Sunday, November 01, 2009

Mad Men, "The Grown-Ups": Watching too much television

Spoilers for the penultimate episode of "Mad Men" season three coming up just as soon as I take you to see "Singin' in the Rain"...
"The Kennedy assassination is very well-trod territory, and I just don't see myself adding (anything) new to that." -Matthew Weiner, at the end of season two
Weiner, like any artist, is allowed to change his mind, and so season three wound up not only including the Kennedy assassination, but confronting it head-on. But after seeing the finished product - the first episode of season three I've found truly disappointing - I can understand why he was initially reluctant to do it.

On the one hand, this is a series about the social change that came in the '60s, and so you can't not deal with Kennedy's death in some way. It would feel like either a cheat, or simply a glaring hole in the narrative. But on the other, Weiner was right that the assassination itself, and how people learned of and reacted to it, has been told so many times that there simply wasn't a lot that he (in a script co-written with Brett Johnson) could add to it.

With season one's episode about the Nixon vs. Kennedy election, or season two's Cuban Missile Crisis finale, the show took the approach of showing that even in the midst of a presidential election, or the potential end of the world, people were still caught up in the drama of their own lives. But even more than the Cuban Missile Crisis (which was an abstraction - the threat of something happening, rather than something actually happening), Kennedy's assassination was such an enormous event that it took over everyone's life for a little while. And many people spent those tumultuous days doing exactly what Pete and Trudy, and Betty, and the gang in the kitchen at the wedding - and characters in so many other JFK-era dramatizations - did, which was to sit in front of the television and try to process all of the bizarre, horrible things that were happening.

In the end, I don't know that Weiner had a choice, either about doing an episode about the assassination, or about showing the characters largely being passive, frustrated observers to it all.

But if it was necessary, it wasn't very satisfying to watch - watching a TV show about characters glued to their TV sets feels particularly slothful - and it felt even more unsatisfying coming on the heels of the astonishing second half of last week's "The Gypsy and the Hobo." "Mad Men" tends to go back and forth between telling larger stories of the '60s and smaller stories of the characters - and, at its best, stories that combine the two - and the shift from the important (to us) but (to the world at large) small moment where Betty learns the truth about Dick Whitman to the more sweeping yet (to our characters) remote story of JFK being killed was jarring. Since I realized when this season was set, and certainly since I saw the date of Margaret's wedding on the invitation(*), I've been waiting to see how "Mad Men" would deal with the assassination. But now that we're here, I find myself wishing they had pushed it off for a bit so we could have seen more of how Betty was dealing with this new information, and what the state of the Draper marriage was before Betty decided to end it.

(*) I'm not usually a good prognosticator, but I was pleased to see that I was right in assuming that Roger would stubbornly go through with the wedding, that it would be sparsely-attended, and that most of the guests would be miserable. Margaret's wailing, "It's all ruined!" reaction to the assassination was a nice reminder that not everyone was so devastated by the death itself.

Now, the fact that Betty's willing to walk away from Don (and into the arms of Henry Francis) should more or less tell you what the state of the marriage was. But we closed "The Gypsy and the Hobo" on a somewhat hopeful note: Betty hadn't asked Don to leave, wanted to go trick-or-treating with him and the kids, offered him the last bite of her sandwich, etc., while Don seemed relieved to have the burden of the secret lifted. Then the Drapers are largely invisible in this one at first (Don and Betty don't appear at all, alone or together for the first 10 minutes), and then they're dealing with reactions to Kennedy's death, and then Betty's eyeing Henry at the wedding. It's clear from their reactions to the kiss on the dance floor - Don looks hungrier for his wife than ever before, where Betty is lost in thought and a bit puzzled - that they're moving in different directions, but I think an opportunity was missed to show Betty going from Point A (interested in saving the marriage) to Point B (recognizing it as a lost cause).

Weiner apparently said in one of those "Inside Mad Men" features on AMC's website that Betty originally planned to move herself and the kids permanently to Philadelphia, and only went back to Don after the lawyer's advice was so depressing. In that light, Betty's emotional journey makes more sense - the Dick Whitman revelation was only a temporary blip in her desire to get the hell away from this man who's always been like a stranger to her - but in terms of what's been shown on the screen, rather than explained in an on-line footnote, I wanted more middle. I wanted to see how, if at all, Don and Betty's interaction changed after this news, to see how Betty viewed her husband now, how Don acted at home, etc., and aside from their brief moment in Gene's room in the middle of the night, there was no time for that with all the JFK drama unfolding.

And I wanted all of that because it feels like the relationship has now passed a point of no return, so we're never going to get a chance to see this in the future. Betty has now declared her desire to end the marriage twice, and while she took him back once, it would be tedious if the show kept breaking them up and putting them together again - especially since Betty only really took him back the last time because she was afraid to have the baby alone.

And that in turn raises a troubling question about what happens to Betty going forward. Betty has only ever figured into the story as she relates to Don, and we've seen this season with Joan and, especially, Sal, how easily characters who don't work at Sterling Cooper and/or don't have relationships with characters who work there can fall off the map. If Betty follows through on her plan to end the marriage, where does that leave her in the larger story? Will we have random, disconnected subplots about what Betty, Henry and the kids are up to? Or will the reality of Henry turn out to be so different from the fantasy of him that Betty will run screaming back to Don, and have Don (yawn) take her back?

I'm a little under the weather, so in the interests of both coherence and my health, I'm going straight to the bullet points to discuss everything else:

• Because Pete and Betty have so much in common as people (which I talked about at length in my review of season two's "The Inheritance"), their stories often tend to move in parallel. So in the same episode where Betty decides she's finally fed up with being Mrs. Don Draper, Pete has had enough of being at Sterling Cooper. I liked how Lane spelled out the difference between Ken and Pete's approaches, and how Pete - who always tries too hard at everything because he doesn't know how to be a real boy - doesn't understand why his approach is less appealing than Ken's. How do you suppose he'll react, though, to the idea of working with Duck should he find out that Duck is with Peggy?

• Whenever someone asks me if any character on this show is actually happy or well-adjusted, I always point to Kenny and his haircut (as Pete describes Mr. Cosgrove), but I guess the downside to that is that the writers don't have the time or interest in crafting stories about someone who isn't disappointed in his life or at any kind of personal or career cross-roads. Ken stories in the first two seasons were usually about how other characters reacted to him (Pete being jealous about the short story, Sal having a crush on him), and this year, we haven't even seen that much of our new Senior Vice President of Account Services.

• Carla Gallo makes her first appearance since the season's fourth episode as Peggy's roommate Karen, and it's clear from their conversation that the two are every bit the mismatched disaster they seemed back when Peggy was trying to sell herself as "fun" in their initial meeting. I liked Karen's confusion at learning that Duck was unmarried - "Oh. Then why are you with him?" - since to her (and, based on reactions to the first Peggy/Duck episode, to much of the audience) the relationship makes no sense if it's not a simple affair.

• And if I was Peggy, I would want to get as far away from Herman (Duck) Phillips as I possibly could. He's turned her into his new addiction - cajoling her to blow off Kurt and Smitty (his "a couple of homos" joke was half-right) for a nooner, inhaling cigarettes while waiting for her, and unplugging the TV so that news of Kennedy's shooting wouldn't get in the way of their sex. Fortunately, you could see alarm on Peggy's face when he put the TV back on - not only about the news itself, but about the realization that he tried to keep it from her until after he did his business.

• This week's episode was directed by Barbet Schroeder, probably best known for directing Jeremy Irons to an Oscar in "Reversal of Fortune" or, to lesser acclaim, sending Jennifer Jason Leigh after Bridget Fonda in "Single White Female" (another story of female roommates who probably shouldn't have been). I particularly liked the way he shot the moment where Betty emerges from the lady's room and sees both her husband her potential lover standing in front of her, as if both she and we aren't sure to whom she'll approach.

• I'll give Roger Sterling this: he may be selfish, and childish, and a boor, but the man gives a good speech. His introduction for Don at the 40th anniversary dinner was terrific, and his toast at the otherwise disastrous wedding reception was even better, finding a way to make the decision to go through with the ceremony seem noble, rather than stubborn.

• There was a lot of discussion after last week's episode about whether Roger, when dismissing Annabelle as The One, was thinking of Jane, or of Joan. I'm not sure it's either one - I think Roger's probably too cynical to believe in a greeting card concept like The One - and I still think he never would have been happy marrying Joan (she's too strong-willed and has too much baggage for him), but it was clear last week, and even more clear here, that she matters very much to him. She's the one he wants to talk to at the end of that awful day, not his drunken child bride (who, in one of the funnier lines of the episode, complains that she won't ever get to vote for Kennedy), nor his ex-wife (though it's clear from their phone call tag team on Margaret that they still can operate on the same wavelength from time to time), nor his drama queen daughter. And Joan still cares about him, too, just not enough to always indulge his neediness.

• While Walter Cronkite's reaction as he reports the official word of JFK's death is the most famous TV image from that day (and one of the most famous of all time), I thought it was a nice touch that the secretaries changed the channel in Harry's office from CBS to NBC, since Huntley/Brinkley were the more popular news team of the period.

• In his toast, Roger suggests that relative kids Margaret and Brooks are taking care of the adults, rather than the other way around, and while that's not really true (for Margaret, anyway), it was nice to see Sally immediately move to hug her mother upon news of the president's death. To a girl Sally's age, the death of a president isn't entirely real or relevant, but the pain of her mother was, and she reacted to that. Also, note how she (and, for that matter, Bobby) was painfully aware that her mother didn't in any way reaction to Don's presence in the kitchen on Monday morning?

• Don and Peggy, two peas in a pod: both wind up at the office because it's the only real home they have. And gold star to those of you who pointed out that the AquaNet commercial was supposed to evoke the Dallas motorcade, which the storyboard made very clear. Peggy's going to have a lot of rewriting to do over the next week.

Finally, I should warn you that this is the last episode of the season that I'm getting to see in advance. While AMC has sent out previous episodes for advance review to many critics, Weiner decided he wanted to keep the finale totally under wraps. So I'll be watching it live on Sunday night like the rest of you - and that, obviously, means that the review will not be posted right after the show ends on the East Coast the way it has all season. My plan is to do what I do for "Lost" finales, or for the later episodes of "The Sopranos" after David Chase also cut off the critics, and just stay up to write, but it may be a while. So don't lose any sleep waiting for it - and please don't send e-mails or post comments in other threads asking when the review will be done (or, worse, discussing the finale itself).

Keeping in mind the usual commenting rules (no spoilers, including talking about the previews, play nice with others, make an effort to read other people's comments so you're not asking the exact same question that's been answered six times already, etc.), what did everybody else think?


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PanAm53 said...

jenae: I wasn't thinking that "the Jewish question" would be answered, just that it would go way down on the list of discussion topics.

I too, was not thinking that Jane would be having babies.

Re suicide: I was not a believer in the popular theory on the talk forums that suggested allusions to the suicide of either Suzanne, Greg or Jane. In fact, I held the belief that Suzanne might be murdered. I cannot see any reason why Jane would commit suicide, and even Greg seemed to truly believe that his career as a surgeon was back on track with the military.

I hope that we will not be disappointed, but I am anticipating a shocking and truly unexpected Season 3 Mad Men finale. This is, after all, the first time that MW has withheld advance copies of an episode from critics. Joan's suicide would most certainly fit the bill!

Up until just recently, I could not understand why the character of Joan had such a cheering squad of fans. Most of the fans, having not been adults in the early 60s, believed that Greg had indeed raped Joan, yet they did not condemn her for marrying him anyway. I am one of the older folks who believe that what occurred between Joan and Greg would not have been considered rape at that time, but still question Joan's motives for the marriage. Frankly, it made her seem like a gold digger to me. While discussing this point on this forum, I came to a very sad realization about Joan: she felt that she did not have a choice. Even though she had a good job, and would be able to support herself, she was brought up to believe that, in order to be successful in life, she needed to marry a successful man who would take care of her. A man was the key to her self worth. Discovering that Greg was not the successful man who she believed him to be, means that she is a failure. Out of all the other characters, I believe that Joan is most likely to be suicidal.

After reviewing Season 1, I saw that the theme of suicide and, in particular, the suicide of Marilyn Monroe has been occurring since the inception of Mad Men.

Joan is a red-headed carbon copy of Marilyn. In one of the earlier episodes, in a scene between Joan and Roger, they discuss the movie "The Apartment" and Joan mentions the "poor girl" who was driven to suicide. Then there are the more recent allusions to suicide which have been discussed here.

Jape77 said...

OK, you Mad Men fans -- at least the ones who have been REALLY paying attention: you know there is NO point in trying to predict the direction of this show from week to week, but I'm still going to boldly lay down what I would love to see in the finale:

That Matt Weiner either open or close the episode with The Beatle's "A Hard Day's Night."

With that opening guitar cord? That would be awesome.

jenae said...

KcM wrote:
"Well, I see Jane's got herself a brand-new leopard-skin pill box hat."

ha! (catching fun stuff from page 1 that I missed.)

"Tell me, baby how (her) head feels under somethin' like that." ;)

jenae said...

PanAm53—agree that Joan married Greg ‘cause she saw him as the brass ring, not so much from deep love.

(I think she was shrewd enough to not try to steal Roger from Mona, as she saw that younger 2nd wife is not as high status as finding a super handsome—how Greg would be perceived by most then, though not by me now—successful, up-and-coming man her own age. That's the ideal: a young, tall, handsome prince charming.)

As for the suicide clues: well, they are there, but from Greg doing better to a warm call from Roger, it's hard to imagine the world could turn hopelessly dark for Joan in just one episode. With her beauty and competence, I'd think she could find something to live for. Maybe ten years from now if life goes poorly, then I could see suicide.

I agree that though Joan is smart as a whip and super sexy, but with her racist game playing with Paul's girlfriend and such, she's not especially virtuous.

Kind of amazing how much the choices Joan has made mirror Helen Gurley Brown's life story, as she told in the first chapter I think it was of "Sex and the Single Girl" where she advocated that career girls should put off marriage and have lots of fun sleeping with married men.

What year did that book come out?

jenae said...

Jape 77 wrote "...either open or close the episode with The Beatle's "A Hard Day's Night."

With that opening guitar cord? That would be awesome."


A few years ago I went to see the movie with a Beatle worshipping friend of mine. After waiting in a long line, I was buying a hot dog when that first chord sounded. I have never forgiven myself for that.

GWAM said...

* For posterity and those still yet to find this gem of a site: here's just another occasional, passing "four months later" note from the UK - long after the rest of the Sepinwall-MadMen bloggers have left Deely Plaza.


Wake up and smell the coffee.

Superb and sublime metaphor from Weiner to start this episode, which aired last night in Britain. A reference almost that this episode - pivoted as it was around one of the most iconic moments of the whole decade and the whole century, even - is a microcosmic study of the whole show.

The entire sub-text of Mad Men from the very first moment we ever saw Don sketching a Lucky Strike advert in Series 1 Episode 1 has been about waking up and smelling the coffee (the societal changes to come).

But this episode brought that whole gradual osmosis that we've witnessed throughout the first three seasons into a much sharper, instant focus.

Pete, quite literally woke up and smelled the coffee. It was instant. Literally. It was almost unpalatable to his refined taste. But somehow "it hit the spot". Like a bullet.

The whole of the rest of the episode was a study in those who were waking up and smelling the coffee in their own way.

Sterling Cooper had finally woken up and realised the difference between Pete's coldness and Ken's warmth (another great metaphor for people's reactions in this episode). Pete got the message, especially when he saw Ken helping out with the heater (to bring warmth!). Roger finally wakes up to his "instant coffee" Jane fix and wishes it was a full-bodied java like Joan. Don, asleep on the couch and literally woken up by Betty, finally realises how his walls have come crashing down. Betty wakes up to Don (and then falls asleep to the allure of Henry - hey what a weekend to mull over whether to be a politician's wife!). Peggy wakes up to her roomie and Duck (we hope). Trudy wakes up to SC. Kinsey, even, with the winkish nod to Peggy's nooner, now gets it.

It was written all over the episode.

People were either waking up or they weren't. Just like they have been in the whole show. Only this really seemed like a last chance saloon for most. The defining partition moment. Almost like a banner advert was trailed across the whole episode declaring "if you ain't got it by now you never will".

That's why I think Weiner has crafted this particular pre-Kennedy, pre-Beatles series to be so dark and stark. I get what Alan means by this episode's thinness. It was unsatisfying. But so has the whole series, to now. And that's been the bleak point of S3. Unlike the first two series which were over-satisfied (the "linger 50s" - I like that) and self-satisfied and just so sumptuous, S3 has been like dancing on the barbed wire that separates the 50s and 60s. You either stay behind, you cross over or you try to straddle both and get cut to shreds.

It's been a hard series. It has been soapy. But where's the problem? We're gonna see how people cope and react through the applied twin lens of their personal lives and the shift in advertising mores. That works.

Maybe it's time we just smelled the brew Weiner's made for us and accepted it.

Interesting that some think Dallas 63 marked the start of the 60s. No. It just marked the start of it for many in the US which in turn then shifted the global decade into a higher gear.

GWAM said...


Just watched it again and realised that it wasn't coffee that Pete woke up to but was in fact cocoa (like the fellow poster up there said, the one whom I thought couldn't distinguish between the two! my apologies!).

Still the metaphor works. Just. But maybe Weiner wasn't being so clever with his caffeine-based sub-texts! Nevertheless it was still an "epiphanies", "it's now or never so get with it" themed episode (Hey, I'm trying!!).

Even Sally and Bobby woke up and smelled the OJ in front of them that whiffed badly of "Mommy and Daddy" aren't happy with each other. Seems these subtleties can't be hidden from the Draper heirs any longer.

Ah well, I'll return here again for the finale (just cannot believe it's nearly over in the UK) and then I'll be able to peruse what other MM goodies are tucked around Sepinwall-land and I'll be able to monitor this superb blog in real time. For six months...

A thing like that!

*memo to self: watch the finale twice before posting*

Anonymous said...


I guess it was Journey to Italy by neorealistic director Roberto Rossellini (Isabella's father).


Anonymous said...

Joseph again, making my way forward through this detailed rewatch.

I skimmed and searched and I don't think anyone said this, which of course leads me to suspect I'm simply mistaken.

But I think in large part, Betty decides to give up on Don because he lied one more time: He said everything was going to be okay, at the wedding. And then Oswald was shot right before her eyes. And he reached out to comfort her, and her reaction was essentially, "Frak you, Dick; you said everything would be okay. You obviously have no idea what's going on and you're full of crap and this house feels scary and your comfort means nothing, and even just when you say things will be okay, which is one of the few things I still want from you, even then I can't trust you at all. Don't even touch me. And stop making people shoot people."

And speaking of "frak you", call me slow but I just got that Boomer's assassination was an Oswald callback. Reading up on that Battlestar Galactica episode, I see they actually lined up the shot and all the extras to resemble the famous footage exactly. Super brilliantcoolgreat, and simultaneously, super heavy-handed... just like Mad Men. :)

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