Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Mad Men: To Have and to Hold (6.4)

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.

Her story this week with Marley Shelton's Kate, an old friend from her past, neatly reflects her own recent journey. Through a lot of the subplot, Joan acts as a mere bystander to Kate's experiences. She's dragged along to a fancy restaurant, an experimental nightclub, and only encouraged to partake in relatively 'naughty behavior' because of Kate's repeated insistence. It's another representation of Joan's descent into passivity, wherein she's almost mentally checked out of her own decision-making, spurred on by other people to do things that, ordinarily, she'd have no real interest in.

Of course, there's also the hollowness of her new gig at work. The story there was essentially a long exercise in how little she's respected, even less so since The Other Woman. Her actions with Scarlett are appropriate, and Harry only kicks a fit because it seems unjust to him that somebody like Joan could still call the shots after everything that happened last year. And that's the crux of all this, Joan having become "somebody like that", a person with a scarlet letter permanently emblazoned on her character. Dawn pledges to forego workplace popularity if it means she has Joan's respect, something Joan herself would have years ago championed. But she now knows the drill, how bad everything can become, and the future isn't looking much brighter.

Elsewhere, I like what they're doing with Peggy. She's still on the fringes of the show, only appearing here around act four, but the way she's essentially replicating Don's rhythms (even ripping off his own expressions), while Don himself is crumbling, creates an additional layer to their dynamic. Regardless of the episode's resolution, neither company winning the Heinz account, Peggy's actions and her rise to power over at CGC are creating these ripple effects wherever she goes. Like so much of this year, nothing is particularly firm or stable as a theme, but I continue to like it regardless.

Don and Megan's story felt connected to this week's title in more ways than one. Megan's soap opera shares the name, but it also refers to the illusion of her own marriage. The two of them naturally paint an image of a picture-perfect couple, and even have the arrogance to position themselves as somehow 'better' than their Hollywoodland doppelgangers. But while Mel and Arlene's sexuality is certainly controversial for the time, they're far more 'together' and equal than Megan and Don, a marriage seemingly driven by infidelity, jealousies and bitterness. Don is embarrassingly pissed after watching Megan's TV love scene, punctuating the irony by heading to Sylvia's straight after, initiating a sex scene of his own very similar to the one he just watched on set.

It's that final scene that brought to mind an unusual problem this season, though. With Sylvia declaring that she prays for Don to find peace, you can't help but experience a lack of feeling as a result. Sylvia's prayer is intriguing, sure, but a little mystifying at the same time. Sylvia is just as compliant in the affair as Don, and we still don't know enough about her to understand her unique perspective on it all. It's all a little hollow, a recurring issue with this storyline, and speaks to a larger problem with Mad Men season six. Nothing is particularly landing right now, there's a sense of drifting, of treading water, that feels at odds with what Mad Men usually does so well.

Mad Men itself has certainly drifted at times, but it's usually supported by a significant depth of feeling. Season six, so far, hasn't sourced its narrative spine. There's no real rhythm to anything. And while it's easy to spot strong stories or ideas here or there, it's about time for things to start clicking together in a big way. Without that the show is finding itself dragging. B-


- It was jarring at first, but ultimately rewarding, to see Dawn out on her own and existing away from the office. If anything it gave us a fresh perspective on the SCDP regulars, somebody not intimately involved with any of them, but at least knowledgeable enough to be aware of the various tics and neuroses that they all possess.

- "You like to watch, don't you?" Couple that line with the voyeurism of Don's flashbacks last week, it seems unusual sexual kinks are getting recurring play this season. It's still unknown what it's trying to say about Don's character, though.

- Scarlett? Scarlet letter? Boom, levels!

- Alison Brie was credited as a guest star but didn't actually appear. Don't tease me, show.

- Just a small thing, but Marley Shelton starred in that rejected WB reboot of Dark Shadows in the mid-aughts (the one that conspiracy theorists claimed "killed Angel!!!"), which I'm assuming had an even worse script than the one Megan was reading last season. Ooof that story wasn't good.


Ginsberg: I saw this thing on a spy show. It's a clock with a tiny camera in it. All we have to do is get it in there.
Margie: If you can get in, you don't need a clock.

Dawn: Everybody's scared there. Women crying in the ladies room, men crying in the elevator. Sounds like New Year's Eve when they empty the garbage, there's so many bottles. And I told you about that poor man hanging himself in his office.
Nikki: Oh, they got it so bad. They must all be jealous of you...

Arlene: Darling, you shouldn't smoke so much. The weight you lose isn't worth the wrinkles.

Mel: Megan, let's talk about you, and how you found this man. I could cast you, you know that?
Arlene: Yes I'm sure he's a man who plays many roles.

Guest stars
Alison Brie (Trudy Campbell)
Writer Erin Levy Director Michael Uppendahl

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