Monday, November 12, 2012


Perhaps the best way for Bond films to remain interesting is for their continual reinvention. Skyfall, the latest entry in the franchise, is certainly interesting, and often quite good. It contains most of the trappings of a typical Bond film: classy, gorgeous women; ritzy social milieu (a casino, in this case); a misanthropic, playboy antagonist with a grandiose lair; location shooting; tuxedos; a suspenseful introductory action sequence; espionage; assassinations; chases; mayhem, and so on.

However, it dispenses with most of these conventions within about an hour or so of the film, and then becomes something else entirely. There are many ways in which the film diverges from convention. Early in the film, we see Bond in his off-hours. Apparently he seeks an adrenaline rush in both business and leisure, judging by his new drink of choice: whiskey consumed under threat of scorpion bite. Bond has lost a step, and fails both physical and psychological evaluations. A potential femme fatale figure is introduced, but then removed almost just as quickly – Bond cannot save her. Bond discovers the villain’s lair, but doesn’t destroy it, and then calls for backup. Bond’s only high-tech gadget: a gun locked to his palm print. Later, Bond does not play on offense, but defense, and the action takes place not in an exotic location, but London, and then later Scotland. We learn a smattering of Bond’s history and upbringing, such as his parents’ names and his growing up an orphan. The film’s climax does not involve Bond foiling grandiose, world-changing plans, but stopping an (admittedly elaborate) revenge murder, and is equal parts Bond film, Home Alone, and MacGyver. Finally, Bond simultaneously both succeeds and fails at foiling these plans.

All of these deviation from convention make this the most human Bond has ever seemed (perhaps outside of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and in my opinion, he's better for it.

Other thoughts:

- My god, Roger Deakins is a wizard. Skyfall is resplendent, every image lovingly kissed by his amazing cinematography. Two scenes are particularly breathtaking. The first has Bond sneaking up on an assassin in a Shanghai high-rise at night. Gigantic, neon advertisements dance past the windows and reflect off the glass, silhouetting Bond’s target, and surrounding Bond in a kaleidoscope of liquid-smooth pastels. The second is at the Bond estate in Scotland. The setting begins grayed in fog, but then night falls, explosions ensue, and the rest of the climax is illuminated by the warm yellow-orange glow of a raging fire. White tendrils of breath stream from Bond and company, who are lit as if the fog itself were ablaze.

- Javier Bardem is excellent. His calm, knowing, yet gentle air of superiority is continually refreshing. The only shame is that there isn't more of him.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Tremé, Season 3, Episode 4: The Greatest Love

Tremé, like The Wire, is partly about the ossification, corruption, and failure of the governmental institutions meant to safeguard against urban decay and to improve quality of life. It’s also partly about the persistent humanism that grows between the cracks of those institutions: people who help each other out in both big and small ways; people who fight a knowingly futile battle against that ossification and corruption, and people who do their best to steer clear of the trouble those institutions bring. And of course, it’s also about music. And food. And musicians. And cooking. And family. And sex. On the whole, you might say it’s little like jambalaya. All of these ingredients were certainly in effect in this week’s episode.

This week, however, institutional corruption seemed to be at the forefront, because the LP and Toni scenes carried with them an extra special spice: some very slow-burning suspense. LP has been digging around a case where the police seem to be responsible for the death of an innocent man during the storm, while Toni has actively antagonized the police by placing an ad in a newspaper soliciting witnesses to come forward to testify against a corrupt officer. Last week, Toni warned her daughter Sofia to be extra careful not to get involved in anything which could land her in trouble with the police, and this week, LP comments somewhat worriedly on all of the people who’ve told him to be careful (including, in this episode, an extra-skittish law enforcement informant who provides him with incriminating photos).

All of these developments start to simmer in this episode, and the police become a menacing presence in these characters’ lives. Sofia is pulled over and given a ticket for not wearing a seatbelt. LP encounters two patrol officers having a conversation in front of his car. Described this way, these scenes do not sound suspenseful, but the episode gives each of them room to breathe. Even in a show where very little can seem to happen over the course of any given an episode, Tremé still has no absolutely pointless scenes. Thus when a scene begins with Sofia leaving work, getting into her car, and beginning to drive, it’s easy to suspect something bad might happen. Sure enough, the police pull her over, and an officer aggressively explores for reasons to get her into trouble. In LP’s similarly uncomfortable scene, LP excuses the officers as he gets into his car, and in his rearview mirror he sees them staring somewhat hostilely at him as he drives away.

All of this suspense culminates in the episode’s final scene, where Sofia drives her boyfriend and LP to a show. LP notices they are being followed by a squad car. He has Sofia turn right, and the squad car follows. He has Sofia turn left. So does the squad car. He has Sofia pull over. He gets out, and looks at the car as it slowly rolls by. In a point of view shot, both officers angrily glare at LP as they drive past. It’s a somewhat tame-sounding resolution to the episode’s buildup, but considering Tremé’s sometimes glacially-paced plotting, this dollop of foreboding is quite possibly the most suspenseful scene the show has ever had. It’s like encountering an extra spicy pepper you didn’t know was in the jambalaya, one that makes the whole stew all the richer.

Other thoughts:

 - Davis and Annie continue to grow a little farther apart. Goofy Davis antics – sacrificing a sock to the music gods that rule over a former recording studio-turned-laundry, for instance – that previously would have amused Annie now seem to mildly annoy her, and he can’t get a hold of her when she’s on the road. This is a sad development, because I like them as a couple. It makes sense though; as Annie becomes more and more of a serious musician, Davis likely looks more and more like the clown he is.

- LaDonna and Albert finally have a scene together, and they immediately take a shine to one another (of course). His stubbornness has finally met its match in her brassiness. These two characters were cut from the same cloth, so it’s nice to see them play off one another. The practice session at her bar is also pretty neat, with another big chief joining the festivities for a showdown. This scene was also laced with a bit of suspense: last week we learned Albert has lymphoma, and this week Delmond finds out. I was just as worried as Delmond that too much activity might make Albert keel over.

- Some nice editing in this episode, including a great montage sequence of Toni having the same conversation with people in different settings as she tries to get informants to come forward in her case against the corrupt office. It’s all done with shot/reverse shot: a potential witness would say a line, and in the next shot, Toni would respond. Cut to a reverse shot of a different witness responding, and then cut back to Toni, in a new location, responding to yet another witness. All of the conversations are identical (no one wants to come forward out of fear of reprisal from the police), so it gives a nice sense of the futility of Toni’s case.

- Another nice bit of editing was the crosscutting back and forth between LaDonna being shown potential houses by her husband, and Janette interviewing potential kitchen staff for her restaurant. Both are presented with a parade of lemons, until they each hit upon the perfect candidates. These crosscut scenes had two things I liked, one for each scene. During the house-hunting portion, LaDonna’s husband gets the best line he’s ever had when he shows LaDonna a house that’s way too big. She sarcastically asks him what they’ll do with the five extra bedrooms, and his deadpan response is that she can move her bar into the third floor and throw the customers out onto their residential street at closing time. The thing I liked about Janette’s scene is that she notices that her business partner, Tim, is interviewing only attractive young women rather than experienced professionals for positions on their new restaurant's wait staff. So already there’s trouble in paradise, and only one episode after Janette agreed to this whole arrangement.

- The scene that opened the episode was fun as well, as a little smartass in the marching band Antoine teaches plays a musical stinger at the end of a disappointing practice session. Wah wah indeed.

- The Indian practice session had four regular characters in the same scene: LaDonna, Albert, Delmond, and Antoine. I think that might be the most the show has ever had in the same place at the same time. Although since it was a music scene, none exchanged a word of dialogue with one another (of course).

- No Sonny this episode, which unfortunately means none of my new favorite character: Sonny’s Vietnamese girlfriend’s dad. I laugh my ass off every time he pops up on one of Sonny’s dates, having a great time with them and preventing Sonny from fucking his daughter.

- Colson had a fun little scene where he got to sleep with a hotel concierge. Their spontaneous sex initiation was nicely timed for maximum laughs.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Tremé Season 3, Episode 1: "Knock With Me - Rock With Me"

Unfortunately, I don't have enough time to post in-depth about the season premiere of Tremé, but Sepinwall gives a nice summary of what makes this series great in his review of the new season. Some particularly choice excerpts:
"Tremé doesn't bend to the demands of the market. It's a show about New Orleans and jazz, a city and an artform that are distinctly American but have both been half-forgotten. Its priorities are character, music and local color, with plot waaaay down the list."
"The performances... are so good that the characters can drive the series whether their stories are big... or small. The music is so well-chosen, and eclectic... that the show can get away with pausing the (minimal) action several times an episode just to let us enjoy the performances. And the sense of atmosphere and local color is unmatched among any show in recent memory."
"The longer you get to know the people on a character-based show, the more their stories come to matter, so that even small changes... have tremendous weight."

There's no other show like it on television, and I'll be happy to spend 10 more hours with it. I might try a few more recaps as the season goes on.

Okay, I lied. Here are just a few thoughts:

- I know of no other mediated experience that recreates the thrill of listening to live music better than this show. The power of the performances on Tremé are one of the reasons that I have the patience for them. On other shows, I'd be itching to get them over with, but the music - and the characters' passion for it - is so palpable that it becomes imbued with a heightened sense of liveliness. Good thing too, as music is such an integral part of the show; it is so important to the characters that show must respect it, embrace it, relish it.

- Davis, Davis, Davis. I've always had a soft spot for him. His glaring failures, missteps, and idiosyncratic personality tics are often played for laughs (and it works, at least for me), and it makes those moments in which he succeeds all the more impressive and heartwarming (like his relationship with Annie). This week, he leads an appallingly underwhelming cultural heritage tour full of nothing but sites that have been torn down, re-purposed, or closed in the wake of the storm, and he is abandoned by his dismayed tour group midway through. The proceeds are intended to go toward an intriguing cause: a New Orleans jazz opera about life after the storm. Knowing Davis though, his vision will likely be too uncompromising to be successful.

- I continue to love everything related to Delmond and Janette's stories. Their plots are like shows unto themselves (although you could probably say that about each of the main characters), and are oddly similar, each revolving around their artistic expression, one musical, the other culinary. Compromise, satisfaction, creativity, commercial success, and the creative process are interesting story hooks that are rarely told this well.

- I love LaDonna's sass. Khandi Alexander is great.

- Antoine is to Tremé as Norm is to Cheers. Antoine always wears his milkbone underwear in this dog eat dog world. I'll be intrigued to see him get more invested in his assistant director marching band gig.

- Is it just me, or does Sophie's boyfriend seem at least 10 years older than her?

- I like what the show is doing with Sonny, but mainly because I think his boss/father-of-his-Vietnamese-girlfriend is pretty fun (Sonny's still kind of a scumbag). Paraphrasing:
Sonny: "Can I take your daughter to a nice restaurant for dinner?"
Dad: "Of course not. You'll eat with me and the rest of the Vietnamese community just like on all of your dates."

- I loved the scene that ended the episode, where Terry shares a few friendly words with a busker in a crazy getup and a bike bedecked with Christmas-lights. The thoughts in Terry's head are visible on his face: "Only in New Orleans would I have an encounter like this." Likewise, only on Tremé would we get a show as relaxed, laconically paced, and enjoyable as this.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 8: “Gliding Over All”

“Gliding Over All” is a fairly calm and quiet episode to close out this half of the final season of the series. Overall, I found it somewhat lackluster, and while still a good hour of television, probably the weakest of the 8 episodes to air thus far. Given that we’re only halfway through this final season, I suppose I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up for a suspenseful climax like those Breaking Bad usually accomplishes. However, even by the standards of a typical episode of this show, this particular episode seems to coast along with very little eventful happening, outside of some developments near the end. But then again, perhaps that’s part of the point.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 7: “Say My Name”

Poor Mike. Mike knew something like this could happen; he could see it coming in the second episode of the season, when he referred to Walt as a ticking time bomb whom he wanted to be far away from when he exploded. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to realize that Walt’s fuse is best lit by a wounded pride. Or perhaps he realizes it, but thinks that he’s impervious to the blast if there are no cops around. Twice this episode, Walt expects Mike to thank him when the two are about to part ways: once for getting Mike his $5 million at the start of the episode, and then again at the end, for tipping Mike off that he is about to be arrested and for retrieving Mike’s “go” bag. In the first instance, Walt’s request for Mike’s thanks is somewhat insincere: both of them know there will be no love lost, and Walt is still high off of his impressive negotiation with Declan (more on that scene below). Mike simply stares at Walt with his mackerel eyes and reiterates the need for Walt to remove the bug from Hank’s office, and Walt smugly nods his head and walks away. At the end of the episode, however, things play out differently.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 6: “Buyout”

“When it comes down to it, are we in the meth business, or the money business?” Jesse asks Walt midway through this episode. It’s an apt question, one that points to a larger issue the show has dealt with from time to time: what is Walter White’s motivation to cook meth? On the surface, the answer to this question seems to keep changing: he wants to make enough money to pay for his cancer treatments; he wants to make enough money to provide for his family; he wants to cook because he takes pleasure in the excellence he brings to the craft; in Gus Fring’s steady employ, he’s able to make more money than he’s ever dreamed possible; he enjoys being Heisenberg too much to let go of it, and so on. However, as we’ve gotten to know Walt over the years, the answer is actually much more consistent: Walter White is a prideful man, and both his failures in his previous life and successes in this current one have stoked the fires of his pride into megalomania.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 5: “Dead Freight”

“Yes, I have children, so what? You think because we’re both parents that I won’t let my partner do what’s necessary?” Walt asks this of Lydia near the middle of the episode, when Lydia is trying - once again - to talk her way out of being murdered by Mike. Lydia wants Walt to swear that she won’t be killed after she divulges how they can steal an “ocean” of methylamine, and tries to prey on Walt’s sympathies as a parent. Little do we realize how prophetic these words will be at the episode’s end, when Walt stands by and watches, to his horror, as a partner shoots dead a little boy, doing what’s “necessary,” for the episode’s thrilling heist to come off without a hitch.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 4: “Fifty-One”

When this episode began with Walt picking up his Aztek from the mechanic, I thought to myself that show runner Vince Gilligan likes that car just as much as Benny the mechanic does, considering all of the paces it has been through over the seasons. I also recalled Gilligan once stating in an interview that there’s a very specific reason Walt drives an Aztek and not some other car. When Walt finds his Heisenberg hat in the backseat, and decides to sell the car to Benny the mechanic for a pittance, this episode finally delivers that reason. The Aztec is a relic of Walt’s former life as a downtrodden chemistry teacher. It’s an ugly but practical car, one well-suited for a humble family man. This is not at all who Walt is anymore, and seeing the Heisenberg hat sitting in the passenger seat makes the contrast very salient for him. The Aztek is no longer fit for the person he is now (or the person he thinks he is), so he sells it for next to nothing, and leases a flashy car in its place, one more appropriate for Heisenberg. And then, in one of the funnier montage sequences the show has done, he also decides to re-up Walt Jr.’s Challenger, which Skyler had previously nixed. Walt was beholden to his wife’s wishes, but Heisenberg is not so easily cowed.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 3: “Hazard Pay”

It’s been interesting to learn more about the scale of Gus’s operation in these past two episodes. We knew it was extensive, given the resources he was able to devote to it, and these past two episodes have explored both the corporate/supplier and enforcement/distribution sides of the enterprise. In this episode, we learn more about the men under Mike who distributed the meth, both as Mike visits a prison inmate in the opener, and then later as he parcels out the “hazard pay” for those who need to be “made whole.” Having Mike clean up the mess Walt created by killing Gus has provided a nice way filling out the details of Gus’s operation.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 2: “Madrigal”

Tonight’s Mike-heavy episode has a rather intense and thematically indicative opening. Mr. Schuler’s stoicism starts out funny, as he robotically eats from a bowl of tater tots and ignores the eager-to-please team of food scientists who have prepared a tasting, but then it becomes suspenseful as his stoicism continues through the rest of the scene, from his avoidance of the police through to his suicide on the toilet. It’s probably not a coincidence that he reminded me of Gus, especially in last season’s premiere, when he silently arrives at the lab, kills Hector, and leaves. If Gus and Mr. Schuler had switched places, might not Gus have behaved exactly the same way?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Louie Season 3, Episode 4: “Daddy’s Girlfriend (Part 1)”

Last night’s Louie provided another instance of why the show is one of the smartest and most formally interesting comedies on television. The show is episodic, routinely alternating between Louis C.K.’s standup bits and short narratives that usually somehow relate to them. He begins this episode with a funny standup bit about answering his daughter’s school-mandated question, “What is prejudice?” The bit quickly veers off into sex jokes, but later in the episode, we see him enact his definition as he (somewhat creepily) peeks through the windows of his eldest daughter’s elementary school, contemplating what the teachers would be like both as sex partners and as parental material for his children. His prejudice here is to think that the teachers at his daughter’s school would make good mothers. The scene is made funny through the repetition of evocative, doo-wop-esque music as he ogles the teachers, but it is also made somewhat sincere (as far as leering goes, anyway) by his dual considerations of each teacher: What would it be like to sleep with this woman? What would she be like as a parental influence for my kids?

These kinds of concerns and goals are sometimes portrayed in television dramas (single parent tries to date, conflict with children ensue), but rarely do they work their way into the mind of the single parent as effectually as this episode does. It helps that we get access Louie’s subjective depth, as he imagines what one of the teachers would be like playing with his kids, all while the same music plays over the scene. The result is that it felt not only like both of these concerns were of equal priority for Louie, but that he was even turned on by the women’s ability to be a positive influence in his daughters’ lives, and that’s a perspective that seems quite rare for television. All told, the scene was powerfully sympathetic, and even somewhat empathetic, as it made me think about what a burden it would be to have to weigh both of those priorities right from the start of any relationship.

This sympathetic scene of prejudice is motivated by an earlier scene with his kids, who drop a hint about the man their mother is dating. Thus Louie’s search for a for a romantic partner who would also be good for his kids is only partially altruistic; he also just wants to compete with his ex-wife for the affection of his children (a theme Louie has worked with before).*  

*The actors playing Louie’s kids are a gold mine, especially the younger one. They’re both wonderfully naturalistic performers, and the way in which Louie interacts with their characters is both frequently heartwarming and devastating (in particular I’m thinking of the opener to one of last season’s episodes: as Louie is brushing the younger daughter's teeth, she absentmindedly tells Louie she likes living with her mother better). In last night's episode the younger daughter wants Louie to date a veterinarian so they can play with the animals. 

At first, acting on an ill-advised impulse, Louie reaches out to fellow comic (and apparent fuck-buddy) Maria Bamford. I don’t have much to say about this scene, other than that I found funny the horrified terms in which Bamford rephrased Louie’s proposal that she come over for dinner with him and his kids, especially her dismay over Louie’s “trying to add features” to their sex. Also, it’s regularly amusing to see the depths of humiliation to which Louis C.K. subjects “himself” (or his character, Louie), as when Bamford ends the scene by pushing Louie away, flatly telling him he’s bad at sex.

After the interlude at the school, the next woman he reaches out to is Parker Posey, who works at a book store (her character goes unnamed). Here, the episode turns to slightly different subject matter: asking a stranger out on a date. It's subject matter like this where Louie really excels: the subtly dramatic moments that punctuate the minutiae of everyday life. It can be a nerve-wracking ordeal to ask out someone you have a crush on, and that you think is perfect for you, and the show captures this feeling perfectly.

Posey is nice to Louie, attractive, and seems like good parental material, given her ability to get inside Louie’s daughter’s head without even having met her. Yet Louie palpably struggles to get past his own nervousness in his first two encounters with Posey. He wants to extend the conversation with her upon first meeting her but can’t think of a way to do it without being awkward, or rather, any more awkward than he’s already been (here’s his opener to Posey: “I’m looking for a book about flowers… I mean I, um, I need a book about my, uh, for my kid, about flowers. For a child.” Louis C.K. is fantastic at playing awkward). Further enticing him, she seeks him out in his second trip to the bookstore, all smiles and flirtatious laughter, asking about whether his daughter liked the book. Louie’s very real connection with Posey in this scene is made all the more potent through its contrast with the scene immediately preceding it: Louie finishes a set and exchanges awkward glances with Bamford (calling to mind her harsh putdown from earlier in the episode).

Louie becomes determined to ask out Posey, but rather than finding a way around the barrier of his own nervousness, he crashes straight through it, starting out with some surprisingly suave words meant to deter what he assumes will be an automatic “No” response (I particularly liked his prefacing everything with “I’m going to come out and tell you, I’m asking you out”). He also shows a good amount of empathy for what it must be like to be a single woman, especially one who shows kindness to a man “as a human being,” only to have them “torpedo toward your vagina.” The latter is a poor choice of words, but the sentiment resonates. However, he quickly devolves into rambling about his own shortcomings and insecurities, turning what seemed like a charming way to ask someone out into something more insecure and pathetic. Nevertheless, once Louie finally shuts up, Posey agrees to go out with him, and Louie caps off the excitement of his success with a callback to a standup bit form earlier in the episode, pumping his fist the way a golfer or tennis player does after a win. And I was right there with him, emotionally; Louis C.K. perfectly captured the high risk, high reward feelings that are a part of asking out someone you like.

Other thoughts:

- I liked that Louie’s ogling of one of the teachers is aborted mid-ogle when he spots her wedding ring. Also good: each time his ogling is aborted, the music just stops – there’s no clichéd sound of the scratch of a record needle.

- I loved how Posey’s compliments in her and Louie's second meeting incite another hilarious bout of subjective narration: the doo-wop music returns, and Posey throws herself into Louie’s embrace as books fly off the shelves around them, and together the two fall passionately to the floor.

- A nice bit separates Louie’s second and third encounter with Posey, where Louie works up his nerve by shaving. The look he gives himself at the end is perfect: “Well, here goes nothing.”

- Also nice: Louie’s date proposal is done entirely in a close two shot, and Posey’s joke response (“I’m a lesbian”) is in close-up, as is Louie’s reaction to her joke. Good use of style, Louis C.K.: the two shot allows us to observe Louie’s blustering and blundering while simultaneously allowing us to gauge Posey’s many expressive, yet silent responses to what he’s saying. I particularly liked how her eyes widened when Louie says “torpedo toward your vagina,” as well as her drawing back slightly when Louie makes a “stop” gesture with his hands, but which also looks like he’s miming grabbing her breasts (a thought encouraged partly by this gesture coming on the heels of the “vagina” line).

Monday, July 16, 2012

Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 1: “Live Free or Die”

Once again, a new season of Breaking Bad begins at a point in the future, to which the rest of the season will work its way toward. This flashforward makes itself evident through Walt’s hairstyling: he sports a full head of hair, shaggy beard, and hipster-chic, thick-rimmed glasses. It’s a nice reveal, as the episode takes its time in showing us the new-look Walt, first spending considerable time showing him playing with his bacon (making what appeared to me to resemble the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion).

Monday, June 11, 2012

Mad Men Season 5, Episode 13: “The Phantom”

For Don, this whole season has been about the changed man he has become after his marriage to Megan, but it ends with a question about how much he’s actually changed, and a strong implication that it’s less than the we might hope. However, before getting to the fantastic scene that concludes this season, let’s back up and think about how this episode leads up to that point.

Megan’s friend from acting class gives Megan the idea to ask Don for a part in a shoe commercial being produced by SCDP. Don is genuinely surprised at her request, but he’s also disappointed. He tells Megan, “You don’t want it this way. You want to be someone’s discovery, not someone’s wife.”  This might be partially true for Megan, but it’s even truer for Don. While it was difficult for him, he could ultimately accept her rejection of a promising career in advertising in order to follow her dreams. Don is (or was) a creative person himself, so a part of him could sympathize with Megan’s desire to explore her own creativity through acting. Plus, Don's experience with Betty is a cautionary tale for what happens when you deny someone their dreams.

However, for Don, there are no short cuts to success. Despite his leaving Michael’s Snoball pitch in the cab earlier this season, Don tends to believe that talent wins in the end. It’s a reasonable worldview for someone like Don, considering that he climbed the advertising ranks using nothing but his own talent and hard work (and the name of a dead man). In asking him to use his position at SCDP to get her an audition for a commercial, Megan is not living up to the standards Don has set for himself, and certainly not the idealistic view he’s had of her as an artist who does not want to compromise herself through advertising. In other words, for Don, Megan’s request of him is a betrayal of both his ideals and his idealization of her, both of which have been his principle ways of coping with her leaving SCDP.

At the same time, we can also see things from Megan’s perspective. She sorely wants some sort of affirmation of her talents, and she wants Don’s unmitigated support in the pursuit of her career. Don’s conflict of interest over her potential success is very difficult for her, and she can’t help but suspect him of putting his desires above hers in his reactions to her successes or failures (an issue they discussed explicitly last week). We see this difficulty and this suspicion in her hiding the return of her reel in the mail, as well as her reactions to his initial denial of her request to audition for the shoe commercial: she fills the bathtub to hide the sound of her sobbing, and then gets drunk the next day.

It’s during a drunken outburst that she spells out what she thinks is going in Don’s head: He won’t give her a chance either because he wants her to be a kept woman, waiting for her when he gets home, or because he thinks she’s a bad actress and doesn’t want to sandbag the commercial. Since he doesn’t know her capabilities as an actress because he’s never seen her act, she infers that it must be the former. It’s also clear that Marie thinks the same thing, as she tells him, “Nurse her through this defeat, and you shall have the life you desire.” That’s just the problem though: neither he nor Megan ever wanted Megan to be a stay at home wife. Don wanted Megan to be the Hepburn to his Tracy, but Megan wanted to actually be Hepburn.

While Don never wanted Megan to wait on him hand and foot, there is some truth to Megan and Marie’s inference about Don’s behavior. Don feels disappointed and betrayed, but he is also somewhat fearful that Megan’s possible success would take her away from him. This is what he thinks happened with Peggy a few episodes ago, and he says as much to Peggy when they run into each other at a movie theater in the finale (even if we know Peggy’s leaving was partly caused by Don’s treatment of her). Don tells Peggy he’s at peace with her leaving SCDP when he says, “That’s what happens when you help someone. They succeed and move on.” While this statement applies to his relationship with Peggy (more below on their scene together), it also applies to his feelings about Megan and her career. Moreover, we can see these thoughts run through his mind as he views Megan’s acting reel late at night at SCDP. He smiles as he watches Megan; she looks radiant, and he’s proud that she’s his wife. But then his smile sours as he watches her act. One could read his reaction as his thinking she’s no good, but from what we see of it, she appears to be pretty good, thus I think it more likely that his reaction is a product of the part of him that fears losing her.

All of these developments culminate in the final few scenes of the episode, where we see that Don has acquiesced to Megan’s request, and that she has been cast in the commercial. For Megan, this act heals her woes: Don loves her so much that he wants her to be successful even if it ultimately means he might see less of her. For Don, however, it means something else entirely: disappointment, betrayal, and one further step down the path of their growing apart, a sentiment conveyed visually by the beautiful, mesmerizing shot of Don striding away from the commercial set and into the darkness of an empty soundstage. As we hear the beginning of Nancy Sinatra’s rendition of “You Only Live Twice,” the set recedes into the background, Megan along with it.

This shot perfectly sets up final scene of the season, where Don enters a bar with an air of resignation, orders his usual old fashioned, and is promptly propositioned by a beautiful woman who asks if he is alone. Don stares at his drink for a long moment before turning to look at her, his face a mix of indifference and intrigue, and the season ends as he contemplates his reply. Given the last shot of the previous scene, and what both this episode and this season has shown us about Don, the show seems to provide a strong indication of what the nature of his response will be. It’s a marvelous way to end to both the episode and the season.

In other developments, what a relief it was to see Peggy again, and then what a treat it was for her to have a scene with Don! Her scenes this week seem like clear evidence that Matt Weiner has no desire to write her out of the show. I never seriously thought it a possibility, considering that unlike other characters who disappear after leaving Sterling Cooper or SCDP (poor Sal, Paul, Ken for a bit, Freddie, etc.), Peggy is such a central part of the show that until last week, she was one of the few characters other than Don to appear in nearly every episode. Nonetheless, I was still relieved that she showed up this week, and for her to appear in the season’s closing montage along with all of the other major regulars at SCDP.

Moreover, each of her three scenes is great. It was a nice surprise to see her in her office at her new firm, as this was something I thought we’d have to wait until season six to see. We get an inkling here that things are not as ideal as she’d hoped they would be. She has her own team of semi-competent underlings to harass (how very Don Draper of her to yell at them for failing to correctly perform what for her is a simple copywriting task), but she seems rather put off by Ted Chaough blatantly disregarding that she's not a smoker when he assigns her Virginia Slim. While she’s happy to have the responsibility and the confidence of someone like Ted (and perks like plane rides and hotel rooms), Peggy’s creativity has always stemmed from who she is as a person as well as a woman. Ted’s refusal to listen to her protests about not being a smoker seems to confirm that he hired her for two reasons: she’s a woman, and she was Don’s woman. The job is still too new for it to really bother her much yet, but I think Peggy may eventually chafe at Ted’s treatment of her if he continues to disregard who she is in favor of what she represents. Her last scene in the episode, during the concluding montage, encapsulates rather well the minor discord evident here: she’s enjoying the amenities of a hotel stay (possibly the first of her life), but outside the room, she spies two dogs fucking, something that doesn’t quite jive with the picturesque fantasy she’s trying to maintain.

The scene between Don and Peggy at the theater is mostly warm and fuzzy: Don is proud of her, and she shows herself to be every bit his protégé by appearing in the theater in the middle of the day in the first place, and they both know it. It seems to get a bit awkward when Peggy tells Don to give her love to Megan and brings up the possibility of their getting together socially, although this could also just be a result of the movie starting.

Poor, sociopathic Pete. He comes to a self-aware realization during his visit with Beth in the mental ward after she willingly undergoes shock therapy. Under the pretense of speaking about a “friend,” he tells her his affair with her made him realize that, “His life with his family was some temporary bandage on a permanent wound.” It’s a beautiful piece of writing, and a touching performance by Vincent Kartheiser. Realizing you’ve always been broken and that the things you’re trying to do to fix yourself are only stopgap measures probably doesn’t make life any easier, although now Pete simply seems resigned, rather than restless, so perhaps it’s an improvement. His self-awareness makes him becomes slightly more sympathetic again, or at least pitiable – better to know your misery is a disease rather than to blunder through life blaming it on others (ahem, Betty). Even sadder, his realization comes only slightly before Trudy acquiesces to his request for an apartment in the city (itself an indirect product of Pete getting the shit beat out of him – for the second time this season – after fighting on the train, first with Beth’s husband Howard, and then with a conductor). Before, Trudy’s decision would have pleased him, at least for a little while, but now he knows it won’t really help to alleviate his malaise, and we can see it on his face when Trudy tells him her decision. It’s another treatment of a symptom, not a cure for his ails.

Other thoughts:

- Megan’s actress friend couldn’t be more wrong about Marie being “elegant and encouraging.” Marie covered nicely for her slip about the casting agency taking advantage of Megan’s “hopelessness” by implying her phrasing was a failure of her English, and that she actually meant that they were taking advantage of Megan’s hope. However, later in the episode, we discover in her conversation with Don that she actually feels that Megan is indeed hopeless, cursed with an artistic mentality but without any artistic merit. Moreover, she seems to have a complete disinterest in comforting a disillusioned Megan. If this is what Megan’s upbringing was like, perhaps she has more in common with Don than we realized.

- I liked the moment in the partners’ meeting where Joan asks if there are any objections, and Joan looks at Lane’s empty chair, and then says, “I’m sorry, but I feel someone has to voice the negatives.” No wonder Lane had trouble making friends at SCDP.

- Roger pretending to be French is hilarious, as is his ending the season on another LSD trip, standing naked in front of a window. Perhaps we’ll see a return of enlightened Roger in later seasons (or a drug-addled Roger).

- Last week, Sepinwall really nailed the connection between Lane’s suicide and Don’s half brother Adam’s suicide. This week, he's proven right, as Adam kept showing up out of the corner of Don’s eye, and then Don had a drug-induced talk with him after Don fails to console Lane’s widow with money (Adam's line about Don's tooth not being the only thing that's rotten is the only thing a bit too on the nose for me). The scene with Mrs. Pryce was just as much an attempt for Don to appease his own conscience as it was to do right by the Pryce family, and the same goes for Don’s advice to Joan in their scene together, where they discuss Lane. It makes sense for them to discuss Lane’s death, as they were probably the two characters closest to him (which really shows how distant he was from everyone else, considering that he wasn’t all that close with Don). Don is so resolute in his advice to Joan because he knows from experience not to think about why Lane did what he did, nor what anyone could have done to stop it. This has been his coping mechanism, and it must be a good one, considering he’s much more culpable in Lane’s suicide (and Adam’s) than Joan is. Equally great is the knowing look Joan gives Don when he asks what she could have given Lane that he would have wanted. Christina Hendricks is magnificent here.

- SCDP is feeling Peggy’s absence. Don and Michael continue to butt heads, and we see that Michael handles stubborn clients almost as poorly as Peggy did earlier this season. From their first appearance at the end of season four, when they demanded Peggy come up with pitch after pitch on the spot, Topaz has always been a finicky client. This episode, we see that for them, the shine has worn off Michael (who appears more disheveled now than ever before – there are huge stains on his shirt).

- Good episode title. Marie describes Megan’s desire for an acting career as her “chasing a phantom,” but the phrase is just as applicable to Don, who now seems to think that the woman he thought he was marrying is only a phantom.

- Finally, it is a gorgeously directed episode as well. The finale is full of marvelous images in addition to the shot of Don walking away from the set near the episode’s end. Such shots include the five partners standing equidistant from one another as they admire their new office space (nicely set up in the shot that opens the scene, as first Pete and Don appear to Joan’s left, and then Roger and Bert to her right), and the entire production design of the bar in the season’s final scene. I was also taken with the scene where Don watches Megan’s reel. Smoke drifting in front of projector light is almost always beautiful.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Mad Men Season 5, Episode 12: “Commissions and Fees”

Matt Weiner has said that the theme of this season is “everyone for themselves.” Again and again, through nearly all of the big and many of the small developments this season, we’ve seen this theme manifest in the mindset and behavior of the characters: Don’s hedonistic “love leave” comes at the expense of SCDP; Megan quits her advertising career to focus on her acting dream; Peggy leaves SCDP to advance her career; Joan prostitutes herself for a partnership; Michael and Peggy each bilk Roger for under-the-table work he throws their way; Don leaves Michael’s Snoball pitch in the cab, and so on and so forth. Lane’s embezzlement of company money to pay his taxes is yet another prime example, and in “Commissions and Fees,” we finally see some of the saddest consequences of this mindset. In the payoff to what other critics have described as an excessive amount of foreshadowing of something tragic befalling one of the SCDP partners, Lane hangs himself rather than deal with the shame of being fired by Don once Don discovers what Lane has done.*

 * Many fingered Pete as the possible character on death’s door: among the many signs are his terrible driving, and his doodling a noose on a notepad at one point.

Lane’s predicament and suicide demonstrates the “everyone for themselves” theme in at least two different ways. First, his suicide is a selfish act in itself – he’s depriving his family of a husband and father, rather than suffering a measure of humiliation. We never met his son, but it’s clear that his adoring wife would have certainly preferred a living Lane to one stained by charges of embezzlement. Moreover, neither she nor anyone else but Don would have even known about the reason for Lane’s firing – Don gives Lane the opportunity to use the quick thinking he’d demonstrated all throughout the season and make up anything he wanted as a reason for his leaving. But apparently, carrying his secret shame in his heart was more than Lane could bear.

The second way in which Lane’s predicament demonstrates “everyone for themselves,” is through Don’s reaction to discovering Lane’s theft. Rather than give Lane a second chance, he fires him without much hesitation. I’m of two minds about Don’s decision. On the one hand, I sympathize with Don; he is correct when he tells Lane that he is being lenient, considering the other options available to him (firing Lane and letting others know why, or pressing charges against Lane), and it is understandable that Don would feel he couldn’t trust Lane again. On the other hand, Don is also being somewhat severe here. This is Lane we’re talking about, a character who has devoted as much time and energy to the firm as Don (perhaps more, this season), and whose until-now unwavering foresight has helped keep the firm afloat these past two seasons. Hell, the two even bonded over prostitutes last season, although that probably doesn’t count for much in Don’s book, considering everything else he did or was implied to have done during his “lost weekend” period. Thus while Don does try to comfort Lane (I particularly like his advice about this being the worst part about starting over), his firing Lane reads a bit cold.

Lane certainly doesn’t help his case by at first attempting to deny that he forged Don’s signature, and then by indignantly attempting to justify his decision when Don asks why he didn’t just ask for help: “Why suffer the humiliation for a thirteen day loan? That was my money!” If Don seemed on the fence before, Lane’s reaction here seems to seal his fate. A man who would steal rather than suffer the humiliation of asking for help is not someone Don can trust, and we see it on Jon Hamm’s face as looks away, shakes his head, and says he’ll need Lane’s resignation. Only then does Lane think to apologize, but it’s too little too late.

Regardless of whether one thinks Don acted to severely in firing Lane, once Don discovers Lane’s suicide, and the “boilerplate” note he leaves behind, it seems that Don feels the full impact of the pitfalls of “everyone for themselves.” Don never suspected that the severity of Lane’s shame would lead him to suicide, but Don clearly feels he’s at least partly to blame for it; had he given Lane another chance, Lane almost certainly doesn’t hang himself. We can see this thought run through his mind in his multiple reactions to the news: he first sits down and holds his head in his hands, then insists on taking down the body before the coroner arrives, and then solemnly stares at floor after hearing Roger describe the suicide note. His sick expression here is rather devastating, and while he may or may not blame himself, he must now carry the secret of Lane’s suicide, lest he destroy what the suicide attempted to preserve: Lane’s pride.*

*Although Don will doubtlessly tell Megan, who already knows that he had to fire Lane. Also, I wouldn’t put it past Bert to put two and two together and infer what must have happened, as he’s shown some remarkable intuition in the past. However, whether or not he’d approach Don with this information is another matter.

The scenes where the characters discover the body and the aftermath were also very well done. Joan, intuitive as she is, knows what’s wrong as soon as she spots the chair through the crack in the door – combined with the smell and her difficulty opening it, there is probably little doubt in her mind. However, it’s a sight she’d rather spare herself, so she has Pete, Harry, and Ken confirm her suspicions by peaking over the top of the office partition. Sad as this moment is, I very much enjoyed Christina Hendricks’ performance here: her quick dash from Lane’s office door to Pete’s office conveyed just the right sense of mounting urgency (and perhaps panic) over her hypothesis, as does her phrasing of her suspicions to Pete, Harry, and Ken. Her bursting into tears upon seeing Pete’s reaction (which itself was quite good in its understatement – a hand to the mouth) was also pitch perfect: she’s lost a friend, and also might feel guilty for kicking Lane out of her office the last time they spoke (if she’s even thought of that yet).

Additionally, I like that the show withheld the sight of Lane’s body until near the episode’s end: our finally seeing it at the same time as Don allows the hanging’s gruesomeness to impact us just as it must Don, even if we aren’t as shocked as Don is. We don’t see the body until Don, Roger, and Pete pry their way into Lane’s office, and Lane suddenly comes into view as the door slams shut under the weight of his swinging corpse. The three stand there for a moment, dumbfounded, before cutting him down. I couldn’t help but think about these characters’ history here; Roger and Don have both been in wars and have seen corpses before (including the real Don Draper’s); for them, this is a somewhat familiar sight, although nonetheless still a shocking one. However, this is likely Pete’s first face to face encounter with death, thus his slightly greater discomfort. There’s no evidence for it, but these characters are so well-established by this point that I imagine Pete is relieved he doesn’t have to touch the body.

We get a little bit of night and day with Betty and Sally in this episode. The two are perfectly nasty with one another at the episode’s start. Betty is frustrated by Sally’s disinterest in the ski trip and her desire to stay with Don and Megan in Manhattan. Betty accuses Sally of trying to ruin the trip with her attitude, and then threatens to lock her in a trunk (straight from the good parenting playbook!), while Sally is equally nasty in turn, basically telling Betty that her idea of vacation is inferior to Don and Megan’s, and also gets in a dig at Betty’s weight when she says that Megan lets her eat whatever she wants (the implication being that Betty doesn’t do so because of the changes she’s made to the family diet since starting Weight Watchers). Sally, unsurprisingly, is becoming quite good at manipulating both of her parental sets, this time successfully getting Betty to give her to Don and Megan for the weekend by implying how much more she likes Megan. It’s easy to see why, of course: Betty’s can be a monster, whereas Megan’s like a cool older sister.

However, once Sally get’s her period, she runs to Betty for support and guidance; despite how terrible she can be, Betty is still her mother, and sometimes, you just need your parents, even if they’re cruel. And to her credit, Betty takes it in stride, instantly forgetting Sally’s previous behavior and the $25 fare from her taxi back from Manhattan, and comforting her as best she can. Still, a part of me is very skeptical of Betty: I wonder how much of her positive attitude toward Sally in this later set of scenes is a product of her care for Sally, and how much is a product of Sally providing Betty with the validation she constantly, incessantly seeks. A fifty-fifty split seems rather generous, and we can see her rather pointed self-satisfaction when she tells Megan what happened over the phone, first implicitly chastising Megan’s negligence, and then coolly saying, “I think she just needed her mother.” She might as well have added, “And that’s me and not you!” and then stuck out her tongue. I also thought it was funny that in explaining menstruation to Sally, Betty seems somewhat relieved to finally be able to share with her daughter the “burden” of womanhood. In telling Sally being a woman is a lot of responsibility, it almost seemed as though Betty was justifying her dour view of life: “You see? On top of everything else, we also have to deal with this. Now you know why I’m always miserable.” On the other hand, it can be difficult to raise teenagers, so Betty’s relief at Sally’s turning to her and not Megan in her time of need is somewhat understandable, if somewhat undeserving, considering that she’s such a lousy parent in the first place.

Other thoughts:

- Lane asks his wife where she got the money for the surprise Jaguar gift, and she obliviously replies, “I wrote a check!” Granted, Lane doubtlessly hid from her the state of their finances, but for someone married to an accountant, she seems to have difficulty grasping where money comes from.

- The show couldn’t resist adding a little humor to Lane’s suicide. Bert’s attitude toward Jaguar (“They’re lemons! They never start.”) proves prophetic, as Lane’s first attempt to die by inhaling the exhaust fumes from his wife’s Jaguar purchase are foiled when he can’t get the car to start.

- Loved Don’s nonchalance about Betty’s wanting to kill Sally over her resistance to the ski trip: “Well, if you think killing her is the only way out of that [ruining the trip]…”

- At least one good thing seemed to come from Don firing Lane: it seems to have lit a fire in Don’s belly. After demanding Lane’s resignation, Don bursts into Roger’s office with a head full of steam and complains to Roger about wanting to land big accounts. Catching Lane’s embezzlement has also seemed to motivate Don to absolve himself of a guilty conscious. He tells Roger what Ed Baxter said to him at the American Cancer Society dinner about never landing any of the big companies that attended the dinner. When Roger asks why Don didn’t tell him about it, Don replies, “Because I wrote that letter.”

- The meeting with Baxter also motivates a bit of vintage Don and Roger tag team: Roger provides Don with a pep talk in the elevator after scheduling the meeting, and they work together beautifully during Don’s very aggressive pitch. It’s like we’re back in season one!

- What’s more alarming is that after firing Lane, Don does not blanch at Ken’s conflict of interest regarding Dow Chemical. When Roger says Ken is squeamish about working with his father-in-law, Don replies coldly, “Then fire him.” Not quite thinking that one through, Don – firing Ed Baxter’s son-in-law is unlikely to do you any favors in winning Ed Baxter’s business. Roger realizes this and takes a more subtle (and satisfying) approach to Ken, one that allows both he and Ken to stick it to Pete at the same time: Ken gets to preserve his relationship with his wife and father-in-law by being “forced” onto the account, and Pete is decidedly not on the account. Should they land it, it would dwarf all of Pete’s hard work over the past two years.

- Ken also gets in a nice dig at Roger and the rest of the partners who agreed to Joan’s prostitution-for-partnership deal: he doesn’t want a partnership because he’s “seen what’s involved.”

- I thought it was funny that Don is able to instantly defuse Megan’s ire over not being told about Sally’s arrival with the news of his having to fire Lane. It’s easy to imagine that if Megan was similarly upset about something else on Monday, the whammy of Lane’s suicide would have also trumped whatever might have been bothering her.

- Roger’s enlightenment wore off. Shame.

- We get a lot of Glen this episode, which is unfortunate, because given the limitations of Matt Weiner’s son’s acting, Glen works best in small, creepy doses. Still, the episode ends with a nice touch: reacting to the guilt he feels over Lane’s suicide, Don first offers to drive Glen back to school, and then in an effort to show Glen that not all things that you think will make you happy turn into “crap,” he lets Glen drive his car. It’s a small attempt on Don’s part to provide some measure of karmic compensation for Lane’s suicide. Don might have squashed all of Lane’s hope, but at least he can make sure that the hope with which Glen started the day doesn’t remain totally unfulfilled.

UPDATE: In an interview with Sepwinwall Jared Harris talks about how neither Jon Hamm, John Slattery, nor Vincent Kartheiser had seen what Harris looked like in his hanging makeup prior to shooting a take where they burst through his door. No wonder they look dumbfounded. Near the end, there's also a nice comment about why Lane chooses to hang himself in the office.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mad Men Season 5, Episode 11: “The Other Woman”

Peggy had to leave. That’s the only thing she could do after Don treated her like trash yet again, this time by throwing money in her face. Don’s behavior is all the more egregious this time, because Peggy actually deserves high praise for saving the Chevalier Blanc campaign by spinning a revision of it out of thin air. Peggy has never deserved the degree of lambasting to which Don routinely subjected her, but this time, Don completely misreads her behavior – she seems to question Don’s giving this account back to Michael partly because she wants the account, but also because she is genuinely confused over her responsibilities during the run up to the Jaguar pitch (although there is a degree of petulance in her voice when she questions Don’s decision). Don’s behavior here is a watershed moment for Peggy and for viewers. Peggy and Don have had many breakthroughs in their relationship both this season and last: she and Don have become closer, and Peggy has acquired more and more responsibility at SCDP. Yet Don still lashes out at her when he’s having difficulty with unrelated matters (Jaguar, Megan), and it’s made all the worse this time for happening in front of others, rather than in private. We’ve seen it in bits and pieces all season, most memorably when she stands up to Don for blaming her when Megan leaves SCDP, but the changes in both Peggy’s personal and professional life have done wonders for her self-esteem, and we see it again in the aftermath of Don’s latest abuse. Rather than reducing her to the verge of tears, Don’s berating frustrates and angers her. Crying would have indicated that Don made her feel bad about herself (as he has in the past), whereas anger indicates instead that she’s simply fed up with Don’s abuse. Don’s behavior really leaves her no recourse but to leave if she is to continue to value herself as highly as she has these past two seasons. All she needed was a little push from Freddie Rumsen to make her realize it.

Nonetheless, it is still a painful decision for both Peggy and for Don, one made all the more difficult because Don begins the scene where she breaks the news to him by treating her as a trusted and valued accomplice. He asks her to drink with him, and anticipates her usual impulse toward wanting more by preemptively explaining to her why he feels like can’t put a woman on Jaguar, but does so in a way that indicates he respects her talent and her desire to work on the best accounts. His treatment of her here is essentially the opposite of his reaction to the Chevalier Blanc scene. At first, he misreads Peggy’s decision to leave as an attempt at a raise, and he jokes that she’s finally picked the right time to ask. But when Peggy remains adamant about leaving, Don’s demeanor changes. He doesn’t get angry and yell, but becomes genuinely remorseful. Peggy’s leaving hurts him deeply, and as he kisses her hand, Peggy is in turn moved to see how much she has meant to him. It’s a wonderfully played scene by Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss. As difficult as it is for Peggy to leave Don, her smile as she steps into the elevator (along with the first chords of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”) shifts the tone of the scene from bittersweet to one of excitement. Despite his occasional abuse, in many ways Don has been a fine mentor to Peggy, but with the lessons she’s learned with Heinz this season, and with the responsibility Don handed her in wake of the Jaguar preparation, she’s finally ready to graduate from his mentorship, and this smile shows us she knows it. It’s an excellent, albeit bittersweet end to the episode.

Kudos to Pete; he’s now decisively erased any reserve sympathy I had for him from last season. Pete the pimp tries to rationalize Joan’s debasing herself: “We’re talking about a night in your life… I’m talking about business at a very high level.” Ugh. As morally smarmy and disgusting as he is, he also masterfully plays the others in the office. It’s tough to tell how much of his bluster is bullshit and how much is genuine, because he refers to exchanges between himself and Herb that the episode elides when he emphasizes the necessity of broaching the subject with Joan – we didn’t see Herb give Pete an implied ultimatum as Pete repeatedly describes, but he very well might have done so in the parts of the scene we did not see (like the taxi). This is a testament to Pete’s salesmanship, but so is the way in which he approaches the other partners about it. What Pete says to the other partners about Joan’s response to his inquiry is technically true, and if anything, he only lies by omission here: a part of Joan probably was amused when Pete brought up the idea of sleeping with Herb, even if her amusement was dwarfed by the part of her that was disgusted. The way he phrases it to the other partners, however, allows them to rationalize Joan doing this (“Well, if she’s open to it…”). Moreover, Pete’s helped out by Don’s leaving the room after Don mistakenly believes that his putting his foot down puts an end to the matter. Perhaps this will be a lesson to Don: as Pete tells him, conversations don’t end when he leaves the room.

I have to hand it to Lane; he does some quick thinking in this episode to try to salvage his embezzlement. The scene between him and Joan is marvelous for many reasons, chief among them being that we can see things from both Lane's and Joan’s perspectives. When Lane suggests that Joan ask for a 5% stake in the company (rather than a lump sum of cash), Joan ultimately sees it as an altruistic honoring of their friendship that goes against the interests of the company, and redemption for Lane’s foolishly kissing her earlier in the season. There might be some truth to this motivation, but we also see Lane’s more immediate motivation: this is a way for him to hold out hope he’ll be able to conceal his embezzlement. Moreover, we can also understand Joan’s offense early in the conversation, as at first she thinks Lane is motivated to discourage her from accepting the offer because of his own feelings for her, feelings she expressly rejected when she silently opened his office door after he kissed her. A wonderfully complex scene, and a very well-acted one at that.

Nevertheless, despite moral apprehension on the part of all parties involved (except Pete), and despite Herb’s repugnancy, Joan goes through with the arrangement. On a lesser show, this would probably lead to Joan feeling terrible about herself, and it certainly creates a lot of dramatic collateral for the show to spend in the future, but she seems okay with it in the immediate aftermath. Her exchange of glances with Don after they get the news about Jaguar seems to imply that it’s not hounding her terribly. Moreover, the other partners understand very well that Joan’s new partnership means their attitude toward her will need to undergo some revision: they all turn to her when they agree they need to make an announcement; she is now one of them. However, it’s sad that this is the way she gained a measure of equality, not just because it’s degrading to women in general and to Joan in particular, but because previously, with the exception of her affair(s) with Roger,* Joan had been one of the more morally unassailable characters on the show, and definitely one with the steeliest resolve. I suppose we can only hope that she handles any regret she might feel with the same resolve.

* Although let’s face it, Greg deserved to be cheated on.

Meanwhile, we have more ups and downs with Megan and Don. As for the ups, I like that Megan and Don are comfortable enough with both the positive and negative feelings they have for each other that they are able to joke about Don feeling betrayed by Megan leaving SCDP. Early in the episode, Don talks to Megan about the difficulty he’s having with the Jaguar pitch, and she asks, “Do you really want help, or you want to yell at me?” Don replies, “I don’t know yet,” and the two smile at each other. On the other hand, they also have both become aware of the very real conflict of interest Don has over Megan’s potential success as an actress after Megan tells Don she’d be away for months should she get a part. He has equal reason to want her to do well and to want her to fail: he loves her and wants what’s best for her, but he also doesn’t want her to go away to Boston (or anywhere else) for three months if she were to land a part. Also, a part of him probably wants her to fail in the off chance she’d return to SCDP. Stormy waters, here.

Despite the Jaguar ad campaign analogy equating the car to a mistress (rather than to women in general or wives in particular), the parallels between Don’s feelings about Megan and his approach to the Jaguar ad campaign are abundant throughout the episode. When Don first describes the campaign to Megan, he calls a Jaguar “beautiful but unreliable.” While this might not be fair to Megan, considering she’s stuck with Don even as he’s started to exhibit some familiar habits from his first marriage, Don probably cannot help but feel this way about Megan after she tells him that the rehearsal is in Boston and would take her away from him for three months. These feelings are made more emphatic when Michael finally comes up with the perfect hook for the Jaguar campaign: “Jaguar: At last, something beautiful you can truly own.” While the relief on Don’s face upon hearing this tagline is a product of his knowing it perfectly encapsulates the mistress analogy, the reason he knows it is perfect is because it describes precisely his current anxieties about Megan. The previous scene between Don and Megan was their fight about Boston, and it concludes with an exasperated Don yelling, “Just keep doing whatever the hell you want!” One can easily imagine him yelling something similar while standing above a broken-down Jaguar on the side of the road. Note also that Michael only comes up with this idea after seeing Megan take Don into his office for some late night workplace sex. You can see the wheels turning in Michael’s head as he wonders aloud, “She just comes and goes as she pleases?” Even if we know better, Michael sees the relationship between Don and Megan as exactly what he describes to Don: a “mistress” he truly “owns.” But as Don is learning, both in his experience with Megan and in his losing Peggy, you can’t really own anyone.

Other thoughts:

- After all of the creative struggles Peggy has had this season, the Chevalier Blanc scene was a nice moment for her, but also a necessary one, because it reaffirms her creative value, and makes plausible the ease with which she is able to find work elsewhere. Although I wonder if other agencies would have been as eager to hire her as Ted Chaough is. His eagerness is doubtlessly inspired by his own feelings of rivalry with Don. For Ted, stealing away Don’s protégé must seem like a coup, although as the history of show lets us know, this is less a credit to Ted and more a product of Don’s failures as boss/mentor/human being (also, perhaps Ted isn’t the hack we take him for; he gives Peggy a pretty good pitch when they meet). Nevertheless, even Harry – who started the scene of the phone call by asking Peggy to pretend to be Michael’s subordinate – is able to recognize how great Peggy is in this scene. Harry is the one who praises Peggy’s quick thinking when they later report the Chevalier Blanc news to Don.

- I loved Ken’s silent applause for Peggy. Ken began the series as a somewhat callous savant, one as equally sexist as the other chipmunks (his shock at Peggy’s contributing to an ad campaign before she became a copywriter was phrased along the lines of, “It was like seeing a horse that could talk.”). However, over the course of the past two season’s he’s stealthily become one of the most sympathetic male characters on the show. He seems to genuinely value Peggy both as a professional and as a person, checking up on her after Don abuses her in front of him. He has interests other than advertising, and in a way is just as creative as Don (or as creative as Don was at his peak). His job is not the most important thing in his life: recall him being unwilling to talk to his father-in-law on the behalf of SCDP. So far as we can tell, he’s not a womanizer; while he smiles along with Herb and offers to introduce him to another redhead aside from Joan, he seems as repulsed by the guy as viewers are, and when attempting to console Peggy later, he tells her that he knows for a fact that Jaguar isn’t going to happen, implying that he’s dismissed Herb’s ultimatum out of hand. Ken Cosgrove: Mad Men’s good guy in the margins.

- Peggy might have learned more lessons from Don than she realizes – when Ken tries to comfort her, she echoes Don’s behavior to a lesser extent, pushing Ken away by calling their pact stupid and telling him to “Save the fiction for your stories.”

- Even fledgling pimps read Goodnight Moon to their adorable babies. There weren’t as many funny moments in this episode as in the past few weeks, but it’s hilarious when Pete uses the book as evidence for why he despairs over living in the sticks when he gets into an argument with Trudy: “There’s no goodnight noises anywhere!”

- Even though Michael was the impetus for the campaign, it was still nice to get a classic Draper pitch, and the scoring and staging of the scene where Don leads other members of SCDP into Jaguar was quite fun.

- Ironic that Don chastises Megan for “running away” at the end of their fight. Pot calling the kettle black?

- While it provided a nice end to the episode, and a logical move from the standpoint of the characters, I can’t help but suspect this won’t be the last of Don and Peggy working together. This has been one of the relationships most central to the show, and while Mad Men has certainly shown a willingness to blow up parts of its premise in the past (Don and Betty’s divorce being a key example, as well as the formation of SCDP), Peggy has been so integral to everything at SCDP that I really can’t imagine this being the end. By leaving SCDP, the show also has a hole to fill in terms of showing what it’s like to work there when you’re not one of the bosses – Peggy was pretty crucial to providing that perspective as well (although maybe that's something Matt Weiner is no longer interested in exploring).

- The only thing that didn’t work for me in this episode was the sleight of hand the narration attempted with the reveal that Don was too late in telling Joan he did not agree with the other partners’ decision regarding Joan and Herb. It seemed obvious from the get go that he was too late: Pete waits to tell Don about Joan’s decision until she’s already left the office; Joan was about to get into the shower when he arrived at her place to talk him out of it, and Joan sighs heavily when Don tells her he doesn’t think it’s worth. True, the show’s manipulation of the order of events makes Joan seem somewhat of a hard person by deciding to go through with it despite Don’s moral advisement against it. However, that’s a momentary effect, and it seems to be worth much less than knowing all along that he was too late. Moreover, hearing Don’s opinion on the matter seems to foster some regrets in Joan, which is also worthwhile dramatic material that the temporal restructuring loses. In short, I think their scene together plays better with the knowledge that Don is too late. Moreover, the abridged version we get the second time around both seemed to go unnecessarily far in recapping this scene (it’s a rare instance in which the show seems to have underestimated its viewers), but also not far enough, in that elides what to my mind is the most important part about it: Joan’s sigh upon hearing Don saying it’s not worth it. I suppose the Matt Weiner felt compelled to rearrange the order of events so as to the maximize effect of crosscutting between Don’s pitch and Joan’s going through with her evening with Herb, but I don’t feel that the dramatic payoff was worth it. Maybe I’m missing something, but the parallels and contrasts between the two crosscut scenes don’t seem all that compelling to me (which is not to say they aren’t there, but that they don’t seem particularly revelatory for what’s happening with the characters at the moment). Perhaps another reason for the crosscutting is that this pitch, while classic Don, wasn’t terribly inspiring: it wasn’t Don’s idea; we had already seen the cliff notes version of it when Michael broached it to Don in the first place, and it’s a pretty damned sexist ad campaign. However, it's a minor blemish on an otherwise stellar hour of television.

UPDATE: While  I don't agree with Sepinwall about the value of the crosscutting, he pretty much nails everything great going on between the women and Don in this episode. I tip my hat to the master.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 10: "Christmas Waltz"

I had been idly wondering whatever happened to Paul Kinsey after the end of season 3, when the senior partners formed the new agency but didn’t invite Paul to join them. This week’s episode answered this question quite thoroughly, and once again demonstrated the way characters on this show change, but also how they stay the same. Paul’s a Hare Krishna. Certainly his appearance has changed, as has his belief system and occupation. But in other ways, he’s still the same Paul: insecure, pretentious, envious, and somewhat delusional (or at the very least, a terrible judge of his own abilities and the character of others). As with Don and Roger this season, perhaps Paul’s biggest change in character is his greater self-awareness, which we see repeatedly throughout the episode. He points out to Harry that when the two knew each other better, Paul was very insecure, and he seems to understand the envy he feels when Harry tells him that he had a vision while chanting earlier, and he even admits to Harry that he struggles with the basic tenets of his new religion (particularly emptying his mind during chanting). This last item is not something the old Paul would readily be willing to admit. At the same time, however, he still has these same feelings, just as he did before he became a Hare Krishna, and still suffers from the same inability to estimate his own capabilities, as we surmise from the description we hear of his rather unsubtle Star Trek spec script. Even greater self-awareness hasn’t helped Paul here. His futile struggle to escape from himself brings to my mind the phrase, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

As for Paul’s being a poor judge of character, boy, does he have a poor read of Mother Lakshmi. Paul sees her as a scared runaway, when she’s really a devout believer who is just manipulating Paul into continuing with the Krishnas. What a terrible situation for poor Paul. He’s given his heart to someone incapable of returning the gesture, and he’s put his trust in Harry, who, as usual, proves to be a weak-willed heel (perhaps Harry’s happiness stems from his almost complete lack of self-awareness, or from the comfort he derives from his hedonism. Or both). Harry doesn’t seem to think twice about having sex with Mother Lakshmi, even after Paul has told Harry how much she means to him. In fact, Harry’s only “concern” is that he is married himself, rather than his friend being in love with the woman who is seducing him (and Harry only raises his marriage with Lakshmi as a devil’s advocate argument). True, he does double-check with Lakshmi that their having sex is “completely allowed” by the Krishnas, but if he knows Paul probably wouldn’t feel that way, he’s selectively ignores it. What’s worse, he completely compromises himself with Paul: Harry knows the truth about Lakshmi, but can’t say anything to Paul, not because Lakshmi forbids him from telling Paul about it, but because Harry would lose Paul’s trust if Harry were to tell Paul exactly how he knows that Paul’s dream of a life with Laksmhi away from the Hare Krishna won’t work out. Put in an impossible position by his own actions, Harry does what he can for Paul, giving Paul strong (albeit false) motivation to extricate himself from Lakshmi and the Hare Krishna by telling him a reader loved his script. Given Paul’s options, it’s tough to tell if Harry made the right decision. Is it better for Paul to move across the country to continue to struggle with writing (at which he’s terrible), or is better to tell him he’s terrible, even if it forces him back into a situation where he is being used by a spiritual cutthroat who will never fulfill his romantic dreams? While it might be difficult to determine if Harry made the right decision, it is much less difficult to determine why Harry chose to further delude Paul: it’s the easiest way out. Harry would rather suffer a guilty conscience (to the extent that he has a conscience) than tell Paul the truth about his capabilities as a writer or about Lakshmi. Regardless of whether or not Paul would believe Harry about Lakshmi, either of those truths would lead to a confrontation with Paul that Harry doesn’t want to have. Better to slither away from Paul now, and avoid him in the future should he ever learn the truth either about the favors Harry claimed to pull for Paul, or about his fucking Lakshmi. Hopefully, Harry will be haunted by Paul’s last line about Harry being the first to actually do something for him. Farewell, Paul. May you salvage your life in Los Angeles.

Like Paul, Don is also struggling with the changes in his life, although unlike with Paul, were shown this through the show’s finally indulging in something many viewers have wanted to see for a long, long time: a long, candid, heartfelt conversation between Don and Joan (and one instigated by a hilarious outburst Joan directs toward the imbecilic front desk secretary. “Surprise! There’s an airplane here to see you!”). These two characters have never before been paired together at such length; the closest the show has come was a wonderful little scene between the two of them in a hospital waiting room during “Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency,” back in season three. They had great chemistry together then, and it proves to be the case once again.

Why are Joan and Don such a good fit? There are probably many answers to this question, but a part of it stems from the many ways in which they are similar. They are each practical, world-weary, and somewhat cynical. They are also extremely private, even secretive: Joan’s voluptuous beauty and her upbringing have made her cautious about letting others get to know her. She rarely lets people into her life, and treats her trust like a prize that must be earned. Don, on the other hand, is ashamed of his past (being born a bastard whoreson), and has lied for much of his adult life to compensate for it. He fears being close to others because it increases the chances of their finding out the truth about his past. And of course, he has an even darker secret that has been the cause of much drama on the show: he stole the identity of the real Don Draper during the Korean War. Even here, however, we can see a parallel with Joan, who now has her own secret: the identity of her son’s father. Like Don, it’s a secret she now shares with someone – she has Roger, he has Megan – although unlike with Megan and Don, Roger is of little emotional help to her (and also unlike with Don, now that she is getting divorced there is less urgency in keeping it secret).

Doubtless there are other reasons the two seem like a good pair (Joan is one of the most sympathetic characters on the show, while Don is one of the most interesting, etc.), but no matter the reason, finally seeing the two share a lengthy scene together is extremely gratifying (all it took to happen was Don walking by just when Joan is most vulnerable: immediately after being served divorce papers). And their discussion is great, one of two old hands discussing their shared past (I particularly liked Don telling Joan he used to be scared shitless of her), and what they now have in common, which inevitably leads to talk of divorce and relationships. Don is right to congratulate her for being rid of the awful Greg (even if he doesn’t know just how right he is), but Joan wonders how she’ll ever meet anyone now that she has a baby. Joan seems to judge people by weighing their good qualities against their bad, and she probably can’t help but see being a single mom as a negative mark (it’s likely how she would have previously judged other women in her position). Don offers her the half-practical, half-joking advice of not telling anyone about it until they sleep with her (we’ve seen this strategy both work and not work for Don: it worked for Megan, but not for Rachel Menken in season one). It’s also interesting to note that Joan seems to genuinely drop her cattiness over Megan and Don’s marriage here: she compliments him on his happiness, and seems surprised to hear herself telling Don he found someone perfect. Later, the two flirt innocently and knowingly, giving credence to those who think that they would actually be perfect for one another, if only the timing were ever right (and if only Don liked red-heads). I’d happily watch another 90 minutes of Don and Joan being wingmen for one another.

The conversation takes an analogical turn when Don points out a guy checking out Joan from the other end of the bar. Joan asks Don, “And who do you think is waiting at home? I bet she’s not ugly. The only sin she’s committed is being familiar.” Don has been in this man’s hypothetical position quite often over the course of his marriage to Betty, and replies defensively, “So you think it’s all him?” However, the parallels with Don and Megan are also quite obvious. Joan and Don debate whether or not the man on the other end of the bar knows what he wants. Don thinks he doesn’t know, but Joan replies, “He knows. It’s just the way he is. And maybe it’s just the way she [the man’s hypothetical wife] is.” Considering Don’s own insecurities about remaining “just the way he is,” and his ability to stay interested and faithful to Megan (whom he just agreed was perfect), we can see why this would unsettle him. Like Paul, Don wants to be able to change the parts of himself that he does not like, and he certainly does not want to be a person who perpetually wants what he doesn’t have. Moreover, he knows that Joan’s description of the hypothetical wife certainly does not apply to Megan. She is not a woman who will wait at home for a husband who doesn’t come, and who wants something else. It’s not who she is, and she knows she’s worth much more than that: she’s young, a good person, and is without any child-rearing obligation to stay with a neglectful husband. Don knows he can’t screw up too badly with Megan or she’ll leave him. Perhaps Joan helps him to realize it, because he immediately decides to go home to Megan. And indeed, when he arrives there, he gets confirmation about Megan’s character: Megan is justifiably livid with Don for his inconsiderately not telling her where he was. Moreover, she also says exactly what she thinks of the kind of woman Joan hypothesizes about at the bar: “I put a plate in the oven for you, and sat here like an idiot, waiting for someone who doesn’t give a shit about anybody!” The volatility of her outburst here underlines just how much she is not the person Joan described, and what Don’s typical behavior will lead to with her. So, like Paul, Don has changed in an attempt to make his life happier. However, also like Paul, he still seems to struggle with changing what he dislikes about himself.

Other thoughts:

- Poor Lane, both figuratively and (apparently) literally. As difficult as it is to anticipate what might happen in later episodes of this show, his actions here seem to be setting up for later developments. It wasn’t the most interesting part of the episode, however, as I feel we’ve seen iterations of “stodgy, ineffectual British character” before, both on this show and elsewhere (although I did like the moment where he lies to his wife in order to convince her that they should stay in New York for the holidays, when really he simply can’t tell her that they can’t afford it. Nice bit of acting there from Jared Harris). It’s sad that he’s too proud to simply ask one of the other partners for help. Don ended up helping Pete financially last season, and although that wasn’t a private matter like Lane’s, if I understood correctly, Lane’s current dilemma seems to stem in part from his taking business away from the UK (when he stole away Sterling Cooper), so he might be somewhat justified in asking the others for a loan.

- Pete’s futile quest to get congratulated about the Jaguar news was pretty funny, with Bert’s response giving me the biggest laugh, both because Pete was the most explicit with Bert in asking for praise, and Bert was by far the most negative about the news: “They’re lemons! They never start.”

- More Bert hilarity: Pete tells Roger to meet him in Bert’s “office,” and the two talk together with Don in the hall outside of the men’s room.

- Boy is Joan cold in her dismissal of Roger. Roger: “We made a baby together.” Joan: “Yes, and now it’s some other lucky girl’s turn.” Yikes.

- Excellent minimalist acting from Jon Hamm in the scene where he watches the somewhat avant garde theater performance with Megan. His face should appear next to the dictionary definitions of “bored” and “disapproving.”

- Megan and Don’s relationship takes a backseat for much of the episode, but we can tell they’re growing more distant, and it's even shown to us visually when they return from the theater. In one particular shot, Don pours himself a drink on screen left, and Megan stands on screen right, with the space of the living room between them. Don is sensitive to any implied criticism Megan might have of advertising, now that she’s rejected her opportunity there. Little wonder, considering advertising is so central to Don’s life (if no longer his interests). Also, it’s interesting to note that later, Don misreads Megan’s anger at him as an invitation for sex, and that Megan shuts it down (unlike in the season premiere).

- Apparently Don’s renewed interest in his job from last week’s episode didn’t stick, as this episode, his first reaction to Pete’s announcement about Jaguar is to groan over the amount of work it will entail (and later, he picks up a pad and pencil in order to look busy when Pete stops by his office). He claims he’d be more excited if he didn’t think it would be a waste of time, but later, he has no response to Megan when she accuses him of losing interest in a job he used to love before she met him. These scenes make Don’s troop-rousing speech at the end of the episode ring somewhat false. Are we supposed to believe Don in this episode-ending scene? This seems like a vintage Draper pitch, but does he have the heart for it anymore? I suppose we’ll have to tune in next week to find out.

- It was inevitable that the show reference Star Trek at some point, as it’s an important pop cultural sixties touchstone, but did they have to make Hare Krishna Paul the one who finds it worthwhile? Mad Men doesn’t completely deride science fiction, given the weight of Ken’s moonlighting gig, and the thematic resonance his story had for the episode where we learn about it, but I would have liked to have seen someone else find value in Star Trek (regardless of whether or not the show made fun of it). Also: Peggy is hilarious when she asks Harry if reading Paul’s script will give her a case of the “Negron complex.”

- More Don and Joan goodness: after pointing out that he never sent her flowers, Don sends flowers the next day.

- Lane shouting a greeting and then hanging up during uncomfortable phone conversations continues to be funny: in season three, it was “Happy Christmas!” to Putnam, Powell, and Lowe, and this year it’s “Good day!” to his British lawyer.

- Lakshmi’s a funny hypocrite. She tells Harry she slept with him in order to protect Paul’s soul and prevent Harry from convincing Paul to leave the religion, telling Harry, “You want to make him a gross materialist when he’s living in the spiritual world!” Then, only a beat later, she becomes a gross materialist herself, matter-of-factly stating, “And also, he’s our best recruiter. I mean, he really can close.” The material world is indeed hard to escape. Perhaps Paul isn’t a total loss, but just doesn’t know where his strengths lie.

- Also funny: drunk Don tries to hang his coat on a lamp shade.

UPDTATE: Tom and Lorenzo, Sepinwall, and my roommate all give Harry more credit than I do. True, he does give Paul a considerable amount of money, but I'm skeptical that delusional in Los Angeles is any better than manipulated but aware of his limitations in New York.