“A Tale of Two Cities” – Mad Men

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 7.25.07 PMOne could argue that, if it addressed any at all, Mad Men’s theme this week was a continuation of that in “The Better Half” – reappraisal. With “A Tale of Two Cities”, that reappraisal took a far subtler turn. Set against the background of the DNC’s failure to make ending the Vietnam War a platform priority at the 1968 convention, the episode was all about introspection and attempts at betterment.

We were pleased to see Joan taking center stage on this one, as it’s been far too long since she got a fair showing. She was also the most introspective and most determined character throughout. When presented with an opportunity, she looked at her life and saw it wanting. Her attempts to better her situation by advancing herself in SCDPCGC (now Sterling Cooper & Associates, thanks to Jim and Ted and their attempt to smooth things over with S, C and D) were great to see, and the myriad reactions to her ‘audacity’ were an interesting glimpse at the perceptions people (including Peggy!) had of a secretary trying to branch out. We were delighted by Joan’s betrayal of Pete, and rejoiced when she insisted on working the account herself. Her demeanor as she sat and took Ted and Pete’s accusations and disapproval was perfection. We’ve never liked Joan more. We also look forward to seeing how this arc progresses. Will Joan win the company the Avon account and, if she does, how will she fare running it?

Last week, the writers played around with Pete’s dissatisfaction with his life. So what’s new, right? This was different. For the first time, he was evaluating his position at SCDPCGC and wondering if it was enough for him. Wondering if he was being respected enough. Wondering if he should turn elsewhere for validation and employment. This week drove that home in a big way. “A Tale of Two Cities” left Pete feeling excluded. Bypassed by Joan, overridden by Ted, dismissed by Don… Pete’s got to be feeling like even more of a waste of space than usual. We have to wonder if Continue reading

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“The Better Half” – Mad Men

image29-600x399There are some episodes of Mad Men which make it inescapably clear that theme is very important to its writers. The vast majority of episodes of the AMC hit show play into one theme or another, but some highlight it far more explicitly. This was most definitely one of those. “The Better Half” overtly focused on reappraisal and review. Each of the main characters featured in the episode went through some sort of self-examination, looking at who they are and what their lives have become.

We open, as we so often do, by addressing Don. So much for our theory about hitting rock bottom and clawing his way back up to some semblance of maturity. Turns out he has a ways yet to go and rock bottom is far from reached. We had hoped that recent events would drive him back to Megan, and to that all too brief display of faithfulness we witnessed in Season 5. We couldn’t have been more wrong. While the episode did feature more self-assessment than we’re used to from Don – which would ordinarily be seen as a step in the right direction – it came in back of a ‘reconnection’ with ex-wife Betty (who, in turn, was riding high on her rediscovered sexuality). The self-assessment was relatively major stuff, for Don. An appraisal of his skills at work (brought about by Peggy’s apparent preference for all things Ted) and an honest look at how the choices he’s made have brought him to where he is now. His acknowledgement that sex doesn’t make him feel close to someone, so quickly followed by his desire to keep having sex with Betty, paints the picture of a man who is not necessarily in control of his desires, and of a man who knows it.

Betty’s self-appraisal ties into this. It’s clear that her sense of self-worth is massively related to her looks. From the episode’s outset, we’re presented with an all-new Betty. Though that’s not quite right. This is the old Betty. Confident, flirtatious, in control. The Betty we missed, in short. Wicked streak still intact, she’s nevertheless Continue reading

“The Crash” – Mad Men

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 10.13.47 PMAfter finally watching the full 42 minutes of this week’s Mad Men, all we can honestly say is this: we have no idea what just happened. Talk about a Lost Weekend (the episode’s similarities to this film are striking). It all made sense in an overarching kind of way, but the minute to minutes? So surreal. And chaotic. And choppy. And yeah, we know that’s what the writers were going for. We were supposed to feel like Don felt – lurching from one moment of lucidity to the next – and to a certain extent, we did. But, mostly, we just partook in his intense confusion.

The focus of the episode was, on the surface, the Chevy account. The opening moments of Chevy reps almost killing Ken while he’s driving their Impala set the tone for the rest of it. Exasperated recklessness. As with so many of Mad Men’s episodes, much of “The Crash” was rooted in subtext. Chevy’s disapproval of Don, and his inability to get them to even see him was linked to Sylvia to such a degree that the two became inseparable in Don’s mind and the minds of the viewers.

The plot was spurred on by the appearance of a quack doctor (Jim Cutler’s) providing amphetamine injections to anyone who wanted them. That is from whence all the chaos stemmed. Obviously it prompted much hilarity, both from those that took it and their more sober companions. It also prompted some revealing moments – Peggy’s apparent reluctance to push Stan away when he started trying his luck told of a woman unhappy with her life. Suddenly, it’s no longer just that she’s attracted to Ted, it’s that she wants something, anything, different from what she has now. When she told Stan “no”, she was trying to convince herself as much as him.

The race issue reared its ugly head again this week, with Continue reading

“Man With a Plan” – Mad Men

Screen Shot 2013-05-15 at 6.21.43 PMOh no. We recognize this feeling. We call it HBO-fatigue. It usually sets in roughly mid-season. All of a sudden, the closer in our episode queue we get to one of their titan shows, the stronger our feeling of dread. Perhaps we should assign that same fatigue to AMC, because guess what just set in with Mad Men? We’re not sure if it’s setting in because Mad Men isn’t as good as usual – we’re not even sure if it’s actually not as good as usual. But something has switched in our brains, and we suddenly find ourselves not wanting to watch at all. But we will persevere. We refuse to be bested by AMC-fatigue. We have been rewarded in the past for pushing through (see the latest season of Boardwalk Empire). We hope we’ll be rewarded this time.

And, with this episode, we almost were. There were a few aspects of “Man With a Plan” that made us glad we slogged through it – the advancement of Bob’s character and the attendant mystery that goes along with him, and Peggy’s dressing-down of Don – but the more subliminal developments were the ones that really held our attention. For the most part, these centered on Don (Mad Men is becoming even more the Don show than it ever was before – a feat we thought was impossible). This episode was all about power. Who has it and who doesn’t.

As SCDP and CGC merge, Don’s status as the most powerful man in any room is challenged. In Ted, he finally has some competition. Someone who is just as charismatic, more suave, more gallant, and more respectable and respectful. Ted is a threat. You can almost see Don realizing that. The majority of the episode revolves around Continue reading

“For Immediate Release” – Mad Men

Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 11.34.12 PMWe were actually a little bored by this week’s Mad Men. The infrequent sparks of feistiness were not enough to keep us entertained and, even though they more than compensated for that early ennui in terms of overall impression, the final few scenes were not enough to erase that feeling of exasperated frustration that had been building within us.

This is an exasperated frustration, we sense, that has been building in the characters, too. The episode title, “For Immediate Release”, pretty much sums it up. Each of the characters is looking for release in one form or another – Megan from her sexless marriage, Peggy from her steady (if imperfect) life with Abe, Ted from the stresses of his job (will his ‘release’ with Peggy be repeated, as she hopes?), Pete in a very base sense, Don from the shackles of Jaguar… each needed, sought and found their release.

The latter two ‘releases’ were those with the most far-reaching consequences. The episode, on a surface level, focused on the drive to take SCDP public, with an offering of shares being planned and plotted in back rooms. They were all set to make millions. And then Pete got caught in a cathouse by his (incredible hypocrite of a) father-in-law. Bang. Vicks is gone. That’s (apparently) a $9 million contract. This loss came mere hours after Continue reading

“The Flood” – Mad Men

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For the first time this season, we allowed ourselves to see what other critics have been seeing. Mad Men? It’s just not what it used to be. One particular review we read recently cited the show’s descent into a parody of itself as the reason for dipping ratings and plummeting interest, and that holds true. Week on week, Mad Men follows the same old tired rote and we learn little new about any of the characters. Don is a sad, old, pathetic philanderer with a dark past that no longer elicits sympathy from viewers. Joan is a bit of a bitch, with occasional moments of niceness. Roger is an alcoholic with occasional moments of profundity. Pete is a creep with (very) occasional moments of nobility. Betty is vaguely psychotic (illustrated perfectly this week by her insistence that Don drive through riots to collect his children), but we’re inclined, as we always were, to blame Don for that psychosis. All in all, this adds up to a show which could, potentially, bore us all too soon.

Aside from the encroaching boredom, we also had major issues (again!) with the treatment of race on the show. Focusing on the death of Martin Luther King, Jnr., predominantly from the viewpoint of the main (white) characters, while an interesting perspective, was not what we wanted to see. The episode should have delved into 1960s black America, not through the eyes of the white spectators but through those of the people who really lived it. The only problem is, we suspect, that the writers have no idea what that would look like.

The episode was not without merit. The Ginsberg storyline – being set up on dates by his father – was amusing, and kind of sweet. The meeting with crazy Randall the property insurance guy (William Mapother, Justified, Lost) was comical, and was a nice, lighthearted break from the heavier subject matter. The episode also marked one of the very few times we’ve Continue reading

“To Have and to Hold” – Mad Men

Screen Shot 2013-04-23 at 12.06.47 AMWe know we said we love every week’s Mad Men, but we especially love it when it’s this damn good. From start to finish, “To Have and to Hold” kept us smiling and laughing and dying to watch the next scene. If we’re honest, it was surprisingly uplifting. We’ve grown accustomed to a certain amount of grim, thought-provoking material, and to suddenly be presented with an episode full of fun was jarring – but in a good way. It was full of awkward(ly hilarious) moments, but very positive and lighthearted ones, too. We were also glad to see Joan getting a huge chunk of the screentime, finally.

And yet the writers never let this episode that was clearly intended to lighten the mood forget about the bigger, more serious issues. Elements of the season which were begun in other episodes were carried forward, and arcs for the future were started.

The big story of the week was Heinz Ketchup. Don and Pete met with Timmy (the ketchup rep, played by Kip Pardue) in private, then began working on a top secret campaign to woo him. Of course this backfired. They lost Ketchup and Baked Beans, leaving them up condiment creek without a client. While this will undoubtedly have ramifications for SCDP – particularly in relation to how clients perceive their so-called loyalty – the bigger story is who did win the account. CGC grabbed it right out of their hands with a pitch presented by Peggy. We’ve discussed how much she has become like Don, lately. Now she has eclipsed him. Seeing Peggy in direct competition with her former mentor, and seeing him losing, we had to wonder what it will do to Don’s psyche.

Not that we had to wonder for long. Another thread running through this episode relates to Megan and her successes on daytime TV. This week sees Continue reading

“Collaborators” – Mad Men

mad-men-christina-hendricks-season-6-collaborators-amcWhen the rest of our week goes to pot, we can always rely on Mad Men to set us back on the right track. The show simply never disappoints.

We’ve never really liked Don Draper. He’s charming and very likable, and we’re drawn to him, just as everyone is. And yet we’ve never liked him. We don’t want to like him. But the fact that he so blatantly threw a wrench into dealings with Jaguar just because he didn’t like Herb, and didn’t like what they’d all done to Joan? Well, we like him now. Don has always been muddy, morally speaking. After six years, we can confidently say that he has no qualms about cheating on his significant other, stealing another man’s identity, or any of the myriad of foibles in his arsenal. Yet here he is, this (to all intents and purposes) amoral (with immoral leanings) man, refusing to bow down to this pig of a man just because he’s their client. The fact that Joan retreats to hisoffice when Herb is in the building, and no one else’s, is very telling. It made us see Don in a new light, and made us like him, guiltlessly, just a little bit more.

And then immediately ridding us of that newfound appreciation, the remainder of the episode (as it pertained to Don) revolved around his ongoing affair with Sylvia. And this should really put Don’s flimsy morals to the test in the coming weeks. This week we were privy to the revelation that Megan had miscarried, and that she wants to discuss with Don the possibility of having children. Will this make a difference to his philandering? Will the fact that he and Megan are trying to have a baby cause him to at least reconsider? We’re not sure. But we have this overwhelming feeling that the affair can only end badly.

And Don is not the only one whose bed-hopping ways are causing trouble. Pete, ever trying to play with the big boys Continue reading

“The Doorway” – Mad Men

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 11.47.46 PMBeyond simply being a two-part episode, this fantastic season opener from Mad Men was an episode of two distinct halves, each with vastly differing tones. The first, a positive and optimistic look at the lives of our favorite characters. Don and Megan are happy and in love, Peggy is successful at her new job and happy with Abe, Betty is living a satisfying (if vaguely disturbing) life, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is thriving (though we can’t help noticing that Joan’s name still isn’t on the door). Even Roger, who is in the midst of a personal crisis only compounded by the death of his mother, is seemingly happy. Problems once arisen are disposed of quickly, and all with a lighthearted panache that was seldom seen during the previous season.

The second half could not be more different. This is when their lives all start to fall apart, and the carefully constructed illusion of perfection starts to unravel. Roger’s mother’s funeral is a disaster, and his daughter only pretends to care about him so she can ask him for money. Betty’s protégé, Sandy (a friend of Sally’s; played by Kerris Dorsey, Brothers & Sisters), leaves her far behind, and Sally has become a true teenager. Peggy is happy with Abe, but would be happier with Ted. Roger’s shoeshine dies, and he faces mortality and grief alone. And Don and Megan may be happy and in love, but that doesn’t stop Don being Don.

We should have at least seen that last one coming. The affair with the downstairs neighbor. We should have seen it a mile off. We wanted to believe that he had learned to be better than he was, but Continue reading