Mad Men: Dark Shadows

"I'm thankful I have everything I want, and no one else has anything better."

It doesn't seem fair to claim that Dark Shadows didn't totally work because it was such a Betty-heavy episode. And that was a probably an unfortunate turn of phrase. Heh. It's been a constant criticism of Mad Men in recent years that Betty isn't entirely necessary anymore, so stuck on the periphery of the show that she could easily be written out all-together. It's similarly unfortunate that this debate has only gotten more heated this season, when January Jones' pregnancy has majorly increased her absences from the series, meaning Betty turning up again after several weeks of being MIA comes off like a visit from a ghost from the past. But lumping Betty into a slightly 'off' episode is more of an unlucky coincidence than a statement on Betty's redundancy.

Because there's still a lot to like about Betty Draper. I liked her ridiculous petulance over Megan's presence in Sally's life, as well as her doomed scheme to damage Megan and Don's marriage. What's an unexpected by-product of Betty's removal from so many episodes is that we've seen Megan and Don go through so much worse over the course of the season, and this lazy attempt to create some tension can only read as pretty underwhelming. It's just another way of exploring Betty's naivety, in that she actually thought this would do some damage.

The problems in Dark Shadows lay with a certain clunkiness to a lot of the story. Sally's school project seemed like a strained deus ex machina for the Anna revelations to come out, while there were other moments that probably didn't work as well as the writers assumed they would -- like the portly Betty glimpsing the slim Megan putting on her shirt in her apartment. I don't know, there was just an on-the-nose quality to a lot of the story, lacking in traditional Mad Men subtlety. Again, I don't think it's a Betty-related problem, but it is interesting that the last time this occurred was with the Betty stories back in Tea Leaves. I may be in denial, but I'm sticking to it.

Resentment and petulance weren't just exclusive to Betty here, though. Don's treatment of Ginsberg was another example of the characters struggling to come to terms with being shut-out by generational change, Don using his power to entirely throw out Ginsberg's idea -- which was undoubtedly more interesting than Don's gravelly-voiced Satan thing (aww, he was so proud of that voice). I've also decided that I don't like Ginsberg. I understand his frustration, and sympathize with that feeling of being undermined by far more powerful people... but stay in your place, dude! Yes, he has the talent, but you can't breeze into this environment and try and call the shots with things. I think it's because we see Peggy constantly getting undermined and undervalued by those around her, yet she seems to rebel in a far less showy manner. Then again (and sorry for the constant flip-flopping, but it's what this show does to me), maybe we need more of that kind of Ginsberg-ish attitude? Where you're not merely remaining subservient to people who are, you know, screwing you over? Blah.

Elsewhere, Roger's fling with Jane was a neat encapsulation of their relationship (Jane being the arm candy whenever he needs it), but ended with that tragic resolution where she seemed genuinely desperate to move on with her life. Again, though, that strange sense of contrivance that hampered certain moments this week managed to infect that last scene. I don't know, I kept expecting Roger to burst out laughing during his last-minute, remorseful exit. It didn't feel genuine at all, neither from a character level and certainly not from the writing itself.

Don't get me wrong, this was still a very, very good episode of television. But there was definitely this 'off' tone to some of it, only made more glaring because, hey, it's Mad Men. The intentions and emotions were there, but subtlety was not a friend this week. Just try and not blame Betty. Everybody blames Betty.

Notables

- I only just realized that the new Bobby also plays MJ on Desperate Housewives, and he's a little stiff and 'child actor'-ish over on that show, too.

- It's a little thing, but I love that you had to put two-and-two together with the soap opera audition and the title of the episode. It reminded me of an incredible movie called You Can Count on Me, where the final scene really contextualizes the title of the film.

- However, I really didn't like the scene between Megan and her friend. It felt just as phony and melodramatic as the Dark Shadows script they were just reading.

- I know she's forever Rory Gilmore, but... Alexis Bledel? In that dream sequence? Damn.

- I miss Lane. Though he was probably busy melting universes together or something.

- Little bits: Betty's orgasmic expression eating the Thanksgiving dinner; Pete's disgusted look towards Howard on the train.

Quotage

Pete: I spent an hour on the phone last night with my new best friend Victor at the New York Times.
Roger: Gonna get a paper route?

Roger: When we took LSD, you swore to me that you'd always be there for me.
Jane: Stop telling me things that I said that night. Like I know I didn't promise to remarry right away to save you alimony.

Pete: You know what Howard, why don't you spend Thanksgiving with her and I'll go to your house and screw your wife?

Previously posted at Unwelcome Commentary.

6 comments:

Josie Kafka said...

"I don't know, there was just an on-the-nose quality to a lot of the story, lacking in traditional Mad Men subtlety. Again, I don't think it's a Betty-related problem, but it is interesting that the last time this occurred was with the Betty stories back in Tea Leaves."

I agree, although I think I might be more willing to blame Betty than you are. Or rather the mix of circumstances that makes her story hard to tell, which I have broken down into a list because I love lists:

1. She's so childish and petulant that it's difficult to create stories around her.
2. January Jones isn't a great actress, so the writers have to give her more to play off of. The Megan/shirt scene and family-tree scene were both external situations to give her something to react to, because her just sitting in a room (like Peggy often does) wouldn't be enough to make clear to us what she's going through.
3. That seems to be what they're doing with the dieting plot. (Which is obviously inspired by baby weight.) They need an external marker of internal dissatisfaction for Betty in a way they don't with the other characters.

(Okay, it's a short list. :-)

Roger's casual anti-Semitism was so weird, especially since the wine people took it so much in stride. I sort of expected them to say, "You people?! Do you know how offensive that is?!" It would have been interesting to watch Roger talk himself out of that one.

I'm so glad you're reviewing this show, Max!

Jess Lynde said...

I find Pete's disgust with Howard amusing, because he's basically doing the same thing to Trudy that Howard is to Beth. He's every bit the d-bag that Howard is. And if Beth was receptive to him, then he probably wouldn't give a flying fig how Howard treats/talks about her.

I used to sympathize with Betty in the beginning, because what Don was doing to her was awful and she was so obviously depressed with where her choices in life had led her. But then they pushed her hard into the childish zone, and even harder into the God-awful mother zone, and now it's impossible to like her. What she did in this episode to Sally to assuage her own jealousies was horrible. Sally is the one who suffers when Betty does crap like that. It made it rather satisfying to see Sally hurt her right back. But then I realized what that meant about the kind of person Sally is becoming, and I just got sad and angry all over again.

Betty sucks, dude.

Mani said...

The overall quality of the show has stopped being 'must see'. There are no 'hooks'to the stories even after 9 episodes and that's baddd. I think the long hiatus between seasons has done 'Mad Men' more harm than good.

Glimmers of cleverness with the dialogue and some characters still exist, but as with the show 'Dexter' there are also a lot more amateurishly contrived situations to get the characters where the writers want them to go.

In the beginning what made the show interesting was the way it peeled away the layers of the onion from these really interesting, flawed and complex characters.

The new characters just aren't as interesting to find out about as early Don Draper and crew were, and there are not that many episodes left.

Mani said...

to do that in. Who knows, maybe they'll shock us!

Anonymous said...

I have no problem with Betty being back but what I don´t like this season is that some character arcs get interrupted for several episodes and suddenly they are back on. What happened with Lane after the fight? What about Joan? (I wish she had more to do this season).

Betty´s scheme was awful and it was a little satisfying that it fired right back. But as Jess said that sheds no good light on Sally. Hopefully she won´t evolve into some kind of Veda Pierce character (Mildred Pierce).

Ginsberg had it coming and although Don behaved kind of childish, I´m glad he did.

Overall I share your opinion about this episode.

maxpower03 said...

I just wanted to apologize for not replying to your comments for so long, especially since they're all so interesting...

Josie That's a crazily good point about always having Betty react to external situations. I mean, they're undoubtedly aware by this point that January isn't the strongest of actors, so they seem to be making it easier for her. To further that, notice how she has to throw something at the end of this episode in order to depict her anger. Because I guess it's harder to convey that emotion through a simple facial expression or whatever. I like January a lot, but she's definitely limited, and that was a great point you made.

I also agree that the anti-Semitism was jarring, but I take the lack of feedback as more a comment on the time, when people weren't confident enough to actually say "you know what, you can't say that".

Jess Agreed about Pete. As funny as he is, his total lack of self-awareness is ridiculously ugly.

And I agree that the writers have done a disservice to Betty, and I remember writing about it vaguely back in Tea Leaves, how they sort of stopped giving her the emotional depth to explain her casual cruelty. At the same time, though, I still enjoy her character, and I think her behavior still makes sense when you think about her history and her general naivety.

And something tells me that Sally will come out the right way. She's gradually seeing the badness that people do, but I think she's smart enough to realize its power and how cruel it can be, as well as how negative it is for the person acting that way.

Mani You're not alone in feeling the show has gone downhill this year. It seems to be a recurring comment on certain blogs. But, personally, I don't think it's any better nor worse than what we've seen before. It's arguably not as subtle, but I don't think it's hit Dexter levels of contrivance just yet. Not at all.

Anonymous That's a problem with having such a large cast, but I'd rather they split the characters off and allow people to take a backseat for a couple of weeks rather than awkwardly stuff them all into each hour, everybody in their own little subplots, like Glee or True Blood, both of which are ridiculously messy in terms of narrative.

Thanks for the insightful comments, guys. It's hugely appreciated.