Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mad Men, Season 4:
Episode 3, The Good News

Season Four of Mad Men is now in full swing. The third episode entitled The Good News aired on Sunday, and several of the themes of the new season were expanded upon. I'm going to give a bare bones review, but it will contain spoilers. If you want full-blown reviews with spoilers from start to end, I recommend this post on HuffPo and this one on Salon.

You have been warned.

The first three episodes of season four have dealt with the holidays Thanksgiving, Christmas of 1964 and the New Year of 1965, showing how difficult they have been for the newly divorced Don Draper. The new ad agency is shown as having early success though still financially precarious, but Don's personal life is a mess. He's drinking too much and we see multiple young women not falling for his charms anymore. The plan is for him to spend New Year's in Acapulco, but first he stops off in San Pedro, California to visit Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton), the only person who has known for some time that he is really Dick Whitman. Anna was married to the real Don Draper who died in Korea, and when Dick found out that his identity theft had a victim, he did the right thing and took care of her financially, and "divorced" her when he decided to marry Betty.

This is the first episode where we see Don (or Dick, whatever we should call him when he is with Anna) actually being happy. Since this is a drama, that happiness is short-lived as he finds out through Anna's family that her health is very bad, a secret her sister keeps from her and asks Don to keep secret as well. This seems almost impossible that an adult would be treated this way today, but it actually happened back then, the most famous example being Rex Harrison knowing his wife Kay Kendall had leukemia and the doctors and Harrison keeping the bad news from her because there was nothing to be done.

It was good to see Anna again, though probably not many times more. The show has a habit of having people die off stage, so this might even be her last appearance.

In the third season, it looked like the office manager Joan was going to be written out, but her dream wedding to Dr. Greg Harris (Sam Page) hit some bumps, and she is back as the person running the office at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Her husband is another interesting character who gets short shrift, always a problem with a large ensemble cast, and it was good to see him get some important scenes. His career as a surgeon wasn't fated for success and he joined the Army. Joan wants to start a family, but Greg's uncertain future makes all plans nearly impossible. Still, they get a good scene together where he is able to come to her aid. If the show follows form, it may be a short tender moment before things take a turn for the worse.

Another character who doesn't get many good scenes is Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), the transplanted Englishman who made the new firm possible by firing Bert Cooper, Roger Sterling and Don Draper from their old jobs, leaving all four of them free to start anew. In so many scenes, he's just the annoying partner who counts paper clips and legal pads, but several events in this episode help to turn his already precarious marriage inside out. Don, who decides to return to New York instead of continuing on to Acapulco after finding out the bad news about Anna, befriends Lane for the first time, and the two of them have an eventful evening out. They see a comic, who seeing two men alone at a table in front of him assumes they are gay and begins to rib them. Both Don and Lane take the insults in semi-good humor, but Lane finally shouts, "We're not homosexuals, we're divorced!" In some ways, this foreshadows the new prevalence of divorce on the American scene, which will be played for laughs on Broadway in Neil Simon's The Odd Couple, which will open a little later in 1965.

Mad Men
is famous for its attention to detail, so it's more than a little disappointing to find a major anachronism in the show. Besides seeing the comedian, Don and Lane take in a movie on New Year's Day 1965. They debate several film choices they see in the newspaper and almost all of them have release dates in the last part of 1964, so they should still be in theaters on the day in question. One movie, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, was released a year before, so it's a bit chancy whether it would still be showing in Manhattan after thirteen months, but it's still possible.

But after they look at multiple choices, Don and Lane decide to go to Gamera the Invincible, the only Gamera film shot in black and white. (Yes, I knew this. Yes, I'm a nerd.) Here is the problem. It was released in Japan in November 1965 and in the U.S. December 1966. This amount of research is a few keystrokes on the Internet. I hope this sloppiness doesn't continue.

In the comments of yesterday's post, my blog buddy Fran said that TV quality has suffered as the audience has fragmented. I respectfully disagree. One of the major strides forward in television in the past twenty years or so is having shows where the arc of the main characters is more important than solving the problem of the week. This story telling method has been part of the soap opera tradition for some time, but it is now the standard in hour long dramas, and better writers like Matthew Weiner, who worked on The Sopranos before he became the creator of Mad Men, have turned episodic television into an art form that can be considered the equal of the novel. More often than not, the best stuff on TV is significantly superior to big budget films in theaters in terms of interesting stories and compelling characters. I'm looking forward to see where the lives of Don Draper and the rest of the people on Mad Men will end up, and I hope Matthew Weiner can find at least one more good season in him.


sfmike said...

Good catch, Mr. Nerd. This particular episode was especially depressing with nothing going right for no one.

My one real question about accuracy is the cultural ethnicity of the characters. Was a Madison Avenue company in the early 1960s really that devoid of Jewish employees and managers and owners? Historically, that's not been my impression, so it seems weird, particularly since the show's creator is Matthew Weiner, a Jewish-American from Baltimore (who was also a Jeopardy contestant!),

Matty Boy said...

For me, this was as happy as the fourth season gets so far. Yes, bad things happen, but at least people are being kind to one another. That's a step forward.

I don't know if Jewish and non-Jewish firms was the practice on Madison Ave. back then. I know that it was in practice on Wall St. Weiner are his crew are pretty darn good at the research, Gamera being an exception, so I assume they got it right, especially at the beginning of the 1960s when the first episode of Season One takes place.

Doing a little more work, the monster movie they should have been watching was Godzilla Vs. Mothra, though it opened in September 1964, so it might not have been in theaters still at New Years.

Give us back the egg! It belongs to us!

(This reminds me of a story I will relate on Thursday.)

Margaret Benbow said...

Good synopsis! I agree that in general the show has authentically accurate period details--in social attitudes too. You're right that it was common to keep terminally ill people in ignorance of their condition. I can remember that this happened to a family friend. His wife was a very intelligent woman, but her reasoning was, "If he knew, he'd just feel despair and give up completely." Such a strange attitude--to keep someone in the dark about his own life.