June 11, 2012 · 1:07 am
June 10th, 2012
“This may be our last chance.”
I was having a conversation with some friends the other night, and we were discussing the character of Paul Kinsey. My colleague Alyx expressed an affection for Paul, but admitted that the character simply wasn’t talented enough to meet his aspirations, directly alluding to the character’s return this season. However, while she was aware of what was happening this season (albeit through reading weekly reviews as opposed to actually watching it), the other friends at the table were at least a season behind, which meant that we didn’t get a chance to continue the conversation.
I found myself returning to it watching “The Phantom.” Paul Kinsey got left behind by the narrative, becoming a symbol of the consequences of the development Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency and eventually returning as a man chasing dreams of love and fame without the means to achieve either. But while Paul is in a pitiable situation, off to Los Angeles on Harry’s dime with nothing but a terrible Star Trek spec script to his name, are we exactly meant to pity him?
Or is our pity instead for Lane Pryce, the man who had the means for success but did everything he could to sabotage it? He’s the man who got swept up in this agency when he could have instead been sent to India, who was given this opportunity to be a name partner long before he could have dreamed, and yet he ends his life a broken man whose choice to hide his shame and suppress his desire to life the live before him results in his end. Is it a greater shame to lose the life you want to lead and aspire to something greater, or to live the life you want to lead while denying yourself the pleasures and thrills that come with it?
Of course, it’s hard to avoid the specter of Lane’s death (especially compared to Paul’s futile journey to Los Angeles), and “The Phantom” could in fact refer to his empty chair at the partners meeting (which the camera lingers on). But on a larger level, this season of Mad Men has been (for me) an investigation of those moments that give us a tinge of doubt, those moments that won’t leave our minds except with the help of electroshock therapy, and those moments that make us ask ourselves when our last chance might be. In other words, it’s about the characters treating their own lives like we treat the show they’re a part of: just as we look back to piece things together, to ponder over narrative moments and psychological motivations, so too has Mad Men’s cast of characters taken to viewing their actions as matters of cause and effect.
It’s a dangerous game for them to play, and it results in a finale that is not quite subtle in its thematic material. My notes for the episode are filled with lines and details that scream out to be applied to the characters’ storylines as the season comes to an end. After sitting out much of the season, I could easily spend hours poring over those notes and pulling out every thematic thread, but I want to focus on a single question: what does it take for us to be able to turn the present into the past, to forget something or someone? It’s a question that drives much of the season, calling attention to the weight of what happened in a season light on plot but heavy on consequences, and a season that builds rather impressive momentum for a show entering its sixth season.
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Tagged as AMC, Analysis, Betty, Don, Episode 13, Joan, Lane Pryce, Matthew Weiner, Megan, Peggy, Review, Season 5, Season Finale, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Television, The Phantom, TV, You Only Live Twice
August 9, 2010 · 10:41 am
“The Good News”
August 8th, 2010
I spent a good half hour stumbling over how to start confronting this episode before eventually deciding to sleep on it, and upon waking up this morning I discovered why. “The Good News” is a tremendous episode of television, but it’s an episode of television which confounds how I normally confront these reviews. It’s difficult to write about, for me, because its continuities are largely unrelated to the season thus far: while parts of Don’s story theoretically connect with his behaviour thus far this season, it connects even more with his past as Dick Whitman, and since Joan Holloway and Lane Pryce are getting their first showcase of the season we’re required to dig back into the third season as if this were their premiere.
There are connections between the two sides of this story, but the episode is so clearly divided by Don’s time in Los Angeles (or Dick’s time in Los Angeles, more accurately) and Don’s return to New York that it’s not unlike two entirely different episodes – that it still feels cohesive is a definite accomplishment, but it’s something that makes tackling every minute detail of the episode as I tend to do more challenging.
However, it also makes it entirely possible to address it more briefly while leaving some material for a “Mad Men the Morning After” later today or tomorrow, so let’s get to “The Good News.”
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Tagged as Aboration, AMC, Analysis, Anna, California, Christina Hendricks, Dick Whitman, Episode 3, Gamera, Greg, House of the Rising Sun, Jared Harris, Jennifer Getzinger, Joan, Jon Hamm, Lane Pryce, Matthew Weiner, Monster Movie, Pregnancy, Prostitute, Review, Stephanie, Television, The Good News, TV
November 9, 2009 · 11:27 am
“Shut the Door”
November 8th, 2009
“I’m not going…I’m just living elsewhere.”
Every episode of television is a collection of scenes, individual set pieces designed to present a particular moment or to evoke a particular emotion or feeling. The scenes serve one of many potential purposes, whether it’s establishing a standalone plot within a particular episode, calling back to a previous scene or event in another episode, or even simply being placed for the sake of foreshadowing. A scene can change meaning as a season progresses, an awkward encounter with an overly touchy politico turning into a legitimate affair by the addition of new scenes that speak to the old one, for example. And, at the same time, other scenes are simply brief thematic beats designed to give the viewer the sense of a particular time or place, with nothing more beneath them than the aesthetic value apparent in the craftsmanship involved.
A great episode of television, however, is where every single scene feels purposeful, and more importantly where there is no one type of scene which feels dominant. There can still be scenes designed to engage with nothing more than the viewer’s sense of humour, just as there will be scenes that feel like the culmination of two and a half seasons worth of interactions. In these episodes there is a balance between scenes which unearth feelings and emotions from the past that have been kept under wraps all season and scenes which create almost out of thin air entirely new scenarios that promise of an uncertain future.
In a season finale in particular, this last point is imperative. A great season finale assures the reader that, as the quote above indicates, the change which is going to take place in the season to follow is both fundamental (in presenting something which surprises or engages) and incidental (in maintaining the series’ identity), both chaotic (in the context of the series’ fictional universe) and controlled (within the mind of the show’s writers). It is an episode that must feel like the fruit of the thirty-five episodes which preceded it while also serving as the tree for the twenty-six episodes which will follow. It is the episode that, for better or for worse, will be more closely scrutinized than any other, and for which expectations are exceedingly high.
“Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” is more than a collection of scenes. It transcends the concepts of script and screen to capture characters in their most vulnerable states, in the process tapping into the viewer’s emotions with a sense of purpose that the show has never quite seen. Where past amazing episodes have sometimes hinged upon a single scene or a single moment, or on the creation of a particular atmosphere, this finale is like a never-ending stream of scenes that we have been clambering for all season: characters say everything we wanted them to say, do everything we wanted them to do, and yet somehow it never felt like puppet theatre where the characters would follow the whims of Matthew Weiner more than their own motivations.
It is a finale that never wastes a single scene, and which marches towards an uncertain conclusion with utmost certainty. Somehow, in a finale which does not shy away from scenes which are both disturbing to watch and destructive to the show’s tempestuous sense of balance, it maintains a cautious optimism by demonstrating that not everything will fall apart at once, while retaining the right to have everything in shambles by the time we return with Season Four. It’s a singular achievement, an hour of television which sits perfectly in the gap between the past and the future while never feeling as if it takes us out of the present, the moment in which these characters are captured in these scenes.
So, shut the door and have a seat: we’ve got some discussing to do.
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Tagged as AMC, Analysis, Bert Cooper, Betty Draper, Bobby, Dick Whitman, Divorce, Don Draper, Elisabeth Moss, Ending song, Entertainment, Episode 13, Finale, Flashback, Henry Francis, Jared Harris, Joan Harris, John Slattery, Jon Hamm, Lane Pryce, McCann Erickson, Peggy Olsen, Pete Campbell, PPL, Putnam Powell and Lowell, Review, Roger Sterling, Roy Orbison, Sally, Season 3, Season Finale, Shahdaroba, Sit Down. Shut the Door, Sterling Cooper, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Television, TV, Vincent Kartheiser
August 24, 2009 · 2:42 pm
“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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Tagged as AMC, Ann Margaret, Betty Draper, Bye Bye Birdie, Decay, Don Draper, Entertainment, Episode 2, Gene, Jared Harris, Lane Pryce, Love Among the Ruins, Madison Square Garden, Maypole Dance, New York, Patio, Paul Kinsey, Peggy Olsen, Penn Station, Pepsi, Roger Sterling, Season 3, Television, Trojan
August 19, 2009 · 2:21 am
“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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Tagged as AMC, Backstory, Bellhop, Betty, Dick Whitman, Don Draper, Episode 1, Head of Accounts, Hotel Fire, Jared Harris, Joan, John Hooker, Lane Pryce, Links, Michael Gaston, Moneypenny, Out of Town, Peggy, Pete Campbell, Premiere, Review, Roger Sterling, Salvatore, Season 3, Season Premiere, Sterling Cooper, Stewardess