Saturday, October 20, 2007

Mad Men - 'The Wheel' (1x13)

I enjoyed, and was very impressed by, Mad Men right from the start of the show, but it wasn’t until roughly midway through the season that I really got hooked on the season. Pretty much each episode has been better than the next, culminating in the devastating and brilliant season finale. This episode clinches the show’s spot as a television masterpiece, a worthy addition to this golden age of TV programming.

Part of what made me really appreciate the show was seeing some Fall shows. During the summer, I had John From Cincinnati and Big Love coming in every week, both fantastic shows, that conditioned me to expect that quality from every show. Mad Men stands with those series, but it felt like the quality I was expecting from TV, not an anomaly. However, watching even the most critically acclaimed network series of the new season, like Reaper and Pushing Daisies, I found nothing that even came close to what Mad Men was doing on a weekly basis. While most network shows leave you wondering how they’re going to fill twenty-two episodes, Mad Men has an ambition and characters that demand more stories.

Matt Weiner has talked about his plan for the series, with five seasons taking the character from 1960 to 1970. I think that’s brilliant because it will allow for real change. I hate shows that struggle to maintain a status quo, and that’s what’s doomed shows from Battlestar Galactica to Alias, even season seven Buffy to some extent. The best TV shows are all about characters, I want to see the characters evolve and change and go through different things. I don’t mind if Buffy isn’t fighting vampires, I’m there for the person more than the slayer. Hell, in that series, I wouldn’t have even missed Buffy herself that much by the late seasons.

The Mad Men plan recalls the scope of Babylon 5. For all my issues with that show, you can’t help be respect JMS for telling such a huge story that changed things for everyone involved. His character storytelling slipped sometimes, but the story was wonderfully executed. That’s what TV can do, and I’d like to see more series that evolve and change as they go along.

Weiner worked on The Sopranos, and Mad Men has that series’ wonderful mix of subtle everyday moments and the occasional melodramatic outburst to keep things moving. These characters are stuck in a situation where they are unhappy, but refuse to change their lives. Don asks Rachel to run away, but he doesn’t really think it through. In a movie, you could do a The Graduate and end with them off to some uncertain future, clearly regretting the choice. But, on TV, you have to dwell in the reality of things, Don won’t leave his wife for the same reason Betty won’t leave Don, they’re trapped in this social world and can’t exist outside it. That was the whole point of the Helen Bishop storyline from earlier in the season, outsiders have no place in their world.

I’ve heard some people complain that the stories on Mad Men move too slowly, which is a completely off criticism. Much like late season Sopranos, the show dwells in moments that most shows skip over. It’s in the small interactions that we really get to know people and understand their world. Because this show is set in a world that’s alien to us, it’s fun and illuminating to just linger there. I loved the episode where Don got high with the beatniks and they just hung around talking about stuff. Through the discussion, you could see all their differences, we didn’t need a real ‘story’ about this, just being there was enough. Throughout the show, I’m amazed by how on the writing is, giving us the pieces to understand things, but never just telling us.

This episode featured two devastating scenes. My personal favorite was Betty’s talk with Glenn Bishop. This was a scene that I’m guessing a lot of people had issues with. It’s interesting for just how on the nose Betty’s dialogue is. David Chase, whose spirit hangs over the show, said that everything his characters say is a lie, and that’s true of a lot of these people as well. In this moment, Betty says what we’ve known all along, that she’s so alone, so sad, but to hear her voice it outright, particularly to this kid, is devastating. I loved the Betty’s lock of hair storyline because it was so downright odd. It adds this layer of odd perversion to her, she is so desperate for the attention of men, even young Glenn’s flattery means a lot to her. It was the emotional peak of the episode for me, a risky, but perfectly executed scene.

The other brilliant scene was Don’s speech about the carousel. Harry left the meeting crying, and I was pretty much there too. It was a hypnotic scene, and even seemed to sell Don himself on what he was saying. Don was confronted with these images of his perfect suburban existence, such a contrast to what he knows to be true. The double ending afterwards, where Don’s imagined homecoming is contrasted with his real loneliness was devastating as well.

The episode had that feeling of everything crashing down, the characters’ own delusions being broken by truth. Peggy was so deluded that she couldn’t acknowledge she was pregnant, and when the child is there, she won’t look at him. She’s a career girl, and won’t consider that alternate path. Similarly, Pete has to face that fact that for all his hustle, Peggy got a promotion and his one major accomplishment is negated by the fact that it’s his father in law’s account.

As the episode ended, I was just so happy, so impressed by what I’d seen. Every once in a while you see a movie or TV show that does that, just gives you a high knowing that what you’ve seen is great. It happened after Six Feet Under’s ‘Ecotone,’ what happened was bad, but the execution was so good, you can’t help but smile. Those two scenes I mentioned above were so on, they alone made the entire season worth watching. But really, this show grew from really strong to outright great, and the sky’s the limit for the future. With Friday Night Lights in a bit of a downturn and Battlestar Galactica constantly uneven, I’m going to go out on a limb and call this the best show on TV.


ather said...

Firstly i would like to say what wonderfully well written blog. Great writing. You have expressed my feelings on this show better than i could have done. And made me aware of aspects of the show i had missed.

I do not enjoy American tv shows as a whole, because as you say they don't seem to evolve and grow.But that is the beauty of this show.I like the direction the latest series is taken. You can see Don's falabilities and it has endeared him to me even more.I also like the cycles of life we seem to have ie how we grow strong and weak as situations change. Don is at a weak point and through this process i am looking forward how he gets his strength and what kind of person he will metamorphise into. Excellent article!

Anonymous said...

Just had a teacher show me this as a way of giving off great timing while trying to sell a product to people. This alone made me want to watch the entire season.

muebles en leon said...

This cannot have effect in actual fact, that's what I think.