Monday, April 14, 2008

Mad Men redux: The time machine

(Note: Because AMC has been rerunning the first season of "Mad Men" every Sunday at midnight, and because a lot of people missed the show the first time around, I'm reposting my blog reviews for each episode the morning after. These are written as they were back in the summer/early fall; if I feel differently about anything in retrospect, I'll mention it in the comments.)

Spoilers for the "Mad Men" season finale coming up just as soon as someone tells me how long 20 minutes is...

How freakin' great was Don Draper's sales pitch to the Kodak people? So great that he wowed the Kodak guys into cancelling their other pitches. So great that it made me want to invest in a slide projector even in this age of digital photography. So great that it sold Don himself on illusion of the happy life he appears to share with Betty.

It's just too bad Don bought his own BS at the exact moment that Betty finally learned to see through it.

"The Wheel" had some questionable moments -- I'm still wrestling with how I feel about Peggy giving birth (more below) -- but that mesmerizing sales pitch scene, coming on the heels of Betty turning the tables and sending Don a message through her shrink, reaffirmed how much I love this show and how much I'm going to miss it until it comes back (more below on that as well).

I'll take Don's epiphany before Betty's. Though the matter of The Box was largely settled during last week's magnificent Don/Pete showdown, Don didn't find out until tonight that Adam had killed himself shortly after sending it. When I wrote last week about the horrible realization of Don abandoning his brother, I was referring both to leaving young Adam behind on the train platform but also to paying him off and sending him away in the present. In that moment when he talked to the fleabag hotel manager, Don came to the same realization I did -- that his cowardice and self-interest can have a dire cost on the people around him -- and it played out in maybe my favorite shot of the series, as the camera pulled back from Don, his face buried in his hands, his entire body aglow in the light from the desk lamp. (This was Matthew Weiner's directorial debut, and he did a fantastic job, as well as on the script.) Don may have run away from everything in his life, up to and including his own name, but he can't escape the basic truth of who and what he is and how much damage he does to the people around him.

Faced with the twin gutpunch of losing Adam and then finding out that Rachel Menken had, upon glimpsing the true face of Dick Whitman, gone on a three-month cruise, Don seemed to recognize that it was time to stop running -- or, at least, that he has nowhere left to run to. Harry's latenight, tighty-whitie-enhanced speech about the cavemen handprints reaching out to him from the distant past, gave him the Eureka moment for the Carousel sales pitch, and as he sold the Kodak guys on his vision -- "This device isn't a space ship. It's a time machine." -- he bought into all those Norman Rockwell images of himself, Betty and the kids.

(Interesting how, once again, Don has a chance to do a forward-thinking campaign -- the Kodak people specifically want the ad to include references to R&D and the science of the projector -- and once again chooses to go the nostalgic route. It works brilliantly for him here, but it's been a recurring theme of the series that Sterling Cooper is on the wrong side of a cultural shift, and I wonder if later seasons will deal with Don struggling to seem current.)

Betty, meanwhile, finally is forced to stop acting like a child and confront the reaity of Don's adultery. I love that it's so obvious to the world that Don is screwing around that Betty's friend Francine comes to her for advice on how to deal with news of her own husband's cheating, and yet Betty's oblivious. And even after that scene, she might have choosen to keep playing ostrich if only Don had given the right answer to her question about why Francine's husband would cheat. Something like "Because he's weak and selfish" or "Because he's a jerk and I've never liked him" -- anything but Don's self-incriminatingly vague "Who knows why people do what they do?"

After figuring out that Don and her shrink are regularly chatting about her sessions, Betty tries to seek comfort from, of all people, Helen the divorcee's creepy son Glenn -- another sign of Betty's own arrested development -- before realizing that she can turn this all to her advantage. She may not have the strength to confront Don directly, but she knows that her shrink is telling Don everything about her sessions, so why not send a message through him? (An added bonus: it makes her seem more sympathetic to the shrink, rather than just some spoiled housewife who keeps whining about her dead mother.)

Other cable shows have ended their first season with the anti-hero's wife packing up the kids and leaving (both "The Shield" and "Rescue Me" did it), but the difference here is that Betty's Thanksgiving trip was already planned. All Don did was fail to come home in time to join them. Among the many things I look forward to in season two (barring a time jump; again, see below) is how much, if at all, these epiphanies change the nature of the Draper marriage. After all, Weiner studied at the foot of David Chase, a man who clearly believed human beings to be incapable of real, lasting change. Will Don really dedicate himself to the marriage, or will he latch on to the next sophisticiated brunette he meets? Will Betty find a backbone, or will she go back to letting Don do all the thinking for her after he shows her a little extra affection?

I'm not sure I know what to think about Peggy giving birth. When she first started to gain the weight, it seemed an obvious direction. She had, after all, both gone on the pill and had sex with Pete in the very first episode -- Chekhov's "when you show a gun in the first act" and all that -- and it might have been an interesting direction to see Peggy try to deal with the Mommy Trap at the exact moment her copy writing career was beginning to blossom. But as the weeks went on with no reference to Peggy being with child, I became far more intrigued by the alternate explanations: that she was sublimating her desire for Pete with food, that she was subconsciously packing on the weight so the men of the office would stop looking at her like a conquest and more like a colleague, whatever.

So when Peggy wound up at the hospital and was revealed to be pregnant -- news to her as well as us -- I wasn't exactly thrilled. I can work around Peggy not questioning her lack of menstruation as a sign of both the times and her relative lack of sophistication, but it still doesn't completely sit right with me. Based on her refusal to look at the baby in the recovery room, my guess is she gives it up and shows up for work on Monday like nothing ever happened. That in itself says something interesting (and tragic) about Peggy's character, but it feels a little more predictable and TV-like than some of the other options.

Still, the moment when Don promoted her to junior copywriter was a glorious one. Previous episodes had established that she had real writing chops, and the subplot here with her and Ken trying to cast the radio spot showed that she was starting to learn to play the game. Not only was she willing to cut her losses quickly when it became obvious that she had made the wrong choice, but she fired the actress in such a way that she knew could get Ken laid if he wanted. Peggy's not some kind of feminist symbol, and I like that she has her own agenda that sometimes leads her to sacrifice her ideals about fair play and proper treatment.

Peggy's promotion was also great because it was yet another indignity for the loathsome Pete. After his humiliating defeat in Bert Cooper's office last week, he discovers that he'll continue having to live off of hand-outs from one set of parents or the other. He tries to play landing the Clearasil account as some kind of tremendous achievement, but even though Don (briefly) takes pity on him and pretends that he's impressed, both men know it's just another in a long list of Pete skating by based on family connections. And even that small moment of triumph gets ruined for Pete when Don -- who has finally learned to see Peggy as both a writer and a person worthy of his respect -- decides to assign the Clearasil campaign to Peggy. Pete exiting the season in a huff seems about right.

What a brilliant show.

Some other thoughts on "The Wheel":
  • Though I'm ambivalent about the pregnancy reveal, it did work nicely in parallel with a couple of the men's stories. First, we have Pete's in-laws pressuring him to give them a grandchild at the exact moment that Pete's illegitimate offspring is born. Second, Peggy's baby's a "whore child," not in the literal sense that Dick Whitman was, but in how he'll be treated by society if his true parentage is known. (And if the baby gets adopted, he'll be raised by others the way Dick was.)
  • Duck Phillips has only had the head of accounts job for one episode, but already, he's distinguished himself from Roger in a crucial way: he turned down the offer of a drink in the middle of a work day. Given the gossip we heard last week about his London meltdown, I'm guessing he's a recovering alcoholic.
  • After their amazing party sequence last week, the supporting cast largely takes a backseat to our four main characters in the finale. But I really liked the glimpses of Harry -- who had clearly confessed to his wife at the earliest opportunity -- crashing at the office and roaming around in his unflattering undies. Compare that to secretive Don, who even when he sleeps in his office manages to look dashing.
  • Weiner apparently said in an early interview that he'd like each season to pick up two years after the previous one ended, so that he could cover the entire '60s in a five-season period. I don't know that I love the idea -- too many things happened late this season that I want to see immediate follow-up to (Peggy's promotion and whatever choice she makes about the baby, Betty's newfound awareness of Don's infidelity, Don's ascension to partner and Roger's health problems, etc.) -- but it would appear Weiner's backing away from the idea. At the very least, he doesn't want to commit to it, judging by this great, in-depth interview Maureen Ryan did with him a few days back. In the interview, Weiner also talks about how he wants to go back into production by November so they can be back on the air by June. I really hope there isn't a writer's strike, or "Mad Men" will be one of many, many shows that will get stuck in limbo until the labor dispute is resolved.
What did everybody else think?


Alan Sepinwall said...

I really hope there isn't a writer's strike, or "Mad Men" will be one of many, many shows that will get stuck in limbo until the labor dispute is resolved.

Obviously, the strike happened, but the second season shouldn't be too far off schedule. AMC still says it's going to debut in summer.

Todd said...

I was at the PaleyFest event for this, and there was some buzz in the room there that it would be an August launch. Not sure it's smart to go up against the fall shows again, but this should be an anemic fall anyway.

rukrusher said...

I just wanted to pop in and note this was a surprisingly good show that I only watched because of Alan's initial review. I am looking forward to Season Two and hope we get the same level of excellence.

Anonymous said...

I'm not so worried about the August launch bumping up against the fall shows, but I do hope the Olympics don't take all the attention away.

Out of all the networks, who would have guessed that AMC would have the two best series of the season?

(Breaking Bad being the other)

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but every time I look at Peggy, I see Jiminy Glick. Was she carrying the child under her chin?

The thought of picking this up two years in the future is intriguing. Interested to see where we land. My criticism of Season 1 would be its uneven pacing. Perhaps some of the revelations from the penultimate episode could've been spread out just a bit. Admittedly, it made for a good episode, but it almost felt unnatural to throw that much at us.

Unknown said...

What a great show. Alan, thanks for re-posting the recaps. I have to say, as loathsome as Don can be sometimes, it's almost worth it just to watch him toy with Pete.

bobviegas said...

The last couple of episodes finally revealed some of Don Draper's weaknesses. When asked why men cheat, he felt cornered and said, "Who knows why people do what they do?" As an ad man, it's his job to know that. His knowledge of why people behave the way they do is what makes him successful in the business to begin with.

Also, can you imagine what an even more obnoxious jerk Pete would be after having read Ayn Rand? Hopefully we'll be spared that in season two!

Anonymous said...

What a great show. Thanks to Alan for reposting the recaps. Personally, I don't think that a two-year fast forward for season two would necessarily be a bad thing. This show has always struck me as more of an atmospheric character study rather than a plot driven narrative. Not to mention, if the Nixon-Kennedy election framed some of the off-hours debauchery this season, can you imagine how the staff would respond to the Cuban Missile Crisis?

ProudTexasWoman said...

Good call pointing out the show would love the chance to show everybody responding to the missile crisis. As we now know, you were entirely right.