Critics and fans of this current age of television are quick to wax lyrical over the current crop of shows we have to enjoy; “The Golden Age of TV” and “TV is the new cinema!” are two phrases that get bandied about often. Yet for all of the past decade or so of television’s ‘cinematic’ quality, it had long been presented primarily as a writer’s medium, rather than a director’s (like we’re somewhat happy to refer to film as). More novel than theatre, so to speak. Mad Men, while undoubtedly novel-like in its writings tone and pacing, is easily one of the show’s most deserving of the ‘cinematic’ moniker. Its shots, camera work, costume design and stylistic choices are steeped in more meaning and dramatic irony than perhaps any other on TV. Why bring this up now? The opening shot of this week’s episode.
The Runaways opened with Stan finding Lou’s painfully dorky “Scout’s Honor” comic. The shots are all framed with off angles. The book is at an awkward angle within the frame of the shot, and then the actual comic is at a different angle again. We’re forced to tilt our heads to accommodate. The canted shot up at Stan smirking says it all. This is going to be an episode of change, and the show is going to revel in it.
Two separate stories drove this episode- the Don story and what we can call the Office story. Of course both were linked, yet this dual pronged plot was important in showing the world we’re soon leaving- that of the show, but also that of the 1960s. The Draper story sees him taking positive moves (thank god) following last week’s alcoholic slump. The initial grunt copy work he was show to be undertaking and working on with Peggy (sorry, on her team) was certainly below his skill level, yet he showed none of the animosity of last week. He knows he has to sit down and do the work- even bowing the Lou’s petty whim. With Stephanie’s return, we see the man fall into that beautiful middle ground between Dick and Don where he is most comfortable; and we also had Megan become the person she was perhaps always destined to be, the manipulative wife. Sending Stephanie away before she could see Don, signing away thousand dollar cheques like they’re nothing, taking ridiculously forward steps forward to leading their relationship sexually – this is all Megan trying to hold onto a position of power as the relationship crumbles.
While never explicit as it has been, this relationship is surely dead in the water. This, combined with the news that SC&P, or at least Lou and Jim, are planning on ousting Don through a signing of his previously newspaper abuse victim Philip Morris, had Don at what should’ve been his lowest. Yet as we’ve seen time and time again with Draper (or at least the Draper persona) is that person sorrow is what fuels the fire. Don’s final play, to play up his very negatives as positives, was pure Draper excellence. And isn’t there something wonderful about seeing the man so what he does best?
The office plot is perhaps the one more people will think about, if only for Ginsberg’s breakdown. Ever since his introduction he’s been a character on the brink- from his early character monologue about escaping the holocaust to his musing about receiving transmissions. These kinds of asides, like that of him saying he must be from Mars, were easy to shrug off as quirky affectations or ways the character must be consciously half-joking about his life as a Jew in post-WW2 America. Yet this, clearly now, was not the case. Our playing it off/being interested in it from a far was precisely the move the character themselves made. Ginsberg, it turns out, has had a long bubbling mental illness that came to a head in a Van Gogh-esque move thankfully taking place off screen. The fact that it’s Peggy, as always, who is burdened with this woe immediately is another nail in her job aspirations. Think of how excited she was when she first left Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce- she was sure she was the new Draper, so to speak. Now she’s back to serving under a new man, with virtually no creative talent, crying in her apartment, and having lovelorn men cut nipples off to show her they’re serious.
The office story, to graph it, would start on the high and turn south – the inverse of Don’s own story this week. This is no accident. Don, whether Lou, Jim and Bert want it, is the saviour the agency needs. With only two weeks before the forthcoming yearlong break, all we can really do is guess on whether or not he’ll do it. His moves against his superiors are undoubtedly in self-preservation, yet are we seeing the start of a House of Cards style takedown? Surely he won’t be happy stewing in middle management forever.
Loose End Observations:
- Betty’s plot, while the most straightforward may a key to unpacking this story. She stands up to her husband, yet for conservatism. She reprimands her daughter’s mindlessness, yet only as it damages her physical worth. So much contradiction from so little screen time. What are we to make of her?
- This week’s philosophical musing from Bobby Draper: “My stomach hurts all the time” Oh Bobby.
- Perhaps I love this episode more than others might; I’ve always been a sucker for the episodes where ‘nothing happens’ and then something sudden is dropped. See Shut the Door Take a Seat, For Immediate Release and of course Commissions and Fees.
- Fetishising the 1960s is something I really try to not do when watching Mad Men, but man- that seemed like a damn cool party.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Mad Men airs Mondays, 4:35pm (repeated 8:35pm) on showcase