“The Wheel” (season 1, episode 13; originally aired 10/18/2007)
In which we feel the pain of an old wound
(Available on Netflix.)
There are no good photographs of me as a newborn. I know because I’ve asked. If my biological mother had any, they’ve long since disappeared, and the adoption agency and foster home that cared for me as a child would have no reason to keep such a thing either. My mother has the only one the adoption agency sent to her, a blur of a bassinet and something pale and pink inside it, swaddled in blue. You can’t really tell it’s a human being, much less me, but it probably is. My parents were told it was, at least, and we’ve carried that story forward. But there are two months of the lives of most American kids, two months of 10 million milliseconds of new outfits and hugs from relatives and burps that look like smiles, two months that I am missing. I’m sure those two months were as unremarkable as any infant’s, mostly spent staring at things that my brain fixated on because neurons abruptly started firing. But if I had a time machine, the first stop I made would be there, by that bassinet, to take one photo I might look at later, to know time would carry that baby inexorably forward and make him more or less okay.
Don Draper wants a bit of that, too, I think, and maybe that’s why I relate to him so strongly. “The Wheel,” a masterful piece of television on nearly every level, gives us a tiny peek into what makes him the way he is, and the man at his center is filled with an inexpressible yearning for the lives he never had. Don doesn’t have missing time or anything like that, but he has a messy, angry childhood he’s longing to backfill with images he constructs to make people buy shit they don’t really need. We’ve explored that childhood all season long, but “The Wheel’s” greatest stroke is that it takes the way that back-story motivates Don and moves it from the theoretical to the achingly tangible. On the one hand, the centerpiece of “The Wheel”—a long, masterful pitch from Don that lands Sterling Cooper the Kodak account—is complete and utter hokum, designed solely to provoke an emotional response that will be so undeniable the company will reach up and land business with a firm far larger than it deserves. On the other, it’s a pitch so good, so nakedly emotional, that Don actually sells himself. He runs home to be with the family he could use to backfill those happy memories, maybe, only to find the house empty.
In most ways, “The Wheel” stands largely separate from the season. There are bits and pieces of business that carry over, like how Don learns that Adam has killed himself or the resolution to what’s up with Peggy, but this isn’t so much a final chapter of a story as it is a summation, an epilogue designed to let us know who these people we’ve been following really are. Many great Mad Men episodes are set on or around holidays, and this one is no exception, taking place on the precipice of a Thanksgiving that will bring some families together and send others wheeling apart for the time being. It opens with Don not wanting to spend time with his family and ends with him not getting to. Along the way, it shouts out across history to the Lascaux cave paintings, stops in to see another mother who ultimately doesn’t want her son, and finds time for a lonely woman to reach a moment of catharsis that runs in direct opposition to her husband’s similar moment of understanding.
In his interview with Alan Sepinwall about the final season of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner says something that deeply informs the whole show, sure, but “The Wheel” in particular. Says Weiner, “I always joke in the writers room, when I'm pitching a story, the key phrase is, ‘But he doesn't know it.’ Like, ‘something happens, but she doesn't know it.’” I had that quote in my mind throughout this rewatch of “The Wheel,” which is filled with people who are about to understand something—perhaps even themselves—but then find themselves in a place, usually through their own delusions, where they don’t know it. To truly know oneself is the hardest work most of us will undertake, and it’s easy to let it slide when life provides so many great distractions. The trick of Mad Men is finding a way to keep repeating the basic conflict of someone stepping right up to the brink of understanding, then turning away because what they find is too unpleasant on some level. It’s one the show has worked with over and over again, and it’s in “The Wheel” where it first sees its fullest flowering.
Look at what’s probably the thing easiest to criticize here: Peggy Olsen has been carrying a child to term this whole time and has willingly deluded herself about its existence. From a pure plot perspective, this is kind of ridiculous, since it asks us to believe that someone as ridiculously bright as Peggy wouldn’t have even entertained the notion of there being a baby growing inside of her. (I completely buy that she wouldn’t want to think about that notion, but that’s a very different thing from actively lying to herself about it.) And yet this doesn’t really bother me, because it both gives Peggy something that could take everything away from her right after the moment in which she’s given everything she wants and because it ties so nicely in to the episode’s themes of self-deception in general. Don thinks he wants an escape, when what he really wants is some place where he can feel warm and loved. Betty can’t believe her husband would cheat on her, when she knows that he does. Pete thinks he’s going to be hot shit, when he’s mostly just irritating. (And, alternately, he doesn’t really want to be a father right now, but he is, even if he just doesn’t know it.) And Peggy wants to have an upset stomach, but she’s going to have a baby. Reality has a way of intruding, whether you want it to or not.
“The Wheel” is Weiner’s directorial debut for the series, and he fills it with some very basic visual storytelling that’s hugely effective. Think, for instance, of the ways he frames Betty in the psychiatrist’s office as she lets her husband know she knows about his affairs (an ingenious move that should pull any Betty skeptics on board with her character at this point). He may not focus on the therapist, but he’s almost always there, scratching away in the background, giving an added layer to dissect in the performances of both January Jones and the character she plays. Or think of how he stages that late-night conversation between Don and Harry, drawing the two philanderers—one very experienced at it and another so inexperienced that he apparently told his wife about his indiscretion—into the same space for a little while, even if they’re at vastly different levels within the show’s structure and its fictional business. Or, finally, look at the scene with the pitch, the frequent close-ups of Don’s eyes flickering with something like awareness, the light from the carousel flickering over the faces of all gathered, the way Harry’s shadow projects on the screen as he has to run from the room in tears.
Also notice how often in the episode he uses smoke to make things feel slightly askew. Now, smoke—whether from a cigarette or a minor trashcan fire—just looks really cool in film lighting. (I suspect it’s one of the reasons the show has always had such a sharp, defined look, even when its budget was rather small, all things considered.) But it also carries with it a host of associations we attach onto it from our own experiences, and the way Weiner lets it waft up into the shots so often suggests not something that looks cool but something that’s on fire. There’s an emergency going on in these characters’ heads, and they’re not yet aware of it. The scenes where that smoke is most present (like Betty’s visit to the psychiatrist’s office) are those that push most firmly against a character’s conception of their life or well-being. Something that was is burning down, but only if the character will let the walls crumble. Otherwise, they’ll be reconstructed just as quickly. Fire is destruction, yes, but also necessary renewal.
I’m also awed by how well “The Wheel” is structured, so that character epiphanies come right on top of each other. Francine’s realization that Carlton is cheating doesn’t cause Betty to realize Don is—she already knows that but won’t admit it to herself. Instead, it sends her searching for a phone bill that causes her to realize that Don has been calling her therapist, who’s been telling her husband everything she says in therapy. Similarly, Pete’s father-in-law starts calling for him to have a baby with his wife, when all Pete really wants is for Trudy’s dad to give him that Clearasil account that will improve his standing at work. Meanwhile, the woman he really will become a father with is given her first assignment on Clearasil—and promoted to junior copywriter both because Don knows she’ll do a bang-up job with it and probably just a little bit because he wants to piss Pete off. Weiner and episode co-writer Robin Veith layer revelations within revelations, so important things are always happening, but the characters don’t always know it—sometimes because the world has kept that information from them, and sometimes because they keep it from themselves.
There are so many amazing things in “The Wheel,” but for me, as for a lot of viewers, it always comes back to that pitch, which hovers just on this side of being too much. Don must have rehearsed it and thought it up and planned it out painstakingly, but it’s also a mystery he’s solving in the moment, a mystery of himself where he didn’t realize what he had been talking about all along. Here’s a man who’s about to go through the holiday where we perhaps place the greatest emphasis on spending time with family alone. His lover is on a cruise to Paris. His brother is dead. His wife and kids have left for a trip he’s already said he won’t go on (though he doesn’t know this yet). Somewhere in the middle of that pitch, though, he realizes the place he longs to go is the place he’s already talking about, even if he won’t allow himself to feel that for more than a millisecond. He’s trapped by time, as we all are, forced to live our lives in sequence, as the same, flawed people who never really realize the truth of who they really are at heart, which is wounded and beaten and fleeting. But also, possibly, kind and good and capable of something outside of themselves.
“I was here,” Harry says the Lascaux painters hoped to say by putting their handprints on their cave walls. It is the hope of creating eternity, creating permanence, by giving up some little piece of yourself, so some far-future descendent can look upon that signature with wonder. Anything we create—from an ad pitch to a photograph—is an attempt to do the same on some small scale, even if we know that may never happen. I thought this was funny. I found this very beautiful. I cared about this. I was in love with this person. Go through an old, abandoned place sometime. You will always find a handful of photographs that exist as handprints, hoping you’ll understand what the camera operator was looking for in that blink of the shutter’s eye, hoping you’ll recognize someone else who was here. If you found that box of slides Don shows to the Kodak executives, who would you imagine him to be? It’s a lie, but maybe Don can tell it well enough to believe it himself.
I don’t have those photos of when I was a newborn, but I do have photos of my childhood, of friends and family long gone, of graduations and weddings and happy days that fade until I pull them right back up. If I need to remind myself that things will come together in the end, I can just look at the pictures dotting my apartment, enclosed in frames or stuck in books or trapped inside the hard drives of old computers I refuse to relinquish. They’re a story I keep telling myself and the future, a story about the person I was and the person I might still become. And wherever I go, they bring me right back to the place I’ve always been.
- I didn’t touch upon the story with Ken and Peggy auditioning, then coaching, the actress for the Electrosizer radio ad, but it serves a bunch of neat little functions, both to show how confident and good Peggy has gotten at this job and to show how she’s not the woman she wants to hear in the ad, not yet at least. But, we hope, she will be.
- Harry’s sleeping at the office because Jennifer kicked him out after his tryst with Hildy. I always feel a lot of sympathy for him in this moment, probably because he knows he screwed up but doesn’t know how to put it right yet.
- Bert Cooper calling Don “cowboy” will always be amusing.
- Pete’s father-in-law says that the only way family should be mixed with business is via the production of a child. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what he means by this, unless “business” is supposed to be a euphemism for sex.
- Welcome to: This is the first appearance of the Drapers’ maid/nanny/all-purpose Betty fill-in Carla, who will continue to appear in future seasons. I really didn’t think we’d be introduced to important figures this late in the run, but we met Duck last week and Carla this week.
- My one major complaint with this episode: The scene where Don imagines surprising his family in time for Thanksgiving is kind of cheap. I imagine it’s there because Weiner wants to indicate just what he’s hoping will happen, but it might have worked better as dialogue or something.
- Thanks for reading these reviews of Mad Men’s first season! If this is your first time through, I now deliver you into the gentle arms of the Noel Murray of 2008, who will guide you through season two. I will meet up with you again a couple of times in season four (spelling Keith Phipps), then take over as your regular host again in season five. And both Sonia Saraiya and I will see you when season seven comes next month! For the rest of you, it’s time for one more…
Spoiling Cooper (do not read if you haven’t seen the whole series):
- There are so many parallels between this finale and the finale of season six, not least of which is how the season six finale completely inverts the pitch in this scene. One of the things that excites me about season seven is the way that it holds the promise of completely breaking the show’s patterns. On a series that’s entirely about how human beings have complicated patterns they keep falling back on, that’s exciting to me.
- This episode also kicks off Betty’s long, slow metamorphosis into the kind of woman who can kick Don to the curb. I thought there were some diminishing returns in the evolution of that story (particularly in season three, my least favorite Mad Men season to date), but January Jones played so much of it so well.
- Also, I know that Glenn is now Sally’s best pal/potential love interest, but I hope we get one last scene between him and Betty as the series ends.
Next time: I’ll see you again on April 2, when I’ll begin a quick trip through HBO’s classic miniseries Band Of Brothers. Look for a full announcement of a TV Club Classic schedule next week!