Monday, April 9, 2012

'"Mad" World' - The struggle to change

Dissatisfaction is a symptom of ambition.

Since we are essentially four episodes -- or one third -- into Season Five of Mad Men, I figured it'd be worthwhile (or fun!) to sketch out some of what I think is going on and where the show is going for the next nine episodes. Also, I simply thought last night's episode - "Mystery Date" - was absolutely incredible, and wanted to talk about it some.

Spoilers for episodes one through four follow.

Each season of Mad Men has meditated on some theme that ebbs out of Don's life. Season one was about the duality of his existence, season two seemed to focus more on his marriage and the tensions between him and Betty, season three was about change, season four was Don bottoming out, and now season five -- if we go by that great poster of Don staring into the department store window -- is about him trying to rebuild himself.

Thus emerges the question: Can Don Draper actually start over and do it right this time?

Don's domestic life is changing. He has a modern new apartment, and a sexy young wife who he's promoted through SCDP -- much to Peggy's chagrin So too is the arrangement of SCDP shifting. They've inadvertently been swept into the civil rights movement in the season premiere, hiring their first black secretary (named Dawn, much to Roger's amusement).

But even outside these familiar spaces, which have changed rather peacefully despite the drama and conniving going on behind the scenes (Pete and Peggy's separate, sly manipulations of Roger), the world seems to be erupting. There are riots in Chicago, police stationed in Harlem, and Sally can't sleep because of news of a family who was murdered. For those in the story -- notably Dawn, who has given Mad Men a different approach to black politics in the wake of Carla's dismissal last year -- this has provoked a whole new kind of anxiety. For us watching, "Assassinations" linger in the background. It's all a matter of "when." Once again, Weiner and his team have found a wonderfully stated way to bridge our knowledge of history and how the characters inside the show discuss the history unfolding around them.

Violence is certainly a problem, and one that really starts to infiltrate the show. When Don, in a fever dream, had an old lover return to him, he only refused momentarily before giving into his old self and screwing her. Afterward, when she would not leave, he strangled her to death and hid her body under the bed. Yes, it was all a dream, but the impact is still largely there. Don is fighting off these demons, these old ghosts who still haunt him. He used to just be two people -- Dick Whitman and Don Draper -- but now it seems like he's three. He's two versions of Don -- the old one who chain-smoked, drank all day, and screwed whomever he desired -- and the new one struggling for clarity. Megan tries to curb his smoking (not to mention his public attack on the cigarette industry towards the end of Season Four), his drinking bottomed out in 'The Suitcase' last year (not to suggest he's stopped drinking, just that he's recognized its damages), and he wants to be faithful to Megan.

It's no longer just an identity crisis -- it's an all out war between his selves. Maybe that fever dream represented a final purging of these temptations; maybe it just showed us that he'll inevitably fall back into his old behavior?

The vanguard is shifting at SCDP. In the premiere, Pete made a huge gambit to get a new office. He outsmarted and humiliated Roger, whose power and presence seem to be draining. He's more Bert Cooper than anything else -- a symbol of the old generation, of waning stability, even as Pete seems to be hatching ambitious plans to oust Sterling entirely.

Peggy, on the other hand, yanked $400 out of Roger to take on an extra assignment he tried to delegate her. She continues to do everything she can to gain a foothold. As Don told her, everything to her is an opportunity. She clearly worries about Megan's power over Don, she has a new writer to be in charge of, and there's some kind of foreboding that suggests she could pull a Pete-like power play.

The other major story line, which took up a lot of episode two, was what the Internet has called "Fat Betty." I know there's been a lot of criticism of the fat suit and the fact that the storyline moved very slowly, but I think it's a logical progression for the character. Trapped in her world of malaise, Betty cared tremendously about her appearance when she was with Don. Henry doesn't challenge her, she finds her life as a housewife increasingly boring, and so she's retreating from her image. The home is becoming a prison.

All told, these characters and the political events circling them sketch a world that is transforming. Change has always been a theme of Mad Men, but now it's becoming more violent, more revelatory. The shifts continue to be profound, and Season Five will either be about the struggle to create beneficial change for oneself, or about how it's impossible to escape our past, our true nature.

Stay tuned.


Aunt Karen said...

Great post, Jimmy. I thought last night's show was riveting. I agree that they've taken up the violence theme in very interesting ways, personalizing the zeitgeist. I remember being a kid at that time, absorbing the violence in the way that Sally Draper did -- after spending early childhood in the cocoon that was the early sixties, the social violence going on was terrifying. They really got that right. Whether or not Don's violent dream is a purge or a foreboding of things to come remains to be seen, as you point out. Something tells me it's the latter... Anyhow, thanks for posting this. I enjoyed it.

RosieP said...

Even with the addition of Dawn as Don Draper's new secretary, the handling of race in "MAD MEN" remains vague. Dawn's biggest scene in the fifth season, so far, had more to do with Peggy Olson, instead of Dawn herself.

The firing of Carla at the end of Season Four has never sat well with me. I found it manipulative. Weiner gave viewers a chance to express sympathy toward a character, whose actions rightly led her to be fired. Betty was right to fire Carla. But because Betty was an unpopular character, and Carla was popular due to being a bland and non-threatening minority character, Weiner gave audiences (especially those from the white middle-and-upper-classes a chance to congratulate themselves on being so tolerant and sympathetic toward a minority character.