It comes as a surprise to learn that this is the one-hundreth episode of Dawson's Creek, since nothing particularly special happens, even if most of the hour implies that a game-changer is right around the corner. It's particularly evident with Dawson and Joey; Dawson pining over her for most of the hour and coming to some kind of major epiphany wherein he realizes how much he loves her, all accompanied by sepia-colored flashbacks to their mighty (and mighty annoying) courtship. But the episode ends with Dawson standing in the sand, looking out to sea, pining over his lost love, who he assumes spent the last night boning Chad Michael Murray. For shame. Meh.
Friday, December 21, 2012
The very best episodes of Dawson's Creek are usually the ones in which characters get thrown together in the same place, hanging out and conversing with one another, sharing scenes for the first time in a while. Cigarette Burns takes place at the premiere of Dawson and Oliver's movie, a movie that remains vague in terms of story, but is supposedly as long as The English Patient and features a vast cameo from Chad Michael Murray's penis. But Cigarette Burns isn't really about the film itself, and instead more about what the film brings out in the cast. This is the strongest traditional DC episode in a while, every character given material that says a lot about how far they've all come as people, and where they'll go from here.
The same kinds of themes that made In a Lonely Place something of a drag appeared this week, too; characters coming together, falling apart and finding each other. Typically for season five, there's this erratic quality to a lot of the stories, the writers seemingly unsure of where exactly things are going, and I'm still none the wiser over whether we as an audience are supposed to support, say, Joey growing close to Charlie. For the first time in the history of the show, I feel alienated to the point of strangeness, failing to understand what the show is really trying to do.
With serialized dramas on network television, there are naturally one or two episodes every year that bring all the major arcs to a standstill, everything pretty much pausing for a week to allow the writers to re-group and plan the rest of the season. It helps create a successful final run of episodes, but does unsurprisingly leave in its wake hours like this one, which struggles to be anything more than a time-filler. In a Lonely Place is also something of a bottle show, the three stories this week taking place in what is pretty much one location each. This isn't a major problem, but there comes a point during some of the hour where you're left thinking "are they seriously still in that room?"
With dream episodes, there's definitely a "been there, done that" familiarity most of the time. Every genre show does a dream episode at least once, and they usually rely on the same visual tricks over and over again. But what's unusual about these kinds of episodes is that they rarely get old, in spite of how generic the plotting usually is. Conscious is no different. While it utilizes the same devices, from split-screens to characters dressed in unusual outfits, it's hard to not get absorbed by Sydney's hallucinations, primarily because it latches onto that familiar dream scenario: you're chasing after something that you don't recognize, and your feet feel like their sinking in quicksand. Sydney keeps on running this week, bouncing between various locations, that illusive answer getting closer and closer.
This is the kind of episode that looks like one thing on the surface, only for it to actually be a lot deeper on closer inspection. Sydney spends the week locked in an NSC prison getting her brain sucked out, leading all of her CIA buddies to launch a rescue mission. Being Alias, what follows is a bunch of routine action sequences, mostly involving people running down corridors and shooting tranquilizers at each other. From that angle, Breaking Point becomes a little repetitive, Sydney only an active protagonist when she launches into various doomed escape attempts. But then, around the episode's midpoint, Breen Frazier's script becomes a little more layered and interesting, exploiting character dynamics over lobotomy thrills.
So far, Sydney's lost years have produced a mixed bag of results. The effort put into making most of the cast seem either blind or ludicrously moronic in regards to ambiguous hitwoman Julia Thorne has become majorly contrived at points, particularly when characters seemed to be going out of their way to not suggest that "Julia" could have been a code-name for Sydney during her trip to amnesia-ville. When the story has truly worked is when the writers have capitalized on the real horror of having your memory wiped, the idea of your body being out there and doing irrational things but you yourself not being in the driving seat. It's a terrifying idea, explored here through hazy visions and body-horror nightmares, and it finally feels like this arc is building to something screwy.
I'm probably showing my age when I say this, but there's always something so rewarding when you're watching an episode of this show and suddenly spot the overriding theme that seems to link all the storylines. I'm sure it's usually a narrative idea that hits most people like a freight-train, but it's hard for me to not get a sense of excitement when the various subplots, seemingly so disparate at first, are all of a sudden all connected and written to express a certain sentiment or a specific concept. It happened here towards the very end, the three storylines clicking together and being all about signals and warnings, both those we use to impart messages to others, as well as the ones we're not entirely conscious of, but which alter circumstances all the same.
Or, alternatively, 22 Short Films About Mad Men. Some of the very best episodes of this show explore the most mundane corners of everyday life; the brief interactions we have with others, returning unwanted gifts to a department store, buying groceries, the rambling conversations about various different subjects, from celebrity divorces to our personal histories. Red in the Face is a collection of short stories, veering wildly in tone but each individually celebrating the small minutiae of people merely existing. It's a testament to how strong this show is, too, the fact that an hour lacking in any real cohesion or overruling theme is suddenly rendered something ambitious and appealing, instead of merely feeling scattered.
Sunday, December 16, 2012
You're immediately told that this is a "very special episode of Dawson's Creek" when those gloomy, revised opening credits appear on-screen. Instead of the elaborately sunny shots of the cast pulling their best model poses straight of a Calvin Klein shoot, we have the cast's names superimposed over a foreboding sky, the wailing Paula Cole theme song slowed down, vocals removed, until the whole thing is barely recognizable. It's actually not the most auspicious of openings, a grandiose way of telling the audience that this will somehow be deeper, darker and more important than anything that's come before it. Because, generally, Downtown Crossing isn't that. But it's still a strong narrative detour, Joey getting held up at gunpoint in the middle of the night and winding up bonding with her mugger once he's hit by a car. It's all kinds of silly, but pretty affecting nonetheless.
It's nice to see Dawson getting back to his roots here, directing Oliver's movie and rediscovering his love of filmmaking. In some ways, this is a quasi-sequel to season two's His Leading Lady, with most of the fun coming from the conflicts between those in front of the camera and those behind, as well as all the diva theatrics that co-lead Audrey insists on pulling. There are actor swaps, production problems and an on-the-fly third act re-write, and it's all entertaining. The show doesn't do a great job in explaining how Dawson fixes what amounts to a horrible screenplay (sample dialogue: "I'm the boy who's gonna tear your soul apart") and his revised ending makes zero sense (the male lead is crazy with a gun, but ends up walking off into the night with his GF anyway? Huh?), but the general energy of the A-plot and the way the entire cast are drafted in to save the day make it one of the strongest group stories in a while.
Lord, Joey! Just what are you doing? She's casually seeing this genuine, sweet guy who seems smart and attentive and caring, and yet she's still insanely interested in Professor Molester, the creepy English professor who'd probably throw a baby into a fireplace if it meant he could get into Joey's pants a little quicker. The dude is horrible, casually mentioning that he lied about having a wife and a child back in the season premiere, and that he probably said it as some kind of defense mechanism against all the hottie co-eds desperate to bang him. He literally creeps me the hell out, and Joey's eagerness to make out with him and her belief that he's charming and inspiring... ugh. Save her, Audrey. Anyone!
This was another one of those overly soapy episodes where everybody is split into their respective subplots, with the only tenuous link between each one being the idea of moving in or moving out. So all you can really do is talk about it one story at a time. The most successful one this week was probably Jen and Dawson's. Traditionally for the character, Jen is approaching her new relationship with a ton of pessimism, sure that it'll eventually fall apart. To be fair, this isn't a crazy opinion, considering they're both fresh out of high school and haven't got the greatest track record when it comes to long-term relationships. But it allows Jen to anchor a story for once, all that initial silliness with the toothbrushes and Jen's neurotic tendencies when it comes to living together all giving way to some more character-driven drama.
It's so easy to get swept up in this show that it's sometimes hard to recognize when things have hit a wall of sorts. Asylum is still fun and dense, but there's a repetitive vibe that kept perking up this week. It's almost like the show's violent, provocative imagery has become so routine that it's no longer surprising when we see it. Take the shot of Jude strapped to a bed in a Briarcliff medical ward. It probably ought to be shocking, but it lacks the immediacy that has made similar shots over the past eight weeks more poignant. It probably doesn't help, either, that this and last week's episode both seem to be reaching for delaying tactics. Just when we think we're moving forward, stories regress somewhat, or we get another cliffhanger ending. Most of the complaints leveled at American Horror Story this season relate to the sheer volume of stories flying all at once, something I've never really felt was a problem: a greater issue being the recent lack of surprises.
Sydney has become a lot more ruthless this season. While she's still friendly and unassuming most of the time, there's a real mean streak to the character this year, particularly when it comes to Sloane, who she has been assigned to handle. In an elaborate game of payback, she's happy to pump him for information and use his contacts, all the while having no problem in pushing him so far that he could end up dead. It's actually really similar to something her father would do, Jack another character who is generally kind and protective, but also somebody fully prepared to become a dangerous killer if the circumstances call for it.
Repercussions works like a reminder of how strong Alias can be. After an opening stretch that felt more 'off' than 'on', it's almost like the writers finally stood up and wanted to prove something: "See, we're still here -- doing our thing". There's too much to love this week, Jesse Alexander's script rapidly spinning through subplots and stories that grant every cast member something crazily fun to do, working like a kind of assault of awesome as the Covenant arc heads into some intriguing new directions that grant an anonymous force of evil an actual face and agenda.
This is the most successful episode in season three thus far, primarily because Sydney is an active participant in the story. That probably sounds a little strange, considering she's still front-and-center of the series, but the lost years arc has so far positioned her as something of a blank slate, drifting around to various clues and trying to piece things together. But A Missing Link drops her straight into her past, forcing her to slip undercover as 'Julia', the identity she assumed during her missing years. The story forces Sydney to 'own' her amnesia, and not merely be a victim of it, and with her character resorting to drastic measures to keep her alias intact, it feels like the most purposeful episode in a while.
Due to their close proximity at the office, there's always been this 'compare and contrast' vibe with Peggy and Joan, something the writers utilize over and over as the series goes on. Babylon is the first episode to truly explore their vastly different mindsets at the very start of the 1960's, Peggy such a forward-thinking woman eager to claw her way into the areas typically reserved for men, and Joan still a little fearful of overstepping her boundaries. The Belle Jolie focus group is such a wonderful depiction of gender differences already, but it's also where both ladies reveal their respective niches.
5G brilliantly exposes the uncomfortable merging of the life you lead in public and the secret life you try so hard to keep from those around you. Everybody has that, to a certain extent, but this episode explores that theme from an aggressively masculine corner, the men at Sterling Cooper all hiding secrets and hoping that somebody else will somehow pick up the pieces when the inevitable fallout occurs. Naturally, all of that is symbolized by this week's ad campaign, a bank seeking promotional materials about their new private account service, specifically marketed to men eager to keep certain financial areas to themselves. Hilariously, this isn't a modern invention -- they're merely cashing in on a market that is already there. And 5G goes out of its way to prove it.
Monday, December 10, 2012
There's a funny moment here in which Zoe rhetorically asks, "How shit is this?" And everybody at home is like, collectively, "yeah, we feel you, girl." Hunted's problem was probably its self-administered buzz. Melissa George had been Tweeting all year about the show, how Sam Hunter was the most dynamic female character she'd ever read, how she'd be flying all over the world shooting her prestige BBC/Cinemax cable drama and that it'd blow your mind once you actually settle down and tune in. And there were definitely moments that sparkled, rough edges where you could almost see what the show could be, or what it was trying to do, and it was hard to not be a little taken by it. Despite the prolonged gloominess of the color palette and the flat, dour characters, there was an unusual charm to it at the best of times. Around episode three and four, you really got the sense that this was all headed somewhere, even if it was still hard to actively 'like' as a show.
I think most of us can relate to that desire to jump out of your own skin, to play around with what you think are your own conventions as a person, and try and find new corners to your personality. In Something Wild, it's very much what Joey decides she wants to do. Instead of getting all angsty over it, Joey uses Dawson and Jen's relationship as a kind of impetus for self-improvement, assuming that she needs to become a little wilder in order to be perceived as something other than sort of safe and unassuming. So she parties and rocks out with a band in a bar and makes out with bad boys. It's all ridiculous, but creates undeniable resonance. That doesn't excuse how cringe-worthy it is to see Katie Holmes jumping around and singing I Want You to Want Me with that horribly thin voice she has. Gah. It just goes on and on, and as much as I adore her, I really wish Katie would just stick to the acting. She's always seemed to want to be a jack of all trades, and it's like: stop, girl.
It at least makes for a change on this show that the over-analytical postmortem of a couple having sex actually occurs with the rest of the cast, and not the two that actually had sex. Appetite for Destruction takes place entirely in one location, the ensemble gathering at Grams' place to eat Pacey's home-cooked dinner. Having all glimpsed Dawson and Jen making out as they entered, there's an understandable amount of awkwardness in the air, and you can imagine the inevitable roads the episode will travel down. But there's also an interesting new approach to a standard Dawson's Creek story, with characters not involved in the epic 'four-character romantic saga' making a bigger deal out of it than the people actually involved. It's still a little formulaic, but arguably a little different, too.
This was cut together in a rush when 9/11 pushed the fall season back by several weeks and Four Scary Stories lost its Halloween airdate. It's more than a little frustrating, since the original version had Jen hosting Charlie's radio show and being told scary stories by a bunch of callers, followed by her own horrible encounter at the end of the show. Instead, throwing the episode into the season at this point feels a little jarring, while the wrap-around story (Joey, Pacey and Jack telling each other creepy tales after watching a bad slasher flick) feels a little meandering. It doesn't open all that well either, the first two stories being particularly crummy, but the episode gets better as it goes along, capped by a fun Grams appearance (where has she been?) and an amusing closer. It's sort of random as an episode, but casually entertaining.
Thank God he finally did it. After years and years of agonizingly strained discussions about sex and the importance of sex and the sanctity of sex and after expressing more sex-related panic than an over-the-hill stripper, Dawson Leery finally lost his virginity. And to Jen! Hah! There's actually been a really cute romance burgeoning between the two of them for the last couple of episodes, both characters conveying an easy, relaxed chemistry full of tiny barbs and compassionate friendship, both remembering with fondness the teenage crush they once shared, cringing at it all but appreciative of where it's got them as people. It's all really sweet, lacking in overwrought melodrama and instead being about two people just deciding to sleep together, having fun and remaining happy the morning after. Yup, this is still Dawson's Creek.
There's a reason why so many esteemed actors gravitate towards this show, and it's probably because it's one of the few places in which grandiose, theatrical acting is heavily pursued. Unholy Night sees Ian McShane guest starring as a deranged Santa Clause, and what saves the story from becoming just another of those direct-to-video holiday horror schlock-fests is that very same sense of theatricality. McShane chews the scenery here, snarling and wildly overplaying his character, but in the same sort of way that Jessica Lange did last year with Constance. It's very broad and comedic, but stinging with intelligence and occasional levity. I remember wondering a lot last season why actors like Lange and Frances Conroy were on a show where sleazy Persians had their penises chewed off, but now I sort of get it. There's that, but for an actor there's also so much additional opportunity here.
Doesn't everybody hate Melissa George? It sure seems that way, folks rolling their eyes and yelling "boo, it's Melissa George!" whenever she pops up on a TV show somewhere. Me? I actually think she's really, ridiculously great (okay, maybe not on Hunted) -- but I can understand where the hate comes from, considering she first truly came into the public's consciousness playing a role that was doomed from the very beginning. On Alias, she has the misfortune of playing 'the other woman', the third wheel intruding on Sydney and Vaughn's epic love story, lingering around on the fringes of the show like some manipulative homewrecker. She's also been saddled with this wonky 'international' accent that is so often confused with a 'bad Australian actress can't do an American accent' accent, which only gives extra credence to those who can't stand her. In short, poor Melissa George.
That sigh of relief you hear is a collective response to the Alias ensemble coming back together again. Something that impacted on the season premiere was the scattered feel to it, Sydney the only character recognizable compared to the last time we saw them. But Succession goes out of its way to unearth the sense of teamwork that was absence last week, with Vaughn returning to the CIA, Jack bonding with Sydney on clandestine operations, and Sark once again at the forefront of trouble. Season three still lacks any real sense of urgency, but at least the writers are slowly getting things right again.
We return to Alias in the middle of perhaps its greatest challenge to date, coming on the heels of an ambitious, adrenaline-pumped second season that restructured the series as we knew it and took certain characters so far that it's arguable whether or not they could ever truly go anywhere else. Season three arrives like an entirely different show, abandoning everything from last year except for its arresting cliffhanger ending. It's an understandable decision in some respects, considering Lena Olin decided not to renew her contract and ABC were concerned by flagging ratings and what they believed to be an overly complicated narrative. But it sure makes this season premiere a little hard to swallow, so distracted by new developments that you feel just as alien as Sydney does herself.
Being perfectly blunt, it's a difficult job to make you feel something for a character born into wealth and notoriety; grandeur and success handed to them on a silver platter and the family name opening doors that would ordinarily stay firmly closed. But this is the very first episode to portray Pete Campbell as something of a tragic figure, just as reliant on his parentage as he is eager to strike out on his own. It's very much about his own insecurities as a worker, a husband, a son and as a man, each one nowhere near as strong and reliable as he would like.
Whether we like it or not, marriage usually arrives as a construct, or an idea that we feel we need to buy into. But something that feels decidedly modern is the ability to pull the idea of marriage apart, and wonder if it's truly the be-all and end-all of everything. What Marriage of Figaro does so well is depict the early '60s anxieties created by marriage, as well as exposing the hypocrisy that so easily exists within the confines of a legal union between two people.
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
I was once a huge fan of the horror genre. Especially when I was around 13-14, which I guess was pretty expected from an age/gender standpoint. But it's also a genre that I don't particularly enjoy anymore -- it takes a lot to genuinely rattle me, and most modern horror awkwardly fumbles into 'been there, seen that' territory. It's something I thought a lot about here, Hypnos heavily exploring the Drake as a plot construct and its violent history, a story that only ever felt derivative. It probably didn't help that the show cast Whoopi Goldberg in a role that merely cribbed off one of her most famous performances, but Jane's journey to the past got me wondering if 666 Park Avenue honestly ever had an interesting story to tell.
Hunted isn't a television show. I mean, yeah, it is, but not in the same way that any other TV show is a TV show. It mostly resembles a spit-balling session, whole streams of stuff happening all at once, Frank Spotnitz covering all bases but forgetting to make any of it at all interesting. It's just a bizarre experience, a show so dedicated to telling a story that doesn't make a ton of sense on its own, and certainly hasn't given us enough reason to care all that much. There were so many moments in Khyber involving people just saying stuff, fulfilling a thin purpose and helping somebody else move from one point in the story to another. And that's what Hunted is. Nobody has an actual role to play, instead they're just mechanically maneuvered from set to set, and the whole thing is a wreck.
One of the regular complaints leveled at Dawson's Creek's college years was that Joey became this omnipotent presence, positioned as a figure of awe by everyone around her and the girl literally every male character fell in love with. I haven't got a huge problem with Joey taking more of a central position on the show, but the way people seem to get entirely taken with her leaves certain storylines appearing unintentionally icky. Take her arc with Professor Wilder. This episode sees Joey continuing to attend his study group, in which he and some of his best and brightest students are analyzing old letters once written by an obscure writer who previously attended the college, and once again Wilder is talking her up like she's something especially spectacular. But we're not seeing any real evidence of that. She's being placed on this huge pedestal, and by proxy we can only see Wilder as a sleazy creep, building her up so much just to get in her pants.
Dawson's Creek seems to be shifting around between stories more than ever this season, introducing subplots that look like they'll anchor whole episodes, before having those drift off midway through the hour and writing in new stories that take up the bulk of the rest. It's just a little clunky, High Anxiety opening with a promising story between Audrey and her mom, only for it to peter out as the episode goes along. The same occurs with Jen's subplot, which similarly gets lost in the mid-episode shuffle. Throw in a couple of brief scenes with Pacey and his restaurant thing, and there's definitely a chaotic quality to all of this. I'm not bored or anything, but it's not a great experience for the viewer.
It feels like certain storylines this year are working far better the episode after the ones in which they take center stage. While Mitch's death created a ton of generic corn last week, here the reactions from Dawson and Joey felt more intimate and true. Dawson was all about that numb feeling, where you want to move forward and remember what you once had, but feel stuck and drained, like you're walking through quicksand. Joey, alternatively, went so crazy with the compassion that she once again came off a little annoying. But I liked her eventual confession to Audrey, in which she said how she found Dawson's melancholy so difficult that she was sort of relieved when he finally left Boston. It's raw, slightly embarrassing honesty, where you have certain feelings but don't dare to articulate them with the parties concerned.
There's always been something almost exploitative about most depictions of death on television, since it's almost always used as a narrative trick to get folks weeping. Generally, there's also some behind-the-scenes reason for it. Sometimes an actor wants to leave, other times the show wants a ratings spike. It's an easy way to ratchet up dramatic weight, and few shows can entirely justify character deaths without it coming off a little cheap. Dawson's Creek falls into an area in which Mitch's death isn't entirely justified in a dramatic sense, since so much of The Long Goodbye is as generic as they come. Death is so commonplace and predictable an outcome on television that it's weak to not try and find new corners to explore as a result of it.
This season ought to be called How to Make an American Horror Quilt. I've already spoken of Asylum's patchwork sensibility, but every additional week only adds more and more details that are sewn onto this elaborate piece of fabric. And, again, nothing feels disorienting. I don't know if its just the ghost of Glee lurking over everything, but surely we're at a point where things should be suffocating? There's so much happening here, but not at the expense of great character work or engaging plot turns. This is a season with such a firm handle on these protagonists, their collected histories and feelings. And despite all this 'stuff' happening, the writers aren't falling prey to merely burning through events. The pacing this year is spectacular, just as teasing and ambiguous as it is steady and rewarding.
Sunday, December 2, 2012
Irina Derevko was both the best thing and the worst thing to happen to Alias. So much of season two hinged on her moral complexity that having her go one way or the other would naturally be upsetting to certain parts of the show's fanbase. We get little more concrete evidence of her true allegiances in this finale, but what is made clear is that she loves Sydney and Jack, and is willing to do whatever it takes to keep them safe. In one huge exposition scene at the start of The Telling, Irina explains her motivation this year, and it's revealed that she does have a keen interest in Rambaldi. It seems more of a curiosity than a full-blown obsession, but it goes some way to explaining her ambiguity. Her life is driven by two extremes: her pursuit of Rambaldi, and her love for her family. Her flip-flopping creates multitudes of problems in the future, the show relying on her character to create drama regardless of Lena Olin's actual availability, but The Telling at least signals those two extremes. So it's not a total failure that the show winds up exploiting one element of her character greater than the other. In the end, one of the shoes was bound to drop.
It came as a surprise during this re-watch that Will wasn't a huge factor in season two. I remembered things a little differently, thinking he became a CIA analyst far earlier than he did and had a larger presence in the agency scenes. Instead, he's drifted around a lot, only called on when necessary and spending most of Alias' post-Phase One era strapped to a bed being brainwashed. Considering the huge range Bradley Cooper has shown in recent years, becoming one of the (in my opinion) more interesting Hollywood leading men, it's unfortunate that the show sort of petered away his talents. Second Double at least allows him to anchor a story for a change, Will being framed for Fauxrancie's crimes and getting everybody all frantic about the possibility that he's a crazy clone hitman. God, this show.
Despite death being all over this show, grief has been an emotion rarely explored up till now, particularly when its external and volatile. Sure, Sydney had to deal with Danny's murder, but it had to be bottled up and insular because of her work with SD-6. Francie is someplace that's else (and I just had the horrible realization that we never find out what actually happened to her body, which is... ugh) and nobody emotionally connected to her actually knows about it. But the murder of Dixon's wife was intensely public, a shocking act of retribution done in the most crass way imaginable. So, understandably, Dixon experiences something of a slow-motion meltdown, becoming rapidly unhinged at how terribly his life has wound up.
A lot has been written about the restructuring of the Alias itself post-Phase One, but what's most interesting is seeing how the characters are shifting with each additional episode. While Irina's presence seemed to at one point bring Jack and Sydney closer together, here there's once again a strained tension between them -- Sydney bitter that her father lost sight of Irina's allegiances, and Jack angry that his daughter is going rogue on her own missions without his knowledge. Their encounters this season have all been motivated by Irina, and that hasn't changed, but the very fact remains that she's still this disquieting presence creating ripples of damage even when she's completely fallen off the radar.
Alias continues to be in a league of its own when it comes to building layer upon layer throughout its tight ensemble cast. It's never been more apparent than in Truth Takes Time, which takes Irina's elaborate complexity and shares it out through several other characters. I complained a couple of weeks ago that Sloane's agenda was becoming a little muddled, but this episode firmly set it back on track, at the same time as it did restore his moral ambiguity. Irina, Sydney and Emily are also allowed incredible emotional shading this week, each character granted a new sense of direction. This is another spectacular episode.
Even before the episode fades out on a lingering shot of an oven, Sylvia Plath weighs down heavily on the character of Betty Draper. Betty leads the superficially ideal existence for '60s females: a carefree wife and mother, pristine homemaker, married to a successful businessman, and affluent enough to have hired help to take care of the dirty work. She spends her days cooking and cleaning and yakking with friends, waiting for the time in which she can pick her children up from school, and preparing her husband a meal for his return home from that big job in the city. But there's an anxious temperament slowly creeping into Betty's life, manifesting itself as a series of hand spasms along with a tendency to break down in bursts of nervousness and fear. One of the largest themes in Ladies Room is the idea of happiness, and how it should be so easy to experience... once you reach a certain point in your life or consume enough material riches. It's an idea that crosses beautifully with Betty herself, somebody so outward in joy, but rapidly crumbling beneath the surface.
So much of Mad Men is about the tease, something you breathe in like a lit cigarette, full of overwhelming pleasure but still detached and mysterious. In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, you don't get a total picture of these characters and their individual quirks, instead just a rough sketch of people living lives of dissatisfaction. It's all about those corners of ourselves that we keep hidden, the expressions we make when people aren't looking, and the fears and self-doubts that we experience in our quietest moments. Even as a man, successful and attractive and right at the top of the food chain, there's still a disconnect from everybody around you, running from the truth but unknowing of the destination in which you're headed.