'Mad Men' Spoiled Bastard: Ep. 9: 'Dark Shadows'
Wherein a major theme becomes too self-evident.
This is a Spoiled Bastard. It contains spoilers. That's the point. If you haven't seen the episode, please come back when you have.
One of the themes that Matthew Weiner promised would play an important role in Season 5 of Mad Men is one that hasn’t been as sexy as all the enormous change going on. And that theme is selfishness. It certainly has been sprinkled into the first eight episodes, but Ep. 9, “Dark Shadows,” really should have been called, “The One With All the Selfishness.”
Before the season started, talking with Weiner at an AMC party, this is what he said about major themes in Season 5: “We talked about 'life isn’t fair' before on the show, but the realization of, like, you really have to deal with your own problems by yourself and other people are not interested -- that self-interest can be a surprise, especially if you’re trying to be good.”
Weiner added later, "There is a certain point where you have to start thinking for yourself, and a lot of behavior that you would judge as very negative or destructive or whatever, that is the only way to achieve what you want. If you sit and wait there for someone to give you everything in life, there is a very good chance you won’t get it.”
That was Don marrying Megan last season; it’s both of them again this season, plus it’s Joan and Peggy and Pete and Roger and Betty and even Harry and Ken this season.
Specifically in “Dark Shadows,” we had these occurrences:
+ Pete and Roger continue their petty feud about who still has it and who doesn’t, who is more valuable to the firm. Pete displays self-interest when he talks about the New York Times magazine talking to him about ad firms. He whines to Don later when the article doesn’t even mention him. Don’s response: “Don’t wake me up and throw your failures in my face.”
+ As Don assembles a work portfolio, he realizes Ginsberg and Stan have done the bulk of the work. And while he’s momentarily contrite that Heinz has been an albatross for Peggy, he appears more worried that he’s got nothing in the mix, to which Joan tells him to include the tobacco letter -- still considered one of the ultimate acts of self-interest on the show.
+ Cooper is acting for the good of the company when he says SCDP needs the Manischewitz account, but he then leans on Roger to use his “Semitic” wife as a plus at the dinner. Roger is willing to get into this mostly to annoy/one-up Pete, and Jane goes along with it because she selfishly wants a new apartment. And at the dinner, when Roger sees the client’s rich, good-looking son blatantly coming on to Jane, he weasels his way to Jane’s new apartment, actively seduces her solely for selfish reasons, as Jane points out after the fact (though she’s a fragile thing if that consensual act ruins the new apartment for her). Roger, now firmly in his lazy days, pays Ginsberg to do the work, which Ginsberg only does for the extra cash he can milk from Roger. The whole thing irks Peggy because Roger didn’t ask her first. “You are not loyal,” she tells Roger as they ride the elevator. “You only think about yourself,” thus deploying irony and reaffirming the theme all in one conversation.
+ Don finds -- and likes -- Ginsberg’s ideas, a revelation that almost immediately makes him competitive (finally) and stirs his own self-interest by coming up with his own ideas, which are patently inferior (and more obvious) than Ginsberg’s (regardless of the fact that Don’s idea closed the Sno-Ball deal). Leaving Ginsberg’s proposal in the cab was the ultimate selfish act. This, of course, sets off Ginsberg’s own self-interest because he knows he’s good, and his ego gratification has only grown the more he’s been successful with accounts (while Don has been busy in love and Peggy’s been busy with Heinz). Everybody, particularly Don, reaffirms to Ginsberg that the whole point of the advertising agency is to get clients and that it doesn’t matter who does it, just that those accounts get closed. (This scene culminates with a minor clash between the upstart and odd Ginsberg and the still-formidable Don in the elevator. Ginsberg: “I feel bad for you.” And before he can say anything further, Don retorts: “I don’t think about you at all.”)
+ Since this was a Betty-centric episode, she was an obvious choice to illustrate selfishness because that’s pretty much all she’s done since we’ve met her (or let’s just say her self-interest has always been a priority). And now, in her current condition, she’s almost the embodiment of the necessity of being selfish: To curb her weight gain, she needs to focus on her needs (which Henry understands, to his credit). But walking into Don’s apartment and seeing his lifestyle, what he lost (and later, the message to Megan on the back of Bobby’s drawing) sparks jealousy to no end in the endlessly unhappy Betty. Megan is younger and, as glimpsed while changing her clothes, a lot thinner. Megan also has affection for the kids, which curt Betty seems to be annoyed at. By dragging Sally into the Anna Draper situation, Betty reaffirms that she’s a selfish child at heart and is angry and petulant when, after some machinations, Sally manages to get back at her mother by illustrating that the plot didn’t work and everything is fine between Don and Megan. The theme is hammered home in the final Thanksgiving scene when Betty says: “I’m thankful that I have everything I want and that no one else has anything better.”
If you choose, there are plenty of other scenes/moments in the episode to illustrate the point. You don't need to be Sherlock to unlock the clues. I’m sure that some of the elements in “Dark Shadows” will be table-setters for future storylines. It was an episode that seemed to gather itself, make a point while setting up plotlines, then end on time. That's all. There’s no harm in that; such episodes come along at least twice in the season run of very good shows. But there was a heavy-handedness to the thematic illustration of self-interest in the episode – like the writers backed up a truck full of references to selfish behavior and dumped them into the room for ease of use.
Mad Men can do better than this, of course. It has, and it will again. Just put the anvil down. We get it.
(On the other hand, at least they are introducing the soft-shirt/soft-sweater look into the series with some subtle brush strokes. The suit, it’s fading.)
Although “Dark Shadows” didn’t equal the brilliance of the past few episodes, it certainly appears, based on the painful face Betty makes as she eats her paltry Thanksgiving meal, that willpower alone will not get Betty’s shape back. That opens the door for the expected “Mother’s Little Helper” moment and the resurgence (and perhaps the Season 4 Don-like crash and burn) of one Betty Francis. So perhaps something bigger and better than the obvious came out of this episode.