Monday, June 11, 2012

PAIN FROM AN OLD WOUND:  That didn't quite work for me. Even the part where Pete Campbell kept getting hit in the face, but that's one of the many new wounds in Sterling Cooper Draper (Pryce? -- we didn't see the firm's full name mentioned at any point, did we?) this week, from Don's literal one in his mouth to the metaphorical one as his marriage has become more transactional, to the firm's wound of not having a female voice in creative, to the presumed is-that-all-there-is-ness of the view outside Peggy's Virginia motel room, to Sally's growing up last week.

So where are we, compared to where this season started? Not much further than where we started, except for Peggy.  I guess we're about to find out whether Don Draper only likes the beginnings of things, and my assumption is that it wasn't much of a cliffhanger at the end of the episode, was it?  Temptation will always be there, and if it's not this woman, it'll be the next one.  Pete Campbell is too punchable for me to care about his inner sadness (as the fun-house mirror version of Michael Scott), and Roger's acid trips are only fun when they're happening. And compared to other seasons, I didn't feel like the clients (and potential clients) were used in nearly as interesting ways in trying to reveal things about the characters, or the era.  (Weiner said yesterday he regrets that Jon Hamm's charisma made his Dow pitch last week seem not as ugly as it was supposed to be received.)

Season 5 did some great things with mood -- the paranoia around the Speck murders, Sally's disappointing introduction into the adult world at the Codfish Ball, and there were a lot of satisfying scenes along the way. (The Peggy-Roger negotiations! "Chewing gum on his pubis.")  But this was not a Great Season in the way others were, and things were a bit too explicit the whole way -- Cool Whip and toxic smog as metaphor, and the return of Adam Whitman in particular.  Oh well.  (It's still better than almost anything else.)  Maureen Ryan:
It's not that "'Mad Men' is no longer a worthy show, but it's hard to avoid the feeling that "Mad Men" didn't live up to its enormous potential this season. I still love these characters and this world, but, let's face it, this year, as least for a subset of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce fans, something was a little off. Or, at times, a lot off. 
It wasn't just the self-absorbed, unpleasant behavior on display that was off-putting -- I certainly expect a generous amount of that on the show, which is, after all, about the sordid and sad realities behind the shiny facades created by the advertising world. But the sheer amount of selfishness, frustrated peevishness and ruthlessness in "Mad Men" Season 5, combined with the generally downbeat tone that pervaded every episode, made for a uniquely dour season... Is "Mad Men" going to go its whole run without taking on race in a meaningful way? Because that's starting to seem pretty unrealistic, and kind of a bait and switch, given that the season began with an ugly racial incident involving ad men.
added: Weiner speaks.


  1. isaac_spaceman11:00 AM

    I think it's true that there were more actually bad arcs or stories than in the past (fat Betty; Hare Paul), but overall I don't think the show suffered.  We got the tragedy of Don succeeding, for an entire year (or however much time passed this season) in changing some of the behaviors he recognizes as destructive (cheating, mainly) and earnestly struggling with others (control, mainly) without changing who he is.  And that was the key to the season, really -- times are changing, and Don can't change.  He doesn't understand the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or modern theater.  His big success (Jaguar) is in a pitch to people who are even more dinosaurs than he is (even apart from the man who demands to buy Joan, the show made a point in telling us that car guys are from an older time).  Even the women who throw themselves at him, like the two at the end of the season and some of the hookers from the episode with Pete and Roger, are old-fashioned. 

    As for those women at the end of the show, I do think it's a cliffhanger.  He feels like he is going to lose Megan to success, the way he lost Peggy to success, but is he man enough to hang on and see?  That's the question.  When he cheated on her in his dream, he was murderously remorseful.  Does he still have that, even though he is sure Megan is lost to him? 

  2. Is it that he lost Megan to success, or that the fairytale is over simply because of Megan's wanting things for herself other than Don?  

    The other thing about the Jaguar pitch? It wasn't even Don's content.  He just delivered what someone else had devised.

  3. Carmichael Harold11:28 AM

    I don't think that Don has a problem with Megan wanting things for herself other than Don, as I don't think he's selfish in exactly that way (I read him as more narcissistic and blinkered than selfish).   I think he had a problem with her walking away from advertising because she was good at it and walked away from it because she believed it was beneath her (a simultaneous repudiation of both his choices and his talents).  I think there was sincerity when he said he didn't want to help her because it would cheapen it, even if it was mixed up with his feelings of losing Megan to success as he did Peggy.

    When I watched it, I actually thought the issue with Megan at the end was that he lost respect for her because she didn't want to succeed on her own.  I think Don believes his own pulled-himself-up-from-his-bootstraps creation myth (despite literally having to steal someone else's life to get were he is), and has a hard time crediting others who need some help (Megan) to get where they want to be. 

    This ties into Don's comments that Peggy's success is a gift from him, when in reality all he did was give her an opportunity to succeed on her own merits; an opportunity that was only denied to her because of a social and institutional gender imbalance.  He thinks Peggy scored because he let her start on third base when all he really did was put a bat in her hand.

  4. isaac_spaceman11:28 AM

    It's that Don fears that he is going to lose Megan to success, and he realizes it.  It's not that he already did.  The fact that she wants things for herself is one of the things that attracts him to her (he has always been attracted to women who want things for themselves and have some agency in getting it -- Midge, Rachel Menken, Bobbie Barrett), but the tension is that he keeps poisoning her because he thinks that she can't really be successful without leaving him behind. 

    I am trying to figure out what painting Megan's pose at the end (with the makeup people) was aping and I can't for the life of me place it. 

  5. I had big problems with the visual style of parts of this episode:
    - The big partners lining up in front of the windows shot? Save that for the Season 6 poster art. On a show in which characters often do visually interesting things that feel natural, this felt more like, "Ok, we're going to have these five people, for no apparent reason, stand equidistant from one another, and make sure the girl is in the middle because it's going to look really effing great when we film it." 

    -I was also thrown by the weird Don walks off the soundstage into the void and then into the bar shot. Nice trick, felt more showy than narratively interesting.

    I was also disappointed by the Adam Whitman in the dentist scene - it was a double whammy of "Let's state the theme in a very obvious way" / "Let's cheat and use a drug/dream/hallucination sequence."  In general I don't like drug/dream sequences because they feel like writers' cheats.

  6. isaac_spaceman11:55 AM

    Re your last sentence, I have said exactly that same thing in virtually the same words.  "The Suitcase" was a great episode, but wouldn't it have been a better episode (with a different title) if there had been no dream Anna to come wave goodbye? 

  7. Nigel from Cameroon11:59 AM

    I think Meghan has transitioned from being Don's life partner-- the one he shares home life, sex, work, and adventures with-- to another drain on his life. Another person who just wants something (for their own gain) from him.

    Acting was the vehicle that she drove to this...and the Butler campaign ask clinched it. I thought Don's sadness/disapointment at this was palpable.

  8. I can't think of a less interesting character than "Beautiful woman who has a rich husband and awesome apartment who wants to be an actress and is angry that not everyone is 100% supportive of her goals." It seems like Weiner really wanted to tell Megan's story, but threw in some things he thought people would enjoy (Roger on LSD, Pete getting punched) almost as fan service.

    I think every season of "Mad Men" had improved on the previous one until this season, which for many of the reasons Mo Ryan stated - goodbye, subtlety! - fell flat for me. 

    And I agree with Isaac and Watts that dream/drug sequences are cheap and I can always do without them. It's one reason I've never really gotten into "The Sopranos," because one of the few episodes I saw involved Tony wandering some dream beach.

  9. isaac_spaceman1:11 PM

    You can't judge a character by a one-phrase description, especially one that leaves stuff out.  Rich guy who got his job through nepotism and has been largely sidelined?  Roger Sterling.  Rich alcoholic who got bored with his job before being shamed into taking an interest in it again?  Don Draper.  Or how about these?  Comedian who doesn't really do much of anything?  Bureaucrats in small-town parks department?  Office drones?  Doctor and lawyer with a large high-achieving family in Brooklyn?  Community college study group?  Three related single-income upper-middle-class families in LA?  Megan has a lot and is good at a lot, but it's reductive to suggest that's all there is to her.  She's not the only person on the show with ambition, and she is not unrealistic about the attitude of most people toward her ambition.  She has a right to expect that her husband not be dismissive and that her mother not be hostile, and when they are, Megan correctly identifies the motives.  People are going to like the Megan character and people are going to hate it, but I don't think that there's anything inherently uninteresting about the character's bio and I don't think that Megan is as shallowly drawn as some people seem to think. 

  10. Watts1:13 PM

    Don't get me wrong, I can like a weirdo conceptual view of reality as much as anybody - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of my favorite movies of all time - but when you drop it into a drama that plays relatively straight otherwise, I feel the Eyebrow of Dubiousness start to lift ever so slightly.

  11. I was actually pro-Megan for most of this season and didn't get a lot of the hate directed her way (Tara Ariano's Canadian view was particularly enjoyed every Sunday night on Twitter), but these last few episodes she just felt in the way of stuff I wanted to see far more of. Instead of her going through casting notices with various actress friends for the fifth time, how about anything else?

    And I think my description very accurately describes the Megan of those last few episodes. What else did she do but lounge around the apartment, complaining that Don and her mom weren't being supportive enough? I guess "Mad Men" is a show where I like to see my old friends hang out and be crappy and occasionally nice towards each other, and Megan is a usurper into what was the natural order of things for four-plus seasons. 

  12. sconstant1:35 PM

    <span> I think he had a problem with her walking away from advertising because she was good at it and walked away from it because she believed it was beneath her (a simultaneous repudiation of both his choices and his talents).  </span>

    I agree.  I also think that Don might find it easier in an all or nothing way to have Megan as his partner in everything (the office and client meetings and at home and with his kids) than he does to have her as his partner in only some of these things.  Having her involved in all aspects of his life was a big step, but in some senses a smaller step than being loving/faithful to her if she's not omnipresent.

  13. Anonymous2:15 PM

    I think the "Don Doesn't Want Meghan to Succeed" angle is too simple.  One interesting comparison to make, that was right there at the end of the season, might lie in Don's handling of Peggy and Meghan. 

    There at the end, he's in the movie theater telling Peggy that of course mentors want their proteges to succeed and, I thought, implicitly confessing that he lost her in part because he'd only backed her if she kept to his pace, his program, his firm.  She grew beyond his mentoring and he didn't keep up.  He insisted on remaining the alpha when she was ready and needed for autonomy.  So he lost her. 

    Cut to the set of the commercial with Meghan, who has also rejected Don's plan for her, and his firm, and who has begun to buck about the pace he imagines appropriate for her to chase her dreams.  What's the difference?  Don's backing her.  Maybe reluctantly.  He may think it's a mistake.  He may be threatened by the possibilities it opens.  He may still have an army of ethical and practical quibbles with it, but he's decided to back her nonetheless.  Maybe because the alternative, in the long term, is losing her.  Maybe because it's a transactional strategy for keeping her in his life.  Or maybe because he's grown up a little more and recognized that real partners back each other even as they set their own courses and goals, and that there is a limitation to the fulfillment one can experience being a control freak that only accepts "junior" partners, proteges, and mentees, or otherwise needs to keep those close to him in their place.

    I particularly like the last possibility because it runs directly against the advice proffered by Meghan's mother ("she's no artist.  help her through this disappointment and you'll have the wife you want." or something like that).  Maman invited him to be a pig.  Put in those terms, he declined.  -5 for having to have his nose rubbed in it, perhaps, but credit for coming around to do the right thing.

  14. isaac_spaceman2:30 PM

    She went through the casting notices, had a reel made, tried to get agents, took acting classes, went on auditions (depending upon how far back "these last few episodes" goes), and, having failed with all of that, asked for a favor from her husband.  I don't think her complaint was that Don and her mother were not being supportive enough; it was that her mother was vindictively dismissive and Don was an impediment.  There is a difference between loathsome Hannah Horvath ridiculously telling Marnie that she's not supportive and Megan telling Don (who, remember, flat-out said "no" to the part that would have had rehearsals in Boston) that he's not. 

    I do get the idea that a character who pulls the focus away from SCD[P/C] is subtractive rather than additive, but without non-office conflict for Don, this show would just be House with ads instead of neoplastic syndrome. 

  15. The soundstage-to-bar transition worked for me.  It looked like a long way of asking if Don respects his wife.  He walks off the set and through a scene change into the bar.  It's one continuous moment for his character, that visually underlines the fact that the same person is doing both these things.  What we expect of the "cliff hanger" in the bar depends on who this person is or has become.  His decision to put Megan up for the commercial could be read a number of ways at this point, as the discussion here illustrates, and depending on what one concludes about the man making that decision the scene in the bar could have very different endings.

  16. isaac_spaceman5:36 PM

    Think of the show as if it were an artifact of the times in which it is set, with stylistic choices like abrupt scene transitions (with a fade instead of a sharp cut, and with no bumper music to soften the switch) referring back to drama of the day.  Then, there in the late 1960s, movies start doing stranger stuff, akin to the Benefit-of-Mr-Kite tape splicing of Roger's initial LSD trip.  The filmic tricks of the era, like the wild prints on otherwise staid dresses, are making hesitating, hedged intrusions into the SCD[P] world.  Though the walk from the set to the bar was more Aztec-print-on-Megan than fudgesicle-paisley-on-Trudy in terms of its self-assuredness and competence. 

  17. Marsha5:24 PM

    Part of my issue with the thread of Megan's career (and, to be fair, I suspect it is very intentional) is that it all happened over the course of what (I think) was a few weeks time. We start the season at Memorial Day, and end around Christmas time, right? And Megan is at the agency for the first half of the season. So basically, all the stuff Isaac says she does in furtherance of her career happens over no more than three months time. And while she's certainly doing stuff, the idea that she has "failed" because she isn't on Broadway three months after she started (and remember, she herself says she got that letter from the agency only a week after she made the reel) means that she didn't pound the pavement very long before running to Don for help.

    Now, don't get me wrong - acting is a tough profession, and actors should use every tool in their arsenala, including nepotism, to get their feet in the door. But as a character study, I hope we're meant to see this as Megan not having very much determination, and that Don would see it as a failing on her part, rather than that Megan worked her ass off and he didn't respect her for it. Because three months (or less) of classes and reels and auditions before "giving up" isn't much.

  18. Marsha5:34 PM

    One comment apropos of nothing. Megan's name bothers me. I find it pretty much impossible that two French Canadian parents would have named their daughter Megan in the early 1940s. It's a Welsh name that barely even registered on the SSIndex before the 1940s, and unless there's something I'm missing, I cannot imagine why it would have been any more popular with French Canadians. Mégane is a fairly popular name in Canada today, but it wasn't (near as I can tell) on the radar until the 1990s. It seems like they named her before they gave her a back story, which isn't very Matthew Weiner-like. But every time Juliette Binoche says "Megan" it grates on me.

  19. Nancy6:00 PM

    I was hoping Dream Adam was not going to continue to decompose a la "American Werewolf."

  20. I think it's a bit longer than that. We skip forward a bit to April or so at the beginning of this episode---at the end of the first quarter, around Easter---and (if they tabled the discussion of the second floor until June), skip forward to June when she gets the commercial.