Are we all praying for Don Draper to find peace? Is that what it means to be a viewer of “Mad Men”?
I didn’t write last week because I didn’t have any immediate thoughts about the episode.
Narrative television organized into seasons has the rhythm of an album: Open with a showstopper, then switch tones. The slower episode allows time to move some pieces into place. I wouldn’t call episode 3 boring, exactly, but even its climaxes–like Trudy kicking Pete out of the house–were opening shots. This season is going to watch those storylines move, and I expect that we’ll see Trudy later this season in an even more explosive scene.
The nature of criticism, and especially television criticism, capitalizes on symbolism. I mean this also in the way of capitalizing interest, as symbolism overlaps symbolism. For example, I wrote in my “Mad Men” season six premiere review about the overt symbolism of Don Draper’s fall in the series’ credit sequence. In season 5, when Don encountered the empty elevator shaft, the symbolism of “the fall” deepened. In this episode in particular, we only see Sylvia in two scenes: in the elevator, and in bed with Don. When we see Don and Sylvia meet in between floors, their affair is linked with the doom of Don’s symbolic fall.
While symbolism variegates and deepens over the course of the series, narrative continuity and callbacks encourage our reading of characters as foils for one another. Tonight, we can compare Don with Pete, who often seems to be the version of Don with more entitlement and less shame. Even as Draper continues to sleaze it up, at least he responds with appropriate disgust when Pete offers him the opportunity to use his bachelor pad any time he wants. We can also compare Don with Peggy, who really kicked some Draper ass in the pitch. I had a moment of breath-catching dread as we watched both teams face off in the hotel hallway. For a minute, I was afraid that we wouldn’t actually see Peggy’s pitch, that like Don’s ad, we’d be left wanting for the missing piece. But it was refreshing to see Peggy so completely own that meeting, and great to watch Don’s loser face (yes, he knew he lost) as he listened through the door.
We can also compare Harry Crane to virtually any other character (except Pete) and find him wanting. Crane just found himself a powerful enemy in Joan, and he showed how ungentlemanly he is to the core. I find the “Mad Men” sleaze-o-meter to be a huge part of the fun of the show. If I had to rank the male characters from most to least odious: Peter Campbell, Greg Harris, Paul Kinsey, Harry Crane, Roger Sterling, Don Draper, Lane Pryce, Harry Francis, Bert Cooper. How would you rank them?
The women of the series also act as foils for one another, particularly as we compare their reach for equality and the obstacles they face. Joan and Betty are generally perceived as essentially being too old for feminism–not in terms of involvement, but in terms of its real-world effect on their lives. Even though Joan is a partner, the first 15 years of her life working for Sterling Cooper fixed her in that office. No matter what happens to Betty, she already has three children that she most likely did not want. We can hope for individual improvement to their lives, but we can’t count on any sort of institutional protection for them, like the kind that Dawn receives in this episode.
Finally, I’m very interested in how this ensemble uses short splices and quick moments to tell larger stories. Shorter scenes allow for a more symbolic reading: for example, I noted that we only see Sylvia in the elevator and in bed. Similarly, we first see Megan wearing a wig in this episode, then we see her at dinner (without the wig), then back to the wig, then taking the wig off. We also see her acting in this very artificial love scene, and we witness an ugly fight between her and Don as she pulls her wig off. Megan is a character who has always tested the audiences ideas of authenticity and artificiality–the slow reveal that she was an actress; the suspense of her career at and abrupt resignation from SCDP, and by showing her in these short, segmented scenes, we can focus even tighter on how she demonstrates artificiality and masking.
Of course, the scene between Megan and her costar is blocked almost identically to the scene that follows, when Don beds Sylvia again. So our scant Sylvia scene time in this episode (a pattern so far this season) gives us two big symbols: Don’s fall and artificiality.
Any ideas what’s coming next?