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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Review: Mad Men, Favors




Season 6, Episode 11
Grade: C-
Grade: Happenstance and contrived scenarios drive the eleventh episode of Mad Men which congeals into not only the worst episode of the season, but one of the worst of the entire series. This is not the Matthew Weiner writing we've come to love, but something better fit for CBS or some other faceless network series and a scary start to the wind up for the season finale. 

When "Favors" wrapped up and the final door closed, I turned to Hannah and said "that was a really bad hour of television" and I was glad to see she was in agreement with me. This was an episode where almost nothing worked or held any manner of effectiveness. Sure the acting is top notch as always from the usual suspects, but the situations as written feel so manufactured, the viewer ends up feeling cheated. Imagine you're watching Breaking Bad or The Wire or some other critically hailed tv series, and three episodes before the season finale hits, they introduce a heretofore unseen character in a contrived situation that sets the finale in motion. It feels cheap and lazy, and perhaps a sign that Weiner literally had no idea where he was going with all of this build-up without resorting to pulling a rabbit out of his hat from nowhere. Mad Men has had a few nadirs in its history, namely the twist around Peggy in the first season and anything involving Bobbie Barrett in the third, but I think we can safely add Sylvia's son Mitchell to that list as well.




"Favors" focuses on two different plot beats that divide between four different characters. In the first, we get the paths crossed by Don and Sally. Don is attempting to help Arnold by getting his son out of the draft to Vietnam, while Sally is sick of her mother and is looking to spend time with her father over the weekend along with a friend. The latter thread becomes entangled with the former when Sally meets Mitchell, and of course is immediately attracted to him. We later learn that Don's motivation to help Arnold is more or less an attempt to get back into Sylvia's good graces. I've expressed in the past that I don't think the Don-Sylvia relationship is terribly compelling but I was quite happy with how it was ended on Sylvia's terms and provide some form of growth for Don. Instead, it's clear Weiner had some regret over the end of the relationship and wanted to find a way to return back to the plotline that only he really cares about. Events conspire between these two threads that lead to Sally walking in on Don having sex with Sylvia.

The idea is not a bad one, and it's definitely a bold move to have the maturing daughter exposed to just what sort of philanderer her father actually is, rather than the outright hero she worshipped up to that point. We all learn something about our families (and often specifically our parents) that we'd rather not at some point in our lives, that's often a part of growing up, and to have Sally do so at a time when she at least somewhat understands the weight of Don's actions makes sense. The problem is less the "what?" and more the "how?", the Mitchell plot feels unnatural for the nice flow built up to this point and Don's involvement feels even more forced. Perhaps an argument could be made that Don had a level of guilt built in around his affair with Sylvia and sought to atone by helping Arnold. Then again, this is all washed away when he opts to sleep with Sylvia again. Mitchell is nothing but a plot point to get Don and Sally into a place that the writers needed them to be in. It's frankly a little hacky, and isn't helped by Mitchell being played like a cardboard cutout.

Speaking of performances, while Jon Hamm does his yeoman's best with this material, Kiernan Shipka, normally so game and a highlight in previous seasons, falls flat on her face twice with cringe-worthy line readings in her first real spotlight of the season. I'm not sure if she's growing up into a bad actress or if as little care was focused on the performances as the script, but she comes across all the worse for it, particularly in her outbursts that feel straight out of something like "Dallas" or its ilk. Shipka isn't alone either, as Linda Cardellini bombs into outright histrionics by the time Sylvia and Don are discovered. Three episodes ago, Weiner took a page out David Lynch's book for "The Crash" going for the abstract weirdness of the auteur. With "Favors" he takes on the other significant facet of Twin Peaks, over the top, yet also flat, acting.

In the second plot point of the episode, we focus on Pete's continuing troubles with his mother, this time now being taken care of by Manolo, the nurse recommended to him by the ever mystifying Bob. Pete's mother, in her deteriorating mental state, has mistaken her attendant attention as that of the romantic kind. Pete, were he in the right state of mind, would naturally find this notion ridiculous as this is the same woman who can't tell the difference between Trudy and Peggy (leading to a great bit winking at one of the earlier mentioned series low-points). Yet Pete, can't help but push this issue and disgusted with the idea that his mother could be taken advantage of by this "pervert" has a sit down with Bob over it. Bob then takes the time to explain that the idea of falling in love with someone you work with closely isn't so out of the ordinary and brushes his leg against Pete. While the idea that Bob as a closeted gay man was something that was floated about due to his seemingly platonic relationship with Joan (as if no straight man could POSSIBLY resist her...), the idea that he would latch onto Pete as we've seen them interact in only the briefest of brief moments makes little sense and feels awfully unearned. While I'm unsure what to make of Pete's final scene, trying to eat from a mostly empty box of Raisin Bran, I really hope there's more to Bob than just this. Straight or Gay, that kind of come-on would be a quick way to find yourself without a job if the other participant was as unwilling as Pete. Again, I don't mind for the (admittedly, fan-built) reveal around Bob to be rather small, but it needs to make sense at least. Then again, given the quality of this episode, I can't put anything past the writers.

Insofar as any positives go, it's worth noting that there's a nice dichotomy between Peggy and Ted, as Peggy begins to adjust to the reality of living alone and becoming a "cat lady", while Ted finally re-embraces his family life and puts them before his job. We don't often get much of the latter in this series as I can only recall Ken Cosgrove making the distinction of "career vs. real life", but it's nice to see a character opting for more personal satisfaction than what the firm can actually offer. Peggy's arc this season has brought her to her lowest ebb from her wrapping herself in nothing but her career, sacrificing her relationship and her personal happiness. These are the areas that make for a smart episode of Mad Men, and I wish this had the been the focal point of the entire hour rather than a small 10 minutes at most.

I'm not sure where Mad Men is going to go from here, surely Episode 12 will be an improvement since the forced reveals are now out of the way, but here's some food for thought for how unusual this episode actually was. Normally I can never predict what will happen, and when I try I'm often, let's just say I was able to call the "Sally catching of Don" the moment she walked back in to get those apartment keys. An atypically painful experience all-round, here's hoping for better this coming Sunday.
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