Monday, September 21, 2009

Mad Men with Their Feet in the Door

[Spoiler Alert. Don't read until you've seen the episodes.]

Mad Men finally feels back up to the standards of last year. Episodes 5 and 6 provide Mad Men junkies their fix.

Episode 5: The Fog

Several things stand out as far as I am concerned with “The Fog”:

First, as a fan of Alfred Hitchcock films, there seems some obvious homage going on in this episode.

Take, for example, the simple use of Betty’s name. In Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the main characters have several names. Jimmy Stewart’s character is called “Scotty” and “John Ferguson.” Kim Novak’s character is "Madeline" and "Judy." In Mad Men, Betty is called Elizabeth by her father, Betty by her neighbor friend, and Bets by Don. For each name she is actually a slightly different person.

Another of Hitchcock’s obsessions is the idea that beneath the world of ordinary things lays a world of menace and threat. In Betty’s first dream, for example, she could be channeling Grace Kelly in Rear Window with hairstyle and clothing, walking artificially through a “perfect” tree-lined neighborhood filmed using rear screen projection with vaguely “French music” in the background. (Hitchcock used rear screen projection because he hated going out and doing location shots. No matter how sophisticated the screen work, these shots are always obvious and theatrical in appearance.) He also liked to juxtapose happy music with threatening situations.

As Betty walks in the dream, a caterpillar drops down on a thread and hangs down in front of her. She takes it in hand and either merely covers or squashes it—the action is unclear. While the caterpillar is a fairly benign image, it is treated as something to vaguely fear. And it is shown in a close-up. Hitchcock loved using close-ups of ordinary things and often set his visual images so the object has more prominence than the person. So, does the caterpillar suggest Betty’s fear of the child she is having? Or is it a more ominous indication of the animosity she feels towards it?

As Betty is wheeled into the birthing ward of the hospital, we find a world of threat, introduced by her seeing her dead father working as a janitor. Her very ample nursing guide to this world is a character worthy of any Hitchcock film. Her use of a syringe suggests another ordinary threat.

In one of Betty’s later dreams, she finds her father once again functioning as a janitor in her own house mopping up blood from the floor. She asks him if she is dead and he tells her to ask her mother. Her mother stands over the bloodied Medgar Evers who has been alluded to earlier in the episode. Ruth, her mother, says “This is what happens when you speak up.”

While Betty has entered her own hell of sorts, Don is sitting in the waiting room. He reminds me of Cary Grant, Hitchcock’s often used everyman. (Is it irony that Grant plays an ad man in North by Northwest?) In a series of well-crafted scenes, Don encounters Dennis, a prison guard who offers him whiskey and who becomes more and more open as they drink. We already know that Don is much more open to people he does not know, and Dennis--as he drinks--gets more and more open with Don. In fact, Dennis leaves Don by telling him he’s a good guy, that he’s a good judge of character. The last encounter, however, could be easily out of Hitchcock. Don walks down the hall and sees Dennis wheeling out his wife in a wheelchair. He smiles ready to acknowledge him, but Dennis acts as if he doesn’t even know him.

In the last scene of the episode, the baby’s cries awaken Betty who goes to take of him. As she crosses the room, we hear the same music we have heard before. She stops, and I felt a moment of concern for this baby she has in her care.

Episode 6: Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency

As at least one blogger has already written, while Mad Men was winning the best drama on the Emmys, the episode that should win it next year’s Emmys was being presented. The episode had all the subtlety and nuance of character for which the show has become famous, plus the fireworks of an American Fourth of July and an obvious punch-line ending to the title.

The party scene will blow away many viewers. It is shocking, perverse, and involves a string of black humor jokes and sight-gags that makes one pause. The setup for the party begins with a story by Roger Sterling of his father dying in an accident with his arm cut off. Later, Ken drives a small John Deere tractor into the agency, high with enthusiasm for the account he has just landed. The London group, in obvious disdain for the customs of their American workers, requires that everyone put in a normal work day on July 4, 1963. They are there to do CUTS, although the only obvious cut is their British manager Lane (who is given a stuffed erect cobra and being sent off to Bombay). With typical British aplomb, they suggest Lane view this as a promotion and make no comment. The other cut is “inadvertently” leaving Roger Sterling, whose father founded the agency, off the new job structure chart.

The new British Turk, Guy (the “guy” in the title) proposes a party to announce the changes and celebrate Joan’s leaving. At the party, people get very drunk, and Lois, a secretary who has fared poorly so far, is egged on into driving the John Deere tractor. When it goes out of control, she not only wrecks one of the offices but slices off part of Guy’s foot. There is a brilliant shot of several of the copywriters standing with blood spattered all over them. Joan single-handedly takes control, applying a tourniquet and saving Guy’s life, but not his foot. From that point on the show utilizes a series of black humor punch lines and sight gags, capped for me by the British decision that no one can run a company with only one foot. “And he’ll never play golf again.”

While the John Deere episode instantly made a place for itself in the television history, there are other brilliant character moments.

Joan, who never registers defeat in front of others, actually cries at the idea that when she most needs the job, she has given it up for someone whom she had misjudged. In theatre we talk about showing what’s under the mask. Joan’s moment is truly heart-breaking to watch. Her obvious handling of the party tragedy reminded me of how much like Don and Peggy she is—and a character I would truly miss if she weren’t there. (Her exterminating the ants in Lane’s ant farm from “The Fog” was another perfect defining moment.) In my fantasy of where the show should go, Joan, Don and Peggy should start their own ad agency. The final hospital scene between Joan and Don and the sense of warmth and understanding shown between the two characters is what this show is all about.

Finally, Don has always shown himself the better parent. Sally, still reacting to her grandfather Gene’s death, has decided that he has somehow morphed into the baby—he sleeps in his bed and has taken his name. She must also have a sense of guilt since she stole money from her grandfather and he caught her at it. When Betty gives her a Barbie (looking surprisingly like Joan) “from the baby,” Sally throws it out. Don finds it in the bushes and returns it to her room. Sally begins screaming believing that her fears are real and Gene’s ghost is there. Don then comforts her, trying to show that the baby is just a baby, not her grandfather. The scene with Sally, Don, and the baby was touching and true. While Betty could tell their son to go beat his head against a wall instead of being bored—yes, I actually knew some mothers who talked to their children like this—Don instead holds his daughter and allows her to talk out her fears in one of the best father/child scenes since his son asked him about his father last season. Whatever Don’s faults as a husband, he shows himself a loving father. If most great works deal with sin and redemption, Don’s redemption is seen here in his treatment of his children.

If you despaired that this season has lost its zing, give the show another try. It is back in rare form and reminds me why I tell everyone they should watch it.


As I was standing waiting for the elevator at school today, I thought of the image of Joan as the real-life Barbie in her green dress spattered with blood, and I suddenly realized that we have the foreshadowing for what happens in November 1963. Suddenly the humor of the situation took on a whole new meaning for me. I remember how I felt in those days leading up to that Friday and the shock and grief afterwards. Great art should teach us something new about our human condition. This show does.


Tiffany Strietelmeier said...

I joy to read. This last episode I watched twice just because there were scenes that you highlighted here that were so moving! Don't know if you would enjoy it but I fell in love with the pilot episode of Bored to Death. Jason Swartzman is really genius in all that he does (Rushmore..need I say more). Must check it out!


Marianne Fineberg said...

I love this entry. The show is so good and reading this made me appreciate it even more, all the layers, the brilliant writing.
Also made me remember why you were such a great teacher and drama coach!!
Marianne Malone