of their current marital detente of sorts: as they both continue to struggle with embracing their new roles, it is clear that their expectations for happiness are quite different. When Betty cries in the car on their way back from dinner, they’re inexpicable tears of happiness, her bar set so low that being used to flirt with an unruly comedian is her new calling.
But, I guess this is normal: for her, Don is really just a Benefactor, although a slightly more benevolent one these days.