Monday, October 18, 2010

Mad Men, Season 4, Episode 13: "Tomorrowland"

I think Mad Men will zig, and then it zags instead, but the zag is just as good as the zig would have been. There’s no white knight to bail out SCDP (I suspected, wrongly, that we might see the return of Honda), but a small victory instead from Peggy and Ken with Topaz – SCDP will recover, but slowly, building up business with smaller clients, and weathering the storm. It’s a good decision that gives the show more creative freedom. As for that zag, poor Dr. Miller! I was excited to see that Don seemed to have found an intellectual match in her character, so I was a little disappointed when Don knocked on Megan's door (we all knew where that was going as soon as he heard her return to her hotel room for the evening). It seemed to be another instance of Don’s penchant for cheating getting the better of him. So even when Don started to profess his love for Megan, I was still somewhat conflicted. But the more I thought about it, the more I warmed to it – especially once Megan walked into his office and asked if he’d told Faye yet. This was a nice moment that revealed a slightly restricted narration. Given Don’s past behavior, I was inclined to think that his proposing to Megan didn’t necessarily mean he was being straight with her about Faye. But the show played off that knowledge of his character, creating a pleasant surprise when Megan asks if Don told Faye, because it implied both that Don had already told Megan about his relationship with Faye and that he was actually very serious about Megan. Ultimately, I’m excited about this development: it’s good for Don to finally be with someone who makes him feel like himself again (even if he hasn’t told her about his past yet) – his not being able to be himself around Betty was something that was sorely missing from that marriage, and which contributed to its destruction. And it’s even better for Don’s kids, Sally especially – Megan’s already been a better mother to her than Betty ever could be.

And good for this show for finally giving us scenes that I’ve wanted to see for a long time, namely extended time of Don being a wonderful father (we got it with Sally’s sojourn into the city, but that ended sadly). I loved his face plant into the bed, and his swimming up underneath Bobby and tossing him backwards off his shoulders. Have we ever seen Don behave this silly before? Anyone who’s watched his appearances on SNL knows Jon Hamm can do comedy: Also, it was wonderful to see that for Megan, a spilled milkshake is okay. I couldn’t help but think that Don’s overreaction to the spill was in part conditioned by how Betty would have let it ruin the entire day, and how Don would then have had to deal with a pouty Betty. But for Megan, it’s no big deal. Great moment from Jon Hamm when he shows how refreshing this is for Don. It’s no wonder he feels like Dick around her.

Another wonderful scene I’ve been pining for and that we finally received: camaraderie between Peggy and Joan! We finally get to see the two most sympathetic characters on the show share a scene with minimal tension between the two of them – or, at the very least, with the tension directed at someone besides themselves. Joan had some great lines in this scene too. I doubt Megan will remain Don's secretary, or that she will even remain at SCDP, but if Don actually did make Megan a copy writer, it would certainly toss a few flies into the ointment that is Peggy and Don's burgeoning respectful relationship. That's some tension I would not like to see, especially after all progress the two have made over the course of the season (and especially after what in my opinion was the best episode the show has ever done: "The Suitcase").

In sum, it was a satisfying end to what I think has been the strongest season thus far. Can’t wait for it to be August 2011 already.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mad Men Season 4, Episode 9: "The Beautiful Girls"

This was the Sally episode I've been hoping for, but oh man, was it heartbreaking. This episode shifted gears so often I think I got whiplash, if whiplash was awesome. I'm floored, ecstatic, heart-warmed, and devastated. The different emotional registers this episode goes through: the satisfaction of seeing Don enjoy what is perhaps the healthiest and most mature relationship we’ve seen him in; the hilarity of watching Pete and Joan deal with Mrs. Blankenship’s corpse in the background of a shot (Harry on his afghan-turned-death-shawl: “My mother made that!”); the shock and anxiety of two characters getting robbed at gunpoint, and then the heat-of-the-moment passion in which Joan finally gives in to feeling good, even if it’s only fleeting (also, check out Roger’s mad deferential skills! You’d think he gets robbed at gunpoint all the time); the wonderful moments between Don and Sally, and finally and most distressingly, the terror Sally expresses at having to return to living with The Worst Mother in the World in her Palace of Ice and Terror.

“You see what it’s like,” Betty says to Don when Sally has foisted herself on Don for two days. That’s all we get of Betty’s awfulness this episode (she sees Sally as a burden), but coupled with Sally’s behavior near its end, it’s more than enough to drive home how awful Betty continues to be. Much like keeping the shark on the margins in Jaws, the show effectively reminds us of Betty’s tyranny without showing it. Watching Sally’s behavior change when she approaches Betty in the lobby was like watching Sally get stuffed into a bag. I’m tempted to say that Don is as good a father as Betty is a bad mother, but it’s not quite true, because if he were really that good, he’d try to do something about the way Betty treats Sally (perhaps even acquiesce to Sally’s desire to live with him – given how Betty views her, she might even agree, although given how petty she is, she might try to fight it just to spite Don). Perhaps his attitude toward Betty is a product of the times (concede all domestic authority to the mother), and Sally’s misery certainly seems to be eating him up inside, but he just can’t seem to push the issue with Betty, even with all of the other female characters at Sterling Cooper present as sympathetic witnesses to Sally’s plight (and it was the saddened looks of Joan, Peggy, Faye, and the swan-like lobby secretary whose name I don’t remember that truly made this one of the saddest scene in a season full of them). I truly fear for Sally now; she’s discovered her father can’t save her. Where might she turn next to escape from The Worst Mother in the World and her Palace of Ice and Terror? It can’t be anywhere good. “What a mess,” indeed.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mad Men Season 4, Episode 8: "The Summer Man"

So many joys in this week's episode! Interior monologues! Henry Francis realizes he married a woman with the psychological makeup of a 12 year old! "Satisfaction!" Confronting 1960s sexual harassment! Exercise! The return of suave (and sober) Don! A significant stylistic departure from the Mad Men "house" style (retrograde zooms, slow-motion POV shots, no closing credits music, voiceover)!

This episode seems to mark a turning point in Don's arc this season, and I think it's reflected in these stylistic departures, the episode's form signaling its content. As Keith Phipps points out in his review (,45047/), we've never had such access to Don's subjectivity before. Phipps seems to think it's another persona, one created to make himself feel better (which it seems to do), but I think it's more genuine than that. For one, his genius is evident here - his observations are insightful, eloquent, and sharp - just like his ad pitches. And it seems to be working. For once, he stays sober over the course of the episode. Also admirable (relative to the Don Draper Morality Scale, which ranges from "reprehensible" to "kind of a dick but in a good way"): his restraint with Dr. Miller (a development I really like, by the way. Of all of Don's love interests, I think she's the most suitable match for him so far. Intelligent and classy, she can match Don in conversation like few others have in the past. He seems to respect her. Plus he thinks she smells nice).

Despite the wonderful access we get to Don's subjectivity here, my favorite scene of the episode was the one in the car between Betty and Henry. Not only does Betty finally let slip how childish she can be (or at least, this is the first time we've seen it become a conflict for them), but I think her reaction to Don at the restaurant is an indication to both us and to Henry that Betty married Henry partly (or mostly, or only?) to get back at Don for being so awful to her. Thus her being so upset with seeing Don happy, on a date, and unconcerned with her in the slightest stems from her realization that taking away from him everything (or everything she can) hasn't hurt him as much as she'd hoped (although she's wrong - until now he's been a fucking wreck). Francine's husband is right, he is a sad son of a bitch (or whatever the exact phrasing was).

Other things to love about this episode:
- some really wonderful underwater photography during the swimming scenes. I also like that Don is exercising - it shows a little forward thinking on his part, something that he's been lacking in the past, despite his adaptability.
- I could write a lot more about the sexual harassment and office politics, but I'll just say that I loved Joan's "scorched earth" method of dealing with the assholes in creative. Basically, she told them, "You may die soon and that would make me happy." I was expecting it not to have an affect on them, but they seemed pretty devastated. Also, I was cheering Peggy on when she went after Joey, but everything Joan said in the elevator was right - Peggy didn't make it better for either of them. Ick.
- Another nice scene (nice because it's so perfectly horrible): Joan breaks down in front of Greg, and rather than console her, he tries to fuck her (or perhaps it was a lousy attempt at consolation - "I know what will make her feel better: satisfying my desires!") What an asshole. As Phipps writes, "He’s awful, but he’s all she’s got." Poor Joany. 
- Another sign of a healthier Don: seizing more control of his life doesn't just mean getting his mojo back, it means attending his son's birthday party.
- I've been warm to Henry Francis, but that phone call he placed to Don, plus his willfully ignoring Don when Don comes by to pick up his stuff, ticked sympathy meter into the antipathy zone. I had been hoping he'd be a positive influence on Betty, but it seems the opposite has begun to happen.
- Finally, good laughs: Don's zinger when asked by Bethany about who Henry and Betty were (paraphrasing from memory): "My ex-wife, her husband, and some poor slob who's about to have the worst dinner conversation of his life."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mad Men, Season 4, Episode 5: "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword"

This week's episode was particularly phenomenal, packed full of great scenes from end to end like a string of pearls, each as wonderful as the last. I loved it so much I had to write a note about it.
- The trickery with the Honda bid displayed shades of last season's finale, both in style and in concept – it's another caper pulled off by team Draper (rather than stealing, they are deceiving. Kind of like INCEPTION - Don plants ideas Ted Shaw's head). Great musical accompaniment to the scenes of Don and co. pulling off their misdirection: Don knocking on Joan's door with the motorcycle, Peggy making sure the competition sees them sneaking the bike into the studio – I love Love LOVE the shot of Peggy just riding around in circles on the empty set. There 's also a great cut from a close-up of the commercial director saying he'd love to do Don's commercial but that right now he's too busy, to another close-up of him saying to the competitors that he'd much rather shoot their Honda commercial. The episode also deftly established Ted Shaw as a rival who is "drafting" off of Don; this is the first time we've seen him, but in a few easy steps he becomes so unlikeable that I wanted Don to squash him like the fly Don describes him as (Ted became very easy to dislike the moment we realized he was preying on one of the only sympathetic qualities still remaining to Don at the this point: his genius).

- Roger's reaction to the Honda bid brings out an ugliness that we don't too often see, although there was a hint of it in the first season when he compared war experiences with Don. The scene where he interrupts the Honda meeting has the liveliness of a downed power line thrashing on the ground (or perhaps a better metaphor would be to say it was like watching a car accident), and the scene that follows it is even more explosive, when Roger almost attacks Pete after being chastised by him and Don. And as usual, Roger still has all the sharp (albeit racist) barbs. Don: "You do not get to kill this account." Roger: "Maybe I won't have to. If we're lucky they'll do it themselves." This story is also given a nice resolution (for now) through Joan's sympathy for Roger in her scene with him in the end.

- After spending most of this short season being loathsome, Don actually resembles a sympathetic character this episode. The only time he approaches being shitty to someone is when he's upset by the news about Sally's hair, and here he has a reason to be upset and is measured in his response.

- On the other hand, my antipathy toward Betty reached new lows in this episode. Has she bottomed out yet? She can't get much more awful than she is here without her character becoming a problem for the show, a black hole of shrewish negativity and terrible parenting. However, we're offered a glimmer of hope as well – she realizes that she shouldn't have slapped Sally,and thankfully starts listening to Henry's advice on how to best deal with her (although it seems that both Henry and Don still accede to Betty in all parenting matters - a relic of past parenting practices, perhaps?). Furthermore, Betty slips right into receiving treatment herself from the child psychiatrist without really even realizing what is happening, and then seems to agree to see a her regularly (at least, that was my understanding of the psychiatrist wanting to meet with Betty once a month in addition to seeing Sally). This is an absolutely perfect development, since the psychiatrist Betty sees in season one diagnosed her as having psychological makeup of a child, which was more or less confirmed through the age-inappropriate relationship she formed with creepy-neighbor-kid Glen. So, I have hope that this will make Betty a better, or at least more sympathetic, character.

- The psychiatrist represents hope for Sally as well, an outlet for her to vent her understandably large frustration over her monster mom and her relatively absent dad, which might prevent her from turning into a terribly messed up person. So perhaps some good will come of Betty and the sleepover mom's stiflingly repressive (although era-appropriate) attitudes toward sex (although Sally would be better served by showing a little more discretion).

- As for Henry, he's clearly a much better parent that Betty (not hard to do, really - my dead dog is a better parent), and if he's going to be a part of the Draper family, it's nice to see him try to insert himself a little more into the Draper household as a parent figure for Sally.

So many beats to hit, and the episode nails them all!

Other random, wonderful things about this episode:
- On top of all of the above developments, the episode was able to work the hilarity of Mrs.Blankenship's incompetence into the margins.
- Sally: "I know that the man pees inside of the woman." Kiernan Shipka is a revelation.
- Pete trying to dispose of all the chrysanthemums."Apparently they symbolize death. So much conflicting information."
- Loved the music during Don's tour of SCDP for the Honda representatives. Joan gets a great character beat at its conclusion, when she immediately and irritatedly picks up on their comments on her figure. Joan: "Not very subtle, are they?" Translator: "No, they are not."
- Also nice was the scene between Don and market researcher – Don seems to be getting her to lower her guard a bit. As my roommate noted, stay tuned for another chapter in the book, "Don goes after another icy blonde but should really be looking for an emotionally adjusted brunette."
- I admit I chuckled at Pryce's joke about Honda demanding to know when they get the other 50% of the American market.
- Once again, Pete demonstrates a better understanding of the next generation than anyone else in the office: Bert asks why blacks aren't already happy, and Pete responds: "Because Lassie can stay at the Waldorf and they can't."