Monday, December 08, 2014

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S2/Ep2, “Flight 1”

Another “Mad Men” episode based around a national crisis, this time a crashed American Airlines flight. The tragedy has both personal and professional ramifications at Sterling Cooper: Duck gets a call from American that makes him think they have a shot at the business—if they dump current airline client Mohawk; Pete, meanwhile, discovers his father was one of the hundred passengers who perished in the crash. The episode is beautifully shot, with pacing and cinematography somewhere between a stage play and a Francis Ford Coppola movie. I thought I remembered all the best “Mad Men” episodes without having to look them up, but this one slipped through my fingers. Every single scene is fantastic, and it was the biggest surprise thus far of this project.

Best Scene: After learning of his father’s death, Pete wanders into Don’s office (as Bert said last season: “You never know where loyalty is born.”). Pete experiences his shock out loud, talking not really to Don but at him, like a lost boy. Don’s ironic advice: Go home and be with your family. “It’s what people do.”

Best Line: Kinsey to Joan: “You’re just jealous.” Joan: “Because you’re the one who got away? You, out there in your poor little rich-boy apartment in Newark or wherever. Walking around with your pipe and your beard. Falling in love with that girl just to show how interesting you are. Go ahead, what part is wrong?” 

Grade: A

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S2/Ep1, “For Those Who Think Young”

It’s Valentine’s Day, the perfect time to expose all the cracks and faults in any relationship. Season 2 opens even worse off for the employees of Sterling Cooper than Season 1 ended, if that’s possible. Don and Betty can’t consummate, Pete and Trudy are in a battle over having children, and Roger is pining after Joan, who is in what we will see is a terrible relationship with a mediocre med student. At the same time, Sterling Cooper is beginning to feel the effects of changing times; Joan is trying to figure out where to put this newfangled piece of equipment called a copy machine, while Don is interviewing young writing talent—that for some reason come in pairs. “Mad Men” season premieres are typically rather weak, serving more to put all the pieces in place rather than be something truly great in and of themselves. This one is not overly memorable in its own right, and it tries a little too hard.

Best Scene: As Peggy struggles to come up with a new tagline for Mohawk Airlines, Don gives an inscrutable treatise on what it means to be a copywriter, summing it up this way: “They can’t do what we do … and they hate us for it.” This is the first of many, many scenes to come of Don abusing Peggy in the name of creativity. Honorable mention goes to Don taking a young man’s hat off in the elevator as a sign of respect to a woman (even though in reality he rarely shows actual respect for them); it’s Don’s way of fighting against the burgeoning youth movement of the 1960s.

Best Line: Duck to Don: “You know, there are other ways to think about things than the way you think about them.”

Grade: C+

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S1/Ep13, “The Wheel”

While the previous episode focused on business, the Season 1 finale is all about family. When Francine shares with Betty her husband is having an affair, it sets off a chain reaction in Betty that eventually leads to the dissolution of the Draper marriage (two seasons later). She suspects Don’s cheating on her but what she discovers is nearly as humiliating and demeaning—Don’s been calling her psychiatrist behind her back. Meanwhile, as Don works on a campaign for Kodak’s slide projector, he starts to re-examine his own relationship with his family, just in time to learn he caused the death of the last member of his original family when Adam committed suicide. As Betty notes, Don’s never known what it’s like to have a real family. However, his work on the Kodak account causes him to finally understand what this may mean. Unfortunately, he realizes too late, and the damage he’s caused cannot be undone.

Best Scene: Don’t pitch for “The Carousel” is one of the greatest single scenes in television history. But I’d like to throw an honorable mention for the scene immediately prior, where Betty has her own soliloquy in the psychiatrist’s office; here she finally admits to herself that Don is unfaithful—all the while knowing Don will find out about this conversation eventually; this may be January Jones' best work in the entire series.

Best Line: Don to Betty: “Who knows why people do what they do?”

Grade: A+

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S1/Ep12, “Nixon vs. Kennedy”

Some of the best episodes of the series revolve around historic events of the 1960s. Weiner & Co. not only re-create these landmark occasions for us like a history lesson, but also use them to show us more about the characters on the show. “Nixon vs. Kennedy” is the first of such installments, and it is one of the best. The first half of the episode takes place on election night, and we see how different people handle both the excitement of the returns and the disappointment of the result. The second half of the episode builds to a boiling point in the confrontation between Don and Pete, leading to a cinema-quality flashback of how Dick Whitman became Donald Draper where he left his old life behind and becoming the self-made man we know today. This is an unforgettable episode of “Mad Men.”

Best Scenes: After spending weeks of sleepless nights poring over the contents of Adam Whitman’s special delivery to Don, Pete finally summons the … courage? … to confront Don directly and blackmail him into a promotion. Don calls Pete’s bluff, and the two go face Cooper together, where Pete reveals what he’s discovered about Don. Bert’s reply is priceless and tells us all we need to know about the advertising mogul: “Who cares?”

Best Line: Rachel to Don: “You don’t want to run away with me—you just want to run away. You’re a coward.”

Grade: A+

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S1, Ep11, “Indian Summer”

“Mad Men” episodes come in several forms. “Indian Summer” blends a couple different categories: it is a meditation on a central theme (repressed sexual tension) but also is one of those eps that pushes the story forward in giant leaps. In this single installment, Peggy makes her first pitch and earns a raise, Don becomes a partner in the agency, Roger has a second heart attack, and Don’s brother Adam commits suicide, setting in motion the main storyline for the end of the season. It’s one of those episodes that feels twice as long as it actually is, and I mean that as a compliment. There’s so much going on here, weaving all the threads together makes for one of the best episodes of the first season.

Best Scene: A salesman peddling air-conditioning units stops by the Draper household while Betty is home alone. In a wonderfully ambiguous scene, Betty almost lets him upstairs into the bedroom to “take some measurements,” but then decides against it before they reach the top of the steps. The man is clearly disappointed by not closing the deal. Which deal? Well, I guess we’ll never know. This scene is made all the more important by Don’s outrage later when Betty tells him of the brief encounter; Don is free to philander all over New York City (including a scene just a few minutes earlier with Rachel Menken), but the rules are different when it comes to his wife.

Best Line: Don on the creative process: “Peggy, just think about it—deeply—and then forget it. And an idea will … jump up in your face.”
Other Best Line: Bert to Don: “I’m going to introduce you to Miss Ayn Rand. I think she’ll salivate.”

Grade: A-

Monday, August 18, 2014

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S1/Ep10, “Long Weekend”

Going back through these episodes after so many years, many of them reveal long-forgotten treasures—a great line or a well-crafted scene that slipped beyond the capacity of my memory. Most of this is great, as you get to rediscover all the little threads this show has woven together over six-plus seasons. “Long Weekend” doesn’t offer the same satisfactory experience, unfortunately. In the moment, it was a big episode, one that felt like it would be a turning point for so many characters in the show. Roger suffers a heart attack that sends him literally weeping back into the arms of his wife. Don seems to have a hole cut right through him watching Roger cling to life. But instead of turning to Betty he winds up at Rachel Menken’s front door and opens up to her about his childhood, giving us another tiny glimpse into the circumstances that turned him into this mythological Donald Draper.

The trouble is, “Long Weekend” is the first in a series of like-minded episodes that, ultimately, don’t impact these characters in any permanent way. With the benefit of hindsight, we know Roger and Don and all the rest soon forget about the moments of enlightenment they had here in the face of death and go on about their lives like nothing happened. That’s probably Matthew Weiner’s point, that people don’t really change; depressing and cynical, sure, but also all too easy to believe if you take a look around the real world. There are more episodes like this that follow, purported breakthroughs for one character or another, but that actually cheapens “Long Weekend” a good bit. It’s hard to go back and take this episode too seriously because we know the events depicted here don’t ultimately lead to much of anything. So rather than retaining the emotional power it had originally, “Long Weekend” winds up now feeling a touch melodramatic and rather hollow.

Best Scene: In the final moments, Don lays on Rachel’s chest and shares an abridged story of his horrible childhood. He is more honest here, with this relative stranger, than he’s ever been with just about anyone in his adult life—it’s certainly more than he’s ever shared with Betty. It also serves to establish that, as much as Don Draper may do some deplorable things, his upbringing offered him absolutely no moral foundation on which to build.

Best Line: Joan: “These men. We’re constantly building them up, and for what? Dinner? Jewelry? Who cares?”

Grade: C+

Friday, August 15, 2014

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S1/Ep9, “Shoot”

Matthew Weiner once said “Mad Men” is “about the conflicting desires in the American male, and the people who pay the price for that—the women.” Consider “Shoot” Exhibit A of that concept. Though the plot of this episode revolves around Don being courted by a much larger agency, it’s really about Betty’s self-respect and self-worth, or lack thereof. This is one of the series’ best episodes focusing on Betty, as it shows all sides of a character that is much deeper than people give her credit for—both the people on the show and those watching at home.

Best Scene: Certainly the final shot of the episode is the most famous—Betty firing a pellet gun at the neighbor’s pigeons with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, teeth bared like a feral lioness. But for me, the scene that steals the show comes right before, when Don and Betty sit down to dinner—after she’s been let go from the fake modeling job at the rival agency—and Don affirms for her how important her role is as a mother to their two children. I’ve watched this scene maybe a half-dozen times, and I still can’t decide whether Don’s being genuine … or if he’s just making a pitch to a client who wants to hear what he’s selling. Maybe he doesn’t even know.

Best Line: Betty to Don, about Sally: “Did you see those big tears? I really want to get a picture of her crying one day.” The way she says it—all happy and proud—is super-creepy.

Grade: B+

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S1/Ep8, “The Hobo Code”

This is one of those episodes I wish didn’t end. There are basically three main threads, all stemming from Peggy’s first attempt at writing copy. Everyone chooses to celebrate her success (thanks to another great pitch from Don) in different ways, which gives insight into so many different characters: Sal meets up with a client, leading to a proposition he refuses; Peggy goes out drinking and dancing with most of the office, which Pete does his best to ruin; and Don retreats to Midge’s apartment, where he gets high with her hippie friends and, eventually, realizes there’s nothing left in this relationship for him (not that there ever really was anything meaningful there to begin with). The best part of the episode, though, is the titular flashbacks to Don’s life as a child on the farm where a passing vagabond shows young Dick his father is a dishonest man. Though they’ve gone away in recent years, it’s these flashback sequences that take “Mad Men” to a whole new level of television show.

Best Line/Scene: Bert hands Don a bonus check for $2,500 and then asks him if he’s ever read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” Bert then says: “When you hit 40, you realize you’ve met or seen every kind of person there is … and I know what kind you are. Because I believe we are alike. By that I mean, you are a productive and reasonable man and, in the end, completely self-interested. It’s strength. We are different. Unsentimental about all the people who depend on our hard work.” This is one of my favorite scenes in the entire series.

Grade: A

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S1/Ep7, “Red in the Face”

One of the most uncomfortable episodes of “Mad Men” ever. Just about every scene is incredibly awkward and difficult to watch. From Roger horning in on dinner at the Draper house and making a pass at Betty, to Pete hitting on the girl at the department store counter, to Betty’s confrontation with Helen Bishop in the supermarket about giving Glen a lock of her hair, to Roger and Don’s competitive drinking at lunch. This installment also cements the weird relationship between Roger and Don; they fight and compete against each other like brothers, but in the end they always remain loyal. The episode is well-executed, memorable, and dripping with drama, but it’s still not one I like to return to.

Best Scene: Earlier in the episode, Don bribes the elevator operator to take the lift out of service so that he and Roger have to walk up 23 floors after a huge lunch of oysters and alcohol. It’s Don’s way of getting back at Roger for being part of the “Greatest Generation” and for one-upping him at dinner in front of Betty. Don beats Roger to the office; Roger enters a few seconds after and throws up his lunch in front of the Nixon reps. The best part? The Nixon guys don’t seem to mind that much.

Best Line: Pete: “Did I miss something?” Roger: “No. Don and I talk all the time when you’re not around. In fact, we’re going to do it right now. Don, shall we?”

Grade: B-

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S1/Ep6, “Babylon”

Lots happening in this episode, all of it important but none of it quite hanging together, which is what keeps it from being an all-time great. Still, over the course of 45 minutes we discover Roger and Joan are having an affair, Don and Rachel Menken’s attraction deepens, and we get a harsh look at the prejudices of these 1960 mad men. On top of that, the shifts in culture begin to appear as Don visits a Beatnik poetry reading (where there’s “no place to put your coats”), looking like a man from a different time—which he basically is. This is the first look at how Don struggles to keep pace with current trends, which is a running theme of the entire series. However, the episode’s most important storyline is the birth of Peggy Olson’s career, a moment that changed the series forever. Add to that Don’s first flashback to his childhood, and “Babylon” takes major leaps forward in the “Mad Men” story.

Best Scene: The men sit behind one-way glass as the women in the office test out lipstick. The offensive quips lobbed at the glass arrive like they’re shot out of a machine gun. And meanwhile Peggy sits to the side, noticeably different from all the other women. In Part B of the scene a few minutes later, Peggy gives an offhanded remark to Freddy that will change her life: “Here’s your basket of kisses.” Later, Freddy remarks: “It was like watching a dog play the piano.”

Best Line: Freddy: “Let’s throw it to the chickens.”

Grade: A-

Monday, August 11, 2014

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S1/Ep5, “5G”

A tremendous and momentous early episode where the fa├žade that is Donald Draper starts to peel back and reveal the buried life of Dick Whitman. While the Dick Whitman storyline has lost some steam in recent years, Don’s identity theft drove much of the first four seasons of this show. Here we meet Dick’s younger brother Adam, a heartbreaking character who has floated through life rather than grabbing ahold of it like his older half-brother; the contrast between the two is striking, and helps further define in our minds just who Donald Draper is, even while raising more questions about him. The sidebar storyline about Ken Cosgrove getting a story published is a bit of a distraction, but the thread leads to a deeper understanding of the competitive nature of life on Madison Avenue—particularly the lengths one Pete Campbell is willing to go to achieve success.

Best Scene: Don confronts Adam in his little brother’s hovel of an apartment, handing him $5,000 to start a new life—create his own version of Donald Draper. During this brief meeting, Don defines his personal philosophy and his character in one simple line: “My life only moves in one direction—forward.”

Best Line: Don: “No one wants to look like they care about awards.” Betty: “But you do.” Don: “Isn’t that sad?”

Grade: A

Monday, August 04, 2014

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S1/Ep4, “New Amsterdam”

This episode is a bit scattershot for the first half hour, but the final 15 minutes lock in to save it as the rivalry between Don and Pete intensifies, while the rivalry between Don and Roger begins. After attempting to fire Pete, Don gets an education from Bert Cooper in the politics of money, name recognition, and power in New York. In the meantime, we get our first look at life outside the office for Pete, who is caught between two sets of domineering parents, his sugary-but-demanding wife, and his own lack of confidence. Not a memorable episode, but one that makes some important advances in the overall arc of the season and the series.

Best Scene: Well, maybe not “best,” but certainly creepiest and most memorable—Glen opens the bathroom door while Betty is using the toilet, then later asks for a lock of her hair. It’s the beginning of a long, strange, twisted relationship between Glen and the Draper women.

Best Line: Roger: “My generation, we drink because it’s good. Because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar. Because we deserve it. We drink because it’s what men do.”

Grade: B-

Friday, August 01, 2014

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S1/Ep3, “Marriage of Figaro”

This is an episode divided in two: the first half is spent with the Menken’s account, the second in the Draper home. It sets up the key dichotomy of Don’s life—at home he’s living the life he’s “supposed” to be, but he is in no way suited for it. After kissing Rachel Menken on the rooftop of her store the night before, he wakes up to the domestic chores of Sally’s birthday party. As he gets progressively drunker, we get a peek inside Matthew Weiner’s depressing view of suburban married/family life, where the divorcee is ridiculed mercilessly and the men are all scum. All of this is, once again, laid on a little thick. Oh, and the ep opens with the surprise that Don Draper was, at one point, known by the name Dick Whitman.

Best Scene: After passing out in his car, Don wakes up hours after the birthday party ends, parked under a bridge.

Best Line: Francine, looking at Don out the window: “That man.” Betty: “I know.”

Grade: B

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S1/Ep2, “Ladies Room”

Ah, meet the women of “Mad Men.” While the premiere introduced us to the titular characters of this show, the second episode delves deeper into the opposite sex. The focus is primarily on Betty Draper, who supposedly has everything she could ever want in life … but then why won’t her hands stop shaking? “Ladies Room” furthers one of the central themes of the show: What is happiness? Not the strongest of outings and a bit heavy-handed on the theme (a “Mad Men” trait, we’d discover), this ep nevertheless plants a lot of seeds for future development, including Peggy’s initial interest in becoming a copywriter. This isn’t one I’d come back to on its own merits, but it does end with the shocker that Don is in cahoots with Betty’s psychiatrist.

Best Scene: Over drinks (in the office, of course), Don and Roger discuss happiness, women, and the merits of psychiatry.

Best Line: Don to the creative team: “We should be asking ourselves, ‘What do women want?’”

Grade: C

Monday, July 28, 2014

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S1/Ep1, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”

It’s all there, right from the start. Seven years later, the introduction to “Mad Men” still holds up as one of the series’ best episodes. It stems from Jon Hamm’s incredible presence, solidifying Don Draper as a force to be reckoned with, but with deep-rooted weaknesses, too. The episode establishes Don as a man who sells products to a society he doesn’t actually feel a part of. Almost every scene is perfect, though looking back the interaction between Don and Pete, particularly Don’s reprimand of Pete’s behavior toward Peggy, seems a touch off. Overall, though, “Mad Men” came storming out of the gates and concluded with an amazing twist—Don Draper is married and lives in the suburbs with his wife and kids.

Best Scene: The Lucky Strike pitch. “It’s Toasted,” indeed.

Best Line: Don to Pete: “Let’s take it a little slower. I don’t want to wake up pregnant.”

Grade: A+