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.
“Christmas Comes But Once a Year”
August 1st, 2010
“I don’t hate Christmas – I hate this Christmas.”
When Don Draper sits down to take part in a demonstration of a new form of customer research, he finds a questionnaire which asks him to describe his relationship with his father – the question, according to the Doctor heading the study, is designed to create a sense of intimacy which will then influence a more honest or meaningful answer to the following question about who makes household decisions. Of course, the test is not designed for someone like Don Draper, who has trained himself to shut down at the mere mention of his past – he walks out on the test because he cannot fathom that someone would want to return to their past in that fashion.
“Christmas Comes But Once a Year” is about what happens when people who are still running away from their past run smack dab into the present, people who are either so focused on not repeating past mistakes that other parts of their lives suffer or people who have lived so much of their lives covering up their past that they have no idea how to live in a present which no longer has the same rules. All of them are hoping that what they feel now won’t last forever: they remember happier Christmases, Christmases before their lives were thrown into a state of upheaval, and they hope that those Christmases will come again.
However, Don Draper also seems to think that it will happen without having to actually do anything.
“Wee Small Hours”
October 11th, 2009
“I can’t do this all by myself”
Sally’s teacher, sitting in Don’s car in the middle of the night, says that she is going to read her new class “I Have a Dream” on the first day back to school. However, she also indicates that they already know it: I don’t think she’s insinuating that they’ve heard the speech, but rather that there is something in child-like innocence that embraces the image of a dream and of a better future.
The entirety of “Wee Small Hours” is not about civil rights at all, but it is about characters confronting the demons in their past in an effort to move into the future. For Don Draper, a new relationship begins to mirror an old one, and for Salvatore Romano a long-standing response has suddenly put his career into jeopardy. And then there’s Betty Draper, wide-eyed and naive to the point of childhood, and let applying her innocence less to an understanding of Dr. King and more to a petulant child who wants what she can’t have but then doesn’t want it once she has it.
It’s yet another installment in a compelling but slow-paced series of episodes, ones which feel designed to show these characters searching the depths of their emotions and not quite sticking the landing, so to speak.