Many thanks to my pal and boss Keith Phipps for covering this beat so well last week while I was up in Canada immersing myself in the sublime tedium of world cinema. (Keith's analysis of how Bert Cooper's Rothko painting relates to the company's new jingle for Martinson Coffee was particularly awesome; I doubt I'll come up with anything half that insightful any time soon.) Anyway, in order to prepare for tonight's episode, I went back and watched last week's immediately before the new one aired, and discovered something that shouldn't be all that surprising to Mad Men fans: 100 straight minutes of Mad Men is better than just about any feature film you'll see in a theater this year. (And tonight's episode wasn't even one of the series' best.)
Understand: I'm not saying that you could put "The Gold Violin" and "A Night To Remember" in a theater tomorrow and expect a drop-in audience to enjoy it the way they're soon going to enjoy, say, The Wrestler or Slumdog Millionaire. They'd need too much preparation; and they'd likely find the ending unsatisfying. But these episodes are as artfully shot as either of Toronto's breakout hits, and the writing's more sophisticated. (I hasten to add that I really like The Wrestler, though I think Slumdog Millionaire starts great and makes a series of safe choices that turn the movie toward the mediocre.)
Speaking specifically about "A Night To Remember," I can't think of too many movies I saw in Toronto last week that contained moments as concise, funny, and character-defining as Don raising his hands at a lingering Pete, as if to say, "And ?" Or Betty smashing a wobbly chair before a dinner party. Or Peggy pretending to be her own secretary. Or Roger making Harry open the door for him. Or Joan rubbing her shoulder where her strained-to-the-hilt undergarments have dug a little reddened groove. For all the more conventional dramatic plot elements that Mad Men has introduced this season, it's still a show that exists for the small gestures, the unexpected moments, the enlightening connections, and the pithy dialogue. It puts on a fancy suit, and then tells us something we'll remember.
I also realized tonight that persistent criticism of the show for shortchanging its ever-expanding cast of characters–a complaint I've made myself–looks to be ill-founded. While not every character appears in every episode, everyone's eventually getting his or her due. Sometimes their stories are just nodded to, as with Duck this week, who has apparently followed his leap off the wagon a few weeks back with a quick step back on. (At least in public still, it's refreshing to see a show in which people can be a heel one week and a hero the next, just like in real life.) And sometimes characters who've been largely ignored become major players in the story, as happened this week with Joan, who got a taste of Peggy-style S-C responsibility when Harry asked her to be his temporary TV script reader. Her sense of pride in the position–and her uncanny knack for it–made it all the more crushing when he told her she wasn't needed anymore. I'm sure this isn't the last we've seen of Joan The Accidental Career Woman. There's just too much fertile ground there to plow. (Down, boys no double-entendre intended.)
Sometimes, of course, the show lets its simmering storylines start to rise to a boil. This week Mad Men turned up the heat on Peggy and Father Gill, as she helped him come up with flyers for a youth mixer, and the two did their usual "This is just an innocent friendship, right?" dance. I'm still not sure what to make of the Peggy/Gill relationship, because I'd hate to see it go the way of those soap operas that Joan gushes over this week. Between Peggy flirting with a man who's taken vows and Betty finding out about Don's affair with Bobbie Barrett, Mad Men lately has been not just soapy, but unsubtle. Not in ways detrimental to the overall quality to the show, but in ways that make me a little impatient. I find myself hoping that Matt Weiner and company either defy expectations with these storylines or just hustle through them a little quicker, to get to the aftermath.
That said, even when the show is following a well-paved dramatic course with its story, its exploring some well-shaded backroads with its themes. What other series would build an entire episode around a series of scenes where people present themselves and their ideas to rooms full of people sitting in judgment? Between Betty's dinner party, Harry and Joan's multiple pitches, and of course Peggy trying to defend her pro bono work in front to two old church biddies, a lot of "A Night To Remember" was about people looking on a proposition with degrees of uncertainty.
Which of course sets up the biggest proposition of all: Don making the case to Betty that he's not an adulterer. This confrontation has been a long time coming, and in the spirit of what I wrote above about wanting the story to progress past the obvious, I'm glad everything boiled over this week. (Let me reiterate that I'm not one of those that thinks Mad Men moves to slow, because I'm interested in much more about the show than its plotting; but the hide-and-seek aspects of Betty and Don's marriage have rarely been Mad Men's most fruitful territory.) I was especially creeped out by the scene where Betty digs through Don's desk and finds scraps of paper on which he's scribbled his observations about human nature–including one from Season One, for a pitch to Right Guard. ("What do women want? An excuse to get closer.")
Betty, already annoyed that Don used her as a test case for the typical suburban housewife on a Heineken campaign, is now faced with the prospect that everything about her husband's storied charm has been scribbled out on bar napkins before being tried out on her. When Betty calls Don and tells him not come home after seeing Jimmy Barrett's Utz commercial on TV, I don't think she's inspired by her memory of Jimmy telling her about Don's affair with Bobbie. I think she's realizing that with Don, everything's a pitch.
-A few words on "The Gold Violin:" I thought it was a good-to-great episode, knocked down a notch by the plot business surrounding the Rothko painting, which struck me as a little sitcom-y. But it was great to see more of Ken, and Sal; and I found Sally's casual question at the picnic ("Are we rich?") to be surprisingly profound, especially since it comes after shots of Don sitting uncomfortably in his new car, and before shots where he tosses his beer can casually away and leaves his picnic garbage on the ground. And then, of course, the vomit: a nice touch that elevated the episode from a "B+" to an "A-."
-When Pete commented that Heineken would sell to rich hostesses because "housewives love green," I started thinking about Adam Curtis' documentary A Century Of Self, which I watched the first hour of on my iPod while flying up to Toronto. It's a four-hour examination of the history and invisible influence of public relations, as practiced by Edward Bernays, the American-based nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays was all about understanding (or even manufacturing) unconscious desires, then positioning products (and politicians) such that they promised to satisfy those desires. He was a Don Draper without the "lost little boy" angle.
-I liked Peggy's careful phrase-making when she insisted that her flyer image of boys dancing with girls offers "the promise of the kind of hand-holding that leads to marriage."
-Of course the show Betty is watching when she sees Jimmy Barrett's Utz ad is Make Room For Daddy.
-Sally stumbles across Betty passed out in her bedroom, looking drunk, disheveled and sour. I'm sure she knows how mommy feels.