Saturday, August 25, 2007

"I try to avoid eye contact to avoid being blinded by the earnestness.": Mad Men

Sorry this took so long. I'm at a wedding this weekend, and getting the hotel to like my computer and give it an Internet connection took way longer than it should have. -- ed.

This was probably my least favorite episode of Mad Men so far, largely because it treaded a little too far over the line of plausible deniability. I'm willing to buy that all of the guys at Sterling-Cooper are jackasses deep down who hide that under a facade of goodness that runs skin deep. The episode was surely entertaining, and it was good overall, but it didn't hit the heights that previous episodes did, simply because it lost its nerve in too many places.

The way that Mad Men creates tension is to butt the positions and thoughts of its characters up against our modern positions and thoughts. This is disconcerting to a lot of people, simply because it means that there isn't a lot of "plot" to take to heart. The show can also come off as cold and clinical if you can't get into its mindset. What's interesting is that the show's central conflict isn't really between two characters or even two groups of characters. The central conflict is between the characters and us. A lot of shows are trying a fancy new structure where you play out events in the future AND the past (Lost probably kicked off this trend, but Prison Break and Heroes have both messed with it, and Damages is basing a whole series around it). Mad Men is doing this without flashbacks or flash-fowards. We simply know that things are about to change for these people and that their casual self-love and ad copy writing skills will not be good enough. And the degree of change is what we fear (if, indeed, we care for the characters, which we may not). The world isn't just going to change briefly. It's going to change SEISMICALLY, and the characters we see on screen will probably spend a lot of time in our world calling in to talk radio shows and complaining about how the world's gone to Hell.

But all of this only works if the show doesn't call attention to these facts. And this episode tried a little too hard to remind us that these guys could be real bastards (I mean, "like a dog that plays the piano" is a funny line, but it felt a bit too much like the show trying to rub in that these guys held sexist attitudes). I know that there were female copy writers at the time (even the show reminded us of this in episode two). I even know that there were female executives at the time (indeed, Rachel Menken is a regular). But I can suspend my disbelief far enough to believe that all of these middle-aged white guys were so self-satisfied and smug that they would just ignore the slowly turning tide and presume things would always be the same. When the show rubs in too much that these guys have retrograde opinions, it takes me out of the moment. Having known bigots, I know that they don't spend every waking moment expressing their bigotry. They usually do so subtly. No one wants to be a jerkass in public.

The episode also contained some overbearing symbolism in the form of the caged canary that Roger got for Joan (revealed, finally, to be his mistress and a woman who relishes the way her sexuality gives her a measure of independence, though we sense she must be aware those years for her are drawing to a close -- but damn did Christina Hendricks look like a million bucks in this episode). Yes. We get it. Joan, as with most of the women directing in the Sterling-Cooper orbit, is trapped. While I loved the way that this episode humanized and filled-out Joan (loved that line about the food by the bed being like a hospital, which said so much about the pain she suffered in the past without coming right out with it), I could have done without that heavy-handedness, which wasn't like Mad Men at all (and rather more like the "Inside Mad Men" segments AMC airs after the episodes). Still, it was almost worth it all for that gorgeous final shot, held for a long moment, of Roger and Joan standing several yards apart, waiting for respective rides. It encapsulated the plight of Joan, who is the love of Roger's life but only for the moment, in a way the heavy-handed symbol couldn't hope to do. (There were some other nice moments in the story, as when Roger admitted that he was about to leave his wife until he met Joan. Guys talk about always being in the friend zone with girls, but is there a "mistress zone" the other woman always finds herself in? If so, Joan would seem to perpetually be there.)

We got a few interesting hints about Don's past in a weird little dream sequence that opened the episode. And we got to see him thrust into a situation he obviously didn't belong in (Jon Hamm continues to play this role perfectly, and the scene in the beatnik club -- overplayed beatniks aside -- was another winning moment for him). What's interesting to me, though, is how he needs very different things from his wife, his mistress and his would-be lover. He seems to turn to his wife for a very safe vision of what he thinks he wants. He's much more passionate with his mistress. And he's positively smitten around Rachel, almost as though he senses that in this woman is everything he might want but he doesn't know how to approach that (well, to be fair, we've gotten hints that Betty and Midge have more to them than he gives them credit for, but Don's just that kind of guy -- he's not going to suddenly realize that Betty has unplumbed depths in her sexuality).

By far the plotline I found the most interesting was Peggy's accidental advancement to copy writer. It's always felt that the show was building to this by making Peggy such an integral part of the show, but it was fascinating to finally see it happen, and Peggy's lines were cute enough to be believable as ad copy. I have a feeling that Peggy is as integral to the show's long-term storyline as Don Draper is (in fact, I see her, Don and Pete as the show's three story "engines" -- the characters that drive the story). I can't wait to see what happens next.

As always, what happened here was better than most other shows, but it didn't match the heights Mad Men set for itself in the five previous episodes. Here's hoping episode seven jumps up to that level again.

1 comment:

Marilyn said...

As I was watching this episode -- the first half bored me and later I watched the second half -- I found myself thinking, "I'm beginning to hate this show." I really don't like any of the characters, and the unreal, vintage quality I liked at first now seems an obstacle bet. me and the characters' emotional reality. I agree, the bigotry seems exaggerated. Everything seems over the top except the immediacy to the characters' feelings. Like I'm watching them through cellophane.