Thursday, May 03, 2012

Some mid-season Mad Men notes

A couple very quick thoughts about the current season of Mad Men, which was (as usual) a bit slow in getting started but has really hit the ball out of the park with the last three episodes.

I'll use this as a shameless excuse to show the too-photogenic Jon Hamm. Photo by someone at AMC

The first four episodes of the season had me worried that the show had fallen into the trap of over-referencing itself. By way of reintroducing us to the show, they cleverly established that each of the cast of characters (who work at Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce, at least) has moved/grown/fallen into the role that was occupied by someone else in the pilot: Peggy had become impatient and ambitious, like Pete (but she's also become the creative center of the firm, like Don); Pete had become arrogant and restless, like Don; Don had become complacent and distant, like Roger; Roger feared he was old and useless, like Bert.

Even the newest member of the team, Ginsberg, fits into the pattern - he has the old Peggy's nervous energy and doting parent, and in his first presentation makes the same gaffe that Pete did in the pilot. So, yes, clever, but also overplayed - this kind of self-referencing is effective in small doses, where we feel smart for having caught some tiny nod, but not when it hits us over the head with its obviousness. And not when it appears to be passing itself off as major - and perhaps the only - onscreen character development.

Thankfully, the last few episodes have moved away from this direction: Peggy can't run the show and is showing an increasing discomfort with the fact that she's become one of the guys, even as (or, rather, because?) she seems to fit in with increasing ease; Pete's self-loathing lacks the subtlety of Don's, and he seems to be regressing personally, even as he becomes more outwardly confident and ruthless; Roger refuses to curl up and die.

But, naturally, it's Don's arc that propels the show, and it's his moment of recognition - courtesy of Bert's plea that he needs to take control of the ship - that, I think, is at the core of this season. Don's always at his best when he's operating from a place of sheer terror (this says something about masculinity and the demands that it makes on us, of course, though I won't go on about that at length. not here and now, anyway) : the fear that Dick Whitman will be revealed, that his other women will be discovered, that his place of work will be stolen from him, that they'll lose the big fish. And that terror is back - is worse, even - because he's always escaped (or wanted to escape) his problems.

The thing is, this time he is the problem. And while Don has been at the heart of his problems in the past, (of course) there's always been a degree of removal - his past, his inability to keep it in his pants, etc. Because everyone has always liked and wanted Don and his work, and has always appreciated that he's hard (impossible?) to pin down and is just a bit mysterious. And now all those virtues have been turned on their head just a bit - his work is perceived to be poisonous; he's finally being taken to task for his history of womanizing and his lady-killing skills have been reframed, literally, as deadly; his mystique and mystery, which were central to his creative allure, now fuel his clients' mistrust. Interesting stuff.

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