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.
“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.
Mad Men the Morning After: “Christmas Comes…” for Critics
August 2nd, 2010
When it comes to critical reviews of AMC’s Mad Men, each week is more about understanding the nuances of the episode than ripping it apart. And this week, with very little from January Jones’ Betty Draper (who is the series’ most divisive character) and a welcome return for a few fan favourites, the critics are largely in holiday spirits outside of their understandable frustration with the actions of one Don Draper.
It may not be quite like Christmas morning, but opening the collection of Mad Men reviews in various tabs is sort of like opening presents, so let’s take a look at what came down the chimney.
“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.
“Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”
September 20th, 2009
If I had to suggest a single challenge in writing about Mad Men each week, it’s often where precisely to begin. Mad Men is a show defined by density, of layers of new and pre-existing storylines entwined around a theme central enough to be apparent but vague enough to be open to enormous amounts of interpretation. So when I sit down to add my thoughts to the chorus, illustrious and diverse as it is, my biggest challenge is finding the right angle at which to approach the material at hand.
But this week, “Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency” is so defined (perhaps justly, perhaps unjustly) by a single scene that not starting with it seems nigh impossible.
I’ve seen this episode be tweeted about on numerous occasion as being fantastic (which it was), but more interestingly as proof that things actually do happen on this slow-paced show. However, the episode on numerous occasions indicates that the world (if anything) is moving too quickly, and that the central drama facing its characters is that when the show’s pace is disrupted by something tragic or sudden the common response is like a turtle hiding in its shell rather than a bird spreading its wings.
Of course, how this is read entirely depends on where you sit on the Mad Men spectrum; and, as someone who firmly believes the show’s slow pace is ideal for the stories being told regarding that constant tension between these characters and the world revolving around them, I’d say that the handling of a shocking moment in the midst of this contemplative show demonstrates yet again just how good this two-time Emmy-winning show really is.
September 6th, 2009
I can relate to Betty Draper.
I, too, am not a huge fan of the discussion of the inevitability of death. I’m not in denial, of course, but I’m not the kind of person who enjoys talking about it, or who can look past the morbid nature of it all to see the value of the conversation. This isn’t to say that I ignore what is being said in such conversations or anything of that sort – rather, I let the piece be said and then carry on, storing it away while pushing it out of the picture since, of course, it will not matter for a very long time. However, life’s sheer uncertainty means that any moment can be a last, and some people won’t get to make their arrangements and everything will become more complicated than perhaps it needed to be.
“The Arrangements” is very much a companion piece to Season Two’s “The Inheritance,” another episode that dealt with both Gene’s worsening dementia as well as the idea of parents and their role in the lives of their children. However, if “The Inheritance” was about children being haunted by the memory of their own childhood and its impact on their own lives, “The Arrangements” is the opposite side of the coin. This is an episode about children breaking out from within the confines of the family in an effort to make a name for themselves and be able to prove their parents right or wrong about them.
What makes the episode work, despite some reservations about its bombardment of less than subtle thematic connections, is that it more sly in how it relates to the season’s recurring image of Don Draper, barefoot and vividly reliving his own birth. There’s a single scene in the episode where Don pulls out a picture of his parents, and that is all we need to see that perhaps the worst fate is having changed one’s name and entirely disconnected one’s self from one’s family, and being surrounded by events which make you question that entire relationship and remain haunted by its memory. While the other characters are able to talk about their situation with siblings, or spouses, Don has no one to talk to.
And in a show about secrets, that’s perhaps the grimmest fate.