Tag Archives: Don Draper

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 – “The Fog”

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“The Fog”

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.

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Mad Men – “The Arrangements”

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“The Arrangements”

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.

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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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Mad Men – “Love Among the Ruins”

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“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.

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Season Premiere: Mad Men – “Out of Town”

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“Out of Town”

August 16th, 2009

“Tell me about the day I was born.”

One of the most fascinating elements of Mad Men in its first two seasons was a spin-off of this question, asked by Sally Draper at the end of the show’s third season premiere, “Out of Town.” Birth has played a substantial role in the series to this point, whether it is Peggy’s child at the end of Season One, or the birth of the lie of Don Draper which has been present throughout the first two seasons, and questions of birthright play substantially into the complicated history of Pete Campbell. If we take these three character as our most substantial (which the episode doesn’t, but I’ll get to that in time), we realize that this question is more loaded than it seems.

For instance, the day Sally was born could mean something very different for Betty, who remembers it in the most romantic way possible, than it does for Don, who remembers the experience within the context of what could have been earlier infidelity, or struggles (as we learn in this episode) to reconcile with his own complicated childhood. Don remembers the time, and he remembers the weather, and he remembers what he was doing that day, but he’s blocked out the emotions, the experiences – he starts the story, in its simplest form, but Betty is the one who adds the sentimentality, fills in the details of how they felt (which is what Sally really wants to here in that moment).

What “Out of Town” accomplishes most of all is establishing how various characters, in their response to new pressures in the workplace as well as new personal pressures, are coming to terms with the intersection of the emotional and the social expectation. All of the show’s characters know what they’re supposed to do in these situations, but actually doing it with a straight face and hiding their inner frustration, their inner desire, or even their inner happiness is proving far more challenging. And yet, the way the series structures itself, these people don’t have anyone to turn to, as the British Invasion of Sterling Cooper combined with the secretive and judgmental nature of the period have made this even less advisable than it was before.

It’s created a scenario where, just as with Peggy last year, there are that many more characters who can empathize with what Don has been doing for much of his adult life, although in ways different enough to only add to the show’s diversity rather than creating a sense that there is only one type of conflict the show can truly handle. This is not a series rebirth, certainly, but by allowing individual characters to come to terms with the birth of their own sexual awakening or the frustration of being unable to get to that point of achieving something substantial, the show is yet again reinvigorated by a leap forward in time (to the Spring of 1963) for a new season and a new set of complicated interpersonal circumstances for us to enjoy and, as you’ll soon see, for me to analyze extensively.

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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: Mad Men – “The Mountain King”

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“The Mountain King”

Season Two, Episode 12

Airdate: October 19th, 2008

There are a lot of problems with choosing “The Mountain King” as the episode of Mad Men to enter into our 2008 Television Time Capsule. There are a lot of subtleties you lose in such a decision: you lose the slow escalation of Don Draper’s emotional distance, the subtle dissolution of Don and Betty’s marriage, and the various nuances that define the series’ ability to take a season and make it feel like a lifetime in the best way possible.

But I feel as if “The Mountain King” is the best example of Mad Men’s best qualities: the inner turmoil of Don Draper, here revisiting his past and the woman who helped him assume the identity of his fallen comrade, was never more vulnerable than it was here. If he was lost in a world he didn’t understand in “The Jet Set,” this episode finds him in one that feels almost too comprehensible: it has simple tasks, simple pleasures, and there is a moment or two where we actually question whether Don is going to return to his old life, and there is not a single moment where we question that Don is at the very least going to return to Sterling Cooper with a different outlook on life.

The episode makes this list, though, because of both its thematic consistency and a single moment of stunning television. For Peggy, this was the episode wherein she made her big move: she closes the Popsicle account with a healthy dose of religious imagery (one of the season’s recurrent themes with the introduction of father Gil), moves into Freddy Rumsen’s office, and achieves a triumphant victory, it seems, for the role of women in the show’s universe.

But what Matthew Weiner makes very clear in the episode (co-scripted by Robin Veith) is that the show isn’t about blanket statements: in contrast to Peggy’s success, Joan (a fantastic Christina Hendricks) is trapped in an impending marriage that in this episode turns violent, and Betty feels so devalued by Don’s departure that she lords her moral superiority over others and shares her grief with her daughter. If Peggy takes control of her own destiny, we discover at episode’s end that Joan has lost control of her own, as her fiancée rapes her on the floor of Don’s office, and that Betty doesn’t even know where to begin.

It was perhaps the most human we had ever seen Joan, in particular, and it’s a sign of the show’s diversity: as we ponder Don’s future, celebrate Peggy’s success, and enjoy the comic stylings of Bertram Cooper’s marvelous sister, we nonetheless depart the episode in absolute disgust at Joan’s fate. While the show is often more subtle than what we saw in the season’s penultimate episode, it was never more powerful in my eyes.

Related Posts at Cultural Learnings

[For more details on the Cultural Learnings 2008 Television Time Capsule, click here!]

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Season Finale: Mad Men – “Meditations in an Emergency”

“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.

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Mad Men – “The Mountain King”

“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.

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