BOOKS AND ARTS AUGUST 23, 2010
This is the new column in TNR’s weekly series of"Mad Men" episode recaps. Caution: It contains spoilers. Click here for last week's review.
Great films and TV series tend to distill in the memory to a particular type of camera shot. Think of the chaotic handheld tracking shots that used to follow the Hill Street Blues characters around the cramped, overpopulated police station; the recurring overhead views of a stubble-faced Tony Soprano lying in bed staring morosely at the ceiling; the iconic closeup of Janet Leigh screaming in the shower in Psycho, or, the intimidating panoramic shots of workspaces in Billy Wilder's The Apartment, row after row of drone-like workers at identical desks stretching into infinity. When I think of “Mad Men,” I think of wide shots that picture characters from head-to-toe. That's not because the series relies heavily on such shots, but because it keeps the big picture (social, historical, philosophical) in mind at all times, and because the big picture is often so thoughtfully composed. The boardroom, the private office, the efficiency apartment, the suburban bedroom play as important a role in this series as any subplot or bit of dialogue.
I've concentrated on the visual aspect of this week’s episode, "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword," which jumped between Don and Betty Draper's distress over their daughter Sally's acting-out and the drama at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, whose partners did a series of back-spraining cartwheels trying to land the Honda account. The episode was an embarrassment of riches, different from but nearly equal to last week's "The Rejected." Rather than try to force words to do all the work here, I'll point you to a couple of video essays. One is Jim Emerson's ""Modern Compartmentalization: The Architecture of Mad Men," published on his blog Scanners.The other is Jefferson Robbins'"Retro: The Visual Grammar of Mad Men," for Film Freak Central. Both pieces explore the visual grammar of this series, which was shot in its first season by Phil Abraham (formerly the director of photography for “The Sopranos”) and from season two onward by Christopher Manley. Robbins focuses on the interplay of close-ups and wide shots on the show, specifically how the camera will start very close on characters' faces, encouraging our empathy, then slowly dollying back to put them in a context. (Sometimes the dolly goes the other way, starting way back and then moving in close.) Emerson's piece is about the spaces that surround the characters, and how Manley carves up those spaces with doorways, windows, mirrors, and other rectangular elements, so that the world seems to enclose groups of people like diorama frames, or suggests the emotional barriers between characters.
This episode was written by Erin Levy and directed by Lesli Linka Glatter (who was nominated for an Emmy for season three's "Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency," a.k.a. the one with the lawnmower), and contained many striking wide shots that served a narrative function while also possessing the singular, somewhat mysterious integrity of self-contained art objects. Think of Peggy riding that motorcycle around and around the empty soundstage where Don's bluff of a commercial was supposedly being shot—a scene that both advanced a central plot point while also underlining a forward-thinking single woman's game-for-anything attitude. Or the shot of Sally and the Drapers' maid/nanny, Carla, waiting in the therapist's office, marginalized in the lower right-hand corner of the frame—an image that tells you all you need to know about the Drapers' appalling disconnection from other peoples' needs. Or the long shot of Faye exiting the SDCP office kitchen after an unexpectedly relaxed, trusting conversation with Don. I can think of no better way to distill Don's domestic life than a shot of a man with his back to the camera, standing alone in a brightly lit kitchen after a beautiful blond woman has left him. (As my former Star-Ledger writing partner Alan Sepinwall observes in his recap for Hitfix, the location of this scene "definitely helped create the intimacy Don needed for that conversation. It's a part of the office cut off from all reminders of work, Faye is in there in her stocking feet after a long day balancing on high heels, and it's easy for both of them to pretend they're actually in a real kitchen at home rather than chatting with a work colleague.")
Best-of-episode, though, is the wide shot that punctuates a great exchange between Roger Sterling, a World War II combat veteran who let his war trauma sabotage the Honda account, and Joan, who reprimanded and then soothed him. "Roger," she said, "I know it was awful and I know it'll never feel like it was that long ago. But you fought to make the world a safer place, and you won—and now it is." "You believe that?" Roger asked. "I have to," she replied. At this point, Glatter cuts to a head-to-toe, profile wide shot of the characters facing each other in Roger's office. Let's count a few of the ways in which this shot enriches an already terrific scene. Seeing Joan and Roger small in the frame after such a complex and intimate exchange has a literally diminishing effect. It reminds us, to paraphrase "Casablanca," that the problems of two little people (Joan's husband's impending deployment to Vietnam, Roger's lingering anger over his war experience, and their own cooled relationship) don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. At the same time, there's something defiant, even heroic, in that image: against a backdrop of stultifying conformity, Joan and Roger manage to remain spiky, independent-minded individuals who love and respect each other. And although Joan works for Roger, and is further subordinated to Roger because she's a woman, the shot removes any power differential. For a moment at least, they're equal.
I was also impressed by how sensitively and imaginatively Glatter staged the moment that gets Sally into so much trouble. Avoiding crass explicitness, the camera moved close to the girl's face, cutting between her blank/dreamy expression and shots of the flickering TV set. Do my eyes deceive, or was she watching "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."? If so, it's a perfect choice for an episode so focused on the necessity of former adversaries (Don and Betty, Joan and Roger, the U.S. and Japan) learning to coexist. Don and Betty's repressed and utterly clueless reaction to their daughter's behavior (which they classify as misbehavior) edged uncomfortably close to validating charges that "Mad Men" takes a condescending modern view of 1960s mores. (Ditto Betty and Henry's conversation about the necessity of putting Sally in therapy.) But all this material was handled as sensitively as Sally's sexual exploration (and her off-camera butchering of her hair), so the end result was more a dry, take-it-or-leave-it reminder that there are, in fact, certain ways in which 21st century America is a vastly more sane place than the Drapers' time. (Henry's response to Betty's admission that she went into therapy just once—"Was there something wrong with you?"—was all the more chilling for being tossed-off.) And as always, there's the recurring, implicit criticism of the characters' raging narcissism. There was no shortage of such moments in last night's hour: Don leaving his children with a sitter while he went on a date, during a rare night that he could have spent quality time with them; Betty viewing Sally's troubles almost exclusively in terms of her own repression and discomfort; and Pete Campbell—the entitled little twit!—barging into Roger's office and suggesting that this much older man was seeking to block the Honda account not because of his harrowing experiences in the Pacific but because he wanted to show Pete up. (I wish Don had restrained Pete instead of Roger, and let the older man take as much time as he needed.)
All these moments would have played well without Glatter and Manley's loving attentiveness to the relationship between characters and their environment. But the filmmakers' sense of perspective (figurative and literal) added another layer of richness. "Mad Men" works like gangbusters when you're close to the characters, but its intelligence snaps into focus when the show steps back and shows you the rest of the picture.