Tag Archives: Sterling Cooper

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 – “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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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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Mad Men – “The Jet Set”

“The Jet Set”

October 12th, 2008

When most people arrive at their travel destination without their suitcase, they’re angry; when Don Draper arrives without his luggage, it provides a freedom that allows him to break free into (long) uncharted territory.

“The Jet Set” follows Don on a journey of sorts, as he flees the rigidity and direness of Cold War aerospace technology and the schmoozing of pie in the sky engineers searching to create the superhuman astronaut, instead jumping in a car with a young woman named Joy who, more than his meetings, offers hope for her her eponymous emotion. As he encounters those filthy rich and adventurous individuals known as the Jet Set, he also encounters a life that is so unlike his own it nearly scares him back to safety, but then surprisingly scares him back to something difference altogether.

There’s a lot of people who are reverting back to older perspectives here, some in desperate search of former glory or others who are simply collateral damage in the wake of the office’s bigotry. For the most part, it’s a stark reminder that the lives of our characters are the polar opposite of the show’s airborne guests: while they fly from exotic location to exotic location, our characters are stuck in place, struggling to expand their horizons at anything close to jet speed.

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Mad Men – “Ladies Room”

“Ladies Room”

Season One, Episode Two

One of the complications of using a pilot as a piece of misdirection, in this instance not revealing Don Draper’s wife Betty until the very end of the episode, is that the need for exposition (a necessary evil in a series’ first episode) lingers on.

In that sense, this is Betty’s pilot, a chance to get a view into the life of a housewife in an era of uncertainty and confusion perpetuated by new-age psychiatry and the elusiveness of her own husband. Betty is a woman who just lost her mother and who feels as if she’s missing a side of her husband (or five) that he never shows to her, without knowing that a few of them remain hidden even to his co-workers and his mistress.

With her introduction, the narrative of Mad Men’s female characters comes fully into view, as Peggy’s struggles on the job reflect upon the challenges women faced during the era in a frank and honest perspective. When jumping into this series, you really need to get through the second episode before you can understand where Matthew Weiner is taking us, with a whole new side to the story and continued subtle hints at the stories to come.

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