If we're to take the title of this week's episode literally, then there's a huge difference between actually having something and merely holding onto it. It's always been a major factor in Mad Men, much of what we have being the mere illusion of a 'thing', truth under the surface being vastly different. I feel like I've repeated that mantra so often in these reviews that it's effectively this show's mission statement. But Joan's recent arc has been one of the more literal variations on that theme. She has a title, and a position, but it's ultimately fruitless. And she only got it through controversial means. The fact that it's constantly thrust in her face, consciously or not, just keeps drawing out the underlying tragedy of her character.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Mad Men is, at its heart, a soap opera. It's heavily serialized, is primarily driven by relationships and the emotions of its protagonists, and generally restricts its characters to three or four prime locations. What it's never truly done, however, is become "soapy" -- its writing static or strained, or overly reliant on contrivance. Its something that sets Collaborators apart from so much ordinary Mad Men, since it sometimes descends into ham-fisted plotting in order to push the narrative forward. Annoying as it is to preface 'average' episodes of this show with an elaborate 'in defense of Mad Men' thing, it's only because of the show's natural finesse that an episode like this one feels off-key in comparison. And so forth.
Whenever teenage characters up sticks and head to college, little time is granted to the adults left behind, forced to suddenly cope with the empty bedroom upstairs, or the lack of noise at the dinner table. Felicity is already approaching college life from a unique perspective, its protagonists high school graduates just as we're getting to know them, but it's welcome and affecting to see so much of The Last Stand distracted by the parental concern of Felicity's mom and dad. They're initially painted as sort of neurotic and frustrating, disappointed that their daughter isn't pursuing their dreams for her, before eventually becoming somber and sympathetic as individuals. It's a neat bait and switch.
There's a really interesting theme running through a lot of this weeks episode related to how people should be, or whether or not we should buy into the expectations that society thrusts upon us, even if they're expectations that are generally considered positive. Most of this also relates heavily to gender, which is becoming a major point of contention on this show. Girls is successful enough on its own as a comedy drama about young New Yorkers, but it also has a real eagerness to comment on how we collectively exist. I'm assuming it'll be a show that sometimes falls apart in this regard, or struggles to say something outside of its somewhat myopic viewpoint, but Vagina Panic worked far better as a statement piece than last week's pilot.
On the heels of the Sark/Anna return, here's another episode influenced by the Alias of old. As a series, Alias has always been heavily reliant on the same bag of tricks over and over again, be it familial complexity, double-crosses, secret agendas or prolonged scenes of characters breaking in and out of various international locations, but only recently has it felt like the writers have been looking more to the past to recreate the success stories of vintage Alias, instead of merely replicating old ideas because it feels at all authentic.
Running just thirty-eight minutes, and featuring a nearly three minute long "Previously on..." sequence, you'd be correct in thinking there was something a little long-winded about A Man of His Word. Where Echoes built over time, A Man of His Word feels like a slow stumble downhill, at least when it comes to events of great consequence. As it is, this is an episode that feels like greater fan-service than its predecessor, single-handedly built around a brief partnership between Sark and Anna, but lacking in the character-centric drama that last week's episode seemed to be building toward.
Something that's always impressed me about In Treatment is that it's never exactly been a ringing endorsement for therapy. There have been obvious success stories along the way, patients coming into their own and recognizing and fixing their problems, but there's frequently an open ending to most of these people's stories: the promise that things will get better, even if there's little tangible evidence that things actually are. This week frequently came back to the idea of therapy as a subject and whether or not it's at all useful, Paul insisting that his sessions with Sunil are greatly improving his well-being, something other characters respectfully disagree with, followed by Jesse wondering if his sessions have at all benefited him. It's a curious position for the show to take, but something that feeds into Paul's general drifting -- he's always seemed to wonder if he's doing any real good.
While I've enjoyed every season of In Treatment, I still don't think I've been more enamored with the show than I was during season one, which exploited the 'one room, many stories' motif to a heavier degree than anything in recent years. But one of my complaints mid-season involved the dramatic leaps and hurdles the writers had to employ to overcome the obvious limitations of the show's premise. Like the suicidal girl overdosing in Paul's bathroom, to keep the drama contained to his base of operations. Season three has fused both extremes together, maintaining the 'one-room' drama that quickly became this show's trademark, but also creating a ton of soapy, detached drama along the way, something that feels uncertain at times, but proves generally entertaining. I'm not sure it entirely meshes with In Treatment's basic sensibility just yet, but I'm eager to see where it's all headed.