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!

About Les Chappell

The Mad Hatter of media criticism. Co-founder of This Was Television, contributor to The A.V. Club, founder of A Helpless Compiler and The Lesser of Two Equals.
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2 Responses to Barker Chappell Daglas Mad Men Roundtable: Dark Shadows

  1. Pingback: Mad Men: "Dark Shadows" - A Very Betty Thanksgiving | The Vast Wasteland

  2. Pingback: Mad Men: Season Five Roundtables (with Cory Barker and Andy Daglas) | A Helpless Compiler

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