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.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Community Season 3, Episodes 20-22

The first of last night's episodes, "Digital Estate Planning" is exemplary of one of the reasons I love this show: there is no other comedy on television that so thoroughly and successfully reinvents itself from week to week. Last season it seemed as if Dan Harmon was trying his hand at every genre he’d ever wanted to write and produce (horror, western, fantasy, science fiction, conspiracy thriller, documentary, drama, not to mention the parodying of television staples like clip shows, bottle episodes, and Christmas specials), and we got a bit of that again this week, when he turned his show into a video game (there have been other instances this season as well: musicals, Ken Burns documentaries, and forking plot narratives, to name a few). The episode finds the study group playing a 16-but era video game for Pierce’s inheritance, and it’s both a funny homage to video games and another opportunity for the show to display its excellent grasp of its characters. One of my favorite gags is exemplary: Troy’s jumping animation is a somersault, while the others just have a normal jump, and he uses it far more frequently than the others. His avatar can hardly sit still; he even jumps around as other characters stand and talk with one another, which demonstrates his excitement over not only getting to play a game, but getting to play as himself. This is a joke that stems from the nature of his character, and it simultaneously makes excellent use of this particular episode’s premise. In many ways, Troy can be very child-like, so of course he’ll play a game in a relatively child-like manner. The episode is chalk-full of these kinds of character-based jokes that also take advantage of the video game premise. The show routinely excels at this particular brand of comedy: no matter the particular hat it’s wearing in any given episode, it manages to be both aware of television and movie tropes and to embrace them at the same time. Often it seems as though each episode is an answer to the question: “How would these characters behave if they found themselves in an X show?” where X is the genre or convention of the week. Very rarely do I find the answer to this question unimpressive. My only complaint is that the last three episodes never acknowledged Jeff and Annie’s promise to sleep together in the musical number of the season premiere. Thankfully, there will be another season to resolve this and other character developments.

Other thoughts:
- I was happy to see the return of Evil Abed in the season finale. Harmon once said he wanted to take Abed in a darker direction this season, and he certainly accomplished this by emphasizing the ways in which Abed's limitations strained his relationships in the study group (especially in his fight with Troy), but it was also amusing to see Abed literally become evil, and what he thought this entailed. It was also a nice touch that after her traumatic therapy session with Evil Abed, Britta told Annie that she was thinking of dying her hair. This is precisely what Britta did in the actual darkest timeline from "Remedial Chaos Theory": she dyed a blue streak in her hair.

- Chang's been taken to a pretty broad place at this point. I wonder if he'll stay this way next year or if he'll be reeled back in somewhat.

- I also wonder if they'll take Britta and Troy any further than goofy grins and affectionate hugs. The show has never seemed terribly comfortable dealing with potential romantic relationships between its regulars, but I would be interested to see how either of them behave with a more long term romantic partner.

- Donald Glover's offhanded delivery of Troy's line about being the AC school's messiah was hilarious.

- I also enjoyed Annie and Shirley's accidental murder spree in the blacksmith shop. We've seen Annie transform into strange versions of herself over the course of the show's run, given the right circumstances (a security guard in season one, a tough as nails heroine in the first part of the season two finale, a crazed assistant to a mad director in the Apocalypse Now homage from this season, etc.), so it was funny to see it happen again, but unintentionally.

- On the whole, I found season 2 to have a greater quantity of outstanding episodes, but this season certainly had its moments as well. To my mind, the ones that compare most favorably include "Remedial Chaos Theory," (the forking plot episode) "Pillows and Blankets," (the Ken Burns episode) "Virtual Systems Analysis," (Annie and Abed in the dreamatorium) "Basic Lupine Urology" (the Law and Order episode), and "Contemporary Impressionists" for Britta's Michael Jackson alone. Others had their moments, however (the Britta-Chang rivalry in "Geography and Global Conflict" was pretty hilarious, as was Britta's brief romance with Subway in "Digital Exploration of Interior Design." Britta was on fire all season, really).

UPDATE: it looks like others out there agree that the video game was supposed to be 8-bit, rather than 16-bit, although it looked more 16-bit to me. Also, Sepinwall points out that Annie sort of got over her crush on Jeff in the dreamatorium episode. Maybe I'm just a shipper.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Mad Men Season 5, Episode 9: "Dark Shadows"

This episode begins to reap dramatic spoils from seeds sown earlier in the season, specifically regarding Michael’s employ at SCDP, although it manages to do so in a characteristically unexpected way. We’ve seen his talent manifest over the course of previous episodes (his Topaz pitches were particularly inspired, while last week saw him succeeding with his idea for Chevalier Blanc), and it was not a far stretch to anticipate his becoming a creative rival for Peggy (more on that later). However, this episode pits him not against Peggy, but against Don. We see this develop throughout the episode, first as Michael expresses mildly condescending surprise that Don could come up with an idea as good as the devil campaign after going for so long without writing. Later, both Michael and Don thank Ken simultaneously for Ken’s compliments on their work in the conference room scene – Don’s thanks sounds perfunctory, whereas Michael makes his thanks sound overly gratified, as if in relief for the recognition Don didn’t give him (and Don is rather annoyed in his glance at Michael after they both thank Ken). And of course, there’s also the uncomfortable scene in the elevator, where Michael confronts Don over not giving the client a chance to hear both pitches. While it’s not completely unexpected for Michael to be as good as Don – there are many talented people in advertising – what is surprising is that Don feels just a little bit threatened by him. Don has always been a pragmatist when it comes to selling clients ideas, so it might be true that approaching Snoball with two campaigns could have been perceived as a sign of weakness, but the show made it pretty clear that his decision came from a place of insecurity over Michael’s talent, rather than one of confidence in his own idea.

For one, Don doesn’t yell at Michael or seem affronted at all when Michael confronts him in the elevator the next day, behavior which seems to indicate that Don has a guilty conscience. There have been plenty of times in the past when we’ve seen Don be surprised or become irate with Peggy when she’s complained about not receiving the credit due to her (most memorably in “The Suitcase”). Each time, Don’s reaction has been conditioned by his confidence in his own actions; he can yell at her because he thinks he’s right and she’s being ridiculous. Here, however, he doesn’t raise his voice or even act surprised at Michael’s indignation, or even seriously appeal to team spirit or the benefits of a little healthy competition. Instead, he only smugly appeals to his own authority. Admittedly, Don’s reaction here could be an effect of his not knowing Michael as well as Peggy, and his having less of a personal stake in Michael’s professional development. However, after coldly telling Michael that he doesn’t think about him at all and exiting the elevator, the worried look on Don’s face as he enters the office says otherwise. Don might not always be on top of his job (the first half of season four is our best example), but this is as insecure as we’ve seen him regarding his professional capabilities since he struggled with the Lucky Strike campaign in the series pilot. Given Don’s mental absenteeism this season, this rivalry is a very well-motivated dramatic development, and probably a more satisfying one than if the show had pursued this issue with Peggy. If Michael’s talent lights a competitive fire under Don and forces Don to put his own talents to use, I’m all for it, since Don’s is often at his best when he’s being creative (and we see that Don is indeed rusty – and knows it – as we listen to him struggle his way toward an idea on the Dictaphone).

After four blissfully Betty-free episodes, she returns here in a big way (snicker), although the show does something somewhat new with her in this episode by turning into the skid and making her an outright villain. Rather than having her be a malicious force sheerly through the unpleasantness of her personality, her terrible parenting, or her perpetual dissatisfaction with life, in this episode (and perhaps for the first time?) she is actively, intentionally malevolent.* She accidentally comes across Don’s whimsical away message to Megan, and combined with her uninvited tour of Megan and Don’s home, and Megan kissing Betty’s children goodbye when Betty picks them up from Don’s, the letter serves as painfully obvious evidence that Don is getting along just fine without Betty, and that he’s just as in love with Megan as he ever was with Betty, if not more so.** Don’s marriage to Megan, while somewhat of an emotional rollercoaster, is more loving than anything we ever saw between Don and Betty. Granted, we don’t have a good point of reference because we never saw Don and Betty at the start of their marriage, which was presumably happier than the years covered by the first three seasons of the show. But still, it’s hard to imagine them being happy together when Betty’s default mentality seems to be self-pity and/or misery. In any case, out of jealousy and spitefulness, Betty tries poison Don and Megan (as Megan puts it) by telling Sally about Anna Draper.

* The closest she’s come to behavior like this in the past is jealously barring Sally from seeing Glenn.

** It was a good creative decision to have Jon Hamm read the letter in voiceover when Betty discovers it, because it both shows us how Betty imagines it’s tone (loving), and reinforces the powerful effect it has on her. It helps sell her motivation to immediately sabotage Don with whatever’s closest at hand (Sally, in this case).

Betty’s act is a fun dramatic development, as it begins to explore how divorced couples can try to dig their claws into one another (it works on Don – he only has Megan to thank for not taking Betty’s bait), and one completely in character for Betty: Of course she’ll try to use her children to hurt Don, without any regard for the effect her ploy will have on her kids’ well-being. Poor Sally is manipulated ruthlessly here by Betty, and it’s difficult to watch Sally blame Megan for keeping Don’s secret, because Megan’s such an obviously positive force in Sally’s life (we’re reminded of it again earlier in this episode, when Megan teaches Sally an acting technique for crying). Sally’s bratty confrontation with Megan made me realize suddenly that despite all of the rightful resentment Sally has for her mother, being raised by Betty could also turn Sally into just as unpleasant a person as her mother (she certainly can be manipulative – her savvy shifting of the fault of her grandmother in-law’s fall from herself to Bobby in last week’s episode is a good example). Luckily for Sally, Betty’s emotional maturity seems to have stopped right around the age of twelve (as described by the psychiatrist from season one, and as evidenced by Betty’s unwittingly receiving therapy from season four’s child psychiatrist), and Sally, as a 14 or 15 year-old, already has the emotional awareness to realize she’s been used by her mother to hurt the parental set she actually cares about (especially after overhearing Don and Megan arguing over what Betty did). What’s more, Sally also has the cunning to deny Betty any pleasure from her ploy. Sally’s smugness in fabricating for Betty Don’s calm and reasoned family history lesson was particularly delicious; Sally might not have the power to make her mother a better parent, but she at least can deny Betty the satisfaction of dragging everyone down into her vindictive cesspool.

Other thoughts:
- Peggy and Roger are both right in their elevator spat. Roger’s thinking is completely backwards regarding his targeting Michael for Manischewitz simply because he’s Jewish, but Peggy is also upset only because she’s looking out for herself and wants Roger to consider her first over Michael. This is certainly the motivation for Peggy’s smug satisfaction after learning that Don discarded Michael’s pitch. It’s more plausible than her feeling any particular creative rivalry with Michael, or her wanting to see Don succeed over Michael. Although honestly, Peggy, try drinking the stuff sometime, and you’ll quickly see what a blessing it was for you not to have to come up with a way to make that sugary cough syrup appealing to “normal” people, as Roger so hilariously puts it.
- Boy, was Betty’s journey through Don and Megan’s apartment uncomfortable. It was like watching an invasion, or a shark swimming through an aquarium: silent, yet powerfully threatening. I knew she would react with self-pity and resentment no matter what she saw, but I was also concerned over how she would vent her displeasure (most likely by taking it out on Sally). However, I did enjoy the staging and framing of Megan and Betty’s first shared scene (and first shared screen space): a nice long shot placing them on either sides of the frame in a very symmetrical composition (the image to the right is a still photo, rather than an image from the episode - the distance between them was more pronounced and the framing closer in the actual episode, further heightening their contrast). Their costuming accentuates the contrast as well: Megan is in a slimming outfit in warm tones – red, orange, and black – while Betty is dressed in cooler blues, whites, and a neutral light brown. It’s a nice visual contrast that supports the narrative: Megan is fiery, Betty is an ice queen. There’s a nice touch as well when Megan breathes a sigh of relief after closing the door behind Betty and the kids.

- Bert Cooper, comedian: Roger tells Bert he’s divorcing Jane, and Bert checks his watch and asks, “Already?”

- Peggy’s having a rough go of it, creatively. Heinz shoots down her great ideas, and her Snoball idea is terrible.

- Don’s letter to Megan serves another purpose aside from setting off Betty: depending on when it was written, it provides a little update on the status of their relationship. That the sheet of paper somehow made its way into Bobby’s hands could indicate that it’s a relic of their honeymoon phase, but equally plausible is that it made its way into Bobby’s things because Don and Megan write many such notes to each other, and that they simply don’t keep track of them. After all, this episode also has Don finding a similar (although less clever) note from Megan about going to get bagels.

- Even though Sally doesn’t get to see it, I savored Betty’s outburst as she knocked a box off the kitchen table in frustration over her apparent inability to get a rise out of Don.

- For as much as I made fun of Betty not seeming to grasp the concept of calories in the last episode to feature her prominently (episode three), to her credit, she’s managed to learn a lot in the time since. Weight Watchers was a smart move on the part of the writers, as it prevents her from seeming completely ineffectual: At least she’s trying to overcome the latest cause for her unhappiness, even if she’s doing it as myopically and dourly as everything else in her life. Spitting out the whip cream you’ve just sprayed straight from the canister into your mouth is the first step toward better living, Betty.

- Betty’s deliberate attempt to be Machiavellian and hurt her ex is contrasted nicely with Roger’s inadvertently hurting his ex. John Slattery played Roger’s reaction wonderfully when Roger realized he has deprived Jane of the quality she most wanted in her new apartment: freedom from memories of Roger. He’s feels deeply sorry here, even as it’s a perfect (albeit inadvertent) demonstration of the “everyone’s only out for themselves” credo he tells Peggy earlier (behavior that Don also displays in the scene immediately following Roger and Peggy on the elevator, when he leaves Michael’s work in the cab).

- Yep, Jane’s Jewish. Funny how the show went from having it be very unclear in earlier seasons to having it be a plot point in this season, a change also mirrored by Roger’s shifting desire to draw attention to it.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Mad Men Season 5, Episode 8: “Lady Lazarus”

When Megan handed Don a copy of Revolver as an example of what’s going on “out there,” in American/youth culture, my initial exclamation and excitement over the show acquiring the rights to a Beatles song was quickly followed by guesses as to which song they acquired. The first song I happened to think of was “Elanor Rigby,” but I quickly decided it was inappropriate. Reflecting on the events of the episode, my next guess was (in my opinion) the most haunting song on the album, “For No One.” I thought it would fit somewhat nicely, as the song essentially describes the days immediately before (or after) the dissolution of a romantic relationship. Megan and Don are not there (yet), and it would have been a bit excessive considered in relation to Pete’s story this episode, but it could still fit, since it is possible to construe this episode as the beginning of the end for Don and Megan. However, “Tomorrow Never Knows” works much better both for this episode, and for Mad Men as a whole. Part of the show’s overall appeal lies in its unpredictability, which is definitely analogous to “Tomorrow Never Knows,” both in terms of the song’s deviation from the standard Beatles sound, and in terms of John Lennon suggesting we “surrender to the void.”

While larger character arcs often signal themselves within the first few episodes of any given season of Mad Men, it often seems as though it is impossible to guess what the next episode will be about. For instance, while it’s fairly clear that one of this season’s main concerns involves exploring what it means for Don and Megan to be married to one another (both personally and professionally), it’s rather difficult to develop probable and specific long-term hypotheses about what that entails. Earlier in the season, I predicted that Megan becoming a copywriter was going to reintroduce friction into Don’s mentorship of Peggy. While this has borne out (especially in this episode), it never really became the crux of any particular dramatic developments. For instance, at the conclusion of last season’s finale, it was rather easy to imagine something along the following lines playing out over the course of the current season: Megan is slightly incompetent or takes advantage of being married to the boss; Peggy is forced to cover for her, but gets more and more fed up with her; Peggy eventually has enough and confronts Don; fallout ensures, Don is forced to chose between his wife and his protégé, etc., etc. On another show, this story easily winds up going in this direction, but not on Mad Men.

Instead, Megan affects Don and Peggy primarily by distracting Don from work, and forcing Peggy to further establish her independence (and to learn some tough lessons on her own). Megan, it turns out, is just as dedicated and competent as a copywriter as she was as a secretary (remember, she didn’t want to blow off work to go on a trip with Don two weeks ago). Rather than turning her into a villain for interfering in a relationship (Don and Peggy) that finally got to healthy place last season, the writers come up with other ways to create conflict while still maintaining Megan as a sympathetic character (and, depending on how well-developed you consider her to have been last season, also maintaining her previous characterization, rather than changing who she is just to create some dramatic conflict).

This story arc is a large-scale instance of how the show can be difficult to anticipate, but almost every week offers smaller scale instances as well: a seemingly-important character is introduced, but then has his foot run over with a lawnmower; Pete gets in a fistfight with Lane; Don, Roger, Bert, and Lane steal Sterling Cooper away from Putnam Powell and Lowe; Don flies to Los Angeles and goes on a bohemian bacchanal, and so on. To my mind, one of the show’s chief appeals is its ability to generate such surprises from week to week while simultaneously staying true to its characters, even managing to make them grow and to reveal new things about them through these seasonal arcs. Mad Men encourages us to “relax and float downstream” with it (if not to turn off our minds).

This week’s surprise isn’t much of a surprise, but an answer to the question posed by last week's episode: “What’s eating Megan Draper?” She wants to be an actress, not an advertising executive. I’m of many minds about this development. I could easily see this becoming the first step in Megan and Don’s estrangement, at the very least because it means their schedules will make it more difficult for them to spend time together. The signs are already here in this episode; he works all day and comes home at night, precisely when she goes to acting class, or to the theater, should she actually land any parts (this also creates opportunity for her to become drawn to someone more age appropriate, although I don’t think the show will go in this direction, partially because I can anticipate it, but also because Mad Men is more interested in how Megan’s career choices affect Don than they do her). Roger seems to offer good advice in this regard: “Let her know there’s a routine. Keeps you both out of trouble.”

Additionally, Megan’s leaving is such a big deal for her that it almost seems as though she’s quitting a part of her and Don’s marriage, which might not be far from the truth, considering that they’ve probably spent most of their waking time together at SCDP. Moreover, there are at least two shots of Don in this episode where he looks particularly concerned over Megan’s quitting: one after she tells him what she wants to do in the middle of the night, and another in the shot that begins the scene in the Cool Whip creative kitchen. The latter of these shots is made all the more emphatic by it being graphically matched with the previous shot, in which Don responds to Megan’s line, “I love you. You’re everything I’d hoped you would be.” Don responds, “You too,” but the dissolve to the next shot of Don’s troubled face in the creative kitchen indicates quite clearly that he feels differently. The earlier scene in which Don shows concern could be construed as his worry over what Megan’s quitting means for her feelings toward him, but this later edit clearly indicates he’s more concerned with what it means for his continued interest in her (especially after the arousal he showed over her brilliance last week). While he seems to be more at peace with Megan’s decision later in the episode, this is not the ideal future he imagined with her. And like last week, the final shot of the episode is a masterful, telling one: after switching off the music, Don leaves the frame, and we are left looking at an empty living room.

On the other hand, I also like this development because it allows Don to show once again that he’s changed and learned from his marriage to Betty. The scene where Megan wakes Don in the middle of the night to talk to him about her desires was somewhat tense because it was difficult to anticipate how Don would react to her confession. Would he behave as he did with Betty whenever she expressed desires to him that were incompatible with his idealization of her (as he did to a lesser degree with Megan and the sherbet earlier this season in “Far Away Places”)? Or would he display the newer, more empathetic qualities Megan seems to have brought out in him? While he is somewhat resistant to Megan’s decision to leave SCDP, and while he tries to talk her out of it, he ultimately puts on a gracious and understanding face, and tells her he doesn’t want to keep her from her dreams. As he later says to Roger, “Why shouldn’t she do what she wants? I don’t want her to end up like Betty,” implying that he’s learned that he’s at least somewhat culpable for the miserable human being she became. And to her credit, Megan also realizes how well-behaved Don is being in his understanding and acceptance, repeatedly issuing proclamations of love throughout the episode.

Megan’s leaving also gave us some of the kind of conflict I thought would predominate this season, regarding Peggy being put in the middle of Don and Megan’s affairs (it was just condensed almost entirely to this episode), first in the wonderful scene between Megan and Peggy in the SCDP women’s bathroom (a location of high drama over these past two seasons – think back to “The Suitcase”), and then again between Peggy and Don in the creative kitchen. The former scene was great on its own merits, but watching it a second time, I was struck by how much it resembled past confrontations between Joan and Peggy, but with Peggy now in Joan’s position. Peggy’s lack of sympathy for Megan stems from their entirely different goals and desires, and from the effects Megan’s behavior has for Peggy’s office life, which parallels quite nicely with Joan’s irritation over Peggy’s handling of the sexual harassment from last season, as well as other conflicts the two had when Peggy was still a secretary. This episode puts this conflict to better use than those past ones, however, by becoming immediately pertinent to the next scene: we can now better gauge Megan’s discomfort over the work she does at SCDP, and it provides an undercurrent of tension as Peggy stares death rays at Megan (whom she considers an ingrate) while Megan and Don practice the performance they’ll give to Cool Whip.

And then we finally get to the scene at Cool Whip, where Don vents his disappointment with Megan’s quitting. This was another great scene, albeit one not too dissimilar from other scenes this show has done. Once again, something in Don’s personal life causes him to shit all over Peggy for some perceived slight, this time her botching the skit Don was originally going to perform with Megan.* Except now, Peggy has enough backbone and self-worth to stand up for herself and fight back, demonstrating once again how much characters on this show can change over time. Out comes all of the plot I had thought would occupy much of this season, condensed into a blistering back and forth: Don blames Peggy for Megan’s leaving, and accuses Peggy of being threatened by her; Peggy retorts that Megan was more her protégé than Don’s, as Peggy put in a lot of time training and defending her; Don says she didn’t need defending because she was great at advertising. In this brief exchange alone, the show quickly dispenses with a conflict that had played out mostly in the margins of the preceding episodes, and that on lesser shows would have taken up the majority of the season’s conflict for these characters. Yet expressed in this compressed yelling match, it becomes remarkably potent (much more so than if it were dragged out for a whole season). And then Peggy sums up how stupid the argument is (and why it would have been lesser drama had the show played up this conflict) while simultaneously getting in the last word: “I did everything right, and I’m still getting it from you! You know what? You are not mad at me, so shut up!” Great dialogue, great acting, great dramatic choices, and a great scene on a great show.

*Think back to the episode in season three, where Roger and Bert pressure Don into signing a long-term contract with Sterling Cooper. Peggy has the unfortunate timing to also ask Don for a raise – or some other form of validation – in the same episode, and he viciously reduces her nearly to tears, telling her amongst other things that there’s nothing she’s done that he couldn’t live without.

Other thoughts:
- Ever since the Howard Johnson’s episode, I’ve been slightly on edge about Megan’s safety. It would make no dramatic sense, since the show is still exploring their marriage, but a part of me keeps thinking the writers are going to kill her somehow. This episode’s eerie and ominous open elevator shaft did nothing to alleviate my concerns. There were a handful of moments where, on other kinds of shows (or movies), either Megan or Don would have died after expressing their love for one another, including when Don returns home to find Megan cooking dinner, and when they say goodbye at the elevator. Guess I'll just chalk up these feelings to my narrative schemata at work (including Mad Men's penchant for season-altering surprises).

- Once again, Don is perceptive, but not receptive. He wants to be able to connect with the youth culture in order to be better able to sell them shit, but he switches off “Tomorrow Never Knows” before it’s finished, clearly fed up with what must sound to him like noise rather than music. Stick around for Sgt. Pepper’s, Don!

- Roger’s LSD trip seems to have also resulted in a sea change in his attitude toward Pete. How refreshing that he now seems content to let Pete do a lot of the legwork, and act instead in a supporting role. A humbler, kinder, yet still-funny Roger Sterling. Not bad (although he does still enjoy Pete’s wonderfully awkward removal of the skiing equipment from his office).

- If this is Pete doing his best Don impression, he’s doing a piss-poor job of it, as he fails to realize that the key to the Don Draper Seduction (patent pending) is to leave the woman wanting more (optional: treat them like dirt). Act like you don’t want it, Pete! Who’d have ever thought that Pete would encounter problems from having too much heart? By returning him to his conniving, petulant roots, the show is doing a good job of removing a lot of the sympathy Pete acquired last season.

-“Pizza House!”

- The Michael Ginsberg Reformation Project stumbled a bit this week. He was pretty goddamned annoying in the scene where Megan told Peggy, Stan, and Michael that she was leaving.

- Peggy and Joan’s sympathy for one another is again used effectively in this episode. More, please.

- Pete was awfully bold in kissing Beth in the brief moment when his train pal, Howard, left the room to get some life insurance papers, and it led to a funny bit of staging shortly after, as Beth, upset by Pete’s kiss, calls Howard into the kitchen, and Pete moves to get his coat and sneak out. This is how domestic murders happen, Pete.

- Don and Peggy’s fight in this episode rivals, in condensed form, last year’s “The Suitcase.” Now that Peggy is more of an equal sparring partner, I enjoy scenes where Don and Peggy are pitted against each other almost as much as scenes where they work together harmoniously.

- Fourth week in a row with no Betty, and the fourth outstanding episode in row. Can’t be mere coincidence, can it? Betty made a good villain last season, but it’s been pretty clear for a while that Mad Men is better without her (or at least, it’s better when she’s marginalized like in the last season). The quality of these episodes during January Jones’s pregnancy-induced absence these past four episodes seems irrefutable evidence.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Avengers

I also watch movies every now and then. I saw The Avengers yesterday, and had enough thoughts about the film that I decided to put some of them on paper. Overall, although it starts slow, the film’s action set-pieces more than makes up for its initial clunkiness, as do the ever-present Whedonesque touches of cleverness and humor, almost always stemming from the various characters’ personalities and the way in which they engage with one another.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first. The first 45 minutes or so are somewhat lumbering, which can be partially blamed on the film’s needing to pick up where all of the major characters’ solo features left off. However, not all of the blame can be placed at the feet of the film’s position in regard to its predecessors. The film’s very first narrative material concerns a deal made between Loki and the (evil) forces dictating the terms of his return to Earth, but it is rushed, and strangely withholds Loki’s identity, a needless restriction since Loki appears just a few minutes later in the film’s next scene. Additionally, much of the action at the soon-to-be-destroyed S.H.E.I.L.D. base is overly concerned with the film’s MacGuffin, a cube of energy called the Tesseract.

While he is menacing, Loki is somewhat of a strange choice for a villain (if one partially determined by the preceding films); despite Whedon’s bona fides concerning supernatural forces, Loki does not connect well to the kind of personal conflict at which Whedon excels, and which gives much of the Marvel universe its tremendous appeal. Marvel heroes have superhero-level problems, of course, but unlike the characters in many DC comics, they also often remain grounded in the problems of everyday life, or are often analogues for how people can feel at different times in their lives (the X-Men and teenagehood, for instance), which is a part of what makes Marvel characters so appealing. The first two Spider-Man films are exemplary; they did a wonderful job of relating the threats represented by their respective super villains to Peter Parker’s struggles as a person and a hero. Aside from some humorous parallels between Tony Stark and Loki, and the familial tension between Loki and Thor, much of that sort of connection between Loki and the heroes is missing from The Avengers. To certain extent, this is somewhat inevitable, given that the Avengers consists of a group of otherwise unrelated heroes who assemble only to take on threats bigger than any single one of them could handle alone, and it is admirable that the film is able to make it personal for as many of them as it does. Nonetheless, for many of the film’s characters, it does not feel like much is at stake in Loki’s particular threat aside from the routine need for good to triumph over evil; any other interpersonal conflicts the film explores (and thankfully, there are many) merely seem to be happenstance. While Loki occasionally has the opportunity to display his particular brand of maliciousness (trickery), his grasp of human psychology seems tenuous at best. His gibberish about humans being made for subjugation is particularly void of merit; super villains are often more compelling when there’s something substantive at the core of the beliefs that motivate them to their heinous acts. However, that’s the last of anything even mildly negative about the film.

Much of what makes the film work so well is the mileage Whedon is able to get out of interpersonal conflict amongst the Avengers themselves, and the friction generated when so many powerful and well-developed characters are put into a room together (a staple of any Marvel super team). In addition to Loki, each of the characters faces more personal struggles stemming from their pasts, their personalities, or their powers. Whdeon seems to have had the most fun writing for Iron Man and Hulk. Tony Stark is the closest equivalent the film has to a quipster (a stock Whedon character), whereas Hulk nicely serves many different dramatic functions (and gets nearly all of the film’s biggest laughs). More than any of the others, Bruce Banner is tortured by his “superpower,” which in itself provides good dramatic material, as does the unease it creates in his allies. As the strongest and wildest character in the Marvel universe, the other characters are rightly afraid of the potential for the Hulk to become unleashed in a contained space, and the film’s lengthy middle, aboard a flying S.H.I.E.L.D. aircraft carrier, gains much of its gravitas from the possibility of Banner losing control and Hulking out. This gravitas is paid off nicely when Banner does indeed transform, with only a terrified Black Widow around to serve as the focus for his rage. This is a particularly smart choice; she is the least super-powered of the group, relying on martial artistry, subterfuge, and psychological manipulation to achieve her ends (we see this repeatedly in her interrogation methods), so she has no other recourse but to flee in terror when confronted with an unstoppable, unreasonable, irrational force (and her terror is very well-played by Scar Jo, who shakes visibly after nearly getting destroyed).

The climactic battle is particularly masterful, pitting the Avengers against an invading army of aliens flowing through a wormhole into the streets and skies of New York. It is worth a detailed discussion, as it is one of the best team-oriented superhero action scenes I’ve seen – much better than anything on offer in the X-Men films, for example. Whedon is able to clearly convey how the team works as a cohesive unit both stylistically and narratively. Captain America serves an important function in this regard. As the battle commences, he takes charge, and dictates to the audience as much as to the other members of the Avengers what role of each of them will play in the following fracas, making the action much more comprehensible, both by making it easy to understand where certain actions are taking place in relation to one another, as well as why the film’s six heroes are able to corral an invading army of soldiers on hover-chariots and giant, flying, armored space worms. Once we know where each of the heroes will be, and what they will be doing, crosscutting back and forth between them is not confusing, nor is the way in which they communicate with each other (although the cohesiveness of the heroes’ plans does not make the invaders’ plan of attack any clearer, beyond “destroy cars and create fireballs”). Additionally, Captain America’s orders have the added bonus of clearly delineating the strengths of each of the superheroes, which in turn further supports the clarity of subsequent action.

Iron Man, the swiftest and most mobile of the bunch, is on perimeter duty, and it’s his job to prevent any enemies he faces from escaping a three-block radius. Thor is charged (nyuk nyuk) with using his command of lightning to bottleneck the wormhole that’s transporting the invaders to New York. Hawkeye is perhaps the most crucial of the bunch, as he takes the high ground and serves as a watchtower, picking off the occasional foe, but mostly alerting the other heroes (and viewers) of the status and whereabouts of clusters of invaders, civilians, and each of the heroes whereabouts in relation to one another. He’s largely the reason that the battle does not become illegible and incredulous – the heroes know where to go and what to do because of his vantage point, and he enables viewers to piece together individual skirmishes into a larger picture of the overall conflict. Black Widow and Captain America hold the center, duking it out with whatever invaders get past Thor, although Black Widow soon takes it upon herself to close the wormhole. And in a funny line, Captain America gives Hulk the only order he can really follow: “Smash.” Effectively, the Hulk functions as a wildcard, running amok throughout the battle, taking out both the human-sized invaders and the giant space worms, and in an extremely crowd-pleasing moment, even giving Loki a brutal thrashing.* Later, he is joined in his rampage by Thor.

However, this battle's impact is not derived solely from our understanding of the role each of these heroes serves; its grace also derives from film style. There are many shots in which we observe one hero battling the invaders, and though camera movement or the use of different spatial planes, another hero enters the frame, either battling their own set of enemies or supporting another hero who is about to be overwhelmed. The most visceral of such shots are those in which the battle is on the move through the air, weaving in, out, and around the buildings of New York. Three of the six characters can more or less fly (Iron Man is a rocket, while Thor and Hulk can leap tall buildings in a single bound, and Black Widow eventually steals a hover-chariot), creating the opportunity for shots in which Hulk or Thor are battling atop the back of a giant space-worm in the middle ground, and where Iron Man swoops into the frame in the foreground, shooting down hover-chariots in pursuit of Black Widow. Combined, all of these factors – our cognizance of the location and role of the heroes, their ability to communicate with and support one another, and the film’s graceful maneuverings between various segments of the action – do an excellent job of conveying the epic scale and scope of this confrontation, and the need for so many heroes of such high caliber to work together to stop it. This battle effective conveys what the Avengers were always meant to do in the comics – meet the challenges any of them would not be able to face alone in their solo titles, while also simultaneously overcoming their own personal shortcomings. As such, it’s a worthy adaptation that far exceeds the quality of any of these heroes’ individual feature films thus far. 

*The film is careful to demonstrate that the Hulk is triggered both by making Banner angry, but also as a sort of autonomic defense system – Banner will transform whenever he is placed in life-threatening situations, even ones of his own devising. However, to put on my nerd glasses for a moment, the film could have been a little clearer in explaining the degree of control to which the Hulk can be subjected. My (somewhat layman) understanding is that he’s like an overpowered toddler: you can give him suggestions and hope the he listens to them (relatively easy to do when his only instruction is to smash things), but that he can also have tantrums and focus his rage on whatever is closest at hand. The former describes the last scene of the film when, he is given free rein to smash, while the latter describes the middle section, where Banner is attacked on board the airship and loses control, and where only Black Widow has the misfortune of being nearby when it happens (fortunately for her, this film also has Thor).