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Monday, May 14, 2012

Mad Men: "Dark Shadows"

First, let’s all take a minute to remark upon the remarkable coincidence that an episode of Mad Men entitled “Dark Shadows” should air on the same weekend as the film adaptation of the TV series from which the episode derives its name should open at the box office. The mind reels.

While the episode does make overt reference to the vampire soap-opera in the scene where Megan Calvet Draper reads lines with another actress, the real Dark Shadows of the title seem to be the dark recesses of the heart where the men and women of the SCDP world will go in the name of getting ahead and staying ahead. Competition recurs and recurs in this episode, with a re-invigorated Don out to prove he can still beat the extremely-talented Ginsberg, with Betty sending grenades into Don’s and Megan’s marriage, with Roger using his hatred for Pete Campbell as fuel, and Pete competing with Howard Dawes for the hand of the ethereal Beth.

There are plenty more examples too, but let us stick with these as the most thematically important.

This is the most we’ve seen of Betty in a while, and she’s not looking any better, and I’m not talking about the fatsuit. For a long time the dilemma for the die-hard Mad Men fan has been whether January Jones is just a terrible actress or Betty Draper is just a terrible character. In “Dark Shadows” Betty is hideously childish, selfish and evil. Telling Sally, who is what, 13? about Anna Draper is just cruel, and instructing the child to ask Megan is borderline psychopathic. Jones’ bland line readings and vacant expressions take all the possible fun out of watching a character be so evil, making it darn near excruciating to sit through any lengthy Betty scene.

There were several such Betty scenes tonight, and each left me squirming in my seat. Matt Weiner sure seems to be making vicious fun of suburban housewives in those Weight Watcher’s scenes, with the vapid obviousness of the platitudes therein. And then watching Betty regurgitate those same truisms to Henry Francis, it was just too much for my fragile soul to bear.

After the initial blow-up with the telephone, I actually thought Don and Megan handled the conflict almost perfectly. Megan saw straight through Betty’s ploy, and convinced Don pretty quickly that she was right. And Don told Sally enough information to satisfy her curiosity without divulging anything she’s really too young to know about. By the end of the episode Sally is firmly back in Don’s (and Megan’s) camp, as she very subtly makes fun of how hungry Betty is at the Thanksgiving table.

The conflict resolution is almost enough to make one think that Don is maturing, except for the whole leaving-the-better-pitch-in-the-cab-so-your-idea-will-win thing. I was glad to see Don trying again, even if it meant sitting through his long dark night of the soul in the office as he riffed on possible snowball pitches. But clearly his transgression against Ginsberg shows an uglier side of professional Don than we’ve seen before. Even when he stole’s Danny’s banal pitch for a cereal slogan, that was mostly an accident.

I’m intrigued by this socially-inept genius Ginsberg. Will he become the agency’s new star, or will his brilliance burn out in spectacular fashion? Perhaps he will return to his home planet in frustration. Even Peggy Olsen, carefree girl about town, is worried when Roger turns to the new guy to see Jewish wine to the goyim. (“I’m not an airplane” is Peggy’s best line in a while, yes, even funnier than last week’s “Pizza Haus!”)

And then there’s Roger. Twice-divorced, although Cooper doesn’t know it, Roger hasn’t been doing so hot this season. But LSD has him ready and raring to go, even if everyone including ex-wife number two is sick of hearing about it. Though he denies it to Ginsberg (and how great was their repartee together?) Roger clearly hates Pete Campbell, and who wouldn’t when he’s throwing his New York Times interview in everyone’s faces?

Roger’s competitive spirit emerges in an interesting fashion when he drags his Jewish ex-wife to the Manischevitz dinner. The winemaker’s scion might as well be Pete Campbell in a yarmulke for how obvious a stand-in he is, what with his posh talk of yachting and the life on easy street. When this son of fortune aggressively hits on Jane, it basically forces Roger to make passionate love to Jane in her start-over apartment, and the next morning when she calls him on what he’s done, Roger is truly checked and ashamed.

As for Pete, he’s too busy day-dreaming about Howard’s wife to really care what Roger thinks of him. (Another competition, Beth’s dream-sequence fur coat against the force of gravity. Unfortunately, gravity and the network censors emerged victorious.) Pete really is smitten, and it seems like he’s upset at the snub from the Grey Lady because it’s deprived him of his fantasy. After the snub, he’s so driven to distraction by Howard’s chattering about his mistress that he cracks back with a line about screwing the guy’s wife. Luckily, Howard is the kind of jerk who thinks everyone else is a jerk too, and takes the line for a joke.

It was that kind of week on Mad Men. We didn’t see anyone’s best side, but we got seem insights into the way they all see themselves. The men and women of Mad Men are all measuring themselves against one another, and all of them find themselves wanting.

Other thoughts:
-More competitions: starving artist actress vs. rich man’s wife playing at her hobby; Betty and her neighbor at WW, who’s actually losing weight instead of just maintaining; the race for the Republican nomination in 1968, which Henry’s man John Lindsay doesn’t want, and which Henry thinks Nelson Rockefeller has in the bag. (A washed-up former Vice-President named Richard Nixon wound up winning that one.)

-Roger’s annoyance at the schticky Ginsberg was pure gold. From the Jewish jokes to the dismissive attitude, everything about that scene worked.

-Roger’s line of the night was probably “I’ve got to stop carrying so much cash”, but really, he didn’t have single bad line tonight, from the phone call with Jane on.

-I loved the scene where the accounts and creative departments gathered to weigh the merits of Don’s idea versus Ginsberg’s. Very interesting that Pete wound up siding with Ginsberg. Of course, square Harry Crane was the only one firmly in Don’s camp.

-Loved Peggy’s swift dismissal of too-big-for-his-office Harry Crane: “What were you promised?” Someone has to remind Harry that he basically conjured his lucrative job out of thin air, and that Joanie could probably do it three times as well.

-Also, in case you thought Betty’s actions might be psychologically complex in origin, Matt Weiner uses a shot of Jessica Pare in a bra to make sure you realize that Betty is just jealous of Don’s thin new wife.

-Not very much Joan this week, and no Lane. Betty really is the worst.

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