Monday, April 29, 2013

Mad Men: The Flood

It's been quite a few times this past week that I've heard people comment on how they're being disappointed by this season of Mad Men. Let me first say that we've only seen four episodes this season (or five depending on how you count the two-hour-long premiere), so I think any judgement of the season in general is somewhat rushed. I will say right away that I disagree that this has been a bad season so far, I've been thoroughly entertained and have appreciated a lot of the creative choices so far, but I will say that there's a couple of things that haven't been working as well this season. 

One of the people that expressed their discontent with the show to me said she didn't like all the historical facts that Matthew Weiner was getting wrong (this conversation sparked out of the news about the 'Le Cirque' snafu). She was especially discontent with the way the St. Marks Place had been depicted in the first episode, when Betty goes to the Village looking for Sally's runaway friend. She thought it was a very heavy-handed and off-putting approach, and this season was suffering a lot from having historical moments and references being shoved in into the plot. 

That last part created a little conflict in my viewing of the show. On the one hand I thought Matthew Weiner was making these historical references to the period more prominent to highlight the fact that this characters can't escape the changing times. For much of the show, Don, who is a quintessential 50s man, could keep his ways, but the 60s are finally catching up to him and the people around him (think of how out-of-place Joan looked at the Electric Circus last week). On the other hand, though, I must say that the show is far from at its best when it tries to incorporate historical events into the plot. Sometimes they work (like the Ali vs. Liston fight in 'The Suitcase'), but for the most part they tend to either be too heavy-handed (The civil rights scene at the very beginning of Season 5) or distract greatly from the plot and the characters (The JFK assassination in Season 3). 

And just as I was thinking a lot about that aspect of the show, along comes an episode like 'The Flood'... 

When the show tried to do the JFK assassination, it mainly stopped all the plot and character work in order to have the characters' reaction to the events. While the tragedy affected Roger's daughter's wedding and (I guess) helped make up Betty's mind about divorcing Don, for the most part, the characters' reaction to Kennedy's death was not very interesting and made 'The Grown Ups' one of the weakest episodes of Mad Men. 'The Flood', dealt with the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and not in a very different fashion. I would call 'The Flood' a spiritual sequel to 'The Grown Ups', albeit an improved one, because while the episode focused mainly on the reactions to the tragedy it put a very interesting idea front and center at presenting to us the ways in which people can take personal advantages out of a tragedy.
(It also did some pretty solid work about racial tensions, which the show isn't particularly good at on a regular basis. The awkwardness of Joan hugging Dawn, for example, was just a great moment of television.)

Pete Campbell Phones Home
Congratulations, Pete Campbell, you might not be the most despicable character on the show anymore. That honor seems to have been passed onto Harry Crane, who by loudly lamenting MLK's death on the basis that it will prevent airings of his client's commercials. After his rant to Joan last week and now this fight with Pete, the show seems pretty actively want to show us how much a douchebag Harry really is.
That's not to say, of course, that Pete Campbell is much better. After all, he also uses the assassination of Dr. King to try to get Trudy to let him come home again. I suppose there is a level of truthfulness in Pete's preoccupation over his wife and daughter's wellbeing and I guess he misses them, but I wonder if this is another instance of Pete Campbell just wanting what he doesn't have.  

Location, Location, Location
Peggy also tries to use Dr. King's death to her benefit, only a little more indirectly, when her realtor tells her to make a substantially lower offer to buy an apartment based on the tragic events effect on the property's value. Peggy doesn't get the apartment, but she seems very happy when she gets Abe to say, again, indirectly, that he hopes to have and raise kids with her. She is also at a place in which she is successful enough to consider buying an apartment in Manhattan's Upper East Side (even if it's not on an ideal location).
Also, it seems like the Teddy Chaough-Peggy Olsen relationship is going where the Don Draper-Peggy Olsen relationship never went. Teddy was especially flirtatious towards Peggy at that awards show gala.

Ginsberg's Night Out
Out of the stories about people taking advantage of the tragic events, Ginsberg's was by far the most touching. We take a look at this guy's weird personal live when he goes on a blind date arranged by his father. The date gets interrupted by the tragedy, so Ginsberg goes home and his father tells him a tragic moment such as that is precisely when a man and a woman could need each other's love. Ginsberg Sr. is quite right. That girl was really nice and she seemed to like Ginsberg a lot. He could have found love right then and there, but decides not to. It's a testament to the character's tragic nature that we would feel sorry for him not exploiting a tragedy to get into a woman's pants.

Henry Francis Runs for Office
Also surprisingly sympathetic this week was Betty. Henry takes the possibility of a seat on the State Senate out of the whole MLK situation. Meanwhile, Betty seems concerned she'd have to be on the public spotlight of the campaign trail looking like she does now. After being on some very weird and unsympathetic places throughout the last few seasons, I was glad I could feel at least a little bit sympathetic towards Betty. The scene with the dress, when she looks in the mirror, was the most I've felt for her in a while.

You Mean Bobby Draper Gets Something To Do?
I was surprised at the beginning of the season to see the actor who plays Bobby's name on the opening credits for the first time. It seems like Matthew Weiner has finally felt like he wants to make Bobby at least a little bit of a character (poor Gene will probably never be more than a baby). So he gets something to do in this episode. It's mostly there to influence Don's storyline, but still.
Sepaking of Don's storyline, the guy is at a fairly dark place. Another complaint about the season I heard last week was that Don had become too much of an asshole. That his relationship with Sylvia and his nerve to pretend everything was going fine with his neighbors and wife whenever he was in public was the straw that broke Don's sympathetic back in the public's eye. I, for one, do think this is a horrible thing he is doing, but also one that isn't particularly far off from his behavior in the past. And even so, it seems like the show knows he is sinking further than ever.
I mean, his son is far more worried about his stepdad being shot than of the possibility of the same happening to Don. Don's response to this, saying Henry isn't important enough to be shot, is funny and somewhat delightful, but the subtext is clearly that Don Draper won't be ending this whole thing precisely triumphant. And anyone watching the show should have suspected so since the beginning, after all, he is falling down in the opening credits.  

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