Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hiding in Plain Sight (Mad Men, Season 4)


I've blogged before about my hesitation to write about Mad Men, partly because after an episode I often don't know how I feel, partly because plenty of other writers do know how they feel about the show and express themselves so well. It's difficult for one perspective to capture a series as dense and elusive as Mad Men, so thankfully the insights of Alan Sepinwall, Matt Zoller Seitz, James Wolcott, and others have each taken a unique angle, combining to cover nearly all the bases in this whirlwind fourth season. Additionally, Michael Cusumano at Serious Film (a terrific blog new to me), recently posted a tremendous overview of S4 that is all but impossible to top.

Yet while the general consensus for season four has been overwhelmingly favorable, last week's finale, "Tomorrowland," polarized opinion more or less down the middle. Seitz thought the episode "had a pleasurably off-kilter feel," and Jim Emerson zeroed in on a couple of key scenes to demonstrate how Mad Men has brought "rich, creative, cinematic work" to television. Wolcott touted some "gold-star moments, coupled with a couple of glamorous shots worthy of Hollywood in its prime" during Don Draper's latest life-changing visit to L.A., yet was left with the feeling that the masterful buildup of dramatic tension in the offices of SCDP "dipped and melted into soft curves" as the focus turned abruptly to Don's falling in love (or something) with Megan amid "a bouquet of dud lines." Tom Shone wasn't buying either: "The writers were trying to put a supertanker through 180 degrees in the space of one episode, and then pass off the viewer's whiplash as part of the plan."

Normally I share Shone's disdain for that type of argument, having heard it for everything from the abysmal sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Magic as a metaphor for drugs -- they're not going to do that....Oh, they just did) to Spielberg and Lucas's Indiana Jones and the Shit Made Up as They Went Along. It's the kind of reasoning that takes creative responsibility away from the creators and puts the onus on the audience to be entertained. For all that, though, I think Matthew Weiner has spent this season engaged in a dialogue with his viewers -- not in an overtly-meta way like Chuck or Community (both of which I like) or flipping the bird like David Lynch's Twin Peaks or Chris Carter's X-Files (both of which I ended up loathing). Weiner's discussion topics have occasionally popped out of the narrative, from the fan-fic wish that Joan's vile husband will get fragged in Vietnam (with Weiner seeming to indicate via Joan the unlikelihood that this will happen) to his distaste for spoilers (Harry Crane's revelations about upcoming soap opera episodes) to stage directions woven amusingly into dialogue (Don suggesting to Peggy "Let's go someplace darker" in "The Suitcase" reminding me of Jules telling Vincent in Pulp Fiction, "Let's get into character").

The larger conversation that Matthew Weiner appears to be having with us has to do with our preconceived notions of what narrative should be. I began my summary of last season by quoting Matt Seitz's brilliant observation from a couple years ago that Mad Men is "a show which explores the systematic dismantling and destruction of the authentic self, and its replacement by manufactured images and feelings, the very images and feelings Don Draper is so adept at creating"; and I ended it by alluding that Weiner was doing something similar to Joss Whedon's famous mission statement in his Buffy-era heyday, giving his audience not what they wanted but what they needed. While I still think Matt's description of Mad Men remains the most definitive, season four seems to be questioning whether a person's original self is in fact the "authentic" one.

Believing this to be the case leads Matt (and other critics and viewers) to be rather harsh on Don Draper's impulsive decision to marry Megan, calling it regressive following his promising baby-steps forward out of alcoholism and self-denial. But a regression to what: the prison of being Don Draper (Matt's thesis)? to the dreamland of Megan over the real-world of Faye (from Logan Hill and Emily Nussbaum's lively discussion at New York magazine)? becoming a mental infant like Betty (the patently tedious debate at Slate)? Bert Cooper quoted a Japanese expression at the end of season one: "A person is whatever room he is in; and right now, Donald Draper is in this room." Dick Whitman may be Don's real name, but that doesn't necessarily make him the "real" Don.

It's intriguing that the episodes that experimented the most with upending this season's narrative conventions featured sojourns to California. Earlier in the year, "The Good News" began with Don's discovery that Anna had cancer and ended with his raucous outing with Lane Pryce on New Year's Eve. In terms of pure plot, the first half had nothing to do with the second -- indeed, it felt as fractured as an egg -- yet it was essential in setting up Don and Lane's bonding out of loneliness and despair. On a larger level, Don's detour with Megan undercut the momentum toward what was shaping up to be another Draper-saves-the-firm climax, and I think "Tomorrowland" was all the better for avoiding going to that well again. More accurately, I went to bed disappointed and woke up delighted, laughing at how deftly Weiner had put one over on me.

Was the Megan diversion a half-assed decision or by intricate design? Hard to say, though Don himself possibly said it best in "The Suitcase" when Peggy admitted that she was struggling with an ad campaign, unable to distinguish a good idea from a bad one, and Don replied, "There's not much difference." Megan first appeared in the secretary pool rounded up by Faye Miller (in "The Rejected," S4's first superb episode), a bit player who also happened to be a striking presence in the form of Quebecois actress Jessica Pare. Megan remained along the margins of the rest of the season, yet I must admit I looked increasingly forward to seeing her even if she had little to offer beyond a willowy frame and a sexy overbite. This gradual recognition was reflected at the end of the later-season "Hands and Knees" by Don's sudden recognition of Megan's presence, a wordless coda that seemed more puzzling then than it does now. One by one, the other women in Don's life circa. 1965 fell by the wayside: Bethany vanished, Allison fled, Miss Blankenship kicked the bucket. Faye was the obvious choice to be the future Mrs. Draper, but we should all know by now that Mad Men doesn't do obvious. (Similarly, I think it's safe to assume that Megan will not prove to be a conniving bitch, as suggested by some, nor will she be a doormat left at home with the kids.)

In hindsight, the ascent of Megan was revealed in subtly suggestive ways, and Don's actions as true to the essence of his character as his impromptu full-page ad denouncing Big Tobacco. His sweet nothings to her in "Tomorrowland" were as blase as Wolcott said they were but I felt that was the point, Don's starry-eyed notions of true love hopelessly cliched yet echoing last season's flashback to when he first told Anna about his engagement to Betty. (It echoes real-world notions as well. About a year ago somebody I know, a college professor, and not the most faithful guy around, uttered the Hallmark sentiment that "love is hard work, but worth it," and his wowed student minions responded as if it were a pearl of wisdom handed down from on high.) And Don's proposal was preceded by the same quiet reflection he did in the immediately prior "Blowing Smoke," only without Midge's painting in front of him. For me, it was the best kind of plot twist that fiction has to offer -- out-of-nowhere yet inevitable, hiding in plain sight.

"Tomorrowland" doesn't rank among the very best of Mad Men -- namely "The Suitcase," this season's crown jewel, the kind of rarity in which everyone who watched it knew that they were seeing something special -- but nor did it feel as bumptious as "The Summer Man" (which one wag called "Don Draper: Private Eye," in reference to some laughable use of voiceover) or "Chinese Wall," mediocre hours to which a couple of aforementioned critics gave a pass. It was arguably the weirdest episode of the series since Betty Draper took aim at her neighbor's pigeons, and capped what I thought was the best season since the first. It also made me regret alluding to Whedon in my summary of S3. Claiming to give fans not what they want but "what they need" strikes me now as a rather arrogant position, resting on the dubious assumption that the creator of a series automatically knows what his viewers need. For all I know, in the abstract, that may be something Matthew Weiner agrees with. But in practice he's searching for answers as much as his complex not-quite-hero, toeing the line between fantasy and reality, selfishness and selflessness, good ideas and bad ones, needing and wanting.


15 comments:

Troy Olson said...

Some great thoughts here -- especially:

On a larger level, Don's detour with Megan undercut the momentum toward what was shaping up to be another Draper-saves-the-firm climax, and I think "Tomorrowland" was all the better for avoiding going to that well again. More accurately, I went to bed disappointed and woke up delighted, laughing at how deftly Weiner had put one over on me.

and

For me, it was the best kind of plot twist that fiction has to offer -- out-of-nowhere yet inevitable, hiding in plain sight.

both of which I couldn't agree more.

I like that Weiner chose to go with an elliptical and non-standard finale instead of what everyone was expecting -- Don saves the day and rescues the company. In the process, he gives us much more mileage for Don's character in the next season as we explore his relationship with Meagan (who won't likely be wanting the role he'll want to shoehorn her into) and still leaves plenty of time for the SCDP to rise from the ashes.

Those who are complaining seem to be moreso because this didn't fit their idea of how a MAD MEN season should end, whereas I see it as Weiner taking a left turn and giving us something unexpected and new. Good for him.

Great review of the season and use of sources. I'm with you on the difficulty of reviewing a single episode of this show and using the for the reasons you cite in your opening paragraph.

Michael C. said...

I agree that the proposal was the best kind of twist. The kind that is jarring at first and then makes sense the more you think about it. It reminded me a lot of when Roger left his wife in Season 2. After the initial shock wore off it seemed like the most obvious thingin the world for him to do.

Thanks for the mention.

Craig said...

Troy and Michael -- great hearing from both of you!

Troy,

I like that Weiner chose to go with an elliptical and non-standard finale instead of what everyone was expecting -- Don saves the day and rescues the company. In the process, he gives us much more mileage for Don's character in the next season as we explore his relationship with Meagan (who won't likely be wanting the role he'll want to shoehorn her into) and still leaves plenty of time for the SCDP to rise from the ashes.

Exactly. This was a transitional year for a show which, for its first three seasons, went back and forth between Don's work life and his home life. With his marriage to Megan, the two sides have converged into a potentially compelling new narrative (not least of which how Peggy reacts to a possible new colleague/rival). The only question is where this leaves Betty, the second most important character through most of "Mad Men"'s run, relegated to the sidelines this season, and what little we saw of her was unflattering to say the least. I'm not sure where she now fits into the scheme of things.

Michael,

I agree that the proposal was the best kind of twist. The kind that is jarring at first and then makes sense the more you think about it.

It was definitely head-spinning, but made sense to me too once it settled. (Obviously, there are those who disagree.) I'd love to know whether Weiner planned the Megan scenario from the start or if it arose at some point during the filming of the season? The running gag of Don's secretaries having the longevity of a drummer for Spinal Tap was either a happy accident or a brilliant piece of misdirection. That and the expectation of marching toward a conventional "Mad Men" finale left me completely blindsided, in a good way.

Troy Olson said...

Re: Betty

Surely the fact that the kids will much prefer Meagan as a mom will bring Betty into storylines. I'm not sure if that will flesh her out any further -- she's become despicably villainous lately -- but it should provide reason for her to be onscreen now and again.

Betty had her year for character development and I think they've gotten just about all the mileage possible out of her.

Oh, and the Peggy/Meagan dynamic should be very interesting.

Craig said...

Good point about the Megan/Betty dynamic. Funny about Betty, though: I feel like they've only scratched the surface of that character. I think it was Sepinwall who once wrote that she's even more mysterious than Don, and I think he's right.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: I really enjoyed this piece, so I'm glad you wrote it, despite the other voices out there. You did much better than I would have. Some thoughts ...

* First, I totally agree that "Mad Men doesn't do obvious" and that "the best kind of plot twist" is one "hiding in plain sight." (Not to send us on a tangent, but that's why Shyamalan's ending to The Sixth Sense is truly noteworthy, even if the film is still overrated on the whole. We have the keys to unlock the mystery the whole time, and the only reason we don't is because we're looking elsewhere, due to some clever misdirection. Same goes for Mad Men, quite regularly.)

* And that allows me to jump into the conversation (here and around the Internets) about the controversial proposal by saying that what bothered me about it is that I saw it coming from a mile away. First, I suspected that Don and Megan would "eventually" "get together" soon after the episode in which she comforted Sally in the hallway. I didn't know when "eventually" would be or what "get together" would mean -- but I knew it would be more than screwing, precisely because Don is attracted to her mothering instincts with Sally. Second, the proposal within the episode was so glaringly announced the moment Don got Anna's wedding ring, which by Mad Men writing standards was almost a dues ex machina to solve the riddle for how Don's proposal could be surprisingly sudden but also legitimate at the same time (so we wouldn't spend the offseason saying, "I'll believe it when she gets a ring").

So what annoyed me about the proposal is that it sent the show exactly where I thought it seemed to be heading, which of course was a letdown precisely because Mad Men usually avoids "obvious." In fact, when Don got Anna's ring, I tried to convince myself that this meant he wouldn't propose to Megan and that Weiner was just toying with us. Alas, I never really believed that.

(More coming in a moment ...)

Jason Bellamy said...

* What I do like about the proposal gets back to your point about whether this guy is really Dick or Don. Throughout this season, I've felt a little let down by times in which I thought Don slipped into Dick mode a little too easily when it suited the scene. But with the conclusion, I'm actually satisfied by the treatment of the character. It's as if internally Don would really like to be Dick and sometimes feels like Dick but can he really be Dick? That remains to be seen.

I loved how utterly goofy he is during the proposal, and that Megan asks what they're going to do at work, and Don replies that they'll tell everyone, as if it's obvious, as if the guy isn't the most calculating person in the world when it comes to his professional life. To me that's the essence of the character struggle this season. We thought it was going to be about whether Don would drink himself to death or bring down the company with some drunken gaffe. It turned out to be about Don's Hail Mary attempt to become Dick. Will it last? Is it already over? Because we all know that Faye is right: Don likes the beginnings of things. If that proves not to be the case here, it will be a sign of significant change.

(Even more coming ...)

Jason Bellamy said...

Perhaps then the only thing that I really dislike about the engagement on the whole then, other than the obvious-surprise manner in which it unfolded (my first comment), is that I'm not sure what, if anything, Don's sudden marriage tells us about the world in which Mad Men takes place.

The show is well written. Mostly well acted. And it has a surprisingly consistent tone (those voice-over episodes and Roger's frustrating metamorphosis into a walking punchline for a few episodes this season notwithstanding). It's always been an interesting character study. But from the very beginning the show's core appeal -- at least for me -- has been it's very specific relationship to the era in which it takes place. Sure, sometimes the show is just headline-dropping, providing quick drive-by glances at the way the world was. But I always felt that Don's relationship with Betty was less about two people in a dysfunctional marriage than it was about a certain type of dysfunctional marriage that arose in the late '50s and '60s.

So, what, if anything, does Don's sudden marriage to Megan tell us about the times? Anything? For the moment, it feels a little soap-operaish -- and that concerns me, considering that the show is reaching the point when so many series start entertaining their audience with Melrose Place-like plot shifts. I just hope Mad Men isn't going in that direction. Someone tell me I shouldn't fear ...

(One last thing coming ...)

Jason Bellamy said...

I'd have to go back and rewatch the first season, but I was so delighted to read a reference to Betty's bird-killing episode, because that image remains for me one of the most memorable moments in the entire series.

Strangely enough, at the time I thought it demonstrated Betty's abilities as a mother, her loyalty to her kids, and also her maturation and sense of self-worth. It seemed to foreshadow the do-it-all soccer moms of the future, when mothers officially became generals of the household in terms of parenting. (No more "wait until your father comes home.")

Of course, what the scene suggested to me at the time in no way lines up with what became of Betty. Which either means I misread it or, as often happens, the show led me one way only to surprise me, as it so often does. (This season I was convinced that the way Don would save the company would be by taking that government contract that was a too-brief conflict midseason and risking that he'd be exposed as a deserter. Guess not.)

Of course, it could also mean that the writers realized Betty was more entertaining as a psycho bitch with no parenting knack whatsoever. I'd debate that point, but I have no doubt that Betty's extreme metamorphosis has won the show fans. Which is another reason I worry about similar extremes in Season 5.

Thanks for letting me run wild in the comments. I'd been looking forward to trading thoughts on this season for a while.

Jason Bellamy said...

Oh, sorry, one last thing ...

Prior to the season finale I had hoped to create a very simple blog post that included that image of Don staring into the painting and this simple observation:

One of the things I love about Mad Men and Don Draper specifically, is that he's a character you can actually imagine doing something like that. Staring into the painting isn't just some romantic cinematic image or a dramatic metaphor, as it would be in most movies/shows. Don Draper really would sit in his living room and stare into that painting, trying to figure out what, if anything, it says to him.

It's a joy to watch a show with a character who, quite naturally, is so thoughtful and aware. Which is a funny thing to say now, because the finale turned out to be all about his self-delusion (or so most of us seem to believe). Would Dick stare into that painting? I'm not so sure.

I have to admit, trite as it sounds, I'm excited to see what happens next.

Craig said...

Jason,

I was expecting the rebirth of your "Weekly Rant" following this episode, so it's truly an honor to get at least a lengthy half-rant in my comments section. To address some of your key points:

1. The "Surprise" Proposal. The way you word it, I can see how you saw it coming, and how I should have too. My mistake was seeing the ring as misdirection, thinking Don would use it for a prop in one of his sales-pitches or something. Gotta admit, I was completely fooled (and I guessed "The Sixth Sense" from the previews). I can see how "Tomorrowland" didn't work for you in that regard. In the broader context, however, would you have guessed, back when Megan first appeared, that this marginal character would be engaged to Don by season's end? That's what I mean about how Mad Men plays on our expectations with narrative, with all eyes on Faye at the start of the season.

2. Dick vs. Don. I really like your reading on this topic, especially since the common interpretation seems to be that the proposal is a regression back into Don, when I think it's really a "Hail Mary attempt to become Dick," as you said. I was surprised more people didn't bring up last year's flashback scene where Don/Dick tells Anna about Betty with the same goofy look on his face that he had with Megan -- even, I seem to recall, some of the same flowery words, or at least the gist.

Craig said...

3. The 60s. Really good point here: Don's proposal tells us nothing about the 60s (other than California makes people do kooky things, but when has that not been the case?). I think Weiner was trying to break away from that plot convention as well ("Nixon v. Kennedy," etc.). I found the change-of-pace refreshing, but I'm with you in that I hope they don't lose that thread entirely. The tumult of the late 60s has the potential to provide ample dramatic tension with Don's character; if he doesn't change, he's going to look pretty damn silly still wearing that suit.

4. Betty. On one hand, I think she's a good example (ditto Don) of the Mad Men mission statement -- which is that change does not happen in a clean narrative arc, that it's often a step forward followed by a step back and so forth, and that this is reflective not only of individuals but of the 60s era as a whole, something more complicated the overly straightforward trajectory via which we remember it (JFK, Vietnam, Civil Rights, MLK, moon landing, et al). This is incredibly difficult to pull off narratively and I think Mad Men succeeds an astonishing amount of the time. That said, I hope that Weiner & Co. don't get lazy and fall back on this as an excuse every time they want to squeeze a square peg into a round hole or use Betty to score cheap points off of, which lately seems to be the case. I loved the moment in the New York Magazine debate where they cracked up at Weiner's recent justification of how he depicts Betty: "We've all had mothers like this." Speak for yourself, dude.

Troy Olson said...

Jason, you should start a blog or something with all of the good thoughts you have on the show :)

I'll also say that I didn't see the proposal coming just because Don Draper simply doesn't do those kind of impetuous things, so the ring thing just kind of skipped past me. Perhaps I just need to pay more attention to things.

But even if this was seen as obvious, there's no way the way Don is acting could have been seen as "expected." The suddenness and willingness with which he brings the "Dick" back into his "Don" life totally caught me by surprise (and led to some fantastic character interactions). The show has been building toward this melding of his past and present for four seasons and it looks like next season we'll see the results.

Your comment on the show turning to melodrama has a bit of merit, but I feel safe that this marriage will somehow create more character development for several people -- Don, Peggy, Betty, Meagan, Sally. The show has to have some forward momentum with relationship, lest we have them spin their wheels on the same issues over and over again. Plus, Weiner gets the benefit of the doubt -- Don and Betty didn't get back together, Don and Peggy didn't sleep with each other, Roger didn't commit suicide, etc. -- all hallmarks of what a more soapy show would do.

Troy Olson said...

I loved the moment in the New York Magazine debate where they cracked up at Weiner's recent justification of how he depicts Betty: "We've all had mothers like this."

You can't get a job as a TV writer without having either mommy issues or daddy issues, can you?

Jason Bellamy said...

Jason, you should start a blog or something ...

Troy, I wouldn't even comment on a blog, never mind start one of my own.

Craig and Tony: Even though I saw "something" coming between Don and Megan, it's not like I went into the episode expecting a proposal. At that point, it was just as likely he'd propose to Faye. (Though the second I saw the ring, I had no doubt. And groaned.) So, yeah, I agree with the overall point you've both made that this show remains mostly unpredictable. No question about it. And, again, I think I like the proposal in terms of Don's character evolution, I just didn't like the specific way it was presented (that dues ex machina, I mentioned).

Back to Don/Dick ...

I think the most surprisingly revelation of this season was the aw-shucks manner in which Don first approached Roger. I would have expected he was mostly in Don mode by then, but he was very much Dick. It's enough to wonder what happened that really created the Don persona. I'm not sure we've seen that.