The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

Mad Men: “Chinese Wall”

Posted by therebelprince on October 5, 2010

There are only two episodes of Mad Men left this year. I say this not as a forlorn fanboy (well…), but as someone intrigued by the meaning of this season. Perhaps fittingly, given Don’s own life status, this has been a year of flux. For many – Joan, Roger, Harry – it has just confirmed the path they were on before. For those who have been forced to change – Pete, Peggy, Don – the year’s been a bewildering journey. Events slow down in “Chinese Wall” after the drama overload of last week, and yet strangely it seems as if a lot more happened.

At SCDP, things begin to fall apart. After losing Lucky Strike – and how perfectly awkward was Roger’s fall from grace? – the certainty of every other contract remains in the balance. I don’t for a minute believe we’ll lose this firm after only a season. There may be cutbacks, sure – the shot of our three secondary players listening to the news was a reminder of how rarely we see all our supporting cast – but, Roger’s personal situation aside, the company-in-danger climax seems, dare I say it?, contrived. Rarely, for Mad Men, I felt like this week was a step back, a step toward more conventional plotting. Key partner lured away? Check. Don undermines yet another relationship? Check. Peggy further breaks free of her programming? Check check check.

Not to say anything was bad. Megan’s seduction of Don was brilliantly written: her revelation of her own interest in the arts, the promise that she wasn’t going to run away crying the next day. This construction of supporting characters is one of the show’s greatest strengths in world-building, and was present tonight from the funeral for a rival ad-man to Don’s painful conversation with the GloCoat partner. Similarly, the continued emancipation of Peggy Olsen – both physically and intellectually – is a natural progression of her character that I shouldn’t really complain about. Overall though, I can’t help feeling like last season’s finale moved all of the pieces on to a new game board, and this season has just been about making a few early moves to ready them in place for next time.

I continue to feel frustrated by the treatment of Pete Campbell. When he and Trudy sat on their couch, bleary-eyed and motionless, after the Kennedy assassination, I felt as if perhaps this was going to be a big break for them. The shattering of their ideals would surely spur them towards ’70s yuppie-ism. Of course, nothing is ever so simple, and I don’t expect a sudden lifestyle renovation: the follies of their parents have led this couple to where they are, as with anyone. But in the season’s few Pete-centric moments, Mad Men has suggested a man equally at odds with his conditioning as Peggy or Lane. Yet this idea has been so underplayed that, seeing Pete reject a job offer, it feels like he’s acting out of arrogance about the firm and his place within it, and not out of anything deeper.

More successful was Roger’s storyline. There’s a sinking feeling this year that things are going to end very badly for Mr. Sterling, but I sincerely hope otherwise. Roger’s biggest addition to the show’s themes is not his hilarious blackface routine, or ability to repeatedly insult his family members even when not trying; it is his existence as a possible future for Don Draper. The alcohol, the women, the satisfied meaninglessness of existence; they’ve loomed large in Don’s future since he first stepped out on Betty. Now, though, with Don attempting to find contentment after last week’s shattering feeling of freedom, Don doesn’t need this spectre. And as a result, I feel like Roger’s complete undoing (or death, for that matter) is no longer necessary. I have no idea where Roger is heading – Joan has seemingly made her final break with him, and Jane is sweet but probably not intelligent enough to fulfill him in his dotage – however I hope there’s rebirth ahead.

This has been a strange, disorienting season of Mad Men. Not a bad one – the show’s languid presentation and gift for subtle ironies has never been stronger – but each episode has had the distinct feel of a vignette, removed by weeks or months from those around it. As evidenced by last week’s reveal about Lane’s relationship, and even the changed circumstances of Peggy’s here, this format leaves us feeling like we don’t quite know the characters. A deliberate comment on the double lives everyone is forced to live? Perhaps. Perhas not. Here’s hoping the final two episodes take us somewhere new. The firm can collapse and reform as many times as it likes. I just hope the song doesn’t remain the same.

Diverse observations:

*  I hope Joan gets more to do next year. I understand her plight this season was necessary but, moreso than anyone else, Joan finds herself without friends or a lover, and yet without a husband and child that would’ve filled that gap in society’s eyes. What does she do at home every night?

* I doubt we’ll see Sal again this year, but I sincerely hope he can be re-hired in season five. Having said that, in my head Sal has managed to escape his marriage and self-loathing for a happier life, so perhaps it’s better that he doesn’t come back, and have to get dragged down with the rest of the characters.

* Man, I love Faye Miller. And not just for that exquisite Asian-inspired top she wore this week. She’s refreshingly intelligent, and exactly the kind of woman Don needs – if he’ll ever admit that to himself. I’m too lazy to go back and check, but it seems like – outside of her work clothes – Faye’s hair and makeup style is becoming more and more like old-school Betty Draper.

* Dear television producers: if you open an episode… of anything … with Ray Wise, and then only give him two lines, a lot of people get very antsy. It’s a strange and as yet unresearched effect, but it’s true.


One Response to “Mad Men: “Chinese Wall””

  1. […] initial review here […]

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