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Mad Men Season Three Podcast: Observations and Ruminations

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A Mad Men Season Three Podcast

November 14th, 2009

What’s really interesting about Mad Men’s third season is that, because of how strong the finale was, it makes criticizing the season as a whole somewhat difficult. It requires sort of forgetting about how great the finale was, and going back to consider just how everything came together. The finale, in some ways, rewrote some of our concerns about the season: we wanted more Sterling Cooper drama and we got more Sterling Cooper drama, and we complained about Joan’s marginalization and suddenly Joan was back front and centre.

So when I joined The House Next Door’s Luke De Smet and The A.V. Club/etc.’s Todd VanDerWerff for a special TV on the Internet/House Next Door Mad Men Season Three podcast, there was a definite sense that the strength of the finale has in some way coloured our opinions on the rest of the season. I’m not suggesting that the third season was bad, but rather that in our enjoyment of the finale (and a couple of other key episodes) we may have spent more time talking about what works than we did talking about what didn’t (although we do discuss some of the story elements that were perhaps underdeveloped). It’s a great conversation, discussing a number of key subjects and focusing on different areas of the show’s success, but there were a couple of more negative things I wanted to say about the season that almost didn’t fit into the podcast’s narrative thanks to how much goodwill the finale created for all of us.

As such, after the jump I’ll go into detail on the one major issue I have with the season that didn’t make it into the podcast, but do go have a listen before reading on.

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Mad Men – “Wee Small Hours”

madmen2“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.

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Mad Men – “Souvenir”

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“Souvenir”

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.

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Mad Men – “Seven Twenty Three”

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“Seven Twenty Three”

September 27th, 2009

It’s always interesting to see how viewing Mad Men changes when you have certain pieces of information.

One of the key themes of “Seven Twenty Three” is knowing certain information, or having certain contraptions which allow you to better view your situation. The eclipse is obviously the central image of this, but across the board we see characters who know things which make the actions or words of others particularly dangerous. It’s like everything is a trap waiting to happen, where saying the wrong thing can push someone to do something you couldn’t expect. Of course, this being Don Draper’s show at the end of the day, it is Don who says the wrong thing, and who is slowly losing what he thought was control of his life as he waits until the eclipse gets more interesting before donning his sunglasses.

For me going into this episode, I had heard about the walks of shame, and had pieced together what I would consider to be one of the most traumatizing (if not in the same way as Joan’s Season 2 predicament) images Mad Men has offered to date. However, much like an eclipse, there is something powerful about seeing even what you know was going to happen, especially when the important thing is not so much what happens but rather how it changes the person at the centre of it all.

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Mad Men – “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”

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“Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”

September 20th, 2009

If I had to suggest a single challenge in writing about Mad Men each week, it’s often where precisely to begin. Mad Men is a show defined by density, of layers of new and pre-existing storylines entwined around a theme central enough to be apparent but vague enough to be open to enormous amounts of interpretation. So when I sit down to add my thoughts to the chorus, illustrious and diverse as it is, my biggest challenge is finding the right angle at which to approach the material at hand.

But this week, “Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency” is so defined (perhaps justly, perhaps unjustly) by a single scene that not starting with it seems nigh impossible.

I’ve seen this episode be tweeted about on numerous occasion as being fantastic (which it was), but more interestingly as proof that things actually do happen on this slow-paced show. However, the episode on numerous occasions indicates that the world (if anything) is moving too quickly, and that the central drama facing its characters is that when the show’s pace is disrupted by something tragic or sudden the common response is like a turtle hiding in its shell rather than a bird spreading its wings.

Of course, how this is read entirely depends on where you sit on the Mad Men spectrum; and, as someone who firmly believes the show’s slow pace is ideal for the stories being told regarding that constant tension between these characters and the world revolving around them, I’d say that the handling of a shocking moment in the midst of this contemplative show demonstrates yet again just how good this two-time Emmy-winning show really is.

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Mad Men – “My Old Kentucky Home”

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“My Old Kentucky Home”

August 30th, 2009

“It’s a mistake to be conspicuously happy.”

Roger Sterling is a man trying to find happiness, but discovering that no one particularly wants to share in it. His daughter and his wife, as we saw last week, want nothing to do with the new woman, and here the employees of Sterling Cooper view their swanky country club soiree as a work obligation more than a chance to celebrate. There’s a fantastic moment during the party where Pete Campbell and his wife Trudy take to the dance floor and show off some admittedly very impressive moves. However, watch Pete’s face: while Trudie is getting into the music, enjoying herself, Pete spends the entire time smiling and glancing at Roger to see if he’s impressing him, to see if he’s got his attention. All social events have a sense of obligation, but this particular one feels more than all others like an event where people do as Pete desires and start handing out business cards.

“My Old Kentucky Home” is very much about the ways in which happiness is a negotiation, a struggle between individual desires (and therefore personal happiness) and the desires and hopes of everyone else around you. For Roger Sterling, his new marriage pits him against the world, having broken the cardinal rule of not romanticizing or idealizing one’s affairs. For Joan Holloway, her knowledge of the world and the customs of society place her at odds with the role her husband believes she should play. For Peggy Olsen, her own self-awareness of her position and her ability to navigate the complex world of a male-dominated business are questioned by those who have seen it all before and who know that it’s not that easy.

And for Don and Betty Draper, happiness is an act, a coverup for hidden desires and hidden secrets which can never be revealed so long as they continue to play charades. In this quasi-musical of an episode, we discover the consequences of being conspicuously happy, but also the consequences of avoiding happiness and finding one’s self just as lost as you would be if you were at odds with society’s expectation.

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