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Category: Television

Hannibal

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Network TV is a wasteland, and NBC in particular seems a barren desert (minus Parks & Recreation). So I’m as shocked as anyone that the second best show on TV calls the dying peacock its home. Yes, I’m talking about Hannibal. Yes, it’s that good.

At first glance, Brian Fuller’s Hannibal might seem like the newest incarnation of the crime-scene detective show. Like Criminal Minds, it focuses on serial killers. Like C.S.I., it pieces together crime scene details to help catch the killer. The genre, both on film, television, and in literature, is endlessly replicated because it is fairly self-contained and self-generating. Each episode follows the same arc and allows any viewer to play its game, regardless of whether they are new to the show or a longtime fan. The only real distinction between these shows is the type of crime investigated, the geographic setting, and the quirky personalities and styles of the investigative teams. Hannibal certainly carves out a unique niche in all of these categories: it only investigates particularly showy serial killers, it is set in blue-collar, non-descript places like rural Minnesota and backwoods Virginia, and its protagonist, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), has a unique skill that allows him to mentally reenact the killings to generate startling psychological profiles (the show calls them “leaps”). All of these traditional genre tropes are heavily emphasized in the early episodes, but it quickly becomes clear that Hannibal is a completely unique beast.

Am I burying the lede? If so, its only because the show does as well. The titular Hannibal is that Hannibal, Dr. Lecter. The show chronicles his early years, well before Buffalo Bill and those fava beans with chianti, but it does so in an incredibly fascinating way. Played brilliantly by Mads Mikkelson (like, give him the Emmy NOW brilliantly), this Hannibal looks almost nothing like Anthony Hopkins’s take on the fictional killer. This Lecter is refined, thoughtful, charming, and even empathetic. He comes off as caring and even loving at times as he helps Will battle the growing instability within his mind. For the first half of the season, he is a fairly minor character, showing up intermittently to listen to the worries and fears of both Will and Jack Crawford (Lawrence Fishburne). For a show called Hannibal, we really don’t see that much of him.

But the show knows we know who Hannibal Lecter really is, and it takes great joy in teasing us as it slowly makes him more prominent in the story. Each beautifully cooked meal is a reminder that this man is pure evil. Who’s tenderloin is Jack eating? Who did Hannibal kill to get that pan seared steak? The anticipating is a killer: we want to see Hannibal be Hannibal.

Until we don’t.

And this is where the show turns. As the facade of Dr. Lecter slowly falls and we get glimpses and visions of the famous killer, we are left to dwell on the consequences. As Todd VanDerWerff brilliant details in his piece for the AV Club, this is a show obsessed with death and obsessed with making death meaningful. Finding the killer doesn’t bring resolution on Hannibal. Instead, the murders haunt the entire show and its characters. These 13 episodes are essentially the story of Will’s descent into madness as he tries to cope with the investigation and “resolution” to the Minnesota Shrike case that opened the season. As we realize just how big of a role Dr. Lecter has played, that descent becomes even more heartbreaking. This Hannibal isn’t an endearing, quotable, campy killer. He isn’t one of those fictional serial murderers that we secretly (or openly) want to get away with it. He is terrifying and truly scary.

I can’t even begin to describe how dark and menacing this show becomes as it nears its finale, but it is unlike anything I’ve seen on network TV (and really in any TV show). This sense of doom is aided by the brilliant cinematography, sound design, costuming, and set decoration. Everything is washed out grey and maroon. From the barren, wintery landscapes to Hannibal’s immaculate office, the imagery is always cold and always beautiful. The show is also incredibly violent. There is no shortage of blood and splatter, often shown spraying out of wounds in beautiful slow motion.

In particular, the crime scenes are exceedingly over-the-top. I said earlier that this show is focused on showy serial killers, and this comes across in these sequences. Bodies are artfully arranged, perfectly dissected, and presented like pieces in a museum. Their elaborate nature makes them decidedly unreal. Is it really possible for an aging serial killer to create a totem pole of bodies? Could a man really carve his back into wings of skin and hoist himself into the rafters of a barn? Hell no. Almost every one of these crime scenes is framed the same way. Low, extremely wide camera angles, with the body (or bodies) perfectly centered in the frame, often against a beautiful backdrop. They are surreal, beautiful, and grotesque. But why?

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You could argue that Fuller and company are taking a little bit too much pleasure in these crime scenes. Are we equating these killers with artists? Should we take still shots of these bodies and hang them on our walls? Is the show violent for violence’s sake?

It is certainly a risky choice on the creators’ part. These crime scenes and the ridiculous way Will interprets them threatens to pull you out of the story. They are both deliriously fake and contrived. Lizz was instantly turned off by the leaps in logic that help Will solve these elaborate crimes. But I think this is exactly the point (and the show frequently pokes fun at these leaps. At one point, a couple of the other investigators joke about finally using science and reason to solve the crimes). The show is actually less about the crimes and their motivations than it is about their aftermath. And the aftermath is treated with startling realism. For me, it would actually be way more disturbing if the crime scenes were realistic at all. Considering the weight of the rest of the show, you need a little levity. The fact that the crime scenes themselves provide that levity certainly complicates things, but that’s what’s so twisted about this show.

While nothing will trump the final season of Mad Men for me, I can’t help but be nearly as excited for the next season of Hannibal. I really hope it finds an audience, but I also suppose it is understandable if it doesn’t. NBC also isn’t helping by making the show fairly difficult to access. It isn’t available in its entirety on Hulu or even the NBC website. For a struggling network with a genuinely awesome new show, you’d think they’d try to push it as hard as they could. Now that I’m caught up (through my own means), I think I’m going to try to catch the episodes live when they come back, which isn’t something I’ve done for a show in a long time.

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Collaborators

S06E03 – “Collaborators”
(Writers: Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner, Director: Jon Hamm)

It’s Wednesday, and I will finally watch the new episode of Mad Men tonight. That should tell you all you need to know about how busy I’ve been with grading and class stuff (I also finished Lost. I have little time here, and only a short stack of papers next to me, so I thought I’d jot some lines on the third episode of the season, “Collaborators.”
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The show has hit a curious phase in its history. While we went an entire season with a monogamous Don, we now have the return of Don we fell in love with. Has the show run out of ideas? Is it boring to see Don in yet another affair, toying with yet another woman’s emotions? My wife (Mah wiiiifee) certainly thinks so, and weirdly, I now get blamed for Mr. Draper’s misdeeds.

I’m not bothered by the new developments. I guess Don cheating is such an integral part of his personality that it’s more weird when he isn’t doing it. But I also think that Weiner and Co. are doing something fundamentally different here. Both in his personal and professional life, Don is far more reckless than he’s ever been before. I think his sabotage of the Jaguar meeting is a perfect example of this.

In terms of his affair with Sylvia, this is also a first. We have never seen Don carry on with a married women (I guess Bobbie Barrett was technically married, but that certainly wasn’t a real marriage). This has allowed him to avoid any confrontation with other men. I think we are going to finally see that happen this season, and I’m really interested to see how Don handles it (of course, they also introduced his friendship with Sylvia’s husband. What isn’t clear is whether Don genuinely likes him or is being overly nice as a buffer).

In the past, Don kept his affairs pretty buffered from Bette. He certainly never slept with one of her friends or someone she came into frequent contact with. Here, they played Sylvia’s proximity up to ridiculous levels by having Megan reveal her miscarriage to her first, not Don. An affair in the city is easy to hide, but an affair in the same apartment complex gets real messy real quick. It’s a dangerous tactic for Weiner, though. This could quickly devolve into soap opera theatrics, but I’m confident they will avoid such an obvious plot.

It’s also interesting that this is all tied up with a deeper exploration of Don’s childhood. I would hesitate to call Don a sex addict in any sort of clinical, medical way, because sex doesn’t seem like a debilitating obsession to him. He’s actually really focused on the idea of love. He wants to have a real connection with these women, which also explains the way he chooses them. All of his serious affairs have been with strong, independent women, and they are generally older and not predictably attractive (of course they are attractive, but not in a stereotypical way). Actually, his wives most closely fit that modelesque stereotype, which might explain why he becomes so disinterested so quickly. They haven’t had to work for anything in their life. Combined with the flashbacks of lil’Don in the brothel, and given his relationship with his step-mother, it’s pretty clear there are major issues boiling up and I hope we can continue to get more about his awkward teen years.

Overall, I think season 6 is going to be for sex what season 4 was for alcohol.

Mad Men Returns!!!

S06E01 – “The Doorway”  (Writer: Matthew Weiner, Director: Scoot Hornbacher)

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Mad Man has returned, which means my life is about a million times better. Unfortunately, I’m also a bad scheduler and haven’t had time to give the Season 6 premiere the write-up treatment. I’ve certainly been chewing over “The Doorway” since I watched it Monday, but I wish I had time to watch it again. This is really the reason I love Mad Men more than just about anything. It gives you so much to think on, and it begs to be dissected, discussed, and rewatched.

So how was “The Doorway”? Weird. That is my overwhelming feeling from the double-sized opener. Although it was one of the funniest Mad Men episodes in memory, thanks primarily to Roger, the whole episode was presided over by an overwhelming sense of doom. Mad Men has always dealt with death, but it has never felt so present to me. And that sense of death is almost exclusively tied to Don, even though Roger is the person dealing with an actual passing. We get an early flashback to Don’s doorman (didn’t make this connection to the show title until now. The obvious one is Roger’s anecdote) having a heart attack in front of him, and when Don is helped back home after drinking too much at Mrs. Sterling’s funeral, he begs the doorman, who survived, to tell him what it was like when he died. He also pitches an idea to a Hawaii hotel that centers around killing yourself to enter a more peaceful realm. Shockingly, he doesn’t get why they are opposed.

I guess it was just weird to see Don so out-of-place in his environment. He has always been the face of SC and later SCDP, but here he is a complete anomaly. I like the ways Weiner and company choose to visualize this. First, although the fashions have radically changed, perhaps more than in any other season, Don still looks exactly the same. He’s one of the only people not rocking some sort of facial hair and his clothes refuse to engage in the vibrant shenanigans happening around them. I was also thrown off by SCDP itself. The office is chaotic. Obviously, the agency is doing well, but it’s the volume of the decoration that seems out of place. The episode takes place around Christmas, and there are Christmas lights and homemade paper snowflakes everywhere. In the old office, there may have been a nice, restrained display in the corner, but the rest of the office would have been business as usual. Director Scott Hornbacher has also magnified the audio with phones ringing, idle conversations, typewriters, and other office sounds. In places, it is almost overwhelming.

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But the two most striking things that show Don’s new role in the agency were simple things. First, there is a sequence with Don in Stan and Ginsberg’s office hashing out ideas with his staff. The old Don wouldn’t be caught dead in this situation; meetings happen in his office or a conference room. To see him brainstorming ideas and working through pitches with his sleeves rolled up is bizarre.

The second thing is more subtle, but for some reason, it’s stuck with me more than anything in the episode. Don’s new friend from his apartment, Arnold Rosen (Brian Markinson), comes into the agency to take Don up on a free camera SCDP got after a campaign. Don takes him to the supply closet and uses his own set of keys to get inside. Instantly, this felt off to me. Since when does Don Draper carry keys? Since when does Don Draper even know where the supply closet is? It’s such a menial task, and for five seasons, we’ve been presented a Don Draper who really only understands what’s happening in his personaoffice and in the meetings he runs. The minutiae of basic office operations are Joan’s purview (or Lane’s before, well, you know) and the lady secretaries under her. Don doesn’t know where the paper clips are; they just show up on his desk. Again, it is a tiny thing, but this episode is stuffed full of incongruities between Don and his surroundings and the Don of the past 5 seasons. These are but two examples.

There is, of course, so much more to get into, especially with Peggy  (who dominated this episode so hard I couldn’t even hope to do it justice) and Betty. I’m expecting a big Pete episode this week, as he mainly served a tertiary role, obviously chuffed with his increasingly powerful role within the agency (how many times does he stick a barb in Don?). But as always, it’s that man Don who drives the intrigue.

House of Cards and the New Television

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I’m only two episodes deep into Netlix’s first original series, House of Cards, but I already think it is one of the most interesting shows on TV (is it on TV? What do we count this as?). And that has nothing to do with the story itself. Instead, what is interesting is that we are finally seeing the logical eventualization of a process that began when TV shows were first collected on DVD. People don’t want to wait week-to-week for their fix. Instead, they’d rather binge on full seasons in a short period of time. So, instead of waiting for a show like House of Cards to have it’s 12 week run on AMC, the forced delay between season finale and DVD release, and the even longer delay between DVD release and Netflix streamability, the company has simply created their own show and dumped it in its entirety onto their service. Here, people get a new product, without the threat of months worth of spoilerability, in a single chunk. I think it’s fairly safe to say that the future of television hinges on the the success or failure of House of Cards.

It is fascinating that it took this long for someone to think about TV like this. People are far more likely to watch a series in its entirety on Netflix than they are on TV. It’s a simple matter or risk vs. reward. I have plenty of friends who will watch a complete show they don’t love on Netflix when they wouldn’t have the patience to keep on it week after week on TV. From a production standpoint, this lessens the risk. So long as your premise and execution is above average, you will probably keep people watching, even if they aren’t enthralled with the product. On TV, your risk, especially now, is much higher. The only shows that seem to be really thriving on TV (maybe just network TV) are ones that aren’t indebted in any real way to story continuity. Shows like SVU, Rules of Engagement, or the Big Bang Theory offer throwaway entertainment. Anyone can sit down, without confusion, and “enjoy” the episode. I think this is probably why so many story driven dramas have been unsuccessful lately, at least on network TV. Why wait week-to-week when I can wait for it to start steaming on Netflix? The problem is, that line of viewer logic gets a show canned.

Of course, the success of cable dramas seems to debunk this premise. But this is a matter of who is watching. The main audiences for shows like Homeland, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad are not the type of people who are tuning into NCIS: Los Angeles each week. Instead, staying up to date on these cable dramas carries a cultural caché that makes their weekly viewing mandatory. And additionally, these shows have shortened seasons with longer hiatuses. The result is two-fold: first, the shortened seasons come with the expectation that each episode is going to be essential viewing. There is no weekly deadline for these shows, so there aren’t rushed episodes. As a result, the general quality, in terms of writing, directing, acting, and production, is exponentially higher on an average episode of Breaking Bad than it is on traditional TV. Second, the hiatuses, although frustrating for long-time fans, only serve to exploit the growing consumption patterns of TV viewers. If you’ve heard nothing but good things about Mad Men, it isn’t hard to catch up with the whole series before the new season. That’s why the greatest show of all time saw it’s highest ratings ever with its fifth season premiere.

House of Cards has taken these general principles and exploited them for their service. Perhaps the most interesting things I’ve seen about the show is a short piece by Andrew Leonard in Salon. Apparently, but not surprisingly, Netflix has been amassing a mountain of data on the viewing habits of their clientele. And not just what they’re watching, but when they are pausing, rewinding, and stopping altogether. The company is then searching for patterns in these decisions. What is happening in a movie or series that has led to people giving up? How big are the boobs that 23% of people are rewinding to see again? By applying this data to constructing their own show, they are hoping they can ensure viewership.

So does the show reflect this data-mining? It is difficult to say. It certainly has an addictive quality built in. The political machinations of Francis are always a step-ahead of the both the viewer and his opponents, which creates a series of internal cliffhangers in each episode to keep the forward momentum. But this isn’t unique to House of Cards. The show does play with tone in an interesting way. Sometimes it is straight drama, but sometimes it almost plays as satire. There are funny elements, particularly the relationship between Zoe and head political writer Janine (the sequence in which everyone is seen reading Zoe’s story on the new education bill has Janine accidentally spilling her coffee), and the relationship between Francis and his wife Claire is so bizarre that it seems difficult to read it as “realism”. All of these elements keep the show surprising, although it’s difficult to say whether they will hold up.

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But I think the main stylistic choice that could be attributed to the data is Kevin Spacey’s direct addresses to the audience. It would be really interesting to do a statistical analysis and see if there is any rhyme or reason to when these occur. Although these breaks are a little clunky, especially at the beginning, they also serve to engage the viewer. Because the plot is a little convoluted, his breaks help to explain things that might not be obvious. So maybe just when a viewer is about to give up, he’s there to rope you back in. Of course, this is all speculation; maybe these direct addresses were part of the original House of Cards series and I’m blowing smoke out of my ass.

The company has certainly taken a risk with this show. They’ve apparently invested $100 million in 24 episodes of House of Cards. That’s $4+ million an episode, much more than any of the other premier cable shows. Some of these risks have been minimized through ad sales, although plenty of sites are erroneously claiming the show doesn’t have any. This show is loaded with product placement:
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So far, that money is clearly visible on screen. It doesn’t hurt that David Fincher directed the first two episodes. Some of his standard techniques are present. Low lighting, low, flat camera angles, generally sleek digital cinematography. It’s efficient, as you’d expect. I’m not sure how many episodes he is helming, but I’m sure whoever is going to fill in will maintain that style.

Even if I don’t come out loving House of Cards, I’m glad it exists. It opens the pathway to even more interesting television by interesting people, which can’t be a bad thing. And if nothing else, Arrested Development.

Ironically Hipster

Aside from the mind-blowing experience of seeing two of my all-time favorite bands back to back, one of the strongest impressions I gained from this summer’s Lollapalooza was that the early 90s were back. While culture always tends to cycle, I don’t think I’ve seen as direct a copy of a time-period in my life as the kids in Chicago were sporting. The neon tank tops, acid-washed cut-off shorts, and floral patters weren’t homages to the decade of their birth, they were straight up copies. Every one of them was a walking, ironic performance. It was annoying.

Christy Wampole’s New York Times editorial “How to Live Without Irony” does an excellent job of explaining this forced nostalgia. She writes, “If irony is the ethos of our age – and it is – then the hipster is our archetype of ironic living. The hipster haunts every city street and university town. Manifesting in nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions, mechanisms, and hobbies…He tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things.” Granted, the hipsters she’s talking about are your Williamsburg, twirly moustache, Girls-type idiots, but being hip has moved beyond niche: “almost every category of contemporary reality exhibits this will to irony.” Authentic hipsters are probably too cool for Lollapalooza, but mass culture itself has been hipsterfied.

The trap of hipster, ironic living is that it is soothing and comfortable. Irony, at least the way it is exhibited today, has none of the biting critique of the past. Instead, “the ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism…Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic or otherwise.” You can’t make fun of a hipster for looking how they look because it’s all just a “joke” anyways. When you deride their style, the joke’s on you.

What is fascinating about critiquing hipster culture, though, is that through the rules it has established (forced elitism, “I heard it first” snobbery, and social judgment), it becomes very difficult to not reveal your own hipster tendencies. Wampole admits that “[She], too, [exhibits] ironic tendencies.” If you simply say that hipsters are douchebags, you are employing the hipster’s elitism and snobbery, thus making you a hipster. That admittance of your own ironic tendencies is seemingly a way out, a way to gain authenticity that then validates the critique. Weirdly, no hipster would say they are a hipster (because they are aware of the negative, herd-like connotations that implies. They are unique and special!), so by admitting you are hipsterish, you actually show that you aren’t. It’s a maze of annoying from which there is seemingly no escape.

Irony used to have a strong appeal to me and still does in some places, but as I grow older, I just don’t have the energy for it as much anymore. Or rather, I don’t have time for a certain type of irony that is self-fulfilling and self-congratulating. For example, Community is on indefinite hiatus and I just don’t care. I think its brand of “smart” comedy wore me down; while some episodes were genius (“Remedial Chaos Theory”), it became more about being in on the joke than it did about being genuine and engaging. Same goes with 30 Rock. I can only take so many ironic flashbacks before I realize there’s nothing really here and certainly nothing interesting or engaging.

In contrast, I think of the two shows that I love without reservation, that I know I will be watching until I die: Mad Men and Louie. There’s a brutality to these shows that comes not from dramatic maneuvering (something I think Breaking Bad relies on too much), but from an insistent and focused obsession with “reality”. Sure, both are stylized, Mad Men heavily, but there’s a refusal in both to stray from people and their conflicted interaction with the world. Wampole claims that moving away from hipster irony “might also consist of an honest self-inventory.” At their core, I think that’s what each show is interested in for its characters. Whereas each new episode of Breaking Bad makes me want to keep moving forward for the next plot reveal, Louie and Mad Men make me want to brood and reflect on what I just witnessed (hence the Mad Men recaps, even if I haven’t done one in ages!).

I think the season finale of the latest season of Louie is the perfect embodiment of this distinction. Louie is a show that relies heavily on irony. It just isn’t the same type of irony that has become the norm. His is the old-school irony that is used to reveal a hidden truth, not the user’s cleverness. The episode begins with a nearly comatose Louie watching his girls open their Christmas presents. With each gift, we are shown an ironic flashback of what he went through to get the gift on the table. We watch him fight in line for Jane’s blue monkey and struggle to wrap their presents. But when we see Louie’s epic battle with Lily’s once eyeless American doll, it becomes something more. The pain, frustration, and grief that Louie went through to get the doll’s eyes in place is not just a funny juxtaposition to the doll’s perfect exterior and Lily’s unknowing appreciation, it’s a representation of the unholy sacrifice that Louie is willing to make for his girls. It’s about what parents themselves are willing to do to make their kids happy (and it certainly plays of the previous three-arc story about Louie potentially taking over The Late Show). It’s irony that is both purposeful and funny. All a Community paintball episode really tells us is that the writers have seen a ton of zombie movies.

The rest of the episode is a series of ironic vignettes that play off the same formula. Some are incredibly sad, some are poetic and beautiful. But they all use irony in a way that stands in bold opposition to the way it is used in almost everything else on TV (and in film). In her essay, Wampole says that “Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks.” I think a show like Louie shows that there is still an avenue for irony, and that irony doesn’t necessarily have to be insincere.

Mad Men “Shoot”

S01E09 “Shoot”
Writers: Chris Provenzano and Matthew Weiner, Director: Paul Feig

I love Mad Men for the way it plays on its past. Sometimes it’s overtly, sometimes it’s metaphorically, sometimes it’s just barely below the surface. In the Season 5 finale, Don helps Megan land a trite commercial role, even though it seems to signal the end of his interest in her. But it isn’t the first time Don has used his connections to help out his wife. Here, Don and Betty run into Jim Hobbart from McCann-Erickson, an upper tier agency. While Don and Hobbart’s wife get drinks, Hobbart discusses a modelling possibility with Betty. For us, its clear that he is trying to get leverage on Don to leave Sterling-Cooper, but for Betty it plays on the anxieties and fears that have been building since the jump. She’s bored and unhappy. After talking with Don, she decides to go for it.

While Don seems supportive, the only real reason he’s allowing Betty to do it is so that he can turn McCann’s courting into a sweeter deal with Sterling Cooper (of course Don wouldn’t want to leave. His whole ethos is about upward mobility. He has more freedom at Sterling-Coop and he has the chance to take it to the top on its own). So when Betty gets overly dressed up to go to her audition, we feel true sadness for her. She thinks she’s finally making a choice for herself, but she’s not in control at all. Don says no to McCann and gets the raise (and no contract) he wants from Sterling-Cooper, but Betty gets dropped from the ad campaign. What follows is a beautiful, tragic scene in which Betty makes Don dinner (which she hasn’t been able to do while working) and tells him that she decided to stop working. She missed the kids and being able to make dinner for the family. Don simply smiles and says ok.

Mad Men doesn’t play narrative tricks, it doesn’t keep secrets, and it doesn’t “twist.” Instead, it plays relationships in intense, interesting ways that often lead to these little startling moments. The whole scene is carried in the way Don responds to Betty here. While he showers her with compliments about what a great mother he is, you can also sense the satisfaction he has in returning her to her place, even if he doesn’t see it expressly in these terms. For her part, Betty is just putting on a nice face. The episode ends with her going into the front yard and shooting a gun at the neighbor’s doves while a cigarette hangs out her mouth. It’s a rare moment of surrealism for the show, but it rules. David Lynch couldn’t have played it out more perfectly.

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Mad Men “Red in the Face”

S01E07 “Red in the Face”
Writer: Bridget Bedard, Director: Tim Hunter

Roger Sterling has become my favorite Mad Men character, but it is interesting what a skeeze he began as (he’s probably still a skeeze). In this episode, Don and Sterling become BFF, and Roger also manages to put the moves on Betty Draper, a decision that only serves to make Don mad at her. While this certainly gives you insight into their own screwed up relationship, it also shows just how far off the rails Sterling is. This will reach it’s apex in “The Long Weekend”, but the seeds are being sown here. After a long lunch in which Don and Sterling have a vodka and oyster eating competition, both stumble back to the office dead drunk. The elevator is out of order, and the two have to climb their way to their meeting. Sterling struggles, but manages to make it to the office just in time to puke on the floor in front of the clients. It’s such a wonderful scene; for all its pathos and seriousness, Mad Men can be damn funny when it wants to be. But that comedy is always mixed with a sense of dread and sadness.

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For her part, Betty is also starting to open up. When she’s confronted by Helen Bishop in the supermarket for gifting a lock of her hair to Glenn, Birdy responds with a wicked slap. Later, when Francine comes to see if she is alright, the two engage in a great conversation in which Betty admits that she knows that she is an object for men, and frankly, sometimes she likes it. I love the subtle rebellion that is building in Don. Towards the beginning of the season, she is such the doting wife, but we always know the surface is a lie. But she’s starting to spend less time making sure that surface is pristine.

These early episodes make me really sad for where the show has taken Betty. While this all sets up and explains the person she will become, you feel sorry for her here. I’m not sure I quite have that empathy for Betty anymore. In the beginning, each little rebellion on her part is wonderful for us. I love her slap of Helen. On the one hand, Betty should have never given Glenn her hair. But on the other, we understand exactly why she did it and anyone who is going to question her should get got. It’s so instinctual, which is how Betty operates this season. She becomes more manipulative and morose as things progress, and while that is understandable, it doesn’t make it any more interesting to watch.

This is really a transition episode. We are setting up Roger’s health issues while also addressing the absolute instability of the Draper marriage. In particular, Betty’s unhappiness with her life is leading her to “Shoot”, which has probably the greatest Betty moment of all time.

Mad Men “Babylon”

S01E06 – “Babylon”
Writers: André and Maria Jacquemetton, Director: Andrew Bernstein

I mentioned before that Mad Men occasionally comes under fire for being too overt in its themes. Glenn’s depressing elevator monologue to Don in “Commissions and Fees” is a recent example of this. While these types of narrative excesses can be forgiven, I think they stick out so loudly in Mad Men because it usually handles these issues with such finesse and grace. In this early episode, you can see the intent without the style the show has come to develop. “Babylon” takes the metaphor of Zionism and beats it into the ground.

I guess I should start with the positives. More than anything, this is perhaps Peggy’s most significant episode. While sitting in on a Belle Jolie lipstick testing session with the other secretaries, her awkward and strange behavior catches the attention of the men voyeuristically watching from behind the double-glass. When Teddy asks her why she wasn’t as gung-ho as all the other girls, she says simply that she doesn’t want to be one shade in a hundred; she wants to be unique. This little aside gets her an unpaid writing job on the Belle Jolie ad and sets up her transition to the Peggy we know and love.

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But the real crux of this episode is a pitch to the Israeli tourist board. Don, and everyone else at Sterling Cooper, is so flustered by Judaism that they start reading Exodus, a novel about the birth of Israel. He then uses his ignorance as an excuse to reconnect with Rachel Menken, a JEW!, so he can figure out what they are all about. The whole meeting just feels so awkward and out-of-character for Don. He is usually so suave with ladies, that for him to be so blunt and ignorant with Rachel feels wrong. We hit the out-of-character apex when Don genuinely asks Rachel why she doesn’t live in Israel. I laughed at his moment because Don feels like such an ignorant idiot. I can see Campbell being this dull, but Don? He has to understand how stupid he sounds. For such a dumb question, she replies rationally: she’s a New Yorker. She was born and raised in New York. She then explains that Israel is more a concept. It is a necessary place even if its people live in exile. And thus, our theme is elaborated!

Of course, Zionism becomes the metaphor for Don and, to a certain extent, Sterling (we learn about his affair with Joan in this episode). Their families are a necessary component of their lives, even if they only want to occasionally take part. Their homes are their Zions, the strongest root they are capable of forming, but they feel free to carry on elsewhere in the meantime, making money and screwing other women.

This all culminates in Don visiting Midge and going out to a hipster bar with her friend Roy. Naturally, since Don can’t handle any non-business or sexual settings, he hates it. But then a group of performers come on and play a beautiful version of Don MacLean’s “Waters of Babylon”, and we get a classic Don-staring-into-space-in-contemplation scene. He looks at Midge, and the stage is set for his decision to cut her out of his life in “The Hobo Code.” It really is a fantastic scene. I love Don’s nervous energy in the club as stereotypical performance follows stereotypical performance until a moment of real beauty occurs. Even Don can’t deny its power.

Overall, I love the idea, but I hate the execution. Critical things happen in this episode; big things are revealed (the birth of Adam, for example), but it just never quite comes together.

Mad Men “5G”

S01E05 – “5G”
Writer: Matthew Weiner, Director: Lesli Linka Glatter

While Season 5 was perhaps my favorite Mad Men season, I’ve really missed the inter-office politics and rivalries that were so present at Sterling Cooper. The hierarchies were so much more regimented in the early seasons: Sterling, but particularly Cooper at the top (Don sitting outside his office with his shoes off is a recurring motif), Campbell, Cosgrove, Salvatore, Kinsey, and Crane firmly in the middle, Don somewhere between those two groups, and Peggy at the bottom. This is a fantastic episode for the middle: Cosgrove gets a short story published in the Atlantic Monthly and jealousy reigns! While they are all writers, in some sense, only Cosgrove’s story properly gives him the credit he deserves. Ad campaigns only mention the product, not the author. While all the characters seem at first stunned and subsequently jealous, it is natural that only Pete goes too far.

Pete enlists Trudy to use her connections with a publisher to get his own short story about a talking bear put into print. That connection, though, is Trudy’s first lover. When she says she’s not comfortable, Pete goes totally Campbell: “You don’t want me to have what I want.” While new Trudy would have told him to screw off, newly married Trudy caves and goes to meet the man who promptly proposes an affair. Trudy refuses and the story only makes it to Boy’s Life. When Pete finds out, he’s furious. He claims it was good enough for The New Yorker (critical self-awareness has never been Pete’s strong suit), and when Trudy tells him she could have got it published anywhere, implying sex would have sealed the deal, Pete’s pimpish personality, which won’t fully come to fruition until “The Other Woman”, comes out: “Why didn’t you?” +5 to villain!

I’ve sort of buried the lead, I suppose, but this episode is probably most significant because it verifies that Don Draper is not Don Draper (whoever that is anyways). After a picture of him is published in AdAge for winning some ugly award, Dick Whitman’s brother, Adam, shows up at Sterling Cooper. While initially denying that he’s Dick, he agrees to meet Adam for lunch. It isn’t very productive and Don leaves. That night, his conscience (or something) gets the best of him and he goes into the city to see Adam at his apartment. But instead of reconnecting, which Adam so desperately wants, Don offers him five grand to leave NYC and never return. “I have a life and it’s only going in one direction: forward.” Don’s advice to Adam, who clearly is living in a dead end situation: “Make your own life.”

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Don has always been an avatar for the haunted nature of capitalism. Every step forward comes at a price that can’t easily be forgotten. In episode 8 (which I’ll get to. I’m watching faster than I’m writing), Cooper tells Don to read Ayn Rand, obviously Bert’s hero. Don is “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” made flesh. But while he wants to pretend the past never happened, it haunts him. Adam claims seeing Don’s picture was like seeing a ghost, but it’s really quite the opposite; Adam is the ghost (foreshadowing, m’fers) and Don is haunted. The next couple episodes will provide flashbacks to fill-in that haunted backstory, but the fear he has is also crucial to his personality (again, whatever that might be). That fear drives him and forces him to create the shell that serves him so well in business. While he is terrified of the past, his ability to deal with it makes him who he is. It is only when others encroach on that haunting that things go haywire (his panic attack in Season 4 is the easiest example). Season 5 Don has been so weird (the softening of Don Draper) because that secret no longer exists. He doesn’t have that mystery that made him so enigmatic. There’s no mystery to Don anymore. But Don with his Old Fashioned, which, as my friend Jeff pointed out, we haven’t seen since Season 1, seems to signal a return of that man. Needless to say, when his marriage to Megan comes to an end and Don moves on to other women, Dick Whitman will no longer exist.

Mad Men “New Amsterdam”

S01E04 – “New Amsterdam
Writer: Lisa Albert, Director: Tim Hunter

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Is Pete Campbell a villain?

Or, in a world in which every character straddles the line between good and evil, is Pete Campbell as close to a villain as Mad Men gets?

The first season of the show relies on a few tactics to draw viewers in that latter seasons handle with more grace and subtlety. The sexual politics of the show are much more overt here than they will be. Don Draper’s identity was an initial mystery hook that hasn’t been used since (at least not in the literal sense that it is here). And for the purposes of this episode, the rivalry between Campbell and Don is more direct and tangible than it will become.

This episode spends a lot of time fleshing out Campbell’s character. In the office, Pete undermines Don and pitches his own copy to a client without permission. When Don tries to get Pete fired, Cooper overrides it because Campbell comes from one of the original aristocratic families of New York (hence, the episode’s title). As Pete lingers between Don telling him he’s fired and finding out he gets to keep his job, he gets drunk and lays on his couch, nearly on the verge of tears. It couldn’t have come at a worse time because Pete and Trudy are getting ready to buy an apartment they already can’t afford.

It is the apartment that provides the most insight into Campbell. At his core, Pete struggles to match up with the standards of masculinity that dominated late 50s, early 60s America (not to say they still don’t). This has always been visually represented in Pete’s boyishly blue suits. In addition to his physical size, Pete looks much younger than he is. When Trudy finds an apartment out of their price range, she asks him to get help from his parents, an idea that Pete is understandably hesitant to do. When he finally gives in, we understand why. His father is an ass who straight up refuses to help him out. Before Pete storms out, he puts forth what seems to be his own personal motto, “Why’s it so hard for you people to give me anything?”

Trudy’s parents are more than happy to help out, and although his bride is happy, Pete’s place within the overall family picture is cemented. Pete couldn’t do it himself; he can never do it himself. He’s always reliant on stronger men to get him where he needs to go.

There’s a whole brilliant sub-plot here involving Betty babysitting Glenn that probably deserves a whole post on its own. To sum up: when is it ok for a grown woman to give a lock of her hair to an 8 year old? C’mon, Betty! Whatchu thinkin’?!

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