Monday, 14 May 2012

Television - Mad Men 'Dark Shadows' analysis / review

Poor Sally Draper. She's at the age where her coddled childhood is coming to an end and adulthood is looming large, but as much as she wants to live in the land of grown ups, everything she sees there is dirty, dishonest and deceitful. Where there are growing pains in Mad Men, Betty can't be far behind, and 'Dark Secrets' has her in full weapons-grade bitch mode. Over Thanksgiving Dinner at the end of the episode, she states herself thankful to have everything she wants, and that no-one else has anything better. That's more or less the attitude held by most of the characters in this series, but few are as forthright in putting it into practice as the recently bloated Mrs. Francis, to the extent of being ready to poison Sally's mind against her father for no other reason than her insecurity after spotting Megan looking spectacular whilst getting dressed.

As appalling as Betty's little scheme is, Sally has good reason to be angry at her father keeping such an important secret from her: Don lays it out in a way that makes it sound the most inconsequential thing in the world, and it wouldn't have been difficult for him to have quietly taken her aside during their excursion to California. Now he's dragged Sally in the middle of an adult power play, and is no less guilty of using her as a pawn when he explains exactly what Betty hoped to achieve by revealing his secret. Her skewering of her mother's attempts to find out what happened was a terrific moment: it's always fun seeing Betty's childish plans thwarted, since she's virtually this programme's equivalent of Lex Luthor, or possibly a blonde Jabba The Hutt.
The toxic smog covering the city skyline at the end of the episode is an obvious metaphor for Sally's life jumping between the Draper and Francis households. Smog is invisible most of the time, breathed in without so much as a second thought, yet in the moments it is visible hanging in the sky above, the realisation dawns of how much poison has been gradually infecting our bodies. Sally is still young enough that most of the unpleasant realities of adult life are unknown to her, but the smog is becoming increasingly apparent, whether it's sex, in the form of Roger getting a back-room blowjob from Megan's mother at an awards banquet, or the panopticon of lies that adult relationships get trapped in.

Betty represents a soul poisoned to the very core by adult vanity and self-delusion. (Neat parallel to have her falling back on the canned whipped cream that last week served as a symbol of a fake version of a beloved treat). Her own mother rammed the notion into her head that beauty was all that mattered, an illusion which came crashing down upon discovering Don had not only been cheating on her repeatedly during their marriage, but wasn't even the man he said he was. Her beautiful marriage was rotten on the inside and as befitting someone who seeks happiness by destroying what other people have, she has been taking out her frustrations on her daughter. (Bobby and Gene are lucky enough that she doesn't seem to care about them, or is less spiteful since they're boys). Seeing the half-dressed Megan is the last thing she needs while suffering through a slow-moving Weight Watchers program, so flippantly reveals one of Don's most intimate secrets to break the harmonious relationship Megan has with Sally. Why should Megan be everything Betty wishes she still were - young, sexy, happy - when Betty doesn't even have her looks to fall back on anymore?

Though the Drapers are a strong enough team to keep the bond intact and deflect the damage back - using Sally, again, as the weapon - Don is guilty of the same crime at work, where he finds himself usurped by Ginsberg as the vibrant new voice of SCDP. He's hardly been paying any attention to work this season, leaving it all for Peggy and her team to cover while he goes gallivanting with his new missus, and having someone around who threatens his position as the agency's creative genius makes him determined to crush his rival's success through sabotage, rather than raising his own game.

His idea involving a cartoon devil is passable, good enough to get the sale at least, but hardly as punchy as Ginsburg's piece about throwing snowballs at teenage hate-figures (police, teachers, pigs). He is reminded by Ginsburg's presence of what he used to take for granted but has now lost: the ability to conquer a room with the arrogant brilliance of his work, in the same way that Betty is threatened by Megan's looks. Ginsburg takes Don to task on their way up to the office for having ditched the snowball campaign in favour of the inferior 'devil' one. Don slaps him down, but the agency is quickly becoming reliant on the young buck's ideas to seem fresh and innovative, and leaving them behind in the taxi won't be a clever strategy for much longer.

It's not just Don who is threatened by Ginsburg's sudden rise to prominence: Peggy, who was requisitioned by Roger at the beginning of the season to do some off-hours work, finds she is no longer to go-to copywriter for her boss' shadier dealings. In the second of the episode's pair of confrontations in the office lift, she chastises him for not being 'loyal' and only thinking of himself, a breathtaking display of hypocrisy from a woman who has previously benefited from being the centre of attention for her 'otherness', as a woman, just as Ginsburg is now, as a Jew. So much for her claims of being excited by working with new creative talent. Where Don and Peggy are usually the ones providing an episode's most memorable moments, here it was Ginsburg getting laughs with virtually every appearance: let's hope he gets more scenes with Roger ('And murder!') in the future.

Speaking of Roger, he and Bert Cooper are feeling increasingly under threat from the go-getting Pete Campbell, and decide to prove their worth by seeking out some business of their own on the down-low. That they go for a Jewish wine seems hilariously small potatoes compared to the accounts Pete has been bringing in, but Roger sets his full charm offensive on the case - once again using his extensive wealth as a shortcut  ('I have to stop carrying so much money') - and recruits soon-to-be-ex-wife Jane to impress the clients with her Yiddish-ness. Unfortunately, she spends much of the dinner making eyes at the client's son, and like every other character in this episode, Roger isn't about to stand for someone else being happy when he isn't. He seduces her, ruining her new flat and fresh start in the process. His LSD trip might have made him more open about expressing his disappointment with himself, but the damage has already been done: he's as selfish as ever, but at least now can apologise afterwards.

Everywhere in 'Dark Shadows' - named for the soap-opera on which Megan's jealous friend was auditioning for a part, coincidentally (surely?) also released as a Tim Burton / Johnny Depp movie last week - someone was trying to take away something they wanted from someone else who had it. Even Pete, limited to only two scenes, continued to fantasize about the wife of the insurance salesman who sits across from him on the train - 'I forgot you, then saw you in the New York Times Sunday magazine' was one of the greatest, funniest lines for evoking how Pete Campbell's strange brain works. This season's central theme has concerned the older generation's struggles to keep up with the young, and the lengths they will go to to hold back the tide. With only four episodes to go, that increasingly taut animosity seems to be leading to a showdown from which Don, Roger, Bert and Betty are destined to take a heavy beating.


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