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Mad Men – “Hands and Knees”

“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.

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Mad Men – “The Fog”

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“The Fog”

September 13th, 2009

“He’s never where you expect him to be.”

When it comes to Mad Men, titles are often a sign of a major theme in an episode, often the only real quality an episode has (with most remaining light on plot in favour of atmosphere or thematic importance). But I don’t think there’s been a title in a while that has seemed so expansive, so all-encompassing. “The Fog” could mean any multitude of things both in terms of what we already know about character relationships and in terms of new develops in the span of the episode, which leaves us critics fumbling to decide just what direction we’re going to take it in.

For me, I think the moment where the title really connected with me was when Don was chatting with his prison guard friend in the Solarium and tells him an anecdote that a nurse told him when Sally was being born. “Your wife’s on the boat, and you’re on the shore.” And while it was never explicitly stated, there’s a fog between those two locations, and Mad Men is essentially a show without a lighthouse. Betty, stranded out on that boat and struggling through a difficult birthing process, comments in her crazed state that Don isn’t where you expect him to be, that once the fog lifts he’s disappeared or gone off somewhere else. While she views this in some ways as an abandonment, for Don it’s about being restless.

Much of “The Fog” is about Don Draper’s own self-awareness or lack thereof, finally admitting to himself that for all of his problems in the past he is the one on solid ground while Betty, and Peggy, and Sally are out on boats struggling to maintain course in the midst of a growing storm. He’s the one who has everything and who can help guide them safely into the years ahead, but the problem is that he is distracted: by women, by his job, and by his own insecurities buried deep beneath the surface. If he is the one in charge of climbing up the lighthouse steps to break through the fog and win the day, the boats are going to crash on the rocks.

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