Wednesday, May 23, 2012

MAD MEN Partners' Meeting - "Dark Shadows"

Welcome to the Mad Men Partners' Meeting -- a roundtable discussion of this week's episode from your friendly neighborhood LowBrowMedia savants.
This is a spoiler-heavy zone. You have been warned.

airdate: May 13th, 2012

Mark: Oh, Betty. Despite Ms. Francis doing the epically shitty thing of using her daughter as a pawn against her ex-husband, I think some of that season one sympathy that she instilled in me is creeping its way back in. Who, like Betty, wouldn’t be a little peeved to witness Don and Megan’s swinging Manhattan pad and genuine affection for each other when all they had to go back home to was a dark, empty house and a distant daddy-husband? You know you don’t mess with Sally if you want to stay in my good graces, but damned if I didn’t feel for Betty that her greatest source of pleasure in her life currently is a meticulously portioned glob of sweet potatoes. I’m definitely sensitive to weight issues, so maybe that has something to do with it. But I also know how deeply it hurts to be jilted, and although she does not process her feelings in anywhere near a healthy way, there is something to Betty’s anger and disappointment over Megan somehow having access to a sensitive, loving Don Draper that Betty herself never knew. Don’t get me wrong, Betty can be such a dope. After all, she is thankful because “I have everything I want, and no one has anything better”. It’s important to her that everyone else be on a lower rung. That line actually made me laugh out loud and exclaim “What a Betty thing to say!” Yes, I’m an obnoxious TV watcher sometimes. Well, anyway, chalk another one up for Sally’s dying innocence. Sorry, Sal, not even the grown-ups have it figured out. Good luck!

Now that Megan has flown the Sterling Coop to pursue guest spots on Dark Shadows (in theaters now!), Don has no choice but to reengage with his work. And he’s a little rusty. Not only does his cartoon devil pitch lack that Don Draper feeling, it looks downright quaint next to Ginsberg’s literally in-your-face Snoball campaign. It was painful to hear Don have to justify – TWICE – that his devil ad will work if you hear the scary devil voice in your head. When it comes down to it, Don predicates his idea entirely on the fact that kids like cartoon devils, which to paraphrase Roger Sterling, sounds like a client’s idea if I’ve ever heard one. Like Betty, Don feels jilted and passed up, in this case by the changing world of advertising. He has been checked out for a while (Ginsberg condescendingly congratulates Don on being able to write after not doing it for so long), and is jealous of the new kid on the block. Shades of Betty and Megan. And like Betty, Don takes the petty route and ditches Ginsberg’s mock-up in the cab ride to the presentation, and he sells the client on his cartoon devil after Ginsberg’s work was unanimously chosen as the stronger pitch by the SCDP partners. Maybe Don and Betty are more alike than we thought, and as genuinely supportive as Don is of Megan’s choice to pursue acting, maybe Don can only go so far. As Joan reminded us, Don was once this smitten with Betty back when she was a bright-eyed model plucked from a casting call. As Roger says (I’m quoting him a lot today), it’s every man for himself, and who’s to say Don won’t jump ship the minute he tires of his worldview being challenged? Megan, Ginsberg and the entire world aren’t going to stop moving forward, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Don just ripped the needle off the record in frustration and walked away from it all. Don vacillates between being with and behind the times, but ultimately I’m afraid he just can’t handle all those sitars and tape loops. By the way, I missed the last couple of weeks, but I can’t believe this show was able to license “Tomorrow Never Knows”. How expensive must that have been?

Gratuitous side-boob image brought to you by the good people of LowBrowMedia.

Continuing the theme of “Everybody’s Selfish!” is Mr. Pete Campbell and his dogged pursuit of Beth. This is more from last week’s episode, since I didn’t have a chance to weigh in, but gosh... It’s the same with Betty. Weiner and pals have a special talent of making their characters act like utter scumbags but having them still somehow be sympathetic. Pete’s motivations come from the most selfish and petty of places, all from his thwarted sense of superiority and unfulfilled need to be seen as important and to guide the narrative of his life, but damn his depression is palpable. He is the saddest little fuck I’ve ever seen, and his need to turn the tables on Beth in order to correct some misplaced idea that women shouldn’t have the ability to guide the course of action if a man believes things should go another way is just mindblowing. Wait a minute, Pete! That tiny speck of ground you have to stand on is crumbling! Watch out below!

I also appreciated that the fog of dread that has been hanging over this entire series became literal this week, in the form of the poisonous smog which apparently was a real thing and killed 169 people in 1966. I feel like that’s the kind of metaphor that causes Matthew Weiner to literally drool. After that and the incredibly ominous open elevator shaft from two weeks ago, I’m really starting to feel the cold hand of death hanging over this show. Or perhaps it’s the cold hand of Satan gripping his ice cold Snoball treat!

Jon: Ask and you shall receive! Last week I petitioned for some overdue Betty action and, man alive, did I get it this time. She's been busy trying to lose some of that excess weight we were introduced to earlier this season by engaging in some serious portion-controlled meals and attending some therapy sessions (also known as Weight Watchers). Things seem to be on the upswing for her, but the combination of getting glimpses of Don's swanky new apartment, his new wife's banging physique and their lovey-dovey correspondence prove to be too much, and she immediately regresses into the childlike behavior that drove her into this mess in the first place. But as awful as it was of her to spill some of Don's secret past to Sally, it was probably the most fun thing I've seen her do since she was gunning down birds with a ciggy hanging out of the side of her mouth. As much as her character drives me bonkers, "Dark Shadows" was a wonderful reminder how necessary Betty is to the show. She makes almost everything around her more interesting. A lot of trouble was caused this week, as she accelerated a lot of things into motion involving Don and Megan, as well as Don and Sally for the final episodes of season 5.

In addition to Betty's return, there were a couple of important shifts with other characters that occurred this week, namely the rest of the Drapers -- Megan, Sally and Don -- and young, enigmatic Michael Ginsberg.

Megan continues to buy into her father's disappointment in her life, with this week bringing us a peek at a similar sentiment from her acting friend we last saw at the "Zou Bisou Bisou" party. As her lovely ginger friend points out, Megan's pretty far away from the struggling actress reduced to reading for a cheesy gothic soap opera. At this point, I'm wondering if she'll leave Don to pursue her stage dreams just to struggle for the point of struggling, or if he'll become completely disenchanted with her before she has the chance.

But cute redheaded actresses aren't the only ones giving Megan a hard time this week, as Sally cuts deep at her with Betty's claws. The revelation of her father's dark secrets hurt Sally immensely, shattering her idealistic view she's allowed herself to build of him as an absentee parent, an image very unlike what Sally's cultivated for Betty. Soon enough, she'll be free of any simple vision of either one of her parents. But Sally's further ascent into adolescence does stop there. This week has shown us she is an absolute master at manipulating every adult in her proximity. She circles around each of Betty, Don and Megan with amazing tact, and one can only marvel at what she'll be able to pull off next season.

After having spent most of the season avoiding work at such an astonishing rate Roger has probably been the more productive SCDP employee this season, Don finally heads back into full workaholic mode. Bert's chastization from a few weeks back has finally become undeniable, so Don spends part of the weekend alone in the office brainstorming on the pitch for a new client. Really though, this is little more than a residual effect of Megan's decision to leave the advertising industry, as Don's physical and creative wanderings around the office seem a result of escaping his homelife now that it's no longer intertwined with his work.

And this new-found immersion in work brings him head to head with rising creative supernova Michael Ginsberg. A few weeks ago, Mark mentioned that we weren't talking enough about Ginsberg, and he was completely right. Season 5 has been peppering tidbits of information on the newest copywriter almost every week, but I never felt I had enough to really sink my teeth into with him until now. As great at their jobs as we've seen Peggy and Don be, Ginsberg has a wild, unpredictable streak that allows for his work to possibly reach another level of greatness. He's incredibly young and knows he's supremely talented, a difficult combination to harness. When he learns Don never brought his Snoball idea to the client -- one that was clearly superior to his boss's idea -- he goes berserk, partly because he knows Don did it intentionally and also because he has no filter. Ginsberg confronts Don in the elevator the following morning. As much as my hearts goes out to the kid for calling him out, Don so effectively swats him away that I'm immediately sent back into his corner. Ginsberg will receive his due accolades if he swallows a smidgen of pride. It just may not be within the offices of SCDP.

The only other major event that happened this week was Roger hooked up with Jane in her new apartment basically because he decided he wanted to. Not sure if anything significant will come of that, but it gobbled up enough of the episode that it's worth mentioning.

On a closing note (and also because it actually worked last time with Betty), I'm calling for the return of Lane. I miss that crazy British bastard! Did Pete mess up his face so much, he's gone into hiding? I need to know. And also please more sideboob. See you all again in a few days!

Episodes 1&2 - "A Little Kiss"
Episode 3 - "Tea Leaves"
Episode 4 - "Mystery Date"
Episode 5 - "Signal 30"
Episode 6 - "Far Away Places"
Episode 7 - "At The Codfish Ball"
Episode 8 - "Lady Lazarus"
Peggy wasn't a big player this week, but we couldn't bring ourselves to leave this shot on the cutting room floor.

Monday, May 14, 2012

MAD MEN Partners' Meeting - "Lady Lazarus"

Welcome to the Mad Men Partners' Meeting -- a roundtable discussion of this week's episode from your friendly neighborhood LowBrowMedia savants.
This is a spoiler-heavy zone. You have been warned.

airdate: May 6th, 2012

Jon: Welcome back, everybody. This week brought us an episode I really enjoyed for a bunch of different reasons, but kinda feels like it'll be one of those that becomes more obvious what it was doing once we wrap of season 5. That makes it a little tricky to review, but we'll attempt it anyway.

We begin with Pete's insurance salesman friend from the train, Howard, who hasn't been brought up much in our discussions here, but has consistently affirmed my initial suspicions of his being a complete ass-clown in his brief appearances this season. He's so repugnant in his boasts of infidelity, even Pete, who's hardly offended by such behavior, is disgusted by him. Later in the episode we're introduced to Howard's wife, Beth -- played by Rory Gilmore! -- who is stranded at the train station. Pete gives her a ride home, and during their car ride, Pete all but confirms her suspicions regarding her husband's whereabouts. Pete follows her into the house, in part out of concern for her well being but mostly because he seems to want to lie about his lying to her, which rather abruptly escalates into a tryst in Howard's living room. He instantly becomes smitten with her, but for her it was one and done. But if we've learned anything on Mad Men over the years, it's Peter Campbell wants what he doesn't already, or can't, have. Unfortunately for him, Beth may be even less emotionally developed than Betty. Despite all his pursuits of her thereafter -- a midday phone call, a surprise visit to her home, a hotel room reservation -- she does little more than brush him off each time only to tease him enough in the process to goad him into trying again. Judging by her final message at the close of the episode, I doubt we've seen the last of Beth or Pete's chasing after her.

But the biggest event this week was Megan's departure from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to go back to an actress full time. Picking up where Mike left off last week, it really is a shame Megan doesn't enjoy working in advertising the way the rest of the folks at SCDP do. She's absolutely brilliant at it, as we saw during the Heinz dinner in "At The Codfish Ball." But that's probably because she's an exceptional actress when she has to be, and as we were shown by her father's scolding and her obvious unfulfillment after that wonderful Heinz deal closure, this is not what she wants to do with her life. I don't think she's playing a part when it comes to her and Don. I think they both genuinely love each other. That said, Don was certainly more enthralled to have her eating clients alive by his side, so we'll see if he falls into the same indifference with Megan as he did with Betty, which Joan kindly reminds us of. At the end of the day Don wants her to be happy (or at least he tells Roger as much), so maybe he just needs a little time to process it. But would anyone be surprised that this is what drives them apart?

Ultimately, this is just the latest example from this season of Don's resistance to change with those turbulent 60s swirling around him. While Megan has spent her first days away from SCDP cooking barefoot while enjoying the latest and most experimental album yet from The Beatles, Don has been trying to find an acceptable Beatles knock-off group so they can make their latest client happy. (Sidenote - I take a bit of issue with the inclusion of The Zombies with the other bands mentioned, only because their wonderful album Odessey and Oracle is hardly one-hit wonder fodder. But, to be fair, that album wouldn't see release for nearly another year after the events of  "Lady Lazarus." So because "She's Not There" and "Tell Her No" were their only hits of note to that point, they must have seemed as just another group riding the Fab Four's coattails in the summer of 1966. Also, AMC seems to be doing okay with that whole zombie thing lately, so maybe they were name-dropped for promo-spot purposes.) In the middle of the episode, a perplexed Don asks Megan, "When did music become so important?" From her point of view it's always been important, but Don has only ever seen it as an advertising tool, not an art form.

For me, the best part of this episode was the prevalence of music, particularly the inclusion of my favorite Beatles album, Revolver. I'm a massive Beatles nerd, becoming obsessed with them in junior high when all the Anthology stuff was coming out, and proceeded to get my hands on all their albums while devouring a number of biographies. That the earlier part of "Lady Lazarus" was spent by Stan, Ginsberg and Ken finding a song to replicate their A Hard Day's Night era sound, The Beatles themselves had already abandoned the sound that made them famous before becoming stale, which would eventually elevate them to the iconic experimental and inventive songwriters we now recognize them as.

It's curious that Megan would direct Don to listen to "Tomorrow Never Knows" first. Not only is it the final track on side two, it's probably the least likely cut off the album he'd enjoy (that or George Harrison's "Love To You," a droning sitar number). Obviously he didn't have the patience to finish it.

I gave Revolver a listen this week while thinking how it relates in terms to the current state of Mad Men was quite enlightening. Roger would likely enjoy "Doctor Robert," a song about a Dr. Feelgood who has a pill for whatever ails you; Lane would appreciate "Taxman," Harrison's tongue-in-cheek critique on the British tax system; I suspect Ginsberg would be drawn to "Eleanor Rigby," a sublime tale of a lonely woman who's funeral had no attendees, save for the priest; and Pete, at least this week, would identify with "Got To Get You Into My Life." But the song that has really been hard to ignore is "For Know One," Paul McCartney's somber ballad that with lyrics such as And in her eyes you see nothing/No sign of love behind her tears/Cried for no one/A love that should have lasted years could be a harbinger for Draper marriage.

Because Mad Men never sticks any of the characters directly in a monumental event of the time Forest Gump-style, it's easy to forget exactly how much the world is changing around them. But subtle examples are sprinkled in, like the evolution of The Beatles from a mere pop group to the most influential rock and roll band ever. Of our main characters, Peggy and Megan have always been driving toward change and embracing the new, Pete and Joan generally seem to welcome it but are just old enough not to completely abandon the previous generation's ways, and Don and Roger (and the rest of the old coots) have actively resisted these newfangled ideas for the most part. Roger's LSD trip may allow him to be ride this wave of change to a safe harbor of success, but Don seems poised to be headed down a path of diminishing success at the office and a divorce from his young bride all stemming from either his inability to adapt to his surroundings or his mere stubbornness to pine for the good 'ol days. He's going to have set his dreams higher than indoor plumbing if he's going to be able to morph into yet another version of Donald Draper. If he doesn't, then he's likely to have quite a bit of hardship in the coming years.

Random thoughts...
-- Catty Joan is back! I missed her.
-- Pete may not be as down as he was at the close of "Signal 30" a couple of episodes ago, but he's still an incredibly depressed individual. If the internet rumor mill about a death during this season of Mad Men turns out to be true, I'd say he's our most likely suspect. He just purchased some extra life insurance after all...
-- Ginsberg really works up a sweat during presentations. That was intense!
-- Poor Peggy. When will she learn that staying late at the office alone is little more than a surefire way to get mixed up in her coworkers' relationships?
-- I'm a little surprised I'm saying this, but I'm kinda going through a little Betty withdraw. It's been six weeks.
-- Speaking of absent cast members, I know he's been causing havoc as David Robert Jones over on Fringe this year, but Jared Harris has been missed as well. Would it kill him to use some of that mad scientist tech to transport back to 1960s Earth Prime so I can have a little Lane action?
-- Man, life outside of Bayside High is hard. Mr. Belding is even fatter than when he on Always Sunny a few years a go, Screech is a complete disaster of a human, and Lisa Turtle looks like this now.
-- I never liked Vincent Kartheiser much when I was introduced to him as Connor on Angel, but now having to watch him be miserable with Alison Brie and actually get mad at Alexis Bledel for being a little difficult, he's gotta be among the greatest actors of our time. (I kid... mostly.) 

 Mike: Really laughing at that last one, Jon.  (But also, I gotta agree!  And nice work on the Beatles song character analogies.)  You know, now that I said that, there's actually a lot I agree with in your write-up above.  I think you were spot-on when you said that the significance of this episode won't really be revealed until we get a better idea of where the story is going this season, for any of the plot threads that it follows.  I've got to say that at least initially, I didn't find a lot that I needed to write about for this episode.  It was reasonably entertaining, and moved the pieces around on the chessboard a bit, but it's still difficult to see where all of this is going.

To take it from the top, then, Pete's initial success with Alexis Bledel's underappreciated cuckquean (per Google, a female cuckold) housewife was a striking scene, fraught with undercurrent that I hope I never really come to understand in my personal life.  Now, we've got a now rather well-established cheater in Pete cheating with the cheated-on, while her husband is in the city cheating on her.  On a show where Don Draper has become the poster child for marriage fidelity, I've been trying to figure out who else has been faithful.  (Maybe Ken?  Is Bert even married?  Oh yeah, I forgot about his wartime groin injury.)  C'mon, Mad Men and Women, you need to learn to keep it in your pants!  If only the cheating wasn't so fun to watch, at least most of the time.

Now, Bledel's character Beth clearly doesn't have Pete's best interests at heart, but on the other hand, her husband Howard is a complete piece of insufferable trash.  Even poor, blind Pete can probably tell that the situation he's putting himself in will never end well.  But he still buys the champagne and rents the hotel room anyways.  I'll say this for him: in his seemingly endless search for -- what is it, anyways? stability? love? fulfillment? -- he's persistent.  And that will probably be what does him in, in the end.  Now, it could very well be that this unrequited romance is just another bump on the road for poor old Pete, but it doesn't take a Master's degree in following TV storylines to start to see a throughline over these episodes.  And unless there's a major course correction in his life, I'm not so sure that things will ever be any better for him.

Along these same lines, I got a little chill when Pete was talking with Howard about his family history, and the early, accidental death of Pete's father came up.  I had completely forgotten about that.  With any further lack of caution and his increasingly more frequent affairs, or at least attempts at them, Pete stands a pretty good chance of losing his family.   The Campbell family and his in-laws already can barely stand him, as far as I can tell.  Will Pete be able to even muster up the strength to get out of bed in the morning if he loses the two, possibly only, real fans of his that he has?  I suspect we are going to find out this season, one way or the other.  I'd wager that Pete simply doesn't have the strength that Don did, to bounce back after his first family fell apart.  Even a man like Don, skilled in personal reinvention, almost didn't.

The other big happening in this episode is Megan finally giving voice to her desire to leave the advertising field, not to mention SCDP, in favor of her acting career.  It happened so quickly -- a tearful goodbye to the other copywriters, a lunch with "the girls," and she's not even coming back for her box of stuff afterwards.  After Megan's initial truth-bending about her audition callback, Don is surprisingly understanding, and I am choosing to believe he is sincere in this.  He's seen what having unfulfilled passions has done to Betty, and he understandably doesn't want his new wife to go down that road.  And perhaps even a little selfishly, he doesn't want to go through all of that again himself.  What this means for his recent career upswing, in conjunction with a Megan who has just found her copywriting and client-wrangling feet, remains to be seen.  But I think the looks on Don's face speak a thousand words:

Don and Megan's perhaps overly cutesy, but effective, Cool-Whip routine owned the room.  But after Megan's ill-timed departure, and Don and Peggy's disastrous (and stomach-churningly hilarious) second Cool-Whip demonstration:

Don and Peggy's exchange after this, in front of the awkward lab personnel, was particularly revealing as well.  Has anyone ever spoken to Don like that and not been fired?  The problem was, Peggy was right -- Don was mad at Megan, not her.  (Though seriously, Peggy, you really did blow the whole thing.)  The Cool-Whip contract will probably survive.  The strain on Don's marriage is a whole different story.  It wasn't that long ago that Don was saying that he only liked going to work so that he could be with Megan all day.  All of his recent success could reasonably be attributed to the synergy of both Don and Megan working together.  So, which Don will emerge from the rubble of this latest development?  That remains to be seen, and I'll be tuning in next week, for sure, to find out.

Episodes 1&2 - "A Little Kiss"
Episode 3 - "Tea Leaves"
Episode 4 - "Mystery Date"
Episode 5 - "Signal 30"
Episode 6 - "Far Away Places"
Episode 7 - "At The Codfish Ball"

Sunday, May 06, 2012

MAD MEN Partners' Meeting - "At The Codfish Ball"

Welcome to the Mad Men Partners' Meeting -- a roundtable discussion of this week's episode from your friendly neighborhood LowBrowMedia savants.
This is a spoiler-heavy zone. You have been warned.

airdate: April 29th, 2012

Jon: Welcome back to another installment of the Partners' Meeting where someday you can spread your legs and fly away.

This week we start our trip to the codfish ball (whatever that is) by checking in on my homeboy Glen, who is now even extra worldly with a hint of a crustache and post-breakup scars marking his soul. Sally has continued to keep in touch with him via phone since they last parted ways, talking about what pre-teens talk about, which is pretty much nothing. But since she must take the phone from across the hall into her bedroom in order to gab comfortably in private, the outstretched phone cord leads to a sloshed Grandma Pauline to trip over it and be even more unfit than usual to care for Sally and Bobby. However, Grandma Pauline's misfortune is Sally's gain, and now she gets to spend a few days with her father.

But it's not just Don she has the pleasure to join this week as Megan's intellectual French-Canadian parents have come to New York for a visit. Their marriage is hanging on by a thread, with her hitting on a suprisingly unsuspecting Don at every opportunity while Megan's father seeks solace in a phone call from his publisher's rejection from his latest grad student tryst. The kids arrive downtown in time for dinner, but Sally doesn't like the fish the rest are having, so Megan makes her some spaghetti. The next day at the office, Megan finally cracks the Heinz account after being inspired by her and her family's past with spaghetti and applies it to baked beans. During the usual SCDP dinner courting of the visiting Heinz executive and his wife before their morning pitch, Megan learns that they're about to lose their account after all the lackluster work we've seen over the course of the season (bean ballet, anyone?). She warns Don about it and then prods him to make the new pitch here and now before he flips out and they're fired on the spot. It was vintage Don Draper, enhanced by Megan's presence, and it worked. Everyone's ecstatic over this grand success. Except for Megan, who is horrified to learn from Peggy that this is as good as this job gets.

Meanwhile, Peggy's relationship with Abe takes a turn for the more serious with a big decision. Unfortunately for him, Joan has psyched Peggy up for a marriage proposal, not the "let's move in together" one he nervously offers. She accepts with concealed disappointment, then invites her mother over for a meal at their new abode to break the news of them shacking up in sin. That goes predictably awful, so badly in fact that they don't even get any cake out of the deal.

But they weren't the only ones left cakeless. The other big event of the episode was Don receiving an award from the American Cancer Society for his previous work at a hoity-toity dinner, accompanied by Megan and her parents. Sally asks her daddy to be included and he agrees, so long as she leaves the make-up and go-go boots at home. She may finally be allowed to sit at the grown-up's table, but she's still his little girl, after all. Roger, who has been telling everyone under the sun about how great his LSD experience was, is her date and adds to the masquerade by treating her like a Mona in training by bouncing business party etiquette off her and handing out a Shirley Temple when she's showing signs of needing to taper off. All of these moves are incredibly charming to Megan's mother, who finally has a willing partner in Roger to flirt with. Those flirtations quickly escalate to something far more adult than Sally was prepared for after she walks in on them. By the time a dazed Sally makes her way back to the table, she's forever finished with those Shirley Temples and later that night tells Glen that the city is simply dirty. Whether or not she meant dirty in a good or bad way is yet to be seen, but she's officially primed for a new level of trouble to get into.

Just before that, we also learn why Megan isn't excited as everyone else for her big Heinz win. Her father taught her that "giving up" and selling your soul is the worst offense possible in this world, because Karl Marx said so. She's viewed as being handed all of her successes, even the ones she's illegitimately earned, for no other reason than because she's married Don. Apparently being a secretary by day and a struggling actress by night is the path to a more righteous existence. Has she given up or has she found what makes her happy? Her father certainly has shamed her into thinking she's failing at life, but who is he to talk? She and Don may not be together forever, but when they're on, they're amazing together. But I think Megan's rearing is the latest clue these two won't be able to make it work in the end.

And with my final observation about this week, I'd like to point out how wonderful the score of the episode was in "At The Codfish Ball." Outside of something overt like "Bye-Bye, Birdie" and this season's use of "Zou Bisou Bisou" being integral to the plot and unlike the bell-ringing that the inclusion of "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" induced last week, the music on Mad Men (and most other shows, really) is often something that rarely makes itself known while residing in the background. But there were multiple times this week where a classical riff from a clarinet (or was it an oboe?) and a piano struck me. It's not necessarily important to the episode, but is indicative of the show's subtle qualities I appreciate from week to week and it was especially nicely done this week to counteract the silence of the characters in those moments.

Enough about boring background music. What say you, Mike?

Mike: I’m not as good at recapping events like my cohorts Jon and Mark here, but I do want to look at a bunch of stuff in this episode that really resonated with me.  So, here goes:  Not to put too fine a point on it, but Sally Draper really fucking scares me.

No -- not her, so much as what she could become, so much of which is completely out of her control.  For an entire episode which could actually be summed up as “how to screw your daughter up, sometimes without even knowing it or meaning to,” we saw time and time again how circumstances have created the Peggy and Megan that we know and love, and also got some terrifying glimpses of what might be going on inside Sally’s head.

It’s a credit to the young actress Kiernan Shipka that her portrayal of Sally is so well-rounded.  We can see the all-but-seething discontent with her life in that huge mansion in upstate New York somewhere, the only respite being her flirtatious, precocious conversations with good ol’ creepy Glenn who, lest we forget, in times past had shared in an emotional affair with Sally’s own mother.  Now, Sally has what really in all truth seems like a loving, caring father in Don, especially the seemingly more well-adjusted “Season Five Don,” but he’s also kept at a distance because she does not live with him.  Her everyday life is filled with what seems like an absentee mother and father figure, two ciphers as brothers, and a domineering (but plucky) stepgrandmother whose respect she still has yet to earn.  With this living situation, alongside the serial killings and the brewing cultural-societal tumult of the ‘60s, it’s no wonder that she’s starting to feel a lot of pressure that she might not even be able to give a name to yet.

That said, we also see another side of Sally in this episode that I also buy into -- the girl who loves shopping with her cool young stepmom and showing off her short-skirted dress, who wants her daddy to think she looks pretty in it, and who wants to go watch that same guy, the apple of her eye, win a prestigious award with all of the other adults.  Too bad everyone but Sally’s aforementioned dad and stepmom are determined to behave like children all night.  If it’s not Megan’s constantly warring parents, it’s Roger taking full advantage of his newly hippified, freethinking outlook on life and also, as coincidence may hold, full advantage of Megan’s mom too.

Full disclosure time: I have a gorgeous, funny, brilliant, insane and creative two-and-a-half-year-old daughter who’s got me eating out of the palm of her hand.  (I’ve got an infant son, too, but I’ve only just begun to fear for his future.)  Like I hope most parents do of their own children, I think the world my daughter, and simultaneously balance the thought that I can’t believe how lucky we are to have her with the desperate desire for the sacred and sweet relief of her 8:00pm bedtime.  Maybe those of you out there who are parents can relate.

Anyway, when I see Sally, through virtually no fault of her own, embarking upon the process of losing faith in humanity at such a young age, it terrifies me to think that as much as I would like to protect my own daughter from such experiences, there isn’t any honest way to guarantee her safety.  And does it really do you any good to have faith in humanity in the first place?  Well, this probably isn’t the right place for that discussion.  I guess, at the very least, I would like my kids to have the opportunity to give humanity the chance to prove itself.  And for a child of her temperament, and who has gone through the things that she has, I’m afraid that poor Sally Draper may have already cast her vote.

In other developments this episode, we also saw Peggy seek out a truthful relationship with her mother, who hasn’t been around for a while, at least not onscreen.  From the outset, I knew the whole dinner thing was not going to go well, and I spent some tense moments waiting for what was surely to be the elder Mrs. Olson’s reaction to Abe and Peggy shacking up.  It takes a pretty nuanced hand to show a child you still love them while perhaps not completely agreeing with the path they have chosen in life, and Peggy’s mother has none of it.  As a young father, I (perhaps naively) have a hard time believing that I will ever find myself in that kind of situation with my children, but should that ever be the case, I hope I handle it a whole lot better than Mrs. Olson did.

Finally, I wanted to mention that this may have been the episode where Megan finally won me over for good.  I’ve been so focused on watching the warning signs in Don’s behavior and predicting what tragic turns her and Don’s relationship might (still) take that I might have missed all the good there, too.  Especially in comparison to Megan's parents!  Simply put, the copywriting and advertising magic that the Don and Megan team create in this episode really show that she’s not just some arm candy who humped herself out of a secretary job and into the creative field.  She, like Peggy before her, has really got some talent in the ad arena, and it’s beginning to bear fruit.  I really enjoyed the masterful interplay between Don and Megan as they used every trick in the book to snare a client.  I saw a lot of mutual respect and depth in their relationship, with both Don and Megan knowing when it was time to act and when it was time to step back and let the instincts of the other partner take control.  It was a thing of beauty to see unfold, and I hope there’s more of this kind of success for them in store.

Now, last episode, Burt criticized Don for being on “love leave” in recent times and urged him not-so-gently to get his shit together.  Could it be, though, that this very same love will be the key to his creative resurgence?  Or will Megan’s burgeoning talent begin to outshine Don’s, resulting in an ugly display of bruised pride?  I’m really hoping for the former, to be honest, but as usual I’m intrigued to see what comes next.

Jon: Hey, I'm back! Aren't you excited? Anyway, while trying to find that wonderful piece of piano and clarinet/oboe music I mentioned above (btw, I'm still looking), I figured out what this episode's title is in reference to. Turns out there's a Shirley Temple number in 1936's Captain January called, you guessed it, "At The Codfish Ball." So to know one's surprise, Sally's nibbling on that giant fish while at a "ball" wasn't to be taken literally. Obviously Roger's line about cutting her off from her glass of Shirley Temple had another layer to it. Here's the song if you're curious:

Episodes 1&2 - "A Little Kiss"
Episode 3 - "Tea Leaves"
Episode 4 - "Mystery Date"
Episode 5 - "Signal 30"
Episode 6 - "Far Away Places"

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Reel Low: The Avengers [2012]

"The Avengers" by Mondo (variant)
Oh, my god, that was fun!

I got out of the theater a few hours ago, and I'm absolutely going bonkers over how much I enjoyed The Avengers right now. So much better than I'd let myself believe it could be. If you've watched the five prequel movies to The Avengers, you will very likely love it every bit as much as I did.

The Marvel movieverse has taken an interesting path to bring their comics world to a mass audience, mixing plot and character points from various storylines and universes that worked best with their casting decisions, today's CGI and the best possible costume design for the screen. Personally, I've enjoyed all of the films from Marvel Studios that have served as precursors to The Avengers to varying degrees -- loved most of Iron Man and Captain America but both failed to deliver outstanding villains, thought they spent too much time on Earth in Thor, forgot to add in the heroic side of the big green machine in The Incredible Hulk, and with its abundance of characters Iron Man 2 now looks like little more than a two-hour reminder that The Avengers was coming in a couple of years (despite its good parts). But even those missteps were worth it to make sure similar pitfalls didn't strike for the grand reveal of this superhero team.

All the best elements from these five movies were woven together masterfully by writer/director Joss Whedon, and then enhanced at nearly every conceivable opportunity. For any fan of Buffy The Vampire Slayer out there (the TV show, not that abomination of a movie), it'll come as no surprise that he was able to bring an engaging and exciting story to the screen, brimming with intelligence and humor while this collection of misfits toys save the world. And with all that he still manages to tug at your heartstrings at times. Essentially this is a "get the band back together" flick with a bevy of characters, but Whedon brought the perfect balance of screentime to all of our main six protagonists and the big bad, while still leaving some choice moments for Nick Fury, Agent Coulson, Maria Hill and even Pepper Potts. While I would certainly have loved to have seen more of certain characters (Hulk!!!), I also don't think a single one of them was shortchanged. And that balance extends to the battle sequences, the quiet moments and the absolutely laugh-out-loud banter. Perhaps most impressive was how he enabled the (relative) newbies of Mark Ruffalo's Hulk, Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye to fully realize their characters in an action ensemble film, and more-so with Chris Evans, who in my opinion came to embody Steve Rogers with even greater command than in his own movie! And any fanboy who doubted Whedon's ability to direct action before watching this film should find some crow to chow down on, because I think it's pretty safe to say The Avengers is filled with the most exciting string of one-on-one action sequences ever assembled.

Look, there are things to nitpick here -- I really think they should have been forced Johansson to use at least a hint of a Russian accent, for example -- but these are little more than the extreme grumblings of a uber Marvel fanboy. These are things I think even the most hardcore Marvel zombie can let slide.

On the plus side, there are so many wonderful moments for us True Believers, and not just the now-standard Stan Lee appearance. While not at the frequency of past movies, there were still plenty of Easter eggs for the comic fan to appreciate, from Dr. Banner wearing a purple shirt beneath his suit to a reference to life-model decoys to the guy that shows up in the first post-credit scene (and there is a second one, so keep your butt in the seat until the end!).

The Avengers was so good, Iron Man 2 may have just become better because of its obnoxious prequel shoehorning. Well, probably not, but I at least want to re-watch it for the first time since leaving the multiplex in 2010 to make sure. Jokes aside, it triumphs as the best pure superhero film to date, finally showing all those normal folk out there these comic book stories and characters are smart, addictive, inventive, enthralling, heart-breaking, poignant, and -- above all else -- fun. In other words, they're just as great as any other fantastic work of fiction. Assemble your friends to the theater. You'll have blast.