Mad Men – Dark Shadows
Not to be confused with the other post of the same name from this week, through given what happens in the episode I can see why it would be. People have been contributing the namecheck to coincidence, that the writers lucked out by having this episode air the same week as the film but that is nothing more than naiveté; when has anything in Mad Men ever come as a coincidence? No, the exactness of the timing is just bother example of the shows incredible intricacy; like the awards show episode last season that aired on the eve of the Emmys, Don and Jon accepting awards almost simultaneously. When watching Mad Men one should never ask “if” a connection was intended, but “why”, and this week that is a much harder question to answer.
Why Dark Shadows? We know that it’s not just a juvenile joke, some reference humour, or we would have seen an episode by now in which Don and Roger try and pitch to Pan Am without seducing a stewardess; no the content came before the comedy. You could assume that the show was lampshading the way that it was going to delve into soap and melodrama this week and it did exactly that by letting the ladies lead and having the usual bastards reduced to bitches. It’s one thing to see January play Betty as manipulative – it’s her main thrust, take the scene in which she first sees Sally; she straightens her jacket, tufts her hair and then begins the banter with blunt, unvarnished dialogue the second she opens the door, she’s ugly on the inside – but to see Don, the male ideal in many ways, sliding out the claws and getting catty with a coworker is something of shock to the system. There has to be more to it than that though, because the show was not simply called Soap, the metaphors of Mad Men are more multilayered and metaphysical than that.
Dark Shadows was not just any old soap opera, it was a supernatural one, it told the story of the ghosts and demons that dogged its protagonists and in many ways that’s what this episode did also; it was not the soap but the shadows that reigned supreme. Those dark reflections of ourselves that tie us to the ground, that remind us of where we were. Our past casts dark shadows that stain us to this day. For what else are shadows but a dampening of the dream, the light turned to dark, an avatar of that Codfish Ball disappointment.
When the other wife and the other other wife meet in a soap it would normally set the stage for shouting and perhaps a single slap, but of course that’s not the case here. Instead they simply stare at each other, Betty ignoring all of her own reflections before her in favour of the more beautiful mirror that is Megan in and in front of the window. She see’s herself in this inversion, what she was or what she should have been and like every wicked queen this revelation ruins her. Betty has never been more corporeal than she is now and yet after seeing this she feels as if she is a shadow; she’s no longer the woman in Don’s life, she’s just the silhouette that stands behind her, the second choice. So she eats to stop herself from disappearing, it’s her way of controlling herself.
Then we have the antics in the office, fluorescent lights cause shadows too. There is that brilliant moment in the beginning where all the partners try to make it into the elevator before it closes – this show has gotten so much material out of its elevators, this season in particular – and the order that they do it in is telling; Bert first, then Roger, Don and in a daring maneuver Pete Cambell squeezes in. It’s age and power and partnership represented effortlessly. Most importantly though I think is the fact that while Pete is the last in, he’s also the first out; his place amongst these people is to be short lived. It seemed at one stage that he was going to be Don’s Shadow, but now he barely seems capable of even that. Though you should never be too certain in judgements of capability, Cooper has been seen as senile for so long now but whenever he needs to he has proven himself capable of making a good point, as he does here with Roger; the two senior partners trying to prove themselves more than poltergeists who just haunt the SCDP board room.
This week though Don though does have a shadow, a deeper and darker one than ever before in the form of one Ginsberg. I’ve mentioned in the past the fact that Megan has been given a massive amount of screen time for a debut character and now I feel I need to say the same thing about Ginsberg; Pete and Peggy have struggled for years to be Don’s protege and here comes this stranger who surpasses them in the space of seconds. On any other show I would say that they had pulled a Paolo but here it makes total sense; Megan and Ginsberg are of a new generation of people as well as characters, they are hitting this world on the crest of a massive cultural wave of change and this, as much as their own creativity, is propelling them up the professional ladder.
A Jew in the advertising world should only have stood a snowballs chance in hell, and a woman even less, but how the times have changed. Nowdays Don has to make a deal with the devil to best him and there is a sense that soon even this will not be enough. This is of course a positive thing, the world has gotten less cloistered and more accepting; however, on the other hand we have the way in which he is moving up, the material that is getting him there. Ginsberg’s copy favors the lowest common denominator, it’s childish whereas Don’s is clever, and we are given the sense that this is a sign of things to come, that we’re getting stupider and its hard not to disagree; see the rating statistics for Mad Men and say Jersey Shore, you can still sell a smart pitch, but only just. This is another clever little meta-reflexive mediation that the show delivers, as if pointing out its own shadow.
So this was a much less streamlined show than it was last week, where thematically everything made total sense, and – pun intended – Betty is probably to blame, but it was another solid one. It moved a lot of pieces into place and made some strong statements of its own, but overall I would say that it was only a shadow of the seasons stronger efforts, though that still makes it much much better than its namesake.