Mad Men: Season 7, Episode 14 – Person To Person

“You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you. And you realise you don’t even know what ‘it’ is.”

vlcsnap-2015-05-22-13h19m52s437

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Tricky things, series finales. You never quite know what you’re going to get. They range from the satisfying (Sons of Anarchy, Star Trek the Next Generation) to the absolutely perfect (MASH, Babylon 5) to the maddeningly obtuse and disappointing (The Sopranos, Lost, Quantum Leap). So what could we expect from the conclusion to one of the most critically acclaimed, understated dramas of recent times? Well, in keeping with the show’s consistent tone of understated subtlety, what we got was… an episode of Mad Men. Not showy, not spectacular, but as excellent as ever and a perfectly consistent and logical ending to a story that could never really end in a conclusive way. Continue reading “Mad Men: Season 7, Episode 14 – Person To Person”

Mad Men: Season 7, episode 13 – The Milk and Honey Route

“I’m jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past. I’m not able to do that. I remember things as they were.”

vlcsnap-2015-05-15-20h28m42s467

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Mad Men is not a show that does sentimentality. Emphatically not. However much you the audience may come to like these well-rounded but flawed characters, in the words of Game of Thrones, “if you’re hoping for a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention”. You might want things to turn out all right for the gang of misfits you’ve unwillingly come to love, but it ain’t gonna happen. First sign of a happy ending, and reality is going to jump up like a schoolyard bully and brutally beat them around the face until it all collapses into despair. Continue reading “Mad Men: Season 7, episode 13 – The Milk and Honey Route”

Mad Men: Season 7, Episode 8 – Severance

“When someone dies, you just want to make sense of it. But you can’t.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-07-19h04m52s220

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Rejoice, for Mad Men is back after its year-long ‘mid-season break’! Then weep, for this is the beginning of the last seven episodes we’ll get to spend with existentially-troubled cad Don Draper and his dysfunctional colleagues at Sterling Cooper & Partners. Continue reading “Mad Men: Season 7, Episode 8 – Severance”

Mad Men: Season 7, Episode 1–Time Zones

“There’s someone above you, and someone below you, and everyone’s buying everyone dinner.”

clip_image001

(SPOILER WARNING!)

It’s a long overdue welcome back for the ladies and gentlemen (mostly gentlemen) of Sterling Cooper & Partners, in the first half of the final season of Mad Men. Yes, while Matthew Weiner’s acclaimed drama may have one more episode than usual for this seventh, conclusive outing, the fourteen episodes are going to be split into two ‘half-seasons’, the first broadcast this April, the last next April. If you thought the ‘mid-season break’ was annoying in shows like Doctor Who or The Walking Dead, at least you don’t usually have to wait an entire year…

Continue reading “Mad Men: Season 7, Episode 1–Time Zones”

Mad Men: Season 6, Episode 13 – In Care Of

“I don’t know what I brought out in you, but I know there’s a good man in there.”

ScreenShot024

And so, another season of Mad Men draws to a close that is at once understated and powerful. Since the show is very much an ensemble piece, this season closer spent a little time on many of the characters whose plotlines have been in play this year. But once again, as ever, looming large over all of them was the dapper, tormented shadow of Don Draper.

Continue reading “Mad Men: Season 6, Episode 13 – In Care Of”

Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 13–The Phantom

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 13 YET.

“It’s a great sin to take advantage of hopeless people.”

MadMenDon

After the high drama of recent episodes – Joan’s prostitution, Peggy’s departure, Lane’s suicide – the finale to Mad Men’s fifth season felt somewhat more low key. It was a chance for the characters to take stock of where they’d been left by the tumultuous events of the year, both in their business and personal lives. It was notable that, this year more than any, there was no major historical event against which to juxtapose the characters, a sign perhaps that the drama itself is now more important than its context.

One of the things the show has often dealt with is the consequences of its characters’ actions, and this finale seemed to take most of its time in dealing with those. Mad Men’s plotlines never have what you could call conclusions, not really, but there were capstones – and consequences – to many of the subplots laid out this year.

Lane’s suicide has obviously affected everyone at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce very deeply (apart from anything else, they’re presumably going to have to rename the company). Yet, in keeping with the show’s usual dramatic subtlety, it was quite some way into the episode before anyone explicitly mentioned the matter. Initially, we got some sideways references to it: Lane’s empty chair at the partners’ meeting, Harry, Bert, and apparently others being less than keen to move into the office where this unspeakable event had happened.

Don seemed to be keeping it together, but from the very start his guilt seemed to be manifesting itself; initially as a troublesome toothache which he refused to see a dentist about, then increasingly with visions of his dead brother Adam. As noted by many Lane’s suicide (probably intentionally) mirrored Adam’s perfectly. Both hanged themselves after having been rejected by Don, and obviously Don (and the screenwriter) is acutely aware of the similarity.

In moral terms, Don’s treatment of Lane is far more defensible than his treatment of his brother, who he rejected to keep his former life as Dick Whitman a secret. As a partner in the agency who’d been found to be embezzling it and forging the accounts, Lane was clearly in an untenable positions, and Don at least did him the courtesy of allowing him to resign while keeping the embezzlement confidential (though this may have had more to do with Don worrying that a police investigation would turn up his own ongoing identity theft). Nonetheless, Don should have little to feel guilty about concerning Lane.

But that’s not how it works when somebody you’re close to kills himself, and the visions of Don’s brother may have more to do with reminding us that he really should feel responsible in that case. It’s a mark of the show’s attention to detail that they were able to hire Jay Paulson to return as Adam after having dispatched the character in the first season. He’s a distinctive enough actor for me to have recognised him immediately as the ‘phantom’ of the title when Don started seeing him out of the corner of his eye, tentatively asking, “Adam?”

These two manifestations of Don’s present and ongoing guilt finally came together as Don relented and wen to the dentist to see about his toothache. Knowledge of the show’s style meant that, as Don went under the gas and closed his eyes, then opened them again, I realised instantly that we were into one of the show’s ‘dream’ sequences. So it proved as Adam turned up, not to berate Don but offer a sad smile and another parallel to Lane: “I lost my job. Because I’m dead.” An unpleasant purple weal around his neck was proof enough of this, and Don pleaded, “Don’t go”. To which Adam’s response – “Don’t worry, I’ll hang around. Get it?” indicates that we’ll likely be seeing more of Don’s increasing burden of guilt when the show returns.

It doesn’t help that Lane’s death, along with a resurgence in business from Mohawk Airlines, has done the company pretty well financially. His life insurance payout is massive, and SCDP are the beneficiaries – shades of Death of a Salesman, which were further emphasised when Don insisted on paying $50,000 of the settlement to Lane’s widow.

The scene of Don visiting Mrs Pryce, and awkwardly trying to offer condolences only to be rejected coldly, was one of those supremely uncomfortable scenes Mad Men does so well. Embeth Davidtz as Rebecca Pryce has had almost nothing to do, acting wise, beyond a blithe ignorance of her husband’s misdeeds; now finally, she got a chance to show her acting mettle.  As the only other thing I’ve ever seen her in was the 1993 Evil Dead sequel Army of Darkness, I was pleasantly surprised by how good she was here. Keeping the traditional British restraint about grief, she coldly told Don, “It was wrong of you to fill a man like that with ambition” – probably the most succinct analysis of Lane’s downfall you could get. And she outright told Don that she knew this to be just an attempt to salve his own conscience, and that as far as she was concerned, it did nothing to alleviate his guilt. Ouch.

As this is Mad Men, and everyone has to be having a horrible time, Pete Campbell was doing pretty badly too. Pete’s one of those characters that, while impossible to like, I still can’t help feeling sorry for; as mentioned several weeks ago, absolutely nothing works out for him. His tragedy is that, like Don, he seems to have everything he should want, but like Don, it’s never enough. It’s ironic that this is the one way in which Pete truly is similar to his ‘hero’ Don.

This week, we got a resolution – of sorts – to his attempts to have a passionate affair a la Don, with fellow commuter’s wife Beth. After seeing Beth on the train, he was powerless to resist her invitation for a meaningless shag in the same hotel where she’d stood him up. Then she revealed that this would be the last time it would happen – she was off to have her depression treated (not for the first time) with electro convulsive therapy, and experience had taught her that she would likely not even remember him afterward.

This led to a rather heartbreaking scene as Pete blagged his way in to visit her at the hospital, only to discover that she’d already had the ECT and (apparently) really had forgotten who he was. Cue a long and surprisingly moving speech from Pete as he detailed the travails of the ‘friend’ he told Beth he was there to visit – actually, of course, a summation of his own emptiness and lack of fulfilment. It was delivered brilliantly by Vincent Kartheiser, who constantly manages – for me, anyway – to keep Pete straddling the line between loathsome and sympathetic.

At least one thing seemed to work out for him, though. Ending up in a fistfight on the commuter train with Beth’s husband Howard, he unwisely baited the no-nonsense conductor who broke up the fight, receiving a black eye for his trouble. Turning up battered at home led wife Trudy (Community’s Alison Brie, who we don’t see nearly enough of) to concede that his desire to rent an apartment back in Manhattan was probably a good idea. But what’s the betting that it’s not going to make him any happier?

At least we got a welcome return for Peggy Olson. I wouldn’t expect her to have left the show for good; after all, the very first episode began with her first day at the agency, and she’s been a crucial character since. Here, we saw that life at Cutler Gleason and Chaough may not be much better for her. Ted Chaough dragooned her into taking up smoking so she can work on a prospective Philip Morris account, and it’s no surprise that she followed her old boss’s example once again when times are hard – she went to the movies.

Where, as chance would have it, she met Don himself, also taking refuge from his troubles as he recovered from his tooth extraction (it must have been terrifying for him when the dentist told him he couldn’t smoke for 24 hours). Their scene together was touching; despite Peggy having only left a couple of weeks ago, they hugged like old friends who hadn’t seen each other for ages. The real chemistry between Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss was again in evidence as both feigned happiness, avoiding the subject of their current worries. At least Don’s regret over her departure was expressed; he seemed bitter and sad but proud when he told her, “that’s what happens when you help someone. They succeed and move on.” I doubt we’ve seen the last of Peggy (she was highlighted significantly in the closing montage); but I wonder where she’ll be when the show returns. Back at SCDP, or turning into a capable rival for Don elsewhere?

Thankfully, the often-too-perfect Megan was getting a serious dose of her husband’s usual sense of angst and futility. Her acting career is noticeably failing to take off (and her mother is none too sympathetic), and like Don, she took refuge in brooding and getting drunk. Jessica Pare is a perfectly capable actress, but I can certainly understand many people’s objection that Megan has little depth as a character beyond acting as a foil for Don’s insecurities. Here, finally, that mask of wholesomeness was nicely cracked.

After one of her friends begged her for an in with Don to be cast in a new SCDP commercial, Megan basically stabbed her in the back by trying to get the gig herself. Don was initially reluctant but eventually conceded, and in one of the episode’s last scenes, we saw that Megan had got the job. Terrific, perhaps, but a total abandonment of her earlier principled stance that she wanted to succeed on her own merit. She may be finally getting work, but it’s only because of her husband rather than her ability, and she betrayed a close friend to do so. Welcome properly to the world of Mad Men characters, Megan. (And that’s before you even consider that her mother is yet again entwined in the ‘understanding’ arms of Roger Sterling!)

The ep – and the season – concluded with one of its trademark musical montages, this time set to Nancy Sinatra’s hit of that year, ‘You Only Live Twice’. As usual – a highly appropriate choice – Don manages to both recall and subvert the archetype of James Bond as he walks away from Megan’s film set into the darkness. Hanging out at a bar, he was approached by, yet again, a shyly attractive young lady. And her friend. And his unspoken answer to their question – “Are you alone?” – was the cliffhanger on which this season left him. He’s spent the year trying hard to move away from the ‘old’ Don, only to find the consequences of his actions pushing him back into that role ever more. Will he have the strength to resist?

It’s been a great season, which was a relief after having waited nearly two years to see it. Matthew Weiner has, as ever, kept the show’s slow burning moodiness and character depth, so that truly dramatic events, when they come, are all the more shocking for it. It’s sad that we won’t be seeing any more of Lane, who really came into his own this year in terms of deep plotlines both humorous and sad, and Jared Harris deserves a nod for his likeable performance over the last three seasons. And I’m glad to see that Peggy’s departure from SCDP doesn’t mean her departure from the show. Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait as long for the next season as we did for this one!

Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 7–At the Codfish Ball

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 7 YET.

“It’s the future. That’s all I ever wanted.”

MadMenDrapers

After all the detailed character studies and complex dramatic structures of the last few weeks, Mad Men was back to being a relatively straightforward (though still high class) drama this week. Probably just as well; last week’s twisty non-linear narrative was bold, but that sort of experimentation week after week would get in the way of the actual plot.

There was definitely a Big Theme this week though, as has been a trend with Mad Men episodes. This episode’s Big Theme was parents and children, or perhaps more accurately family generations, and was nicely evoked by the penultimate scene’s exquisitely framed shot of three generations of Don’s family sitting at a formal table and looking (typically for Mad Men) less than content. It was also at the core of Megan’s surprise hit idea for the new Heinz campaign – families eating beans through the ages.

Family was obviously much on Don’s mind this week. Not only did he have the dubious pleasure of hosting a visit from Megan’s fractious Quebecois parents, he was also lumbered with looking after his own children after Sally accidentally caused Henry’s dragon of a mother to break her ankle. Sally being Sally, she lied about the cause, claiming it to be one of baby Gene’s toys rather than the cord of the phone she’d sneaked into her room.

Kiernan Shipka, another child actor of amazing range and ability, is a joy to watch as the increasingly unhappy Sally. That’s presumably why she’s stayed the course since the show’s beginning, while her brother Bobby has been recast three times. Conversely, it’s also why Bobby never gets any actual storylines. It was notable that, after arriving with his sister at Don’s, he seemed to just vanish – where was he while all the grown ups and Sally were at the award dinner, just sitting in the apartment alone playing with matches? I do wonder whether Matthew Weiner regrets having given Don a son as well as a daughter, since he’s turned out to be a dramatic spare part.

Sally, though, does get the meaty storylines, usually geared around her precocious desire to prematurely grow up. Isn’t that what all kids want? But Sally is from a very dysfunctional background, with her cold, often absent mother, her philandering father and her empty existence in the affluent suburbs. Small wonder that she became close friends with fellow misfit Glen (played by Matthew Weiner’s real life son Marten), who she was on the phone to when Pauline tripped over the cord. Their relationship is rather sweet, despite their burgeoning puberty. They’re clearly very close friends, but not boyfriend and girlfriend; in fact, they can discuss those relationships with each other openly.

That kind of frankness is clearly lacking from other areas of Sally’s life; not to mention all the adults in the show, who continue to lie, cheat, and be generally evasive with each other. Megan’s father, a card-carrying Marxist, doesn’t much care for Don or his business, though what father ever truly approves of the man who steals away his little girl? And her mother doesn’t get on too well with her father either. Fortunately they have the advantage of being able to lapse into French whenever they want a screaming match, or when Emile Calvet wants to insult Don. No wonder Don’s shown poring over a Berlitz ‘Learn French’ book – he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on around him.

Megan, though, turns out to be far more clued up than we – and Don – thought she was, particularly on a professional level. She comes up with a far better idea than anyone else has had for the Heinz campaign (which conveniently echoes this week’s Big Theme), and Don’s surprise, while undoubtedly complimentary, is also incredibly patronising. He employed his wife as a copywriter, and now he’s genuinely surprised that she’s talented at it?

Not only that, but she‘s got Roger Sterling-style smarts on actually hooking the clients too. Getting early warning at one of the show’s frequent expensive dinners that bean supremo Raymond is about to dump the agency, she expertly prompts a clueless Don into doing the pitch for her idea right then and there – and passing it off as his own idea to give it more traction. The girl’s a natural. Unfortunately her father is utterly contemptuous about her choice of career.

Her mother is similarly contemptuous about her father, especially after discovering his affair with a young grad student. As a result, poor old Sally gets yet another unwelcome lesson in sexuality when she stumbles over her stepmother’s mother giving the ever-charming Roger Sterling a blowjob in a back room. And just when Roger had spent the previous scenes brandishing his newfound empathy to all and sundry in the wake of his consciousness-expanding acid trip! It looks like the old Roger is still there under all the empathy. No wonder Sally looks so shell-shocked when rejoining the dining table, and no wonder her expressed opinion of the city is simply, “dirty”.

Peggy was being “dirty” too – at least in the mind of her strictly Catholic mother. After a nervous dinner with boyfriend Abe, she discovered that he wanted to move in with her – not to get married, like nice 60s folks do, but to ‘live in sin’. This didn’t sit well with Peggy’s mother. Bad enough that her good Catholic daughter has had a child out of wedlock and is dating a Jew, now she wants to have regular pre-marital sex and live under the same roof as that Jew.

This came out at another of the supremely awkward dinners that Mad Men does so well. Abe was conspicuously bending over backwards to downplay his Jewishness, even asserting that he loved glazed ham. But it wasn’t enough for Mrs Olson, who frostily declared that she was leaving, and advised Peggy that if she was lonely, she should get a cat. Chalk up another inter-generational conflict for this week’s Big Theme.

At least Peggy got to have a good heart to heart with Joan, as always the office den mother. Worried that Abe was going to break up with her, she requested a stress-relieving cigarette while unburdening herself to Joan. In fact, though, she learned more from Joan than she bargained for. It seems like Joan’s breakup with her husband isn’t common knowledge yet, and she’s plenty bitter about it: “Men don’t take the time to end things. They ignore you – until you insist on a declaration of hate.”

Presumably Joan is still depending on her own mother to look after her baby, and she’s plainly not happy. We could hope for some happiness with Roger, with whom she shares genuine chemistry; but Roger’s hardly the dependable sort, and I doubt Matthew Weiner would let his creations off so lightly. It’s one of the things the show excels at – making you care about characters, then making them suffer as much as possible.

Overall, it was a good episode, albeit one of the more obvious and conventional ones. It was notable that this was the first script this season not to bear the name of Matthew Weiner as at least a co-writer, and I think it showed. Some of the usual attention to detail seemed a little lacking – the way Bobby was treated as an afterthought, or the way the irascible and perceptive Dr Calvet was so easily taken in by Pete’s faux flattery at the dinner. But the cast made it as compelling as ever. The only major criticism I have is that this is the second week in a row without a brain-cripplingly hideous checked sport coat on display…