Manhattan is starting to look a whole lot like Westeros these days. Sure, they’re in different timeslots, on different channels, and completely different genres, but Mad Men and Game of Thrones have more in common than you might think. Their plots are expansive, but carefully measured, featuring scads and scads of characters that can sometimes seem indistinguishable under all the suits, be they armoured or Armani. The production design is as big a draw to the show as anything else, which helps the undercurrents of death and the terror mortality go down easier. And there’s always plenty of backstabbing, betrayal, lust, and greed to be witnessed each episode. But this week in particular, Game of Thrones and Mad Men both came down to the the same thing: the red stuff. For the former, that was blood; for the latter, it was ketchup.
After all, was that epic staredown between Don’s skunkworks crew working the Heinz pitch, and Peggy’s team from CGC not worthy of being written into song? I bring up the pacing of each show because both take so much time and care dealing in small details and development that the payoff for big moments feels all the sweeter for how low key the buildup can be. For Game of Thrones, that payoff usually involves a surprise beheading, but while Mad Men probably won’t be getting that violent anytime soon, it’s amazing the reactions the show can get out of the viewer with nothing but awkward, dead-air silence. I watched the new Evil Dead this weekend, and didn’t cringe with “OH SHIT” glee half so much as when Don and company walked out of their meeting, only to find Peggy laying an ambush.
The glacial pacing can have its drawbacks at times, particularly when you’re unsure of what the show is setting the table for, if anything at all. Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin practically gets off on subverting audience expectations for where a particular plotline or storythread is heading, thanks to characters loudly and frequently declaring their intentions, only to see those ambitions blindsided by a freight train. The trouble for most of the workers at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is that they wouldn’t be able to pick what they wanted if a Genie’s lamp landed in their lap, seeing as half the time, getting what you want only leads to disappointment.
Having spent six excruciating months married to a psychotic surgeon, Joan knows this truth better than anyone, and she takes center stage in “To Have and to Hold,” easily the best episode of season 6 yet. Joan’s been flitting around the edges the last couple weeks, and her absence has been curious, seeing as the last few episodes of Season 5 setup a huge shift in her role at SCDP. Though it means dealing with the occasional intrusion by Herb, Joan has done the impossible, and risen from secretary to executive in an environment that gave her the same underdog status we apply to Peggy, Dawn, Sal, and the rest of the non-white, heterosexual male folks who work(ed) at SCDP, or just about anywhere in 1968. Joan’s mother is a battle-axe, but I choose to believe her when she says she’s proud to have a Madison Avenue executive for a daughter.
Too bad no one in the office is quite as impressed, not even Joan. “It’s just a title,” she tells her visiting friend, Kate, a Mary Kaye saleswoman who, more openly than Joan’s mother, is genuflecting at what a single-mother divorcee can accomplish. They really can only see her title: it’s Joan who has to go into work everyday with the knowledge that not all that much has changed. There should be more excitement to the life of a high-powered executive than sitting alone in the office, waiting for the receptionist, Meredith, to drop in, and let you know the recent goings on. The energy we saw Joan apply to the new position back in Season 5 seems a distant memory. She’s an official part of SCDP’s ruling small council, but still shouldering the same responsibilities while completely out of the loop on the real action, like Don’s “Project K.”
So what does she do? She dives back into the arena where she did have some real power, as queen bee of the stenopool. Harry’s secretary Scarlet ropes Dawn into covering her for playing hooky, and once Joan finds out, she tells Scarlet to clear out her desk, make like her boots, and go-go. Harry, fresh off a successful pitch with Ken’s father in-law at DOW Chemical, feels now’s the time to not only assert his authority to Joan, but the entire upper management of the company. Harry Crane is good for nothing if not loudly jumping into a situation that he doesn’t fully understand, so Roger playfully indulging Harry’s case for partner status leads to a scene of classic Mad Men comedy that kicks the episode into high gear…
…Until Harry decides the best way to build himself up is to tear Joan down, dragging her backroom-bedroom deal with Herb into the open like stinking laundry. The whole scene, and episode, takes a dark turn following Harry’s remarks, one no amount of perky background smooth jazz can remedy. Joan’s not the type to let Harry, or any of her co-workers see that his comments wound her, but they do. To deal, she goes even further back into old territory where she feels comfortable and in control, helping Kate have a Manhattan fling during a night on the town. The certainty with which she can coach her friend in the art of flirting is a refreshing boost to her confidence, but by the time she’s watching Kate makeout in the back of a cab, she can’t help but giggle at how ridiculously familiar it all seems.
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Joan may have gotten the big office, and a swell paybump, but her success is often tolerated by those around her instead of encouraged. She had to do some regrettable things to get what she wanted, and now she’s wondering if it was even worth it. Mad Men’s calculated pacing is often a byproduct of the show being a study of social and personal change -or lack thereof. Because those things move at a snail’s pace, no one’s going to pat Joan on the shoulder and give her a “you’ve come a long way, baby,” speech about how this was all worth it. All Joan gets is Dawn telling her, “I don’t care if everybody around here hates me, as long as you don’t.” That used to mean someone feared Joan’s power within the office, but this time, it’s a moving admission of respect. It’s not much in the grand scheme of things, but for now, it’s enough for Joan to know that who she is as a person can inspire others just the same as any title might.
Peggy, of course, owes plenty to Joan’s example of defying what people think of you based on gender, but as Don’s squire-turned-protégé, he’s still her biggest role model. Lately though, it looks like she’s gunning for his crown, not his friendship. There was a lot of concern last week about how absent-mindedly Peggy revealed the troubled relationship SCDP had with Heinz, but when you see her giving her pitch to Timmy, and how much better it is than Don’s, you can tell that her slip of the tongue was very Machiavellian, even if subconsciously. Sure, neither she nor Don wind up winning the hand of the lovely Heinz account, but now she’s redrawn the battle lines on her own terms. She and Don can still respect each other, they can still even like each other underneath it all, but when there’s only one piece of pie on the table, and people are starving, it’s everyone for themselves. That’s just business.
So, where does that leave Don? He gave so much to Peggy, and now it’s coming back to haunt him. Nurturing was never an adjective you could apply to Don Draper, but he helped Peggy, believed in her, and it’s bitten him in the ass. So, in typical Don Draper fashion, he takes his professional frustration out on his family. Meghan bears the brunt of it, as Don’s betrayal coincides with her latest arc on To Have and to Hold, a torrid, and “steamy” romance. It’s laughably tame by modern standards and the daily horrors from Vietnam being broadcast on the nightly news, but sex tends to complicate things (to bring in Martin’s opinion on the matter: “I can describe an axe entering a human skull in great explicit detail and no one will blink twice at it. I provide a similar description, just as detailed, of a penis entering a vagina, and I get letters about it and people swearing off”). Don’s never been particularly supportive of Meghan’s career, so she’s right to fear the worst.
Yet, surprisingly, he begrudgingly signs off on the idea. After all, who is he to turn down Meghan’s make-believe affair, when he’s having a real one on the side? Don’s so checked out from his relationship with Meghan at this point that he can be propositioned by the show’s headwriter and star into a four-way, only to treat the whole thing like a big joke. “How long have they been married?” he asks Meghan. “Eighteen years,” she replies, in the night’s biggest punchline. But after the Heinz fiasco, Don’s given a nasty taste of how badly he can be hurt by the people he helps. The Don who watches Meghan film the tawdry scene on the lot is far more recognizable than the laidback, pot-smoking Don we’ve been seeing lately, and when he tears into her and the “progressive” people she associates herself with, he’s taking a great leap backwards.
That, of course, means landing at Sylvia’s door, and while there’s just a hint of Showing the Tooth by having her straight-up tell Don she prays he’ll “find peace,” it cinches up that feeling of never-ending struggle, of endless repeating cycles, that seems so familiar. Like Game of Thrones, Mad Men launched itself with a conflict that seemed new to the characters, and their world. But once you spend enough time with the show’s people, and learn more about their world, you start to realize that all of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.
- Stray Thoughts
-Okay, yes, that last line was from Battlestar Galactica, but if the genre show is good enough, its themes can be perfectly relatable to a hardcore period drama.
-Dawn is finally getting her own sidestory. Can’t say I know where it’s heading just yet, but it’s great the show is finally following up on her as an individual character. Her few scenes from last year, including the gut-churning overnight with Peggy, were fantastic.
-I will admit to being mildly hurt that Alison Brie was in the opening credits, yet did not appear this week. I want to see what Pete does, now that he’s woken the dragon that is Trudy Campbell.
-More football this week, this time courtesy Harry pitching “Broadway” Joe Namath in a straw-hat.
-Don claims to be against the war. He’s also right to doubt Meghan’s acting abilities: you’d barely notice her in the soap’s love scene were it not for the maid outfit.
-“I hope you left us something.” Ted may be all smiles and sunshine with Peggy, but when an account’s on the line, he can be one hell of a dick.
-Between Stan Rizzo putting on the frayed pig leather jacket, the neon trippiness of the Electric Circus club scene, and all the discussion of entertainment censorship standards, this week had a strong Midnight Cowboy connection.
-And come to think of it, Pete’s been modeling himself off of Jack Lemmon, offering his love-pad to Don as a place to crash. Don’s elevator flirtation with Sylvia adds to the The Apartment semblance.
-Pre-mature correction: I’m aware that calling any suit from the show Armani is anachronistic, but alliteration takes precedence.
-Very little Roger this week, but again, he proves his tongue is as sharp as Valyrian steel.
-In case you can’t tell, I really like Game of Thrones.Previous