Monday, July 19, 2010

A mad woman enters the scene

Warning: Some of this season's middle episodes are so vapid, this one for example, that I plan to deal with them in a pretty perfunctory way, as I have below.

The virtues of mad men
The Fog
The next three episodes all turn on some gimmick and really could have been dispensed with. As usual with Mad Men there is a lot of gesturing around things that won't matter to distract us from the things that will matter. One thing that will matter turns out to be Lane Pryce and I will cheerfully admit I didn't see it coming.

Twenty minutes stolen from our lives
Sometime in the 1970s, edgy TV producers started building shows around childbirth. It's now one of those expected moments much like the funeral scene in a  classic western. There are certain set bits that have to occur. The shot of the woman really losing it, the shot of the men feeling useless, the shot contrasting the medical staff for who this is a routine event compared to the mother who is going through something special, the shot of mother and baby together.

It never works. The funeral scene in an old western was always deeply significant no matter how clichéd it got. Likewise the wedding scene in a Renaissance comedy. The birth scene in modern television never works and this one is no exception. It's fifteen minutes of wasted time. This one especially so because it includes a dream sequence that adds absolutely noting to the drama.

The problem, if you have ever been fortunate enough to be through this in real life, is that the baby himself is not central and in real life births everything is about that baby. On television it is always about the parents and their reactions to an event bigger than them.

So we have an episode that that has only two significant moments about it. One is Lane Pryce's development as a character and his effect on the rest of the cast and the other is Suzanne who takes you down to her place by the river.

Another lover to hate
The fans really hated Bobbie Barrett. I'm not sure why. She was direct and assertive about what she wanted. In a post-feminist age, she ought to have been exactly what we want in female characters.

With Suzanne Farrell it's even more profound. She is one of the very first genuinely liberated female characters to show up and the fans hated her even more than Bobbie. She is also the first fully sixties character to appear. We've had a variety of Eisenhower ear types until now. Even the clear rebels have been beatniky types of that earlier era. Here we get a sort of proto-flower child and coming up soon we will get an early draft dodger.

The other thing about Suzanne is that she is natural. She wears little make up and fewer foundational garments than any other woman in the show until now. The bras she wears allow her breasts to move, for example, and that makes her stand out from her cartoonish sisters on the show.

In any case, the fans duly hated her. The most common meme in fan comments as the season went on was that she was a Fatal Attraction nutter waiting to explode. That's odd because what we see in this episode is someone trying very hard to hide her feelings. Suzanne plainly thinks that the Draper's are terribly inept parents during the parent-teacher interview that takes place here.

And with considerable justice. There is a classic Betty Draper moment here where, when informed that Sally and another girl had a fight, Betty responds like a child instead of as an adult—as if she was Sally's best friend forever rather than her mother. And we see Farrell trying to hide her distaste at this. Similarly, she has to hide her feelings in response to the news that the Drapers have hidden the reality of Grandpa Gene's death from her.

But, of course, there is something else too. She is going gaga over Don. By the end of the scene she is calling Don, a little drunk, a little unbuttoned and clearly hungry for sex.

Oh yeah, a final detail about Suzanne. She is an odd, prophetic character. She keeps saying things she can't possibly know. Speaking for the screenwriters rather than herself. I can't help but think that she is intended to be a bit like her namesake in the Leonard Cohen song somehow meant to convey a sense of a higher love. She is sort of bohemian oddball who floats somewhere between crazy and profound. That she has the same name as a famous ballerina also produces the same sorts of associations.

It's a timeless idea by the way. You can see in the  Almost Famous linked above and also in a Jackie Gleason concept album (I'm not making this up) called Tawny as well as in a silly James Mason movie called Age of Consent that I just rented the other day. The idea is that flaky, vulnerable girls who keep doing stupid things sexually are supposed to be able to tell us something deep and profound about life and love.

Anyway, the conversation between them takes a familiar tack with Don opening up and telling the truth about his feelings (he never tells the truth about the facts of his life) when talking to Suzanne and lying when he speaks to Betty about her.

And there, perhaps, is the real reason for some of the animosity towards her. Don and Betty are a couple when they walk into Susan Ferrel's classroom and within twelve minutes any hope we might have had for their marriage is dead.

And then we lose twenty minutes of our lives in the pointless hospital scene. It does have a telling ending though. Betty, having given birth, immediately expresses a need to put makeup on. Don tells her she looks beautiful and he is, of course, right. January Jones could not look anything but beautiful even if she tried not to. And she misses it. It's a nice and telling touch. Even at this moment which, as Suzanne herself says, ought to be a moment of happiness together, we see how ill-suited these two are for one another.

Final verdict: a few interesting moments but this is just filler until we get back to the main theme of the year which is how little effect roles have on our basic personalities. Wild adventures change nothing so how do we really change? We have to wait until the final episodes to get an answer but it is very good one when it comes.

Season three blogging begins here. The next post will be here when there is a next post..

Season two, if you are interested, begins here.

Season one begins here.


  1. This was in today's National Review online. It echos some of the themes in your analyses.

    “Mad Men and the Paradox of the Past,” by Natasha Simons on National Review Online.

    You may click here to view this article:

  2. I read that piece just a moment ago and I can see what you mean, it does sound a lot like the stuff I have said here. Still I was a little disappointed. It's odd because there ought to be a real gold mine for both conservative and liberal critics in analyzing the show but all the ones I have seen take it on have fumbled the ball.

    Simons fails, I think because she underestimates Matt Weiner. As much as I sometimes criticize him, I think he has one very profound insight and that is that the era portrayed in the show is much more ambiguous than most people suspect.

  3. Oh I definitely agree with you, both about Weiner and the era. I think there is a tendency to stereotype everything, especially in hindsight. The image that younger people who didn't live through it have of the '60s from what they read really does a disservice to the complexity of the era. Maybe Weiner is trying to show this and how "average people" struggled with what was going on and were affected by it even though they weren't center stage.