Moving On while Moving Apart
August 20th, 2010
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When a series makes a pretty substantial change to its basic structure, we usually respond in one of two ways: either we fret over how the series will handle that change, or we shrug our shoulders and presume that things will be back to normal eventually. This is not to say that we don’t enjoy this change, but as someone who is averse to change as a general rule it makes me anxious when I see a favourite series taking a glimpse over the edge as if it plans on jumping, even if that jump ends up being a spectacular sight.
However, I honestly didn’t flinch when Angel fired his staff at the end of “Reunion.” This isn’t because I am not enjoying the series, or that I am not engaged with its characters, but rather because the series is naturally suited to these sorts of changes. Admittedly, I knew in advance that reinvention was one of the series’ strong suits, but I didn’t expect for those reinventions to feel so purposeful: when Angel fires his staff, it feels like a logical progression of his character, and the crisis it creates doesn’t feel like an effort to shake things up for the sake of ratings. Indeed, instead of feeling shocking, the range of episodes from “Blood Money” to “Reprise” feel decidedly normal, a statement that even a substantial shift in the character dynamics of the series needn’t disrupt its basic themes or structures.
They aren’t the strongest episodes of the series, but they serve an important role: while they make the argument that Angel and his former employees will not remain apart forever, they also demonstrate how their separation only broadens the series’ potential, continuing a strong second season.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.