Monday, August 2, 2010

Mad Men: Review of tonight's episode

I am huge fan of the AMC TV show Mad Men. The show has had trouble finding viewers over its three seasons, but has become the darling of the critics, winning back-to-back Emmys and a host of other awards.  For those of you interested in the technical part of TV producing, Mad Men was created by Matthew Weiner, who wrote for the highly acclaimed Sopranos on HBO. The show is set at a mid-level ad agency on Madison Avenue in the 1960's and depicts the social environment of the era. Although it can (and does) get heavy-handed when treating issues like sexism and racism, I think the show's portrayal of the pressing issues of the era is very clever and nuanced. Unlike most shows Mad Men is paced and composed like a rich novel, rife with ambiguities and complex character development (HBO's The Wire is another show that "reads" like a novel).

Season three ended quite dramatically. Draper, Roger Sterling, Bert Cooper and Lane Pryce decided to stage a coup to teach their British masters a lesson and defected en masse, taking a few key staffers and accounts with them to start a new agency. Season four (which began last week) is set 11 months later, and we see that the new  SCDP (Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce) is doing quite well in chic new offices but not well enough to afford amenities like conference tables. We also see that Draper is having a mid-life crisis of sorts, what with wife Betty leaving him for Henry Francis.

Tonight's episode was remarkable for its striking parallels between Don Draper and Lee Garner, the boss of SCDP's star client Lucky Strikes tobacco. As Lane Pryce likes to remind his partners, 69% of SCDP is Lucky Strikes so they must all make every effort to please the arrogant, overbearing Garner. Lee Garner is an overgrown child, a bully who knows he has the power to manipulate and move people around like puppets. He expects to get invited to SCDP's Christmas party and gets offended when he is told of it the day before.

At the actual party, he makes Roger Sterling dress up as Santa (the interaction between the two is priceless because if you know Roger, you know he doesn't take orders from ANYone) and compounds the humiliation by taking pictures of everyone sitting on his lap on his new Polaroid. Garner treats SCDP with contempt. In his mind, he can pay them whenever he wants for cheap and transient entertainment.

Don's treatment of Allison (his secretary, a migrant from Sterling Cooper) mirrors Garner's treatment of SCDP. Don's hatred of festivities is legendary and it is not surprise he slinks out of SCDP in the middle of the boisterous party (after being coolly turned down by Dr. Fay Miller, the data research person). Once at his apartment, he realizes he left his keys in his office and calls Allison to bring them over. She does that and seeing Don's miserable condition, enters his apartment to make sure he gets his aspirin before going to sleep. Of course, Don takes advantage of this situation and starts necking her. She plays around a bit and then leaves smiling. The next morning, Don is incredibly harsh and thanks her for returning his keys but makes no mention of the other "stuff" he did. Adding salt to the wound, he pays her a Christmas "bonus", two 50 dollar bills folded in a cheesy card. This is Don's way of paying her for her "services". We see the horror and sadness on Allison's face as the episode ends.

Don's behavior is quite a departure. Yes he is a pathological womanizer and cheats on Betty shamelessly. Yes he has a mean streak to him when it comes to women. But he has never sunk so low before. He is known to be cold and aloof and harsh, but this was a new "Wow Don. Can't believe you did that" moment. Interesting to see what being jilted by Betty has done to Don.

Side note: so pleased to see Freddie "I got so drunk I urinated on my pants in my office" Rumsen back from exile.


  1. This sounds like a really intense show! I've never actually watched any episodes, just seen the advertisements at the movie theaters and heard rave reviews from critics. I like the parallels you describe. At this point it sounds a bit dark though - I'm guessing all the development that makes you actually care about the characters has already been done in the first few seasons. Is there enough warmth to keep you going, or is it all so bleak?

  2. Bleaaaaak, very bleak.
    Bleaker than the prospects of Cleveland Browns winning the Superbowl (zing!)

  3. Hmm, I think I'll regretfully have to pass then. I've gotta have me some warm and fuzzy, you know?

  4. First, I have to say, I LOVE Mad Men! It's such an incredible show.

    Next, well Don did sink quite low in that episode, but I think he redeemed himself in last week's episode when he cried in front of Peggy and in his last trip to California.

    Lastly, Lafayette, I don't think the show is that bleak. I certainly wouldn't be watching if it was.

  5. Agreed. Last week's episode blew me away. Especially the final scene, where Don holds Peggy's hand as if to say thank you. Oh and this was the first episode where the door was left open at the end (the last few episodes all ended with a closing door).
    I stopped doing reviews because I thought no one would be interested, but maybe I will start doing them again. Alan Sepinwall (at has great analysis every week.He gets tons of comments from viewers too.