Sunday, October 21, 2007

"This isn’t a spaceship--it’s a time machine. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.": Mad Men

Mad Men's last two episodes of its first season were so good that they retroactively made an already pretty good season even better. The season was clicking along nicely enough before these two episodes, but these were revelations, the sorts of episodes that announce boldly that a show is here and it's going to be around for a while, attempting to challenge some of our ideas about its world and characters. The season finale, in particular, was maybe the best episode the show has done yet, even if one of its concluding moments seemed a bit false in the moment (even though we can see how the writing staff will write their way out of it). In an increasingly disappointing fall, I watched this episode four times, finding it the perfect antidote to a cluttered season full of disappointing returns and even more disappointing pilots.

The centerpiece of the episode was two monologues, stacked back to back, delivered by both partners in the Draper marriage. In their own ways, Don and Betty both had realizations about their marriage and how it's a front. For Betty, this was devastating, but for Don, it was oddly reassuring. Every aspect of Don's life is part of a grand performance, and as he gave that moving monologue/sales pitch about the power of nostalgia and the wounds of the past, he seemed to realize that the part of that performance he connected to the most involved the one thing he had that he hadn't had as Dick Whitman -- a family. It's a bit more complicated than that, since it's pretty clear that Don's love for Betty is as much wrapped up in his desire to protect and control her, but he does really long for the world presented in those photographs, so much so that he tries to rush home to head to a family Thanksgiving with Betty's family, whom he's not terribly fond of.

Betty, meanwhile, allows herself to admit that Don is hardly faithful to her -- far from it, in fact. It's clear that she's known about it for some time but refused to admit these things to herself. But when she crouches in the hall and finds out that Don has been calling her therapist every night, she's able to lash out at Don through him, in the only passive-aggressive way she knows how (Don's equally noncommital response to her question of why a husband would cheat on a wife -- he responds that no one knows why anyone does anything -- is what drove her to open up the floodgates of realization in the first place). I don't think these wounds are going to be enough to destroy the Draper marriage, but they're the first cracks in the facade. As much as Don wants to fill them, he's going to have trouble.

The episode's other major plot threads ran through Pete and Peggy, the other two major characters (the only characters who didn't appear were Rachel -- off on a cruise -- and Roger -- still recovering). Sure, we got some hints as to what was happening with the other characters (particularly Harry, who got his own monologue about cave paintings and tried to talk his way back into his marriage after he cheated on his wife on election night), but this episode was primarily interested in the ways the four main characters shifted and changed.

Pete (whom Andrew Johnston has called a George W. Bush standin over at House Next Door -- a reading that put the character into instantly sharper relief for me) tried to leverage his relationship with his father-in-law to land the Clearasil account. His father-in-law expressed certain misgivings, but he was able to pull off the deal, only to find that Don had handed over the copy writing on the job to Peggy, whom he promoted to junior copy writer. Pete and Peggy's storylines have collided throughout the season, often in unexpected ways, and it seems likely that these two are going to represent two faces of the future of Sterling Cooper in the seasons ahead.

Another collision between Pete and Peggy came when she gave birth to their baby. The show had seemingly set up Peggy to be pregnant, but then insisted that all that was going on was that she was gaining weight (possibly from sublimating her sexual desires for Pete). When she gave birth, it was a twist that came out of nowhere. The first time I watched the episode, I was convinced that the storyline was completely pointless and nutzo. But as I watched it more and more, I became convinced that Peggy's denial about the whole thing made the storyline work -- in a way, denial is a big part of Peggy's character (witness how she's almost sexist when casting the voice actor earlier in the episode). I can already see how the writers will get out of this plotline (Peggy was in such deep denial that it became a psychological issue, and she'll give the baby up for adoption), and I like the way it creates another Don Draper. I'm just not sure it should have come out of nowhere like that.

Small quibbles, though. This was my favorite show of the summer, and it just might be my favorite show of the year too. It'll be interesting to see what happens in season two.

1 comment:

Todd Epp at S.D. Watch said...

From one Todd to another:

I think the finale turned a good series with lots of potential into something now that could rival The Sopranos in terms of depth and nuance.

I also thought Don's "Carousel" monologue was the best bit of acting and writing on a drama in a very, very long time.

Love your blog!

Best regards,

Todd Epp