As every season of Mad Men unfolds, we watch and wait for the nay-sayers to come out of the woodwork. With each passing season, as people like us spend embarrassing amounts of time parsing out themes and writing about color theory in costuming, and sites turn over an enormous amount of pixels and bandwidth to dissecting the show, someone somewhere (actually a lot of someones) thinks this is too much time to devote to a show that has, to use a phrase we never use, “jumped the shark.”
No one ever accused us of being magnanimous, which means we usually smirk and roll our eyes at these like-clockwork pronouncements every season, because they tend to come at exactly the same time each season: right around the 9th, 10th or 11th episode. This isn’t because there’s some systemic flaw in the Mad Men scripting process that causes it to break down ten hours into the season. It’s because the slow burn that characterizes the Mad Men writing style gets to be too much for some people and they start getting annoyed with it. This is a perfectly understandable reaction and we’re not dismissing these complaints (after we smirk and roll our eyes, that is). It’s perfectly fine to be bored or frustrated by the show. What gets us to smirking is the oft-expressed idea that the particular moment when portions of fandom get bored is also the exact moment the quality of the show declined. The show didn’t decline; you just hit the wall on how much metaphor and how many pregnant pauses you can take out of one TV show. When you sit and watch a Mad Men season back-to-back, one episode after another, you’ll see that in every season, the arc was finely constructed and the pacing was deliberate. It’s a feature, not a bug – and it usually requires either a lull right around the penultimate episode or a series of quick events that stun us with their unlikelihood and somewhat rushed quality. Mad Men has always constructed its seasons this way and we have yet to reach the end of one without breathlessly opining on how great it all was. There has yet to be a moment for us when we feel the show has declined in quality to the point where it becomes notable. We have yet to sight a shark on the horizon.
Having said all that, this was easily our least favorite episode of the season. Many viewers had real problems coming to terms with the developments of last week’s “The Other Woman,” but, as occasionally puzzling as they were to us, we sat through that whole episode with our mouths open, trying to process the events depicted. It kept us on the edges of our seats. There were no such feelings of shock and impatience this time around. Instead, events unfolded naturally, one right after another, building to a conclusion that we not only saw coming at the start of the episode, but that many people had predicted early in the season. The death foreshadowing was heavy this season in a way that was disconcerting to the long-time viewer, demonstrating a willingness on the parts of the writers to be terribly obvious, instead of the normally obtuse method of writing they tend to employ. In other words, we all saw this coming – and that’s not something one normally says about Mad Men.
Much has been made about the show’s turn away from obtuseness to embrace obviousness, but we think perhaps some of these complaints have been overstated, even as we admit that we were right there making those complaints. When you take the events of this episode and pair them with the events of the previous one, there’s this sense of things speeding up and out of control; of things coming to their natural conclusions because hiding behind subtlety and silence was not going to cut it any longer. Joan spends a decade using her looks to maintain her position at SCDP, the end result of which is the partners asking her to prostitute herself. After a lifetime of obsequiousness and bitter obedience, Lane faces a problem in the worst manner possible, and, lacking any sorts of survival or coping tools, destroys himself. There is a feeling of inevitability at work in these stories.
But we’re not going to blindly defend this episode, this season, or Mad Men as a whole. Whether by design or not, the tendency this season to announce themes with the sound of a gong (or some occasionally clumsy dialogue) hasn’t really been to the show’s benefit. We were almost entirely ready to excuse the whole thing, but then last night the plotting became as obvious as the dialogue had occasionally become. Because is there really anything more of a cliche than “one life ends and another begins?” If we have to see Lane’s swollen, purple death mask, then by god, we’re gonna get a shot of Sally Draper’s bloody panties. If you thought the extreme closeup of baby taint in episode 1 was jarring, you must’ve fallen out of your seats at the visual representation of Sally’s womanhood.
The Sally story felt very forced and disjointed; like it belonged in another episode (that is, of course, if you pretend not to notice the “one life ends and another begins” theme). We’re just gonna say it: Any episode that requires Glen Bishop to say anything is inevitably going to be a weak episode. Matt Weiner clearly has a blind spot when it comes to his son (who plays Glen) and has convinced himself that the character is somehow vital enough to the story of Mad Men that we need to keep checking in on this kid, long after more engrossing characters exited stage right. It doesn’t help that he can’t act to save his life; a fact that becomes embarrassingly obvious when you place him in scenes with Kiernan Shipka, who can run rings around him. And it really doesn’t help that the character is something of a creep towards whom we’re supposed to feel warm. This goes beyond a socially awkward charm; Glen is inserted into situations designed to seem really creepy to the viewer, whether it’s wearing Don’s undershirt while he holds hands with Betty on her couch or standing as witness to Sally’s first period right after telling her he let his friends believe he was having sex with her. This goes beyond awkward adolescence. It’s just plain weird. And while we enjoyed pretty much the entire episode (if indeed “enjoy” is the right word to use at all), we felt the exact moment the precarious house of cards fell apart came when (no surprise at all) Glen opened his mouth in order to precociously intone upon Tonight’s Theme. “Why does everything turn to crap?” To which we yelled at our TV, “Not everything, Glen! Just everything you’re involved with!”
Two figures saved this episode for us: Don and Betty. And they did it because the writers drew on their histories and their well-established personalities. It’s a bit petty of us, but we did love that Betty got a moment to assert her superiority over Megan. Of course Betty would use this moment of maternal bonding as a weapon to wield against Don’s “child bride.” She was a good mother to her daughter this episode, but she couldn’t resist calling up the new wife and slipping the knife in. Interesting to note that Betty’s first reaction to Sally’s news was to be authoritative and helpful, but not particularly concerned with her emotions. When Sally ran into her arms, it was so unexpected that Betty actually hesitated before hugging her back, with a slightly confused look on her face. Empathy simply doesn’t come easy to Betty, if it comes at all. Proving that she’s not quite the bitch fandom (and the show) sometimes paints her as, she came around for Sally and did right by her, explaining this change in her life by invoking not just her womanhood, but the future in general. It was a surprisingly heartfelt speech coming from her.
Don’s reaction to the news of Lane’s suicide – and the fact that his body was still hanging in his office – brought back all the guilt he felt when he drove his half brother to suicide by hanging back in Season 1. To be fair to Don, we don’t think he really has anything to feel guilty about. Knowing what we know about Lane’s life, Don’s firing looked terribly cruel, but from a business perspective, he was absolutely in the right to not accept his pleas for leniency. When the man you put in charge of your finances steals them by forging your name, there’s not an apology in the world that can smooth that one over. Don doesn’t like being lied to and he really doesn’t like it when someone uses his identity to do it. It wasn’t the money that got Lane fired; it was the forgery. That was something Don could simply never forgive. He did try to give him advice in the “it will shock you how much this never happened” mode, but Lane simply isn’t the kind of person who’s going to be stirred by Don’s hobo code philosophy. Peggy took that advice and ran with it, but Lane couldn’t bear the thought of facing the world after this.
But what’s more interesting was his reaction to Lane’s embezzlement in the first place: he stormed into Roger’s office, fired up with plans to land the biggest accounts available because he’s tired of this “piddly shit.” “You really don’t know when to be happy, do you?” Peggy pointedly asked him last week, and maybe that’s true, but in this instance, we can see why he’s frustrated. SCDP kicked ass on the Jaguar account but they’re still, as Don’s barber shop acquaintance characterized them, a “little” agency; where partners are forced to forge checks in order to cover their tax bills. In other words, Lane’s crime was a reflection on Don’s failure to forge the Cadillac of agencies. Had Don not written that Lucky Strike letter, SCDP might have been able to hand out bonuses to its employees instead of going through yet another round of belt-tightening. And while it was thrilling to see Don get all fired up (“I missed that guy,” said Roger, voicing the feelings of the audience), it bears noting that when Don is fired up, he can be an even bigger asshole than he normally is. He was ready to fire Kenny without a second thought. What he hadn’t counted on was the fact that Kenny has become a bit hardened during his time at SCDP and after watching Joan become a partner via prostitution and Peggy skipping out on him after they shared a pact with each other, it seems the happy-go-lucky accounts man with common sense is a lot more cutthroat than anyone realized. In fact, of all the developments last night, ruthless Kenny cutting Pete off at the knees while preserving his spot in the company may just be our favorite. Ken’s been the nice guy for too long and Pete’s just a shithead. Lane may have bowed out of the rat race, having succumbed to its ruthlessness, but life – and the race itself – goes ever on.
Much more to come in our Mad Style post later this week.
[Photo Credit: Jordin Althaus/AMC]