Thursday, January 29, 2015

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S2/Ep13, “Meditations in an Emergency”

Tensions are high in the world during the heat of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and meanwhile people on this show are dropping nuclear bombs left and right. Don blows up Duck’s precious plan to take over Sterling Cooper; Betty “evens the score” by sleeping with some random guy in a bar before letting Don come home and telling him they’re going to have another baby; and Peggy finally tells Pete he fathered a child with her and she gave it away. With all that going on, the rest of the cast is merely running for cover amidst all the flying shrapnel. Season 2 is an uneven one, but this finale is one of the show’s finest hours, with one memorable scene after another and wrapping with several monster cliffhangers for Season 3.

Best Scene: The Self-Destruction of Duck Phillips: In the meeting to finalize the merger, Duck makes his big play for the presidency of Sterling Cooper. He’s going to put Don in his place—only nobody puts Donald Draper in the corner. Don plays his Ace—he doesn’t have a contract, meaning he can walk out the door and go to a rival agency Monday morning. Duck is finished, and so ends one of the greatest scenes in “Mad Men” history.

I’d like to give an Honorable Mention to an early scene, though, when Don returns to Sterling Cooper after his walkabout in California. Joan and Peggy greet him and Don mentions Peggy’s new haircut; the reaction by Elisabeth Moss is priceless. No one else noticed Peggy’s new look even while she was walking around for days, but Don picked it up instantly. It’s a subtle way of continuing to show the depth of their relationship, and the fact that Don never misses anything.

Best Line: Don: “The world continues without us. It’s no reason to take it personally.”

Grade: A+

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S2/Ep12, “The Mountain King”

The meat of this episode focuses on Don spending time with Anna Draper (technically his ex-wife) in California. Their relationship is fleshed out with flashbacks, showing how deep their bond is. As she tells him at one point: “I always felt that we met so that both of our lives could be better.” Don is clearly at the crossroads here, and as Season 2 heads into its final episode, we’re left wondering what he will decide to do. It’s a notion reinforced at the end with a line from Peggy: “What ever Don does or doesn’t do, I’m sure it’s with good reason.”

In the meantime, business continues at Sterling Cooper, where Peggy succeeds at another pitch and gets her own office, while the partners (minus Don, of course) decide to sell the agency. One of the best shots of the episode comes after the partners’ meeting, where Bert is left alone to contemplate what just happened. He’s more about the work than the money, and he knows he just sold out; it’s a decision that will have long-lasting ramifications for him, as we will see for seasons to come.

Best Scene: In a flashback, we see Don tell Anna about Betty for the first time, and his intention to marry her. He’s so filled with hope and joy. He loves the way Betty laughs, and the way she looks at him. He’s excited about the prospect of starting a family. It’s a nice callback to his pitch for the Carousel, and a heartbreaking reinforcement of how much pain and suffering has come between the two since.

Best Line: Don: “I have been watching my life. It’s right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. But I can’t.”

Grade: B+

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S2/Ep11, “The Jet Set”

Don and Pete travel to California for one of the stranger “Mad Men” installments, as Don abandons his colleague mid-trip to latch onto an odd group of wealthy nomads. Knowing what we do now about how prominently California will factor into the show in the future, it’s fascinating to see how foreign the land feels at this introduction (Mexican food! Oh my!). Meanwhile, wheels begin to turn back at Sterling Cooper as Duck works to sell the agency to an international firm. “The Jet Set” is memorable only for Don’s oddball group of new friends, but otherwise it’s a rather Point A to Point B affair.

Best Scene: Peggy takes her next big career step thanks to the recently outed Kurt Smith. The young European copywriter visits her apartment and, apparently incapable of telling a lie, bluntly tells Peggy her style needs an update. So he cuts off her ponytail and, voila, the next day we’re looking at a whole new Ms. Peggy Olson.

I’d also like to give a shout-out to the production and direction of this episode; the scenes in California (particularly our first sight of Don standing by the pool) and the musical theme that go with them make you feel like you truly have stepped into a different world.

Best Line: Harry’s philosophy on racial tensions in the South: “I don’t know why people keep stirring up trouble. It’s bad for business—just another reason not to watch TV.”

Grade: C+

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S2/Ep10, “The Inheritance”

Betty’s father has a stroke, which prompts a detente between her and Don as they leave the city to visit him. The second half of the episode then delves more into what life is like for Betty without Don living at home. It’s a terrible thing, her having to decide between loneliness and misery or accepting a man who betrayed her so deeply. In the end, the only person she can confide in is Helen Bishop, the divorcee down the street who Betty and her friends ridiculed mercilessly in the previous season.

Best Scene: When the Drapers retire for the evening at Betty’s father’s home, Betty makes Don sleep on the floor … but later joins him in the middle of the night, out of desperation to avoid the pain that awaits her in every other room of the house. Really, though, every single scene January Jones is in during this episode is outstanding; she did her best work on the show in Season 2.

Best Line: Betty: “Sometimes I feel like I’ll float away if Don isn’t holding me down.”

Grade: B

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S2/Ep9, “Six Month Leave”

There is so much to unpack here in an episode that deals with marriage, workplace politics, self-esteem, death, and the meaning of life. Framed by the news of Marilyn Monroe’s suicide, the action focuses on Freddy Rumsen’s alcoholism and what his lack of self-control means for him and Sterling Cooper as a whole. By the end of the episode Freddy is fired, Peggy is promoted to take over his work, Don punches Jimmy Barrett in the face, and Roger leaves his wife for Don’s secretary. Meanwhile, January Jones delivers one of her best performances as she continues to try and cope with Don’s betrayal. “Six Month Leave” is filled with tons of big moments, but at the same time makes plenty of room for subtle character development—like how Pete destroys a man’s life and all he cares about is getting a raise, or how Roger used pillow talk with Don’s secretary to learn more about Don (“You’re so secretive,” Roger tells Don at one point). It’s a brilliant installment.

Best Scene: There’s an argument to be made that the scene where Freddy loses control of his bladder in the middle of a meeting is a perfect summation of “Mad Men”—it’s hysterical, tragic, and depressing all at the same time. This show offers many such dichotomies. Regardless, it’s gotta be one of the most memorable moments of the entire series, featuring what’s turned out to be one of its best characters in Freddy. Also, Sal’s outburst of laughter is infectious. In truth, though, every single scene involving Freddy in this episode is pure gold, especially his farewell to Roger and Don.

Best Line: Freddy: “If I don’t go into that office every day, who am I?”

Grade: A

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S2/Ep8, “A Night to Remember”

A workmanlike and generally forgettable episode that basically just moves the ball down the field a ways toward Betty and Don’s eventual separation. Otherwise, I didn’t particularly care for the Peggy/priest storyline originally and it still doesn’t do anything for me. Joan’s work with Harry reading TV scripts is a nice bit of long-range foreshadowing, though, on how she will eventually take a bigger role in the company.

Best Scenes: The series between Betty and Don where she is confronting him about his affair with Bobbie Barrett is the only real reason to go back to this episode. Don is in full-on denial mode; despite his bravado, Betty sees right through him, reducing him to pathetic lines like, “Jimmy Barrett is a big mouth.”

Best Line: Betty to Don: “I would never do this to you. How could you do this to me?”

Grade: C-

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S2/Ep7, “The Gold Violin”

It’s easy to look at Betty Draper after these 6.5 seasons and judge her, ridicule her, think of her as a horrible, bitter person and a terrible mother. All that may be true. But when you start to think that way of her, I want you to remember this episode, in particular. And I want you to realize how much of her character’s trajectory is Don’s fault. The scene between Betty and Jimmy Barrett near the end of “The Gold Violin” is the culmination of an arc that’s been building since the previous season, when Betty first discovered Don had been going behind her back to talk to her psychiatrist. And then there was the scene in the previous episode where Betty wears her new bathing suit and Don eviscerates her like she’s a child; he may as well have slapped her in the face, she’s left so emotionally beaten. But this episode is where it all comes together. It may take another season and a half to become official, but the Draper marriage ended right here, when Jimmy points out so casually how he knows his wife and Don are having an affair. Betty may have had suspicions before, but she can’t deny what’s right in front her face, while she and Jimmy sit “at the kids’ table,” as he calls it. Don was a terrible husband to Betty, much worse than she ever was a bad wife to him. It was his job to love her and protect her and to build her up, and instead he destroyed her, leaving her nothing but a broken, shallow, callous shell of a woman.

So that’s the end of “The Gold Violin.” What comes before is one of the best episodes of the entire series, especially for one that doesn’t focus on a central event (not to mention almost no lines for Peggy and not even a sighting of Pete). The first half seems to be comprised entirely of wonderful lines that twine into brilliant scenes. From Jane leading a stealth mission into Cooper’s office, to Don buying his new Cadillac, to Ken’s dinner at the Romano household. We even get an ever-so-brief flashback introduction to the real Donald Draper’s real wife, Anna. It’s a perfect midseason character study (a “Mad Men” staple) that goes from laugh-out-loud funny to heartbreaking over the course of just 46 minutes.

Best Scene: The aforementioned party to celebrate Jimmy getting his “Grin and Barrett” show picked up, where he first confronts Betty and then Don about the affair. Patrick Fischler (Jimmy) should’ve won an Emmy for this piece of work alone.

Best Line: Jimmy to Betty: “All I know is, I know her and you know him, and there they are, and they don’t care where we are.”

Grade: A+

Monday, January 26, 2015

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S2/Ep6, “Maidenform”

There are a few episodes of “Mad Men”—maybe one a season—where the characters on this show act so abhorrently, it’s enough to make me contemplate not watching anymore. Here’s one.

Worst Scene: After a meeting goes south, Duck turns to drink. Just as he’s about to take the first swallow, though, he looks down and sees his dog staring at him. He is so ashamed of what he’s about to do, he takes it out on the dog by walking it downstairs and releasing it into the city. Characters on this show have done a lot of awful things, but this is easily one of the worst. It’s another of those “rub it in your face” moments, where it’s so over-the-top horrible I feel it takes away from the show. It also makes Duck such an unredeemable person it sucks all interest out of him, other than wanting to see him utterly fail. That makes for a certain type of drama, but it’s beneath the standards of this show.

Best Scene: In a mirror of the scene above, the episode ends with Sally staring up at Don as he shaves. The look of pure adoration from his innocent daughter causes Don to feel the shame of his behavior—penetrating his armor of denial and “forward motion.” Much like Roger’s heart attack, though, this scene would mean more if it had led to any real change in Don.

Best Line: Roger: “I’ve been married for 20 years—I know the difference between a spat and spending a month on the couch.”

Grade: D-

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S2/Ep5, “The New Girl”

The relationship between Don and Peggy is one of the central threads of the entire series, and there are certain episodes where that bond jumps a level. This is one of them. When Don and Bobbie Barrett get drunk and Don crashes his car on the way to the shore, it’s Peggy he calls to bail them out. As a result, we see once again how Peggy is maturing, taking charge of the situation and handling Bobbie the next day. Everything between Peggy and Bobbie is A+-level stuff, and the subplots of Joan’s engagement and Pete and Trudy’s fertility problems are good, too. There is a ton to unpack and contemplate here, and this episode is just shy of being an all-time great entry. 

Best Scene: In a flashback, we see a post-pregnancy Peggy lying in a hospital bed, loaded up on drugs. And, suddenly, Don is there. It’s so surprising, Peggy has to ask him if he’s real or a hallucination. But he is very, very real, and he is here to get her out of this place. The intensity in Jon Hamm’s eyes here is incredible, and this is one of the best scenes of the entire series. It shows so much about Don; first, that he cared enough about Peggy to come find her, and second, his pathological (some might say psychotic) penchant for denial (which we also see when he completely forgets to pay Peggy back for the bail money).

Best Line: Don: “Peggy, listen to me. Get out of here, and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”

Grade: A-

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S2/Ep4, “Three Sundays”

An episode that starts off a little soft (I’m not a big fan of the Peggy/priest storyline, in general) ramps up in a big way halfway through when Sterling Cooper learns its pitch to American Airlines is happening a week earlier than expected. Everyone comes in on Palm Sunday, and for the first time we truly get to see Don work a problem from the beginning. Knowing the effort that goes into the pitch makes the final aborted meeting with American all the more of a gutshot.

Best Scene: It’s really one long sequence in three parts: Don comes home after the failed American Airlines pitch and Bobby does another thing to make Betty mad, leading to an intense fight between Betty and Don that ends with them shoving each other. But the tension melts away as quickly as it began when poor little Bobby appears in the doorway and asks Don about his father. In a crushing line, Bobby says: “We have to get you a new daddy.” The sequence concludes that evening as Don and Betty are turning in for the night; Betty is still after Don to spank the children, but Don refuses. “My father beat the hell outta me,” he tells her. “All it did was make me fantasize about the day I could murder him. … And I wasn’t half as good as Bobby.”

Best Line: Don to Betty: “You want me to bring home what I got at the office today? I’ll put you through that window.”

Grade: B+

Monday, January 05, 2015

Re-watching ‘Mad Men’: S2/Ep3, “The Benefactor”

This episode starts off whimsically, with more one-liners than you can possibly remember (no matter how many times you’ve heard them). But it takes a decidedly darker turn midway through when Don meets Bobbie Barrett, wife and manager of comedian Jimmy Barrett. Everyone is going to react differently to a show, I understand that, but I respond negatively to the entire Bobbie Barrett storyline that runs throughout Season 2. Couple that with way too much time spent on Harry Crane along with a dull plot thread about Betty taking horseback lessons, and this entry ranks toward the bottom of the series for me.

Worst Scene: The final minutes of this episode feature the scene I hate the most in the entire series. It occurs during the “apology dinner,” where Jimmy is supposed to make amends with the UTZ executive’s wife. Jimmy isn’t behaving, and when Bobbie leaves the table, Don follows her shortly thereafter. In a back room of the restaurant, Don gets extremely … aggressive with Bobbie, physically, and tells her Jimmy must apologize now or the deal’s off. The action Don takes here stands out in all the wrong ways. Weiner learned at the feet of David Chase, and this scene to me feels like when Chase would “rub our noses” in the fact that we liked and rooted for a degenerate criminal like Tony Soprano by having him do something egregiously horrible. It feels like Weiner is doing the same thing here, and as a result I’ve always hated this scene. Don is an anti-hero, sure, but this is out of character even for him—introducing a violent component that is occasionally revisited in later episodes—and serves only to disturb the audience with a cheap, easy, baiting tactic. I understand the sex-and-business power play happening between these two characters, but in this instance the series lowered itself to trolling for reaction.

Best Line: Bobbie Barrett: “I like being bad and then going home and being good.”

Grade: D+