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In a season where Mad Men is already struggling to find and better illustrate the elements that make it great, having “the Sixties” and the assassination of Martin Luther King couldn’t have come at a less opportune time. But hope is still evident in the few truly vintage Mad Men moments that cropped up, while their paucity helped illuminate many of the troubles aging series must deal with.
Series creator Matthew Weiner has been both correct in his approach and honest with his assessment – that Mad Men is not a historical documentary, that it was never supposed to be about the turbulent changes of the 1960s as he slowly marched is characters through the period.
And while he’s often been criticized for giving short shrift to some of those big moments, the truth is that Mad Men suffers when it addresses them. For starters, it seems forced, as if real life is intruding on a story that’s not about that part of real life. Secondly, the characters have barely ever been concerned with social issues and so their reactions to events seem out of place, like having self-centered Pete be decimated by King’s assassination and to take it out on Harry, who does the one true and consistent Mad Men thing and worry aloud about how it will hurt business. In turn, Pete calls him a racist. “This can’t be made good. It’s a shameful, shameful day!”
Of course it is. But that’s not a sentiment we expect from this show and certainly not Pete. So it rang hollow, as did much of the episode whenever we had characters reacting specifically to King’s death in a way – and this is the important part – that seemed aimed at reflecting the tenor of the times and not to reveal something larger about the character.
Where it did work, specifically, was when Bobby told the African American usher at the movies that, “Everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad.” That works on so many levels but it’s also the moment that Don refers to with Megan, as he’s talking about having the capacity to love is own children, how a hollow man fakes the emotion and then one day it kicks in “and it feels like your heart is going to explode.”
See, that’s vintage Mad Men. Because it’s about Don and what’s going on inside him. First to admit that harsh, almost unfathomable truth about your own children – “you want to love them but you don’t” – was an amazing gem; to expand on it with the revelation that “it makes you wonder if your own father had the same problem” just made it all come together.
This season’s most uneven element has to do with Don not evolving, not questioning things about his existence or how he’s living it. An affair with Sylvia is more of the same and, coming in Season 6, is just too much running in place for the show’s main character. We need to still care about Don to still care about the series – period.
That’s why Don at least trying to be a good father (when Betty has no qualms about them driving through the chaos of New York just to stay on the visiting schedule) helps. It’s why taking Bobby to the movies helps. And it’s why taking the focus off of Megan as a soap star and having her tell off Don works for both characters. “I don’t know what you’re feeling,” she tells Don, reiterating the central theme of the series. And answering Sally about why Don skipped the vigil? A great line. “I’d say ask your father but he’s at the movies. I should have said, ‘He’s just drunk.’”
Scenes like that serve the series best. As does, in the case of Peggy, seeing her reaction to the unexpected tidbit from Abe that he sees them having children. Having Peggy (and Pete, for that matter) become Don over time has served Mad Men well, but there has to be more to the transformation to keep it intriguing as the series continues. In that sense, Peggy the successful workaholic who can buy her own upper East Side apartment, getting giddy about the thought of children is a welcome nuance. (So was the camera shot that framed the back of Peggy’s head exactly the same way it has framed Don’s “iconic” head in so many shots through the seasons).
Another classic bit of Mad Men was Pete being on an emotional island, away from Trudy, suffering the consequences of his decisions. The shot of him getting his Chinese take-out, with no communication at all from the delivery man, then having him framed in a darkened and lonely apartment was a return to form for the series. So too was the subtle expression on Betty’s face when Henry said he can’t wait to show her off to people on the campaign trail – the realization from self-obsessed, shallow Betty that she’s far from her personal ideal (a personality trait taken from her mother that has haunted Betty since Season 1).
But those are the small positives in an episode that otherwise illustrated the increasing weaknesses. The emphasis on history – again, it’s not what the show does best, nor is it something the show is supposed to be overly concerned with (but setting it in 1968 this year will only mean more of the same). More troubling might be the sprawl that Weiner has created. Like most ongoing series, adding characters helps keep things initially fresh, gives your core characters people to play off of, but then these newbies either steal time from people we want to see more of (no better example than too much Megan last season and not enough Peggy) or seem under developed and pointless.
So here we are not only addressing Ginsberg (hell, the episode title comes from a comment from his father), but Roger’s ambiguous “friend” who comes in for a pitch meeting and the apparent need to inject weirdness and humor into an otherwise serious episode. About the only interesting element of that detour was Roger telling Don, “He talked me off a roof once. I kinda owe him.” That quick snippet could be referencing Roger’s LSD period or it could be another hint that Roger will be the person who jumps out the SCDP window at some point.
Again, Mad Men is servicing any number of characters at this point – all of them peripheral and sometimes at odds with the growth of those we’re most interested in. Historical detours are not helpful but will be inevitable this season. To counteract this, Mad Men will need to be more insular and introspective with Don (and Peggy and probably Pete as well), to keep from seeming less relevant than in the past.
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