Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Mad Men: 'Three Sundays' (2x04)

Yesterday’s Mad Men increased the series’ focus on domestic issues this season, a welcome development since I consider that the more interesting side of things. The ad business on this show functions like the mafia storylines on The Sopranos, it’s the hook for viewers, a way to distinguish the characters and set up the values of their world. But, it’s the personal stories where the real drama lies, and this season has been hitting wonderfully subtle, real notes with ease.

The Don/Betty tension has been brewing all season, and kind of comes to a head here. She doesn’t want to just be the mother of Don’s children, and is increasingly frustrated with Don’s inability to be the ‘man of the house.’ She says that Don is a child, but last season, he was told that Betty had the mind of a child. It’s a troubled house, as exemplified by their daughter’s turn to the bottle in this episode. Betty’s anger at Bobby is largely redirected anger at Don. She wants to punish Don for his bad behavior, but can’t outright do so, and instead emasculates him in front of his children.

Don’s attempt to be the man she seems to want backfires when his violence shocks her. Ultimately, the way to win back her affections was to play the victim, emphasize his childhood trauma, and make it so that he needed her affection, rather than the other way around. It’s a complex mess of essentially irresolvable issues. As much as the Bobby story is actually about her punishing Don, it also raises a lot of questions about what role a father should play in disciplining children, and jealousy that Don always gets to be the ‘good guy’ with the kids.

It’s a very real argument, and thankfully divorced from typical TV melodrama. The genius of the show is largely its ability to say so much subtextually. There are the surface events, and a whole surging churn of emotions underneath. In the Peggy storyline, her sister goes to confession solely to get back at Peggy, to sour her image in the eyes of the priest. It’s never stated that that’s what she’s doing, but once she starts talking in the confessional, it becomes totally clear, and I was marveling at her devious little plan.

One of the major problems I have with watching a lot of mainstream Hollywood films, or even indie movies, is that the stories are so telegraphed, and the emotions so on the nose. In real life, people very rarely confess their feelings in eloquent ways, they let them simmer under the surface, expressed only in wordless frustration or cutting passive aggressive comments. My favorite kind of film is one that can show us the inner world of a person as much as the surface. This can take the form of the psychological psychedelia of Neon Genesis Evangelion, or it can be a lingering closeup of Don Draper here, where the weight of everything he’s done compounds and presses on him.

I’ve seen some people criticizing this season, saying that nothing is happening, things like that. Much like people criticizing the late seasons of The Sopranos, that misses the point of what the show is trying to do. It’s a character piece, and there’s a ton of development happening in the relationships. There aren’t really any ‘plots’ per se to the series, things happen, but it’s the internal events that really matter. And, this episode is full of internal turmoil.

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