Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Mad Men" - The Judgment Within "Dark Shadows"

Some quick thoughts (with spoilers) on the latest Mad Men after the jump:

I haven't written about Mad Men's fifth season at all on the blog, and I probably won't after this. There are just far too many other sites covering the show very well, so I'd rather focus on providing other content like my Dick Van Dyke reviews. However, if you follow me on Twitter you know I think this season has been the strongest of the show to date and may well go down as one of the best seasons of dramatic television ever. And this week's strong installment did some very interesting things that I wanted to jot down a few words on.

Mad Men, as we well know, has always been a show about dissatisfied people. Many of them essentially have everything, and yet it's still not enough for them. This is a theme the show has returned to time and time again, and I'm sure it will continue to do so in the future. What makes "Dark Shadows" distinctive - though perhaps not unique* - is the way it approaches this theme: by reminding us of just what lousy people lie behind those issues. This is something this show almost never does. It's about as in your face as you'll ever see Mad Men get, which makes for a compelling change of pace here even as it probably wouldn't work week to week.

Certainly the fact that Don, Roger, Betty (among others, although they along with Pete make up the four main characters I'd argue fit this description perfectly) aren't good people isn't exactly a new revelation. And their actions here aren't necessarily that much more selfish or callous than many other things they've done. What's changed is the way the episode calls attention to those actions and takes a stand against them, and against the self-absorption of the characters

And it's able to do so in a way that's not heavy-handed or preachy in the slightest, but instead rich and subtle in typical Mad Men style. A simple exchange between Roger and Peggy, for instance, contains dialogue that applies to many other characters within the episode. In it, he tries to defend  hiring Michael for some extra work as simply an example of a the selfish nature of the world and the lack of loyalty in it. But he's missing the point. The world is selfish and cruel because of people like him, like Don (who doesn't even bother to show Michael's work to the prospective clients and is unapologetic about it afterwards), and like Betty. (In fairness, I'm not sure Peggy has a huge right to complain about a lack of "loyalty" on Roger's part after she made him give her all his cash. But still, the point holds.)

Speaking of Betty, I'm wondering if Erin Levy's script was conscious of the fact that so many fans don't like her in using her story to help drive home this point. It felt in many ways like an attempt to show how unfair that disdain really is, when those same fans rarely loathe Don or Roger the same way. By having Betty's spiteful decision to tell Sally about Anna take place in the same episode as Don's and Roger's various transgressions (which sad to say are far from the worst things the key male characters on this series have ever done), it equates the two of them with the most hated character on the show: something they both richly deserve, as does Pete.

Will this get fans to reevaluate their feelings towards Betty? No, and it's not supposed to. We're not meant to sympathize with her. Rather, the episode functions as an subtle indictment of the worst aspects of certain other Mad Men characters and suggests that we should view them all through the same lens: one of at best pity, at worst outright disgust. To say this is not the usual way the show goes about depicting these people is putting it mildly. It likely won't be an ongoing thing, and that's probably wise. To do this sort of portrayal on a weekly basis would risk turning the series into something far different - and probably lesser - than what it is right now.

But for one week, some of Mad Men's characters were judged in a more direct way than they generally are on this show. And they didn't pass the test, as we who have watched them for almost five seasons knew they wouldn't.

* I'd have to look back at the earlier seasons to see if there was ever an entire episode that was this confrontational in the way it approaches the failings of Don, Roger, Pete, etc. to be decent people. There might have been, although I kind of doubt it.

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