“In Care Of” and the Narrative Engine of Place in Season 6
June 24th, 2013
“This is where everything is.”
Mad Men began with a spatial divide. In the series’ pilot, we are introduced to Don Draper in Manhattan but only get the full picture when we follow him onto the train to the suburbs, and to the family life he leaves behind every day he travels into the city. The show was invested in exploring the distinct ebbs and flows of those two spaces, and on Don’s ability to travel between them. While we would come to learn that Don had been living a double life for most of adulthood, initially we watched a man live two lives separated by the train ride between them.
The show evolved beyond its urban/suburban divide, adding enough complexity to both Don’s family life and Sterling Cooper as a setting that it would seem reductive to boil the show down to this dichotomy. And yet although Don was no longer traveling to the suburbs since separating from Betty, the spatial divide stuck around thanks to characters like Pete, who began the season in his city apartment that would become his primary residence after he proved less agile in his duplicity than Don was. And as Betty explored the life of young runaways or as Peggy let Abe talk her into living in a nascent neighborhood, New York City was no longer confined to the offices of Sterling Cooper, gaining diversity and perspective as the turmoil of 1968 played out over the course of the season.
Mad Men’s sixth season was far from the first time the show has become invested in the meaning of space and place, but “In Care Of” highlights how central the idea of “going somewhere else” has been to this season in particular. For a season that began in the escape of Hawaii, and jetted to Los Angeles and Detroit and to upstate New York in a very tiny plane, it ends with multiple characters imagining what life would be like away from New York. In the process, we can imagine a final season spread across the country, even if we can also picture a season that remains tethered to the Manhattan Mad Men has over time embedded into the fabric of its storytelling.
“Dark Wings, Dark Words”
April 6th, 2013
“I try to know as many people as I can. You never know which one you’ll need.”
When HBO’s decision to order Game of Thrones to pilot was first announced, I went back and began rereading the books in preparation. At the time, I wrote a piece thinking about how the structure of the books—specifically the chapters told from specific characters’ points-of-view—would prove a challenge, but how there remained thematic through-lines that could be capitalized upon.
More recently, Benioff and Weiss have said that they aren’t structuring the show around themes, suggesting they’re for grade school book reports. It’s a silly comment, and I will continue to remark upon clear themes that run through both the series and the novels on which that series is based, but I do think that they’re right on one point: this is not, primarily, structured as a thematic story. And yet, given the fact that the narrative has become dispersed from a clearly outlined conflict—the War of the Five Kings—into a scattered collection of individual narratives, a question is raised: how exactly is the show being structured?
To suggest that Game of Thrones is a character-driven show is not exactly groundbreaking, but I was struck during “Dark Wings, Dark Words” how the show is actually organized by character. In thinking about some of my pre-air thoughts regarding how audiences might respond to some characters better than others, I watched the episode thinking through one primary question: who is this scene about? While the fragmentation of the narrative means that no single episode will be about one single person, the focus of a given scene nonetheless often falls to a single character, and not always the character we might presume it to be. And while there is a collection of new characters introduced in this week’s episode, none of them feel like their scenes were about them so much as the existing characters they were meeting. At the same time, meanwhile, some characters whose existence was once defined by their support of other characters have become subjects of their own storylines, even if their role within the larger narrative hasn’t necessarily changed.
October 5th, 2010
If you ever needed proof of a higher power, take the fact that “Grilled Cheesus” more or less works.
While problematic in a number of areas, there is an emotional core to this spirituality-themed episode which manages to ground what seems like a really terrible idea in theory. While the show has handled some bigger issues quite effectively, like Kurt’s sexuality, it has also botched numerous issues, like (at times) Kurt’s sexuality. For every moment of emotional honesty, there are situations (like Burt’s big speech admonishing Finn) which seem to undermine those moments; while inconsistency is problematic in almost any series, here those inconsistencies often write over previous developments of character, theme, and universe.
“Grilled Cheesus” does nothing to solve the series’ problems of consistency as a whole, wildly different from everything else this season, but by grounding a difficult subject with the series’ most proven recurring storyline Brad Falchuk has created a stand-alone take on religion that only rarely offends my sensibilities.
And that, my friends, is some sort of miracle.
Davis and Defictionalization: Treme’s Inherited Crisis of Continuity
April 18th, 2010
When I was watching Treme earlier this week, I knew that there was some buzz in early reviews about one of the show’s characters, although I had stayed far enough away from those reviews that I actually didn’t know which character it was going into the premiere. However, there was no doubt after watching the episode that the response was to Steve Zahn’s Davis, a character who is a bit too much of a jerk for some viewers.
I wrote about this a little bit in my review of the premiere, arguing that the character has yet to be given a reason for this sort of behaviour, which keeps the audience from relating to him in any way. However, I’ve since that point read a lot of comments from others (including Ethan Thompson at Antenna) which have started to paint Davis as something more intriguing, something which speaks to both the series’ complicated intertextuality and its unique relationship with historical reality.
So, after the jump, a few thoughts (with probably a few Wire spoilers) on the defictionalization of Simon and Burns’ Baltimore and its influence on the response to Davis’ incongruity within Treme’s New Orleans.
“The Pirate Solution”
October 12th, 2009
Usually, my reviews of The Big Bang Theory end up devolving into my frustration with the show’s treatment of Sheldon (a subject that many disagree with) and the ill-advised nature of Leonard and Penny’s relationship (which pretty much everyone agrees with, outside of a vocal minority), but “The Pirate Solution” is a rare occasion where I get to focus my analysis elsewhere.
I often feel that the show is held back by is adherence to the sitcom tradition of a fundamental lack of character development, focusing instead on character interaction. There are episodes where I totally buy into the value of this, accepting that although it holds the show back it nonetheless can result in some really fun comedy. However, there are episodes like “The Pirate Solution” which focus their attention on a character and in the process remind us that while some have turned into full-featured individuals others have, well, not.
Raj Koothrappali is a character who, like Penny, is a good foil for nearly every other character, but when you isolate him on his own things become starkly simple. Kunal Nayyar is an engaging actor, but the problem with Raj is that his lack of development is proving detrimental. When the show designates a Raj episode, it means the show recycles cliched India jokes and once again has Raj’s inability to speak to women prove detrimental. I won’t argue that this isn’t entertaining, as I think the Raj parts of this episode were charming; however, I think that there’s a point here where I wonder why Raj needs to be reduced to these stereotypes, and at what point his evolution would only improve the show’s dynamics.
March 4th, 2009
“…now what?” – Jin ; “…then what?” – Juliet
It has been said that the last two episodes of Lost, “316” and “The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham,” were sort of a launching point for the rest of the show’s fifth season, the one bit of major story material (focusing entirely on off-island activities beyond the bookends of each episode) that felt like it needed to be blatantly exposed to switch gears. “Lafleur,” then, has a lot to live up to: it takes us back to the storyline we’ve abandoned for two episodes, and has created new expectations and new mysteries upon which it is going to rely in the future.
But to answer Jin’s question immediately (and get to Juliet’s later), “Lafleur” establishes that the moment the island stopped “skipping,” the show has gone back to a familiar tune, one less driven by the series’ structure and far more by the series’ characters. What we have in this episode is the closest Lost has come to its initial purpose all season, offering up a few really intriguing character arcs that have created two parallel but ultimately very different series of flashforwards in regards to how these characters got to this place. Faraday seems to indicate that the record is playing the wrong song when they end up stuck in 1974, but the establishment of the “when” doesn’t lead the show to a detailed investigation as to why.
Because James Sawyer isn’t something fascinated with the question of “why,” and when he gets stuck in 1974 he’s going to do everything he can to survive, as if he’s been marooned all over again. And in the absence of Jack and Locke, Sawyer is the closest thing these people have to a leader, and what we see in “Lafleur” is a man finally ready to step into that position and his three-year journey to a sort of peace that operated entirely outside of the show’s mythology, the simple sort of life he never got to lead before.
And then Flight 316 happened, and the show comes to Juliet’s question, and all of a sudden two groups of people fundamentally changed by time are sent back to another one entirely, although this time entirely metaphorically.