Monday, January 21, 2013

Mad Men: The Wheel (1.13)

The job of a wheel is to go round and round, a machine engineered to push something forward, or accelerate speed. It's used literally this week as a slide projector, something that projects memories and past emotions, but it's also used as a metaphor for the ways our lives constantly unravel, the wheel keeping on turning despite our occasional eagerness for it to stop. Because sometimes life unfolds so perfectly -- you get that promotion, or you realize the importance of family and the love around you; but the speed of life insists on moving past that point in time. And that leads to disappointments, or a surprise baby, or loneliness. Motion is everlasting, and it's impossible to pull the brakes. This is a flawless finale, but you probably knew that already.

With Rachel embarking on an unexpected three-month leave, Don is left with few distractions in his life. As a result, he's a spitfire at the office and begins to realize how much he has pushed away his family in recent months... using his recent personal anguish as inspiration for a gorgeously-presented pitch to Kodak. The entire slide projection scene is haunting, Don's monologue all about the power of nostalgia and the memory of what you once had, while the pictures flashing up on the screen feature so much free-willed happiness -- the kind you're supposed to have, a depiction either of a time in which marital pain between Don and Betty didn't exist, or a kind of denial of the distance that was always there.

It's tragic and ironic that Don's burgeoning marital epiphany occurs at the exact moment in which Betty begins to snap out of her suburban trance and accepts how her marriage is rapidly failing. Francine's worry over her husband's affair leads Betty to face her own recent denial, how all the lonely nights and Don Draper coldness could actually mean something, and isn't just something vacuous. She's actually incredibly aggressive here, or at least a Betty version of 'aggressive'. After discovering that Don has been in contact with her therapist, Betty uses the news to her advantage, talking to her husband through her doctor, hoping he'll get the message back to Don.

Confrontation is also something we haven't seen in her character this season, but her conversation with Don about Frances' suspicions is her own version of it -- hoping it'll break Don's guilt or at least inform him of how devastated she would be if her suspicions were proven correct. At the same time, she begins to articulate her pain, using her therapy to actually address her problems instead of dancing around them. Her scene with Glen ranks up there among Mad Men's best, Betty breaking down and confessing her loneliness to the only person she sees as something of an equal. January Jones is spectacular, but I also love Matthew Holden Weiner's awkward fumbling, terrified his mother will catch him talking to the lady she's barred him from communicating with.

Peggy has moved up in the world at a relentless speed this season, impressing those around her with her knowledge, tenacity and enthusiasm. Here she is justifiably rewarded, Don offering her the position of junior copywriter and breaking her through the glass ceiling that no woman had previously smashed through within the company. But, coming back to the metaphor up top, the natural speediness of those wheels almost instantly sets her life on a separate trajectory, her recent weight gain revealed as a shock pregnancy, Peggy going into labor seconds after she discovers that she's with child. There's an obviously soapy sensibility to this plot twist, a surprise hopefully more a result of Peggy's own denial than a kind of uncharacteristic ignorance... but I love the timing of it all, Peggy having the rug pulled out right from under her just as she gets the greatest news of her life. It's heartbreaking, particularly her devastated dismissal of her own child. She's been on such a journey this year, so hopeful and anxious in the pilot, so determined and successful at work, and ultimately stranded in a hospital bed unsure of what the hell has happened. Poor Peggy.

But in the end we're left with Don, alone and sitting on the stairs, his dream of returning home to his family left unfulfilled by Betty's decision to take the kids to see her family without him. We all have our own individual wheels, moving at our own speeds, and it's the only wheel you can ever have true power over. Don hurt the ones closest to him, and his arrogance only ensured that Betty would fly off in her own direction, Don having gone so far that Betty had no choice but to increase the accelerator and take off on her own. The wheel keeps on turning, whether we like it or not... A+


- Discovering Adam's suicide brings home the guilt in Don. To be fair, he's looking at his recent actions with regret even before he calls him up, finding old photographs and remembering how much his brother depended on him. This whole story is so harsh and tragic.

- We leave Pete unable to entirely commit to having a baby due to his current lack of wealth, while his eagerness to head the Clearasil account (something he only got his hands on due to his father-in-law's connections) became a victim of his own meddling last week -- Don handing Peggy the account instead and entirely screwing him over. I love Pete, but he totally had this coming.

- The entire exchange between Peggy and the voiceover girl is one of my favorite Mad Men scenes. Katherine Boecher's range as this poor girl tries so many different tones and eventually just crumbles is all remarkably endearing, while I love the back-and-forth between Peggy and Ken as well as Peggy's eagerness to be ruthless and professional -- in theory, like a man. Of course, the scene is also rooted in Peggy's determination not to fail, but you feel for her despite her cold treatment of the girl they've hired. It's Mad Men at its very, very best, a scene that hits you over the head with prestige quality.

- Due to budget constraints, it's rare for Mad Men to journey outside of studio sets, so a scene like the snow-blanketed parking lot moment becomes so authentic and classic. The camerawork as we swoop over the various vintage cars brought to mind Far from Heaven, which I'm sure was an inspiration for the look and feel of Mad Men's scenes outside of the city.

- Harry is one of the more underrated of Mad Men's complex characters. He's sort of naturally loveable, with his confused expressions and stocky charm, but he's also a total sleaze-bag and asshole. So you hate that he cheated on his wife, but you also feel for him as he sleeps in the office and later completely falls apart while watching Don's slideshow. He's a real personification of a push-and-pull dynamic, more so than any other character on this show, somebody you root for and like a lot, before it all comes crashing down and you realize how gross he is.


Peggy: Whatever the special properties of the Relax-a-Cizor are, what we are selling is confidence, a better you. That woman isn't a better anything.

Betty: The way he makes love -- sometimes it's what I want, but sometimes it's obviously what someone else wants.

Guest stars
Robert Morse (Bertram Cooper)
Writers Matthew Weiner, Robin Veith Director Matthew Weiner

No comments:

Post a Comment