Mad Men Recap: “A Day’s Work” (Season 7, Episode 2)

After last week’s premiere, which set an ominous tone for the final season of Mad Men, the writers reached out to pick us up and dust us off in episode two. Peggy and Pete are flailing about on opposite coasts, each experiencing ennui and scrabbling for purchase in their daily lives. Sally Draper is navigating her own transitional phase and handling it as gracefully as you’d expect from a 15-year-old. Dawn, Shirley, and Joan are shuffled about by the various men of SC&P while Cooper’s old-fashioned sensibilities hold up progress. Roger and Jim are at odds beneath a cordial surface. Out of everyone, though, Don Draper is most adrift.

Out to sea. Photo credit Michael Yarish/AMC.

Out to sea. Photo credit Michael Yarish/AMC.

The opening scene of Sunday’s episode calls back to the premiere with a time motif. Don awakens to his alarm clock on a Thursday at 7:30, stretching groggily. Moments later, he awakens again, this time at 12:34. Don’s discombobulated, out of time and place. In his apartment, he blankly stares at Little Rascals on TV, his face unshaven and his robe hanging open. He idly pages through Look Magazine, which features a headline about abortions (the contentious topic would’ve been ramping up toward 1973′s landmark Roe vs. Wade case). He passes a full-page ad that inquires, “How do you handle a hungry man?” while absent-mindedly eating Ritz directly from the box. He marks the level on a bottle of Courvoisier, tsking to himself – he’s drinking too much. A cockroach wanders by and Don just sighs. The time passes, and into the evening Don shaves and dresses, buttoning up his shirt and fixing his tie just as the doorbell rings.

Dawn steps into the apartment, but she can’t stay. She’s brought him Sweet ‘n Low and Coffee Mate since she noticed he was out. Likewise, she arranged for a Valentine’s bouquet to arrive at Megan’s house in California. Dawn’s another set of eyes into SC&P, and it’s making her uncomfortable. “I don’t mind keeping you aware of things, but there’s something about the money that makes it feel wrong,” she says. On her way out, she reminds him that the cleaning woman is coming tomorrow morning. She takes the money.

Our very own Don Draper, the hero/antihero of the series (this is debatable – there are those who think it’s been Peggy’s story all along), has gotten interminably sad. Without his work, without purpose, Don Draper is nothing. He can’t even handle the basics of his marriage and his home without help. It’s tough to watch.

So grownup. Photo credit Michael Yarish/AMC.

So very. Photo credit Michael Yarish/AMC.

Sally Draper has transformed into a full-blown teenager. Her friends smoke cigarettes in her dorm room, gossiping about another friend’s dead mother. Everybody’s stoked to go off campus for the funeral because they an sneak away to shop for Pocahontas boots. (I’m actually shaking my head in consternation as I write this.) That lucky bitch whose mom died, she gets to stay out of school until Easter! “I’d stay here til 1975 if I could get Betty in the ground,” Sally says, dragging on a cigarette. (Snort. It’s awful, but can you blame her?) Read more

Musings: On “Quality,” Diversity, and Subversiveness

Recently the NYT hopped on the bandwagon of folks claiming television has transcended (Hollywood) film. About six months ago during dinner with a couple in their 60s, I said almost exactly that: “In the last decade or so, I think TV has surpassed film in terms of quality.” The matriarch picked up her wine glass, waved it slightly, and murmured, “Damning with faint praise.” That one stung – but it isn’t particularly surprising. Sometimes I forget that other people aren’t as invested in media, as in love with the art form, as I am. Likewise I sometimes forget that our parents’ version of TV was Kraft Mac & Cheese compared to our current gourmet buffet. The discerning epicure has plenty of delights from which to choose these days, as does the gent who really just wants his Velveeta (who in the bloody hell actually watches Two and a Half Men?!). The thing is, some (some, mind you) “junk food” TV is paving the way for a richer, more diverse future.

As a slight snob and consumer of all things buzzing, I watch the good stuff. I tune in and burn through House of Cards, Mad Men, Game of Thrones (farewell Joffrey, you deplorable, inbred psychopath. Sorry not sorry for spoilers), The Walking DeadTrue Detective, Dexter, and Breaking Bad.

Mad Men Season 7 Key Art

This is the good shit. Photo courtesy AMC.

But on top of these things, I’m also paying attention to a bunch of shows I don’t usually admit publicly. I watch Scandal, Revenge, and Hannibal every week. I’m way behind on The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural, but I’m watching them. If you know much about me, you’ll see the tonal connection: they’re dark, soapy, and totally implausible, every one. In these alternate worlds, though, I can turn off my brain for 47 minutes and not contemplate life, the universe, and everything.

Scandal (ABC) Cast Shot

More color and more ladies than you’d expect. (ABC’s Scandal)

But you know me. Even in “off” mode, I’m thinking about the context, the casting, the creators. These shows, the ones that are “marginalized,” at the edges of popular culture, have immense room to play with gender, race, and sexuality; they have the freedom to subvert norms and mores. Revenge‘s Nolan Ross is virtually the only bisexual male on broadcast television, and you know what? Nobody cares, either out here in the real world or in the goofily decadent Revenge-verse. (Let’s not talk about House of Cards‘s Frank Underwood. We’ll leave that for later.) Scandal‘s team of Gladiators, led by Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), is richly comprised of women and men of color. (I thank Shonda Rhimes for this – it’s amazing what happens when you stick a woman of color in the director’s seat.)

Gabriel Mann as Nolan Ross.

Indeed, Nolan. Indeed. Credit to Tumblr user bravonolanross.

Read more

Mad Men Recap: “Time Zones” (Season 7, Episode 1)

This season of Mad Men is its last; in all senses of the word, time is running out. Time is running out for the Madison Avenue lifestyle, the clock is ticking on the 1960s, and time is running out for our characters to fix what they’ve broken. As Freddy Rumsen remarks in the opening scene of Season 7, “This is the beginning of something,” but in fact this episode is the beginning of the end.

Despite their leaps forward in seasons past, Peggy and Joan are both struggling. Don’s drowning again, and Kenny Cosgrove is totally flipping his shit. Everybody’s dozing off, waking up late, remaining stagnant when they should be moving forward, and checking their watches as they do it. Time is of the essence in this episode, and it sets a distinct (and distinctly depressing) tone for the season. Last season launched the latest fan theory: Megan Draper as a doomed Sharon Tate, the late wife of Roman Polanski and victim of the Manson Family in 1969. Matthew Weiner is rarely so transparent, and as such I doubted the veracity of the theories – but this episode seems to give them more ground.

Rumsen still blends into the background. Photo credit AMC.

Rumsen still blends into the background. Photo credit AMC.

In the first scene, we get a close-up of none other than Freddy Rumsen, briefly studying some notes then launching into an earnest, thoughtful pitch for Accutron watches. The protagonist of the commercial “looks like Steve McQueen,” but wears a suit and tie. “This is a business man,” Freddy tells us. It’s “you, late 20s, shaggy, the youthful colleague. Staring at his watch as muffled conversation swirls around him.” Weiner films the scene as we’re used to him filming Don Draper – close, intimate, addressing the camera and thus, the audience. We’re the targets of this pitch. The Accutron pitch pits the Youngs against the Olds, an adept reflection of the cultural shift in the late 1960s. It’s on point, which is far more than anybody expects from Freddy “I pissed my pants” Rumsen. “Accutron: It’s not a timepiece, it’s a conversation piece,” he finishes, his eyes narrowed, face glowing. Peggy, of course, wants what Peggy wants. She ditches Rumsen’s brilliant pitch in favor of her own work: “Accutron: It’s time for a conversation” sounds more elegant to her.

I would wear everything Peggy is wearing here. Photo credit Jordin Althaus/AMC.

I would wear everything Peggy is wearing here. Photo credit Jordin Althaus/AMC.

And here we leap into the fray with Roger Sterling. A telephone phone rings, the sound reverberating about a darkened apartment as various nude people pass the phone to a duly naked Sterling. It’s his daughter Margaret calling, of course; no one else would be in touch with Roger – and he’s not terribly thrilled to hear from Margaret, either. When you’ve severed all your ties, being summoned makes you suspicious. He agrees to a brunch, but only if there’s vodka. After he hangs up, a naked girl about Margaret’s age props herself on her elbow, smiling. “I feel like we really got somewhere last night,” she says. All the drugs.

Lou Avery, the new Creative guy who replaced Don, is pretty deplorable, as it turns out. I mean, Don is deplorable, but he’s our antihero. A gent who comments on the race of his secretary by asking derisively, “What do we have here, Gladys Knight and the Pips?” is not someone we are built to like in the 21st century. He nitpicks Dawn (a woman of color in a sea of white folks), ignores Peggy (a woman in a sea of penises), and is generally a dick to everybody else.

Ken Cosgrove, he of the science fiction novels and the ability to compartmentalize, to stay out of the Madison Avenue fray, is wearing an eye patch (I assume due to the car accident with the Chevy team last season) and screaming at his help while Clara looks on sheepishly. He sends Clara to get him a buttered roll (really? a buttered roll?) and invites Joan into his office. He’s popping a pill direct from his shirt pocket; wonder what it is? Joan brings him the Avon file and says they’ve got another one to attend to: Butler Shoes. Kenny, who’s totally bogged down and upset, tells Joan to “make it go away.” It’s notable that in the first scene she’s in, Joan is walking up the stairs, wearing her power color of regal purple. She’s always walking up the stairs in this episode. Read more

The Walking Dead Recap: “A” (Season 4, Episode 16)

First things first: did the writers really think a corny, Western-style one-liner like that was going to satisfy us? Rick Grimes is no Walter White, and Andrew Lincoln and the showrunners are frankly not capable of making something like “They’re screwing with the wrong people” into the stuff of legend. It is no “Tread lightly,” that’s for sure. The finale as a whole was clumsy and unsatisfying. Everyone in the episode was asking “Who am I? Who are you? Who are we?” But the age-old existential dilemma doesn’t power the action; it hinders it. And as they’re all wondering who they are, they don’t stop to think about whether they’re walking straight into a trap.

Walking Dead Rick

Monsters all. Photo credit Gene Page/AMC.

“A” bounces us from past (at the prison) to present (on the road), as the writers are wont to do these days. This episode’s jumps from past to present and back are effective; they reinforce the point that nothing gold can stay. In the opening sequence, we flash back to the halcyon days trapped between the chain link fences of the prison. Hershel’s still alive and Maggie’s smiling as they return from a run. Everyone’s content, pleasantly calm as the prison crew pokes the walkers through the chainlink with crowbars. A jarring cut to the present focuses on Rick’s bloody hands and face; he sits with his back against a truck, staring into the space beyond the camera. The last time we saw him like this, it was after he beat the hell out of Tyreese. He crouches in silence, and the camera lingers long enough on his face for us to wonder where Michonne and Carl could be.

Post-credits, we return to earlier that same day. On the tracks, Carl wonders aloud if they’re going to be able to tell the folks at Terminus who they are, like, really. Rick understands exactly what he’s asking, but he can’t answer that. How do you say who you are when this is who you are? None of them feel like they’re good people, and how could they? Read more

The Walking Dead Recap: “Us” (Season 4, Episode 15)

Last week’s “The Grove,” a harrowing vignette if ever there was one, led us full circle. Having contemplated separating, having daydreamed of making simple lives in safe spaces, all of our characters were on their (not-so) merry way to Terminus, poor Lizzie and Mika excluded. This week, the writers had to pick us up, brush us off, and pat our metaphorical backsides so we’d keep on marching. So they took us back to the various other splinters – namely, to everybody’s favorite estranged lovers, Glenn and Maggie.

As they trudge along the tracks, Dr. Eugene Porter talks at Tara, who remains largely silent, her brow furrowed. “You cannot say for certain,” Eugene tells her, that the zombie plague “isn’t what killed off the dinosaurs.” The idea of undead dinosaurs is pretty rad, I’ve gotta admit. However, Tara is not and never was Porter’s kind of nerd. She also doesn’t swing that way. Once the sun sets, Ford and Tara stay up to watch over Eugene, their precious package, who snoozes next to Rosita and Glenn on the tracks. This scene calls back to the one in which Carol and Lizzie watched over Tyreese as he thrashed from a nightmare of Karen. Ford notes idly that Tara hasn’t slept at all yet. He’s curious why she’s here, and he thought at first she was in love with Glenn. “But I saw the way you were lookin’ down Rosita’s shirt when she was serving you dinner,” he continues mildly, to which she apologizes, equally softly. She ‘s running ragged paying her penance, and she asks Ford, a military man, “What do you do when the mission’s over?”

Rick, Carl, Michonne Walking Dead

It’s all fun and games. Photo credit Gene Page/AMC.

Meanwhile, Michonne and Carl play “who can balance on the track the longest” while Rick thinks pragmatically about water supplies. Despite himself it makes Rick grin to see Carl happy and laughing. They bet on candy bars, and in an attempt to startle Carl, Michonne loses her own balance. She hands him the last “Big Kat” bar, and Carl gives her a piece of his winnings. In this scene, civilization prevails. It’s such a rarity anymore in the series that it’s duly sweet. They’re cute together. Everybody’s forming their own little families. Read more