Tuned In

Mad Men Watch: A First-Class Heel

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SPOILER ALERT: Watch last night’s Mad Men before you read this. And don’t forget the cake.

This week’s was the first episode of Mad Men I didn’t receive an advance screener of, and so watched on TV like a civilian. So it was the first time I saw the interview segments after the show with Matthew Weiner and the cast, talking about the episode’s themes and the characters’ motivations.

Am I the only one who finds this really off-putting? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for analysis and deconstruction–kind of my job, after all–but immediately after an episode of a show, especially one as elegant as Mad Men, I just want a few minutes to digest, to decide what I think about it all. Having Weiner et al. step in and do it for me takes me out of the moment. It’s like finishing a chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, then having Dostoevsky tap you on the shoulder and say, “OK, you see what I did in that Grand Inquisitor scene? What I was going for there was…” I mean, it’s not like I’m asking AMC to run commercials, but plenty of other things–say, some background on how they created the period sets, or some history of advertising–would be better than the instant Cliff’s Notes.

That’s my complaint for the week. (And yes, I know I could change the channel, thanks.) Otherwise, this may have been my favorite episode yet. The Sopranos parallels with this show are obvious because of Weiner’s resume, I know, but the birthday-party scene really reminded me of that show’s ability to use small domestic scenes to both advance storylines and paint a social picture.

We had the suburban wives cutting down–and yet clearly seeming threatened by and maybe even jealous of–Helen, the new divorcee in town (whom their husbands immediately began sizing up as an opportunity). We had Don, having freshly smooched up Rachael Menken, cozying up to Helen. And disappearing en route to getting the birthday cake–a colder betrayal in a way than any kiss, triggering the return of Betty’s Frozen Hands of Anxiety–which he tries to erase by coming home with a dog. Whatever the war did to Don (or “Dick” as he’s apparently known to his war buddies), it’s left him little patience for the social niceties.

On the it-was-really-like-that-then front, the period references seemed more organic this week, maybe because they were worked in to the domestic setting. Maybe it’s because I’m a parent, but the contrast with today’s helicopter-parenting style is especially interesting and striking. Literally striking: nice layer-by-layer revelation in the scene in which a grown up slaps his kid for knocking over a glass–oh, wait, he slapped someone else’s kid! Not only is the dad OK with it–he makes his son apologize–but the slapper smiles, casually forgives the kid and tells his dad it’s not necessary to give the boy “some more.” Attaboy! Now go out back and play with a BB gun! (Speaking of which, in the background we saw the kids in the playhouse imitating their parents’ relations at home: “I don’t like your tone.”)

The office scenes, meanwhile, developed another theme briefly alluded to last week, which Weiner talked to me about when I interviewed him earlier this summer: that although 1960 was the middle of a creative revolution in the ad industry, Sterling Cooper was not exactly on the ramparts of it. The creatives at Sterling Coop are the MSM of the ad world, comfortable and set in their ways, as shown by Don scoffing at the Volkswagen “Think Small” and “Lemon” ads that, in retrospect, are considered classics.

It’s an interesting choice, since the obvious move would be to dramatize the change in the ad culture by having the revolutionary work come out of Sterling Cooper. Instead–and this adds to the complexity of the show, I think–we have young creatives like Paul wistfully envying their peers in the smaller shops smoking Mary Jane and going outside the box, while Roger Sterling declares that the true genius of advertising was whoever thought of prices that ended in “.99.” (It’s a version of the debate that still continues today: is cleverness the sign of great advertising, or does it get in the way of actually selling the product?)

That product, by the way: a laxative. Of course. Because with that lovely shot of Don sitting in his car, watching a train roll off–to somewhere far away from his world of family and obligation–it’s clear there is something he’s holding in, and holding hard.

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