Mad Men: Dark Shadows

Posted on May 14, 2012

We’re thinking that, since the “standing up and announcing tonight’s theme” schtick is by far the worst development in the writing for Mad Men this season (but to be fair, it’s the only thing worth complaining about), it might be more truthful and a little more entertaining if they were even more obvious about it. Like, say, they could rapidly zoom in on a character’s face and flip on dramatic underlighting just as the character is about to utter some essential truth. And if that character is Roger, then just have him look in the camera, wink, and give finger guns. Might as well own it and make it fun, we say. Because having Betty step up to the mike and somewhat awkwardly intone, “I’m thankful that I have everything I want — and that no one else has anything better,” or having Roger blurt out “It’s every man for himself!” to Peggy just isn’t cutting it anymore. The announcement of themes has gotten so obvious and anvil-heavy, the only way to make them entertaining again is to add bells and whistles. Literally. When Henry whines to Betty about “backing the wrong horse,” maybe they could flash the words “THIS IS REMINDING ME OF MY EX-HUSBAND RIGHT NOW” over Betty’s face. Or perhaps they could give her a thought balloon.

We almost feel a little guilty complaining about a writing trope on Mad Men, since it’s easily one of, if not the, best-written shows on television. It feels nit-picky, given the subtle, layered writing they offer up to us each week. But this tendency to be so obvious in the writing is a betrayal of that very subtlety they try so hard to maintain and it’s been the one notable flaw of this season. The reason we keep mentioning it is because it seems to be getting worse with each episode. We posited a few weeks back that all the obviousness and overtness in the dialogue was somehow reflective of the times and that people were being forced to utter truths in a time of confusion and turmoil. Now, we’re not quite so sure. It wasn’t Vietnam or race riots that made Betty give her little prayer of thanks and jealousy; it was writing that didn’t quite trust that it was being clear enough for the audience.

And since we’re starting this review off with the rare act of complaining about the show, we might as well take things a step further and state that the handling of Betty has become increasingly problematic the longer she’s divorced from Don. Granted, January Jones’ real-life pregnancy apparently kept her away from shooting most of the season and thus, any appearances were bound to be perceived as a little erratic, but Betty suffers from being a bit of a doll in the hands of the writers. She appears in the story to do or say something and there feels like less and less of a connection between her actions each time she does. In other words, it doesn’t always feel like we’re looking at the same Betty we saw last time. Sure, it’s easy to draw a line connecting the sad, depressed Betty we saw earlier in the season to the bitter, vindictive one we saw last night, but it would be more of a dotted line, or perhaps a series of loops and curves. We don’t expect Mad Men to fill in the blanks for us (quite the opposite, in fact) but with Betty, it feels like sometimes there are whole paragraphs left unwritten between scenes. Betty is now just generically unhappy, no matter the situation, and nothing further needs to be explained about it, apparently.

But she did us a wonderful service by summing up the themes of the episode. Jealousy and selfishness ruled the day for the people of SCDP (and outlying environs) and hung over all the interactions like a toxic layer of smog (another WAY too on-the-nose story element, even if it is historically accurate). Betty is jealous of Megan and a life with Don that she never had. Pete is jealous of Harold for having Beth and not regarding her. Peggy is jealous of Ginsberg and the fact that Roger went to him instead of her. Don is also jealous of Ginsberg and the fact that he’s clearly on a talent elevator going up while Don’s is – at best – idling between floors. Roger is jealous of Pete Campbell’s account prowess and the attention Jane gets from other men. Megan’s friend is jealous of Megan for her wealth and the fact that she doesn’t have to work while trying to launch an acting career and Megan in turn is jealous of her for landing a part on “Dark Shadows,” even if it is a piece of crap.

Don seems to be taking Bert Cooper’s advice to heart and now seems to be devoting far more of his attention to the business. We groaned when he was shown going into the office on the weekend; an action that was much more common when he was married to Betty but we’re not quite sure we’ve ever seen him do since he married Megan. We wonder if that’s indicative of a need to get away from something that confuses or disappoints him (as with Betty) or of it’s merely because the week before Thanksgiving is the busiest week of the year in the ad industry. Regardless of his reasons for showing up, it’s clear that the business has passed him by while he went on a year-long bender followed by a year-long honeymoon. Those pitches he was lobbing into the Dictaphone were easily the worst ideas we’ve ever heard him utter; downright cringeworthy. And to be honest, his final pitch for Sno-ball didn’t sound all that great to us, either. Marginally better than what he was dictating, and we can see how a client could be spurred on to like it (especially with Don throwing his weight behind the pitch), but there was no question that Michael’s work was far superior. It was a shitty thing Don did, leaving the artwork in the cab, but it was notable how both Peggy and Stan reacted to the news with “Yeah, he’ll do that sort of thing” resigned smiles to Michael. But Michael’s not the type to be polite about that sort of thing and confronted Don directly, going so far as to spit out that he feels sorry for the aging creative man, past his prime. Don, the full weight of his position behind him, comes back with the most cutting thing he could possibly say to someone as demanding of attention and praise as Michael is: “I don’t think of you at all.” But you can tell it bothers Don; not just the confrontation, but that Michael is right and that Don is reduced to hiding better work in order to make his own look good.

The one bright spot – once again – is his marriage. Obviously, it’s problematic, as we’ve seen all season, but Megan can get through to him, even when he’s in a rage, in a way that no other person on the show can, with the exception of Anna (whose ghost loomed over the proceedings). That she got him to hang up the phone without confronting Betty and that she was able to sum up so perfectly what Betty had tried to do speaks incredibly well of her as a spouse. The scene with the two Mrs. Drapers finally meeting face to face was DELICIOUS, though, was it not? Although we really did feel bad for Betty in that scene and later when she read Don’s love note. When you think back at her loneliness and isolation in Ossining, coupled with his cruelly dismissive treatment of her at the time, it’s difficult not to sympathize with her feelings, if not her actions.

Throwing Anna into the proceedings, and worse, using Sally as a method of doing so, was absolutely one of the shittiest things Betty’s ever done (right up there with firing Carla). Not only was it an attempt to “poison” the new Draper marriage from 50 miles away, but it was a way of showing Don that she still knows things about him that are very damaging, should she decide to use them. Granted, she raised a girl like Sally, who has learned from both her parents (after a lifetime of watching them do it to each other) how to hurt other people. And when Betty asked Sally about Don’s reaction to her Anna questions, Sally, her face as composed and inscrutable as her own mother’s and father’s, lightly stuck a knife in Betty’s ribs and twisted it, acting the entire time as if she was saying something totally innocent when in fact, she knew she was hurting her mother as much as she possibly could. “Can I go out and play now?”

Oh man, those two really did a number on that little girl’s head, didn’t they?

We’ll have more in our Mad Style recap later this week, but a few things before we go:

  • “How Jewish are they? Fiddler on the Roof: cast or audience?”
  • Outright comedy is economically deployed on this show, but Betty and the Reddi-Whip is a definite laugh-out-loud moment.
  • The upper class suburban housewife drag in that Weight Watcher’s meeting was costuming nirvana.
  • It was notable that Roger seemed to be genuinely sorry for what he did to Jane. It was also notable that he didn’t actually say that he was sorry and only talked about how his actions made him feel about himself.
  • Betty’s time in Weight Watchers is offering her the substitute for the therapy she desperately needs and will never seek out. Henry didn’t really know what to make of the “I’m here to help you as you’ve helped me” speech because he’s not used to seeing her being unselfish and being so perceptive.
  • Ginsberg’s turning into a little shit, isn’t he?

 

[Photo Credit:  Jordin Althaus/AMCTV]

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