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 14th, 2010
The most common word I’m seeing in evaluating tonight’s 30 Rock is “experiment,” which is more evaluative than you might think.
We call it an experiment because it wasn’t actually very good. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy tonight’s 30 Rock (I did), or that the episode was a failure (it wasn’t). If the episode had actually lived up to expectations, we’d call it a risk worth taking, or a ballsy decision, but instead we consider it a one-off experiment in order to better reconcile its struggles within the show’s larger creative efforts.
As noted, I thought “Live Show” was fun, and think that there were parts of the way the episode was designed which worked quite nicely, but any deeper commentary built into the episode was killed by the live format. Many of the jokes landed, and a couple of the meta moments were successful, but any character development and much of the potential meta-commentary were lost in the midst of audience laughter.
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.
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.