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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Review: Mad Men, A Tale of Two Cities

Season Six, Episode 10 
Grade: B-
Verdict: It's the dreaded place-holder episode! Mad Men shifts its characters into various situations that line them up for what looks to be a three episode closer to the season. Unfortunately it does so in a way that feels contrived and at times, a bit uninteresting. The visual imagery was also perhaps laid on a bit too thick this go-round, which is saying something for this series.

"A Tale of Two Cities" focuses on chaos. This isn't inherently a bad thing, but there's a general sense of unrest that pervades throughout the episode. From the opening shot, it's apparent that the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention will be the focal point in which the rest of the episode's wheels turn. When the anti-war demonstrators pick up rocks and take arms against the police, which leads to a wave of violence, it becomes the centerpiece of conversation for the nation. Our friends at SCDP-CGC (which is indeed a mouthful, but not terribly so) are not exempt from the fascination with this event. It becomes the point of distraction for a number of interactions, be it directly (via Megan-Don or Jim-Bob-Ginsberg) or as more of a reflection of the inner office chaos that begins to ramshackle this monster that Ted and Don created at the bar that night before the Chevy presentation. In the former, this play on real events works well, in the latter, it feels a little forced right down to its title.

The episode is split down into action on two coasts, with Don, Roger and Harry taking a trip to Los Angeles to present to Carnation, while Jim and Ted have to hold down the fort in New York dealing with Chevy and Manischewitz. From both ends, we get a chance to see how the unrest outside of the office is affecting the work indoors. When Roger brings up the riots to the executive at Carnation, it becomes a political lightning rod and potentially ends the meeting before it begins. Fortunately, Don is able to swoop in and recover, but the trepidation is very clear. Back at the office, a similar argument erupts between Jim and Ginsberg over Ginsberg's growing concerns over the firms work with Dow Chemical. Ginsberg now feels like a hypocrite and its beginning to eat away at him. The seeds of dischord are then sown as Jim goes to Ted about firing all of the SCDP junior staff while Don and Roger are away. Ted in their conversation mentions that Jim is constantly looking at it as "us and them" rather than a team, another Dickensian moment. It's here where "A Tale of Two Cities" works best. We get a chance to see just what is under the hood with Jim Cutler, and his machinations behind the scenes certainly will have the greatest ramifications headed toward the finale.

Tied to these scenes are the involvement of Bob Benson. This is a character that's been the subject of debate for a few weeks now, given his fairly mysterious nature. He's told two different stories about his father (one with him alive, another with him not), he's seemingly a presence constantly in the background even to the point where Cutler screams at him "why are you always down here?". There's been much guess-work surrounding his true nature, is he a killer? is an undercover operative? is he just too good to be true? Even Ginsberg, when he finally is able to recover from the schizophrenic style outburst thanks to Bob's overly enthusiastic self-help advice, asks him "are you a homo?". Weiner clearly knows what he's doing here, as even in the "previously on" segment, Don's statement of "How do you get to heaven? Something terrible has to happen" is followed by a scene of Bob introducing himself. This induced glances between Hannah and I. I'm still not convinced that Bob is going to be this chaotic force, but the pieces are certainly in place. His office is strangely personality free, and his behavior behind closed doors is certainly a bit more unhinged than the smoother demeanor he carries around the office or in his interactions with Joan. More likely, Bob is some kind of reflection of a new generation, the Boomers. Bob's focus on career advancement and self-improvement is a perfect embodiment of the first "me generation" and is likely the intention that the writers are going for. Then again, when he kills Megan or Joan and all the Sharon Tate parallels come true, I'll eat crow.

The question marks around Bob aren't easily dissuaded though due to the sense of terror around the corner, and nowhere did this become more palpable than in Don's scenes. When Don was speaking to Megan on the phone, I couldn't help but wonder if this would be the last conversation they'd ever have. Clearly this isn't going to be the case, as Megan appears in the next episode preview, but the fact that this even crossed my mind means "mission accomplished" for Weiner and crew. The rest of Don's journey did not work anywhere near as well. When Don arrives at a Hollywood Hills party with Harry and Roger, we get a delightfully awkward setting in which only Harry somewhat fits in. But Don eventually acclimates himself taking in some hashish. Sure, it's interesting that Don sees visions of Megan pregnant and at the party with him, and sees the soldier he met in Hawaii now missing an arm and possibly dead. It's funny to see Danny, Roger's ex-wife's cousin, return and eventually punch Roger in the balls. And the final pool scene is an awakening of sorts that snaps Don back into reality. But what does it all really contribute to the story? Mad Men is known for occasionally wheel-spinning, but for character moments that build little corners that you didn't realize existed in the show's foundation. Everything in the party sequence just sort of laid on top of what we already know. Yes, Roger hates Danny and even more so since his separation. Yes, Don has a fear of death and strives for stability. It gave us nothing new, and the bane of good television is staleness. This is a rarity for Mad Men, but with a series this ambitious, it creeps in every now and again.

The other big detraction I found in the episode was everything involving Joan, more or less. I don't mind that Joan is given more plot. She's one of the more intriguing characters in the cast and I've found what she's been given up to this point fairly riveting this season. Her role as a partner still seemingly being a "name-only" role with limited to no power, short of financial gain. Her lucking into a possible account on the other hand, just felt like a plot for the sake of giving Joan something to do. Yes, Joan does feel like she's basically the head secretary and her frustration has begun to eke out a bit. Yet at no point in the series has she ever displayed an interest in dealing with the actual on-going business concerns of account building. When she openly defies Pete by cutting him out of the meeting, Joan basically undercut every moment in which she displayed any sense of how the firm's business operates. She has always been a company woman first and now that she gets a sniff of glory, she has no issue lying to her fellow partners? It just doesn't add up. Once again, I'm kind of finding myself on Pete's side. Who would have ever guessed he'd be the voice of reason? Joan does get a few choice scenes with Peggy (signifying her only significant appearances this week), and her admonishment of Joan is a great reflection of her own frustration of having worked hard in the office getting no credit beyond the money. Herein lie more allusions to the idea of "us and them". Perhaps the ramifications of Joan's actions will pay off into something bigger by season's end, but more likely this was just to show how destabilized everything has become at the merged firm, again this is where the chaos theme doesn't work as well.

By the closing scenes, we see the firm's partners (sans Joan, who is on the outs with Pete) deciding to call the new firm, Sterling Cooper and Partners. With Don, Ted, and Jim dropping their names from the masthead, it makes the call-backs to many of the first season themes even more resonant as the firm returns to a variation of the name viewers were first introduced to. Though rather than the tight ship that was the original Sterling Cooper, we have a bit more of a destabilized vessel, made clear by Pete's disillusionment with it all. Will Pete call it quits and take that job in Kansas after all? Probably not, but watching him smoke a doob as the final moment of the episode is telling of some kind of change in him on the horizon...probably. In all, a fairly middling effort, that while not lacking in ambition carried a little too much navel-gazing to fully satisfy. In the end though I can only ask, what about Bob? Answers should be forthcoming, so we hope. 

With "A Tale of Two Cities" we find Mad Men treading water, somewhat like Don, face first in a pool.

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