Tag Archives: Mad Men

End of Series Report: Mad Men

20 May

Mad Men

As a television viewer and fan writing a television blog, I’m more or less obliged to write at least a few words about Mad Men and the Mad Men finale.

I don’t have as strong feelings as I’d like to, but that’s not a bad thing. I liked the finale overall, and I think it remained true to everything Mad Men has been for the past seven seasons, with possibly one exception, which I’ll get to shortly.

Some people have claimed the series ended on a cynical note, others on a hopeful, redemptive note; I would argue it was neither. Everybody, more or less, grew as characters while remained true to themselves, which wasn’t always the best thing, but wasn’t the worst either. Objectively, it was a happy, positive ending for the majority of the central characters, but my first instinct, perhaps a cynical one, admittedly, was merely to see the ending as cyclic. For the most part, these characters were just on an up turn in their life’s stories, a high, followed by an inevitable low, to be followed again by an inevitable high. Some may remind up, and certainly higher than some better off than some of the lows we’ve seen them experience, but my experience through watching Mad Men has taught me that happiness, though it exists, is fleeting, a high to be chased after, but only rarely reached, and even more rarely held on to.

Don ran away. Don freaked out. Don got as far away as he could, to the other side of the country (California, which has stood in as the exact antithesis to New York before), in the absolute middle of nowhere, far away from everything he was buried in, all of his demons. California, where, with Anna Draper, he experienced his most pure human relationship, which he tried to recapture with Anna’s niece Stephanie. Then, just when it seemed that maybe he was too far gone and all hope was lost, he, like classic Don, struck gold, inspiration, and like so many times over the course of the series, he was born anew, grabbing victory from the jaws of defeat, and reinventing himself.  He took what he knew to have always been true, his gift for insight into the human soul, and packaged it for a different time. In these final couple of episodes, it seemed like Don had finally drifted too far, maybe to a place he couldn’t come back from, but then with that final smile, and the allusion to the famous Coke “Hilltop” ad, there’s an implication that Don is going to be just fine.

I don’t think Don is ever going to be a great husband or a great father. Those skills are probably just not in him and it’s hard to imagine someone who has that much trouble staying in place changing at this point. But as a peerless ad man his days are not yet numbered.

Joan is many things, but one of her defining traits is that she is a true professional. She takes her responsibilities extremely seriously and finds a way to get the jobs, difficult as they may be, done, In the chaotic culture of Sterling Cooper’s various incarnations, Joan never joins in, and does not care to put up with the hijinks and drinking that envelop most of the firm. Joan puts in her time and hard work and while she understands the unfair world she’s in, she understandably expects to be recognized for her efforts. Unfortunately, at the time, Joan is unable to find a man who respects her and is willing to treat her professional ambitions seriously. Men expect her to be the housewife. And while they may even respect her abilities, once they’re together, the men expect to be the breadwinner, and for Joan to want and to enjoy having nothing to do but sip piña coladas and look pretty. The only man who took her work life seriously was Bob Benson, who was gay and wanted to marry her for his own professional advanced. Joan ended the series entirely in control of her own life, running a new and seemingly successful business, but again, another man abandoned her due to her ambitions.

Pete’s ending is part hopeful and part sad, and I’ve changed my mind back and forth on which is more prominent. Pete came a long way over the course of the show; it’s easy to forget how he was the unquestioned villain over the first few seasons, and with good reason. He came far enough that I was actually rooting for him occasionally in the final seasons, as one of the few, along with Joan, who cared that things got done, and wouldn’t stand for the tomfoolery always going on around him. Pete looks like he’s learned some lessons, wanting to come back to his wife, taking a new job away from the temptations of New York City, talking his brother into not cheating. At the same, we know this pattern, and we know these people. How long until Pete cheats and return to his old ways? And, does Trudy even care if he does, as long as he’s discreet? Things change, things stay the same.

Pete for so long was the anti-Don; frustratingly watching as Don got away with everything he couldn’t. Don cheated for years without consequences; Pete tried it and quickly got caught. Don did half the work and skated on charm and charisma, Pete did twice as much and got hated and laughed at. And yet, Pete’s inability to get away with what Don did could have served him well in the end. When Don’s lies at home finally caught up with him, his marriage was done for good. The fact that Pete was caught and thrown out faster may have been what allowed to him and Trudy to reconcile by the end of the series. Don’s charisma and charm got him far, but allowed him to drift. Pete stayed on point, and though he was as professional at the end as he always was at the beginning, it was now behavior that was rewarded instead of punished in the new company and the new decade. Pete’s way paid off just as well as Don’s in the end if not more so.

Roger turned over somewhat of a new leaf, hitting it off romantically with someone his own age, which was a promising sign. That said, he’s still a cad, and his new paramour seems pretty mercurial herself, so I’m not particularly confident that this marriage will turn out any better than the last couple. Roger will make it through, with a wink, and a joke, and he’ll move on. For better or worse, he’s the same person he was on day one.

Betty was always smarter and more deft than the show, and because of that, often the viewers gave her credit for in the early seasons, and the last season actually gave her a chance to show that.

Putting up with Don and his incessant cheating and patronizing attitude was a huge burden, and because Don was the protagonist and Mad Men often seemed to come from his point of view, Betty, who certainly had her flaws, was even more easily seen in a negative light. After getting out from under Don’s shadow though, Betty was able to flower more as an individual and as a character. The inner fortitude Betty showed displayed after learning her diagnosis was one of the saddest, strongest, and most poignant notes in the entire series and it’s unfortunate that her untimely demise was her ultimate opportunity to show off her strengths.

Last of what I’m arbitrarily calling the Big Six major characters who really make it through the entire run (Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan, Pete, and Betty), there’s Peggy. Peggy and Stan’s romance felt out of place in a way that no other storyline in the finale did. It’s not simply the pairing of Peggy and Stan; they’ve been close for a long time, and while I’m still not sure romance was the right play between the two of them, it definitely felt plausible based on what we knew about their relationship. The way it unfolded though, felt almost like something out of a romantic comedy, as it dawned on Peggy, slowly, after Stan confessed his love that she felt the same way. It’s an unambiguously happy result, and I like Peggy and Stan, and sure, I’m happy for them. But it tonally felt off. The “I hate you, I love you” phone banter was more Nora Ephron than Mad Men.

What did make sense was Peggy considering, but ultimately decide to stay within the confines of McCann. The recruiter she spoke with a few episodes earlier told her McCann was the best possibly place for her to hone her talents and resume, and she knows her goals and that this is the best way to reach them.

The Mad Men characters have come a long way over the course of seven seasons in real life and a decade within the show. They’ve dug deeply, discovered truths about themselves, and faced and overcome difficult obstacles. They change and learn but ultimately remain the same. That sounds like a sad lesson, but I don’t mean it that way, People stray true to the core of who they are, and that is just as often a positive as a negative.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2014 Edition: 7-4

6 Apr

Second to last entry. We’re getting close to the top. One cartoon, one miniseries, and two familiar fixtures in the top 10 of these lists. Let’s do it.

Intro here and 43-40 here and 39-36 here and 35-32 here and 31-28 here and 27-24 here and 23-20 here and 19-16 here and one-offs/shows ineligible for the list here and 15-12 here and 11-8 here.

7. The Honourable Woman – 2013: Not Eligible

The Honourable Woman

If it’s a little hard to explain how a slow, deliberately paced character sketch like Olive Kitteridge hooks viewers, it’s incredibly easy to explain how British miniseries The Honourable Woman gets viewers on board. It’s a taut, suspenseful British spy thriller in a classic John le Carre vein. The Honourable Woman follows the ex-Israeli Jewish British brother and sister executives running a company that used to make weapons but now is attempting to install infrastructure in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Buried within their personal histories, their company’s history, and espionage agencies in the UK, US, Israel, and Palestine, are mounds of secrets and lies. Each episode slowly pulls off another layer of the onion that is the story, getting closer and closer to the truth. Every major character holds the truth close to the vest and knows more than some people but less than others. Moreover, The Hounrable Women, perhaps because of its miniseries format, has that very rare attribute: the truly satisfying ending. That is so hard to pull off but so beneficial, leaving a wonderful taste in my mouth as I think about the show months after watching.

6. Game of Thrones – 2013: 2

Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones is the best epic on TV, spanning dozens of characters and several far-flung locations. The sheer scope of the show in an incredible achievement that no mega-budget series can match, and the show constantly manages to smartly marry very human ideas with blockbuster spectacle. The series impressively avoids getting out of hand despite its breadth, cross-cutting and presenting coherent narratives within episodes in interesting ways, and honing themes about leadership, government, and power, among many others. While some of the fight scenes seem a tad long for a show that needs to squeeze hundreds and hundreds of pages into a ten episode season, they are never anything less than brilliantly directed and choreographed, the biggest this season being the battle at the wall. Admittedly, I’m biased by having read the books, and while I try to be self-aware of that bias, it seeps into my opinions on the show, sometimes favorably, and sometimes less so. Every episode a couple of changes bother me, and most I can put aside due to time constraints or other tv limitations, but occasionally there’s a glaring mess up. This season, the biggest was the Jaime – Cersei rape scene, which came off very differently than in the book, and the biggest problem may have been that the creators didn’t realize that what they put on screen was clearly rape. Still, there’s no show that feels like week-to-week event viewing more than Game of Thrones, no show that makes you look forward to every Sunday as if anything could happen.

5. Rick and Morty – 2013: Not Eligible

Rick and Morty

Rick and Morty debuted in 2013, but aired only three episodes. The out-of-nowhere-jump-to-the-top-ten pick of this year (the honorary Eagleheart slot), Rick and Morty is the story of the travels through time and space of Rick, a slightly behind-the-eight-ball teen and Morty, his alcoholic mad scientist grandfather. The characters are bizarro riffs on Doc and Marty from Back to the Future and the plots can get both insanely complicated and hysterically funny. Rick and Morty is hilarious but also engrossing science-fiction, rolling through tropes and homages both generic and specific, and mind-fuckingly confusing plots which reward repeated viewing and stand up as entertaining outside of the laughs. Multiple episodes heavily involve recursion, and the penultimate Close Rick-Counters of the Rick Kind posits an infinite number of dimensions with an infinite number of Ricks and Mortys. Rixty Minutes, on the other hand, featuring a series of interdimensional television programs was only funny, rather than plotty, but worked incredibly well anyway. Rick and Morty, for a series this off the wall, had a surprisingly high hit rate, and I can’t wait for it to come back.

4. Mad Men – 2013: 7

Mad Men

Mad Men has never had a bad season, but season 6 may have been its weakest. No more though, as the first half of season 7 sees the show back in top form, full of classic moments and episodes, that continue to pad the numbers on an already established inner circle hall of fame case. Only the annals of all-time lists await Mad Men. The season is much more dynamic than the prior season, which felt limited by its dreary Don-Sylvia romance and the didn’t-quite-deliver-on-the-amount-of-attention-paid-to-him Bob Benson. Pete, Peggy, and Don, were all in different places this year, but bonded for the Burger Chef account, which drove much of the middle of the season, with Peggy stepping in as troubled Don’s superior who, because he was still a partner, had only limited power over him, making their already complex relationship increasingly awkward. Roger gets his mojo back (remember when we all thought he was on the brink of a possible suicide attempt?) by assembling a deal to sell SC&P to McCann, overriding Jim Cutler, who eventually joins the unanimous vote to take the deal, because, well, it’s a lot of money. Don’s marriage with Meghan disintegrated, which had seemed inevitable for some time, after both made one more effort to keep something together that clearly wasn’t working any longer. The season went out in style, with an inspired tribute to the great Bert Cooper, which I really wanted to say should have felt totally out of place, but I can’t.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2013 Edition: 8-5

10 Feb

Three dramas and an 11 minute comedy, one of the dramas a debut, and the other two a couple of veterans of the top of these rankings. 8-5 coming up.

8. The Americans

They're really Soviet!

The incredibly strong freshman drama crop of spring 2013 strikes again on this list. The Americans was a revelation, a show that was a must watch almost right out of the gate. The way Hannibal belied my tiredness of cop-genius shows, The Americans belied my tiredness of shows set in the past. Two deep cover Soviet spies conduct missions while living a life as an ordinary family with kids who know nothing of who their parents really are. Their neighbor is an FBI agent working to expose Soviet deep cover spies with no idea that a pair of spies live next door. There’s so many layers of subterfuge, both literally and figuratively; it almost seems like it could be too much and too on the nose, but it works. There are great and sometimes funny action spy set pieces which bring you in but underneath it’s a show about identity and relationships and truth and lies and the wide ground between. Get on the bandwagon now.

7. Mad Men

Don Draper, Rainy Day

This was probably the weakest season for Mad Men, at least in a while, but that being said, it’s still Mad Men, and it’s still pretty great. The weakness was largely the fault of Don’s plotlines, which felt repetitive, treading ground we’ve tread before, but slightly worse, and Matt Weiner seemed hell-bent on sending him lower than he had ever been before, which would be fine if it wasn’t simply not particularly gripping. Luckily, everyone else’s plots were there to pick us up. Peggy had a fantastic season, Betty actually became a real, interesting character, rather than a caricature, and Sally continued to develop, and had a couple of really powerful moments to shine in the second half of the sesaon. Likewise Roger and Pete, who I felt bad for for the fist time in the series, which is an impressive achievement. New characters Ted and Jim were welcome additions. An absolutely surreal episode broke up the season, and while I’m not sure how I feel about it overall it contained a Ken Cosgrove tap dance which made the episode worthwhile in and of itself. I say it again. Even non-vintage Mad Men is very excellent TV.

6. Eagleheart

Marhsal Chris Monsanto

The weirdest and almost certainly least watched show on my list, Eagleheart is a show I’ve desperately tried to convince every single person I run into to watch. Like Venture Bros., it’s absolutely not for everyone, but anyone who has any taste for absurdist humor should get on board immediately. Eagleheart is far an away the most absurd non-animated show on TV, making something like Childrens Hospital seem like The Wire in terms of reality in comparison. Chris Elliott plays US Marshal Chris Monsanto, and well, it’s just nuts, trying to attempt to explain any of the best episodes might take more than the 11 minutes the episodes take to watch. The best Eagleheart episodes change plots three or four times per episode. While normally Eagleheart episodes are disconnected, the third season was loosely strung together in an arc called Paradise Rising. The first two seasons were great, but this may be the best yet. My favorite episode Spatz, is mind-bogglingly ridiculous and equally wonderful and hilarious.

5. Justified

Raylan Givens

If it’s not already obvious, we’re getting to the crème de la crème here. Justified warmed up in its first season, hit some serious heights in its second, suffered a small comedown with its third season and followed that with an absolutely exemplary fourth season. Everything that makes Justfied work was present in the season; Timothy Olyphant’s suburb portrayal of Marshal Raylan Givens, a character that could easily become an anti-hero caricature if not played and written exactly right. The season features fantastic Elmore Leonard-inspired settings and crackling dialogue; Justified is a funny show, and a hit parade of idiot criminals and witty retorts by the more competent among them keep it crackling. The season long plot was compelling and fascinating and guest stars were spot on, including dramatic turns for comedians, which Justified does better than anyone, including Patton Oswalt and Mike O’Malley and stellar work from underrated character actor Jim Beaver. That fourth season for me elevated Justified to a near-certain TV hall of famer in my mind.

TV’s Golden Age Not Necessarily Over Just Yet

8 Nov

The Four PIllars

Andy Greenwald wrote an article on Grantland which probably wasn’t intended to be trolling, but it came off that way to me, and I felt the need to refute it, particularly because people constantly make arguments like this, if not as specific as this in particular. His argument in short is that television’s “Golden Age” is over. I’m very skeptical of the concept of a “Golden Ages” in general; it reeks of nostalgia for times that weren’t necessarily any better or worse than any other, but seem that way in memory, but I’ll follow along. I willing to accept in principle that certain eras aren’t necessarily as good as others, and that all seasons of television are not equal. However, I think both that his argument in broad strokes is wrong and that the claims he makes to get there are wrong a swell. I’ll break it down in further depth below, but quickly, the biggest issue is that his judgment of the entire previous golden era is particularly rendered less valuable because he’s only judging by using the shows at the very top. He then goes out to knock the “medium-level” shows he calls them in this era, without naming the examples of medium level shows that made the Golden Age great.

He uses what I like to call, or will probably start calling after this, the Four Pillars of TV Greatness (TM). These four are in order of airing: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad. They’re four undeniable great shows, and if you asked for the greatest dramas of all time, there’s a better than even chance they’d finish as the top four of any poll of enough critics or knowledgeable TV viewers. He talks about a Golden Age, but to be clear, he’s talking about these four shows.  He speaks as if he means to cover a greater swath, as if those four just provided cover and inspiration for a flourishing run of good-but-not-as-good shows beneath their wings, but not a single other show is named after the those four, and while there are others that could easily qualify (Deadwood and Six Feet Under, at the least), I think it’s important to mention that these are the ONLY FOUR he mentions to represent what he describes as the Golden Age.

Greenwald then goes off and reels off several current shows that don’t meet his standard for Golden Age inclusion, whether because they’re simply not as good (Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, and Homeland, and outside of Homeland’s legitimately brilliant world-class first season, you’ll get no argument there from me) or much more strangely because they are great but they’re genre show, in the case of Game of Thrones (and to a lesser extent Orphan Black), which somehow don’t qualify as Golden Age-worthy because they contribute to other negative trends in television, regardless of their own quality.

The show he most associates with this gilded age of television is The Walking Dead, which he backhandedly notes that even though he’s not a fan, he acknowledges it’s the most important and influential show of the past five years. Without speaking on the quality of the show, on which I stand somewhere in the middle, I disagree strongly with his assertion. While that same statement may yet be true in five years, it really isn’t; Walking Dead’s influence is only beginning to be felt as we still wade our way out of the Age of the Antihero, which still, though waning, dominates television (three of the Four Pillars are antihero shows – The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, along with Boardwalk Empire, Justified, House of Cards, Sons of Anarchy, and plenty of lesser fare). Honestly, whether true or not, this is really off-topic from the central argument so we’ll move back in that direction.

Greenwald goes on to talk about how networks aren’t taking chances anymore, and that’s surely true, but that was also very much true five or ten years ago. None of the Four Pillars were network shows. Four shows got through the cracks and struck gold. He claims it’s systematic failure that as many quality shows aren’t coming through the pipeline, but I’d claim it’s just odds and not enough time.

Let’s not forget as well that one of the Four Pillars is still on, with two seasons to go, and one ended a mere month and a half ago. Game of Thrones is an admittedly great show, and I’m not sure why it’s a knock that it’s a genre show or that it’s based on source material, especially just because in influences other less good shows (first, something every new and interesting show does, second – is it a knock on Pearl Jam that so many lousy bands were influenced by it?). Shows come in waves, and influence of the biggest and best play a large part, for better or worse. Mad Men was very much influenced by The Sopranos. Greenwald complains about a prestige mad libs, and he’s by no means incorrect, but that’s also exactly what Mad Men was. You can give Mad Men credit for inventing that formula, but as mentioned, it stole plenty from The Sopranos.

Logical complaints aside, I’d argue that he’s not looking closely enough to find the good stuff. Last Spring alone saw the debut of four new dramas, each with the potential to be great, and although the odds are against any of them becoming an all-time great, that’s true for any show, and promise is really all you can ask for.

Rectify, the best, airs on Sundance channel, and stands in particular contradiction to Greenwald’s claims as it doesn’t fit into any of the boxes Greenwald is complaining about. Rectify is about a man exonerated from death row after twenty years imprisoned back into the small Georgia town in which he grew up. It’s a small show in the way Game of Thrones and Walking Dead are big, and it’s exceptionally, moving, human, beautiful and heartbreaking in different degrees.

The Americans admittedly kind of fits Greenwald’s prestige formula, but it transcends it, and even Greenwald acknowledging The Americans as the best new series of last year.

Orphan Black, Greenwald already acknowledged as well as an excellent show, and, though it’s a genre show, it certainly doesn’t fit into either the prestige or the bigger is better formula.

Hannibal, admittedly, it less new and interesting than the other three, and probably will end up as good and not great, but it’s especially notable for its gorgeous cinematography and its compelling psychological battling between protagonists Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter which elevate a cop show above the norm.

Remember, if we’re to match his Golden Age, we only need four. My point is not that these four shows are great and replacements for the Four Pillars, but that if even one of them can become great, than really all we need is one new great show each year. I could name lots of good but flawed shows a la Boardwalk Empire from the Golden Age – Lost, Alias, The West Wing, True Blood, 24, and more but it doesn’t matter, because there were some great ones. Now, some people may like some of the good ones better than others, but that’s always the case. Additionally, people will and have always copied successful shows. Lost spawned a thousand attempts at supernatural mystery shows, not one of which has really become successful (Heroes was the closest) and The Sopranos has directly led to Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and less directly many others.

There’s no reason to believe that the Golden Age is over because there are a lot of new bad and new mediocre shows. There are always a lot of new bad and new mediocre shows. All there have to be is a couple great ones. There are, and there’s no systematic reason that a few more won’t appear in the coming years.

Who had the most affairs? Tony Soprano vs. Don Draper

10 Jul

Tony's hungry

In the light of The Sopranos’ star James Gandolfini’s unfortunate recent passing, and the end of Mad Men’s sixth and penultimate season, there’s no better time to answer the most pressing question concerning those two shows.  Who cheated on his wife with more women, Tony Soprano or Don Draper?  To find out we’ll dive through the respective sordid pasts of these two legendary television philanderers, going back and forth one-fo-one chronologically between the shows.  Because the Sopranos started first, we’ll start with Tony.  Apologies if I’ve missed any; I did my best to scour through the episodes of both shows for every affair, no matter how brief, but these two characters didn’t make it easy.

Tony:

Irina Peltsin – One of the two longest extramarital relationships Tony is involved in over the course of the series, Irina is Tony’s comare from the pilot until the second to last episode of the second season when he attempts to break up with her, thinking she deserves to have a real life.  She doesn’t take it well, breaking down and trying to kill herself, which will be the start of somewhat of a tradition for Tony’s mistresses.  Tony sends Silvio over to her place to give her a nice $75,000 severance package and urge her to move on.

Don:

Midge Daniels – Like Tony, Don Draper is cheating on his wife from the get go.  In the first episode we meet the bohemian artist Midge who seems fittingly more reminiscent of the late ‘50s than the ‘60s.  Seemingly opposites, they  nevertheless have a fairly good run, as one of Don’s longer extramarital affairs, lasting until the eight episode of the first season, when Don unsuccessfully tries to get her to go to Paris with him. Things don’t go well after that for Midge who shows up in a later season as a drug addict.

Tony:

Connie Desapio – Desapio is a receptionist at Barone Construction, a Soprano family operation which Tony spends some time at, based on legal advice to appear like he’s actually doing the job he claims to have.  They have sex to pass the time in season two, episode 11, “House Arrest” until Tony goes back to Satriale’s eventually out of boredom.

Department Store Heiress

Don:

Rachel Menken – Rachel, who initially hires the firm to create interest for her department store, was a very different kind of woman from Midge.  She meets done in the series’ first episode as a client, and initiaully rebuffs Don’s advances, upon finding out that he’s married.  They finally begin the affair in the tenth episode of the first season.  She puts the kibosh on the affair in the 12th episode of the first season, when, after Don proposes running away to LA together, she realizes that he just wants to run away, but not necessarily with her.

Globe Motors Saleswoman

Tony:

Gloria Trillo – Trillo is a car salesman who Tony meets in Dr. Melfi’s office in season three’s “He is Risen.”  The most mentally unstable of Tony’s affairs, which is a dubious honor, she tries to provoke Tony into violent reactions.  Tony breaks up with her because of this, and Patsy Parisi threatens her, telling her to never come near Tony or his family again.  Later she hangs herself.

Don:

Bobbie Barrett – Barrett, introduced in season two’s “The Benefactor,” is married to and manages insult comic Jimmy Barrett, who Sterling Cooper recruits to appear in ads for Utz potato chips.  Barrett is the only woman Don sleeps with that we know is married, and she affirmatively seduces Don, who makes a brief attempt to turn her down.  The affair hits an awkward moment when Don and Bobbie are caught in a car accident together, but ends finally when Don finds out Bobbie has been gossiping about him behind his back.

Valentina

Tony:

Valentina La Paz – La Paz is the other long-time Tony Soprano comare.  She’s dating Ralph Cifaretto at the time that Tony and her get together after having lunch at Hesh’s house in season four episode “Mergers and Acquisitions.”  Tony breaks up with Valentina towards the end of season five when he arranges to move back in with Carmela, after she suffers a serious burn injury.  She, continuing a pattern, threatens to kill herself when he leaves.

Don:

Joy – In season two, episode 11, “The Jet Set”, Don takes a trip out to Los Angeles, where he meets a young woman, Joy, near the pool at his hotel. They attend a surreal dinner party and afterwards have sex.  Later, she and her friends and her dad move to the Bahamas, while Don returns to reality in New York.

Tony:

Svetlana Kirilenko – Tony and Kirilenko, earlier comare Irina’s cousin and Junior’s nurse, have sex just once, as far as we know, in season four episode “The Strong, Silent Type.”  She is far and away the most put together woman Tony cheats with on the show and she breaks off their relationship, though Irina later spills the beans to Carmela, helping to lead to Tony and Carmela’s separation.

Don:

Shelly – In the first episode of season three, “Out of Town,” Don meets a stewardess named Shelly on a flight to Baltimore.  She invites him and Sal to dinner at the hotel at which they’re all staying and after their meal, one thing leads to another.

Tony:

Sonya Aragon – An exotic dancer Chris used to hang out with, Tony meets up with her in Las Vegas after Chris’s death in season six episode “Kennedy and Heidi.”  They have sex, smoke weed, and take peyote.

Suzanne

Don:

Suzanne Farrell – Suzanne and Don first meet during a parent teacher conference in the second episode of season three while she’s Sally’s teacher.  They meet several times before the relationship becomes romantic.  She’s a bit of a hippy, and has a troubled brother who she cares for deeply.  She falls for him and wants to go out together in public, something Don almost grants while Betty is out of town.  The affair ends when Betty returns early and inquires about Don’s past which causes Don to call Suzanne to let her know it’s over.

Sylvia Rosen

Don:

Sylvia Rosen  – It seemed like Don had finally become faithful with Megan, but his faith waned at the start of the most recent sixth season when it turns out he’s been having an affair with neighbor Sylvia.  This affair was doubly nefarious because Don seemed to actually like Sylvia’s husband Arnold, and there aren’t very many people in Mad Men that Don likes.  The affair came to a temporary end when Don was simply too cruel and Sylvia decides it’s over, but is rekindled when Don helps get Sylvia’s son out of serving in Vietnam.

Don:

Betty Francis – Yes, I almost forgot this but Don cheats on his second wife with his first wife.

Don

Don takes a tight 8-6 victory, but with all the other people Don and Tony must have slept with before the shows started, who can possibly say what the actual score might be.

A couple of quick notes on women who were excluded:

This is a comparison of women Don cheated with, so in season four, when he was divorced, all his affairs were on the up and up.  Still for completion’s sake, here’s a quick rundown of all the women he slept with in season four.  His most ongoing relationship was with the age appropriate Faye Miller, a ratings analyst who he breaks up with at the end of the season when he instead chooses to be with Megan, who he proposes to soon after.  In between, he sleeps with a call girl Candace, in the first episode of the fourth season, a secretary named Allison whose heart he breaks in the second episode, a waitress named Doris in the sixth episode as well another unnamed woman, and Roger’s wife’s Jane’s friend Bethany in the eighth episode.

Tony was separated from Carmela for most of the fifth season of The Sopranos, so I chose not to count any sleeping around during the separation.  In the 11th episode of the fifth season, “The Test Dream,” he hires an escort while he’s staying at the Plaza, and they presumably sleep together. In the first episode of season four, Tony and his gang party with a bunch of Icelandic stewardesses but there’s no clear evidence indicating Tony necessarily slept with any of them.  Tony almost has an affair with real estate agent Juliana Skiff, but they never consummate it as Tony decides to remain faithful to Carmela, and Skiff and Chris take up together instead.

End of Season Report – Mad Men, Season 6

28 Jun

Don looking animated

Two statements to start off this report on the just finished sixth season of Mad Men: First, this was probably the weakest season of Mad Men yet. Second, even at its weakest, Mad Men is more interesting and provides more food for thought than almost any other show on television.

There’s one major reason for this season’s overall weakness: Don Draper. I’ve further broken down the problems with Don into two related issues. First, it too often feels like we’re revisiting old ground with Don Draper. This is never more clear than through the flashbacks we see this season to his childhood. These flashbacks are both way too on the nose regarding how Don sees woman, especially in the context in which they’re shown, and they don’t really reveal insight that we don’t already know. Don seems to be repeating behavior and storylines from the past several times during the season, falling back into the same cheating patterns, being needlessly mean to Peggy, and just making everybody’s life difficult in ways similar to what he’s done before.

Secondly, Don’s the worst. Don was never a great guy, and from the first episode in which we’re introduced to him, he’s stepping out on his wife, a pattern he repeats through two marriages. Still, while Don was no hero, there was still an essential humanity deep down that we could relate to and understand, even if not feel sorry for or sympathize with. Even when he was wrong, which was often, he felt, and he tried, or at least tried to try, and at work he was often the good guy even when he wasn’t at home.

None of these are any longer the case. It’s as if Matt Weiner set out this season with the goal of destroying every shred of humanity within Don and turning him into a full fledged monster, which is what Peggy calls him late in the season when he attempts to both sabotage a meeting for Ted and take credit away from Peggy in one fell swoop. He not only cheats on his new wife, but he’s also incredibly degrading to the woman he cheats with. Oh, and it happens, to add insult to injury, that she’s his neighbor, and her husband is one of the only men Don seems to genuinely like in the entirety of Mad Men. He makes constant trouble for the firm after the merger, seemingly going out of his way to frustrate Ted and belittle Peggy. The coup de grace may have been when his daughter catches him in flagrante with the neighbor, destroying what respect she had left for her dad.

There’s even more emphasis on what a drunk Don has become this season than in previous years. While he’s always been a serious drinker evolving into a borderline alcoholic, he’s clearly a full-fledged alcoholic here and sober in very few scenes over the course of the season ( (maybe more than borderline, I’m no expert at the diagnosis, but there’s never been as much emphasis on the destructive power of drink to his life). In the final episode, he seems to at least care about trying to give up booze, throwing out his bottles and not drinking at work, and even though he’s suspended by his partners, this could be the first step in a powerful redemption story. I’m not sure it’s a redemption story I want to see though. Don’s come so far, and we’ve come so far with him that I’m not sure I want to see Don redeemed at this point. Maybe I’m not giving enough credit to the plight of alcoholism, a very serious disease, and I apologize if I’m not, but his actions have seemed deplorable whether or not he was drinking. It would be great if he cleaned himself up for his character within the show, but I’m not convinced he’ll ever be a person I want to root for again.

If anyone came out worse than Don this season, it was Pete. Pete, who may have gotten the second most screen time this year after Don, has always been the anti-Don in a way. Don breaks all the rules, but, until this season, it didn’t matter, because Don always gets the breaks. He screws up big time, but makes up for it somehow by pulling a big pitch out of his ass or seducing the next woman to come along with sweet talk after he fails the previous one. Don finally does get his comeuppance here, but while it’s hard to feel sympathy for him, it’s hard to not feel at least somewhat sympathetic for Pete. Pete was the primary antagonist in the show’s early seasons but now that everything goes wrong for him anyway, it’s hard to continue to root against him. He wants to get away merely with part of what Don does effortlessly, but it never works. While Don gets away with cheating for years, Pete’s caught out in his first foray in his new apartment in the city. He think he solves an awkward situation in which he catches his father-in-law in a whorehouse, but the joke’s on him when his father-and-law would rather spill the beans on Pete’s infidelity, even if he knows that the same damning evidence will be visited on him. There was no greater physical symbolism for Pete’s stumbles than his quite literal stumble down the stairs midway through the season. It’s not that Pete doesn’t deserve a lot of what he’s getting, but it’s hard to feel like even he deserves all this misfortune in such a short period of time.

Mad Men struggled to reckon with the almost mythic historical importance of 1968, a year with multiple assassinations, infamous riots, and the election of Nixon, which symbolically ended the decade in many ways. There were occasionally powerful historical scenes, including after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, but too often I thought the efforts to have the characters react to the specific events of the time fell flat. This, as has been noted in many blogs and media outlets, has been particularly true in regards to race. My biggest problem isn’t Mad Men’s failure to deal adequately with the race-related issues that pervaded the ‘60s, although the show certainly has been largely unsuccessful. My problem is that they make a half-assed effort. I’d rather the show largely ignore race than attempt to put a couple of toes in the water only to take them right back out when the water’s too cold. Mad Men introduced a black character Dawn, only to basically never use her.

Even for its faults, there’s plenty to enjoy in the new season. Peggy, Don’s one time protégé, may be well on her way to surpassing the master, and her rise is cataloged wonderfully, even with the surreal stabbing of her now ex-boyfriend Abe. Joan and Roger shine in every scene they get; one only wishes they could get more screen time. Joan’s turning what she thought was a date into a recruitment dinner with a potential client was a great step in her evolution as a businesswoman.

There were a handful of new characters this season. The shady Bob Benson, who generated more conspiracy theories than any other new Mad Men character, turned out so far to be a doppelganger of Don’s; a man without a past who has invented a future for himself. He’s helped out several people as part of his eager beaver please anyone he meets routine, but we’ve started to see a dark side when he sets up Pete for failure at Chevy.

Ted existed before this season but never as this meaty a character, and his contrast and competition with Don was one of the most enjoyable plots of the season. Ted has his weaknesses, which are on clear display in the last episode when he jerks Peggy around romantically. Still, the inclusion of Ted makes us realize just how unusual, and not in a good way, Don is. Being a creative isn’t an excuse for his treatment of his employees and his management strategy. Also, the scene of Ted flying Don in his tiny plane was a season-long highlight. Ted’s longtime partner Jim Cutler was a welcome minor character as well this season, adding notes of humor to a show that can easily be dragged down by Don’s (and Pete’s) unrelenting self-seriousness.

I look forward to a complete rewatch at some point where I can see if the material comes together better in a shorter period of time. As I said before, it’s still Mad Men. There’s so much to chew on, and the fact that there is, even if it doesn’t always work, makes Mad Men clear appointment viewing. Still, I hope the next and last season pulls together a little bit better.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2012 edition: 3-1

25 Feb

We’re finally here at the end the ranking of shows I watched in 2012 – to see what qualifies, check out the intro here – 3, 2, and 1 are below.

3.  Game of Thrones

The seven houses

I kind of knew what Game of Thrones was before the show aired, but only the vaguest basics.  My friend had been touting it for years, but I kept putting it off and putting it off, and though I was excited for the show, I didn’t get around to reading the books before the show aired.  By the seventh episode, I was so obsessed with the show that I started the first book and finished them all that summer.  I would have read five more books pretty quickly if only they were available.  This is of course the TV show, and not the books, but with Game of Thrones, they’re somewhat intertwined; George R.R. Martin is involved with the show, writing an episode each year, and because the story is so complex, and is unfinished, there’s a limit to the amount the show can deviate from the books, as opposed to shows like The Walking Dead or Dexter.  While I haven’t agreed with all the changes from the books, some have been very smart, including the added screen time for Tywin Lannister, an important character in the book who does most of his work outside the main storylines, and particularly his pairing with Arya Stark.  The show, like the book, is a thought-provoking fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy. Instead of a stark (no pun intended) Lord of the Rings-like contrast of good versus evil, Game of Thrones is about shades of gray.  Who the heroes and antagonists are isn’t always clear, and with the exception of a couple of truly psychopathic characters, the antagonists also have believable motivations.  While at first I was disappointed by the fact that dragons actually existed in the world of Game of Thrones, I’ve now come to terms with it and have begun to appreciate George R.R. Martin’s very selective use of magic and traditional fantasy elements.  Rather than water down the book by having magic appear everywhere, its uses are uncommon and important.  Each episode is chock full of ruminations on the nature of power and justice and the right to rule, all tied up with well-crafted characters and psychological intrigue.  Characters are constantly playing each other, important characters die, and when big moments come they seem both surprising but not out of nowhere at the same time.  All of these factors make for extremely gripping television; I haven’t found someone yet who started Game of Thrones and didn’t really like it.

2.  Mad Men

Mad Men

For some reason, between the third and the fourth season of Mad Men, I had convinced myself that Mad Men was solid enough but that maybe it wasn’t so great.  Then, the fourth season came out, and I realized the show was fantastic and I was crazy to have ever thought that.  I did not make that mistake again in the long wait between the fourth and fifth seasons, and was rewarded with another excellent set of episodes.  I haven’t seen the other seasons again since finishing, but the fifth season might have been the best ever.  There was no one obvious best episode of the season like there was with the fourth season’s “The Suitcase” but that spoke to the strength of the season as there were several stand outs, including “Far Away Places,” “The Other Woman,” and “Commissions and Fees.”  Roger on LSD was a real treat and Roger has over the past couple of seasons become my favorite characters (I tend to love sharp tongued nihilists (see Jaime in Game of Thrones)).  I was extremely skeptical about Megan as a character from her relatively small role in the fourth season, but the dynamic between Megan and Don was one of the more interesting plotlines of the season.  Although new character Dawn was underused, other new character Michael  Ginsberg was a real winner, challenging Don in ways that Peggy never did.  We’ve seen Don challenged at his job by his own lack of interest, but we’ve never seen him challenged before now because he’s losing his touch generationally, a point driven home by the first ever use of a Beatles song, Tomorrow Never Knows, in a TV show, which famously cost a quarter million dollars but was fantastic. My minor qualm with this season was that I don’t see the point of including Betty plots that showcase how awful Betty is; to me Betty a couple of seasons ago became a cartoonish villain, and kind of let Don off the hook for all his cheating because she was so irritating.  I would have just cut Betty largely out of the show.  Still, every other character from Don to Megan to Roger to Peggy to Pete to Lane to Joan (Christina Hendricks work is masterful in “The Other Woman”) are firing on all cylinders.  I look forward to watching it again some day, and I can’t wait for the new season.

1.  Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad

I’ll be honest.  I didn’t like the first half of season five as much as I did season four, and I seriously considered moving Breaking Bad down. It was essentially a tie, and I let Breaking Bad keep its place, much like Supreme Court decisions are upheld with a tie.  However, while it’s absolutely worth saying that I didn’t like this half season as much as the last, it’s still phenomenal TV.  Even minor decisions I disagree with are imbued with serious thought and care, and I appreciate that.  The brilliant filming technique was on display in episodes like “Dead Freight”, a heist episode which was far more action movie than I’d like Breaking Bad to be, but was still enjoyable due to the skillful cinematography.  If season 4 turned recurring character Gus into a break out main character, season 5 did the same for Mike.  Jonathan Banks perfected Mike’s blend of an incredible level of competence, been-there-seen-that skepticism and eternal calm.  Walt was interesting too, figuring out how to proceed as the winner, rather than under the gun, and though he certainly became in some ways more evil, I actually didn’t entirely hate him, compared to many other viewers.  No show keeps as many possible scenarios going forward, all of which are plausible, leading to the best form of unpredictability. Breaking Bad does as good a job as any show on tv of leaving lots of different strands in the air, only a few of which actually need to be answered to avoid the feeling of pulling a Lost (leaving important questions unanswered) (ie. the ricin cigarette; not coming back to that again would be unacceptable).  Little scenes which may not be entirely central to the plot work as brilliant vignettes in and of themselves, such as the opening to “Madrical” in which a German executive kills himself with a defibrilator is a fantastically nifty bit of filmmaking.  Like any show, of course, I have minor qualms; I thought the resolution to the situation at the end of “Dead Freight” was a bit of a cop out, and new character Lydia has some issues.  Still, this is compelling TV at its best every week, with wonderful characters and beautiful scenes, and though I’m often scared to watch what will happen in each episode, once it finishes I often want to go back and watch again.