Tag Archives: Pete Campbell

Mad Men – “In Care Of” and the Narrative Engine of Place in Season 6

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“In Care Of” and the Narrative Engine of Place in Season 6

June 24th, 2013

“This is where everything is.”

Mad Men began with a spatial divide. In the series’ pilot, we are introduced to Don Draper in Manhattan but only get the full picture when we follow him onto the train to the suburbs, and to the family life he leaves behind every day he travels into the city. The show was invested in exploring the distinct ebbs and flows of those two spaces, and on Don’s ability to travel between them. While we would come to learn that Don had been living a double life for most of adulthood, initially we watched a man live two lives separated by the train ride between them.

The show evolved beyond its urban/suburban divide, adding enough complexity to both Don’s family life and Sterling Cooper as a setting that it would seem reductive to boil the show down to this dichotomy. And yet although Don was no longer traveling to the suburbs since separating from Betty, the spatial divide stuck around thanks to characters like Pete, who began the season in his city apartment that would become his primary residence after he proved less agile in his duplicity than Don was. And as Betty explored the life of young runaways or as Peggy let Abe talk her into living in a nascent neighborhood, New York City was no longer confined to the offices of Sterling Cooper, gaining diversity and perspective as the turmoil of 1968 played out over the course of the season.

Mad Men’s sixth season was far from the first time the show has become invested in the meaning of space and place, but “In Care Of” highlights how central the idea of “going somewhere else” has been to this season in particular. For a season that began in the escape of Hawaii, and jetted to Los Angeles and Detroit and to upstate New York in a very tiny plane, it ends with multiple characters imagining what life would be like away from New York. In the process, we can imagine a final season spread across the country, even if we can also picture a season that remains tethered to the Manhattan Mad Men has over time embedded into the fabric of its storytelling.

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Mad Men – “Blowing Smoke”

“Blowing Smoke”

October 10th, 2010

“Not no; not now.”

As the penultimate episode of the season, “Blowing Smoke” has to do more than, well, blow smoke; while last season demonstrated the ability for a finale to offer an exciting climax without much direct plot momentum carried from the previous episode, the fate of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has been developing for a few weeks, and the worst thing that could happen is if its impact is lost.

What’s interesting in “Blowing Smoke” is that the show mirrors its characters: still somewhat in shock from the new of Lucky Strike’s departure, they find themselves sitting around with nothing to do. They can’t bring in accounts thanks to concerns over their longevity, they can’t make dramatic changes without seeming to be in crisis mode, which leaves almost no options to feel as if they’re really making a difference.

This episode is about that circumstance, what it drives Don Draper to do, and whether trading certain doom for an uncertain chaos is the right path to take – in other words, it’s about the danger of a situation where it’s not no, but it’s not now, and how a person like Don Draper lives within that liminal space.

The answer is different depending on who you ask.

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Mad Men – “Chinese Wall”

“Chinese Wall”

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.

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Mad Men – “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”

“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”

August 22nd, 2010

Ted, the Don Draper-equivalent over at rival agency CGC, is not in Don Draper’s league: he is neither visionary nor genius, and yet by virtue of his insistence that he is a competitor he has been elevated to Don’s level. It’s the ultimate example of self-definition, of putting something out there (in this case, to the New York Times) and then turning it into reality. It doesn’t matter that Jai Alai went with another agency because its owner is delusional, or that Clearasil was a conflict rather than business lost: as it would appear to the outside world, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce lost two accounts and CGC (under Ted’s leadership) gained both of them.

“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” is filled with various examples of situations where appearance becomes reality, to the point where it even becomes a meta-narrative when the series’ positioning of Betty as a child-like figure becomes rendered in three-dimensions. It’s not the most pleasant or subtle of episodes, but it ends up making some fairly interesting observations regarding Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as an agency, as well as the series’ general approach to simulating the past.

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Season Finale: Mad Men – “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.”

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“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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Mad Men – “Souvenir”

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“Souvenir”

October 4th, 2009

“But I already did it…it’s over!”

As far as Mad Men episodes go, “Souvenir” was almost obnoxiously low impact. This isn’t to say that the episode was bad, or even uninteresting: rather, instead of seeming like an episode where things are languishing at a slow pace, there are some pretty substantial events (an affair, a trip to Rome) that happen so quickly and naturally in the episode that you almost miss the moment when they go from an innocent fantasy to something entirely different.

There’s a little throwaway line in the episode when we meet up with Joan, when we learn that Greg is searching for a new discipline, psychiatry in particular. The entire episode is essentially one giant lesson in the effects of loneliness, as our our resident emotional (Betty) and emotionless (Pete) protagonists take a leap of faith or two in an effort to find themselves. The result is an intriguing investigation of the summer vacation, albeit from a perspective that doesn’t precisely play to the show’s strengths.

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Mad Men – “Seven Twenty Three”

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“Seven Twenty Three”

September 27th, 2009

It’s always interesting to see how viewing Mad Men changes when you have certain pieces of information.

One of the key themes of “Seven Twenty Three” is knowing certain information, or having certain contraptions which allow you to better view your situation. The eclipse is obviously the central image of this, but across the board we see characters who know things which make the actions or words of others particularly dangerous. It’s like everything is a trap waiting to happen, where saying the wrong thing can push someone to do something you couldn’t expect. Of course, this being Don Draper’s show at the end of the day, it is Don who says the wrong thing, and who is slowly losing what he thought was control of his life as he waits until the eclipse gets more interesting before donning his sunglasses.

For me going into this episode, I had heard about the walks of shame, and had pieced together what I would consider to be one of the most traumatizing (if not in the same way as Joan’s Season 2 predicament) images Mad Men has offered to date. However, much like an eclipse, there is something powerful about seeing even what you know was going to happen, especially when the important thing is not so much what happens but rather how it changes the person at the centre of it all.

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Mad Men – “My Old Kentucky Home”

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“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.

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Season Premiere: Mad Men – “Out of Town”

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“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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Season Finale: Mad Men – “Meditations in an Emergency”

“Meditations in an Emergency”

October 26th, 2008

“We don’t know what’s really going on; you know that.”

While there have been a lot of meta-critical statements made by characters in the universe of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, there is perhaps none more simple than this observation Don makes about the nature of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The entire series hinges on secrets, on facts hidden to everyone but a select few who are concealing something that is potential volatile. For the most part, these secrets are more dangerous to those who hold them than those who are in the dark: for others, not having secrets when you know that others do can leave you desperate for something, anything to identify with them.

The genius of “Meditations in an Emergency” is the emergency itself, the Cuban Missile Crisis which suddenly made the Cold War very real. Kinsey notes how everyone is looking at people in a different way, suddenly terrified that they’re a spy and that they’re helping to organize some sort of attack. For our characters, however, this culture of fear and concern is less a motivator to run for the hills in search of safety and more an opportunity to face what is truly inside of them. If there is a single unifying factor in our main characters, it is that none of them show any signs of running away in the face of this struggle: instead, they all run closer than ever before to that which has paralyzed them, that which has confused them, or that which has been causing them to question themselves.

What we get in this fantastic season finale, then, is a series of actions: letters written, confessions given, power plays made, acts committed, and feelings confronted. The end result is, without question, the ultimate test of these characters: it is a question not of whether we value their actions, but rather their choice in making them which defines who they are, and why they matter to us as a viewer, to Weiner as a writer, and to this series as a timepiece of a period of social and personal change.

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