Continuing my breakdown of Mad Men‘s fifth season by examining the “Best Shot” and “Best Costume.” Go here to read about my pick for “Best Episode” and “Best Performance.”
Best Shot: The Long Dark Walk, “The Phantom”
“The Phantom” might be the weakest episode of Season 5. We all carry expectations into episodes and we’ve been conditioned to bring impossibly high standards to Mad Men finales. In the last two seasons, Weiner&co. have given us major surprises to tide us over — Season 3 ended with the covert construction of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Season 4 ended with the unexpected proposal. The writers of this show are not strangers to literary structure. They understand the importance of a climax and a denouement. Before Season 3 finished, we witnessed the incorporation of Kennedy’s assassination and Season 4 essentially climaxed with Don’s letter to the NY Times and Lucky Strike’s consolidation. We see the same treatment in Season 5. The story reached a fair apex with SCDP nabbing Jaguar and Lane killing himself in the aftermath. So how does one approach an episode like “The Phantom”? For most characters, it’s a coda. Peggy is pretty happy over at CGC, Joan is secure in her partnership, and Lane is dead. “The Phantom” wraps up Pete’s narrative when Trudy suggests that he get an apartment in the city. Really, the story belongs to Don and Megan.
In a sea of contenders for this category, Don’s walk away from Ms. Calvé wins by a mile.
Plenty of harsh words have been hurled at Megan during Season 5. Their partnership seemed to bend most of the viewership out of shape by the end of Season 4, probably because of the masterful fake-out that was Faye Miller. Megan’s beauty and grace suggest that she is precisely the kind of woman Don Draper would marry. However, Season 5 works hard to show us that she is a new type of woman — one that is able to follow her “dreams,” one that is willing to stand up to Don, one that won’t eat orange sherbet. Megan’s ability to be both perfect for Don and difficult for Don is exactly what makes “The Phantom” (and Season 5) functional. If you’re going to hate Megan Draper, hate her because she is constructed as a mate for Don, not because she’s “annoying.” One hope for Season 6 is that Megan becomes more of an individual and less predicated on the needs of Don’s outline.
Anyway, this shot manages to encapsulate Don and Megan’s entire season into one beautiful image. Don walks out into a long dark soundstage after getting Megan her first legitimate acting job. The previous scene shows us Don watching her test reel, falling in love with her all over again and persuading us to believe that he will be with her forever. Don is in love with a girl on a screen. In that scene, he faces her, smiling. In this scene, he walks away, face blank. He doesn’t look back.
The symbolism of this shot is overt, but its execution is haunting. We track along with Don, reminded that we are supposed to be seeing this world through his eyes. Instead of giving us a fixed point where we can watch this walk unfold, we stay with Don and experience the endless abyss with him. The shot goes on and on and on as he walks through the long darkness. We can’t really see his face and it isn’t too important. What’s happening on the stage isn’t very important, either. What is important is the distance. Not only is Matt Weiner showing us how far apart these two characters are becoming, he’s engaging us in the widening process. By rendering the action of both characters neutral, we are left to experience the increasing gap between them.
We also hear the beginning of Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” as Don begins walking away. Weiner said that he’s been waiting to use this song for a long time because it so perfectly describes this world and these characters. In a story that clutches so tightly to human nature, it’s hard to disagree. The song resonates particularly well within the Draper marriage. They’ve spent the entire season reconciling the worlds of Work and Home — they are trying to make them into two different lives.
“The Phantom” lacks subtlety, which is its greatest flaw in comparison to an uncompromising season. The refusal to acknowledge Lane’s death is a remarkably truthful gesture on the page, but doesn’t communicate well on the screen. Adam’s suggestion that “Something’s rotten, but it isn’t your tooth,” is worth a thousand eye-rolls. Pete’s confession to a wiped-out Beth reads as a lazy writers-room concession. In a way, this shot is just as obvious — ripping your attention away from both characters and encouraging a clear conclusion. But it’s an example of what any good art will do well — communicate an emotion or ideology through creative gesture. We see Don saunter out into space, leaving his wife behind. She’s engulfed in the vibrant colors of advertising, of creativity, of Don’s world, but he moves on. Unsurprisingly, that black void quickly cuts to a deep, smoky bar where a woman from a new age asks if Don is alone. It’s a line that, like the rest of the episode, might be too overt. But Mad Men is all about getting what you wish for and wondering what it means. The Draper household is in great shape by the end of Season 5 — right?
Best Costume: Sally Draper, “At the Codfish Ball”
Janie Bryant’s costume work will surely be recognized as a turning point in expectations for period fidelity in media.Her designs have inspired a very obvious shift in contemporary fashion, men now favoring slim suits and thin ties and tight hair, women embracing the loud, expressionistic colors of the 1960′s.
Of all the magnificent costumes this season, Sally Draper’s new dress takes the cake. Janie Bryant’s marriage of clothing and content has no match in contemporary television. Tasked with the challenge of Sally Draper’s burgeoning adolescence, she delivered a dynamite outfit.
“At the Codfish Ball” is an episode that we basically experience through Sally’s perspective. Her interaction with Roger feels as pleasant as it does because we think that he’s talking to us, giving us the tour of this world. Whether you like fish or not, you cringe when she receives her meal. And when the waiter finally comes to ask if she’s done with her Shirley Temple, you nod along with her. Her false adulthood is a universal experience — everyone knows what that feels like. Ultimately, she rejects it, saying that the city is “dirty.” Sally’s embodiment of the confusing netherworld between childhood and adulthood is remarkable. She’s postured as a fractured soul, intelligent but damaged by the immaturity of her parents. The enjoyment we’ve previously received from her character comes from seeing her try to navigate the adult world with a childish conscience. But, in Season 5, her arc is one that places her among the adults.
When the series is finished, I wonder if we won’t look at Sally and see the greatest change of all. Of course, we are watching Kiernan Shipka pass into adolescence as well. Sally’s ultimate destination is too hard to tell. Imagining her as a flower child or a protester seems too simple for Mad Men‘s agenda. Where do you think Sally ends up?
Historically, Mad Men has put a lot of weight on the eleventh episode of each season. Each season has had a highlight in that spot. “Indian Summer,” “The Jet Set,” “The Gypsy and The Hobo,” and “Chinese Wall,” are all memorable episodes and served as a type of crux in setting up the seasonal endgame. Last night, the eleventh installment of the fifth season, called “The Other Woman,” aired.
To say the least, it holds up to them all.
In fact, I would posit that the back half of “The Other Woman” is some of the finest Mad Men to be produced.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.To recapitulate, the episode opens on a torpedoed SCDP board room full of tired copy writers working on the Jaguar campaign that Don promised to win. Elsewhere, Megan is preparing for another audition and Peggy is getting sick of being treated like an animal. That’s basically where the episode begins. Certainly not where it ends.
The primary impetus for “The Other Woman” rests in a dinner conversation between Ken, Pete, and Herb, some slob from Jaguar management. He asks them if he can sleep with Joan. However, he doesn’t want to work for it. He doesn’t want to ask her, either. Sure, she’s married and has a baby, but all women are really just prostitues, right? Pete, being the slime that he is, actually propositions Joan the next morning at the office. She says, “I don’t think you could afford it,” obviously flustered. Who wouldn’t be? Later, a partners meeting occurs where Don leaves in a huff, the only one opposing the idea, and the others basically vote to solicit Joan. It’s all just a lowly state of affairs. Long story short, she eventually accepts after Lane offers her a partnership and 5% of the company.
In a galaxy far far away, Peggy accepts an offer from Teddy Chaugh as Head of Copy and a $19,000 salary. The episode ends with Don being crippled by the news after Peggy basically tells it to him in a thoroughly prepared sales pitch of a speech. The closing image is her smiling face as she gets on the SCDP elevator one last time (?) to the sound of “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks. The final music choice was, as is usually the case, a brilliant mixture of irony and earnestness. It was jarring to say the least, but it left the taste in your mouth that inspires some extra inspection.
Before speaking about the evident thematic stuff, it is right to give unusually high praise to the production/costume design of this episode — especially centered around Joan. Her red hair is mentioned a couple times and is complimented by the blood red robe worn by Herb and his blood red bed. Her emerald necklace is matched by the most ravishing robe anyone has ever seen, wearing it when she walks out to touch Don’s face.
Is this how women get ahead? We need not consider Peggy’s future at the moment. At least further than the fact that she has left SCDP. We see her liberation and her pride as she steps into that elevator to the beat of The Kinks. Weiner&co. have set up two different examples of progress in Peggy and Joan. Where Peggy gets a charming Chaugh and some Kinks, Joan gets Herb. Are we meant to understand one type of progress as more genuine than another?
There was a startling moment at the end of the episode. Just after Peggy gives her speech to Don, he thinks that she is kidding and says, “You know I can’t put a girl on Jaguar,” and “Is this about Joan being a partner?” Those two comments were shocking to hear come out of his mouth because it alerts you to the volatility built into Mad Men. In one episode, everything can change. And, here, it has again. Don’s words to Peggy install more meaning into her choice to leave. CGC seems to represent equality and all that is progressive in the ad world. Of course, I can only assume that things will not play out that way. But in Don’s moment of desperation, he proves to himself why she is leaving. All season, we have been seeing how similar Peggy and Don can be. Again in “The Other Woman,” Peggy is given a moment of spontaneous genius, talking to a perfume company on speaker phone. She even spits a nasty insult at Ken. Both of them knew it was out of place, but we knew it was just Don speaking through her.
The portrayal of women in this episode didn’t stop at Peggy and Joan. Megan’s friend is shown crawling around on the board room table, giving Ginsberg the revelation he needs for the Jaguar tagline. Megan is treated like property at home and like meat at auditions. This is nothing new, but there is no reason for her to feel any type of security when walking into those auditions. She does get one step closer this time, and we see Don react to the prospect of her extended leaving. Don is clearly being impulsive when saying, “Well, forget it.” But there’s something genuine, or genuinely ill, about his desire for her. This season has repeatedly shown that Don is the weak link in his string of failed relationships. He is slipping into an unhealthy, albeit different, type of relationship with Megan. Nothing new on the Draper family front this week, but his mental health is starting to spin out of control.
Don and Peggy’s last interaction recalls “The Suitcase,” where he also kisses her hand in the same office. Jon Hamm and Liz Moss imbue that scene with sandbags of regret and nervousness. It might be Peggy’s liberation, but it is only an element of Don’s ruin. His disappointment in Joan’s prostitution is what led him to speak with Peggy in the first place. It all seems to pile onto him. Does he deserve it? This isn’t like the situation with The Sopranos where Tony deserved pretty much whatever he got. In fact, when Joan touches his face she says, “You’re one of the good ones.” Heartbreaker of a line. So is, “Don’t be a stranger.”
While Don and Peggy’s scene was a behemoth in its own right, it was dutifully matched by the obvious, but still deft, intercuts between Joan’s evening with Herb and Don’s pitch to Jaguar. “What behaviors would we forgive?” he asks in the presentation. The slogan, crafted by Ginsberg, (Don, still a mess at work) is “Finally, something beautiful that you can truly own.”
Indeed, there lies the indisputable theme of the episode, neatly tucked into the Jaguar campaign. Women are moving up the ladder. But at what cost? These women are paying with their personal lives. Peggy is forgoing one entirely. Joan is being solicited. We can all see the ramifications of Megan’s achievement. These ladies have a special bond and it is in the forfeiture of their private existence for any amount of respect in the workplace.
The question then becomes — is it worth it?
[EDIT] For the last few minutes I’ve been imagining Weiner&co. strolling around the Internet this morning, shaking their heads as everyone wigs out about Joan soliciting herself while so many have praised Draper for doing the same thing to exponential ends over the last 5 years.
[FURTHER EDIT] Re-watching this episode only serves as a reminder. Mad Men is the most thoughtful and well engineered show on television. Every line seems (and is) packed with significance.
Bob Dylan turned 71 yesterday. The guy still tours all over the world, croaking out songs new and old. Saying that the man was important would be a ridiculous understatement. Along with a couple other folks, he created the movement we call Rock ‘n’ Roll. In the upcoming paragraphs, I quote from three different sources, all of which are worth understanding. They are — Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Greil Marcus’s The Old, Weird America, and No Direction Home, a documentary produced by Scorcese.
Dylan’s career is sprawling. It’s a stunning demonstration of personal evolution, not only in appearance but also in spirit and sound. He was never primitive, but in a consistent mode of innovation and reinvention. Not only is his career one of the few that can maintain such a puzzling level of revolution, it also parallels the rapid shifts in American culture during his lifetime. Greil Marcus, a Dylan specialist and author of The Old, Weird America, a book detailing many pivotal events in his life, claimed that he had the motivation to “make [himself] up.” (Marcus 19) Dylan’s will to embrace evolution was the key to a deadlocked American musical atmosphere. His activity is best judged through contradictions. Evident in so many public appearances, he would both embrace and denounce the same ideology as it was convenient.
In understanding the most transformative and static moments in Dylan’s career – from Highway 61 Revisited and “Royal Albert Hall” to his “Basement Tapes” – in dialectical terms, it becomes clear that his revolutions were dependent on his internal contradictions and personal contempt for the American variation on personality as cultural iconography.
Dylan’s tendency to seem prophetic and revolutionary is based, in hindsight, on America being primed for his personality. Hegel claims that progress is rooted in contradiction or opposition within a system. Therefore, Dylan’s inversion of public expectation and the previous nature of national iconography allowed him to function as such a potent agent of change within America’s existing cultural foundations. His most infamous evocation of this contradiction is undoubtedly his decision to, as so many say, “go electric,” or even “go commercial.” When he was young, he traded his electric guitar for an acoustic guitar in order to play folk music (Scorcese). In 1964, when he decided he “would be better with a small group,” he chose to switch back to electric instruments, which reportedly had nothing to do with sounding “modernized.” (Scorcese). Dylan began performing electrically in Bringing It All Back Home, a 1965 recording that shows a heavy influence from artists like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. It revealed a relationship with the blues that was deeply rooted in his musical identity. As a teenager in Minnesota, his first recorded song was one that recalled Lead Belly’s heavy hand and wail. However, it is in the release of Highway 61 Revisited that Dylan’s most imposing revolution becomes evident.
It is only fitting, given Dylan’s absorption of the blues, that he names the album after the famed “Blues Highway.” But what does it mean for him to revisit this tradition? The answer is a basic foundation in Dylan’s logic. (Or illogic?) As he revisits certain traditions, Dylan supersedes this classification by never looking for answers to problems. His career has proven that he had no ambition to cure social ills. Indeed, he said outright that “[he] didn’t really have any ambition at all” (Scorcese). While it is important to treat any of his claims as suspect, that precise idea creates the contradictory atmosphere that shapes his progress. In terms of Highway 61 Revisited, his lyrical content moves away from sweeping social narrative to a series of vaguely related non-sequiturs of dubious relevance. In Chronicles, Dylan wrote that he “could tell you anything and you’re going to believe it.” (Dylan 82) His disavowal of any heritage, musical or otherwise, along with a determination to reveal cultural inconsistencies was only another way he epitomized Hegelian progress. His expansive cultural knowledge is clear, but the endless references in “Desolation Row,” “Tombstone Blues,” and the eponymous “Highway 61 Revisited” function as witty rhyming tools rather than prophesy. Dylan features two types of songs on Highway 61 Revisited; the “you” song and the meandering pseudo-narrative. He chose to address an unknown object with the most clarity in three songs, “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and “Queen Jane Approximately.” With the exception of “Desolation Row,” a long comedy that could easily be addressed to anyone, these songs outline the architecture of the album by beginning and ending the two sides of the record.
Dylan’s progress through opposition is most evident in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” the end of the first side. The biting refrain “you know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is,” forms one of the most cynical, but also sincere, moments on the album. In it, “Dylan found an instant catchphrase for the moral, generational, and racial divisions that in this moment found American’s defining themselves not as who they were but as who they were not” (Marcus 8). This chorus revealed the most power by allowing the listener to believe that Dylan knew “what [was] happening,” when he never felt like he knew more than anyone else. Of course, this is the engine that propelled his progress through tumultuous relationships with the public.
Bob Dylan was awarded the “Tom Paine Award for Freedom” in 1963. In accepting it, he gave a speech clearly refusing that he was a topical or political songwriter. During a sequence of largely criticized performances in the UK during the summer of 1966, he told a reporter, “all I sing is protest songs” (Scorcese). Instances like this and his frequent interchanging of acoustic and electric performances reinforce his application of progress through internal contradiction. His affirmation and rejection of dominant trends allowed him unprecedented freedom in manipulating his own material. Imagining him as a performer who chooses a successful operation and sticks to it is impossible. It is Dylan’s public enactment of Hegelian progress that established him as a legendary American figure.
One famous performance, closing his 1966 tour of the UK and wrongly thought to have taken place at Royal Albert Hall, marked a critical point in his career. Even his setlists contained internal contradiction, performing the first half acoustic and alone while the second half was with a loud rock ensemble. Audiences were split. Some were appreciative of his innovation and most were livid. Greil Marcus claims that, “Dylan’s performance now seemed to mean that he had never truly been where he had appeared to be only a year before, reaching for that democratic oasis of the heart – and that if he had never been there, those who had felt themselves there with him had not been there” (Marcus 31). So many fans felt betrayed by a man who once epitomized their ideology. Famously, one concertgoer called him “Judas” just before the final song at the “Royal Albert Hall.” Dylan told his band to play “fucking loud” when barreling into “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song that transformed into an even more seismic indictment during one dramatic moment. This performance, full of spite and contempt, seemed to contain the entirety of Dylan’s mounting frustrations. Still, there is an air of pleasure that he takes in his power. He wrote, “[i]t was impossible now for me to observe anything without being observed.” (Dylan 121) This may be true, but his artistic innovation and reinvention was dependent on an audience. It was as though his contradictions meant nothing unless someone could pick them out and throw them back.
After the tumultuous 1966 tour of the UK, Dylan retired to America, feeling spiritually depleted. He suffered injuries from a motorcycle accident and subsequently took an eight-year hiatus from public performance. Secluded in a Woodstock, NY home, he gathered a band to record a series of extemporaneous sessions titled, “Basement Tapes.” Dylan, throughout his career, mentioned that he only “sang because [he] felt like singing,” he was “determined to play,” and that the people who didn’t understand him were “outside the music community” (Scorcese, Dylan 43). The sessions in Woodstock, a situation dense with potential for artistic license, thus became an opportunity for Dylan to be a musician without anyone watching. Marcus wrote, “[t]he sense of people playing with no accounts to settle – the sense that everything is possible and nothing matters – defines the basement tapes once they get rolling.” (Marcus 75) A lethargic philosophy dominates the “Basement Tapes”. The seclusion warded off any public ghosts but also chased away Dylan’s determination. The “Basement Tapes” are an astonishing demonstration of cultural virtuosity and musicianship that has seeped deep into the bone. However, they are also a collection of recordings that show so little development. When in the public eye, Dylan was able to be the darling of Newport and the begetter of punk within a few months. The recordings that comprise his stay in Woodstock only affirm that Dylan’s personality is one that requires an audience to witness his contradictions and progress. His trajectory is distinctly American and would form a trademark of rock ‘n’ roll. Dylan wrote, “I practiced in public and my whole life was becoming a performance” (Dylan 17). This was a technique he had mastered to the point of, as becomes evident with the “Basement Tapes,” needing the audience so that he could maintain a stable personality – one only comfortable when in performance. This reading also serves to explain his current obsession with touring, even in a crippled vocal state.
Dylan may have considered popular American culture “lame as hell and a big trick,” but it is clear that he needed it to implement his revolutions (Dylan 35). His influence and legacy cannot be overstated. In hindsight, it seems as though America needed Dylan and Dylan needed America. None of his innovations would have carried if he weren’t so charged with internal contradictions and if he didn’t have a public to watch it all happen. This is the wrong way to interpret Dylan’s career. His interest in delivering answers or conclusions seems to be miniscule. His ability to create profound cultural questions through contradicting himself is paramount. In terms of defining a massive, pluralistic society, Dylan is one of the most efficient and prolific practitioners without ever trying to be. About America, and probably the world, he wrote, “[i]t was pointless to think about it. Whatever you were thinking could be dead wrong.” (Dylan 35)
I chose “Girl From the North Country” for the third installment of my short Dylan series. He recorded the song a few times, first on Freewheelin’ and second (with Johnny Cash) on Nashville Skyline. I’ll eventually explain why Dylan is my nominee for the Supreme Genius of the Twentieth Century Award, given only once in a lifetime by me.
The video is some footage I took last week while on a bit of a vacation in my hometown, Warren PA. My dad drove his truck while I sat on a bail of hay in the back. It was a nice night for that sort of thing. Maybe a little cold.
It’s one of Dylan’s more overplayed songs.
I couldn’t resist. It’s heartfelt and has some extraordinary vocal surprises. I tried to strip the song down a bit. Truth is, I had finished recording “Girl From The North Country” and it took about 10 straight takes. Figured it would be good to blow off some steam and do one “Baby Blue”. It popped off on the first take. It’s raw, unrehearsed and unrefined. It’s not how many probably think the song “should go”.
I plan to do a mini Dylan project in order to revisit some of his great music and do so reinvention. This project is, of course, only a warm up for the very ambitious attempt I have lined up to launch at the beginning of June. Stay tuned for details on that. And you should be getting a new video tomorrow. I’m excited about it.
Here it is! Let me know what you think.
In order to quietly finish my course load which consisted mainly of long papers, I’ve spent the last week blissfully secluded in the Allegheny hills of my hometown. Warren is a marvelous place. It’s like a third parent, in a way. It’s one of those towns that raises you, feeds you, scolds you, and rewards you.
My recent obsession with Bob Dylan will be expounded upon at a later date and with more depth. I’ve had a lot of time this week to spend with his music and really living in it. Last night, I took my camera and guitar up to a hilltop at sundown. I left out four verses of the original composition. I believe two to be outdated and one to be bad. The other I just forgot. I think Bob would be forgiving.
It’s a great song and before I take myself in new directions and make myself up, I need to understand the basics. It hardly gets more basic than strings and hollers on a windy hillside.
Those who appreciate a higher resolution can visit the posting on Vimeo by clicking here.
It’s strange that I forgot to wear my glasses during this taping.
Originally published 22 January 2011
A few weeks ago, I was Rickrolled. And not in the witty, ha-ha-you-got-me kind of way. Essentially, the experience ruined my aural mojo for the day.
Then I started thinking about how the Rickroll has come to embody a unique part of modern culture — Informational Noise. This is not the kind of noise that comes out of a radio or rushes in your window. Informational Noise is what happens when, just like listening to 9 songs simultaneously, our brain becomes so cluttered that we can hardly function. How many monks do you think suffer from anxiety?
Along the same lines, the internet has been a hub for constant access and attention since Facebook. We now have the ability to have at least a vague idea of what any person at any time at any place is doing. And depending on how smart they are, we can learn plenty of other things as well. Ever since the Rickroll began, it has been an icon of annoyance, brotherhood (the power of 4chan is staggering), nerdship, and, above all, overexposure. “Never Gonna Give You Up” is not a fabulous song by any means, but humans have proven that they can do much worse. The anger that comes out of a Rickroll is not because we aren’t fans of E Major when sung by young British gentlemen in beige raincoats — it’s because we are so remarkably sick of hearing the song. The first 15 seconds of that song have become Informational Noise, not music.
Since my last Rickroll coincided with my determination to become a baller DJ, I used Mr. Astley’s song to practice some skills and recycle some art. The piece addresses all my ideas about overexposure, annoyance, noise, blah, blah, blah. It is in three movements. The second is a ball of sound created by a randomization of every word in the whole song while the third is basically how I feel about cultural memes in general.
Originally published 17 December 2010
Here‘s a remix of the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus I’ve been working on for a couple days. I wanted it to thrive on fragments, but still retain the original structure. I love Messiah so much and would never tamper with any of the architecture. Turned out as a nice little minimalist nugget to boost your Holiday Nerd spirits.