Friday, March 13, 2015

MAD MEN Ep. 1: Bonus Round



   (S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

Before we head into Episode 2 (the essay for which should be arriving early next week), a few additions and corrections to the Episode 1 article are in order.

*A longtime reader (and survivor of my Mad Men academic gauntlet) reminded me that in the first writing assignment that I described last time, there was great hay to be made in analyzing the similarities between Don and Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan.  She did, to great effect.  Truthfully, I had so much information left over from teaching the show that I struggled to condense it all into something that was semi-digestible for yesterday’s writing.  So in the paring down process, the Don/Tom angle flew over my head. 

I also conveniently forgot that in the first few chapters that we read for class, Gatsby only appears in the conversations of other people (and, briefly, at the end of his dock, longing after that phantasmagorical green light.)  Hence, as far as I can now remember, almost no one used Don and Gatsby in that first essay.  I’m sure there are a few out there who will take great delight in my mishandling of the facts.  So to them I say “Minus 3 points for me.”

*I also left out discussion of a scene that, though it only lasts about a minute and ten seconds and in some ways is a huge anomaly, has haunted me ever since I went through the show a second time.  Around five minutes into the episode, a distraught Don visits gal pal Midge to confess his total lack of a plan for the Lucky Strike meeting.  Midge is one of those great semi-lost Mad Men characters; her entire run on the show only lasts six episodes (with a brief, yet key, cameo reappearance in Season 4), and yet she’s such a fully formed, vibrant creation that you wish she had stayed a regular (she isn’t the only such character to appear throughout the series.)  A lot of the credit here goes to the always sublime Rosemarie DeWitt, who infuses Midge with the counterculture feminist spunk that so appeals to eternal outsider Don, while also capturing the strong sense of traditional sex appeal that hooks him even further.

In any case, Don and Midge’s banter eventually leads to them making the beast with two backs.  After they descend into their romantic clinch, the scene cuts to the next morning.  Sunlight streams through the windows of Midge’s studio apartment.  The camera pans down to a close-up of the lovers lounging in bed, sharing a post-post-coital cigarette (or maybe it’s just post-coital…Don Draper is quite the ladies’ man.)  And the whole scene is bathed in a soft blue light.  It looks like something out of a late-‘80s/early ‘90s perfume or underwear commercial.  We’ve seen this visual style so many times as short hand for the uber-stylish afterglow of two good-looking people getting it on.  It’s gorgeous.  And it’s a look that the show will almost never repeat after this 70-sceond clip.

Now I know that, realistically, this is a case of Matt Weiner and company still trying to work out the show’s visual palate.  It’s a fairly common tack for pilot episodes to differ in some ways from the bulk of the series; it’s especially noticeable in the physicalities of the actors (the Jon Hamm of the pilot looks almost skinny compared to the slightly more filled out and imposing one of  Episode 2.)  But as I kept rewatching the first episode, each time having delved further and further into the run of the series, this brief scene took on a certain poignance for me.  Before the viewer discovers Betty at episode’s end, Don and Midge’s moment adds to the utter seduction of said viewer into the luxurious dream life of our anti-hero.  In retrospect, it also plays like one of the last moments before the fall from grace.  This is the life that Don could’ve had if he had been able to reconcile the warring factions of his psyche.  Even from the beginning, he’s pitching himself a lifestyle that’s just a bit better than what he thinks he has. It’ll take him several more seasons before he finally makes a go of attaining this idyllic existence when he marries Megan.  But even then, his inability to separate the pitch from the reality leads to problems.

It’s also notable that in this brief scene, Don is laying back on Midge.  As Season 1 progresses, it’s Betty who will always take this slightly more submissive position in their marital bed.  It’s not until Episode 10, when Don (existentially devastated by the brutal reality of his mortality that is Roger’s heart attack) finally sleeps with Rachel, that he’ll lay back on another woman like this, as he confesses part of his hidden past to her.  Even five minutes into the pilot, we already see Don’s submerged feminist leanings.  And also his need for a mother figure, a point whose psychological motivations are searingly explored in Season 6.  But we’re a long way off from that.    

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