Aired: September 5th, 2010
[Cultural Learnings’ Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective – for more information, and the complete list as it goes up, click here.]
The atypical nature of nearly every episode on this list was not really something I planned, but “The Suitcase” sort of feels like the apex of that particular trend. On the one hand, it’s everything you expect from a Mad Men episode: it’s moody, it’s emotional, and it features two amazing performances from Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss. This is nothing out of the ordinary, and in those terms the episode is par for the course as far as Mad Men‘s “formula” for great television.
However, from the perspective of story and character this is anything but typical. Mad Men‘s entire fourth season was built around the differences between appearances and reality, of the way in which Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce had to invent an imaginary second floor in order to convince clients they were the right agency for the job, and “The Suitcase” makes the logical leap to explicitly connecting this to Don Draper’s personal subterfuge. In an intense battle with the most important female presence of his present, he reveals the wounds felt by the loss of the most important female presence in his past, and the result is perhaps the year’s finest hour of dramatic programming.
October 3rd, 2010
“I thought in the end you wouldn’t want to throw it away.”
The balance between business and personal affairs forms one of the central tensions of Mad Men, but the show’s characters all approach the issue from different perspectives. For some, it takes the form of large-scale conflicts, such as Peggy’s pregnancy back in season; for others, it takes the form of family conflict, such as Pete’s relationship with his father-in-law; for yet more, it takes the form of the simple fact that a dinner out is interrupted by a colleague who stops by with news about the business.
For Don Draper, however, it has always been an elaborate balancing act: desperate to keep his true personal affairs out of his business, he created the ideal life for a businessman: wife, two and a half kids, house in the suburbs, etc. And yet that was never Don’s personal life, not really: if anything, Don’s lack of identity meant that he had no true personal life, and what he had was lost when Ann Draper passed away earlier this season.
The tragedy of “Chinese Wall” is not the loss of Lucky Strike hitting the fan, or the departure of the client who brought Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce its greatest honour. Instead, the greatest tragedy is that Don’s search for a personal life has become indistinguishable from his business one. While I would argue that “Chinese Wall” is almost as consistently themed as last week’s “Hands and Knees,” what sets it apart is that it is a theme that has been central from the very beginning, and in the “last days of Rome” it becomes more important than ever before.
“The Summer Man”
September 12th, 2010
“All he knows of the world is what you show him.”
There has always been a disconnect between Don Draper’s external persona and his internal struggle, but this season has largely broken down that expectation. Now, Don is incapable of hiding his sadness from the outside world, lacking the glossy exterior to trick those around him into believing that he is truly a happy man.
“The Summer Man” throws light on this reality by taking us inside Don Draper through what I believe will be a fairly divisive decision to have Don’s journal serve as narration for the episode. By all accounts, including his own, Don Draper is dedicated to changing his current path, but the real test is whether or not those around him believe this transformation – while I would share the reservations that some have regarding the narration, I would ultimately argue that it helps crystallize the episode’s key theme of the difference between self-perception and how Don and others are perceived by those around them.
September 5th, 2010
“Open or Closed?”
Not writing up last week’s Mad Men was inevitable: I watched the episode in the wake of writing about the Emmys, and then it was my first week of my PhD program, and there were just too many reasons to let it go. I also didn’t feel like “Waldorf Stories” was particularly rife for critical analysis: it was a very good episode, but it was fairly devoid of subtexts. Don Draper continued his self-destructive behaviour, but the episode fairly elegantly laid it out for him, analyzing his behaviour itself and making my job more “pointing out the obvious” than “examining the episode.”
However, “Waldorf Stories” was another strong bit of escalation in a season which is unafraid to be “slow”: a lot of time has passed so far this season, but Don Draper seems to be stuck in a single moment, best exemplified by the scene where Don wakes up to discover someone entirely different in the bed beside him, an entire weekend gone like sand through the hourglass (and yes, these are the days of our lives).
“The Suitcase” is memorable because it is the point at which the show slows down to meet Don’s shattered life: as he lets Peggy into his world, the show stops to capture a single evening in the life of a broken man, an evening where he regains his connection to reality on the same evening where he loses the one connection to his past. It is the moment the season has been leading up to, that moment where Don less regains his previous form and more admits that he is entering a new stage in his life.
And, simultaneously, Mad Men’s fourth season heads into its next stage with a truly stellar episode of television.
Supporting Acting in a Drama Series
August 23rd, 2010
The complete lack of a frontrunner in neither Supporting Actor nor Supporting Actress in a Drama Series isn’t particularly surprising: these categories are always fairly stacked, and so predicting them is always a bit of a crapshoot.
This year, though, the lack of a frontrunner should prove particularly interesting, and potentially quite frustrating for the majority of television viewers.
Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
- Andre Braugher (Men of a Certain Age)
- Martin Short (Damages)
- Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad)
- Terry O’Quinn (Lost)
- Michael Emerson (Lost)
- John Slattery (Mad Men)
On the Actor side of things, it’s a problem of too much talent: while many are right to complain about John Lithgow getting dropped down to (and winning) Guest Actor from Supporting on a technicality, I think this category is better for his absence, as it allows people like Aaron Paul (still looking for his first Emmy win for this spectacular work on Breaking Bad) to have a legitimate shot at the trophy instead of appearing as also-rans. However, when he’s alongside someone as respected as Martin Short, and when former winners Terry O’Quinn and Michael Emerson are riding the momentum of Lost coming to its conclusion, Paul still seems like a small fish in a big pond (Slattery, as good as he is, is simply not going to be the Mad Men actor to break the series’ drought in performance categories).
July 25th, 2010
“It was going great until it wasn’t.”
Mad Men has always been a series grounded in duality, logical since Dick Whitman’s double life represented the central conflict within the series. Very rarely did the series ever move beyond the existential, largely avoiding direct action in favour of short glances, conversations with unintended prescience, and the growing sense that the balance could no longer hold. At the end of the third season, that duality was broken: Don’s secrets were revealed, Betty ran off with Henry Francis, and even the identity crisis at Sterling Cooper – caused by PPL’s influence over the company’s holdings – was eliminated when the pending purchase led to the formation of the independent Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
The third season was Mad Men’s two worlds finally colliding, and the fourth season premiere, “Public Relations,” demonstrates how that collision has never truly stopped. The direct conflict the series has always avoided has become something these characters fetishize and desire, and unfortunately something that has become untenable within the new business world in which they operate. Before, Don Draper was a sly yet self-destructive force operating with what he considered a safety net, and now he’s a sly yet self-destructive force who refuses to change his behaviour despite the newfound risk. And so his entire life becomes a collision, sometimes to his benefit and most times to the detriment of his business, his sanity, and his personal relationships.
However, the benefit of a collision is that you ask yourself important questions, wondering what went wrong and re-evaluating just what you want from the world around you. “Public Relations” is Don Draper seizing the day, choosing to stop running into the same brick wall at every turn and steer the car in a new direction – it’s possible that a collision waits just the same down this new path, but it’s a collision he can control, manage, and perfect.
And until it isn’t, it has every chance of being great.
And Your Winner, by Submission…: Analyzing 2010’s Emmy Tapes
July 15th, 2010
Last week, I wrote a piece for Jive TV which described the next step in the Emmy Awards process, and the ways in which this post-nomination period is honestly more interesting for me than the pre-nomination period: as my Twitter followers have noted, I’m a bit obsessive about the submissions process, where the nominated series and performers choose episodes to represent their work over the past season.
It fascinates me because of how unnatural it is: performers can’t simply put together a reel of their strongest moments from throughout the season, they need to find a single representative episode (which, for supporting players, is cut down to only their scenes), and so what they choose is incredibly telling. For example, the cast of Glee have very clearly been instructed to submit episodes which feature big musical performances: Chris Colfer submitted “Laryngitis” because of the show-stopping “Rose’s Turn,” while Lea Michele submitted “Sectionals” based on her take on “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” These might not be their more consistent episodes in terms of overall material, but musically they are character-defining performances, and Glee has decided that this will be its Emmy focus. And yet, for Matthew Morrison and Jane Lynch, their submissions don’t work as well when oriented around their most show-stopping musical performances, and so sometimes a series’ approach doesn’t match with each performer.
It’s a delicate balance, and one which I think best captures the equally maddening and addictive nature of this process, which is why I will now take a closer look at the submissions strategy from a number of series: for a look at how they look as categories, and for more submissions I don’t talk about here, check out Tom O’Neill post at Gold Derby.