Wednesday, August 20, 2008

mad men: season 1, disc 1

A fan of Mad Men, Alan Sepinwall has been writing intelligent commentaries on each episode of the AMC show, and they might as well be the director or writer's commentaries because his observations are so astute and in tune with the thematic layers of the show that you forget you're reading a fan's page. You feel like you're reading someone's dissertation. If you're a fan of Mad Men, I recommend reading his Season 1 commentaries, but for now, some (major spoilery) highlights:

(1.1) Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
On the visually and thematically stunning title sequence: "...that sequence of Don's silhouette falling through various idealized illustrations of late '50s life before winding up seated in an art deco chair, his back turned to us, a cigarette dangling from his hand. Weiner says the idea came from director Alan Taylor, who took a look at [actor Jon] Hamm and said, 'Have you seen the back of this man's head? Have you seen what that is, what presence that is? Who is this person, this mystery?' (Note that the first time we see the flesh and blood Don, it's from that same vantage point.)"

(1.2) Ladies Room
And speaking of our resident beatnik floozy, we find that [Midge is] not just Don's mistress, but rather a free love type who sleeps around, an arrangement that has its pluses and minuses for both of them. Don doesn't have to feel completely guilty that he goes back to Betty the next day because he knows Midge has other guys, but he also can't help getting upset when evidence of those guys -- say, Midge's new TV set (on which her favorite show is the same as Don's kids') -- stares him right in the face. And Midge doesn't have to feel like a kept woman who's breaking up a marriage, but she still can't stand to hear about Betty. When Don says, "I can't decide if you have everything, or nothing," she tells him, "For the moment, nothing is everything." On some shows, that line would sound like psychobabble masquerading as profound insights, but the small details of how these characters are written and played gives it real meaning.

(1.3) Marriage of Figaro
Episode three had a very different structure from the first two, the first half largely occurring at work, the second half entirely devoted to Don's weekend at home and the birthday party. He seems in command in both worlds yet fits into neither. He's unprepared for the popularity of the ironic "Lemon" campaign, can't resist treating Pete like crap even when Pete's playing nice, then ruins things with Rachel by kissing her and finding out she's not as eager as Midge to be a mistress.

(1.4) New Amsterdam
Betty goes down the rabbit hole by agreeing to babysit for Helen the divorcee while Helen's off cruising for men at a Kennedy campaign event. It's an interesting friendship (if you can call it that), because Betty has as many reasons to be jealous of Helen as she does to be afraid of becoming like her. Chief among the latter: Helen's creepy son, so out of sorts from the divorce that he's lost all sense of boundaries, walking in on Betty while she tries to pee and then demanding a lock of her hair. (Not sure which of the two is more disturbing, but it was amusing to see the machinations a woman like Betty had to go to to use the bathroom in that get-up.)

(1.5) 5G
In an episode where Jon Hamm has a lot of great moments, I think my favorite may be right at the end. Don's returned from paying off his brother to go away forever and is completely out of sorts. Betty tells him, "I want to talk to you about something, and I don't want you to get upset," and the look on his face is priceless, because there's such a long list of potential secrets Betty could have uncovered: the Dick Whitman thing, Midge, Rachel Menken, etc. No wonder Don's big brainstorm for their banking client was the secretive "Executive Account" -- if ever a man needed such a thing, it's Don, who has so much going on behind the scenes that his secretary assumes she's covering for one scandal (Midge) when it's something else entirely (Adam).

Side note: The title for episode five is quite intriguing. 5G is the room Adam Whitman is staying in, but also, Don offers him $5000 (five grand, 5Gs) to keep him quiet. Well done.

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