This is an awfully strange episode, but not quite strangely awful.
At this stage (episode 8) in both seasons 4 and 5, things really started to pick up steam and those episodes represented the best of what Mad Men has to offer. I haven’t been getting the same feeling from this season. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s still one of the best shows on television and I haven’t disliked any episodes this season, but it also hasn’t built up an unparalleled level of quality that the best Mad Men seasons offer. I think that has something to do with the idea of chaos that Mad Men has been playing with recently.
Consider ‘Far Away Places” from last season, one of the best episodes the show has done. That episode consisted of three separate stories that took place in three in settings (2 being new, unintroduced settings) and focused on 3 different characters or character pairings. It had such a grand scale, yet it felt intimate. It separated the characters to allow us to delve deeper into their psyche and focus on where they are in their lives.
From ‘The Flood’ and especially ‘For Immediate Release’, this season has seemingly been about things falling apart and its clear that the inexplicably quick decision to merge SCDP and CGC and winning the Chevy account has only increased the sense of chaos in everyone’s lives. These episodes feel big, but they also feel unfocused and spread too thin. There is too much running around and not enough of the intimidate character building scenes like the one between Peggy and Stan. This season has greatly missed episodes like ‘Far Away Places’ and ‘The Suitcase’, although I thought ‘The Flood’ was an episode almost at that quality standard.
There are 2 very different and equally strange plots in this episode.
1) Everyone (well not Peggy and Ginsberg) is given some sort of hallucinogenic drug to increase productivity over the weekend (that is a really stupid idea, but I can actually believe that Jim Cutler believes this to be an effective method of brainstorming) so as to meet the ridiculous demands of Chevy.
2) Sally, Bobby and Gene are left alone at the Draper’s as a thief breaks in (well walks in through the open door) to steal Don and Megan’s valuables.
The overt strangeness of the A plot seemed to seep into the B plot here. As the thief storyline felt as crazy as the SCDP/CGC tripfest. Neither plot seemed to fully exist in the traditional Mad Men world. Blame the odd tone of the episode but I was almost convinced that the woman had some connection to Don, even though we know he was never raised by a black woman, but tie into the fact that we have extensive flashbacks in this episode, and the truth behind Sally’s line that we don’t really know Don that well and I almost feel justified in reading too much into this (you can’t call me stupid. Sally fell for it too, so I’m at least as intelligent as a 10 (?) year old girl)
What I likes:
– Tap dancing Cosgrove. This as impassioned as we’ll ever see Ken, I’m afraid, although he does look to be heading towards a melt down, and who can blame him. I’ve always liked Ken despite him never really having anything interesting to do. Along with Ted, he seems to be the most normal and well-adjusted character on the show.
– I really disliked the way season 4 turned Betty into such a villain. Her appearances this season, especially in the premiere go a long way towards getting us to empathise with her as we did in the first 3 seasons. This episode also reminds us that despite the fact that she isn’t particularly warm or maternal, she is quite possibly a more responsible mother than Megan. Surely they could have called a babysitter. For a second I thought she was going to get Sylvia to babysit, which would have been incredibly awkward.
– Roger’s affinity with Jim Cutler. They don’t do much in this episode, but I enjoy how quickly and casually they’ve bonded.
– Ted’s anger at how little was achieved over the weekend. “I have 60 pages of gibberish. And Chevy was spelled wrong!” (not verbatim, but you get the gist)
– Throwing pens at Stan. That will never not be funny. In general I love the addition of Stan and Ginsberg. They’re both fairly well drawn and they work well in support, only rarely demanding that they get a full episode’s attention.
– OK, let’s admit it, watching characters trip out is just plain fun. Stan and Jim sprinting to the office, Stan’s riffing ‘You just flushed a toilet in my brain’ and Don’s incredibly empty pep talks.
– I like that the soup ad Don was asking for actually turned out to be for oatmeal. That’s a very realistic and understandable mistake for Don to make.
– Linda Cardellini has been really solid as Sylvia. The phone scene may have been Sylvia’s strongest scene this season. I feel that Sylvia is only tolerable as a character because Cardellini is so strong in the role. In terms of what the character represents for Don, she is not really all that different from Suzanne Farrell (I had to look up her name, that’s how fascinating that character was) in season 3.
– Dawn is a pretty fantastic secretary.
What I don’t likes:
– No Joan. No Harry. No Bob (although I honestly don’t really understand Bob’s purpose in SCDP now SCDP/CGC or in the show in general)
– Pete gets 20 seconds. There is no one I would rather see trip out than Pete.
– The problem with consistently going grander, rather than staying with the small character studies that Mad Men excels in, is that the new characters get no real depth. Ted has been built up well at this point, but I have no real sense of Hamlin’s Jim except that he’s a perve.
– Whorehouse flashbacks. I don’t hate these scenes and they are relevant to dealing with Don’s current mental state and examining how his childhood has had an obviously profound effect on his character and the way he sees women. In the first 2 seasons, the show used flashbacks to fill in vital information about Don/Dick’s history; moments that really defined and illuminated his character. Now the show is just looking for easy thematic parallels and it’s really not necessary.
– Not that I feel all episodes have to perfectly embody a theme or lead to a particularly insightful moment, but what was the point of this episode from a narrative arc standpoint (although narrative arcs have never been especially important for this show)? We get to the end and all we learn is Don is not interested in working on Chevy. Nothing much else was really achieved.
Grade out of 10: No idea. Let’s say 7.5 pens to the arm.
NOTE: This review format will likely change over time. And they certainly won’t be this long (I hope)