Monday, April 23, 2012

Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 6: “Far Away Places”

This week’s episode had much less hilarious material than last week’s (which I didn't get the opportunity to write about), but was no less fantastic for it. The episode features three stories which occur more or less simultaneously, but which are narrated sequentially, which raises an interesting formal question: Why arrange the order of events so that each of the different stories appears sequentially, rather than crosscutting between them as they occur? One answer could be because it makes more subtle the thematic connections between the various stories. Each involves characters going on a “trip” of sorts: Peggy gets high; Roger and Jane drop acid, and Don and Megan take a trip to Howard Johnson’s (and get “high” on their adrenal glands during another intense fight).  Additionally, each story also features romantic relationships at different stages.

However, episodes of Mad Men often create parallels and themes without resorting to temporal backtracking; theoretically, crosscutting could also work in this one, as it does in others. I think a better answer can be found by examining the content of the stories. Each story is compelling in itself, but each one is also more compelling than the last, and breaking them up might have scuttled the momentum each accumulates.

The first story is Peggy’s; she has a fight with her boyfriend Abe, nearly catastrophically blows the second Heinz pitch, gets high and jerks off a guy in a movie theater, takes a nap, bonds with Michael, and then reconciles with Abe at the end of the day. Of all the stories, hers seemed to me the most perfunctory, serving mainly to provide yet another piece of evidence supporting Bert’s knowing accusations of Don at end of the episode, where Bert insists that Don has been on “love leave,” and that he needs to return to minding the store. Don's absenteeism is an arc that has been simmering for a while this season; we’ve seen it in his Stepford Wife-like statements regarding not caring about work and his disinterest in arguing with clients over the direction of ad campaigns (the latter of which Peggy pointed out herself a few episodes ago).

Thus it’s relatively relieving that Bert notices it and is in a position to do something about it. Bert’s demand that Don redo the underwear ad implies that Bert’s not just a figurehead, and provides a nice means of making Don snap out of his love-spun stupor. I like this development both because I want to see Don back on his ad game, but also because it makes sense that Bert would be the one to notice it, and to try to fix it benevolently – he’s always had a way of gently getting Don to do things he doesn’t want to do (like getting him to sign a contract in season 3). Ultimately, Peggy’s story seemed the most episodic, much like what we might find in any other episode, and probably could have been cut to and away from at will without disrupting it. The same is not necessarily the case with the other two stories.

The second story involves Roger and Jane’s LSD trip. Lots of hilarious stuff here, from the dog collar-like notes everyone writes before they drop acid, to the singing liquor bottle and shrinking cigarette, and all of the other various reactions the party guests have to the drug (although my favorite shot might have been the one of Roger and Jane during the cab ride back to their home – the obvious-looking rear screen projection was a nice touch, as was Jane’s face). This story takes place mostly over the course of a single evening, and thus cutting to and from it along with the other stories could have had the effect of making the acid trip seem like it lasted for ages. Treating it all in one go allows us to watch the progression of their trip, and prevents us from being distracted from the poignancy of the (thus far relatively gentle) dissolution of their marriage.

One of the reasons I liked this story was that unlike the season premiere, it showed that Roger and Jane still have some happiness between them, something I thought necessary if the show was going to keep them together (or so it seemed, until the end of this story). On another show, they might become bickering caricatures, but I wanted the show to back away from that ledge, and it did so successfully, even as it still ended their marriage. The scene of Roger and Jane lying on the floor, having what is perhaps the first sincere conversation they’ve had in ages, was especially bittersweet, even if it’s the product of an LSD trip.

As moving as Roger and Jane’s story is, Don and Megan’s story is the one that would have suffered the most from crosscutting. For a moment (specifically, the moment where Don finds Megan’s sunglasses on the ground of the parking lot after returning to Howard Johnson’s), it seemed like this story was going to go turn into a version of The Vanishing. That is, this story was by far the most suspenseful and intense of the three stories – like Don, I was genuinely concerned for Megan’s welfare. This show has a propensity for surprise in its story resolutions (season 3’s reinvention of SCDP, season 4’s Megan surprise, etc.), so I wouldn’t put it past the show to kill off a character this way (especially one as new as Megan). And given that I am on the record as liking Megan (which is still true, even though I’m beginning to have serious concerns about her and Don), it was somewhat anxiety-inducing.

I liked the honeymoon-ending conflict between Don and Megan here – Don is being his usual insensitive self, engaging in many of the same negative behaviors as in his marriage to Betty. He runs roughshod over Megan’s concerns and desires when he insists on taking her to Howard Johnson’s, trying to make her fit into a preconceived mold of what he thinks she wants, when at the moment she wants to concentrate on work (he also cancels her order of pie and replaces it with sherbet. What a boor!). Thus it galls her when Don uses the trip as an opportunity to think about the appeal of Howard Johnson’s. Megan observes, “You like to work, but I can’t like to work.” This is a great example of precisely why I like Megan; unlike Betty, whose resentment would have passive-aggressively simmered close to the surface (and mostly likely would have been vented onto her kids), Megan speaks up and voices her displeasure. She’s able to stand up to Don and call him on his bullshit, and as a result is once again much more sympathetic than Betty. Then Don displays more familiar, horrible behavior, pulling a Dick Whitman and abandoning Megan after she hurtfully brings up his past during their fight. All of the things that have been bugging Megan come up in this fight, but instead of dealing with it like an adult, Don flees, and pays for it with his guilty conscience

This spat between Don and Megan and the suspense that resulted from it was good drama, but the conflict becomes even more intense when Don discovers Megan at their apartment the next day, much to his relief and irritation. When their fight turns physical in a Benny Hill-like mad scramble, I started to wonder whether the ways in which Don and Megan are good for each other outweigh the ways in which they are so clearly dysfunctional. This is the second time a fight between them has turned physical, and this time it didn’t end in love-making. It’s like they’re in a codependent manic-depressive relationship. When it’s good, it’s great, but when it’s bad, things quickly turn batshit insane. Just look at Don when he corners Megan in the bedroom – he’s a wild animal here. More than just “diminishing” their love every time they fight (as Megan puts it), Megan is actively put in physical jeopardy (twice!).

That being said, we can see how they got here: Don is driven by his guilt and a night of being on the verge of panic, while Megan is driven by the horror of being abandoned by Don at the hotel. Had this story been crosscut with the others throughout the episode, not only might the climax of their confrontation have been more jarring, but this story’s intensity also likely would have detracted from Peggy’s and Roger’s stories by distracting us from concentrating on their much less imperiling circumstances. Imagine cutting from a disheveled Don hanging up the payphone and worrying about the possibly-dead Megan, to Roger and Jane lying on the floor, exploring the failures of their marriage. Even if the juxtaposition might have made the thematic parallels stronger and more easily grasped, it would have almost certainly made me impatient to get back to Don and Megan, and would have given the Roger and Jane story – not to mention the Peggy story – short shrift.

Other thoughts:

- The Michael Ginsberg reformation continues. He’s growing on me.

- Interesting how even Megan is more interested in work than Don. Megan wants to stay for the pitch, but Don couldn’t care less.

- Jane speaks Yiddish. She is Jewish!

- Nice use of film style as Roger starts to feel the effects of the LSD: disorienting extreme close-ups, eyeline matches where Roger appears to be observing himself, momentary access to Roger’s interior monologue, disappearing and reappearing Don, etc.

- Megan’s ability to shovel sherbet into her mouth is pretty impressive, and also gross.

- I loved the reaction on Don’s face when Megan asks why he doesn’t call his mother – Jon Hamm is fantastic.

- Don’s phone call to Megan’s mother was another nice touch. You can practically see thought balloons above Don's head: “I lost your daughter! I’m a terrible person."

Monday, April 9, 2012

Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 4: "Mystery Date"

Go Joan! Goodbye Greg! Not only did Joan finally kick Greg to the curb, but she did it in an extremely satisfying manner, airing the grievances of seasons past: his never consulting her on important decisions that affect both of their lives (like his joining the army in the first place, and now deciding to return for another tour), and most importantly, his raping Joan on the floor of Don’s office. “You’re not a good man. You never were, even before we were married. And you know what I’m talking about.” This line had me applauding my television. Greg has always been a selfish, oblivious fool, and he demonstrates it in spades in this episode. After breaking the news about his imminent return to Vietnam, he tells Joan, “I need to store up as much of you as possible,” totally oblivious to Joan’s needs and feelings. Later, at the restaurant, Greg explains his volunteering to go back with one sentence: “They need me.” As in the previous scene, Joan’s reaction shot speaks volumes: what about her needs? However, the show did a good job of selling his desire to return to Vietnam; unlike his career in America, he is actually an important person in Vietnam. We see it in the restaurant in his brief exchange with the enlisted man, and again when Greg and Joan have their final argument later in the episode. Nevertheless, it was wonderfully satisfying to see Joan finally decide to stop deceiving herself about Greg, and to finally apply the strength and severity of her office persona to her home life. Good for her for realizing she doesn’t need this rapist and his perpetual letdowns; I hope the writers have someone more worthy of her in the cards.

I liked the tension that resulted from Don and Megan running into one of Don’s former affairs in the elevator. Don’s infidelity with Betty is yet another interesting wrinkle in his relationship with Megan; his openness with Megan and her knowing about his affairs has got to weigh at least somewhat heavily on their relationship. We see in their scene in the office kitchen that he blames his behavior on his unhappiness with Betty (much like Betty blamed her unhappiness on Don), but in the back of Megan’s mind (or the front of it) must lurk a weariness over the possibility Don could fall back into old habits. At the very least, Don’s affairs, and his attribution of their cause, puts added pressure on both of them to make things work, lest Don become unhappy and indulge his wandering eye. Don’s murderous fever dream speaks to these concerns, at least as far as Don is concerned – he feels so guilty about his former behavior he literally wants to kill his past. His assurance to Megan not to worry about him rang somewhat hollowly though, in light of his succumbing to Andrea in the dream. Thankfully though, the writers decided not to turn Mad Men into season 2 of Friday Night Lights by making Don a murderer, although it was kind of clear it was a dream all along – the one moment I was doubtful was when Don gave in to Andrea’s advances. Perhaps I’m underestimating the appeal of Jon Hamm, but who would want to sleep with a feverish, disgusting Don?

Sally again reaches out to Don to come save her from unhappiness at Betty’s “haunted mansion,” (as Don calls it), this time stemming from Henry’s mother, who seems better than Betty, but who is also both excessively strict and exasperatingly ignorant (as seen in her revealing the cover of the paper after trying to hide its contents from Sally, and feeding Sally sleeping pills). Nevertheless, I do like Sally and Don’s repartee here – it’s no wonder she still reaches out to him. He’s her dad, but also seems to be the only adult who treats her like a person.

I have a feeling Alan Sepinwall might be right about Michael Ginsberg being a threat to Peggy’s role as Don’s number two at SCDP. Even though Michael seriously angered Don by elaborating on another possible direction with the nylon ad campaign after already selling the clients on the first pitch, both of the wunderkind’s pitches were the most inspired ad talk the show has had in a few seasons. It blew Peggy’s Heinz pitch out of the water, and is even better than anything we’ve seen from Don in a while. His affected accent and his dress are still obnoxious, but his talent is certainly a sympathetic trait. I have a feeling Don will warm to him, challenging Peggy to step up her game.

Speaking of Peggy, the end of the scene between her and Dawn was incredibly squirm-inducing. Ugh. With once lingering glance at her purse, the smile drained from Dawn’s face, the walls between them went up again, and Peggy brought much shame upon herself. I doubt this is the only story we get about race this season, but I like that so far Matt Weiner and company are working these issues into small stories about the characters.

Finally, there are some nice stylistic touches when Peggy hears a bump in the night at SCDP. The characters’ discussion of the Chicago rape/murders throughout the episode primed us for the characters to fear things that go bump in the night, and the low key lighting, quite sound design, and especially the close-up of the Peggy’s hand has she turns the door handle to Don’s office were a nice departure from the Mad Men house style, and a nifty evocation of slasher films.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 3: "Tea Leaves"

Fat Betty! I'm of two minds about Betty's new predicament: 1) It seems kind of out of left field. like the writers didn't know what to do with her this season, and thought, "Let's just put her in a fat suit." It seems a bit hokey. 2) On the other hand, it's some nice karmic comeuppance for her terrible mothering, and provides some further insight into her character by (re)emphasizing that she is perpetually dissatisfied with her life, and is actually happier when she can find something to blame it on. Either way, it’s great that she doesn't understand calories. "Ho hum, well I guess I'll just finish Sally's ice cream." Also, it was great that we got to see Henry’s reaction to Don knowing about Betty’s cancer scare. His disappointment that Betty felt the need to reach out to Don, and couldn’t rely on Henry’s support alone, is almost palpable. Once again, I find Henry to be a very sympathetic character.

Loved the contrast between the beginnings of each of the two scenes that open this episode, with Betty trying (and failing) to zip up her dress, and the ease with which Don zips up Megan. Seeing Betty and Megan contrasted like this in the episode made me think about another possible reason the writers had for Don to marry Megan (a reason that was also very evident in the season premiere): Megan’s youth is a way for them to explore the youth culture of the 1960s and make it personally relatable to Don. Megan is arguably the show’s best regular representative of our contemporary image of the 1960s – Peggy’s the other best candidate, but she’s too careerist, and other characters like her current boyfriend and her lesbian friend are too marginal. Megan affords the writers the opportunity to somewhat easily put Don in contact with 1960s cultural change, even if we don’t see their day together with Megan’s young friends. Incidentally, I was extremely glad to see Don acquiesce to going out with her friends – despite the naysayers, I still think Megan’s a positive force in Don’s life, and I don’t want him to lose her because of his own social hang-ups and the age difference between them.

Although, as we saw in this episode, they don’t always need Megan to fulfill this function: Don and Harry’s foray into backstage at a Rolling Stones concert is ample evidence, in addition to the “Zou Bisou Bisou” musical number of the premiere, that season 5 is where Mad Men is finally going to address our contemporary sense of what the 60s were like. That scene had or implied a lot of touchstones: precocious sexual promiscuity, drugs, rock and roll as aphrodisiac, star worship, etc. Something I found particularly incredible about that scene was that it made what we think of as the cultural change of the 1960s seem like some alien, hostile thing by placing Don in the middle of it – we can see Don trying to figure it out in his conversation with the girl he talks to (and “girl” is definitely the right term for her). She has a rather naïve, and potentially unsafe and unhealthy attitude toward Brian Jones, one that is rightly cause for concern for Don (who says as much when she tells him that he’s so uptight because he never had fun like people her age are now: “We’re worried about you.”). A lot of the popular treatments of the 1960s (contemporaneous or otherwise) that I’ve been exposed to have rarely shown the older, more conservative generation as being more sympathetic, yet Mad Men has done just that by inserting Don into the situation.

In any case, Megan is still interesting in her own right: the power dynamics of her and Don’s relationship are very intriguing, to say the least (as we saw near the end of the premiere), and I strongly suspect there to be some pretty great conflict down the line between her and Peggy. Megan’s position at SCDP seems highly likely to come between Don’s mentorship of Peggy, which, after the events of “The Suitcase” is finally in the healthy place I’ve always wanted it to be. Megan’s a possible fly in that ointment, which should make for some good drama (and yet oddly, I still like her character, possibly because I don’t think she harbors and ill intentions. Although really, after Betty, anyone would be a breath of fresh air for Don as wife number two). Plus, I love her reaction to Mrs. Heinz’s “This is boring, am I right, Megan?” Megan clearly disagrees, but is afraid to give the wrong answer after earlier awkwardly blurting out “Don was divorced,” so she replies: “Yes?”

And I am nothing but delighted at Pete and Roger’s newfound rivalry. I feel like both parties are equally sympathetic and antipathetic. Pete’s a sociopath who last year became surprisingly sympathetic (saving Don’s ass when his identity was almost exposed, getting bailed out by Don when the firm needed money, and becoming a father), whereas Roger’s a smug, yet clever, lazy asshole. Okay, so maybe Pete’s the more sympathetic character, but I still love Roger for his pithy quips, and for his often insightful observation into the nature of the people he surrounds himself with (and I also pity him for his sagging marriage). In any case, it’s a pleasure to watch these two go after each other, and to watch Roger quietly simmer as Pete threatens to box him out, if he keeps coasting – just look at the hardness in Roger’s eyes as he hollowly applauds Pete when Pete asserts his oversight of the Mohawk account in front of the entire office.

My god, could I not stand Michael Ginsberg in his first scene. Doubtless this was the intention: the cheap, ill-matching clothes; the half-assed resume (that he pulls out of his sleeve!); the disrespect for Peggy; the smug sense of self-satisfaction… ugh. On top of all of that, the guy (who looks like the lovechild of Dustin Hoffman and Scott Baio) is playing “Jewish,” and poorly, like Woody Allen set on “extra-nebbish.” He became slightly more tolerable in his interview with Don, when he drops the schtick somewhat, but I have a feeling most of his scenes won’t have him reigning it in so much. I was hoping that his last scene in the episode, where he comes home to his tiny apartment with his father would make him more sympathetic. It did, but only slightly, and made me sympathetic to his father more than to Michael. Hopefully he’ll become less of an annoying stereotype and more of an interesting character in subsequent appearances. At the very least, maybe he’ll bounce off Roger in an interesting way. However, I fear he’ll be like Sal in the early going: a character clearly designed and used only as a comedic foil (Sal eventually turned to gold, so there’s reason to be optimistic).

Other random notes:
- The parade of hilarity at the position of Don’s secretaries continues. After the sinking of the Blankenship, we now have Dawn, whose name, for all intents and purposes, is identical to Don. I look forward to all of the ways Don and Dawn will get confused over the course of the season. Also, since Don’s rotating secretaries have always would up being prominently featured in one way or another, I would not be surprised if Dawn ends up being an entry point into the implied promise of the premiere: perhaps this will be the season to address the civil rights movement more explicitly. We truly are getting into the 60s as we know it today.

-Good Harry Crane episode overall. What a putz.

- As my roommate pointed out, Betty’s dream of Henry and company mourning for her must have been a dream, because Sally was upset that Betty was dead.