Mad Men: Season Five Roundtables (with Cory Barker and Andy Daglas)


Episodes 1-2: “A Little Kiss”

Episode 3: “Tea Leaves”

Episode 4: “Mystery Date”

Episode 5: “Signal 30”

Episode 6: “Far Away Places”

Episode 7: “At the Codfish Ball”

Episode 8: “Lady Lazarus”

Episode 9: “Dark Shadows”

Episode 10: “Christmas Waltz”

Episode 11: “The Other Woman”

Episode 12: “Commissions and Fees”

Episode 13: “The Phantom”

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In Memoriam: Adam Wright


I don’t usually use this blog for personal statements, preferring to keep the conversation centered around television, literature, and occasionally opining on a fine piece of headwear; and when I do make a personal statement it’s usually to share a piece of good professional news in either of those avenues. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always permit me to get good news, and I received a particularly bad piece of news that I need to take advantage of whatever position I have to say a few words about it.

Yesterday, I learned that my friend and colleague Adam Wright, founder of and a contributor to The Huffington Post, passed away. While he’d been in poor health for the last few months, in and out of the hospital from various bouts of pneumonia, his death still comes as a complete shock and a tragic loss for all of us who knew him. He was a critic of an impeccable wit and brutal honesty, a solid and ambitious writer, and a seemingly unstoppable force of energy powered by Tim Hortons coffee and righteous indignation. It’s very hard to have to say goodbye.

Like much of the online TV critic circle that has become so dear to me in recent years, Adam and I first met out of a random Twitter chat, more specifically a discussion of Maria Bello’s hat on Prime Suspect. We struck up a casual friendship, discussing such points as how much we didn’t like Whitney, how we seemed to both be alone in not liking Girls, and marveling at how much better New Girl got as time went along.

But our true bond was forged in just how stylish we considered each other. There are several TV critics who have beards, and even some who wear fedoras on a regular basis, but Adam and I discovered we were part of a rare breed—the critics who had both and wore them proudly. As such, we formed a friendship based on our similar sense of style, which took the form of a long list of #beardtweets and #hattweets back and forth, as we both paid close attention to TV personalities on and off-screen. When a star grew a beard during their show’s hiatus, Adam and I would comment on its erstwhile thickness; and when a character adopted a hat, we’d either geek out over its flashiness or pan its absurdity. We were in awe of Mandy Patinkin on Homeland, divided over Jon Hamm between seasons of Mad Men, and held measured discussion as to whether or not Herschel’s beard was the reason Walking Dead had a much better third season. (And the two of us were locked in an eternal contest of which of us had the better beard, an question that now will be left to the ages.)

AdamRage It wasn’t just #beardtweets that distinguished Adam’s personality online though. In the world of live-tweeting, Adam was one of the only people I know who was justified in creating a hashtag for his thoughts: #AdamRage. Unlike some critics who feel the need to maintain more of an objective distance from shows as they watch them, Adam never pulled any punches, practicing full-bore gonzo tweeting that lacerated the failings of what he was watching in complete detail. No show was safe from #AdamRage, be it True Blood, The Walking Dead, Dexter, The Killing, Glee or The New Normal. His thoughts on the latter two even led Ryan Murphy to block Adam on Twitter, a move Adam was incredibly proud of. (The only thing to equal it, in his mind, was earning a “too soon” from Kurt Sutter when, following the death of Whitney Houston, Adam’s first tweet was “So… No X-Factor then?”) To quote Hunter S. Thompson, Adam was “a Shootist… he wrote with extraordinary precision and no fear.” He was active to the end of his life, joining several other critics and I for a series of roundtables on 2012 over at TV Surveillance, where he praised Dexter’s creative resurgence and lacerated House’s finale for causing not just #AdamRage, but #AdamHeartbreak and #AdamWeeping.

And he wasn’t just a critic—an aspiring TV comedy writer in his own right*, Adam spent a good deal of time pursuing other professional venues for his writing. I had the good fortune to read the script for a comedy pilot he was shopping around to the networks, That’s How I Roll, a dark comedy loosely based on his own experiences living with a unique bone and muscle disorder. (An essay of his that covered many of the same ideas and experiences can be read here and is well worth your time.) It was a solid piece of work, one that uniquely translated his cutting wit into dialogue and managed to juggle black comedy and emotion. And he was an energetic business mind too: in building, Adam showed a degree of focus and commitment that’s rare in this business. Few of us have the drive to start a website based on our college newspaper column (as Adam did in 2009) and fewer still are able to devote the time and gather the talent to transform it into a site with thousands of hits and its own line of merchandise. (Evidently merchandising, merchandising, is where the real money from the criticism is made.)

*Or Wright, I suppose. I hate myself for this pun but I assume he’d want me to include it. I also assume he’d want me to buy the really expensive whiskey in his memory, and who am I to argue with the recently deceased. 

I never had the chance to meet Adam in person, though I did happen to have a semi-live conversation with him at one point during Good TVeets Con 2012 in Chicago. While he was unable to attend the gathering himself, he Skyped into our gathering and exchanged a few words with all of us—and his words to me were along the lines of how by virtue of this appearance he’d usurped my position as the best beard and hat at the Con. I promised him I’d get him back next year, and it hurts more than I can say that I won’t get that chance.

AdamCoffeeOr maybe I will, in a sense. While I don’t pretend to have any sort of knowledge or insight about what’s past this life, I’d like to think that he’ll still be around in some way, a poltergeist of Twitter quaffing the bottomless cup of coffee the afterlife provides him and investing us all with a little extra snark online. There’s sure to be a lot of terrible television coming this year, and I’d like to think his fury will drive many of us to voice our frustrations with an #AdamRage hashtag thrown in for good luck. I may have to watch the third season of The Killing just to keep the trend alive. (I’m not watching Glee though. Sorry Adam, not even death can make me watch a Ryan Murphy show.)

At the present moment though, it’s a bit hard to look past the immediate loss to his friends, family and the Twitterverse as a whole. Adam was a force of tireless sarcasm, a damn fine writer, and a brother in arms (or beards as it were), and he was taken from us far too soon. Requiescat in pace, Adam. I remove my hat in your honor—and you know better than anyone how much respect I mean with that gesture.


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Pilot Review: Revolution

Before writing this review, I took an informal survey of the contents of my apartment. At the present time, I have no fewer than 20 electronic devices in my apartment: two iPhones (one work, one home), an iPod, an iPad, a flatscreen TV, an Xbox 360, a wireless router, a netbook, an iMac, two external hard drives, a microwave oven, an electric razor, six lamps, and all the attendant chargers and plugs that go along with those devices. Between work and home, I spend approximately 90 percent of my waking hours in front of these devices, in either direct or unconscious interaction. Were these devices to stop working for a little while, I’d be drastically inconvenienced. Were they to shut down for good, I’d be good as dead.

As such, I’m more than a little engaged by NBC’s Revolution, which creates a world in which the latter circumstance has come to pass. All technology has vanished, leaving a world that’s grown isolated and agrarian, our sense of global connectivity stripped away in favor of independent warlords and republics. It’s a bold concept for a show, one that seems ripe with possibilities for new and interesting stories and world-building, particularly given the pedigree of its showrunners: Eric Kripke of Supernatural, J.J. Abrams of Lost and Fringe, Jon Favreau of Iron Man. But after viewing the pilot, I’m not convinced—and more than a little concerned—by the story they’ve chosen to tell, which seems to me to be wasting the show’s potential.

Revolution opens only minutes before the collapse comes, illustrated through the frantic efforts of Ben Matheson (Tim Guinee) who returns to his Chicago suburban home in a panic, urging his wife Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell) to fill tubs and pitchers with water (shades of The Road). He places a frantic call to his brother Miles (Billy Burke) to warn him: “It’s all gonna turn off. It’s gonna turn off and it will never turn back on.” True to word, within seconds display screens short out and go to black, car headlights turn off like falling dominoes, and planes peppered in blinking lights fall from the sky en masse, their booming explosions the only noise in a world rendered silent. It’s an arresting, eye-catching opener, and more than a little unsettling in how it illustrates the fragility of our interconnected lives.

The show then fast-forwards 15 years, after the event known as “the Blackout” threw the entire world into anarchy. In the years since humanity has adopted more of a regional approach, abandoning the major cities to nature for the most part and moving into small villages governed by groups known as militias. Unlike a Falling Skies, where the details of the world that was lost were still fresh in everyone’s minds, this story progresses far enough that the world before it is reduced to ruins, and a generation is born and growing up where technology is indistinguishable from magic in that both exist only as hypotheticals. Favreau, who directed the pilot, does a terrific job of showing us the world as it stands now: broken levees and flooded streets, deer roaming through a desolate downtown, church steeples poking up in the middle of new lakes. It creates a blank slate for Kripke and company to play with, a world influenced by the one that came before but that’s something entirely separate.

Unfortunately, that’s not the scope they seem to be taking with the show. The main narrative of the pilot fixates back on Ben Matheson, who is arrested by a detachment of the local militia headed by Captain Tom Neville (Giancarlo Esposito). When Ben’s son Danny (Graham Rogers) tries to fight back, Ben is killed and Danny taken in his place. Danny’s sister Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos), acting on her father’s dying words, heads to Chicago to find Miles for help in getting her brother back, in the company of her father’s girlfriend Maggie (Anna Lise Phillips) and best friend Aaron (Zak Orth).

Again, that’s not inherently a bad focus for a show, even if the search for a missing teenage son tends to be a weak justification for a narrative (Falling Skies in its early episodes being a prime example). The problem here is that the search for Danny almost immediately turns into the issue of Ben’s involvement in the Blackout, the obsession of the Monroe Republic’s leader General Sebastian Monroe (David Lyons) in turning it back on, and the mysterious silver USB amulet Ben passed to Aaron before he died. A reveal in the last few minutes further complicates the situation, as we learn there’s more than one of these amulets and there appears to be something of a network associated with them, right down to a fully functional computer in the attic of a former algebra teacher.

This sabotages the show’s atmospheric setting almost immediately, converting it into a mythology-centric show and opening it up immediately into comparisons of being another attempt to recapture the Lost energy in the vein of Flash Forward, The Event or Terra Nova. These sort of comparisons were probably inevitable given the long track record of failure for these projects, but the problem with those shows wasn’t only that they botched giving answers but that they didn’t tell interesting stories or give viewers a reason to care about the characters at the center of the action.

And the characters they’ve provided us aren’t exactly the cream of the crop. The most interesting one is Aaron, whose gradual revelations about his past (a former Google executive with $80 million in the bank and a private jet) spell out a character whose adjustment to this new world hasn’t come without significant pain. Charlie, who’s ostensibly the central character, comes across as very bland—nothing against Spiridakos’ performance per se, but in the early going with her bow, leather jacket and stubborn family dedication. Charlie serves only as a textbook example of trying to cash in on the popularity of The Hunger Games (what I’ve dubbed “Katnissing”). Maggie has an interesting skill set but weakly defined connections to the group, and the less said about the sulky irritant of Graham Rogers the better—between this and the disaster of V, perhaps Elizabeth Mitchell just shouldn’t be allowed to play the mother of teenage sons on television.

It’s not without its bright spots though, chiefly thanks to the inclusion of Esposito, who created one of the most arresting villains of the last decade as Breaking Bad’s Gustavo Fring. Neville, like Gus, is a figure less terrifying in his actions than in his bearing, someone who doesn’t get mad but gets even with a ruthless efficiency. Paired with a Desert Eagle, some small gold sunglasses and a light Southern accent (able to turn most any sentence into a threat), he’s unsurprisingly a commanding presence from the start, and the show would be wise to increase it. (And I’m even happier to see him freed from Once Upon A Time, where the waste of his potential made me physically angry at one point.)

The other promising element is Miles. Burke’s well cast as a reluctant hero with the appropriate cynicism and world-weariness, but more to the point he’s very convincing as a badass. “We don’t want to hurt you,” says militia scout Nate (J.D. Pardo) when a full militia squad comes to claim him. “I don’t want to hurt them,” Miles replies wearily, which leads to the best action scene of the pilot as through a combination of swordplay, strategically placed crossbows and environmental attacks, he manages to eliminate over a dozen men in the span of three minutes. Charlie says early he’s good at killing, and quite bluntly he’s a human weapon (a term I’m reclaiming from Timothy Blake Nelson’s character on CBS’s long-forgotten Chaos). If the show’s going to include weekly ass-kicking as Favreau promised at the Television Critics Association press tour a few months back, he’s certainly the best engine for it, and the first meeting between Miles and Neville is sure to be appointment TV.

And despite its rough start, there’s still room for Revolution as a whole to turn into appointment TV if it can figure out how to tell a story without asking big questions about the Blackout. This is a high-concept show but it’s still better concept than what powered most of the shows lumped into the “next Lost” category, and given the track record of the involved parties I’m not abandoning hope this early. But if it doesn’t heed the lessons of its predecessors, I’m almost certain it’ll be heading for its own blackout territory.

Stray observations:

  • As a reminder, I’ll be reviewing the show on a weekly basis over at The A.V. Club. You can find Todd VanDerWerff’s review of the pilot and my second opinion here.
  • In addition to narrative concerns, I can’t say I’m sold by the title. Kripke and company have claimed it’s to do with the ragtag band of heroes fighting against the Monroe Republic, but the impression I’ve gotten is that the republic’s only one of many. Hopefully they’ll make it more apparent in future episodes.
  • Speaking of said republic, not too much of a glimpse of General Monroe himself, other than his camp and tent that appears to have been borrowed from Renly Baratheon. We’ll see what kind of character he turns into, but given Lyons’ performance on THE CAPE confidence isn’t high.
  • In the opening scene Miles and Monroe are heading back to their base in a red Dodge Challenger. They must have the same car salesman as Walter Jr.
  • As much as I like the imagery of the broken St. Louis Arch and collapsed Golden Gate Bridge, I’m not exactly sure how the power going out causes that much architectural damage.
  • Charlie’s skepticism of Aaron’s survival skills and desire to join the search for Danny leads to one of the show’s better interactions: “You’re afraid of bees!” “I’m not afraid of bees! I’m allergic to bees, there’s a difference.” “Well, it’s your funeral.” “Probably, yes.”
  • Neville reveals he was an insurance adjuster before the Blackout. “Most of my job centered around finding out what people said centered around the truth. Lucky for me, it’s a skill that never goes out of style.”
  • Miles offers Charlie some advice I hope the show follows: “Kid, if I’m coming with you you’re gonna have to dial it back a notch.”
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Barker Chappell Daglas Roundtable: Breaking Bad, “Madrigal,” “Hazard Pay,” “Fifty-One”

It’s been a few weeks since the Barker Chappell Daglas reviewing agency has had a chance to catch up on the activities of the Heisenberg drug empire, but we’ve finally found a place to work and the house has been tented. And we’ve got a big batch to cook, with three episodes worth of scheming, emotional abuse, mismatched shoes, dips in the pool and condiment development. We’re short a member this week as Andy’s off handling our legacy costs, but Cory Barker and I have pulled the hazmat suits on and are ready to chart Walt’s next few steps towards hell in the trio of “Madrigal,” “Hazard Pay” and “Fifty-One.”

So, with our tray of Cajun Kick-Ass, Franch dressing, honey mustard (fine-tuned for the Midwest states) and ketchup (just ketchup), let us begin.

Les: We’re now four episodes through the final season of Breaking Bad, and while we still can’t see the endgame, I’d say by any estimation it’s been a fantastic first quarter. “Madrigal,” “Hazard Pay” and “Fifty-One” have delivered some terrific moments that have done little to dissuade my conviction that when it’s on Breaking Bad is the best show on television: none of the show’s terrific highs just yet, but the action-reaction of the series is building in trademark fashion. (Plus, two counts of Walter Jr. eating breakfast, getting us that much closer to a season bingo.)

Plenty to talk about in these three episodes, but let’s start with the birthday boy himself, Mr. White – now officially a full year from the start of the series, with one more to go before he picks up the M60 in a Denny’s parking lot. If ever there was a question that Walt was turning into the bad guy through the course of this series, these episodes have given us the answer. As the self-proclaimed kingpin of the Albuquerque meth market, Walt’s finally in a position of power, and more to the point he’s acting it with every gesture. He’s so arrogantly convinced of his own superiority he dismisses the idea of a vote to his idea of using the exterminator tents to cook, and willing to flaunt his newfound wealth by trading the Aztek for a brace of Dodge Challengers. He lies as easily as he breathes now, able to manipulate Jesse into breaking things off with Andrea and able to make Marie blame Skyler’s erratic behavior on her affair with Ted Beneke. And in a series of moments that make me curl up internally every time they happen, he completely ignores the fact that Skyler’s been reduced to a near-catatonic state of fear around him, and every move he intends as comforting or seductive feels like he’s just tightening a noose.

Cory, what’s your take on Heisenberg ascendent? For four seasons we’ve become used to seeing Walt’s plans fall apart, his success only due to some last-minute bit of inspiration or stroke of luck. Now, he’s large and in charge. Too much of an adjustment, or right where we need to be?

Cory: Walt’s ignited confidence, really cockiness, is equal parts compelling, disturbing and straight-up uncomfortable. Once he killed Gus, there was a lot of chatter about what kind of man he would be on a daily basis. What I love so much about these first four episodes is that Walt hasn’t been overtly terrifying, or in full-cackling villain mode. Instead, he’s almost been less traditionally evil this season, well, pretending to be so. Whereas last season he wanted to be the one who knocks, this season he seems more willing to be the one who washes the dishes. Indeed, Walt is certainly enjoying his time as the newly-crowned king, pretending that everything is “smooth sailing” in one breath and surreptitiously ruining everyone’s life in another.

The way that Bryan Cranston has been playing in these scenes is simply a delight. He’s strutting around the White home and throwing around his weight around with Jesse and Mike. The show is still quite dark, but Cranston’s performance in these episodes has brought me back to the more black comedy stylings we saw earlier in the show’s run. It’s like everyone is else is at their darkest points, scrambling around to make it right after all sorts of hellfire, and Walt is oh so high on his own power-plays. It’s created an odd but amazing tension between Walt and other characters, and given the season a distinct vibe.

The thing is, we know it’s all going to come crashing down. Walt’s high is starting to crack, with Skyler trying to take the kids away and Mike pushing back on the business end. The clock is ticking on this air of uncomfortable happiness. I don’t really want it to end because this version of the show is intriguing, but I’m ready for Breaking Bad to paint its lead character into yet another corner.

Les: Cory, I agree that this season has been fantastic for Cranston – so much so that you can clearly hear Jon Hamm weeping off-screen for his Emmy chances*. Last week’s episode in particular was a masterwork for Walt, as he delivers that monologue about how many times he’s come close to death over the last twelve months, and fully converts his reassurances to Skyler into challenges and threats. Walt used to be convinced there were “certain words in a certain specific order” to rationalize everything, now he’s just convinced they have to be his words. It’s cold and creepy in a way they’ve approached but never embraced so fully, and I find myself watching many of his scenes through my fingers.

*Awards-related aside, If Hamm winds up getting an Emmy for his 30 Rock guest appearance when he couldn’t score one for five seasons of Mad Men, I don’t know what that says about the universe. Except maybe “BANJO!”

And given the old saying that pride comes before the fall – plus four seasons of evidence that things always get worse in this universe – we’re both in agreement that something’s going to come up and knock Walt off his perch before too long. The question then is what’ll do it, and to me it looks like the most immediate threat is Mr. Ehrmantraut. Mike’s proving to be essential to the operation of the Heisenberg machine, but unlike Jesse and Saul he’s the one part that isn’t controllable, much as Walt may say “He handles the business. I handle him.” The move at the end of their first deal to carve out the expenses brick by brick was obviously a power play on Mike’s part, as were the cutting reminders of just how much work Gus had done to keep the lights on. Neither Walt nor Mike like each other, and despite acknowledging each others’ valuable skills neither respects the other – without Jesse maintaining the peace Walt would likely have lashed out already. And given Walt’s arrogance (and the cryptic speech he made about Victor at the end of “Hazard Pay”) I can’t see it as a lasting one.

On that note, I do need to say that while I miss Gus Fring something fierce this season, Mike has done a terrific job of filling that void. Every season Jonathan Banks justifies why Gilligan and company give him more material, and he continually fleshes out this character with seemingly minimal effort. His work in “Madrigal” in particular was fantastic, as we get not only a great acting showcase in his interrogation with Hank but some moments of badassery reminiscent of his work in season three’s “Full Measure” – right down to once again using one of his granddaughter’s toys as a distraction. And of course, with his thoughts on Jesse James, keys and Miller Time, he’s been a font of some of the season’s best lines.

Cory: I actually don’t miss Gus that much at all, honestly. I expected to and I will admit that his absence gives the show a lot less palpable tension. However, bringing Mike into the limelight as paid off handsomely. Vince Gilligan is a process-oriented guy and nowhere is that ideology more evident than it is with Mike. “Madrigal” is one of the series’ finest hours even though it is one of those Gilligan-scripted process-heavy scripts. The way that Mike moved from problem to problem with his awesome combination of indignation and expertise opened us up to a new side of the show we had never seen before, and one that is necessary for us to see because it’s where Walt is going to infect or destroy next.

What impresses me so much about the characterization of Mike and really the whole show, is how expertly it convinces us to care about characters who are not, remotely, good people. This season, Mike has killed people, even people that he really liked and respected. Before, he killed a whole bunch of people. But here I am, already dreading the moment that Walt figures out how to kill or at least incapacitate Mike. And we don’t even know that much about him! He’s a good grandpa, and he has a “code” if you will. That’s pretty much it. But Jonathan Banks and this writing is so good that Mike has become almost important to me as Jesse.

To be fair though, a lot of this stems from how well the show has built up Walt’s evil nature. Characters, like Mike, who we used to view as deadly antagonists who could prevent Walt from saving himself or Jesse are suddenly sympathetic figures whose deaths we now dread. The sliding scale of good and evil on display here is wild, right?

But we’re missing the third person in this wonky three-person business venture: One Jesse Pinkman. So far, Jesse hasn’t had too much to do, particularly in comparison to the emotional catharsis we saw in the first half-dozen episodes of season four. Still though, I’ve really enjoyed Aaron Paul’s work as the doting son trapped between the two dads he loves. What do you think about Jesse in season five?

Les: As you say, Jesse hasn’t had as much to do this season. His competencies in the lab and in the business are now well-established, and he’s been far more controlled personally. And I think a large part of it is intentional on his part – after the horrors that have been visited upon him through four seasons, he’s tired of it all and just wants things to go smoothly for a change. See how quickly he passes over his cut of the money to pay Mike’s “legacy costs” when it looks like Walt’s about to pop in response, or his pleas to Mike that Lydia shouldn’t be killed. In the words of Stringer Bell, Jesse just wants to sell the shit, make a profit, and later for that gangsta bullshit.

But as the end of season three proved, Jesse’s not very good at keeping the peace when he sees an injustice, and as his emotional breakdown at the start of “Hazard Pay” when the “ricin” cigarette was discovered in the bowels of not-DJ Roomba* proved, he’s nowhere near as dead inside as Walt or Mike just yet. Right now, Jesse’s dancing on Walt’s strings – taking his relationship advice, giving him an expensive watch as a birthday present – but that’s all because he doesn’t know just what Walt’s done to ensure his loyalty. If Walt’s a time bomb, Jesse’s a grenade waiting for someone to pull the pin – neither one of them has been defused, no matter how comfortable they look watching The Three Stooges.

*Following of course a terrific montage of Walt and Jesse tearing the house apart looking for it, set to Whitey’s “Stay On The Outside.” Of the many, many, many things Breaking Bad does well visually, its montages are a personal favorite, and with both this and the initial tented cook to The Peddlers’ “On A Clear Day (You Can See Forever),” it’s keeping the bar at a nice high level.

Side note to that: I do wonder about the show’s decision to show Jesse’ breakup with Andrea off-screen. Not that I missed it terribly given how much I enjoyed that episode’s process of Walt and company setting up the new operation, but it seemed weirdly dismissed. Thoughts?

Since I mentioned her above, one thing I do want to talk about is the new outside factor of Madrigal Electronics executive Lydia. I can’t say I like the character too much given my overwhelming affection for the established cast, but I am interested by the new element she introduces to the show. After so many characters who are supremely competent (Gus, Mike) or resourceful enough to fake it (Walt, Jesse), we’ve now got someone who’s panicky and borderline crazy, prone to doing stupid things that range from putting on two different shoes to hiring Mike to kill eleven people. And in this show’s universe, stupid things always ignite the best chain reactions. What’s your initial reaction been to Lydia in her first two episodes?

Cory: Choosing to play out the Jesse-Andrea break-up off-screen was indeed odd. The show’s never been hesitant to take Jesse to dark or uncomfortable places, perhaps even sometimes going too far, so brushing that off in such a nonchalant way is weird, and intriguing. I would say that maybe Jesse picked up on Walt’s manipulative signals (like you said, he’s certainly more competent now) and he decided to lie. But there isn’t really any reason for that, unless Jesse somehow knows even more than he’s letting on – which I don’t think is true. He wouldn’t give Walt the watch* if he had more nefarious plans in mind. Perhaps the writers thought Andrea was simply a non-entity, or at least a small enough one to forgo any scene? It was probably cut, honestly.

*I want to put this out there: Jesse giving Walt the Rolex almost made me cry. Then, I thought about it a few times today and I almost cried again. Jesse Pinkman and Aaron Paul can pretty much make me cry doing anything, but sappy, gift-giving Jesse does it quite quickly.

Lydia’s integration into the show’s narrative has been pretty seamless. Again, like Mike, she projects an entirely different vibe than Gus did, further injecting less menace and more unexpected novice behavior into the story. At this juncture, she’s less of a character and more of a device but I like how she’s yet another person deeply, deeply effected by Walt’s big kill at the end of S4. Walt views his actions as just, smart and ignorantly, as an end. Unfortunately for him, Gus kept him so far out of the loop that he was unaware of how big and organized this operation was. While Lydia isn’t someone I really want to root for – particularly when she’s threatening Mike – it’s clear that she’s just doing what she can to survive. Walt won’t care, hell Mike already doesn’t, but with her lack of skill, Walt’s over-bloated ego and Jesse perhaps blinded by his affection to his dueling father figures, there’s a lot of dysfunctional elements at play here. Mike is sort of trapped in the middle of it all, just trying to make money for his granddaughter and his guys. I guess that’s admirable.

What do you think about Lydia, and we might as well make a turn towards the big, controversial elephant in the room: Skyler. Many of our friends and peers have written great pieces about the character and the reaction to her but how do you view her dip in the pool and her “plan” to save the kids?

Les: I actually was not a huge fan of the way Lydia was introduced, if only because the whole Madrigal arc felt rather out of place when it came in. Much as I enjoyed the bizarre cold open with the short happy life of Herr Schueler, Franch dressing and all, it was almost too alien for the show’s universe. (Though let’s be honest, I’ll forgive it entirely if the home office comes after Walt so in his hubris he can have a moment like this.) As I said, I enjoy the element of mania she introduces to the show, and I enjoy how the much more seasoned Mike and Jesse are at times bemused and annoyed at her lack of experience in this business. I’m also really looking forward to seeing her reaction to Walt – unlike most every character in the show, she’s never seen him pre-Heisenberg and has no reason not to fear him unequivocally.

But then again, the one character who saw him the most pre-Heisenberg was his wife, and she’s more terrified of him than anything. We discussed Skyler’s motivations and our feelings about the character back in our season premiere discussion, and if anything I’ve grown more and more fascinated by her. She hasn’t broken bad the way Walt did, she’s simply broken, not able to much more than lay in a state of shock* or give into the audience’s long-held desires by yelling “Shut up!” at Marie approximately 80 times. And it’s been pretty fantastic to watch – I still don’t know if I like the character very much, but the work Anna Gunn is doing is enough to justify consecutive Emmy nominations.

*The decision in “Madrigal” not to show either her or Walt’s face during that first talk was a brilliant piece of cinematography. Porkpie hats off to Michelle MacLaren.

The corrosion of the Walt/Skyler relationship is turning out to be even more damning than the uneasy White/Pinkman/Ehrmentraut alliance. Whether consciously or not, Walt’s been emotionally abusing her all season: those horrifying attempts at seduction and reassurance, buying two Dodge Challengers* and offering a smug explanation for it, and throwing down 20 grand to launder through the car wash. I see her immersion (in the words of Marla Singer) as not a real suicide attempt but more one of those “cry for help things,” and the same with trying to get the kids out of the house. I think she knows that if there was a door open – telling her attorney, running to the Four Corners – it’s closed forever, and she’s in too deep to a game she’s not emotionally geared to play. Her only card is to appeal to Walt’s stated goal to protect his family, and that’s turned into an empty statement if ever there was one.

*RIP to the Aztek: ugly car, murder weapon and serial shattered windshield victim.

And truthfully, this is more interesting to me than if she’d continued to embrace illegalities and become a Lady Macbeth type, say in the vein of Carmela Soprano or Gemma Teller. Breaking Bad is all about how Walt’s choices have eaten away at everyone around him, and what happened in the climactic fight of “Fifty-One” (in addition to being a masterfully shot and acted scene) was the natural escalation of this emotional toll. She’s certainly complicit, but at this point, first and foremost, she’s trapped.

Cory: I’ve always been a big fan of Skyler. She’s been in a tough spot within the show’s diegetic world and with fans who want to celebrate the antics of the morally corrupt anti-hero. With that said, it doesn’t surprise me that there’s been A LOT of contention about this season and her place within it. You have to imagine that most people assumed that the show would focus on the aftermath of Gus’ death and Walt’s choices in a business or cooking context. Gilligan and company have definitely done that, but the spotlight has still been on Walt’s home life and his relationship with Sky more than anything else. It’s sort of like what happened at the beginning of season three. That pisses off fans who just want the show to be about cooking and Walt being a badass. I’m not saying that people have to watch the show in one certain way, though I get a kick out of those frustrations.

In any event, her actions in recent episodes have been powerful and compelling. Walt wants so bad for things to be smooth sailing and he’s just delusional. I like that Skyler is taking some action to protect the kids and not simply letting Walt run the whole show – though he’s probably going to end up doing so anyway – and these scenes further reflect just how far into the darkness Walt has plunged. His manipulation of Jesse makes me sad. The way he treats Skyler makes me sick.

Les: I as well Cory – and what makes me even more nervous is that there’s still four
episodes left in this half-season. Plenty of room for him to go even darker, but also plenty of room for the repercussions of his actions to catch up to him. And if these three episodes are any indication, it’s simmering in just the right way that either way it’s going to be fantastic. Looking forward to discussing this again once it starts to boil.

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Barker Chappell Daglas Roundtable: Mad Men, “Commissions and Fees”

Two episodes left in what’s been a hell of a run for Mad Men this season. We’ve seen agency fortunes rise and fall, we’ve seen acid trips and fisticuffs, split narratives and unstuck timelines, guest appearances from Leland Palmer, Alex Mack, Mr. Belding and Rory Gilmore. For a show that a lot of people (the Barker Chappell Daglas agency included) have chastised for being less than subtle this year in its messages, it certainly hasn’t offset the overall quality of what is commonly considered the greatest show on television.

And in Mad Men fashion they’re saving the big guns for last, as last Sunday’s “Commissions and Fees” finally brought resolution to the season’s very heavy foreshadowing. Cory Barker, Andy Daglas and I are here to break down the penultimate episode of Mad Men season five. To reassure you beforehand, please note that none of the three partners in BCD are in dire financial straits at this time, so don’t worry about us huffing carbon monoxide in a Jaguar by the end of this discussion. (And also please note that would you like to contract our services after the season wraps, this agency operates on straight commission but will negotiate fee structures if the terms are acceptable.)

Let’s negotiate our “Commissions and Fees”:

Les: Traditionally, Mad Men‘s penultimate episodes are the ones where the season’s most earth-shattering moments happen. In season one, we learned the truth of who Dick Whitman really was, and the circumstances by which he came to become Don Draper. Season two saw Sterling Cooper sold to the British (the first major firm decision made with Don in absentia and the most recent of which came last week) and the reveal of Anna Draper’s existence. Season three was the Kennedy assassination and the collapse of the Draper marriage, which finally came down once Betty learned the truth. Season four was the gutting of SCDP after Lucky Strike’s abandonment of the firm and Don’s subsequent letter to the New York Times, a move that gave the company considerable press but poisoned the well in the long run (as Ed Baxter pointed out a few episodes ago and reminded us of again tonight).

Season five’s penultimate “Commissions and Fees?” No different. The death pool we’ve been speculating on all season, and which I was coming very close to writing off as a season’s worth of misdirection, finally yielded results.

And the final “winner?” Lane Pryce. His forgery of a few weeks ago finally came to light through the meddling of Bert Cooper, and Don – intractable to the last on so many things – tells Lane that he has to accept his resignation because he can never trust him again. Don tries to phrase it in the best of terms, offering it as a chance for Lane to restart his life in Dick Whitmanesque fashion, but Lane’s stiff upper lip nature can’t even allow for the possibility. He stares out the window at the falling snow, throws up at the sight of the Jaguar Rebecca bought him, and after a sleepless night comes to terms with what he thinks needs to be done.

I called Lane as the leading death pool candidate back when we discussed “Christmas Waltz,” but I take no pleasure in knowing I was right. We’ve had qualms with the Lane stories this season, but this was a gut-punch of a reveal to me personally, as I’ve always liked Lane as a character and became a Jared Harris fan because of what he did on this show. I thought it was coming from the moment Scarlett said that Lane’s office was locked, but the gradual realization of it – and the dark inverse of Peggy’s peeping from “The Rejected” used to reveal the truth to Pete and company – was done in devastating fashion. The look on Don, Roger and Pete’s faces as they saw what he’d done and subsequently cut him down was tragic, especially to those of us who thought any of them could go the same route this season. And poor, pathetic Lane, thwarted to the last – his more dignified approach of suffocating himself with the exhaust of the Jaguar he fought so hard to bring to the agency was thwarted by the car’s shoddy workmanship, and his symbolic spectacle breaking ruined as he had to hold one up to examine the car and tape them together to return to the agency for his Plan B.

Cory, Andy, how did you feel about Mr. Pryce’s resignation? Did it hit you as much as me?

Cory: This season of Mad Men keeps throwing one massive event after another at me, and I wish I felt better about them. Much like with last week’s episode, “Commissions and Fees” features a slew of powerful moments, but also struggles to remove the hand of the writers in those moments. Clearly, I realize that every episode of television is written (well, except for Smash) and that the characters are not real people. However, a handful of great moments from this season of Men have been undermined by the very visible orchestrating done by the writing staff. Last week, I had trouble swallowing Joan’s choice and this week, the circumstances of Lane’s suicide and the surrounding events didn’t go down too easy either.

On one hand, Lane’s death makes a lot of sense. We’ve been discussing deaths, well, to death, and it became pretty clear that he was our prevailing candidate to bite the bullet. Similarly, I quite liked Jared Harris’ performance in every scene in “Commissions and Fees,” especially the one where Lane tried to make it all end in his new car. And obviously, that final sequence with Don, Pete and Roger pulling his body down and processing the events was one of the most evocative, disturbing and memorable bits in the series’ run. All of that stuff was great.

Nevertheless, two issues remain for me. The first is related to how convenient a lot of this ended up being. Lane’s wife buying him the car was a manipulative stroke, the bits about “life and death” related to Sally’s first period had me rolling my eyes and  Glen’s dejected rant to Don in the elevator simply laid the episode’s/season’s/series’ theme on WAY too thick. Mad Men isn’t shy when it wants to spell things out for the audience, but goodness Andre and Maria Jacquemetton took it a step too far. I don’t need to be beat over the head, especially by creepy Glen. The other issue I have with Lane’s death is that I’m not really sure why it had to happen. As we’ve said before, Mad Men isn’t a story where people must die, but this season it seems like everything was leading to a major one because, well, because. We certainly bought into that idea hard here in the roundtable, but now that I’ve seen Lane’s miserable story play out, I’m not sure it was really worth it. Which is likely part of the point, but still.

So again, here I am, my emotions wrecked by an event but my mind questioning its logic. Andy, your thoughts?

Andy: I guess that makes me the stone-hearted monster of the group this week. I too like Jared Harris as an actor, and think the nuances he’s brought to the role of Lane Pryce have elevated it above its consistently thin and sometimes disjointed writing. But I’ve never had much of an emotional reaction to him one way or another, so his death doesn’t resonate at all. Even when it became obvious where the episode was heading, I didn’t respond on a gut level until the moment when Joan attempts to enter his office. There was power in her reaction, and in Don’s and Roger’s and Pete’s. I’ll be interested to see how the fallout impacts them in the finale (and perhaps next season, depending on the time jump). As for Lane himself, can anyone really say they’ll miss having the character in the roster?

Not to claim divine knowledge of the Will of Matthew Weiner or nothing, but doesn’t it feel like the writers felt the same way on both counts? Of the “major” characters, Lane was easily the most poorly integrated with the rest of the core. They seldom knew what to do with him, so why not get rid of him. And hey, if you can do it in a way that accelerates the onrushing darkness and throws everyone else through another wringer, you’ve gotta do it.

It felt mechanical from start to finish, doubling down on the creakiness of the forgery plot that started us on this road. Is suicide plausible for Lane was we know him? It’s a petty, selfish, cowardly, and excessive act – so yes, absolutely. But under these circumstances? The tearful resentment he lobbed at Don was understandable and sincere, but with even an iota of reflection (and even Mad Men characters are capable of that much), he’s hardly in dire straits. Frankly, all things considered, Don handled Lane’s dismissal like a champ. A dignified resignation and a decent pecuniary cushion are more than enough for him to, as Don recommends, “start over.”

The whole thing irritates me deeply. I ask again, in the wake of what feels like a very cavalier decision to dispose of a disposable character – and not by packing him off to the Coast with a pocketful of Harry Crane’s cash, either – how dark can Mad Men go for seemingly the hell of it?

Plenty of other dark shit happened this week, of course, much of which I enjoyed somewhat more, but I’ll stop here for the moment. Cory, you brought up the very-active-this-week Glen – Les, how do you feel about Matthew Weiner sending forth his son to delivereth his message unto the masses?

Les: Oh, ugh. Glen Bishop’s a character I’ve never cared for in the slightest – his creepy attachment to Betty in the earlier seasons was a part of episodes I completely tuned out of, and I think the focus on that relationship poisoned the well of Betty as a character very early on. I was slightly more tolerant of his inclusion as time went on when he became friends with Sally, but that was only because it gave Kiernan Shipka a chance to interact with a non-parental figure, and I’d’ve been perfectly happy if his family moved away and never came back. And the writers seem to know that too – the instance where Don draws a blank on who he is and Glen has to spell it out was rather funny in its blatant attempt to remind us who this character was and why he mattered.

Come to think of it, “blatant” is the best word for how the character was used in this episode. We keep talking about the show being on-the-nose this season, but that last line of his to Don in the elevator about everything turns out crappy was blunt force trauma after the quietly unfolding heartbreak of what happened to Lane in the office. It wasn’t even that it was direct, but it was completely unnecessary to the message of the episode, only serving to give Don a distraction so he didn’t have to tell Megan what he’d seen at the office for a few more hours. And going back to his day trip with Sally at the art museum, that now feels like it deprived us of an afternoon that could have been spent with Megan and Sally and Megan’s redheaded friend spending the day together, a story that could have further complicated Don and Megan’s relationship had Sally gotten her period then and Megan’s forced to be more of an actual mother to her than she’s ever been. Instead, no, just a scene of Glen making random comments about Roosevelt killing all the animals in a museum and getting Megan to make him dinner.

It was so annoying I don’t even feel like talking about it anymore, so let’s go back to the issue of Lane’s death. I’ve been thinking a lot about it since it happened, and I think that the problem is similar to a lot of our problems with Joan’s decision last week: it feels like they chose an objective for the character ahead of time and then wrote back to it, so you can see the strings worse than in the Wonder Woman pilot’s fight scenes. I don’t find it implausible that Lane would do this – he’s been established as a man who’s been beaten down (literally in some cases) by his father’s influence, a meaningless cog to St. John Powell and PPL, and always something of an outsider to his American compatriots. But his particular woes – feeling meaningless to the agency, increasingly financially strained – only came in at intervals this season, came out of nowhere, and they were always secondary to the plots surrounding the three men who eventually cut him down.

So, this is now two weeks in a row where Mad Men‘s made some very big, life-altering decisions for its characters, where the means to get there was certainly clunky but the results in both cases were (at least to me) heartbreaking and fantastically acted. My question is: do you feel the results outweigh the process?

Cory: I’ve enjoy Glen precisely because he’s a creeper, just as his relationship with Sally has been quite entertaining to watch because it makes me so uncomfortable. I think I would have liked that portion of the episode much better had it not been part of this specific episode. Again, the whole life/death symmetry was slightly clunky, but their conversations are perfectly awkward and stiff.* Glen somewhat frustratingly describing the hassle it would take to visit Sally in NYC was charming in a super-weird, inappropriate dirty mustache kind of way. And truthfully, Sally rushing home to Betty gave Mrs. Francis (and January Jones) a nice moment or two of real emoting. As a separate entity, that story worked. But the loosey-goosey nature of that story clanked against the manufactured slog towards Lane’s suicide. Not the finest editing in the series’ history, that’s for sure. 

*It’s unclear to me if these conversations are so stiff because Weiner’s kid cannot act, because of the writing or both. I do know that I hate Weiner even more for giving his son major burn in such an important episode. That dude is such a life troll.

Les, I guess you’re right in some ways: Sure, it is logical that Lane as we’ve grown to know him would do this. He’s a character that constantly gives and anytime he tries to take, things end up going poorly. And recent episodes have certainly pushed him further into a corner. But I can’t let go of the feeling that this was all for naught. This season, even above all others, is one of misery and the easiest way to keep ratcheting up said misery is death. Moments into this episode, I was resigned to Lane killing himself and despite the quality work of Harris, Hamm, Slattery and company in those final moments of his life and initial moments of his death, I didn’t care that much, nor did I really see the point.

Perhaps this leads me perfectly to an attempted answer to your question. I think the jury is still out if the “results” are worth it. I don’t see Lane’s death impacting any individual characters other than Joan and Don, and if you take the events of the last two episodes together, it seems relatively clear that this is all supposed to spur Don on to do, or feel…something. The Joan/Jaguar situation seems to only be bothering him and there’s a possibility that he will feel some responsibility for Lane’s death (although if he does, I might have to question that choice). I’m not sure how comfortable I am with Weiner and company orchestrating seismic life events for other characters as a way to shape Don’s seasonal journey, but maybe that’s where we’re headed. And if we are, maybe this all makes more sense in retrospect. However, as it stands now, my skepticism is high. I expect Mad Men to value the process, not just skip to the results. This isn’t Glee.

Andy: I enjoy Glen in small doses, and his uncannny knack for flummoxing every grown-up he meets offered some of the only levity of the week. And his and Sally’s tedious museum date was a solid slice of cringe comedy. For that matter, Sally’s story as a whole was the sugar that made this bitter episode go down. Even when it veered into a serious and fittingly scary place, it came from a place of respect and warmth for the characters and their small but meaningful tribulations. It was rather achingly sweet to see her make a beeline for the arms of her mother, who just a day before Sally was yet again needling about her diet. That Betty is so stunned by even this modest show of affection from her daughter that it takes her three full seconds to return the hug was just icing on the cake.*

*And credit where it’s due: January Jones was pretty delightful this week. More of this Betty with some comic zing to her, please.

It’s possible I’m imbuing this minor story with too much weight simply because it was the one ray of light in the episode. But unlike Lane’s (and Don’s, which we have yet to hit on), it at least displayed a range of emotions. People sometimes connected, and sometimes disconnected. As opposed to the rest of “Commissions and Fees,” and most of “The Other Woman,” which both decided from the start to stab us in the gut and then chugged unrelentingly towards that goal.

Since I brought up Don, it seems a good time to ask what you guys thought about this latest step in his professional renaissance – specifically about the blunt, snarling pitch-cum-lecture he spews at the Dow Chemical team. Weiner Junior wasn’t the only one laying it on a bit thick this week, was he?

Les: We certainly seem to be in the midst of a Draper renaissance over the last few episodes. First he’s giving a speech to whip the troops into order, then he’s delivering a vintage Draper pitch not seen since the days of Sterling Cooper, and now he’s aggressively going after the “Moby Dick” of clients, the company whose head blatantly told him that he couldn’t be trusted. (And when the Devil himself tells you you’re untrustworthy, you tend to listen.) He certainly does lay it on thick, telling them that fifty percent of the market share isn’t enough and that he thinks their firm can make Dow dominate the chemical market as much as London Fog* dominated the overcoat market.

*London Fog. Bert Cooper was right, that’s a great name.

Unlike Lane’s decisions, this one I felt was very much in-keeping with Don’s reaction to the way things have been going. With Lane’s financial ruin, Peggy’s departure from the office and Joan’s drastic measures to secure the account, it makes sense that Don would feel he had to do something to exercise control over the agency’s future again. And while it certainly wasn’t a subtle speech – once again Don’s spelling out the show’s themes for us all to read – it was a speech he needed to give, as much for his own benefit as Ed Baxter and the Dow executives. (I also very much enjoyed the classic Sterling one-liners Don’s new fire inspired: “The guy who got hard at the word ‘no.’ I miss that guy.”)

The question now of course is what Lane’s passing does to that reawakened fire. Don certainly didn’t think what Joan did was the right thing for the agency, what does he do now that a man is dead? Is it more fuel for the drive to succeed and make it all mean something, or a realization that it’s not worth the cost? Given the way things are going this season, I’m inclined to believe the former.

Cory: Don’s certainly trying to re-exert control, not just over the agency, but his life. His speech to Baxter and company was impassioned and personal, but sort of uncomfortable to watch because so. Don has experienced some big highs and even bigger lows recently, but he quickly realized that it wasn’t enough. It’s never enough. We’ve talked a lot about how at the beginning of the season, Don seemed content and maybe even a little happy doing next to nothing. I’m not sure if it was Megan quitting, Ginsberg challenging him or a combination of both, but lately, Don’s snapped out of his lull and perhaps taken his inspiration and motivation too far. There’s no mention of Peggy this week, but surely that’s still eating him, and he’s clearly still upset over what happened to/with Joan. Thus, he’s filling the void left by the things he cannot control with things he believes that he can: getting people off with his pitches.

I’d say that Don is in danger of flaming out because he won’t stop to analyze the challenges he’s faced recently, but Don Draper never stops. If something else blows up, Don will just push forward. That’s what he does. As he told Lane, he’s started over a lot, and he’ll do it again. What I’m worried about is the wreckage that he could leave in the wake of the new beginning. 

Les: Wreckage does tend to be what Don Draper leaves when starting over, particularly in finales. In season three’s he blew up the agency to create SCDP, in season four he blew up his relationship with Dr. Faye to marry Megan – what’ll he do next in the interest of self-growth? To paraphrase his Jaguar pitch, what price would we pay? What behavior would we forgive?

We’ll have to see which of the tectonic plates are shifting next for our hero. There’s a marriage on rocky ground, a daughter coming to troubled maturation, a protege abandoning him and an agency driven to increasingly more desperate moves despite its success, there’s plenty of powder kegs to light off. And personally, I can’t wait. Until next week, when “The Phantom” brings this season to a close!

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Announcement: This Was Television

2012 is turning into a very eventful year for A Helpless Compiler. In my second year we’ve expanded our coverage far past this one site, with a guest column stint on CC2K and a freelance position with The A.V. Club. And the fun doesn’t end there: Coming next week I’ll be announcing the various shows I’ll be catching up on over the summer, offering my thoughts on some of the many trailers for fall 2012 shows, and also potentially starting up a new summer rewatch project. (Might the pies be baking and the dead rising again?)

But now, I want to take a moment for a very important announcement. I’m pleased to announce today is the launch of This Was Television, a new website devoted to (as the subtitle suggests) flipping through television’s past. I’ve partnered with friends of the blog and frequent collaborators Cory Barker of TV Surveillance, Andy Daglas of The Vast Wasteland and Noel Kirkpatrick of Monsters of Television to create a website specifically focused on older television. As Cory puts it in our mission statement:

As the tense of this place’s name suggests, This Was Television aims to focus on television’s past. There is so much televisual content coming at us every day (hell, every second) that it is really easy to forget what came before The Sopranos or even Twin Peaks. With this new website, we hope to help you remember — or even better, to help you experience television history for the first time.

This Was Television will explore multiple facets of television history through multiple approaches and lenses. We think it will be fun (and hopefully informative) to approach older television content with knowledge of contemporary trends, themes, and realities. Television is constantly changing. Going backwards and thinking a little harder about the hows and the whys is exciting to us, and hopefully to you as well.

There’s a lot of content that’ll be coming to you in the next few weeks, and certainly to be even more as we figure out just what you want to hear. You can find a schedule for our first round of original content here, but to summarize my own contributions starting out:

  • I’ll be covering the original U.K Prime Suspect series by myself with a new installment every Wednesday beginning on June 13 with part 1 of the first serial.
  • The four of us will be conducting a roundtable discussion of the first season of Taxi every Thursday, beginning on June 14 with the pilot episode.
  • We’ll also be launching a TV history-centric book club discussion on Fridays, beginning on June 15 with Warren Littlefield’s oral history of NBC Top of the Rock.

I hope that those of you who like my own writing will follow me over to This Was Television. We’ve been working on this for weeks and are tremendously excited about what’s to come these next few months. You can find our site at and follow us on Twitter at @ThisWasTV – stay tuned for further excitement!

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A.V. Club Review: The Borgias, “The Siege Of Forli”

There’s fires being set all over Italy on this week’s episode of The Borgias: Savonarola’s kicking off the Bonfire of the Vanities, Juan’s got a burning sensation when he urinates, and Lucrezia’s burning with lust for her suitor’s younger brother. As always, I’m here to watch just how high the fires climb, with my review of “The Siege Of Forli” up at The A.V. Club.

(Also a heads up: Showtime’s original series are all taking Memorial Day weekend off, so I’ll be back week after next for “Truth and Lies.”)

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Barker Chappell Daglas Mad Men Roundtable: Dark Shadows

It’s Thanksgiving in May on this week’s Mad Men (one of the show’s startling similarities with Cougar Town, more of which you can see if you look closely) and there’s a toxic smog covering both New York and the attitudes of a lot of characters. But that doesn’t stop Cory Barker, Andy Daglas and myself from strapping on some gas masks and getting into the details of “Dark Shadows.”

Advance warning: this one might be even more rambling than you’re accustomed to, as our schedules didn’t permit usual flow of conversation. Cory had to leave midway through the discussion to take a business trip to Howard Johnson’s, Andy was struck with an illness in which he hallucinated killing his former mistress, and I’ve had to do a lot of extra work that sadly wasn’t bankrolled by Roger Sterling’s money clip.

With that out of the way, let’s pound some Reddi Whip and get into it.

Les: I have to admit, on seeing the title of this week’s Mad Men I was fairly confused. I know Matt Weiner’s a very demanding showrunner, but opting to have us watch the latest Tim Burton film instead of a typical episode seems outlandish even for him. But I gave in, and to be honest I can see where he was going with this. The struggles of the vampire Barnabas Collins to understand the oddities of 1970s society parallel the struggles of SCDP’s partners to orient around changing social norms, and the relationships formed between angelic Josette and spiteful witch Angelique are nothing if not a reflection of Don’s connection to wives past and present. And if you tilt your head to just the right angle, Barnabas’ confusion at the music of Alice Cooper (“The ugliest woman I’ve ever seen!”) is much like the brick wall Don hit last week after trying to comprehend the last track of Revolver.

Perhaps the message Weiner was trying to get across by changing our viewing patterns is to see that the problems faced by Don, Peggy and the rest are so universal they can be seen anywhere, even in a remake of a supernatural soap opera… Wait. You mean there actually was an episode of Mad Men this week called “Dark Shadows,” released the same weekend as a film of the same name? Do they not see how confusing this gets?!

Okay, I think I’m done milking that joke. So, “Dark Shadows,” an episode which was light on vampire-related drama but which was heavy on spite from a lot of people. Don sees his ideas encroached on by the rising star of Mike Ginsberg, so he abandons that art in the cab to sell his own idea – a move that leaves Peggy feeling smug in turn. Betty’s so jealous of Don and Megan’s happiness that she drops a mention of Anna Draper to Sally, only for Sally to turn around and drive that knife through the extra layers Betty still can’t manage to shed. And Roger extends the olive branch to Jane and asks her to be his date for a potential client meal, but fixates so closely on her flirtation with the client’s son that he rekindles their relationship for the sole purpose of having sex in the new apartment she wanted for a fresh start.

So, a lot of nastiness going on from a lot of people. Andy, who wins the Most Unnecessarily Cruel title in your book?

Andy: So, what you’re saying is, I came to this roundtable in my Barnabas Collins cosplay for nothing? Have you any idea how long it takes to iron a damn cape?!

I’ll add one more name to your roll call of malice, albeit one with an asterisk. Pete’s sunken into a funk so deep that he can’t even spite someone without winding up a chump. Twice he tries to twist the knife in a rival—first by touting himself as the face of SCDP to the New York Times, later by rubbing Howard’s face in his cuckoldry—and twice his efforts backfire because nobody takes him seriously. I suppose we should take it as a good sign that he’s still fantasizing about Naughty Dream Rory*, and not about, say, shooting everyone he knows in the face.

 *Am I crazy, or for just a second did that strategically worn coat cross the line of what’s allowed on basic cable in the 9 p.m. hour? In other news, no I do not still have eye strain.

 I’m ambivalent about “Dark Shadows” overall. While it had a ton of wonderful scenes (including the triumphant return of Roger Sterling Bribery Theater!), something about the whole felt off. Not that the moments didn’t hang together, but rather that they hung together a bit too snugly. Instead of weaving two or three emotional threads through the episode, as the best Mad Mens do, everything this week was driven by the same one. Each character’s particular story was appropriately gut-wrenching and well-tailored to his or her psyche. But packed all into the same hour, the effect was like a theme episode of Glee, with “Jealousy!” standing in for “Madonna!”

 Now that I’ve invoked an unholy comparison that will get me viciously stoned, I’d better throw it to you, Cory. Did this episode hit you in the face like a snowball?

Cory: Andy, your point about the obvious connections between each story is a solid one, but that snugness didn’t take away from a series of really great sequences. Although themes were so clearly on the table this week, I found that each story was tremendously well-performed. “Dark Shadows” features my favorite Jon Hamm performance of the season, perhaps only because it is nice to see him flex some different acting muscles outside of anger, disappointment and dejected sadness. Don’s reignited competitive fire is something that the three of us have been waiting for all season and it makes a boat-load of sense that Ginsberg* is the one to push him to be better and/or just pull rank like the asshole he is. I love that the series finally gave us what we wanted in a renewed Don, but then immediately undercut it by having him suck at copy and ultimately (and weakly) push Mike’s idea down. How’d you guys feel about that story in relationship to Don’s arc this season?

*Ginsberg has quickly become one of my favorite characters and I think we need to give Weiner and company credit for methodically establishing his skills so that we actually believe he can out-do Don.

And before we get going too far here, let me just say this: I thought January Jones was really, really good in this episode. This was certainly her finest work since the tail-end of season three (from episodes I enjoyed more than most, I think), and a fine reminder that despite all the hate, she can do a few things other than look cold, pretty or fat/pregnant, or some combination of the three. I know I’m out on an island with my sympathy for one Pete Campbell, but you two felt at least a little sympathy for Betty here, right? She reacted like a child when she saw the note from Don to Megan, but I don’t really expect much else.

Les: Cory, I’m in complete agreement with you on January Jones being very good in this installment. As I said back when we discussed “Tea Leaves” my issues with Betty are more about the usefulness of character than the performance, and if they can find some way to use her well I have no problem when she shows up. And I think this episode they found an interesting use of the character, turning her into something of an antagonist to our heroes Don and Sally. With one offhand comment about Don’s “first wife” she puts another dent in the Draper marriage (albeit an apparently minor one given Megan already knew about Anna), and gives Sally another harsh lesson in how difficult the adult world can be. Perhaps this is the character’s new role? If so I like it. I can just picture Betty in the tower of the castle-like Francis residence, plotting Don’s downfall a la the Evil Queen in Once Upon a Time, quietly smiling to herself as Sally impotently slams doors in rage.

If that metaphor didn’t give it away, sympathy was not something I found myself feeling for Betty in this instance. Yes, the scene where she’s walking through the Draper apartment to see just how well everything fits together and how much younger her successor* was very meaningful, and her reaction of cramming her face full of whipped cream** was startling in how desperate it made the character seem. But once her trigger was tripped by Don’s note to Megan, sympathy went out the window to be replaced by admiration at her idea to set off the truth bomb of Don’s “first wife” to Sally. That was almost sociopathic in its efficiency: she didn’t care how Sally would react or what it could do to Don’s personal life, she simply didn’t want Megan to be happy, and this was a very easy way to ensure that.

*I’m pretty sure if Betty were a more empathetic person, she’d have seen that Megan’s rapid dressing betrayed she was as nervous about this meeting as Betty was.

**In a sign all’s right with the Internet, a gif of that was up not five minutes after the scene aired.

You could write this off as part of Betty’s childish reaction to things, but I think the episode also subverted that with the scene where she talks to Henry about Lindsay’s lack of presidential ambitions. She doesn’t freak out about his career being in jeopardy or adopt the bland Stepford facade she had so often with Don, she legitimately listened to him and was supportive in a manner that was completely mature. (Though that was offset slightly by him feeding her a bite of steak that begged for an “Open up for the airplane!” voiceover.) Betty can be reasonable about things when necessary, but in the case of Don and Megan? She chooses not to.

Andy, which side of the fence are you on? (And as Howard mused to Pete, is the grass greener there?)

Andy: As a character, Betty still leaves me cold (though I will agree that January Jones played her scenes with precise aplomb this week). She was largely effective as a plot instigator though, and I did get a kick out of how Sally, Megan, and Don in turn reacted to her attempt at sabotage. Sally’s stroke of verbal jujitsu, using Betty’s little scheme against her, was particularly awesome.*

*And gives further weight to my insistence that Sally and Arya Stark need to team up and form a detective agency.

If this is the incarnation of Betty going forward, a petty villain concocting poisoned apples and generally Iago-ing things up, then I’m cool with an episode or two along these lines every season. Between her undermining the tranquility of the Draper homestead and Ginsberg gobbling up creative accolades at work, Don’s fighting a war against his considerable ego on two fronts. It’s exciting to see him energized again, though it remains to be seen whether that rejuvenation will last or whether it was merely a way of reasserting his alpha status. However much interest he’s lost in his work up til now, he’s not willing to let anyone usurp his position either.

Roger views his soon-to-be-ex-wife the same way, resenting her interest in the flirtatious heir to the Manischewitz crown. I must admit, I wasn’t totally sure whether he consciously chose to sleep with Jane at her new apartment in order to taint it, as Les asserted. I was even more uncertain about his post-coital apology. Was that genuine remorse, or his way of letting her know that he knew exactly what he was doing?

Cory: I think I interpreted Roger’s actions somewhere in between how the two of you responded to it. I don’t think the whole night was planned so that he can ruin the apartment. His jealously certainly spurred him to find Jane attractive again. But after she mentioned the consequences of his actions, I think Roger got at least a little kick out of it. Because of that, I’d say that the apology was probably only three-fourths earnest, at best. The typical Roger Sterling smirk was certainly there.

Les, you mention that you’d prefer Betty to show up occasionally and cause a little ruckus and while that makes sense to me, it also makes me wonder what the point is. As I said, I like Betty, I think she’s a more interesting character that people give her credit for. But if this is going to be the norm from here on out — and maybe it won’t be once January Jones isn’t preggers in real life — I’m not really sure why Weiner even makes an effort. Sometimes, it feels like he keeps Betty around just to spite the loud portion of the audience who hates her. She’s always been detached from the majority of the stories and perhaps there is no real way to solve that problem without bringing her and Don back together (which would be a terrible idea).

In any event, it’s pretty telling that Betty’s place in this episode basically exists to give Megan even more time to shine. Betty’s actions are selfish and childish enough in their own right, but when lined up with Megan’s measured response to them, the second Mrs. Draper just looks sad. Megan calmly handled Sally’s frantic outburst and did even better with Don’s angry rant. There was a lot of discussion over the weekend about Jessica Pare entering herself into the Lead Actress category at the Emmys and as far as I’m concerned, she should. This episode only further confirms that Megan is the most prominent (and perhaps dominant) character of season five. At this point, are there any questions about Megan’s maturity or Jessica Pare’s performance for that matter?

Les: To clarify, I don’t think that the entire Manischewitz dinner was an elaborate scheme of Roger’s to sabotage Jane’s happiness in the same way that Betty was trying to sabotage Don and Megan. It wasn’t malicious, just Roger being Roger. I paraphrased Roger back in “At the Codfish Ball” that he wants what he wants when he wants it, and while I don’t dispute the acid may have made him more empathetic after the fact, in the moment Roger never gives a damn for the consequences of his actions.

As to Megan, I am completely in support of both the character and the performance – there was a fantastic article on Grantland late last week that made the argument Megan is the Galactus of this season, an analogy I completely support for her upheaval of Don’s normal practice and her general awesomeness. I don’t think given the quality of Mad Men anyone would say it was in need of fresh blood, but she’s broadened the show’s perspective considerably, which I think was necessary both to symbolize the changing societal roles and give Don romantic/creative opposites to further his midlife crisis.

Do I think she’s Emmy-worthy? Not quite, but only because she hasn’t been given the right kind of material (“Far Away Places” came close but isn’t quite there) and because when it comes to considering lead actress nominations I give the nod to Elisabeth Moss immediately. I would put her ahead of both Jones and Christina Hendricks in the running, given how based on how little those two have comparatively had to do this season, but still in second place. If Weiner created a very Megan-centric episode – say an installment where she tries to get back into the acting community and finds that with her new Park Avenue lifestyle, she’s as alien there now as Don was among Midge’s bohemian circle – she’s certainly proven talented enough to rise to the occasion.

But I want to talk a bit about the alien presence still in SCDP, that of Mr. Ginsberg, who has encountered Don’s dark side for the first time as the devil on Don’s shoulder literally replaces his ad campaign. (How brutally terrific was that exchange between them in the elevator? “I feel bad for you.” “I don’t think about you at all.”) Ginsberg’s talked a mean game all season and likes having the ability to out-talk both Don and Peggy: do you think he takes this lying down or goes on the offense? And if this is the first shot in a creative war, care to pick sides?

Andy: One thing about Don’s big-timing of Ginsberg that I haven’t heard so far: Could he, in the back of his mind, be getting some payback for the Cinderella switcheroo in “Mystery Date”?

Here’s a half-baked theory for you: Ginsberg shares some of Pete’s DNA -antagonism towards his boss, unrelenting need for validation, hair-trigger petulance – and the two characters have had little (no?) time together on-screen. If their respective tensions within SCDP come to a head, what’s to stop the two from striking out on their own and forming a rival agency, in a dark echo of the season three finale? Given their success relative to Roger and Don this year, that upstart firm could pose a legitimate threat to the Mad Men establishment by the time 1968 rolls around.

Les: Campbell and Ginsberg forming their own agency? I like it. Hell, have them join up with Teddy Chaoug-guh-guh and Duck Philips, find a way to work Betty in there and you’ve got Mad Men‘s Legion of Doom!

We’ll have to see if that’s where they choose to take things next week. Until then!

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CC2K Column: New Girl Wins 2011-2012’s “Most Improved Sitcom” Award

Friend of the blog Phoebe Raven is on a well-deserved vacation from her duties as CC2K’s TV editor, and following my column on the virtues of Revenge she asked if I wanted to fill in for her. I did, and for my next entry I decided to revisit FOX’s New Girl, which wrapped its first season last week and continued on course to become one of the season’s most entertaining sitcoms. You can find the piece live over at CC2K.

(For additional context, my review of the New Girl pilot is here and my “televitmus test” of the first four episodes is here.)

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A.V. Club Review: The Borgias, “Day Of Ashes”

It’s time for a crisis of faith on The Borgias, as the lightning strike of last week’s episode has pushed Alexander into repentance mode. But is it legitimate, or is this one of his brief moments of morality aside from full-bore conspiracy mode? “Day Of Ashes” leads me to ask that question, and balances it with some good old-fashioned condotierri action. Last night’s review as always is up at The A.V. Club.

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