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.
“Hands and Knees”
September 26th, 2010
“Everybody has bad dreams once in a while.”
In a Twitter discussion, Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall had a discussion about the role of theme in Mad Men: to boil it down for you, Seitz suggested he was on the fence about “Hands and Knees” due to it being a “theme episode,” while Alan argued that every episode is a theme episode (while acknowledging that this may be simply because he, as a critic, looks for themes to inform his review).
The distinction I offered is that there is a difference between “theme episodes” (which I would argue “Hands and Knees” is) and “episodes with themes” (which is the majority of Mad Men’s run). The series is too thematically rich to go without themes in any particular episode, but “Hands and Knees” stands apart in terms of actively tying nearly every single story into that theme: instead of one bad dream, it’s a collection of bad dreams that happen simultaneously (insert Inception joke).
What makes it, and all good “theme episodes,” work so well is that the episode itself acknowledges that the consistency of this theme is ridiculous: everything that could go wrong does go wrong in the episode, as if every worst case scenario and everything they want to keep secret rises to the surface. The episode asks us to join Roger in laughter when we realize just how screwed these people all are, while emphasizing that everyone has a good reason to go on pretending as if none of it has actually happened.
It’s a very straightforward thematic episode, though, and writing out the same thing as everyone else seems like a waste of my time – as a result, I’m going to outline my thematic read of the episode very briefly before discussing some of the more ancillary elements of the story which may not clearly connect with the central theme.
“The Beautiful Girls”
September 19th, 2010
Based on its title and a number of the discussions which emerged within the episode, “The Beautiful Girls” feels like a particular gesture towards the women who are often central to the series. And yet, because the episode was so fractured, it doesn’t present itself as a sustained glimpse into any of the female characters central to this story. While Joan, Peggy, Faye, and Sally all face down challenges put before them, all of them end up back where they began: trapped in a loveless marriage, apolitical in a political world, face-to-face with tough choices, and a sad little girl living a life she no longer wants to live.
Regardless of the episode’s argument regarding each character’s struggles, the fact remains that the female characters are the heart of this series, and “The Beautiful Girls” comes together as a sustained statement on their centrality if not a substantial step forward in their individual storylines.
“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.
“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”
August 22nd, 2010
Ted, the Don Draper-equivalent over at rival agency CGC, is not in Don Draper’s league: he is neither visionary nor genius, and yet by virtue of his insistence that he is a competitor he has been elevated to Don’s level. It’s the ultimate example of self-definition, of putting something out there (in this case, to the New York Times) and then turning it into reality. It doesn’t matter that Jai Alai went with another agency because its owner is delusional, or that Clearasil was a conflict rather than business lost: as it would appear to the outside world, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce lost two accounts and CGC (under Ted’s leadership) gained both of them.
“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” is filled with various examples of situations where appearance becomes reality, to the point where it even becomes a meta-narrative when the series’ positioning of Betty as a child-like figure becomes rendered in three-dimensions. It’s not the most pleasant or subtle of episodes, but it ends up making some fairly interesting observations regarding Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as an agency, as well as the series’ general approach to simulating the past.